Bill Callahan isn’t what you’d really call a people person.
It’s a rare night when an audience will inspire much more than monosyllables between his typically dreary cerebral ballads. If you get a chance to talk to him after a show he’s as serious as cancer. He doesn’t like people asking him questions, and only does interviews though e-mail, so pesky questions remain at arm’s length and answers can be scripted. His responses are shadowed with pompous retorts, cryptic nonsense and slippery logic.
With an almost comic isolationism, Callahan even places the name of his band, (smog), in parentheses these days to keep it away from other words. How postmodern.
“I’m only as solitary as the next guy,” he writes in an electronic message with a time stamp of 3:16 a.m. He’s just finished with a gig in Tucson, Ariz., and he isn’t exactly emitting a getting-to-know-you vibe. “My personal life has absolutely nothing to do with the music I make. I don’t know if people assume they know me, but they shouldn’t through the songs, they should just know me if they want to know me.”
That’s not so easy. When he’s asked if the deeply personal narratives that characterize his prolific body of work draw on experiences from his life he dodges the answer curtly: “Autobiography is cheap and weak. There is a difference between private ideas that become songs and autobiography. I have nothing to do with myself in my songs.”
But if you listen to enough (smog), it’s hard to believe him. Throughout his 10-year career fronting the revolving-door lineup of the band, Callahan has graduated from low-fi four-track pioneer to international cult hero. His reedy, half-spoken narratives orbit around the same nervy themes: death, lust, fear and betrayal. He’s a self-described “miserablist” and known to be one of Chicago’s most cagey and solitary songsmiths. Judging by the music he writes, he seems like a man who’s working out some demons, whether he’s quick to admit it or not.
“I don’t try to connect my songs to each other,” he writes. “Air runs through people’s lungs. It’s never the kind of thing that a person is aware of while it is happening. I don’t notice. Or I do.”
Even though (smog)’s 11th and latest full-length, Supper, takes something of a warmer approach to Callahan’s well-catalogued obsessions, they are present nonetheless. In “Morality” Callahan asks, “I could kiss you with the sun coming through your blouse ... but hey, what would my wife say?” over a Velvets-style chug. In another track he bleakly refers to himself again and again as a “vessel in vain.” But, unlike the body of work in (smog)’s melancholic past, Supper occasionally offers brief moments of redemption; every once in a while Callahan’s storm clouds have silver linings. “So let us thrive, let us thrive,” he croons in “Driving.” “Let us thrive just like the weeds.” Later, he pipes in, “I must admit I felt some relief.” Sure, he’s not exactly walking on sunshine, but you gotta start somewhere.
“Something about the new record is green and leafy,” he writes. “I see it as something that is more alive because I’m living it right now. If that is a change from other projects, it isn’t a conscious act. Nothing has really changed about the way that I work. I don’t like referring to it as work though, because singing is not work. And writing songs is just something that occurs. It occurs while I’m driving or sleeping. It doesn’t happen more or less, but something about it now is changed.”
Maybe his new lease on life can be attributed to company he’s been keeping. Instead of continuing the relationship Callahan had established with Chicago post-rock twiddler Jim O’Rorke, he assembles a fresh cast of players for Supper with Dirty Three drummer Jim White, pedal steel player Ken Champion, and singer/actress Sarabeth Tucek on backing vocals. Tucek’s vocals have a kind of pedestrian charm that seems to cheer Callahan’s long-faced deliveries. On one track (“Truth Serum”) the duo goes so far as to enact a nearly sentimental (though clumsily delivered) boy-girl call and response.
“Sarabeth would sit in the office of the studio listening so hard to the tracks and practicing her parts,” he writes. “It turned out to be too distracting for her to hear my voice. She was trying to match my phrasing, which isn’t really what I wanted. So much of the time she just recorded her parts without hearing me and we saw how well they blended.”
Apparently even Callahan’s attempt at a love duet suffers from his penchant for self-alienation, but again, at least he’s trying.
“I like to walk outside into the sun,” he writes. “I like the beach. I’m tired of being compared to a rose.”
A rose? Let’s try a thorn.
See (smog) at the Lager House (1245 Michigan Ave., Detroit) on Thursday, Aug. 7, with Azita. Call 313-961-4668 for info.Nate Cavalieri is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org