Be good because you’re ruining the silence
An interview with Bill Callahan

In advance of his shows at the Sydney Opera House, Texan singer-songwriter Bill Callahan spoke to Vivid LIVE curator Ben Marshall about silence, the purpose of music and what it’s like to hit a new peak 25 years into his career. An edited transcript is below.

Ben: Hi. It’s Ben Marshall from Sydney Opera House.

Bill: How are you doing?

Ben: I’m doing really well. Thank you for taking the time to have a chat. Thank you very much for coming out and playing.

Bill: Thank you for inviting.

Ben: My pleasure. I’ve wanted to have you play at the Opera House for 5 years. There were two things that I wanted to ask you about. The first, it struck me that I feel like you’re making the best work of your career – which has been punctuated by a lot of great work – but how unusual it is for an artist in any field to be hitting their peak 25 years in. I’d love to get your thoughts on where you are at now.

Bill: That’s awesome, thank you. I think I’m a slow learner. I think I was also not giving myself permission to really stretch out and be relaxed and do what I want to do. I always thought of it as a very tense situation and I always tried to record really quickly, but then I gave myself permission really to just take a breath and not rush through anything and maybe go and redo something if I didn’t like it.

I had a change of attitude, which I probably should have had years ago. I still think there are lot of good things that came out of those old records. There is inspiration in doing things very quickly. It kind of accesses your unconscious.

Ben: I wanted to ask you about that. It feels in the work now there’s an ease, a trust in the process and a trust in the subconsciousness.

Bill: Yeah. It just took me a while to get to that feeling. I found some good people to work with lately, the past couple of records and tours. That definitely helps too, just being able to trust, love back. In the beginning a lot of engineers would be antagonistic, and I just found some people to work with. I guess it’s just like relaxing and then when you’re relaxed, you just see the truth.

Ben: Another question I wanted to ask, there’s a lot of focus in contemporary music on the Byronic, Romantic idea of the unhappy artist, but that obsession misses the link between happiness and creativity. For people like, say, Tom Waits, who meeting Kathleen Brennan really unpacked his amazing musical world.

Bill: Yeah, that’s definitely something that I think needs to be combated and rewired in people’s minds, the whole idea that music has to come from a sad place and go to a sad place. It’s something that’s easy to believe, I guess. That idea, maybe it’s in our collective unconscious or something, but it’s not necessarily true.

Ben: I find as I get older – I’m 40 now – just happiness builds and builds. I wonder if it’s just a calmness and stillness that escapes you when you’re young and all fired up. It’s harder to settle and spot the things that make you happy.

Bill: Yeah. I think we might have been designed this way on purpose. Life gets a little bit better every year and maybe if it didn’t, we wouldn’t all be here now. It’s like when you’re 16 or whatever and a 40 year old, like a parent or something, tells you something, you just think they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. You have to get there too. You can’t just have someone tell you and then all of a sudden you understand. You have to experience it. I think this is the way we’re made so that we make it to the end of our lives.

Ben: Brian Eno has a really interesting essay where he talks about this theorist Morse Peckham, who has this idea that one of art’s jobs is to confront us with mysteries, things we don’t properly understand and we’re aware we don’t properly understand. But then we’re really excited by this and we’re drawn to this uncertainty, and there’s a real link between uncertainty and pleasure. I wanted to know how important this mystery is to you in your art and to art that you enjoy generally.

Bill: Yeah, I think it’s probably 100% of the reason for music appealing to me. If there’s no mystery then there’s no reason to listen to it because you’ve already got figured it out. That’s the whole thing right there.

Also for playing live: you have the record, so why do people want to go hear it live? People want to make sure that the person can play it, or they want a guide into the mystery of the song. And then maybe they see that there isn’t an answer there, that the player is just as mystified as the audience.

Ben: It puts it back on to the receiver of the art to trust their response.

Bill: Yeah. If it was solved at a live show, you could shut that door and never have to open it again. When you see a good show the first thing you want to do the next day is go listen to that record again because it still has that mystery.

Ben: I wanted to ask you as well about music as an art form. You’ve said that music is the art form that sends you somewhere the furthest the fastest. What sends you, musically, and is that a part of what draws you to music?

Bill: Yeah, that’s the humanness of it. When you’re listening to a song that you can picture the band listening to each other, or the singer listening to himself, and then that draws you in because everyone’s listening. Even the musicians are listening, so it makes it a shared experience.

Ben: I feel like your work along with others like Will Oldham and Chan Marshall was important in introducing quietness to indie rock. That now in indie rock, that’s the big end of town with Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes … Do you have any thoughts on your influence in that area?

Bill: In retrospect, it was a radical thing compared to what was going on. I was there but it wasn’t any kind of conscious thing. Maybe it just happened to be, like a random gathering of certain people.

Ben: Singular voices in music and art generally are often driven to make this thing that isn’t already there and they’re looking for something that they want and they’re not finding it around themselves and therefore start to make it, which would explain the difference.

Bill: Yeah, I think that’s actually a good explanation for what I just said was random. You have to find a hole that needs filling because filling a hole that’s already been filled is totally redundant.

Ben: It feels like a very honourable impetus to create something.

Bill: I do out of my own desire to hear it.

Ben: I read a lovely metaphor you used about songwriting: that you felt there was an analogy with carving, that you were taking silence and carving little bits of art out by making sound. I’d love to draw out that observation in the dub records you’ve made. This sense of the use of silence and space that dub does, that you do in a very different way with your songwriting.

Bill: Yeah, music starts, when you’re starting a song the only thing you have is silence and silence is pretty damn sweet. Once you start making some sound, it better be good because you’re ruining the silence that makes you feel good and relaxed. I feel like you can only make a sound if it’s better than silence. With dub, it was always really important from the start, like I remember a song I did really long time ago called ‘Your New Friend’. All the stuff I was doing around that time, it was probably in ’94 or something like that. I was very conscious of the power of nothing, the power of nothing being there. You’ll notice it’s still about the best thing anyone playing with me on a record can do is just stop playing. Because you got this instrument in your hand and it’s really fun to make the noise with it, but it means so much more when you’re not playing it.

Dub is like a blossoming, all sounds blossom out of the silence. I think you need to be really aware of silence when you are making a sound. You can’t just barge right in and say what’s supposed to be here now because I’m doing it. Something you really have to respect forever.

Ben: How did you first come into contact with dub music?

Bill: When I was about 16 I lived in Maryland, and there was a radio station that was a total anomaly. It’s like a freeform radio and they had a dub show. It goes Sunday nights. I don’t know what the hell it was but I tuned in every Sunday. Got exposed to it pretty young for something that radical in Maryland.

Ben: Was there a punk linkage? I remember as a teenager hearing that Johnny Rotten and the Clash loved dub and reggae and being utterly mystified of what this music held.

Bill: There’s a lot of Jamaican people living in London I guess and I think it got transferred that way into those bands. For me, it started with the real deal coming out of my radio when I was 16.

Ben: Two last questions then. There’s a deliberate and thoughtful universalism that’s crept into your work, that I find very compelling. Is that something you value in your work?

Bill: Yeah, I think that’s definitely what I’m after. You don’t want to alienate anybody who’s trying to figure out what you’re doing. I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about that, I guess.

Ben: How do you feel about your increase in recognition? You’re going to fill two Joan Sutherland Theatres here, and I saw the amazing Royal Festival Hall appearances in London. It’s this wonderful moment of watching an artist get the recognition they deserve. Does it feel like there is the threads are all coming together in the way the world perceives you and the nature of your current work?

Bill: The weird thing is like you said at the beginning that you thought I was doing the best work of my life. The way I thought about it, once I started doing good work, more people wanted to hear it. I know I’ve had to do all the work that I’ve done for 20 years to get to this point, but it really felt like wow, like after Apocalypse, I did what I really wanted to do and more people liked it. It all made sense, you know what I mean?

Ben: Completely. The last question, I wanted to chat you about Paul Ryan, the artist for your last few records.

Bill: I’ve never actually met him. I should meet him on this trip. Some people are making a documentary about him, and he wrote to ask if – I guess sometimes he listens to my music when he paints, and they’ve filmed some painting and there happened to be some of my music in the background, so they wrote to ask us if it was okay. That was right before Apocalypse, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have an idea for a record cover, so I was really getting desperate because the record had been recorded and everything. I said, ‘Yeah, you can use it.’ I looked at his paintings online and I said, ‘You can put my music in your movie, but you have to send me a painting for the cover.’ I wasn’t even expecting to use it.

I just glanced at his website and thought all right, it’s okay, but then I loved it and he’s done the next two albums also and I’ve loved everything he’s done. I’ve taken a bit more time and actually truly looked at his website. I don’t know what’s going on in contemporary art at all, but he seems to be the only person who blows me away with everything he does.

Ben: It’s incredibly clear and straightforward and yet there’s a lot that’s veiled and you can still read into it, in the same way the music is direct and straightforward as it’s ever been and yet there is still so much going on when you look under the veil. There’s a wonderful parallel.

Bill: Yeah. I think it’s that mystery again. Because I’ve asked him a little bit. One time I thought I saw something in his painting and I felt like ‘Oh this is the perfect opportunity,’ because you’ll never get to ask painters or people who do art if what you’re perceiving is real. I thought I saw something in a painting and I wrote and asked him if it was there and he was like ‘No, I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.’

Ben: Now you know how those journalists feel. Fantastic. His work is going to be incorporated in the performances, is that right?

Bill: Yeah, they’re going to be showing some slides, backdrop.

Ben: Beautiful. Bill, I’m really looking forward to it. Look, thank you for taking the time. I couldn’t be more thrilled you’re part of this festival.

Bill: Great. Thank you very much. It’s very nice.

Ben Marshall
Ben Marshall is the curator of Vivid LIVE.

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