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Interviews Will Oldham

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Dusted's Ben Tausig speaks with Drag City recording artist Will Oldham.

Interviews Will Oldham

Saturday morning I met Will Oldham in his hotel room, where he was granting two days of interviews to talk about the soon-to-be-released Bonnie “Prince” Billy sings Greatest Palace Music. The charming concept: have fans vote to identify the greatest Palace songs, those dark, carnal carols, and re-record them slick. It’s precisely what most every Nashville superstar did in the 50’s and 60’s, playing the best songs of another artist in tribute. But the twist here, of course, is that Will Oldham is, or was at different points, both Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Palace.

His room was like the old versions, unadorned. I gave him a CD to thank him for the interview—Kazuya Kosake’s Wagon Master. He poured me some water.

Dusted: So what brought you to New York?

W.O.: Just doing this.

Dusted: You lived here before.

W.O.: Uh-huh.

Dusted: Why were you here?

W.O.: I’ve been here many times; I’ve stayed here for two extended periods. One was because there was a friend of mine living here, and he said “why don’t you come up here? There’s a closet you can sleep in.” So I did. Another time my girlfriend at the time was here doing film work, so I just figured . . . It was right when I See a Darkness was about to come out and we had made our own record company, so I thought that it would be a good place to be, for a while at least just in terms of interacting with people. Think about music, talk about music.

Dusted: What was your experience like?

W.O.: Last time that I lived here was around then, which was probably around ’99. It was pretty good…it was intense. I have a hard time saying no, or not doing things basically. So it was just . . . I need to go someplace faraway that doesn’t have telephones and doesn’t have a record player and doesn’t have movie theaters and people walking down the street in order to not do anything. So, yeah, I was just always, you know, I would sleep four hours a night and then in the morning just start doing things. Whether it’s playing music or listening to music or going to museums or whatever. Even meeting people randomly on the street, spending two hours with them, and going on and on and on until it’s 5:00 in the morning, time to go to bed.

Dusted: It sounds amazing, at least for a short period of time.

W.O.: Yeah, it started to get just crazy to where every time we would take a little trip out, you know, you wouldn’t have to get more than fifteen minutes outside of the city and all of a sudden you would start to feel free, you know, being like “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m living there!,” you know? Like I can think for a second, I can breathe. Then it was just like, ok, I gotta get out of there.

Dusted: Were you spending much time with David Berman?

W.O.: Yup. He was here a lot at that time.

Dusted: Is there any truth to the rumor that you two made a record?

W.O.: What we did, it was prior to that actually, I moved for a summer to Charlottesville and we would meet up like three or four times a week to try to exchange ideas and make a record’s worth of songs, but at the same time he had just finished a record, so he had this more accentuated than usual devil-may-care attitude, and I was sort of working on writing a record, so we were on two completely different—so we, you know, we got some things done and I think both of us--like on his next record there were things that we did together that he used and on my next record there were things we did together that I used. And we still . . . every six months he’ll call and bring it up, say we have to make a record, or I’ll call him and say we have to make a record. He helped out a ton on both of these last two records made in Nashville.

Dusted: How did he act as voice coach, as credited on Bonnie Sings Palace?

W.O.: Well, he did lots of things. On the voice-coached song [“New Partner”], I was just like, that song was one of the few songs where the voice is overdubbed because I didn’t like the live vocal. I was thinking, getting more and more anxious and frustrated thinking like I’m not sure what I’m gonna do, how I’m gonna sing this song. The song has these builds, and the way it goes I just kind of felt like I could have done it maybe in a very scientific way and done a real comped vocal, and done this: “Okay, that’s good. Let’s do the next chorus. Like fifty times. Ok, I think that’s good. No, I’m gonna go back and do the first line of that first chorus.” You know that’s not the best way to do it there. So he was like “You want me to come coach you? I’ll come coach you.” And I was like “Ok.” So he came over and he would give me directions like he was a theater director or something, you know, give me motivation. We did different takes, and he was like “Ok, that’s good. But it’s more like you’re at the end of this long . . . you’ve been driving your truck for sixteen hours, and your ex-wife calls you around 5:30PM and you still have five more hours, and it was great to talk to her but you couldn’t tell if she wanted to see you again when you got back to town or if she didn’t want to see you, and so that’s all you were thinking about, and you couldn’t find a radio station that was playing . . .,” you know, things like that. And after like three times it clicked.

Dusted: Was it difficult for you to sing the words differently than you had the first time?

W.O.: No. With that song, I like that song very much—but I’ve always thought of it as a very constructed song. Like in writing it, I felt like the verses were my version of if a computer wrote a song. And then the choruses were like trying to mix three songs: A song called “Tony” that I’ve heard only Johnny Cash do, I don’t know who wrote it, about a rodeo guy, “Get Off My Cloud,” and “Heart Shaped Box.” I was trying to make a chorus that combined those three in lyrics and/or dynamic. So then recording it I sort of tried to build it together using the instrumentation and then the overdubs and sort of make it a constructed, beautiful song. And people like it a lot. But I never feel like singing it. It’s rare that I feel like I can get into that. It’s so constructed, you know? Singing it live, it’s one of the few songs that I’m never sure if I’m going to enjoy singing because I have to really get to specific places. Most of the songs I can begin and they can take me someplace, where that song I have to re-check at different points where the song is going on a vocal level. So I just didn’t know how it was gonna work out when we were re-recording it. Most of the songs, like I say, they were fine, they can sort of take care of themselves, but that song doesn’t. But at the same time it’s a big favorite among a lot of the audience, so I knew we had to have it on the record. So I had to sing it at some point. But I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t really know how to do it to make it not just a trash song.

Dusted: You mentioned it sounded like a computer could have written it. Did you ever consider using one of those automated “hit machines” to judge your songs?

W.O.: To judge them? I don’t know what they are.

Dusted: They have machines that record companies use, and they run the song through them, and the machine judges whether the song would be considered a hit!

W.O.: How successful are the machines?

Dusted: Apparently they’re pretty successful. The record companies are paying the inventor of the technology.

W.O.. Interesting. No, it was just on a lyrical level. The verses, I felt like I could have written those verses and I think I may have—not sure if I wrote the verses for that song or if I just stuck them in. I feel like I could have had those verses sitting around and then if there was ever a verse that I totally needed for a song I could have looked at that. And been like “Oh, I’ll just pull that.”

Dusted: There are obviously a lot of Nashville references on this record, including the title. Did you consciously think about the Nashville tradition of artists paying homage to other artists?

W.O.: Sure, yeah. Yeah, I felt like whether it’s Charlie Rich sings Country and Western, which is Charlie Rich singing all Hank Williams songs, or George Jones singing Leon Payne, or whoever singing whoever—yeah, all those. But at the same time there’s, whatever, Tony Bennett a couple of years ago did his Frank Sinatra record or . . . yeah, but along those lines of one artist singing . . . or Bette Midler just did a Rosemary Clooney record. Yeah, I thought about that as a tradition among many that the record could fall into.

Dusted: As far as you know, has anyone ever paid tribute to another artist who had occupied the same skin?

W.O.: No, I don’t think. I can’t think of anybody. You know, there’s like—it was always really thrilling when Glenn Danzig and Samhain would cover Misfit’s songs, you know, like on record they did “All Hell” and “Horror Business” and live they would do “Death Comes Ripping,” “Blood Feast,” and “Die Die My Darling.” It was different, and that was really cool that he was able to not let those songs go away, or whatever he was doing. It felt like with the new things he was doing he wanted to play that song in that way. Always very exciting.

Dusted: You’ve mentioned in the past that you like having chaos, both on your records and in your live shows. Did you feel like there was an element of chaos?

W.O.: Yeah, sure. There was chaos all throughout. I knew one day I wanted to make a record in this way. With these kind of musicians. I knew that would just bring an element of chaos into it, because it would be such a strange environment. But I didn’t know if I could trust the chaos that just inherently comes with bringing these songs to the table.

And then also we recorded 21 songs, and my goal was to get at least 12 songs for a record, because I figured there would be enough chaos happening, but I needed to be able to count on the fact that we were gonna come away with something. I didn’t want to direct these guys, I wanted to hear what they did, and sort of let them do what they wanted to do, and then also once we were done with that begin the long, arduous overdubbing process which spanned many states and a few months and bringing lots of musicians in and that was always, you never knew. You know there actually was a while when we talked about getting other big country people to come and sing on the record, and I was like “Is it possible, could we do that?” Like getting Don Williams to sing, getting Patty Loveless to sing, getting Dolly Parton to sing, getting Don Everly to sing. We talked to Don Everly’s guitar player and we talked to Don Williams’ manager. But none of that came, you know, so the record could have gone any way at any time, it could have been any selection of those 21 songs. There were times that I had piles of CDs that I made of a ten song order, a 16 song order, an 18 song order, a 12 song order, all different variations. I first turned in to Drag City, turned in a record that had, I think it might have had 16 songs. And it was a completely different order, and then we remixed—my brother and I remixed—five or six songs, and resequenced it and turned it in. Never knowing in advance what anything is gonna be, and being sure that there are ample factors that contribute to what it could be.

Dusted: Were you pleased with the songs the fans selected?

W.O.: Yeah, I’m pleased. It wasn’t a huge surprise because people shout things out at shows and things like that. But I just wanted to double-check and see.

Dusted: Is there anything you would have liked to have recorded that just wasn’t voted on?

W.O.: Well, no, because like “Viva Ultra” and “No More Workhorse Blues” probably weren’t in the top, but I wanted to do those so we did them anyway.

Dusted: Do these songs frequently go through your head? Do you still listen to Palace songs much?

W.O.: I probably don’t listen to them as much, mostly probably because I know them so well, and I know the recordings so well also. The best way of listening to them after, say, three years go by, I’ll listen to them in order to prepare for a tour, you know, think like what’s the set gonna be? But the best way of listening to them after that is by surprise, if I hear something in someone’s car or in a store or in someone’s house because then I’ll hear something new. But if I just play something I can’t hear anything new anymore because I know everything that I’m expecting from it, but in a strange environment or if it catches me by surprise then I can be like “Oh, I didn’t realize this was like that. Hmm! Ok.”

Dusted: Was Drag City happy with the record?

W.O.: Yeah, I think they were very happy with it, yeah. Everyone is pretty excited about it.

Dusted: Do you feel like you’re doing for Drag City what Chet Atkins did for Nashville forty years ago, turning it Countrypolitan?

W.O.: I hope not! No, because it's also a really an exciting year for Drag City right now with the Faun Fables, Joanna Newsom, new Ghost record, Hagerty record coming out. So, no, it feels great just to be contributing grease to the machine. Because the machine is putting out such good stuff that everybody’s liking to listen to. Everybody at Drag City is really excited about all these records. It’s a really good time, it doesn’t feel like any music . . . at its best, since being associated with Drag City in the beginning, at it’s best the way that artists affect each other is just by inspiring them to do more. Like I used to feel like every Royal Trux record that came out was a challenge: “Fuck! It’s too good. What can I do that’s halfway as good as that?” It didn’t affect the sound at all, necessarily, although sometimes they would do stuff like use Kramer to record a seven-inch and I’d be like “I can use Kramer.” And I’m sure nobody associates those two things at all, but the only reason I did it was because Royal Trux did it to such great effect. Or sometimes if a certain solo comes in at a certain point on a song, it’s like “Oh, that’s a great idea, I should put a solo in at this point in the song,” and it would be my homage to the Royal Trux. But nobody would ever notice it.

Dusted: Like a structural thing.

W.O.: Yeah, structural.

Dusted: So what else are you doing right now? What are you reading?

W.O.: Reading this book that’s like autobiographical stories about a guy who grew up in Hawaii, surfer guy. Called Kemo is his name. And then the new book that came out about Sundance and Miramax, Down and Dirty Pictures, it’s called. Now I want to read this—I brought along the most recent T. C. Boyle book, Drop City, about a hippie commune that moves from California to Alaska. Because then I also want to this book that's an oral history of a commune in California called Black Bears. I think that’ll be good cross-referencing of stories.

Dusted: Are you reading much poetry?

W.O.: Uh-uh. No, not at all right now.

Dusted: Do you have a background in poetry?

W.O.: Probably every six months I’ll get really into some certain book of poems or something like that. Otherwise it’s just what I hear on records.

Dusted: I’m curious about your approach to language, or sort of your background in language, from having written plays and so forth. Do you think that informs the way you write lyrics?

W.O.: I think so. I mean I know that for me to enjoy, really enjoy a song or a book, the language has to be amped up a little bit. If there’s not something going on in the language I just can’t read it. Like I read that The Lovely Bones book, you know that book? It was like a best-seller with an interesting premise about a little girl who was raped and murdered and then she narrates the whole story and talks about what the events leading up to that and all the events after that. She’s like in heaven narrating the story. And it’s a cool premise, sort of very creepy because she follows the killer who lived in her neighborhood, and she talks about her dad walking by his house. But the language is totally normal, it’s just like you and me talking. The writer obviously didn’t have any interest in the structure of a sentence.

Dusted: What, our conversation isn’t exceptional?

W.O.: Well, I mean we’re not actively thinking like “Well, I’m going to put this word after this, and it’s gotta have this rhythm,” or whatever. Whether it’s, you know, it can just be inherent in what—like this surfer guy isn’t a writer, so it’s inherently interesting the language that he uses, and this movie book is interesting because it’s totally rapid-fire gossip. You know, he’s obviously very smart, loves movies, and loves to give back-handed compliments to people. He’s insulting people constantly, so there’s always this subtext going on. Constantly, constantly. And Boyle is, you know, he’s a very flowery writer, he writes, he packs, it almost looks like he challenges himself to learn, you know, 700 new words for every new book that he writes. As to whether or not the audience has any hope of knowing what those words mean . . . you know, he just wants to throw them in, and if it sounds right it’s like “Wow, look at that combination of consonants! And it means that? That’s perfect. Because I wasn’t sure how to describe this guy belching.”

And then songs, it’s the same. It’s good when the words—I mean, there’s a reason they’re in the song and not spoken.

Dusted: Do you think about personal experiences—do you narrate personal experiences in songs?

W.O.: Maybe tangentially. But how does it, why does it deserve, or why can it be supported by song form? It can’t be—Some people do that and that’s fine, but I don’t see where, say, someone slamming the door in your face necessarily translates into a song without you actually really working to turn it into something that’s really musical.

Dusted: Do you know your genealogy?

W.O.: Probably better than the average person on the street.

Dusted: Any interesting anecdotes?

W.O.: There are things that have to do with my great grandfather that are interesting to me. I think maybe ten years ago my father discovered that he was buried in Louisville in a municipal unmarked grave, which was a shock to him. He didn’t know him ever, growing up, he didn’t realize that the alienation was that extreme. There are lots of interesting stories about him. My grandfather didn’t like him at all. But then there’s good names within living history like Abner and Hezekiah that are Oldhams who live in Kentucky. On my mom’s side, her grandmother’s maiden name I think was Lewis, and there’s like a Napoleon Bonaparte Lewis. You know, there’s, I mostly know where people lived and how far back they lived, where they came from. More than anything. My dad and I went on a trip four or five months ago into different towns in Kentucky where different Oldhams and Clarks lived, on his side.

Dusted: Do you have a favorite or least favorite euphemism?

W.O.: Oh, wow.

Dusted: Continuing with language questions.

W.O.: Yeah. Hmm. You?

Dusted: My least favorite is probably “beaver.”

W.O.: Uh-huh. That’s a euphemism?

Dusted: I think so. I’m also not fond of financial euphemisms.

W.O.: Yeah. Right. There was a good Onion article that I saw this morning about a software company’s hostile takeover of something else, and it turned out that the hostile takeover was really boring. But I don’t know, I’m sure I use euphemisms all day long, at least half the time very joyfully and half the time feeling as if I’m making a compromise. But I can’t think of any right now.

Dusted: You really are traveling a lot.

W.O.: Yeah.

Dusted: What kind of places are you going? You’re not on tour right now.

W.O.: Nope. Like over Christmas I went to Baltimore to visit with my brother and his family, and then came up here and worked on some music with my friend Matt Sweeney and then we played a show here and we went back to Baltimore, played a show in Baltimore of these new songs we were working on.

Dusted: Was that the unannounced show in Brooklyn?

W.O.: Yeah, exactly. It was just to play these new songs. That’s all we did was play these 12 new songs.

Dusted: So it was just for friends or whatever?

W.O.: It was for whoever wanted to go. We did it unannounced figuring word-of-mouth. It was Pete’s Candy Store, so it was like as big as this room. Word-of-mouth filled it with like a day’s notice. The regular crowd there probably would have practically filled it. Nice place. And then . . . where else have I been? This year Indianapolis then had to go to London and Paris to do more press for this record, then go to Los Angeles for more press, then Las Vegas for a day off, then go to Japan to play shows, then Chicago and Detroit to play shows, and then go to Costa Rica to be away from everything. Then go on tour from Texas to South Carolina, an extended trip continuing in the states. But yeah, just constantly going somewhere.

Dusted: Had you been to Costa Rica before?

W.O.: No, I hadn’t.

Dusted: So it was just intended to be a vacation? Is that kind of what you think of as an ideal vacation?

W.O.: It is because we found a place we’re going to stay that doesn’t have any glass in the windows, doesn’t have telephones, the woman who owns the house sent us a thing where she was like “Be careful, there are poisonous snakes around, there’s poisonous frogs, if you’re walking at night, be sure you have a flashlight.” So, yeah, that’s what I think of as a vacation.

Dusted: Does it help you think?

W.O.: Always being in a country where I don’t speak the language very well helps with language because it forces my brain to use the English language in a different way, you know, rather than being able to vomit out words, they all get stuck in your head, turn around like a blender rotates, feed off of each other. And also having to force yourself to express yourself, either in whatever limited English the person you’re talking to has, or whatever limited Spanish in this case that I would have also just makes me think like “Ok, how do you say this word, and then how do they put this? They put the verb in front of that.” So that’s always good. And then just being able to forget the fact that there is such thing as a telephone. Which is so easy, it takes about five minutes. And then just not think about, you know, whatever, bills. Bills, phone calls.

Dusted: I’m really interested in the idea of what traveling somewhere where you don’t know the language does to your mind.

W.O.: Have you done it?

Dusted: Yeah. I was having a conversation with my dad the other day, because he mentioned he saw Lost in Translation, and his reaction to the film was that this is what happens to him as well, when he goes to a foreign country and he doesn’t have someone to guide him, he feels like he’s just kind of wandering, whereas my experience is just the opposite because I like to plunge myself into things I completely don’t understand and then just form an opinion of them based on absolutely no predetermined knowledge. Does that resonate with you?

W.O.: Yeah, yeah. My experience will sometimes be one, sometimes be the other. Like I definitely know the experience and almost feel it right now of the Lost in Translation experience where—you know, how many times have I been in this neighborhood? Hundreds and hundreds. But now I feel like you know I’m thinking like I want a cup of coffee. What do I do? How do I do that? If I want something salty to eat right now, where do I go when I walk out the door? What happens if I take a right? Just seeing people on the street seems very strange. Whereas sometimes if I’m free, if I’m not imprisoned in some way, I’ll just walk all day long and just go . . . then, I’ll look at a map and be like “Wow, that’s like 73 blocks that I walked.” And it doesn’t matter, you know, it could be like “Oh, I found this really great place, they have the best coffee,” you know, it’s just some place that that day they put an extra spoon of coffee in the machine. Or like there used to be a Chinese movie theatre down near the Brooklyn Bridge that’s now a Buddhist temple which looks sort of like a McDonalds because it’s so clean and quick. But there’s a huge golden Buddha inside and a little place where you put a dollar in and you take a fortune out. And it’s funny because I remember not ten years ago going to a movie there, you know a Chinese movie called The Complicated Raping Case. And then, you know, the next time I went there two years later it was a Buddhist temple.

Dusted: Was it indeed complicated?

W.O.: It was the kind of thing where, you know, the subtitles were so great to watch because the English, you know, whatever, one Chinese dialect then the subtitles would be in English and then the other big Chinese dialect.

Dusted: Mandarin . . .

W.O.: What is it, Cantonese and Mandarin?

Dusted: Yeah.

W.O.: So it was one or the other, and then with the English, and with the English you never knew what was going to pop up, if it was gonna be something that made some kind of sense, and you still had to translate it because, you know, just the vowel was in the wrong place or the words, sentence structure was all fucked up, or if it didn’t make any sense at all. But yes, it was complicated.

Dusted: What made you decide to do this spate of interviews? You’ve been hesitant in the past.

W.O.: Partly because of the time and money that was put into this record. Partly because it is this musically potentially a great year for Drag City and it’s easily the best team of people working at Drag City in a long time if not ever, because you know, when it first started it was two people, then three. Those three people are still there, so they were always a good team, but now more people can do more things. It was just sort of out of solidarity with the record, solidarity with the record company, and also if I do this now then I can feel very free to say “I’m not gonna play shows in July. I’m not gonna be doing this other thing, working on these new songs with Matt, rather than them saying ‘But this record, you have to do something for this record.’” So, that’s the reason.

Dusted: But do you think you feel emotionally more open to doing interviews in general now?

W.O.: No. I usually enjoy them very much while they’re happening. But they’re disruptive. I don’t have conversations like this on a daily basis. You know? So, yeah, it’s very strange and it does weird things to the brain and to the psyche.

Dusted: And it’s not necessarily rewarding for you, either.

W.O.: On some levels it’s rewarding, because you never know what you’re gonna talk about it, like, you know, 9 times out of 10 you talk about things you don’t expect and usually it’s something interesting if the person that you’re talking to has something to bring to the table. And so that is rewarding. Totally rewarding. At the same time, just because it’s disruptive doesn’t mean it’s bad, just means it makes things difficult sometimes, and you know, as we get older we tend to try to avoid the things that are difficult, that you know are going to fuck with your life. Then you think that “I can count on certain things, I can count on the fact that next week I’m gonna do this,” which you can’t. And this process really really exemplifies what you cannot count on in the future, because you become a different person after the course of the process.

By Ben Tausig

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