LA Weekly's Interview with Will Oldham: On Acting, Hollywood, the Nature of the Press, and Facebook
Yesterday Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy, did an instore performance at Amoeba Records on Sunset, and West Coast Sound's Nikki Darling was there to report on the scene:
Will Oldham gets French pedicures and shows them off while wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian board shorts. That's the first thing you should know about his appearance at Amoeba yesterday. The second is that Will Oldham will blow you away, no matter what is painted on his toenails. His poise, voice, timbre, guitar playing, all so delicately balanced and precise that when his accompanying musicians join him, it's as if listening to a heavenly orchestra try to sweep you off your feet. Moving, cinematic even, is the only way to describe the range and power of his live shows, all intermixed with manic head turning, leg grabbing and other performative tics that lend themselves to authenticity. Which at times one could be prone to question, as each note, each twang, each pluck of a string is so perfectly in place, that you might wonder if it's so because it has been sung, twanged, plucked that way a dozen times before. Alas these nagging suspicions are erased as soon as Oldham closes his eyes leans into the mic and unleashes his folky magic. The crowd at Amoeba was mellow and transfixed as the sun set behind them through giant glass windows. Nothing so beautiful could be that well planned.
Last week, in anticipation of tonight's sold-out Bonnie Prince Billy show at El Rey, we wrote a profile/interview piece on Will Oldham, who is Bonnie Prince Billy. What follows is the full transcript of the interview, which took place at the Hotel Figueroa in early January.
LA Weekly: The first time I saw you was in Columbia, Missouri, opening for Big Star.
Will Oldham: Oh wow. That was essentially the first show ever.
I had seen Matewan, but I don't think your first record had come out yet.
It hadn't come out. It came out about a month later. Around Louisville we had played a couple open mic nights at the Palace Flophouse, but that was sort of the first formal set, really.
That was a memorable night for me because I hooked up with someone that I had been trying to get with for my entire college career. It happened after that show. So thanks for your role in that.
Are you still in communication with this person?
Off and on.
Are you Facebook friends?
No. Are you on Facebook?
I've been on Facebook. I'm not a dedicated Facebook person, but I've been on.
I like it. I've reconnected with people that I'd totally lost touch with, and people who I've missed and wondered about and now I have answers.
But just that feeling, I met this person randomly, and then I lost touch with them randomly, and that's not fair. All the sudden you have the access to be like, 'I still like you.'
Yeah. I had an acquaintance from high school contact me, and she had vanished from my mind. And she friend-requested me, and it brought back this entire rush of feelings that I had lost touch with. But then I looked at her profile, and the only thing she was a fan of was Sarah Palin.
Did you write to her and say, 'That's hilarious'?
[Laughs] When I saw you in Columbia that first time, I had already seen Matewan, and so all of the sudden there are these two constructed stories in my mind of who you were. And you still really really looked like that little boy in the movie. So you were already advancing these narratives, and I'm wondering whether you always knew you'd be doing that in some fashion.
These kinds of things I have a lot of issues with, doing time with press, for example, because I grew up under the impression that I think most people still do. Most people on the earth still do, which is that there is an organic nature to press, which for the most part there isn't.
An organic nature to press?
Like, if you read a good review of something, that means that it's good, and that the critic sought it out, found it and connected with it. That's what I grew up thinking, and that's what most people think. That isn't true. What's true is that it's politics and publicists and getting space and all this stuff and how many phone calls, and then it's also realizing that a critic isn't a normal human being in that they have to weigh this against this against this, whereas most of the time when we're experiencing any kind of media, we're experiencing it, it comes, like a friend. Or you think, 'That was good,' or whatever. You hear it on the radio and you're like, 'I like it.'
And so one thing I've thought recently is to try to be a part of that organic impression, say, that the readership or the listenership has, of what goes on in public media. And so on some level, if doing certain activities and working in certain ways and with certain people, thinking like, 'If ever someone were to write about this, then I could say, yes, that's how it happened and it's a good thing,' rather than thinking, like, 'Oh, someone wrote a story and it didn't really happen that way, and it wasn't as good as they made it sound.' To try to think, like, well, everything has to be good first, and let's see if it can get written about. And if it doesn't, we'll see if it matters, even. Let's see if word of mouth is good enough. And for the most part, it is good enough.
John Fahey didn't have a publicist. Walt Whitman didn't have a publicist.
Of course, it will fall short in certain ways. Word of mouth - sometimes it gets people paid, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it gets people satisfied, sometimes it doesn't. But it's as good or better than any system of publicity, so it's a matter of - what if there are these connections? What if someone listens to this record -- always for me, a record that I make, like Arise Therefore. For me, personally, that's an ultimate record, because it's got my heroes on it - my brother, David Grubbs, Steve Albini.
And that beautiful little drum machine.
And that beautiful little drum machine, which was provided by my younger brother. But also knowing that Albini could work with a drum machine. But also thinking, like, there are going to be certain people, especially people from Louisville and Chicago, who will have an emotional connection to how the people on this record interact, personally and musically, like, 'Oh my goodness.' And then there will be people who have a relationship with Albini's work as an engineer, or Cole Cannon, an engineer, and Grubbs' work, and knowing that there are going to be people who are going to be able to make their own stories about this record. Without the help of - and that's awesome. Because I love constructing stories between records of artists that I love, or movies. That's the best you can do.
You fill in the blanks.
And every clue is important. Every clue is important. Just little things. Like, it could be a thank you credit, an artist's credit, just a font, or something like that. But knowing that the backstory is important to everything you put together is as important as anything else. that it can't just be 'it' itself. It should have these interconnections. And, also, the person who makes it approaches it so deeply with all these interconnected things, you have to, as much as you can, allow for that kind of experience from the audience - to have a cool way of getting into it that's not just the material and the listener. It's like, the material, the listener and one or two other things from the world at large.
And sometimes that takes time. there are records of yours that I completely ignored that creep up on me or show up on the iPod, and all the sudden there's a confluence that makes that song click.
And it's like that with music and movies.
And there's no window to that. You can't force that. You can't say, 'We are working this record and we're doing this for the next two months and this is when you will have the opportunity to experience this. I deal with it everyday. I get dozens of CDs a day and I have to make snap, unfair decisions about what music is going to occupy my time. And sometimes these decisions aren't rational. Silly band name? Don't have time. Stupid artwork? Can't do it. I have to make choices. And I'm sure I've missed some amazing music.
And you have to weigh into that, 'Okay, of my thirty favorite records of all time, how many of those have terrible artwork, how many of them have stupid names?' A few of them do. You have to think, when you're making that decision, uh, 'Okay, not going to listen to it.' And you're fucked. And you're never going to listen to it. Or maybe you do someday. I mean you can have faith that things will come back around if they have a reason to come back around. It's not our job - or on some level it is our job because I like working with people, and I like making sure that I don't go too deep into a wormhole. And of course your job is much more about being here now, but at the same time understanding that things come back around. If it's got little pockets of energy yet to mined.
The Palace Brothers, "Ohio River Boat Song"
I wonder whether in 2050 there will be people digging in old hard drives to find the undiscovered Jandek of 2009.
Yeah, hard drives. They're a complicated thing. They will be complex things to excavate in the future. And maybe on a strong level they will strengthen small communities. But in a bad way they will diversify people extremely if people start to excavate hard drives and create more and more diverse interests. Wow. That's a lot of separation.
Have you heard about that woman whose recordings have come to surface in the recent year or two? She may be French, may be German, but sings in English, but whose recordings were supposedly discovered. Sylvia Bayer -- something Bayer. (ed: Sibylle Baier) Some friends in Kentucky have been playing it for me, and then I was staying with a friend and there was an Artforum and all these artists had their Best of lists. There's a story behind it, like a Darger type story behind it. This was discovered post-mortem in someone's attic and they were recordings made 30 years before. And upon hearing them, my first thought was of J.T. Leroy - immediately upon listening to it you think that's a made up story.
What's it sound like?
You know that Linda Perhacs record?
I love that record.
I love that record, too. It sounds like that, but it sounds sophisticated, like someone heard that record and then thought, wouldn't it be great to make another lost record?
Yeah, like that Black Devil Disco Club record, which when it first came out it was billed as a recently discovered French proto-house record from 1979, but then there were rumors that it was the Aphex Twin.
Which it probably is, because i'm sure he's bored as fuck. He's probably like, 'I don't know what to do.'
I heard a story about mosquito sex on NPR this morning, and it described the ritual. The male mosquito flaps its wings at a certain rate, which emits a tone. The female mosquito flaps her wings at a slower rate, emitting a different tone, and they mate at the precise moment when the two tones converge into one harmonic overtone.
That's totally what I do, too. You don't do that?
So then I started thinking, okay, if mosquitoes are making music for a certain reason, then we are, too, and is that reason just as basic and primal.
You can diversify it a little. You can say some people's job is to fuck and reproduce, and some people's job is to do other things to support the reproducers, or to support the times prior to reproduction and post reproduction, and that's what makes for the complex society, that's not just beating her on the head and dragging her by the hair. And that's why there could be a crazy-great song that is so insanely emotional and has nothing to do with courtship whatsoever. It's relating to some other survival instinct, and making survival better, stronger and more complex. But then it must be related to that stuff. I think about those things, say, in watching the last election. Like, okay, where does a speech like that, and or where does the appointment of the Secretary of Agriculture fit into choices based on sexuality and survival of the species. That's insanely complex - and that's very good.
So is you talking to press this time an experiment into whether it makes any difference at all?
Kind of. My manufacture-and-distribution peeps are Drag City and Domino, and every record they're like, 'Can we do this?' And normally I say, 'What if we did this instead?' But it hurts to say no, especially to people that you love. And on some level, and specifically with Drag City, I said, all right, I'll do this. It might be the very last time, and I don't think it's necessarily going to be a good thing. But you keep asking, so let's do that. And also I think it's something that you can do well. But I wish I had insane brain capacity where I could be like, 'Okay, now I'm going to run a marathon, now I'm going to make a record, now I'm going to do some press.'
I just talked to Ian MacKaye about doing press.
What does he say?
He said he considers it a brain exercise to receive the same questions over and over again, and answer them differently and creatively, and without forcing it or seeming insincere about it.
That's all very true. And that's the joy of it, and there is a great pleasure in doing it, and that's where it lies. It's fun as hell. Because, for me, one interview and then another interview is like part one and part two. Whereas the whole thing for me and you - this is our whole thing, but for me, it's like the next chapter. But then there's also like the photo things, which make no sense to me whatsoever in any way, shape or form. They're devastating. I hate them.
And yet you do videos.
The videos are different, though. Usually when we do a video. When we do a video - we don't do videos like other people do videos. Our video budgets are, maximum, $4,000, and that's the most we've ever spent. And it's like, $4,000, are you kidding me? Okay, okay, we'll do that. And it's usually done with people that I - there are a lot of people who work visually in motion pictures and stuff like that who I like working with. That's how those things are done, and they're done very quickly, very cheaply, but also with somebody. The photo shoots - it's assignments. The assigned person from the magazine, we don't start with a relationship at all, so it's like, 'what do you want to do? You figure it out? I figure it out?'
The photographer might have no idea what you're about at all.
Might not, and probably has a different way of working, a different way of seeing things, and if not, you don't figure out you have common ground until the end of the time together. 'Yeah, we should have done that. Take it easy.' But then, also, what Ian was saying about that, and still, at the end of the day, that's kind of a strong psychological, emotional exercise.
Especially if you're an impatient person, or you don't suffer fools gladly.
Just being asked to consider yourself, to consider your work, to consider your decisions, to consider the world at large in a vocal way, to try and bring ideas forth - it's really exciting, but it takes a lot out of you. And we're not used to doing it.
And it doesn't really have anything to do with the music.
Yeah. I'm used to thinking about music, and friends and family, and music, and music, and then I think it all makes sense. But in these situations, it's like, 'Why does it make sense?' It's like ... (silence). And you come up with reasons. You're asked that, 'Why does doing it make sense?' You get into these little existential situations where you're asked - it's like dying, and St. Peter asking, 'So, why was what you've been doing for the last couple years any good? Why should we let you into heaven? And you're asked that and then the next morning you wake up and you're like, 'Fuck, I'm not sure if I really justified myself to St. Peter. I hope he ...' It's like getting an AIDS test or something.
I hope St. Peter didn't take it down wrong.
Exactly. I hope he didn't take it down wrong. Or I hope I didn't phrase it wrong in that moment when I had, the only moment that I had to say it. St. Peter, can't you just look into my brain to see if I'm right or wrong? I have to actually phrase it for you? It'd be like psychotherapy. And that's the way Ian's talking about it, and that's the way that I like to look at it, as well, because it's more fun that way. But most people, they figure out a system.
Like Stephin Merritt.
Stephen Merritt probably just knows. There's the answer to that question, there's the answer to that question. Somebody was telling me about Stephin Merritt's hearing thing that he's going through. It sounds very psychosomatic, where like he claimed to the audience that he asked them not to applaud but [snaps fingers] do this because he's got terrible tinnitus or sensitive hearing, and it hurts. and then inevitably people forget after a few songs and clap and he's like [makes frowny face].
I'll allow him that.
Sure, sure. And that's [redacted] speaking fondly of a friend, so.
He's apparently out in LA, or at least has been, with the stated intention of writing 50 movie musicals.
I really? Has he written one?
I don't know. Not that I know of.
He better get on that. He and Sufjan should get together. Get on the blogs with their 50 projects.
You lived out here for a while?
Yeah, before I made any music. When I was nineteen.
Was that after Matewan?
Was there a moment where you made a decision that you were going to devote the majority of your creative energy to music at the expense of acting?
No. It was like, acting acting acting acting acting, and then when I came here and went to New York and confronted what acting would be, in the real world, then it was like, oh, no acting. No acting. And then it was like, I don't know I don't know I don't know, and then music sort of crept in, because everything else that I had done on the side had to do with music. And then I realized, oh, I take all that I've learned from acting and put it in there as well. So it was, no acting, and then it went to, well, I don't even know. I wish I could just die now. Really, it was like that.
Before you started making music?
Yeah. And then nobody allowed me to die, and then people started saying - music was like a natural thing, from other people.
And your brothers were playing music?
Both my brothers were playing music, yeah. My older brother and my younger brother.
What were the experiences out in LA that told you that this wasn't for you? Cattle calls?
Yeah, that was the big thing. Cattle calls and starting to learn that - I think my very first job when I got out here was working on this TV movie about Baby Jessica, who fell down the well in Texas, and it was shot in Bellflower, about 30 minutes south. And seeing how a TV movie is put together, and the emphasis on ... whatever ... pride in your work, and fun, was not there at all. It was like a machine. And I still don't like to say it was like a machine because I was involved with it, but that's what it was. And I still try to pretend that it was a human experience, but it probably wasn't a human experience.
Well, it was a human experience on some level.
I mean, it was neat. The assistant to the director and I became friends, and I like the commute between here and Bellflower and listening to music on the commute, and I liked getting paid, especially for a pretty frugal youth. SAG minimum wage is awesome, totally great.
Are you in SAG now?
I am in SAG now for some reason. I got back into SAG after Julian Donkey-Boy. I hadn't paid my dues in years, and I had to pay all my dues to be in Julian Donkey-Boy. And then I've kept up my dues since then as a write-off. But since Julian Donkey-Boy I've probably made about a thousand dollars in movies for Junebug and Old Joy. I don't think I've been paid for Old Joy, actually. But for Wendy and Lucy, I think I got like $600. So maybe a thousand or two. So I"m in SAG now. But back then I was in SAG and got my medical insurance and all that because of Matewan. I made like, ten grand on Matewan, and that was enough to qualify me for medical benefits. And that was fucking insane, being an independent teenager with my own medical insurance and ten thousand dollars in the bank. Incredible. I have friends now that don't have anywhere near that in the bank.
But yeah, being out here and seeing this other stuff. Matewan was very very inspirational, but very deceptive, as well, because I thought that it represented the professional filmworker's life. The professional actor's life, the professional crew's life, in some way. And it doesn't at all. That was a crew that was put together with integrity and the feeling that this had to be good for everybody. That was my impression. And then to realize that that was the exception, and thinking, like, well, 'What if I want to live in the exception? Then I can't be a professional actor, obviously, because you can't count on the exception.' And then there was this period of loss, and then, like, well, what if I try and do it myself? Make these productions, put these groups together and the point was, had quality of life as part of the equation for what you put together.
That's what kept me in St. Louis for so long.
(Long story about a brownstone I own in St. Louis)
The thing about places like St. Louis and Louisville. I maintain a residence and actually own a couple of properties there right now. It's nice to own something. I've started to think, since I've moved back there like six years ago, I didn't think about this at all, but in the last couple years I've started to think maybe how I think and what I do is better because of the maintained relationship. If I had completely separated from there, that I would also be severing an aspect of what I do -- an aspect of content, even, or perspective. Like saying, 'That's no longer valid.' and that's too much history to not be valid in how you think, and how you interpret things.
It's a tether. It's also reassuring for me to know that if this whole thing collapses, I can always retreat back to my plot of land and my shelter.
Right, but you have to understand that that makes its way in to your work, as well, that point of view.
Exactly. Which is great. Everybody should be able to look at the work that's put across the table to them with a little bit of perspective, like, 'Okay, most things are on the line when I deal with this, but not everything is on the line when I deal with this. There are other things that have no relation to it whatsoever. And if all of this does go to shit, I'm still some kind of human. Some people will still look me in the eye and ask me how I'm doing.'
Hopefully. I've always found that kindness works better than insistence and making demands. It you treat people kindly and with dignity, it makes life so much easier.
It's true. But then, I feel like the discovery after that is also learning when to be honest and not nice. To be honestly angry. Honestly mean. Honestly rude. At certain points, after you've accepted that nice is the best way to go, you have to learn that that's not the only way to go.
You can say, hey, wait, this is bullshit.
Exactly, because that's what people are waiting for sometimes. They want to hear that, and be like, 'I thought so, too, and I'm sorry. I was fucking up.' Because if you say, 'That's great,' and they think they're fucking up, they're going to be like, 'I guess I'm not fucking up,' and you're going to confuse everything, the whole system.
Did knowing that you had a fanbase, and that you had built one, change the way you acted around people, either strangers or friends?
How do you mean? I'm sure that I know, of course, but it's not an everyday confidence. I also feel like the fanbase, or the relationship with listeners, or whatever you want to call it, is something that I feel is always precarious. I mean, it affects a lot of things. But that's a pretty abstract question. Can you narrow it down?
Well, I saw you in St. Louis. It was after a few albums, and you had gotten a lot of attention at that point. And you were kind of a dick. Like, you had this cocky confidence that you don't seem to have now. But I don't know what exactly happened to get that impression. It could have just been a bad night.
I don't think so. There was definitely a period of like, living with, or not distinguishing between movies, music, books, in my mind, and then starting to make them - records - but still not distinguishing between the mediums, necessarily. And all that's very private, and then understanding what it was to be in public with all that stuff. At that time, the task was Drag City and Domino, 'When are you going to play, when are you going to play?' Now it's still press stuff, but then it was, 'When are you going to play?' And I was like, 'Whoa, I really do not want to play," and, 'these people are great, they're awesome. They're so great, and so I guess we should figure out how to try and play.' But it was very weird, going in front of people and trying to learn how to do that - learn how to interact with it an audience, learn why you should be playing music in front of people. I still see a lot of music, but most of my really really incredible experiences with music are by myself listening to recordings. That's it. And so with the record company even saying, like, go out there and play, I'm like, 'I'll do that, but I don't understand why, and that's not my relationship to music - for the most part and much less so then than now. So there were a lot of years where like getting in front of people and whatever whatever whatever.
You're much more comfortable.
I know more about it.
I saw you perform I See a Darkness in Louisville a few years ago at that schoolhouse.
That was its own show.
You still had your slippers on during the show.
Maybe. Yeah, I don't know. That was because my friend Todd, who played with the band in Columbia with that Big Star show, now he runs a video store in Louisville, and he's one of my best friends. And it was a subtle way of saying how weirdly offensive all these reunion bands and playing of records is. I find it kind of offensive and weird.
Because, why would anybody want to see an artist do something that they were into ten years before, fifteen years before? That seems retarded. And then to do it for a lot of money.
Even if you're proud of it?
If you're proud of it, but it's still like a high school reunion. That's not your proudest moment. You might do it for kicks, but it seems like the promoters would push it as the artists are doing what they did best, and ideally what the artist did best they're doing now, already, still, and to do that is not what they're doing best, and should only be considered a weird nostalgia kick, and for that reason should be priced, like that show was, like five dollars. 'You like the record? That's great. We appreciate you like the record. We're going to do it for fun.' But to go back and do it for twenty or thirty bucks, fifty bucks and I'm sure more. That's weird. 'I thought I liked you for what you're into and what you do and how you develop, and now you're telling me you want to charge me a lot of money to do what you did when you were a kid, or ten years ago?' That's a little fucked up.
I would agree with you, but I saw Van Morrison do Astral Weeks in the fall, and it floored me.
Yeah, and that's kind of a different thing because - how many nights did he do?
Two nights, but he's doing it again in New York.
Yeah. That's different, first because he's an old man, an he's never played them live before, and because at this point he's a very complex artist, and you can imagine seeing him, as an individual - are there other members of the original Astral Weeks band playing?
A couple of them are.
That sounds very compelling, because it's hearing his voice attack these songs in sequence is different than a band trying to reproduce their parts. I'm sure he didn't try to reproduce those songs.
He stretched some of those songs out to ten or fifteen minutes.
There are exceptions to every rule. I love pronouncing rules, and the reason I pronounce rules is because there's a way of doing it right and most people don't do certain things right, so you say, 'This is fucked.' [laughs] Like if Minor Threat came back and did Out of Step? That would be fucked up. [laughs] Although if they did it, you'd have to figure there's a good reason for it, so it would be great.
[talk turns to PJ Harvey]
Will Oldham: I wish I was Polly Harvey's manager sometimes. So great, and I'm sure her label and management don't understand why she's great, fully. And sometimes I feel like she doesn't understand why she's great because of that, because she has these weird buffer zones around her that are distractingly diffusing, and it keeps us from getting full access to how good she is.
Did you like White Chalk?
I liked the record pretty well, and I thought it was her best record of the past few records, for sure. I wasn't a big fan of the Stories record and Uh Huh Her. they were both good, and it was nice to see her doing something that was more uniquely her, like White Chalk. Uh Huh Her seemed like her doing her, and Stories from the City seemed like her doing other people or something. But the records before that, like Is this Desire and Dance Hall at Rouse Point.
I don't know Dance Hall too well.
You don't know that record? That's the record where John Parish wrote all the music and she did all the singing. It's so amazing, and there's a weird moment in it that's very strange and disturbing where - and I feel like the label or she or somebody decided that maybe the record wasn't long enough, so they stuck a weird Mick Harvey produced cover of 'Is That all There Is,' the Lieber-Stoller/Peggy Lee song, which is okay, but Peggy Lee's version just fucking slays, destroys that. There's no reason for that to exist, and it's in the last third of the record, so if you ever listen to that record, I would just delete it because the rest of it works as this amazing piece - like, insane singing styles that she's doing, great lyrics. It's a superior record. And it's weird when you see people do work that's so far ahead to so many other things, and you know that the folks that they work with have no clue who they're working with, like the managers.
But don't you trust that she would remove herself from those kind of situations if that were true?
Not necessarily, because I think those situations I think also allowed those records to happen.
And you've never gotten messed up in those things.
I haven't gotten messed up in those things, which I'm sure has its strengths and weaknesses.
What are the weaknesses?
I don't know. Maybe if Polly Harvey feels like she's more balanced, or sane on a daily level than I am, which (stutters) c-c-c-could be true. I mean, there's not a lot, because it's really fun dealing with stuff. It's not fun when you're figuring out a venue to play, but then playing the venue because you made the decision of what venue to play? Then it's fun. It's like, phew, this is the reward, and it comes three months, four months later. That's the only time it's not fun, when you have to do the pre-work, and there's a lot of pre-work.
Can't you pawn that off on someone else?
But then if you pawn it off you don't get the payoff. The payoff is worth it.