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An Interview with (Smog)

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Bill Callahan of (Smog) talks to Dusted's Nathan Hogan before departing for a European tour in support of his brand new Drag City full-length, Supper.

An Interview with (Smog)

Accumulation: None couldn’t be a more misleading title for (Smog)’s 2002 singles and rarities collection. Beginning in the late 1980s, when he first began to release lo-fi home-recordings under the Smog moniker, and continuing without pause through this year’s Supper, Bill Callahan has recorded a body of work as diverse as it is accomplished. (Smog) records not only stand apart from their dozens of slack imitators (“Recommended if you like Smog” is probably the most grasping of the typical blurbs found on indie rock press sheets) but also, to a lesser extent, from each other. Full-lengths and EPs like Wild Love, Knock Knock, and Kicking A Couple Around all touch on themes of paranoia, domestic dysfunction, and despair with an apt balance of pathos and humor, yet they remain highly individual entities, complementing one another even as they carve out unique niches in what is becoming, with every passing year, an increasingly astounding discography.

When examining (Smog)’s career in full – or, at least, his career thus far – this balance between diversity and individuality stands out. Callahan refuses to be comfortably pegged, and somehow the chorus of children in “Hit the Ground Running” is as quintessentially (Smog) as those long, uncomfortable pauses in “Hangman’s Blues.” I recently had the opportunity to converse with Callahan by phone, and though he’s one to carefully measure his words, he was quick to steer me away from comparisons within his catalog. “I don't feel like my records are related to each other,” he emphasized. “When I start a record I'm not working from the end of the last one, I'm starting from the beginning of the new one.” Thus, while in one sense the 1990s saw a linear movement from hissy home recordings to more polished studio takes – a fraction of a record at a time – sequencing a compilation like Accumulation: None ultimately makes more sense non-chronologically. The skeletal, minor-key boogie of 1991’s “Floating” nicely dissipates into the dreamy, sinister ambience of 2000’s “Real Live Dress,” and the rest of the record flows with equal ease.

Callahan conceded that ordering the songs was one of the more difficult aspects of shaping Accumulation: None: “(The collection) is something that's been cooking for several years, but I never could come up with a sequence and a group of songs that I liked.” I inquired whether he’d ever considered following a similar logic in fashioning a kind of greatest hits record, like the forthcoming offering from labelmate Will Oldham. “That's something that Drag City mentions from time to time, but I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “I guess making up a set-list is not exactly the same, but enough of the same thing. It's kind of like sequencing a new record. But that's probably the closest I've ever come.”

(Smog) is currently on tour in Europe in support of Supper with the assistance of a full band. Despite the added necessity of extra practice time – “my least favorite thing, I hate practicing” – Callahan prefers playing with a band behind him. This time around, the trip includes extended stops in Spain and Portugal. “If I want to go to Europe I usually try to put a country in there that I haven't been yet,” Callahan said, “and this time it’s Portugal.” I asked whether there was usually much time for sightseeing, and he conceded that there wasn’t. “On the last tour, though, we all got into laser tag. If we ever had any free time we'd go play that.” Delivered with the same straight face as lyrics like “The kid’s got heart,” I couldn’t quite figure out if he was serious. “You know what that is, right?” He added after a pause. For the record, Callahan attests to being a skilled player. “The first time I played I came in first,” he said proudly.

Live (Smog) shows tend to be liberally freckled with old favorites, and Callahan makes a conscious point of resuscitating new-old songs before departing for a tour. “There are some songs I've never done live for whatever reason, but I try to figure what those songs are and think why it is I've never done them, then try to relearn them, maybe do them this time.” This tendency is similarly applied to shaping his records. When sitting down to compile a song cycle, he usually begins with “one or two songs that are really old and have been kicking around unfinished for a long time.” In the case of Supper, Callahan told me that this song is "Truth Serum." “It was pretty old,” he admitted, “I could never finish it until I finally just… did.”

Because of the often dramatic disparities between the types of records he makes, I was curious what kinds of continuities existed in the process of compiling songs. Callahan told me that he tries, on each album, to leave room aside for a song or two that entails “working without a net,” in which preparation is minimal and the compositional process takes place largely in the studio. On Knock Knock, for example, that song is “No Dancing.” On Supper it’s “Driving,” one of the album’s loosest and most successful moments. Built around a lone lyric – “And the rain washes the price / Off of our windshield” – “Driving” is made elegant by a glimmering, quietly chaotic shower of guitar, banjo, percussion, and recorded fireworks. “That song was just totally up in the air,” he said. “It's hard to describe because I could have never really written “Driving." You can either believe me or not believe me that, when it was done, it was what I wanted. It was like exactly what I wanted, but I could have never put that into words or on paper.” It’s one of my personal favorite moments on Supper, and one of the more unusual (Smog) songs in recent memory. I asked Callahan whether he had ever considered recording an entire album in such an improvisational manner. “I've thought about that,” he admitted, “but that's the kind of thing that I would do – if I could do it – at home or something. I wouldn't want to leave it so much to chance. I like to have some idea of what's going to happen.”

Home recording is where (Smog) began, but nowadays Callahan is more loathe to the process. “I'll do a demo for a record to just see how it sounds all put together, but otherwise I don’t do home recording.” As unfortunate as this is for those fans who swear by the tape-hiss of (Smog)’s earliest incarnation, Callahan likewise shrugs off the notion of pursuing home recording in the Pro Tools ‘00s. “I would like to compromise and be in the comfortable environment of a home again,” he said. “I think home recording is growing by leaps and bounds with new technology, but I'm not really a technical person.” Callahan told me he mostly reserves the home for listening, though even record buying is something that he put aside for a time. “I'm trying to buy a lot of music now because I pretty much stopped for years. I listen to all sorts of things, though. I just got the big Charley Patton box set [Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues on Revenant Records] yesterday. I’m starting to wade through that.”

Callahan’s touring load has been heavy recently, but (Smog) EPs tend to follow fairly quickly on the heels of the full-lengths. He informed me that one of his recent show-closers is likely to see release as the B-side to a “Truth Serum” single put out by his British record label, and more will follow soon after. Released so quickly after Accumulation: None, Supper may have eluded some casual (Smog) fans, but hopefully that won’t be the case for long. In my own case, the record hasn’t left the stereo in weeks. I asked Callahan if he was happy with Supper’s final outcome. “I am,” he said. “I think it’s one of my best records.”

Dusted Magazine review of Supper
Dusted Magazine review of Accumulation: None
Drag City (Smog) page

By Nathan Hogan

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