On August 27th Chicago-based label Drag City announced a new Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, by uploading a staged interview with Will Oldham, the cryptic force and songwriter behind the “Prince” Billy moniker, dubbed “The Most Awkward Radio Innerview Ever!?!” For 17 minutes and 47 seconds, Oldham berates, threatens, and belittles a clueless sounding radio deejay, all the while refusing to reveal anything about the album he’s ostensibly trying to promote.
It’s a brilliant piece of comedy, but one nervously rattling around in my head as I called Oldham, whose records occupy mythic status in my collection. Few songwriters cast the kind of shadow Oldham does, and many of his albums, I See A Darkness, Master and Everyone, Sings Greatest Palace Music, Viva Last Blues, and Superwolf, included, have defined me as a music listener. Luckily, I fared better than the hapless disc jockey of “Innerview,” and found Oldham warm, friendly, and eager to discuss his new album, which falls in line with his countrypolitan classics Master and Everyone and Lie Down in the Light. Featuring many songs that appeared on his 2011 album Wolfroy Goes To Town, the album gave Oldham a chance to try those songs with a crack Nashville session band, featuring longtime collaborator Emmett Kelly, Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs), and the gospel singing McCrary Sisters, who’ve contributed vocals to albums by Bob Dylan, Charlie Louvin, and Solomon Burke.
Ever fascinating, Oldham discussed the “mind-blowing” pool of talent in Nashville, the nature of “God,” the internet, WTF with Marc Maron, and one of his favorite Samhain lyrics.
Aquarium Drunkard: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the players that appear on Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues. How did you meet Chris Scruggs?
Will Oldham: This record sort of carries on from Master and Everyone, Lie Down in the Light, and to some extent the Sings Greatest Palace Music record, in that they’re all these Mark Nevers [produced] records. He approached me about making another record, one he thought would be a third part of a trilogy for us. One of the great revelations of making the Master and Everyone record was working in Nashville, and beginning to have contact with and access to the Nashville session players’ scene.
We were talking about a couple songs for this album — specifically “Mindlessness,” where there’s this weird little moment, a time change situation, where there was a gap. It sounded very strange, because the timing changes — and we thought, “Let’s get a mandolin player to come in and fill that gap.” He said, “Chris Scruggs,” and I said, “Great.”
I had met Chris Scruggs when he was playing steel, about four years ago or so at a celebration of the musical work of Shel Silverstein in Chicago. There was a house band and featured singers would come up and do different Shel Silverstein songs. I was one of the singers and Chris Scruggs was one of the band members. So that’s how we met, though that had nothing to do with this record, other than I was excited to see him again and work with him again.
AD: Emmett Kelly appears on this record. You’ve maintained a partnership with him for quite a while now.
Will Oldham: The first thing we did was the record The Letting Go, about nine years ago. We’d run into each other a couple of times in Chicago, usually late at night at a bar or something, and I liked him. Then, he came to Louisville as part of Azita [Youssefi]’s band. He blew me away. It was just so tremendously exciting, his moments on stage with Azita. I started talking to him about playing on a record, and then I gave him the songs, and some records to listen to sort of potentially inform what we were going to undertake. And that began it.
AD: The gospel singing group, the McCrary Sisters, are all over this record.
Will Oldham: I don’t think I was fully aware of how subconsciously aware I was of one or more of the McCrary Sisters when they came into the recording studio, but then through conversation with them and conversation with friends afterward I realized I knew different people they had recorded with, either personally or by reputation.
AD: When I realized that Regina McCrary sang on Bob Dylan records…
Will Oldham: Specifically those born again records. Which, if I’m thinking right, might be the last musically exciting Bob Dylan records that were made.
AD: Those records have a strange reputation, kind of a complicated legacy, but I like Dylan’s religious records a lot.
Will Oldham: I do, too, yeah. And there’s a couple of great bootlegs from that period as well. I’m fortunate enough to not have instilled in me an aversion to Christianity, and to Christian terms and concepts. It’s sort of easy for me to translate any religious or Christian term or concept into a language I understand in a heartbeat. I think a lot of people have a fucked up relationship with religion because of how it was delivered to them early on, and that unfortunately sort of bars the gate and keeps them from a lot of really good musical experiences, those Bob Dylan records being a really great example.
AD: “We Are Unhappy” is my favorite song on the record, and the vocals are pure gospel.
Will Oldham: And that’s funny, because there was a great moment in there where Mark said in advance, “You might have some problems with this song with the McCrarys.” One of the other sisters is deeply religious and deeply spiritual, and when it came to the line “we are unblessed,” she said she couldn’t sing it. So you know, we talked about it for a while, I tried to explain the intention behind the song, tried to see if there was a way that she could find her way to singing that line. She couldn’t; we ended up doing sort of a hum or an “ooh” underneath that line. But it was funny because when it came time sing the song “Whipped,” which is all about vaginas and fucking, she had no problems whatsoever with that. [Laughs]
AD: I wondered if the lines about “demonized bodies” and “exorcized minds” might create some tension.
Will Oldham: Those didn’t. They didn’t have to sing those lines… and they have a kind of professionalism. She didn’t mind participating in a song with the line “we are unblessed,” but she just couldn’t let those words come out of her mouth.
AD: I’ve long been fascinated by your use of religious language. In Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, your book with Alan Licht, you talk about using religious language in a completely open manner. You aren’t confined to the terms you use; you say something along the lines of “God can mean a lot of things.”
Will Oldham: Yeah. I love to think, for better or for worse and right or wrong, my default is to think of “God” as literally being all things, and in so being God is also nothing. God is the absence of God, and God is God, so that God is the word for all things, and therefore there is nothing untrue that can be said about anybody’s concept of God. So you can just say, “Yeah, that’s true: God is merciless, God is merciful; God is good, God is bad; Of course God doesn’t exist, and of course God exists.” Do you ever listen to that WTF interview show?
AD: Yeah, all the time.
Will Oldham: I was listening to the beginning of the Jay Bakker interview, you know him? [Televangelists] Jim and Tammy Faye’s son.
AD: Yeah, I do.
Will Oldham: They were rapping a little bit about the role of faith and the role of religion, and for some reason this line came into my mind, as it does now and then, from this Samhain song that I learned as a child. It’s from the first Samhain record, Initium. There’s this song, and I think Danzig intended it to be about the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer, or whoever, but the song is called “He Who Cannot Be Named.” I think about one of the lines he uses — he describes “he who cannot be named” as an “intricate entity,” which is a nice little phrase.
Oldham (back left) / Glenn Danzig . . .
AD: That reminds me of the practice of spelling “Yahweh” without vowels, out of reverence, sort of not uttering God’s name.
Will Oldham: In Islam, in addition to there being a name for God, there are also 99 other names for God, that are all descriptive names: the Witness, the Resurrector, the Counter, the Glorious, the One, the Inner, the Just, the Guide, the Light, the Gatherer, the Self-sufficient. On some level, you could buy all the collective madlibs in the world and put “God” in every space. You would be doing fine.
AD: Most of us sort of unconsciously share some religious language in our national heritage; it’s sort of thematic shorthand.
Will Oldham: Sure. I am sure there are ways we create our street signs or do our lawns that point back to some religious structure. Once again, it is a shame that people have had an unpleasant or jarring relationship with religion because of their parents, or their grandparents, or their preacher that they have to close themselves off to so much goodness in society because somebody screwed them somewhere some way, which has as much to do with religion as the make-up of the individuals who have fucked them over.
AD: And Jay Bakker definitely talks about that. He’s someone who’s chosen to reconcile his faith with some of the weird stuff he’s experienced.
Will Oldham: I love the beginning [of Maron’s podcast]. You know how he has the introductory interviews? I love when he gets into the nuts and bolts of the practice of comedy. But I’ve just got into the Bakker interview, I’m six or seven minutes in, and they’re just going over about how they each viewed the fact that Jay was an hour late for his interview. They haven’t got into the deep stuff yet.
AD: Maron is great at interviewing people.
Will Oldham: I listened to the Gallagher episode a couple months ago. And I couldn’t listen to Marc Maron for a few weeks, he just left a bad taste in my mouth — he made me like Gallagher, which is quite an accomplishment. But I’m back again.
AD: You’ve spent so much of your career collaborating with people. Matt Sweeney, Jason Molina, Alasdair Roberts, Tortoise, Boxhead Ensemble, Mariee Sioux…too many to name. I don’t want to ask a question like “How do you collaborate with people,” because I’m aware the process changes.
Will Oldham: Exactly. The idea of collaboration is that everybody is going to bring their own practice to the situation. The music is a collaboration, but the practice itself ends up being the root, the basis, of collaboration. The root of working together is learning how another person works and finding your way into their method, and hoping that they’re willing to find their way into yours.
AD: So when you’re working with Nashville session players, that’s a different beast, right?
Will Oldham: Totally. In the situation I described, there’s this practice and the music, and those are the two principles of the collaboration. With the Nashville scene, the practice is actually more-or-less the same with everybody. They’re working in a system that has established rules for how things get done. Everybody else that I’m working with is coming from all different environments and schools of music and attitudes toward music and forms of distribution and ideas about songs, whereas in Nashville, you’re working with people who’ve all learned to come from the same place when it comes to approaching a session.
AD: The blend between your songs and that rich musical tradition makes for engaging listening.
Will Oldham: That was the thing about the Greatest Palace Music record. Once I became aware, in a real sense, of how Nashville could potentially work for this music, and that through Nevers I had the beginnings of some sort of access to this world, that whole record was juxtaposing all these different musicians that I had worked with in a variety of different contexts with the Nashville musicians, and putting them together on the same songs, and knowing that in so doing I was making something I never had been able to make before, and in the back of my mind had probably fantasized about. I knew in years of listening to records, and working with people that weren’t, you know, those kinds of session musicians, I knew that there was a crucial difference, but I didn’t know what it was, because I’d never worked with real session musicians.
Everybody I had worked with up until that point, they were definitely “artists,” creative artists who weren’t part of a “national concept” of what music is. They were super localized in their vision, and then all the sudden it was like, “Oh, now I’ve crossed the border and I can go back and forth between these two things.” That was exciting to make that record, and realized that I could go between nation states as it were.
AD: This record addresses a lot of the songs from Wolfroy Goes to Town. I read on Grantland that you were fascinated with the way Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard would continually readdress songs over the course of their careers —
Will Oldham: — And Michael Hurley. Jesus Christ!
AD: There’s an idea that some people have that once a song is on record it’s kind of done. You don’t seem to share that idea.
Will Oldham: I guess I was thinking the other day that there might be two or three records by a band or an artist in which the recording studio is the same, and maybe the amount of songs is the same, the length of the record is the same, the band is the same, the engineer is the same, the label is the same, and yet we think of them as different records because the songs are different. I’ve always thought I’d prepare a group of songs, and that record is made by all the circumstances surrounding it, including the weather, including the time of day that we go in, including which performer’s flight got canceled, and so we didn’t have that performer on the first day of the session when they were supposed to be there… that makes the record in a lot of ways. I think about certain filmmakers, like John Ford, who did it sort of slyly, or somebody Douglas Sirk or YasujirÅ Ozu, who would remake movies that they’d made before with the same characters, same plot, same titles and everything. Just like, “Oh yeah, I really want to make that again.”
AD: That’s what inspired you to return to those songs?
Will Oldham: When we made Lie Down in the Light… it was, for whatever reason, the best feeling I had ever had about making a record. And then, I went in and made that record Beware, and I knew that it was done in all these ways that were opposite of that. I was like, “Why am I even doing this?” I enjoyed tons of things about it, but I just thought, “Why did I make a record that was fully satisfying, and now I’m making something totally different? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Eventually I thought, “I’m going to get back to that” and make a record that gets back to the way I made Lie Down in the Light. And that record became Wolfroy Goes To Town. But the experience, for a variety of reasons, wasn’t that experience. There’s an unease to it that is powerful. “We Are Unhappy” is the most blatant symbol of the amount of unease that was going on and discomfort with circumstances.
If nothing else, very, very crucially, I was looking at the world of recorded music. I was looking at some article the other day about the new Thom Yorke release, and in the first or second paragraph the writer said, just as an aside, that Thom Yorke and Nigel what-ever-his-name-is were looking around for ways to release music “now that that music industry is dead and gone,” and [the writer] just kind of carried on from there. That was a little parenthetical. It’s a part of our lives that we live in a world where that’s something somebody can write without someone writing a letter to the editor saying, “What does he mean about the music industry?” I’m sure nobody thought that. That’s just something you can say. So it’s crazy to be making records right now. In the process of making Wolfroy Goes to Town I thought, “I’m making this record, but why? Where is it going and how?” I think there’s a certain amount of coldness in that record that’s full of amazing performances by beautiful musicians. [Before making Singer’s Grave] I started thinking, “Now that there’s been a couple of years, I wanna do right by these songs, do right by my work ethic, the audience, record stores, you, by everything that’s involved in all this.” I wanted to start over from scratch and say “I know this is what the world is now, so I’m going to now make something that resembles a Lie Down in the Light experience.
So when Nevers said, “Let’s complete our trilogy,” I thought, “Yes, I’d like to do that.” We could almost go to Earth 2 or go back in time. I am completely capable of living this alternate reality, because that’s what I do every time I go on stage or I’m acting. It’s another reality, not governed by the laws of chronology or any other laws, really, just the laws of melody and harmony and meter.
AD: You distributed a great self-titled record yourself last year. Did that process help you connect to the “music industry” that is out there?
Will Oldham: Doing that record in that way was huge. You know, I didn’t necessarily examine all my motivations as deeply as I could have, because then it wouldn’t have been fun, but I decided to not have a digital version of the album. There’s the phrase that we’ve all heard now, many, many times now, to the point that most people accept it as a truth, which is that “everything is on the internet.” It’s crazy how false that statement is.
The people who are involved in the creating designing of websites, who are involved in selling digital and physical music on the internet, or who write about it on the internet, feel like because their voice is the loudest it’s also the truest. Making that record helped reground me so that I could feel confident in saying that is not the truth. Even though this guy, in writing about fucking Thom Yorke, says that the music industry is dead, of course that isn’t true.
People don’t experience music totally online. It happens in people’s homes, in exchanges at record stores and shows, and in people’s brains. Our brains are not on the internet — maybe one day they will be, I don’t know — but our lives, our souls, and the music that we experience, the music that people have valuable experiences …the owners of Google might have us believe that everything is on the internet, but it’s amazing how shortsighted and amazingly false that is, especially for a company that claims to have its users welfare at the beginning and end of all its decisions. [Laughs]
There was an owl in my yard, and I have this little dog that’s like seven pounds, and then there’s this huge owl out there I’ve never seen before [with my dog]. The next morning I woke up and was reading an article that had that phrase in it — “Everything is on the internet” — and I thought, “You know, that owl isn’t on the internet.” We’re taught to believe that they are putting more and more things in our cars, in our phones, our computers, and that they are doing us the favor of separating the wheat from the chaff, but really the chaff is online, and the real shit is out here for us to partake in without anybody fucking with us. words / j woodbury