Back in 1994, I introduced a friend of mine to Smog’s album Julius Caesar. He liked it a lot—particularly the song “Your Wedding”. The friend—I’ll call him Scott—had recently gone through a semi-acrimonious break-up with a long-term girlfriend. He sympathized a lot with “Your Wedding”, because it is an ode to soul-burning, passive-aggressive jealously.
One night that same year, something happened while Scott and I were listening to that song.
It was a Saturday night, and we were doing what we normally did on Saturday nights—getting drunk in Scott’s living room and listening to music on a shitty boom box that sat on the mantle above his derelict fireplace. Full of Schlitz and growing visibly agitated, Scott looked over at me and said, “Play that ‘Wedding’ song.”
So there we were, sitting slack with beer on Scott’s worn-out thrift store furniture, listening to Smog. For some reason, there was an old, rickety wooden chair in the room. It was just sitting there, square in the middle of the room, like a trashcan fire. Bill Callahan’s voice came through the speakers: “I remember ... entering you. Entering you.”
Scott put his head in his hands.
Then, as a gritty violin-and-guitar mess mounted to a tension-thick frenzy, Callahan raised that weirdly dispassionate baritone of his and sang, “I’m going to be drunk, so dru-uuh-unk, at your wedding!”
I looked up to see Scott on his feet, crouched like a werewolf. He was holding that wooden chair in his knuckle-white hands. Callahan started up again.
“I’m going to be drunk”—
“At your wedding!”—
The chair—which in my memory very much resembled the crudely drawn chair on the cover of that Julius Caesar album—had been reduced to splintered planks. A few primitive hunting tools. Kid weaponry.
Scott fell back into his recliner. I opened another beer.
I got to send Bill Callahan of Smog some questions through the e-mail recently. Here they are, with his answers:
PopMatters: When I asked the last two artists I interviewed what contemporary musicians they liked most, they both immediately mentioned Smog. Richard Buckner even said that he buys everything you release “the minute it comes out”. How does that make you feel?
Bill Callahan: I have come to realize that I am really, really fucking good. So much better than almost everything that is going on around me. I am sorry but it is true.
PM: Some critics have argued that your newest album, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, is your most hopeful album to date. Would you say they’re right about that?
BC: Why ghettoize hope, or cattleprod it? Hope is just the inhalation of a breath. You do not hope that you exhale it, you just do.
PM: The cover of “Jesus” you did on John Peel’s show is my favorite Velvet Underground cover. It’s also the only cover you’ve done that I’m familiar with. What else have you covered?
BC: We covered “In the Pines.” We covered “Beautiful Child” by Stevie Nicks. We covered other things.
PM: Why did you decide to cover “Jesus”?
BC: I wanted to take it one step further. Because Bush is trying to take evolution away in a football move. I thought I would bring Jesus onto our side.
PM: How do you feel about having your own entry in Wikipedia, which says that you are “widely seen as one of the important figures of American indie rock in the ‘90s”?
BC: I told you, I am really, really fucking good. These things don’t surprise me. I’m going to be on the cover of Webster’s Dictionary next year.
PM: Why do you think some of your songs have been called misogynistic?
BC: Because the writers have a dick in their mouth.
PM: What is your least favorite thing about performing live?
BC: On a tour you often don’t eat right, don’t sleep right. It’s always the advantage to the hometown. The road is a dying art.
PM:Has it gotten easier for you over the years?
BC: I’m like Nijinski in his prime now.
PM: I read that your career spans more than two decades. How accurate of a statement is that? I mean, two decades? I thought it was more like fifteen years.
BC: Who’s counting, Popmatters? I’m gonna outlast all of them.
PM: A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was recorded live in the studio. Why live?
BC: For the ensemble feel. I wake up in the morning and ask myself, “What will give me the edge over the others today?” On this particular day it was to record all live, vocals and everything.
PM: Why did you decide to record in Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio?
BC: I love Willie. I still feel bad about his IRS troubles. I wanted to give him some money.
PM: Is “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” an anti-war song?
BC: It is, as I have said.
PM: You recently returned from a European tour. Do you feel that they appreciate your music in a different way from your American fans?
BC: I prefer America. Over there I am seen as “an American.” Over here I am not.
PM: What has most influenced the way you tell stories in your songs?
BC: Probably journalism from the likes of A.J. Leibling and songs from the likes of Tom T. Hall. And also Mad Magazine.
PM: A friend and I recently came to the conclusion that you, Stephin Merritt and John Darnielle are the most important songwriters of our generation. How do you feel about this meaningless coronation, and the company it puts you in?
BC: I’d rather be with Lady Sovereign and Joanna Newsom.