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  • Interview: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

    Fri, 20 Mar 2009 12:08:23

    Interview: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - The vastly influential recluse discusses <i>Beware</i>, the changing tides of the music business and the best songs about the devil

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    Will Oldham has been unflinching in his personal explorations of the human psyche, but when it comes time to publicly explore the process and meaning behind his work as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, he's been more reticent. In fact, he may soon be done with it altogether. That's what he suggests—with a hopeful tone in his voice—while in the midst of a serious press tour for his latest album, Beware. He's cultivated a rabidly loyal following over the past 15-plus years, and crossover mainstream attention has never been on the agenda. Perhaps he doesn't need the dog and pony show anymore.

    For now, though, Oldham is at the trendy, Moroccan-themed Figueroa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, making good on a promise to his label to pull out the promotional stops for Beware, an album that's pitched as his "biggest and most ambitious." Oldham quickly shoots that claim down as "Barnum-esque." Self-promotion clearly—and refreshingly—isn't his strong suit.

    With incense in the air, ARTISTdirect pulled up a seat to talk about the making of Beware, the changing tides of the music business and the best songs about the devil.

    I read the New Yorker profile on you [one of the first major pieces of press on Beware]. That piece kept returning to your trepidation about doing the piece, and it closed on that same note. When it's all said and done and on the stands, do you seek it out to see how the finished product turned out?

    Sometimes. A piece like that, I didn't read it all the way through because it's mostly his work, you know? And I don't really care about his work. But if it's something like this, then I feel like I can read it and try to figure out how to be clearer with my speech. In a case like that, he's observing all different things and drawing different lines together, and I can't do anything about that. But if I do another conversation like this, I can learn something from the printed piece.

    I've never done one of those immersive pieces where I go to someone's house and come back for coffee the next day and make sense of their world in 5,000 words.

    It's very strange.

    Very strange, I can imagine. But, to be fair, I thought that piece was fairly well done. One thing that I found interesting in it is that you'd told Drag City that you weren't going to do press for your last record but dangled the carrot, even back then, that you'd do the whole thing for this record. Was Beware done already by that point?

    No, not yet.

    So it could have wound up being a more minimalist or less accessible record?

    Yeah, there's no way of knowing exactly. But I figured that I would take whatever work was going to be required of me into consideration—maybe even when I was making the record—and make something that was external and involved other people.

    You have such a long-standing relationship with Drag City that I imagine them just saying "As you will."

    They… do. It's always a back-and-forth. They always have lots of encouragement about certain ideas. It's a lot of presenting ideas and arguing them out, with every record.

    With the sort of big ensemble that appears on Beware, how much shape-shifting occurs once the musicians get together?

    Well, on this record, all the songs were recorded—except for one song that was recorded with just Josh and I—but all the songs were recorded with drums/percussion, bass, fiddle, guitar, my voice and sometimes my guitar—like that. And then everything else on there was people coming in and playing on top of it. So it was always this five-person ensemble, and then from the moment it was done—even before it was done—we'd start thinking about when a certain person might come and play on a certain song, and we'd even play with that in mind, I guess.

    The press release bills Beware as your biggest and most ambitious work to date, which is a nice angle for us in the press.

    It's supposed to say ambidextrous.

    [laughs] I'll correct the record. But do you agree—does it feel like your most ambitious undertaking?

    No. That was just Barnum-esque hyperbole.

    Very nice! You know, I was reading about Barnum recently and how he wound up worrying about his legacy and wanting to make some kind of deeper cultural impact—thus bringing Jenny Lind over to sing and all that. I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't had its hooks in that story.

    There was a fairly successful Broadway musical in the early '80s. They took the story, and they did make a TV-movie with Burt Lancaster as Barnum. They took all the songs out, but it's pretty good. You can find it on video—it's pretty interesting. It definitely covers that part of his life pretty well.

    There's a growing sentiment in the music press that 1) the album is dead and 2) that's not such a bad thing. As a songwriter, does it feel like an unnatural or confining process? It's difficult to imagine many of your albums presented as stand-alone singles or whatever the future supposedly holds.

    I definitely like to be making an album—that's a part of it. Of course, it's important to make rules for yourself like that, like you're not going to think about music in terms of albums, but you can of course change your mind in three years or six months. Even using the iPod as a listening device and shuffling, sometimes that can really shine a spotlight on what songs originally were together as an album. If you listen to ten Thin Lizzy records on shuffle, you can be like, "Oh, that's that sound! That's when the drums sounded like this, that's when this musician was playing with them." You recognize that that's what an album is—not even necessarily a collection of songs that go together, but a record of that moment in this ensemble's history and what they sounded like and how they felt about their music and how they felt about each other. That's the value, to me, of a record. It's a time to go over multiple kinds of songs and to show yourself what's happening with all these musicians and how good you are at attacking songs. That value will never go away. Any time you record two songs as opposed to one, it's like, "Oh, wow," to hear how they're related to each other in so many ways—not just thematically.

    You've been the subject of a fair bit of mythologizing, not just by the press, but by your fans as well. Do you pay attention to how you're being perceived or interpreted by the people listening to your music?

    I'm not sure that I do because I don't really know how. I don't, so I guess I don't pay attention to it.

    As a fan, growing up and getting into Danzig or whoever it may have been, did you have an interest in the performers when they stepped off the stage? What does Danzig do at home, and what movies does he like?

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