The Austin, Texas singer songwriter Bill Callahan, who recorded as Smog until a few years ago, released his latest album Apocalypse on Tuesday. The album is his fourteenth release over a 20-year career with Drag City Records, an indie music label based in Chicago.
Callahan doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon.
“I could step up the pace a little bit,” the Silver Springs, Maryland native told WNYC in an interview after the South By Southwest Music Festival. “I might try to push myself a little harder now that I’ve realized what can be done.”
Apocalypse took Callahan two months to write—he finished it in September 2010 during time off from touring.
Check out the interview WNYC did with Callahan below and download his song “Baby’s Breath.” You can also watch a video of Callahan performing "Drover," his new album's opening track, which is set to images by the American documentary photographer David Plowden.
Did you catch any shows at this year’s SXSW? No. I was in New York for most of it and then I actually consciously avoid it. I was home on Saturday, but it’s generally not my cup of tea.
It does seem a bit overwhelming. Yeah. I guess that’s what people like about it. It’s sort of like these however many days of craziness that are almost like a dream or something. There’s something like 5,000 bands playing and a few hours to see them all. No one ever gets to see everything and it seems just like there’s a lot of disappointments. A lot of missed appointments.
Where did the title Apocalypse come from? I’ve been asked that a lot lately, obviously, and I’m finding that I don’t really have an answer. I don’t really remember. I don’t have a real memory of exactly why I chose it except that the whole narrative of the record is apocalyptic in the sense of the revelatory definition of the word—that apocalypse means the lifting of a curtain. I just got really interested in that basic idea of something ending like any destruction. Also, anything new is a destruction of an old thing. But it [the album] also fits the sort of a revelation at the end of side one. That first side is sort of filled with searching songs and reflecting songs. The last song on side one there’s a guy in a boat in the middle of the lake and he sets off a flare and it lights up the world, in a not a very subtle metaphor [laughs], for seeing things clearly. And then after that, the rest of the album, side two, is more in the lightness of that illuminatedness of the flare going off.
You’ve put out a pretty constant flow of albums over the years. Is that your natural pace? Yeah, but it seems kind of slow to me. But it’s a natural pace for me, I think. It’s an experience I have of writing from nothing on this album, and being pleased with it made me realize that I could step up the pace a little bit. I used to just wait around a little bit too much. It’s also rare for me to have two months off. Well, I guess I don’t need two months straight, but it’s my natural pace and I might try to push myself a little harder now that I’ve realized what can be done.
What was your approach to writing this album? I did it in a short period of time. Shorter than normal. The way I usually make a record is over several months. I just get to gathering general ideas and song titles and some words, sort of vague concepts for the record. Once I have enough of that stuff I sit down for a couple months. Well, once I have a few things I set up studio time a couple months in advance and then I fill in all of the blanks. This time I didn’t have anything and I set up studio time because I knew that I had about two months of being home uninterrupted. I didn’t have any shows or anything. So, I just wrote it over those two months of maybe eight or ten hours a day, seven days a week. I kind of smashed the idea of inspiration over the head of something by doing that just because I think it’s always been a concern of mine—when you make stuff you always wonder how much comes from outside of you, and is something else moving your hand on the page, and how much is just like actually sitting down and working and thinking and trying stuff. I used to think it was more inspiration but now, especially with my experience with this record I think it was a big apocalypse for me to realize that hard work is how things get done. [laughs]
Do you have a constant writing process or do you have to break while on tour? I think I’m a one thing at a time guy. When I’m on tour, I’m on tour. And that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m just thinking about the show and how they can be good for me and the audience. And also to create a healthy environment sitting in a van for that many hours in a day, then being dropped into this room full of booze [laughs]. So, yeah, it’s just staying healthy is also a big thing. Your body and voice is affected and the health of your body—that’s another thing. You need to be diligent with it against all of the adversity of sitting and driving and drinking and being out of your natural habitat.
You’ve been with Drag City since 1991, about the same time they started up. How did that relationship begin? I used to put out cassettes of my music and they read a review of one in a fanzine and sent me $5 for my cassette. And I guess they liked it. They asked if I’d like to do a single and I had just sent in my first album to be pressed on my own label, so it was too late to stop that. But ever since then I’ve worked with them. I think I was the third release on their label.
We’re offering “Baby’s Breath” as a free download. What can you tell us about that track? It’s the story of a man getting his plot of land and a house and settling down. I was writing it in a traditional sense of a song. Maybe something like the Harry Smith anthology—traditional song style. That’s what I was thinking. A lot of those songs have an eternal feel to them and they have no author since they’re traditional and were handed down through many generations of people. That gives them an eternal and kind of an ego-less feel to them. It’s not just one person who wrote the song. The songs are like reading a bible. The bible has been edited over thousands of years by I don’t know how many people. So, with “Baby’s Breath” I was trying to write something that felt eternal and wasn’t from one person’s perspective.
Callahan performs live in New York City this July at the Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg.