Those familiar with Billy Bob Thornton’s persona as it has been sold to the public may be surprised to hear that he’s found his muse not in the rural South of his youth but in the glitzy streets of Los Angeles. Hobo, Thornton’s latest release, is a concept album about the gypsies, tramps and thieves who make their way to LaLa land in search of their dreams. When I first heard the album I was surprised that Thornton doesn’t spend 10 songs judging the inhabitants or the city. Quite the contrary, in fact; there’s a lot of heart in this record. His affection for Los Angeles and her wicked ways spills over into his songs. Even the darkest tracks have characters that, even in their faults, remain sympathetic.
It is also an impressive music accomplishment for Thornton. Where his first albums have suffered some from the hodgepodge of styles he employed, this last release is far more cohesive. Taking cues from Daniel Lanois, Warren Zevon, and Steve Earle, Thornton and his collaborators Randy Mitchell (guitars, bass, keyboards) and Matt Laug (drums and percussion) weave together a tight, alluring mix of Americana with a tinge of psychedelia. Thornton and co. have dubbed their style “Hillbilly Pink Floyd”.
Listening to Hobo and talking with Billy Bob Thornton, it is surprisingly obvious that over the last 25 years he has come to find Los Angeles alluring and full of character. He loves LA and all of her faults and charms. He also loves music and is particularly proud of Hobo.
PopMatters: Your new album is called Hobo. How did the theme for the album emerge?
Billy Bob Thornton: The first two songs I wrote, the title song and then “El Centro”. I didn’t set out to write songs about California. Those were just the two that I happened to write. Then I started developing a theme there, which is a collection of songs about the pilgrimage to California—all of the joy and sadness that goes with it.
PM: The songs on Hobo all revolve around California as the central character. In the songs it appears that, even more than the people in the songs, California has a personality all its own.
BBT: Yeah, after the first few songs I actually did start purposely going in that direction and did write California as a character.
PM: Do you have a love/hate relationship with LA?
BBT: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve been in LA for 25 years. I could leave there these days (there was a time when I couldn’t) but I don’t. Simply because—one thing my kids are there, it’s where they go to school—but, LA has its own vibe. It has a charm that a lot of people overlook sometimes. You can’t knock a place where you realized your dreams.
PM: You’ve described your music as Americana. I’m always curious what that means to different people. What does that moniker mean to you?
BBT: Well, it’s almost like in film, it’s a genre like film noir or something. I think Americana music is music that is generally more singer/songwriter oriented. It has more to do with the songwriting. The music, it’s more like stories set to music. You would include people like John Prine or [Johnny] Cash, Steve Earle, people like that. Dwight Yoakam.
PM: You’ve said that “songs are what are missing from music” today. As a songwriter do you begin with the lyrics, in this case the stories, or the music?
BBT: I generally have lyrics first, but you can’t help that when you’re writing lyrics you start to get a melody in your head. So they come kind of simultaneously. I write songs on guitar and that’s about how good of a guitar player I am. I can write songs on it. Beyond that I had it over to Randy Mitchell or Brad Davis or somebody. [The lyrics and melody] usually come a little simultaneously, but I would say the lyrics are first; usually I have the idea for a story in my head, or few lines.
PM: Musically this album is more cohesive than your previous efforts. It sounds more focused. Was that a result of having a more defined vision of what the album was to become?
BBT: I think that one reason it happened was because of the lyrics. We had kind of a moody story in our heads, so I think it happened for that reason. But also we purposely wanted to get a record that was sonically more sound than the other ones, because our other records are more eclectic. You know, we’ve got rock songs, we’ve got country songs, everything on them. These days and times you can’t do eclectic records. In the ‘60s you could, but not anymore. People want to hear one thing. We call the sound “Hillbilly Pink Floyd”.
PM: What do you think that it means that the music-buying public only wants to hear “one thing” as you say?
BBT: People’s attention spans are a little shorter these days. Same thing with food and movies. You know, that’s why we have a lot of fast food restaurants and popcorn movies that ... well, if you look at the box office receipt, it’ll tell you.
PM: Your songwriting is very focused on narrative. How do you compare the way you write songs compared to how you approach screenwriting? When writing songs do you begin with a narrative or a theme?
BBT: Well, usually with film writing I start with characters, and set about writing their story. Songwriting and screenwriting aren’t that different to me. Sometimes I have songs born out of stories. But it’s not a whole heck of a lot different to me. My songs aren’t built around choruses or hooks or anything like that. That’s kind of how I write screenplays too. I mean, Sling Blade certainly isn’t a traditional screenplay. You know, it doesn’t have the traditional three acts, or whatever it is.
PM: How much of the album is about your own experiences. For instance, “I Used to Be a Lion” sounds like your most personal vocal performance on the album. Is the song’s central theme of redemption something you think about often—your past, etc.?
BBT: Oh yeah, definitely. I think “I Used to Be a Lion” is a song that everybody can relate to in the sense that we’ve all kind of pissed our life away at some point. Maybe you get it back, but I’ve certainly done it. It’s just a song about a lonely person thinking about what they had and what they screwed up themselves.
PM: Is “Your Blue Shadow” about the memory of a girl or is it personifying LA, making it omniscient, omnipresent?
BBT: That song was on our first record also, on Private Radio. I wrote it about a girl. When we did this record I thought, my gosh “Your Blue Shadow” fits so well in the scheme of this album, that we recorded it.
PM: Taken literally, “Orange County Suicide” is pretty unnerving. You said in the press kit you wrote it about a friend of yours. It’s a pretty cynical way of joking about the topic. Can you elaborate on that?
BBT: Sure. It started out as a joke. I had a friend from Orange County who had a few too many cocktails and did the old “nobody loves me anyway I might as well kill myself” and she was scraping at her wrist with a wooden match. And I thought to myself, well I guess this is the Orange County version of suicide. I gave it to Warren Zevon to finish because it was right up his alley, but then Warren passed before he ever wrote it. So I finished it out with Jorge Calderon, who worked with Warren. The theme of the song is actually pretty heavy; we just did it in a humorous way. But the idea behind the song is: “Look. Don’t be threatening that. It’s a pretty serious thing to threaten people with.”
PM: Did Warren Zevon’s sense of sarcasm infuse its way onto the record in other places?
BBT: Well, I had to put a lot of sarcasm in it. Because it seems like Southern California just has a lot of that anyway. It’s just part of the vibe there. And so some of the songs are written as if the city were writing the songs.
PM: You’ve described this record as “the record you’ve been trying to make”. Can you elaborate on this? Is it lyrically or musically?
BBT: Actually it is, yeah. I said that because of a couple of friends of mine, Daniel Lanois and Dwight Yoakam both, when they first heard the record said, “This is the record you’ve been trying to make.” I think they meant it because lyrically and sonically it’s a more sound record.
PM: The first influence I noticed was Daniel Lanois. Have you always been a fan of his? Does he influence your music directly?
BBT: I have always been a fan of his. He did the music for Sling Blade. Since then he and I have been pretty close musically—he actually played on my second album. We recorded a couple of songs at his house. He’s one of those guys that definitely puts his stamp on whatever he produces. You can hear his sound in there. Sometimes that can be a bad thing with producers. With him, I think it’s a good thing. I love the records he produced of Bob Dylan’s especially.
PM: You recorded this album at your home, in a personal studio. What are some of the benefits, what are some of the drawbacks?
BBT: One of the drawbacks is the people in your house all the time. One of the great advantages is that when something inspires you. You don’t have to go find studio time all the time. You just go right in there and do it.
PM: That’s not a small home recording studio.
BBT: No, it’s a full-on studio. We’ve had a lot of people record down there outside of our own stuff.
PM: Is your first passion music or acting?
BBT: I don’t look at them as being different. I love acting with all my heart and I love music with all my heart. So it would be really hard to say. I know that I loved music before I loved movies, simply because I didn’t see movies as a kid. We didn’t have a movie theatre until I was about nine, so I just didn’t see them. But, once I got into movies I loved them.