WILL OLDHAM: I’M A FRAYED KNOT
Will Oldham is finishing a long streak of interviews in advance of his new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album Beware. He speaks a few weeks after a photo shoot at the Figueroa Hotel downtown and will be playing the El Rey tonight. This interview by Katie Byron.
Where are you right now?
At this very second? I’m in a little town called Waimanolo which is to the west of you a few hours.
Where is home?
Home? It’s kind of in Kentucky.
Can we start of with a strange question and talk a little bit about R. Kelly and how you ended up in chapter 15 of Trapped in the Closet?
It’s not really an interesting story. It’s interesting to me, but it’s kinda long and convoluted. I realized that I liked his music when I first listened to it with a focused ear. And I listened with a focused ear when I noticed on the charts that his record Chocolate Factory was selling. And it was the first record that came after his statutory rape charges were made public and it seemed incongruous that somebody would be selling records having been accused of that kind of crime. It’s not the kind of crime that people sweep under the rug that easily normally, so I thought either this is another example of the world being completely fucked or there’s going to be something special on this record. And that’s what I found. There was something special on the record.
Do you feel that it made him into a character or something?
No, that’s not what I mean at all. It was a good record and that’s all I thought about it.
So you didn’t find substance in it that was revealing?
Nope. I don’t know anything about R Kelly. I don’t have any respect for him as a human being. But I like his music a whole lot. I don’t make any assumptions about his life. I don’t know anything about it. I just like his records.
Alright. That’s out of the way. I found some things you’ve said in past interviews fairly profound. I learned about your ritual of having a cassette recorder alarm clock that reminds you in your own voice every morning to write down your dreams. Do you have any new traditions to get stuff done?
No. I need to get a new machine like that. It’s frustrating. I feel like I need a disciplinarian in my life. I look in the back of the paper and see the ads and I don’t think that’s the kind of discipline I need. That’s the only advertisement from anyone offering to inject some discipline into somebody’s life—the people that have these fetishes of being bossed around or having to wear latex or get whipped. And all I want is somebody to make me write my dreams down.
You’re very prolific and you are constantly touring. Do you really need a disciplinarian?
For certain things. Like paying more attention to dreams. That seems like at this point in my life where it’s some kind of outside force because I haven’t found it inside of me in recent times. It’s vaguely frustrating.
Are there any examples of songs you’ve drawn from your cassette-tape alarm-clock dream-writing ritual?
I’m a frayed knot.
You’ve said that you don’t look towards the future and that you live in the present.
I think it’s impossible to distinguish between the past, present and future.
You’ve also shown that you’re concerned with people getting their money’s worth out of your music. Do you grapple with the issue of money and art? How are you conscious of what your audience needs?
I try to put myself in their place and then try to figure out what somebody deserves. In terms of looking towards the future, sometimes people end up deserving what you give them. If you pile a bunch of shit on somebody’s plate, they’re going to become an animal—a disgusting human being. But if you put good stuff on their plate, they’re going to become strong. And that’s who you want to spend tomorrow with. You don’t want to spend tomorrow with a disgusting human being. So it’s trying to think about how to approach something that resembles good. So that the company we keep tomorrow may be rich.
You’re investing in humanity?
I’m investing in my own experience. I don’t have any hope for humanity at large but you can do the whole ‘act locally’ thing.
You take on a lot of different roles. With acting, writing lyrics, living—what’s at the core?
Building the songs is at the core. The way they sound in relationship to the words inside of them. The lyrics are definitely incomplete without some sort of thought-out delivery.
Has your experience as an actor affected other aspects of your creative life? That’s intense psychological training.
I guess but it’s also practical. I guess the psychological side is up to the human being and there’s a practical side to understanding the relationship between a text and a human being. And how a text can be filtered through that human being—through the voice and the body.
You’re also an artist who plays a character. Do you ever feel that you are Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?
Only when I’m singing.
It feels so believable. With lines like ‘There is hate in my heart,’ it’s undeniable that there is darkness within Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but then I’m reading these interviews and you come across as an optimistic and gentle person. Do you enjoy playing the part of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?
Singing is one of the best parts of my life. The actual act of it is.
Do you feel separate from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?
I guess I’m confused about it sometimes. About which is which.
Do you start your day with hate in your heart?
It depends on the day.
You’re playing Los Osos. You played Henry Miller a couple years back. And I remember seeing you in Point Reyes.
It’s much nicer to do those shows.
It’s that you get all these people to leave their cities for a bit.
Exactly. We might as well all be in the same boat.
Can we talk about Tripping With Caveh—the film where you were recorded having a psychedelic experience on mushrooms?
For me it was an exercise to learn the outer limits of my ability to control my mind and my behavior when under the influence of psychedelics. It was nice. Usually if I were to take psychedelics, I would be more interested in pushing the other direction. In this case it was good to see if I could make the experience entirely internal.
Well—yeah! You’re being video taped!
Exactly. And I’m not interested in sharing my experience with the video audience. Being offered a free trip to a farm in Texas, go-cart rides, swimming pools and mushrooms—you know, I didn’t want to turn that down.
No. Nobody has made me more drug video propositions.
You seem to straddle a good balance of creative process, productivity and good living. That’s what a lot of people are struggling with these days—finding that balance. It’s time to develop a sense that the real people who are able to do that are people to look up to.
I would agree with you there. Looking up to human beings that exist on this Earth who have some sense of accountability. Those are the people we should look to as much as possible.
Do you have heroes?
Hundreds of them. I figure you need a hundred heroes because there’s no one, two or three heroes that are gonna have shared circumstances, experience or beliefs with you so that you could pattern a fraction of your behavior on their life, their moves, their actions, their statements. But a hundred or more—just to keep your eyes on. You can usually find your way out of a jam.
Do the heroes remain constant or are they shifting?
They are shifting.
I feel guilty. I want to ask you so many questions but I feel like I know all the answers. You’ve been interviewed so much the past couple months.
I told Drag City if they wanted, I’d do a bunch of interviews and maybe my subconscious expected them to say, ‘No. No. It’s ok.’ But I’m feeling like it was misguided and a wrong decision and I feel like I will be paying for it for a really long time.
You are doing a slew of interviews.
I feel like in doing this slew of interviews—in order to do them, I’ve said things that I didn’t mean. With some of them, I wanted to say, ‘I don’t know the answers to these questions,’ you know? Often times to make the best of the situation I have to make up an answer and you have to stick by that answer.
How many interviews before someone gets confused and frustrated?
Sometimes it just takes one.
I’m not trying to get something good out of you. We’ll work together on this one. I’m worried though. Do you have more interviews lined up?
No, I think this is the last one I’m going to do for a long time. Maybe a year or more.
I hope it isn’t me!
No. No. That would be amazing though—if it was because of you?
I just wanted to share a little bit of a human with this city.
Thank you for your kindness and your open mind.
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY WITH WHITE MAGIC ON THUR., APRIL 2., AT THE EL REY THEATRE, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY’S BEWARE IS OUT NOW ON DRAG CITY. VISIT WILL OLDHAM AND BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY AT DRAGCITY.COM.