BE: I’m Ben Evans. Today, January 18th, 2017, I’m pleased to be joined again by my friend—the musician, actor, and human being—Will Oldham; a Will Oldham who I presume is quite tan having just returned from Jamaica. Will, welcome. How are you?
WO: I’m pretty good today. Today feels like a pretty good day.
BE: Are you, in fact, tan?
WO:I think we did a pretty good job at putting on protective things, like smears that made the sun stay at bay. So, I don’t think you would look at me and say: “That guy’s been somewhere where the sun keeps shining and he can take his clothes off.” Even though that is exactly is what I was doing and where I was.
BE: I recall a “Quail and Dumplings” video where you were at a water park.
WO: Oh yeah.
BE: That was quite funny. Tell me the conceit behind that.
WO: It’s been a number of years now where I’ve worked with this guy named Ben Berman on making videos. We’d made one together for a previous arrangement of “Quail and Dumplings”; we’d done that in Hawaii and it featured Nina Nastasia and Kennan Gudjonsson as the main characters in it. Since this was a revisit to the song, we wanted to bring them back and do something. That other one was done in Hawaii and this one we just did it in the south end of Louisville. The idea was just to….I don’t know…why why why…Yeah, I don’t know.
BE: There’s a water park in Louisville then, huh?
WO: There’s a little water park and it’s part of a bigger amusement park that closed down for about a decade because a girl was on the Hellevator and this cord snapped and it whipped around and just, you know, chopped her feet off. So they closed this park; I think it was a Six Flags at that point. It sat gathering dust for the past decade but it just reopened two summers ago, so we hit it right away.
BE: There was a girl named Anne Bollman who went to Lincoln Park Elementary with me and she went down a ride at Pleasure Island and she went down a ride called the Black Hole and she went down the very, very steep drop and there was a screw sticking out of one of the panels and she ripped her back up. I never went on that ride again.
WO: That’s terrible.
BE: It really is. All in the name of leisure. Water leisure. Will, I just watched the “New Partner” video on Coney Island, and that was really beautiful, man.
Speaking of partners, it got me thinking, as I go through my journey with partners and then am partner-less… do you do you think a relationship requires both people to recognize that an unbridgeable emotional and experiential gap will always exist between two human beings? And if so, how does one go about reconciling that?
WO: I think everybody’s evaluation of this is going to be different. Some people probably appreciate that gap as something that will keep other people out of one’s own consciousness. Because some people maybe prize the inviability of their own consciousness so deeply that they only feel comfortable around people whom they know can never get inside of them. But there’s also the idea of thinking that there’s certain things that make that gap something beautiful and the connection between one consciousness and another, if the connection can be constructively made…then that’s the glory of the relationship. It’s not trying to fuse the two things, but instead to say that the joy of this is what we are building to connect these two consciousnesses together.
BE: Ideally, two people in a relationship will evolve together and at the same pace in order to keep things new and interesting, perhaps?
WO: Yeah, nowadays people get together on a permanent basis a little later in life, which makes a lot of sense because at that point you can recognize something about your evolution and trajectory, so that if you’re going to bother bonding with somebody with the idea that it might be an infinite– in terms of the boundary of your existence on earth–then you’re aware of where you may go spiritually and emotionally, and think “well, this person just might be able to handle that, and I think I may be able to handle–based on my experience–where this person might end up going.”
BE: Where are you at philosophically–since the last time we spoke about two years ago–can you track any pattern or trajectory in what you’ve been thinking about?
WO: Yeah, we’re doing the biopsy of today’s mindset, right? Since you and I laid eyes on each other, it was maybe a week or two before I met the woman who is now my wife. So that was a little over two years ago…
BE: I wanna say December 30th, 2014?
WO: That’s two days before I met her. So that’s been huge, hahaha.
BE: Do you find yourself, having been in past relationships, approaching this one with new insight and applying some of the things you’ve learned? Or is it so easy that you don’t need to think about those things?
WO: No, it’s not that easy. Applying insights and experience, certainly.
BE: Well, congratulations. I think one of the big things that’s happened since that time, too, is Donald Trump becoming president and the whole show that’s been taking place. You said something to me when I text messaged you from Vancouver, Canada, where I was perfectly happy, happy as a lark, prior to November 9th. Right after Donald Trump was elected, I was depressed and anxious and said to you: “It’s all fucked”, and you wrote back: “It’s no more fucked today than it’s ever been. It will all end. It’s worth sitting through.” That made me recall something else you said to me a couple years ago, you said: “It seems like it would be great if it was a more popularly spoken of concept that we are forever short-sighted and self-sabotaging, that everything, everything, but everything is finite. That seems to be something that’s missing from healthy conversation all around.”
I wonder, Will, is the tendency for self-sabotage you mention one you think human beings can ever evolve beyond? Or do you believe that that is forever the human condition? If the light, if consciousness can’t ultimately win out and its futile, can there ever be a legitimate argument against hedonism and ease—two things American culture seems ever more, now, to hold as core values?
WO: That was a pretty monstrous paragraph you just laid down. There’s lots of ways of picking it apart. So let’s go over it from the beginning.
BE: So do you think the tendency for self-sabotage you mentioned a couple years ago is one you think humans can evolve beyond?
WO: Because we’re fortunate in the ways that we are the same as each other; we’re fortunate in the ways that we’re different from each other. But everybody is so different from everybody else and we don’t know and can’t know most things. We don’t know most things and we can’t know most things. We’re always going to be guessing about big things, about things that are outside of ourselves, and most things that are inside of ourselves as well. A big part of what I’m told of what sets human beings apart from others is the ability for pattern recognition. If you have pattern recognition, then we can use our pattern recognition to accomplish little things or to make sense of little things. But it has nothing to do with bigger things. You can figure out how to make yourself healthier and happier to a great extent, but most people aren’t learning something that can be applied to somebody else’s life. It’s easy to forget those things, as well.
BE: So, would you say this tendency for self-sabotage stems from unknowing?
BE: Are there things that you’re unequivocally certain about in your life?
BE: Good. Socrates would approve of that.
BE: So that being the case, and if light or what I’ll call consciousness can’t win out…
WO: Is there a competition?
BE: I’d like to think we’re experiencing one now, in a way, as we watch forces that I would deem very distinctively good try to oppose forces that seem pretty unequivocally evil. I don’t think I’m making a harsh judgement there.
WO: I think you are.
WO: Oh yeah.
BE: I don’t know, man. On the one hand, you have these people who are applying this very Hobbesian philosophy to living: “Life is nasty, brutish, and short; go and get yours.” I think, on the other hand, you have empathy kind of leading the way; the sentiment that “wait, we’re all one race.” I see these two as being at opposition. What am I missing? I’m sure I’m judging, but what am I missing? What if we talked about simply Conservatives and Liberals.
WO: Who’s a liberal and who’s conservative in this conversation that you’re describing? Who’s evil and who’s good?
BE: Let’s say we have Bernie Sanders on one side as representing light and oneness, and we have Donald Trump on the other side representing egoism and greed.
WO: But who are these people? Who is Donald Trump and who is Bernie Sanders?
BE: They’re representative of ideologies.
WO: What’s Donald Trump’s ideology?
BE: Yeah, that’s a good question.
WO: I understand the voter who would choose Trump or Bernie vs. Hillary.
BE: Absolutely. As do I.
WO:So the same person might say, “I would rather vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton,” then which side is evil?
BE: Let’s say Hillary Clinton was status quo of a system that’s on its feet–I don’t know if it’s going forward–but it’s on its feet.
WO: Is the status quo not maybe inherently evil?
BE: In the case of American capitalism, certainly. But in making this distinction, saying that there is duality and saying one side is evil, is any conclusion I reach going to be inherently flawed? Because I’ve already made a judgement of good and evil.
WO: I still don’t understand which side you’re calling which. And how you define a side.
BE: I don’t know, man.
WO: One of more horrific public figures represented in American politics is our dear Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. He’s much more frightening and angering and repulsive and horrific than Donald Trump is to me and I would say the inaction that would come and the willful ignorance that folks would continue to bask in, and/or wallow in–if someone like Hillary Clinton were elected–is maybe considerably more terrible and arguably evil than what results from the election of this weird character that’s been elected.
BE: One would hope. So you’re suggesting that it could be a galvanizing thing?
WO: I’m suggesting that in terms of calling something evil, you gotta get real, real, real, real specific as opposed to generalizing, especially in some of the writing that you sent in considering voters as potentially evil if they voted for Donald Trump. That seems like pretty shaky ground…
And I don’t think that forces are battling against each other most of the time, a single force vs. a single force, light vs. dark, for example.
BE: In an essay published in this Inauguration issue, the poet and scholar Jeffrey Schultz argues that the shock and horror felt by many at the election of Donald Trump is a manifestation of the gap that has grown between our solipsistic culture and what’s really taking place in the world. This made me think of something you said to me a while ago: “If we knew what we, as individuals, were denying everyday it would terrify us.” Do you think that falls in line here? Was this something to which you were speaking? Have we been denying problems so long that they’ve now reached a crisis point?
WO: It seems like some people view this as a specific crisis point. I don’t know if anybody’s saying, “Oh, I need to do something significant like stop going along with the acceleration of the control of my social life that Facebook or Google or Amazon are exercising and implementing.” I’m not sure I’m seeing people do that. I think I did start to realize with horror that the kind of force that Mitch McConnell represents, and it was shocking to realize at a certain point that I was so stupid. It took me six of Obama’s eight years to realize that racism could or did play a significant role in hampering action and progress made by the Obama administration. It didn’t occur to me. Then, seeing people reacting from the beginning of this election process with disbelief at the candidacy and the success of the candidacy of Donald Trump, and to see that people didn’t refuse to learn anything as the last two years unfolded. They never said, “Oh, I understand this is what’s going on.” It was just disbelief after disbelief after disbelief after disbelief after disbelief. Unless you throw questioning actively into your process and discipline and consciousness… If you don’t throw questioning in, you’re inviting yourself to be blindsided and fooled and you deserve whatever moments of horrific revelation that are visited upon you.
BE: Do you think that this will usher in a new age of inquiry and investment in politics by people?
WO: I think there’s validity to what people say when they say that the younger folks right now who have lived through W. and Obama are likely to wield some considerable influence in a decade or so. But I don’t know, I don’t think, I don’t see people changing. Most people who talk about whether people deny global warming or not, most of the people who are vehemently pointing the finger at those who “deny” science–they’re doing that usually from their seat at social media, using devices that are creating and maintaining ideological pollution as well as physical and chemical pollution that they are not correcting or doing anything whatsoever to correct.
BE: Right, that’s what you said last time we spoke.
WO: Because it was true then, and it’s true now.
BE: People are proselytizing and yet are refusing to change their own practices that perpetuate the evils that they speak so vehemently against.
WO: Those would be people who say whoever of the conservative or the red side–it’s a shame, because red’s such a beautiful color–that they’re denying science and to point the finger and say “I’m so much better than this person who’s denying science,” is kind of like: “If there’s not a rift, I want to be sure that I create a rift, and I make this valley as deep and non-crossable as humanly possible.”
BE: Does one gain the privilege of judgment with knowledge?
WO: No. One gains the privilege of judgment with authority, and it’s not always gonna sit with the right person at the right time, a lot of the time. Judgment is a human invention, so you can judge if you have the authority to judge.
BE: Is Mitch McConnell so scary to you because his is a calculated fuckery, whereas Donald Trump’s seems to occur without forethought?
WO: Also because I think that McConnell’s the kind of person who does things more behind closed doors, and as much as we can recognize that Trump may not like to be inclusive when it comes to race or inclusive when it comes to class or inclusive when it comes to gender, he still is kind of including everybody in all of those discussions, as opposed to McConnell who does everything behind closed doors and then tells us about it. He doesn’t want to listen to anybody who wasn’t a part of the process. He’s not reacting to what you say; he doesn’t care what you say; he doesn’t care what you think; he doesn’t care what you do. Those kind of people are the kind of people that frighten me more than somebody who is…I would say that Trump is pretty great about being inclusive when it comes to everybody being witness to the discussion whether you’re inflamed or cajoled by him, you’re privy to the discussion, and I think that is healthier than a Mitch McConnell or a Hillary Clinton is for our world.
BE: Yet, is it a discussion when say Alec Baldwin plays Trump on SNL and Trump lashes out and says that’s a bad show and it’s garbage and dismisses it entirely.
WO: I’m not saying he invites discussion, just inclusive in terms of being blatant about what’s going on. It’s mystifying–we know that it’s unpredictable. I’m not saying that he’s inclusive in that he wants to talk to you about things, but every cabinet appointee that’s come up so far–it’s not a mystery who they are or why they’re being nominated. We’ll see what happens over four years, but so far, his actions are far less mysterious even than the great Barack Obama, who is such an inspiring figure, who also presided over some pretty scary things, and that he just chooses not to talk about, like our drone program.
BE: Here’s the thing. I’m thinking about judgment and I’m thinking about the earlier conversation we just had, and I’m thinking, Will, if we don’t make these distinctions, if there’s no one to call evil evil, if there’s no one to call out contradiction in thought when it occurs, then we run the risk of losing any basis for objective reality, and therefore won’t be able to communicate. So I really do think we need to keep the fire and recognize the urgency of a situation in which rational thought is at risk.
WO: Hm. Yeah, I think there’s such a great distance between you or me and whoever these Mount Olympus people are–whether it’s Trump or Sanders or Obama or Clinton or whoever or McConnell–that it’s perilous to put a label on anybody who’s that far from you. You can put that kind of label on your own father or on a woman you’re seeing or on yourself–but someone who’s that far removed from you–it’s not going to be constructive. If you want to truck in good and evil, you should truck in good and evil much closer to home.
BE: Do you think that is because those people are so obscured by what impressions they must make facing the world? Or that those impressions have become contorted by the media beyond any recognition of the person making them?
WO: There’s so much interference between us and them that to think of them as anything but folk heroes is probably kind of dangerous. Because if you want to, you should truck in good and evil, but do it around your house: how you treat your parents, how you treat your friends, how you deal with your own money, or deal with your own brain when it comes to ingesting substances of mind-bending or nutrition-giving effect. All of these things are more…they are things that you can measure the consequences of and be more appropriately judging of.
BE: So you mention the value of questioning your belief systems and information that’s presented to you. I wonder if you believe that there are degrees of consciousness one can possess? Do you believe those who–I know I’m presenting a duality again—that there are those who are woken and those who aren’t?
WO: I don’t know. Do you?
BE: I think I do.
WO: Who’s an example of one vs an example of another?
BE: Concerning the people that I choose to interact with and interact with intimately on a day-to-day basis– I could say they’re woken because they share the same belief and value system as I do, which is easy. But I could also say that they’re woken because they exhibit a deep connection to nature, they look you in the eyes when they’re talking to you, they don’t rehash old memories but talk about new things and ideas, and they recognize their relationship to others and how their actions influence others. That’s what I would consider woken.
WO: So it’s woken specifically in relation to their interactions with you?
BE: And to other people, and with the world. I also observe them from afar. If I see someone with their hands in the soil in an urban garden in Detroit and there’s a peaceful look on their face, I’m like: that’s somebody I want to know. They seem to be attuned to what I’m attuned to, which I guess goes back to maybe me holding some inherent bias toward people who are involved in nature and care about other people and the earth. I understand that all is uncertain, but at a certain point, I think one needs to make judgments and have preferences in order to exist in the world. I don’t think that me describing consciousness is a matter simply of my preference for somebody… do you know what I’m trying to get at?
WO:Weelll…I do and I guess maybe what I’m driving at is that it’s important to always recognize perspective and I guess I would also say that if you recognize that you’re judging, there’s a responsibility that comes with the judgment. So if you could judge Mable vs. Marlene, say that Mable is more open and aware and conscious and righteous than Marlene. Then your responsibility is to go to Marlene.
BE: What’s a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s lesson?
WO: Yeah. Open up and compliment and strengthen Marlene. So if you’re willing to take on the responsibility of judgment, then you need to take on the responsibility that comes with that. What’s the next step after that? Not to step away and say, “Well, that person is closed; that person is bad.” Step towards that person.
BE: That’s so true, and perhaps why I’m talking about these dualities is that’s how I live my life, Will. I try to spread what I think is light and consciousness.
WO: But specifically to the people who don’t have that stuff in the first place.
BE: Absolutely, but this made me confront the seeming futility. I’ll get back on the horse, but…
WO: But what’s the end goal?
BE: To awaken as many people as possible through positive action and compassion.
WO: And what’s the goal after that?
BE: To have them spread their light into the world until we collectively become a more peaceful and conscious society. I don’t know what the end game of that is.
WO: Is it something that you would imagine could be perceptible within your lifetime, barring nuclear holocaust?
BE: No, not at all.
WO: So how could you ever gauge futility?
BE: That’s true. That’s true.
Do you think we come back in other forms after we die?
WO: I do think that. But I’m also aware that that’s probably not true. But that is what I think.
BE: I think that, too. What animal would you like to come back as?
WO: Oh, I don’t know. Next time, maybe a chair leg.
BE: I’d like to be an ottoman.
WO: Or an idea. Or a mold spore.
BE: Or a credenza.
WO: Yeah. Or a fragment, like a mile-long fragment of a ray of light. It may happen.
BE: Awareness is a double-edged sword—one seemingly sharper on the side of pain. Yes, the more aware one is the greater capacity they have for recognizing beauty and the miracle that is life; but any honest reckoning, and acute awareness of the trajectory of humanity and the pain that exists now, seems to birth, a deep resignation. Is oblivion or obliviousness a preferred course to consciousness and feeling pain?
WO: Wait. So this is complicated as well.
BE: Awareness or unawareness?
WO: Awareness can be like capital, like money, somebody who works for all of his or her life and puts money away in order to retire, in order to not work for the last two years or five years or thirty years of their life depending on the person–if awareness is the same thing, right? So you look at people who are oblivious and you think “Gosh, how lucky they are”, just like if you look at somebody who’s rich and think “Gosh, how lucky they are”; some people wouldn’t think of somebody who’s oblivious as being lucky, nor somebody who’s wealthy as being lucky, but if you try to accrue enough awareness to where you can live off the awareness like you’ve put it in your shoe boxes or your awareness bank account so you can then live the last part of your life as oblivious. Like you’ve accrued enough awareness that you’ve earned obliviousness.
BE: You’re equating awareness to capital. Capital as being representative as some kind of awareness.
WO: Yeah. Awareness is something that we define. Say, I’m more aware now. And you’re claiming that I could claim that I’m more aware than you are. That’s completely ridiculous.
BE: I would say awareness is an ongoing act, though.
WO: It’s an ongoing act, but if you’re willing to say that somebody could be more aware or less aware, then you’re quantifying it, so why not compare it to capital?
BE: There is an utter unawareness.
WO: Yeah, I wonder.
BE: I’m being put to a Socratic test in the morning after going out dancing until 2am.
WO: What were you dancing to?
BE: Oh, boy. Excellent mix, but I danced pretty hard and I got some exercise and felt really good.
WO: At a club or what?
BE: It’s this bar called the Short Stop in Echo Park in L.A., and every night around 11, people come from all over and drink and dance and watch images on a projection screen.
WO: Can you remember any songs?
BE: “She Works Hard For the Money.”
BE: They have a lot of Michael Jackson. I just lost myself in the music…
I’m thinking here about the work you recently did with the Bitchin’ Bajas—songs like “Your Hard Work…”; “Despair is Criminal”; “Show Your Love and Your Love will be Returned”. As you grow as a person and musician do you find yourself taking a more active role in promoting and spreading consciousness and positivity through your art—have you become more aware of what your putting out into the world and why you’re doing it?
WO: I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m more aware. I’m seeking the privileged position that Donna Summer had in your universe last night, and feeling like if I can be Donna Summer to Ben Evans, how do I go about owning that voice and what do I want that voice to be singing? It’s always been that way: always seeking out your consciousness with the idea of knowing that ideally I would put things into your consciousness with the idea that maybe I would run into you or get to speak to you over the phone like this, and think, “This is good.” Not a lot of people, proportionately, are thinking or influencing other people in constructive ways, so I want to think about that and how it can be done musically, which doesn’t exist without human connection. It doesn’t exist without getting out of one person’s brain and into another person’s brain. So, it’s always been that; it’s been responding to that and to become a practitioner of that.
BE: Yeah, which would speak to your dedication and attention to performance and being a performer. I will say that I was at work and having a pretty shitty day and then I saw your video for “Your Hard Work…” and it was an affirmation for me. It picked me up; it buoyed me. So, I thank you for that. I certainly think you’ve succeeded in implanting yourself and your message into a lot of people’s consciousness, and that it’s changed the world for the better–even though you’re pegging me with questions and holding me very accountable this morning.
WO: Haha. At the same time, there’s the recognition…it’s cool and great to hear you say that it’s possible for somebody to do something that could–to use your words–make the world better, because that’s an active countering of your looking at actions as potentially futile. So I would say go with the latter thought rather than the former thought.
BE: You know, I recently read this book by the Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Lainge called “The Self and Others.” Have you ever heard of him?
WO: I don’t think I ever had before.
BE: He’s an interesting guy. If you Google Image search him, he kind of has some sinister pictures of him online. In his book, he relates this anecdote of an old man, who, thinking back realizes that in all stages of his life he was acting in line with expectation. When he was a boy, he was never really a boy, just playing at what he thought it meant to be a boy, the same when he was a teenager, the same when he was an adult. Finally, in his old age he resolves himself to stop acting and just live by intuition. Shortly thereafter he’s deemed crazy by his family and the people who know him. When I’m talking about awareness and whatnot, I suppose I’m speaking to this, too. Do you think there are a lot of people playing to convention, you know, what they think being an adult means rather than experiencing the world without any expectation, judgment, or idea of who they’re supposed to be?
WO: I think so, if I understand what you’re saying, I think so. I think that we end up being in a super wealthy and powerful country, and we’re having a conversation that will only be viewed by people who are beneficiaries of wealth and power, so we cannot pretend that we’re including people in this country who aren’t beneficiaries of wealth and power, and those that are–I guess I grew up and you grew up and there’s all this child psychology that’s gone on in the past few decades that encourages people to have maybe an inflated sense of self and maybe a false sense of self-worth and a hyperactive sense of entitlement and I figure the kinds of interactions that occur in social media totally nourish those attitudes and practices so that people effectively don’t become what fifty years ago would’ve been called “adults.” They somewhat behave like that. An older lady was telling me the other day that she felt there’s a responsibility towards keeping up appearances that can lead–if you a are truly responsible older person–to you getting plastic surgery. I think people think, “Well, I need to be this same person that I was when I was 12 when I’m 40, and when I’m 60 my sense of self should never change; I should always be like this isolated force because I was told that I am the most important person and my self worth is one of the most valuable assets that I have.” But it continues to be shocking to me that you can’t walk down the street without seeing educated–or not–but just seeing adults wearing Captain America t-shirts who are willing to engage with you about how great Dr. Strange is as a movie. These are people who are over 21 and who vote. That’s intensely disturbing.
BE: I’m thinking about what you said about the woman who thinks it’s her duty to get plastic surgery…
WO: And thinks it’s YOUR duty when you get to be her age, if you have lines or wrinkles–it’s your duty as well to show little bit of self-respect, she said.
BE: I’m classy as fuck, Bonnie.
WO: Yeah, and it’s my duty as well.
BE: So there’s a line in Jeff Schultz’s essay–which is brilliant by the way, much more articulate than I am–he says, “To be a corporate citizen is to join the ranks of the undead.” Seems to be true.
My friend, thank you for talking with me today.
WO: Thanks, Ben.