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songs of devotion

by tim mcmahan




Lazy-i: June 26, 2001











I didn't do my research properly before I sent my questions to Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) via the Internet.

When I mentioned I was doing an interview with Callahan to the promoter of the June 28 Sokol Underground show that also features Son, Ambulance and Mariannes, he made one comment: "I hear he's quite a talker."

I should have known what I was in for when I saw that Callahan had a Pocketmail address. Pocketmail is an e-mail service for people who use wireless remote messaging devices or Palm Pilots, gizmos that force users to hunt and peck on a tiny keyboard. As a result, the reply to the question "How's your tour been going? Any colorful mishaps or amusing incidents that you can tell us about?" was: "Tour good."



Nice. So much for my first foray in e-mail/Internet interviews. Needless to say, Callahan didn't say much about what inspires his morose, moribund music. His last full-length, Dongs of Sevotion, released in April 2000 by Drag City, focuses mainly on death and deception on its 11 sparsely arranged tunes sung in Callahan's Lou Reed-meets-Leonard Cohan deadpan. Sound dismal? Yeah, it can be, but thanks to Callahan's ability to turn a meaningful phrase, along with some tuneful, varied arrangements (helped by Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer John McEntire), Dongs is a gruesome headtrip delivered by that creepy guy who lives in the overgrown trailerpark on the edge of town, destined to make a name for himself one way or another, if you know what I mean.

The Chicago native who has been recording and performing since the late '80s has managed to develop a small but loyal cult of listeners who can't get enough of his dark visions. How dark? Take the lyrics to the duo-speed -- at times spoken, at times rocking -- "Distance," for example: "But the conversation is like the beating / Taken in a dream / Where no real blows are landed / The only harm is in memory / All these women have passed through me / I have turned them all to waste."

Or the latter-day-Dylan-sounding "Bloodflow," with the lyric, "No time for a tête-à-tête / Can I borrow your machete," that features Callahan's backing vocalists, the Dongettes, sing/yelling "B-L-Double-O-D-F-LO-W Bloodflow Bloodflow!" The CD's closer, "Permanent Smile," with tinkling piano and tribal-esque drums, has Callahan in his driest voice, singing details of his own decay:

And when your shadow covers me from head to toe
And curtonevrae flies tell me it's my time to go
Seven waves of insects make babies in my skin
Seven waves of insects make families in my skin
It's just like animals at play
And the flesh rotted off my skull
And then I will have earned my permanent smile



"The particulars of the seven stages of decomposition were taken from L'Enfer by Barbusse, and the first line came to me when I was recording in a dim studio, then walked outside into the sun."



"Aren't all songs hymns to one spigot or another?"

Asked if the song is Callahan's personal meditation on death, what inspired it, and if a spiritual thread runs through everything he writes, he replied: "The particulars of the seven stages of decomposition were taken from L'Enfer by Barbusse, and the first line (Oh God can you feel the sun on your back) came to me when I was recording in a dim studio, then walked outside into the sun. Aren't all songs hymns to one spigot or another?"

On the other hand, Callahan said "Bloodflow" "came before I let my subscription to The Economist run out."

A man of few words, at least where interviews are concerned, there were few additional relevant comments among Callahan's replies. Asked to describe where he was at the time he read my interview questions: "I'm in a van in dead still traffic jam trying to get out of San Francisco. People always talk about 'driving music,' I am sitting here wondering what is stopped-in-traffic music."

He generally denied that his music is about himself. "Autobiography is not something I'm interested in." Touring with him is Jessica Billey on fiddle, Mike Saenz on guitar and Jim White on drums. What will he do after his summer tour ends? "As much as I can."

Finally, asked if he's ever been to Omaha and his impression of the city, Callahan wrote: "I've been to Omaha a few times. I took a 40-hour train ride from Bakersfield to Omaha once. It's a ghost town, isn't it?"

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Published in The Omaha Weekly June 26, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.