Music & clubs

Flute/solo: Bill Callahan

The artist-formerly-known-as-Smog's latest, "Dream River", is an exquisite and unexpected blend: Latin American rhythms, Americana and enigmatic lyrics. It’s a trip, so ride his arrow on Sat, Feb 15 at Heimathafen Neukölln.

Image for Flute/solo: Bill Callahan
Photo by Hanly Banks

Bill Callahan has released 15 albums since the early 1990s – two-thirds under his pseudonym Smog – collaborating with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise’s John McEntire, Cat Power, Joanna Newsom and other indie you-know-who’s.

His latest, Dream River (Drag City), is an exquisite and unexpected blend: lush Latin American rhythms, flutes and percussion meeting dried-out Americana, with enigmatic lyrics full of natural, animal and biblical imagery delivered in Callahan’s stoic baritone. It’s a trip, so ride his arrow on Saturday, February 15 at Heimathafen Neukölln.

You sometimes take on a persona in your records. Did that happen with Dream River?

On this record, it sort of starts with the narrator in a hotel bar all by himself looking at people. And then his mind takes off like a flying object and there he sees all these different images. Throughout the record, it’s memories, dreams and fantasies just running rampant and then towards the end on “Seagull”, which is the second-to-last song, he starts to come back to reality or the present moment. And on the last song he is in a truck and driving home.

How much of this is planned?

I believe it was unconscious and I didn’t really realise until I started doing interviews; then it just started to become obvious. I don’t think too much about what I do while I do it. I also realised that the first and the last song are the only ones with a fiddle on them and the sound of the fiddle to me holds everything about life that is good and bad. It’s really from the heart and the gut.

All the middle songs are with flute, which is a more dreamlike instrument – it’s more cerebral. In classical music, there’s always a flute when someone is talking about memories or fantasy. I put the fiddle in the reality songs and the flute in the middle. But it wasn’t planned; it sort of just happened.

How much coincidence do you allow in the recording process?

Back in the old days, I used to know nothing and would get a band together, play them a song, go to the studio, play around a bit, and then start recording. Completely off the cuff. But with the past three or four records, I tried to get together with a band and rehearse and talk about what is going to happen beforehand. But I think it’s good to have spontaneous stuff that you haven’t planned.

So when the band is all gone and I am alone with the engineer, then I just randomly start doing guitar things or keyboard things and that’s like 80 percent unusable and 20 percent where something really sticks out and is something unconscious that makes you go, “Wow, that bullshit sounds really great.” [Laughs]

Dream River is a blend of different musical styles.

Well, this was planned. I pick the instruments and the musicians, so I know what their style is and what they are capable of. I like the melding of Latin and desert. I’d say I’ve gotten into this on the last record and this one. You mix all these things together and it becomes this magic thing.

After you’ve made a bunch of records in a certain style, you need to expand your horizons.

Yeah. I think when you start out, you’re searching for your voice, but you don’t want to write your songs exactly like somebody else. That’s why someone’s first album often reveals what their influences are. I remember a point where I felt like I calmed down enough inside myself to find my own voice. I think that’s the first most important step that, actually, a lot of people don’t take.

You know, they listen to something and then they sit down and think, “Oh, I can write a song like this.”

And then it’s good but it’s obvious what they are trying to do. But once you find your own voice, it’s safe to listen to all sorts of other kinds of music. Because you can see it all from your own perspective.

A large part of Dream River’s imagery draws from animals and nature.

I think all the things we see, if it’s in nature or the city, is externalising what’s inside each of us. If you are in a bad mood and you see a bird, then the bird is kind of annoying. If you’re in a good mood, the bird becomes that amazing creature. So I am not Mr. Nature Guy who is nursing a bird back to life. I think it’s just what is all around us. I mean, look at it right now: I see skies, trees, clouds. It’s everywhere. I am always surprised why people go off on that nature topic. I mean, where do they live? In a plastic bubble? The world is nature. I am nature.

Which you take note of.

I think you can get a lot from just observing but I do think that it’s also a danger just to be that. It’s basically about balance. When you observe the monkey, you might think it’s cute, but when you interact with it you understand that it could chew your face off.

Did you get into trouble a lot as a kid?

The thing that amazes me about my memory of being a kid is how incredibly dangerous the things that you’re doing as a kid are. Like jumping off things that are too high or climbing up trees. I mean, as a kid you feel like you can go into everybody’s backyard and just do these things – just have no barriers. I think what I remember most about being a kid is being somewhat of a thrill-seeker. I think you really think you are invincible.

Are you still like that?

No, I am not like that. I still enjoy doing something that I am scared of sometimes. But I think you need to have a positive reason to do that stuff. As a kid, you slide down a hill on cardboard just for the rush; later you want to gain more from it that just the thrill. You wanna have a positive outcome.

How important is the album artwork for you?

It’s always been very important. I’ve always done it myself, but for the past two records it’s been done by the Australian artist Paul Ryan. I wasn’t aware of him, but somebody made a documentary about him and he sometimes listens to my music when he paints and so he wrote to Drag City to ask if its OK to have my music playing in the background while they film him. And I looked him up on his website and I was really desperate for an album cover for [2011’s] Apocalypse [Drag City] and I just said, “You can put my music in your movie but you have to send me a picture for my album cover.” So he sent me that. And I loved it!

Some of the lyrics sound like dreams. How about your dreams?

They say that if you try to write down your dreams in the morning you can remember them better. And there’s this Tibetan sleep meditation that I had heard about. You have to work your way towards it for years and years, but supposedly they just watch their dreams at night and they control them. I tried to do that a little bit, but it takes discipline and discipline is the last thing that I think about when I am in bed at night {laughs}. So I didn’t go too far with it.

BILL CALLAHAN W/ ALASDAIR ROBERTS Sat, Feb 15, 21:00 | Heimathafen Neukölln, Karl-Marx- Str. 141, Neukölln,UBhf Karl-Marx-Str.