On April 29th, I had the great opportunity to see Will Oldham and Alan Licht read passages from Rudy Wurlitzer's Slow Fade (along with Wurlitzer himself) with musical accompaniment from Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny and a slide show packed with a multitude of dazzling images. I was aware yet unfamilar with Wurlitzer's work as a writer and screenwriter, so to hear these words for the first time in this setting was an awesome experience.
After the reading, I saw Will Oldham outside and asked him if he would want to do a phone interview, a sort of follow-up to the e-mail one we did back in December. He said yes, and a week later we recorded this interview.
This has been a productive year for Oldham, as in addition to reading Wurlitzer's novel live, he's also recorded an audiobook of it, and crafted singles with Emmett Kelly and Matt Sweeney, with more to come on the way. Check it out after the jump!
I would imagine both probably still are affecting me, of course they are fairly different people, Russ Meyer and Robert Duvall. My impression of the way Russ Meyer worked was that the work that he presented was exuberant, colorful, expansive, explosive... Positive, for the most part, and when there was negativity, sometimes there would be a violent cynicism or violence, it almost felt as if he wasn't using it gratuitously as much as he was trying to draw attention to the negativity of those things, especially by surrounding it with this exuberance and vibrancy... I would argue beauty although there would probably be those who would argue against some of the qualifications of beauty.
As well, his vision was unique and there was an obvious great respect for technical achievements and technical capacity, there was as well, an independence and a self-sufficiency, in terms of how his films were created, owned, and distributed. Take for example, when the films were released on VHS, whenever that was, in the 80's, writing the copy on the back of the movie. I actually can't think of a single other film director who writes the copy on the back of their DVD or VHS releases. He felt that it was important, that the casting, the making, the writing, and the distribution, and the promotion of the films were all integrally related.
With Robert Duvall, I appreciate my relationship as an audience member to his movies, it's always kind of a joy no matter who he's portraying to watch how he portrays somebody. As someone who likes watching certain kinds of actors, he's one that I would really like to witness. And as well, he's made a handful of movies, and two of those are kind of touchstones for me, Angelo, My Love from the early 80's and his movie Assassination Tango from maybe eight, ten years ago?
It seems as if he found a way to make something extremely unique, extremely personal, and at the end of the day, I guess they are kind of self indulgent but they don't feel self indulgent the way a lot of unique and extremely personal projects do.
I wanted to ask you about the interview you did with R. Kelly, just bringing in this idea of portrayals, because he talked about this thing where he had a party where he performed as Sam Cooke.
When I saw you back in December, at Town Hall in New York, you did a set as The Babblers (which was a full set covering Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause's album Babble). So I was wondering when you were performing the Kevin Coyne songs, if you were going into a realm of maybe portraying Kevin Coyne.
I don't know anything about Kevin Coyne, I definitely wasn't portraying Kevin Coyne.
Could you see yourself doing something R. Kelly did, with the Sam Cooke set?
Ah, I don't think I would have the drive to actually play another performer, but the Babblers set was about portrayal, but portrayal of a fictional character.
So the Babblers are a new sort of identity, that would perform that record?
Well, the record has an identity. I am of the school of thought that does not associate the identity of performers with what they perform. There is the popular angle, the auteur theory of doing anything public, but I believe the created thing creates its own identity in collaboration with the audience.
The people watching it have their own interpretation of what it is?
The people watching it, yeah, are the essential completion of the beginning of the process of creating a performed identity.
I had a question about "Strange Form Of Life." That song is always in my mind, and the imagery you create in that song... Did you think of the idea for that song before you had put together any kind of music or any of the lyrics? It reminds me in a way of Frankenstein, I don't know if that just comes from nowhere...
That song, specifically, there was kind of a different motivation behind it than any other song I can quite think of... in that there's this Portugese singer named Amalia Rodrigues and her songs, which are sung in Portugese, the way that she sings them are very powerful to me, and I don't speak Portugese. My intentions in the writing of that song were to make something that I imagined... but I don't think it bares any relation whatsoever, I don't think, to anything that Amalia Rodrigues sang... but something that I would imagine, in the emotions that I feel in listening to her sing the songs that she sang... I wanted to try to translate that into a contemporary and English language song.
The image of the strange form of life moving about, is it a creature?
It's really cool... There's a video clip made for that song that seems to... and I never really understood that this might be one of the main ways that a listener might interpret the song... but thinking, for me, it was always a strange form of life means a strange manner of living and not the form of life itself... but I like this thought and maybe the next few times I sing it I will be singing it from the point of view of singing about this strange... you know, they're not necessarily all that different, that manner of living and a strange form living.
Yeah, the way I saw it was that part of the song could be about this creature and part of it could be song from the creature's perspective, like "twenty five years of waiting to kiss" the lips, was sort of like the creature finally had its chance to be with this woman that it loved, or this man that it loved.
That totally works.
Well, I'm glad to have some input!
Yeah, that's very exciting.
You've released a few singles this year, like the Island Brothers single with Emmett Kelly, and then you did Life in Muscle with Matt Sweeney, are there more singles you are looking forward to release?
Yeah, there is. There's another single that we've recorded that I'm greatly looking forward to.
What's that one going to be?
Well, you'll just have to wait and see.
Oh, okay. It will be released in a few months?
I think so. Maybe two months?
Going back to the two singles that you've released this year, you did one with the Cairo Gang (Emmett Kelly) and one with Matt Sweeney. Would you say that your approach to working with both of these people is very different, as far as the collaborative process goes?
Yeah, they are very different.
How do you approach working with Matt Sweeney? I saw in the insert for Life In Muscle, that you wrote the music for one song, and he wrote the music for one song, but on the Superwolf album, it was you writing only lyrics and Sweeney writing only music. How did the idea come for this single to change the process around?
The two songs on the Bonnie/Sweeney single are older songs that we just went in and recorded recently, just out of a desire to be in the studio together and work with eachother and because it definitely has its rewards. At the same time, over the past six, seven years, the ways that, in general the ways that we approach making music, Matt and I, have diverged somewhat. So finding ourselves in like spaces is kind of a rare occurrence, or like frames of mind I think.
So, these were songs that we worked on over the past four or five years, just sort of testing the waters at different times. Let's work on this song this way, let's work on this song this way... We would get the songs into some kind of working order but then not take it beyond that. So we had these songs and thought "well, let's get into the studio" and specifically, both of us wanted to get into the studio with David Ferguson, who was the guy who engineered and mixed. I think we all had a hand in arrangement and production, but it was really great working with Ferg.
And then, Emmett and I have been working very closely, the past five years. Our practices are quite bound together at this point. It was more of an organic continuation of what we had been doing.
What was the impetus in sort of his stance sort of raising in your work? I know that he played on The Letting Go and other records, and now its sort of a double bill of the two of you, with the last few releases.
Yeah, the last couple releases, The Wonder Show Of The World and the "Island Brothers/New Wonder" single were just knowing that partly, Emmett was giving a lot of time, you know. We're playing a lot of music and he has an exceptional mind for composition and arrangement and a special fluency with melody and harmony. I just asked him in hopes that he would want to tie our two writing, recording, and performing processes together. In part because it also helps to illuminate some of the work that he has done as the Cairo Gang in the past years as well.
Just because we spent so much time together and played so much music together, it was another way of experiencing our collaboration.
And you had Phil Elverum sing on Wonder Show Of The World, too. How did that happen?
Well, mainly it happened because we recorded in in Louisville, and Phil had a show, and he came by, and there were a couple of group sort of choir voice parts and I love the sound of Phil's voice and the way he has approached recording his voice and group voices over the years, so I just asked.
We also did a small tour last fall. Sometime in the last nine months, in the Northwest that was a Bonnie/Cairo tour and Phil played drums and sang. So that was really fun.
I was wondering how Diamanda Galas had affected your music. I know you've mentioned her a few times and I think you had a chance to interview her?
I did. I interviewed her, I think it was for Index magazine maybe about a decade ago or a little more, twelve years ago, maybe.
How has her music, and maybe even her persona, influenced you and the way that you make music?
Regrettably, for some reason, and you could totally challenge me on this and I'd be thrilled, but I feel like in the last fifteen or twenty years, there's been a moving away from great singers, or unique vocal stylists, and singing kind of feels like it has to be beautiful or regular, you know? One of those two things and I don't feel like there are a lot of voices that we get to hear in contemporarily made music where there's this sort of striving identity going on and she's one of the few, you know she's somebody who's nothing if not that.
It's her voice, it's her voice and I was always moved or floored or fascinated by different recordings that she made early on and when she did a couple of records, starting with The Singer were she did songs, she did covers, it was like "Okay, one of the things this woman's voice is able to do is get into a lyric, to get a traditionally structured song across in a very characteristic, driven, and unique way."
And she has her agendas, her aesthetic agendas, her emotional agendas, and her political agendas and they all are never eclipsed by her musical agendas, her vocal abilities and her vocal performance, they all work together. But at the end of the day what you have are these great pieces of music that have these other functions, which is really cool.
It's interesting, I was listening to Lost Blues 2 last night and there's a live recording of "Stable Will" that's on there, and I thought to myself, "What does this remind me of? What music does this remind me of?" and the only thing I could think of, for some reason, was Diamanda Galas. Well, Diamanda Galas and the Mekons, in one, sort of, thing. And I felt like I could describe a lot of your music as those two forces sort of meeting together.
That's amazing. (laughs) That's really amazing.
I had this other R. Kelly thought, as I know that a few times you've said you really like the way that he approaches his popularity and the way that he makes music. The one thing about this that I really like is that he makes these videos online where he just talks about his recording process and the narratives of his songs.
There was one for Love Letter, where he talked about the song "Radio Message" and once I heard that, I had a completely different understanding of the song. So I was wondering if you would ever do something like that, make a documentary type thing where you would talk to the camera like R. Kelly had done.
Oh, wow. Maybe? Last year when we did our first set of shows after Wonder Show of the World came out we did sort of a constructed photo diary of mine of Emmett's. We did a tour that was just the two of us, no other regularly touring musicians or tour manager or anybody, and we did a photo tour diary, as we played in New York and Rehoboth, Delaware and New Orleans and outside of Lafayette, Louisiana and I think we went to Santa, Monica, California , and in every photograph we incorporated the full twelve inch cover from Royal Trux's third record, which is their second self titled record.
And also, I don't remember how long ago it was, seven or eight years ago, I opened for Bjork on a US tour and I did an online tour diary, where people could write in and ask questions as well, because I figured that Bjork tickets are kind of expensive and also it was just in random places in the country, so I figured it would be nice to have this communication going on with folks, so I didn't feel like I was getting lost.
I think one thing that I appreciate about R. Kelly is that he hasn't always approached his music in a certain way and I don't believe he always will approach it in a certain way. His comments about "Radio Message," the genesis of it is probably similar to the genesis of his video that he did for "Real Talk," but they are totally different. They are different things but you can tell it's him trying to prolong or explore the life of a song, basically. Just because he wrote it doesn't mean he's ready to let go of it.
Yeah, that's fantastic. I didn't think of the "Real Talk" video in conjunction with this video, but they are sort of the same thing, just in very different ways of looking at it.
Very different, yeah. I haven't seen the "Radio Message" one but that sounds on some level, more effective because... I love to listen to the "Real Talk" thing and get my own image, as in general it's rare with any sort of video representation of a song that it successfully supplants the images that you get on your own when you listen to it. But hearing somebody talk about a song, as you've experienced, might bring another dimension to the listening of the song.
Are you planning to tour any time soon?
Yeah. Well, we are touring Florida. Emmett, Angel Olsen, and I at the end of the month.
And that's a free tour, right?
Yeah. It's a tour of record stores and radio stations.
Do you think you'll be embarking on a big tour?
The next proper tour is not until September. In between now and then, we'll make a record.
A full length record?
Yeah, a full length record.
Oh, great. Another one with the Cairo Gang?
Emmett is an essential part of it, but it will be just a normal B.P.B. record.
Oh, that's great. I really like that you do a record each year.
The thing I find about your records is that they take me a full year to really understand, for some reason. I remember when Beware came out, something about it, I didn't get it. Once Wonder Show came out, I felt like I fully understood Beware, but I didn't understand Wonder Show and now I think I'm getting that one.
It can take me even longer than that, but I'm glad that you stick with them for that long, that means a lot.
The thing about Beware was that I heard this one interview you did where you said the record reminded you of Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, in that you had improv guys playing with you... so I listened to Michael Jackson- Off The Wall and then I listened to Beware and it just completely meshed with me and made perfect sense.
(laughs) That's great.
I like that you take an influence from places where I wouldn't expect you to, not that I wouldn't expect you to, but when I hear Beware, it doesn't sound immediately like a Michael Jackson record, the production's not the same. But once I hear you talk about Elvis and June Tabor and all that, I hear everything and then I hear it with your music and everything comes together, really beautifully.
I'm really, very, very glad to hear that.
How would you describe Wonder Show if you were to compare it to another record, like you did with Beware?
Oh, wow. Since Emmett and I shared such responsibility for that record it would be difficult because it was about building a bridge between his sensibilities and my own.
I know, on tour we covered a song written by Jimmy Webb that was written for this record called Reunited, it was Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. The song's called "You Might As Well Smile" and I believe that there was an attempt to at least observe and translate some of the relationship as Jimmy Webb as a songwriter putting... Glen Campbell is not a songwriter. He's written a few songs, and a few really good songs, but he's an incredible singer and it seemed sort of in the way of the way of the classic tradition of John Ford and John Wayne or Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro or Bertrand Tavernier and Philippe Noiret where you've got Jimmy Webb, this visionary, meaning he writes these songs, these lyrics, and he's a great producer as well or at least at the time he was, and he found this voice that's insanely technically capable and flexible and emotionally expressive.
Part of, for me, the joy of listening to that record is listening to kind of a Cyrano de Bergerac story of somebody who is like "Oh my God, while I have this voice to sing through I'm going to put these songs into this mouth!" There's two songs, I think it's a Little Feat cover that starts the record and there's a song credited to another Webb, that I think is maybe Jimmy Webb's sister. It's a beautiful record because he doesn't want to have complete autonomy in terms of the material that he sources, it's like, "In order to complete this record, I need this voice and this voice and this voice" and then what they come up with is kind of a masterpiece.
I think that that was one thing we were trying to do, make something where the songs were about only what we could do together, based on our experience together. Knowing that some of the themes of some of the songs entrusted to Emmett's gentleness and fluency and unwillingness to settle for the simplest interpretation of a lyric, for example. As well, I think him knowing the limits on either side of my singing, the outer limits as well as the inner limits of my singing, and wanting the arrangements, how the guitar works, but also the melodies and harmonies.
I think that was a pretty important record and there's also in the most direct and maybe even banal way, the last song on [The Wonder Show of The World], "Kids," was based on Emmett and Cheyenne Mize and I had been invited to Sicily sometime in the previous year to perform as part of this themed festival that was named after a song called "Dirty Summer" in Italian, "Sporco Estate," and they asked, if we could manage it, sometime if we could cover this song, this Italian song, written and performed by a guy named Piero Ciampi and we did, and we really dug it, we got a lot out of it. We played shows around Italy and we would play it and it was always warmly received by the Italians, us trying to stumble our way through a classic Italian song.
At the same time, there were some things that we got into about the song and similarly in some ways to "Strange Form of Life," it was thinking like, "Well, he's written this song but let's do a kind of translation of it where the first word is the same, 'cause his first word is "figli" which is "kids" or "children," "my children"... but then taking off from there, but definitely lots of musical references to that song, just lyrically going someplace completely different.
That's really interesting. Going back to Glen Campbell, he made that one record in 2008 called Meet Glen Campbell and I think you wrote something in Mojo where you said it was your favorite record of that year.
Oh, I don't know. I definitely didn't say it was my favorite record of the year, maybe it was something interesting that I had listened to. It's a record that is so frustrating because it's great to hear him singing and playing but unfortunately I don't think it's a very good sounding record.
The production of it?
Production is such a weird, ambiguous term because production is selecting a song, production is overseeing arrangements and mixing... For me, the worst part about the Glen Campbell record is something about, and it could be the mastering even, it just sounds kinda crappy... but hearing Glen Campbell sing The Velvet Underground's "Jesus" is so beautiful.
Yeah, I really like the way his voice sounds on that record, just interpreting these different songs.
He's such a good singer.
Even when he sings that Green Day song or the Foo Fighters song.
Oh, the Green Day song is great.
My favorite on there is actually the Foo Fighters one.
What's that one called?
"Times Like These."
I don't know my Foo Fighters but I do like that song.
I don't like the original that much but he just makes this completely different song, just in his voice. There's a different depth to what he's singing.
Yeah, Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell did some shows, a friend of mine saw them in Nashville, performing with the Nasvhille Symphony Orchestra, but I don't think they did any songs from Reunited. Still, I think it would be a great chemistry to witness.