In the 90’s Bill Callahan couldn’t have chosen a better moniker than Smog. Back then, the Maryland born troubadour (whose China tour includes a gig at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 23, among others) was known for writing murky, ambiguous melodies, and for being all the more opaque with the press. British newspaper The Telegraph may have summed up that infamous period best: “For many years, Callahan only responded to media inquiries by fax, following some excruciatingly monosyllabic interviews in his early career.”
But since 2007, much of the mystery surrounding Callahan lifted, as all fogs do. He now goes by his given name onstage and on wax, and much of his latest music has renewed clarity. Many of those recent albums, like 2011’s Apocalypse and 2013’s Dream River were praised by critics for their earthy Americana tones. But that doesn’t mean Callahan has become complacent or conventional. This past spring he released Have Fun with God, a dub reinterpretation of Dream River’s songs. Below, Callahan tells Shanghaiist about that offbeat new disc, what made his Smog alter-ego dissipate, and more.
In an interview with Spin magazine you said that “(Dream River is) the last record you could listen to at the end of the day, before you go to bed, around midnight. (I wanted it to be) smooth and relaxing, the perfect end to a person’s day.” If that ’s the case, then what time of day should Have Fun with God be played?
It should probably be put on by your partner or a doctor, just as you drift into sleep.
On the Apocalypse song “Faith/Void” you sang: “It’s time to put god away.” But this year you released the album Have Fun with God. Have your thoughts or feelings about spirituality changed since in the interim?
Maybe both of those sentiments are the same? There are times to bring god out and play with him or her, and there are times to put him or her away! In times of war, a god should not be spoken of. In times of swimming in a mountain lake, god should spill from your lips like honey.
Nice answer. That kind of verbosity would have shocked journalists during your days as Smog. An interviewer for Pitchfork, for instance, wrote: “I had to practically pry answers from Smog, but with Callahan, I hardly had to say anything.” What prompted this shift?
I thought the answers were obvious, and their questions were not worth asking. But so many people continued to ask them that I figured they were from the heart. I grew eyes, bigger eyes, a bigger heart, and opened it up.
Why did you prefer to do interview via fax when you performed as Smog?
I think that was for the British people. They are very sensitive and lack a certain sense of humor or complicity. They were getting their feelings hurt because I told the truth or held a mirror up to what they were asking. In the end it was easier to just fax them my answers, so I couldn’t hear them biting their nails or cagily swallowing their own bile.
As of late, how does performing a Smog song compare with performing a Bill Callahan song? Do they each satisfy you in different ways?
I really like (Smog’s final, 2005 album) A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. Those songs still intrigue me! But it’s my nature to move forward. I kind of wish that I could perform all new songs all the time. Do a tour of unreleased music. Because then I am doing work, working on new songs. But it’s fun to work on the old songs, too.
BEIJING: 9pm Friday Nov. 21 9pm at Yugong Yishan (3-2 Zhangzizhong Lu, Dongcheng District/东城区张自忠路3-2号)
130RMB at the door, 100RMB presale (https://yoopay.cn/event/BillCallahanBJ).
*Opening Act: Bian Yuan (边远)
NINGBO: 9pm Saturday Nov. 22 9pm at CMK Livehouse (Qianhu Tiandi Plaza, 399 Qianhu Bei Lu, Yinzhou District, Ningbo/地址：宁波市鄞州区钱湖北路399号，钱湖天地广场). 70RMB.
SHANGHAI (as part of the CONTEMPORALE Series): 7:45pm sharp (arrive 45 mins. prior) Sunday Nov. 23 at Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Hall (1380 Middle Fuxing Road, Xuhui District, near Baoqing Road/徐汇区复兴中路1380号，近宝庆路). 130RMB. Presale: https://yoopay.cn/event/BillCallahan (first come first serve).
By Kyle Mullin