June 20, 2013 / Perspective
In this meditation on two contemporary outsider musicians, Nathaniel Rogers considers the power dynamics of listening and what we might learn about the beauties and pitfalls of cliché.
October 2, 2006
Usually, I have no problem writing about music. With the majority of artists or albums, the bigger picture, or lack of bigger picture, is well within the grasp of my vocabulary. I can articulate why most musicians are less or more important than they appear to be. Typically, this means understanding such things as where an album fits into an artist’s career, or where a musician derives his influences. Sometimes, however, the big picture can be much more than discographies and the history of pop, and an understanding of an artist requires looking for connections that one does not typically consider relevant for a music review.
That bigger big picture is necessary when approaching a band like Smog, but the best way to get there is through the little details. It’s not a far leap to call Smog an environmental band; not only does the name come from one of the more famous forms of urban pollution, but the music is peppered with allusions and references to the larger world around us. From albums with titles like last years A River Ain’t Too Much To Love to such similies as “Like I’m a Southern bird that stayed North too long,” the band overtly displays an interest in things green. At the same time, Smog approaches the environment in ways much more significant than just titles, monikers, or metaphors. Bill Callahan, the force behind Smog, uses “the environment” in its most shallow definition to play with broader ideas of that word. As we write as music critics about the environment, we begin to write of music that isn’t so much about nature, but of music that is about being aware of the world around it. In this special case, the music is both. Bill was kind of enough to have this conversation with me via email over a few weeks in August.
TOJ: I’ve read that you were born in Maryland and that you live in Texas now, but where did you do most of your growing up?
BC: I did most of my growing up in tanktowns in between Baltimore and Washington, DC. One of them was a strange planned-community with man-made lakes that I never trusted, nor the sky-blue dragonflies that hovered above them. I opted to spend my time down at the natural creeks with the toads.
TOJ: How, if at all, did the surroundings/culture/environment of that place affect your concept of music? Or, is there a difference in the way someone from the east coast vs. someone from Austin might think of music due to their surroundings?
BC: Well, I was really excited about the Maryland hardcore scene and hardcore in general. It seems like it was the last period in American music where things were pure and not so based in Knowledge. Those hardcore records to me are like the last of the true Americana.
It was about passing things from generation to generation. It’s not so much about that anymore, except for a scant few. And people aren’t picking it up and propagating it as largely or openly or respectfully as in the past. Most people making music these days don’t have a sense of history or duty.
TOJ: What hardcore bands or records specifically? Was there a time or show or record that inspired you especially as something pure?
BC: A couple of bands from Maryland/DC were Void and Minor Threat. Void made a split LP that is just devastating. I still listen to it most mornings when I get up. That and Minor Threat’s first demo “7 inch.” These two records are like Elvis’s Sun Sessions or something. There is really a feeling of adventure and excitement and fertility in these recordings.
TOJ: Was there a point in the process of A River Ain’t Too Much To Love at which you realized you were writing a lot of songs about water? Or was it something that was decided from the begining?
BC: I tend to want to have a unifying theme to a bunch of songs I’m working on. I noticed that, unconsciously, rivers or water had sprung up in three or four of the numbers. Then it became conscious and I thought maybe I should let the river get in there as much as possible. It kind of naturally inserted itself in so many places and I was very happy about that.
TOJ: There also seems to be a theme of introspection as triggered by pondering nature. For example, in “The Well,” the whole journey seems to be set off by your (or the narrator’s) worry for the animals. Is this a case of art imitating life for you?
BC: Well, there ARE woods behind my house and I HAD been frustrated and I HAD held an empty bottle in my back yard. But the art imitating life ends there. I did not throw the bottle, I wrote the song instead.
TOJ: How did the move to Austin change or enhance that aspect of your writing?
BC: I’d been living in a very land-locked city–Chicago. There is a big lake there but it’s fugly. The highway there is always choked and it feels there is nothing nearby to go to anyway, no nature. Austin’s got more of a free and easy feeling.
TOJ: Is there something inherently rejuvenating about the traveling itself? You seem to have moved around a lot (musically as well as geographically). Do you think there is something about yourself that is wired to be nomadic?
BC: I think we–people–are wired for nomaditry. I believe in some of what is said in that Guns, Germs and Steel book. That a decline in the natural world began when we stopped being peripatetic and started setting up big cities and working the land to death. Moving to different cities was more important and necessary to me when I was younger. Not so much now. I think touring satisfies that urge, too, in a way that still allows you to have a stable life. You’re only uprooting for a few weeks or a month and then you can go back to the same place. As far as travel for travel’s sake, I’ve burned out on that. Used to be you could get on the highway and it’d be nice and empty or get on a plane and maybe have a couple seats to stretch out. There’s too many people now.
TOJ: Are there rivers there (Austin)? Or any noticeable geographic features that might be worthy of writing about?
BC: There is the Colorado River but it’s not the same one that runs through the Grand Canyon, unfortunately. It’s clear as glass in some places and has tons of turtles from the size of a pocket watch to the size of a trash can lid. There are many amazing springs for swimming in. From my house I can see what is known as Hill Country. The name explains it. Endless rolling hills with the cutest goats you’ve ever seen.
TOJ: The other kind of environment that seems important to you, especially on this album, is a familial one. Obviously “Mother of The World” is a perfect combination of the two metaphors. Without getting too personal, do you see those as two realms from which to pull inspiration or stories? Or are they just good words to use?
BC: Well, family is all there is. And thinking of nature as the mother you want to protect more and more as she gets older is pretty easy. So these lyrics address environment of nature, geography and family. But also (and this is something common to many Drag City artists) the cast of A River Ain’t Too Much To Love recalls a certain kind of community–with the specific players and the live setting in which it was recorded.
TOJ: How collaborative was the arrangement and recording process? What did the players contribute besides just performing?
BC: It was very collaborative, since we’d been on the road for a week before recording, playing these unrecorded songs. Things still changed in the studio, but I like to think those changes were made only because we’d arrived at a point that might’ve been missed if we didn’t know the songs so well. The ineffable support the other players supplied was like that of a family. Raising spirits, arguing points.
TOJ: Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with in the future?
BC: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Richard Dashut (the guy who recorded a lot of the best Fleetwood Mac records), Bob Johnston.
John Totten is an editor for The Other Journal. He has a master of arts in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.