Photo: Simona Dalla Valle

They’ll Be Alright: An Interview with Will Oldham and Emmett Kelly

Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang decided to record a song for a 1971 surf documentary soundtrack. Things only get stranger from there.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and the Cairo Gang.
We Love Our Hole 7"
Empty Cellar

Photo courtesy of © Simona Dalla Valle

Will Oldham and Emmett Kelly, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, are a natural fit for one another. In the grand scheme of things, their partnership is just getting started.

As of this writing they have just one album, a charity single for Haitian relief and a brand new ten-inch single commemorating the release of the surf film Spirit of Akasha. But the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. A cursory listen to any of the releases mentioned above is enough to convince you that these two musicians definitely bring the best out of one another.

Oldham, a singer-songwriter who has been going by too many stage names since the early-to-mid ’90s, credits their chemistry to mutual admiration. “We’re fans of each other,” he admitted on the phone from his Louisville, Kentucky home. “[I’m] in a recording studio with someone you have a lot of admiration for, and my mind gets blown by the way Emmett approaches music all the time.” Guitarist Emmett Kelly, speaking on the phone from California, called Oldham “a great friend and has been a musical companion for quite some time. For me as a songwriter, the idea of working with him has always been a great experience as far as learning about somebody else’s approach in an intimate way. Somebody who works on their own most of the time, they have patterns they find themselves in. Just in scrutinizing their work, their system is interesting because it illuminates potentially new ways to approach.” He goes on to say that collaborations add a new spin to one’s vested interest; “But if I have someone else that I’m working with, I have their integrity to uphold as well.”

Oldham’s brand of sad and twisted Americana has caught the ear of many, and not just within musical circles. He somehow wound up in a Kanye West video and played a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D. The story of how he and Kelly wound up recording “We Love Our Hole” with the b-side “I’ll Be Alright”, unsurprisingly, involves Oldham being chummy with people in the film business. Through a mutual acquaintance, he got to know Australian musician and surf filmmaker/photographer Andrew Kidman. “Over the years we’ve seen a lot of each other as we go down [to Australia]. We go surfing with [Kidman and his friends] and play shows with [Kidman’s band].”

His latest project was to be an homage to the legendary Australian surf film Morning of the Earth from 1971, an artful piece of music, color and surf whose influence can be felt far and wide down under. Says Kelly of the film, “it was kind of an amazing marriage of displaying the esoteric nature of surfing — people who have a lifestyle of surfing, they just kind of go place to place and are always in touch with the ocean.” Morning of the Earth is known just as well for its soundtrack too, pairing songs by unknown Australian songwriters with footage of unknown surf wonders doing their stuff. When Andrew Kidman explained his idea of making a soundtrack for Spirit of Akasha, asking a roster of musical acts to contribute one new song and one cover from the original Morning of the Earth soundtrack, Oldham and Kelly didn’t need a lot of arm twisting. While the two were traveling through Australia together, they wrote “We Love Our Hole” and selected Terry Hannagan’s “I’ll Be Alright” as their cover.

“There are probably songs on the original soundtrack that I like more, but this song is one that I thought we could do well and potentially even in certain ways improve upon,” says Oldham of the Hannagan cover. “There’s something hokey about the vocal delivery of the guy. It’s just got a vocal tone that I’m not 100% down with. I enjoy listening to the song but I figured that we could take it someplace a little bit different. We opened up some possibilities I guess by covering it. We didn’t think we could do that with the title song. I love the title song but I couldn’t think of any way that I knew how to do it justice.”

Kelly, on the other hand, thinks the sentiment of the song fits Australian surf culture perfectly. “They just kind of go place to place and are always in touch with the ocean. They just go where they go and they surf and they have a simple life.” But when it came to submitting their own composition to the project, they preferred not to over think any purely Australian angle that might have otherwise spoiled it. Emmett Kelly in particular doesn’t want to steer his music too hard. “I don’t like to be ‘this is the type of song I’m going to write.’ It would be cool if the song had [a certain] feeling, but I’m not exactly sure what comes out in the end.”

Will Oldham carries the healthy attitude of tributes and how they should be outright copies, likening the music to the way his filmmaker friend is paying tribute to an older, more influential film. “[Andrew Kidman] has a high regard for Morning of the Earth and the way it introduced the world to certain surfers and what they were doing and how they were riding as well as all this music. He was very wary of [the idea of] How do you pay tribute to something? He didn’t want to replicate it.”

“We Love Our Hole” and “I’ll Be Alright” both come with most of the hallmarks of a Will Oldham recording session — spare arrangement, a simple yet engaging melody, and a whiff of improvisation in the air. To Oldham, he just doesn’t want to ruin any surprises. “But how that ends up sounding is part of the reason to go through the recording process because you don’t know what it’s going to sound like. If you knew what it was going to sound like then what’s the point of following through? We talk about the room where we’re going to record, we talk about the mics we’re going to use, we talk about what effects we’ll limit ourselves to or if we’re going to invite any third collaborators into the session. We know all of that stuff going in. But then the reason we follow through is to see what happens when we do all that stuff.”

Emmett Kelly follows the same practice, yet his attitude runs deeper than let’s-just-see-what happens. “My approach and Will’s approach as well is to put in a lot of work in understanding something about the song. It could be what the song is about lyrically, the environment of the music. The idea is to know something deeply about the song and hopefully approach it with an openness. What’s happening is a situational experience. You’re capturing something that’s happening instead of premeditated. For a musician, it’s interacting with a piece of music. It’s a collision of knowledge and control. You don’t really have either of those in the grander scheme of things. My that I find interesting [comes with] that experience where someone is able to coerce and control things that are sort of out of their hands.”

Will Oldham and Emmett Kelly has employed a unique way to gain this musical coercion and control when performing live. When touring for The Wonder Show of the World, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang became a traveling act that used no amplifiers, microphones or P.A. system. Kelly said this began as a nice little accident at an overseas gig not long ago. “I remember there was this one time we were in Norway playing. It was a weird show, I don’t know what was wrong with it necessarily, but something was odd about it. At some point in time in the show, Will and I were like ‘let’s just get the guy to turn the P.A. off.’ We shouted out to the sound guy, who was doing sound for our friends and doing it for us as well, a Swedish guy. We played the rest of the show without the P.A. in this larger place. The show was so much more fun to play after that. Afterwards I was surprised to find the sound guy coming up to us. We said ‘thanks for doing that, sorry.’ And he said ‘Actually, I’m very glad you asked me to do that. I hate the way things sound through speakers. This is why I’m a sound engineer, because I can’t stand the way speakers make things sound.’ And yeah, speakers are this weird misrepresentation of things, and that’s the puzzle of the sound technician. To make [things] sound better.”

Hence, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang will do their next round of shows in churches in the Netherlands, and Kelly couldn’t be more pleased with the prospect of doing such a naked tour. “It ends up being a cool way to perform and probably an interesting thing to watch as well. There’s an element of theater that comes across more. You’re unleashed as a performer. Things sound better when they’re real, as opposed to through speakers. “