After giving a memorable performance as a boy preacher in John Sayles’ 1987 coal-mining drama Matewan, Will Oldham made a brief attempt at being a working actor, before becoming disillusioned with Hollywood and retreating into seclusion for several years. When Oldham emerged, he came bearing music. As the reticent, creaky-voiced frontman for the mysterious Palace Brothers (later Palace Music, Palace Songs, and then just Palace), Oldham brought a distinctive new sound to indie-rock, informed by spooky country ballads, Eastern mysticism, and hermetic eccentricity. From Palace’s 1993 debut with the classic album There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You to Oldham’s recent work under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the singer-songwriter has maintained consistent interest in roots music and secrecy, declining to reveal too much about himself or his process. Yet people who know Oldham describe him as a warm, funny person, and in his recent appearances in films like Junebug, Old Joy, and The Guatemalan Handshake—not to mention the music videos of R. Kelly and Kanye West—Oldham has seemed more light-hearted and approachable than he ever has with his often dark, moody music. Just prior to the release of the latest Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Beware, Oldham spoke to The A.V. Club from his Hawaiian vacation hideaway about his image, his opinions about how music should be presented, and why Wes Anderson is a cancer.
The A.V. Club: What are you doing in Hawaii?
Will Oldham: I brought my mom here for the month of February because it’s kind of miserable in Kentucky, and I can work anywhere. I thought I’d get exercise every day, and be better prepared for the onslaught of playing lots of shows.
AVC: Where do you like to vacation, generally? Resorts? Cities?
WO: I like rural areas. Where we are, McDonald’s and 7-Eleven are the only chains in the town. There’s a barbershop, a post office, and a bakery. It’s essentially very redneck, but the rednecks are all native Hawaiians. But it’s very, very quiet. You hear birds. You hear roosters, because people have roosters. And that’s how I like it. I don’t like going to cities. I don’t mind maybe being in a city sometimes for a few hours, but I pretty much don’t like cities. I don’t even like passing through them. Nothing about them do I like, except maybe for that trickle-down theory of economics. You save a lot of money in the city.
AVC: That would sync up with the impression you give off in your music, that you’re some sort of backwoods mystic. Do you mind being pigeonholed that way?
WO: I wouldn’t get tired of getting pigeonholed if that’s how I were being pigeonholed. That sounds very magnetic and attractive to susceptible young women. [Laughs.] To be a backwoods mystic. Thirteen brides or something like that.
AVC: It seems like there’s a conflict between that sort of image and some of the odder things on your résumé, like appearing in music videos with R. Kelly and Kanye West.
WO: Oh I don’t know. Those were pretty Zen experiences.
AVC: How did those videos come about?
WO: Randomness. Complete randomness. Like the R. Kelly. I was working with this guy Caveh Zahedi, who’s friends with Richard Linklater. We did this movie called Tripping With Caveh on Linklater’s property, and later we were all sitting around talking about my ideas on what music in movies should be like, so Linklater asked me to do some music for his Fast Food Nation, and in the process of negotiating that, I met one of his producers, who had produced the first round of R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” videos. She got me tickets to see one of R. Kelly’s shows, and then a year later, she’s like, “You know, we’re shooting another ‘Trapped In The Closet,’ would you want to play a part?” So, like, one thing leads to another. But it’s never the things you’d think of.
Like the Kanye West. Years ago, Zach Galifianakis called and asked, “Would you wanna be in a comedy routine of mine where I tell a joke and then you sing the punchline?” And I thought, “Okay, that sounds great.” We never actually did it, but we became friends. He kept inviting me to his farm in North Carolina, but even though it’s in the southeastern United States, it’s like a nine-hour drive from Louisville because of the mountains and everything, so I’d never made it. Then I was trying out this Vipassana-style meditation course, and was very psyched for it, but once I started, every fiber of my being kind of rebelled, and after about 36 hours, I just packed up my stuff and abandoned it. My body and brain were still in dire need of some kind of quietude, so I left this retreat center and thought “What the fuck? Zach is always calling me and saying ‘Come to my farm,’ so I’m going to see if he’ll let me come.” And he’s like, “Yeah, come on, it’s beautiful here. We’re gonna be shooting this Kanye West video, but it should all be cool.” [Laughs.] It was like, not the peace and quiet that I had in mind, but it was still pretty fulfilling.
AVC: Do most of your acting gigs come around that way? Do you have an agent?
WO: I wish I had an agent. I tried a few years ago to find someone where I could just say, “Listen, I get these acting offers sometimes and I don’t know how to deal with the paperwork. Would you be willing to help me out?” And I couldn’t get an agent to understand what I was saying, because it’s just so counter to the way they work. They were like, “Oh yeah, we can get a reel together, and we’ll send you around.” I was like “No no no, just if and when it happens.” And they didn’t understand that, so I still don’t have anything in place.
Strangely enough, just this week, I’ve gotten two interesting and bizarre movie calls. Just to say like, “Would you be interested in trying out for this movie?” Both coming to me through weird channels. It’s just, I don’t know how to deal with casting agents or anything like that. The only calls like that that end up working out are if I know the people who are making the movie. That’s the only time we can speak the same language from beginning to end. So with Phil Morrison, or Todd Rohal, or Kelly Reichardt, those are all people I’ve known in one way or another, so we can talk directly and be understood by each other.
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot more movies lately, after a long layoff. Do you find acting more satisfying now than it was when you first started out?
WO: It’s only satisfying because these specific things have come up with these people I trust. It can be more like a friendly and open and trusting working relationship, which is not the norm in the film industry, and wasn’t when I was trying to pursue it professionally, and wouldn’t be now if I tried to do that again. I think everybody works from a defensive position, for the most part, in the film industry.
AVC: How so?
WO: First off, every job is short, relatively. Like, an insanely long movie would take six months or something like that. So everyone is either living in the present or living in the future, and they’re personally guarded because they’re in an intense situation for a short period of time. You have to protect yourself when you’re working with people who are talented and strong like that. You just have to ask, “Is this a friendship, or is this a working relationship? Is this a love affair, or is this whatever?” And then professionally, it’s always, “This is my agent, this is your agent. You got that job? How’d you get that job?” And not ever just, “Yeah, I’m happy with what I’m doing. Are you happy with what you’re doing? Good.” With these situations I’ve been in lately, it has been happier, because everyone knows that acting isn’t what I do full-time, so I don’t feel any sense of competition, or I don’t feel like I need to be professionally on the ball outside of the work situation itself. All I have to do is pay attention to the work at hand, and that works out for everybody, I think.
AVC: You mentioned talking to Richard Linklater and Caveh Zahedi about your ideas on movie music. Can you summarize those ideas?
WO: Well, for a while, it seemed like you were always seeing movies where all the music was determined by the music supervisors and their special relationships with certain record labels. And I just felt like, “Wow, I’ll bet they spent months or years writing this screenplay, and I’ll bet they spent months shooting this, and I’ll bet they spent months editing this, and now they’re spending no time at all picking these completely inappropriate songs with lyrics to put under a scene that has dialogue.” How does that even work? How can you have a song with someone singing lyrics under spoken dialogue and consider that mood-music, or supportive of the storyline? As somebody who likes music, when that happens, I tend to listen to the lyrics, which have nothing to do with the movie. And then I’m lost in the storyline. Not only is that a crime, but it’s a crime not to give people who are good at making music for movies the work. It’s like saying, “We don’t need you, even though you’re so much better at it than I am as a music supervisor.” Like the cancer that is that Darjeeling guy… what’s his name?
AVC: Wes Anderson?
WO: Yeah. His completely cancerous approach to using music is basically, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.” The two are just thrown together. People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” That’s where the conversation should end. Music should be made for movies, you know?
AVC: So there aren’t many contexts in which you can imagine licensing one of your songs to a movie?
WO: No. I mean, I could see—
AVC: Over the closing credits, maybe?
WO: Right, the closing credits. But again, someone wrote me recently and said, “We wanna use your songs in our movie, and we’ve already got this artist, this artist, this artist, this artist.” And I was thinking, “Well that makes for like, no integrity to your movie. All these different voices combined with the actors’, writer’s, director’s and DP’s voices. That sounds like the worst place to be. That sounds like a music festival.” [Laughs.] I liked it when those crazy, dirty, Rhode Island brothers made movies like There’s Something About Mary.
AVC: The Farrellys?
WO: The Farrelly brothers. Was it Something About Mary that had nothing but Jonathan Richman songs in it? I like Jonathan Richman a lot, and while those weren’t my favorite Jonathan Richman songs, I liked that whole idea of lacing one voice throughout the whole movie and having it be a conscious decision made somewhere during the writing and pre-production, and not during post-production. “This is the voice that we wanna have, and these are how we want songs to work with this movie.” That’s all I ask for, that a little bit of time and respect is given to the musical part of filmmaking.
AVC: So do you think of your songs as inviolable? If you want to understand what the song is about, then you have to consult the song?
WO: Yes, essentially. Like sometimes we’ve made film clips or video clips to go with the song, but honestly, the only reason to do that is to get the music to other places where people could hear it. And I’ve never done a video where I feel like the images have anything to do with the song, except in the most vague way possible, because I feel like the song is its own complete thing. People who put songs in movies like to think of a song as a sphere that you can cut a huge chunk out of. “Well the movie’s gonna take up most of that sphere, or half of that sphere, or a fraction of that sphere.” When you’re writing a song for a movie, you only have to fill in a part of the sphere, knowing that it’s gonna go with the other content that’s already there. But ideally, a song is a complete sphere like the Earth, where if you were an alien with a huge, huge finger, you could stick your finger into the middle of the ocean and make an impression on it. It’s not an impregnable sphere, but it is a sphere.
AVC: Do you think of what you do as writing songs or recording songs?
WO: I think of it as making songs. Making records. Because the recording is a crucial part. I write a song to be recorded. And to some extent to be performed, but definitely more to be recorded than performed, because the recording will last longer than a performance. Making records has to do with getting musicians together and finding the right time and the right place and the right working conditions and the right hours and the right group of songs for the right musicians, and vice-versa.
AVC: Beware has a richer, fuller sound than the album that preceded it. At what point in the creative process do you decide “This is how this album’s going to sound?” While you’re still writing the songs?
WO: No, when we’re done mixing. Sometimes I don’t even understand how a record sounds until six months or a year or two years later. Like, today I might feel like the sound of Beware is a lot like the first Palace Brothers record, but I have a feeling that if I listened to them side-by-side, they wouldn’t resemble each other very much. In my mind, from being in the room when we were recording and mixing, I had similar emotions running through me, in relation to how we were working.
AVC: Back when you recorded that first Palace Brothers album, there wasn’t a whole lot of indie-rock that had that exact kind of feel. Did you have any reference points to share with the band or the producer? Or yourself?
WO: I guess I think of making records as like making movies, and if that’s the case, then the producer is like the movie producer, who I feel in some ways is like the real author of most movies—as opposed to the director, like many people say. And in that way, I would have to take credit for being the producer of these records, because I make them up and bring them to life or whatever. When we were making that record, I’d lived in my own mind and in the woods for long enough that I didn’t have any awareness of what was going on musically in the world. I remember listening to Bukka White records, and hanging out with my friend Todd Brashear, who was listening to a lot of Rolling Stones. And I made that record with Brian McMahan and Britt Walford and Todd, who had all been in Slint, so I think what was running through my brain was basically Rolling Stones, Bukka White, Spiderland. Because I was trying to think of things that this group of people had a relationship to, and thinking, “What do I know that everybody here is conversant in? How can we speak a common language and get through to the end of this record somehow?” So it was those kinds of things plus, I don’t know, maybe old Fall records or Middle Eastern records from the library, or the Silver Jews’ first 7-inch. But it was definitely a time where the things I was interested in were not related to the outside world very much.
AVC: How much do you consider mystery to be an element in what you do? Keeping things shrouded?
WO: Shrouded like how?
AVC: Some of your earlier records don’t have a whole lot of information on them, so it was difficult for fans to find out who was actually making the music. And you haven’t been big on doing a lot of interviews until more recently.
WO: I guess I don’t know where any information other than what I choose to provide on the records is really anybody’s business. That’s kinda it. I understand that doing interviews… Look, the record labels like that to happen, and I understand on some level why they like that to happen, because it provides some sort of eye-catching thing. It’s like some kind of advertising, for a minimum expenditure of energy and money. But to me, the best purpose of an interview would be to illuminate some things about how somebody works for the benefit of somebody else who wants to do those things. And that’s not where most interviews go at all, so to me, they seem like strange exercises in small talk and wasted air.
And printing credits… I think for those of us who make records, it’s our business how we put it together. Same with a book. You know, the publishing industry has somehow avoided having a light shone on their process. In a book, you basically have the name of the publisher and the name of the writer, and you’re led to believe that those are the two things that created this book. And you and I both know that’s not the case. There’s an army of people involved with the production of each book, most essentially the editor or editors who work closely with the writer on shaping and forming and developing a piece of work, plus the writer’s agent, blah blah blah. And yet somehow it doesn’t matter to us that all of that information is never publicly, readily available. Yet we want that on our records.
I mean, look at all these endless bullshit lists of credits at the end of movies. I guess it works as a résumé for the best boys and the key grips and everybody else, but I’d think that would be something that you could just tell a prospective boss, like “I was the assistant costume designer on Forrest Gump.” You can check their references. You don’t have to watch a two-and-a-half-hour movie about a mildly retarded guy to prove that so-and-so was the assistant costume designer.
AVC: Can you be sympathetic to the idea that people who are fans of a certain artist are curious to know more about their process?
WO: I can be sympathetic to that, but I’ll say that if enough energy is generated by a piece of work to develop that kind of curiosity, then I don’t necessarily think that satisfying that curiosity is the best place for that energy to go, you know? Like if somebody makes a movie like Milk, which to me was a very exciting and emotional, inspiring movie, then I don’t personally want—nor would I want any audience member to want—to take the excitement and energy that came from that viewing experience and spend it on the IMDB, researching the other films that, like, Diego Luna has been in. I would hope that part of the point of the movie would be to do something that had a little bit less to do with movie-making, and a little more to do with real life. And if I don’t have access to that information, then I have no choice but to push that energy into something ideally more specifically related to my experience of the world and my relationship to other human beings.
Plus there’s the satisfaction that comes from finding out privileged information. It used to feel great to use a card catalogue at the library to find the information that you were looking for. One thing that the Internet has created is the sense that information is at your fingertips, when it’s really only a very, very limited, specific, and slanted kind of information. Even though you might be able to enter Diego Luna’s name in your search field and get 7,942 hits, there’s so much information that’s not available about him. But you’re probably going to feel satisfied with having done just that minimal amount of research, you know? And it just seems worthwhile to me to remove myself from that process and encourage people to realize that there’s more to learning about what a record means or how it’s made than just giving you this weird, superficial, nuts-and-bolts information.
AVC: What if, for example, in reading an interview with Gus Van Sant you learn that he shot part of Milk in the exact location of Harvey Milk’s original camera shop? Couldn’t that help enhance the viewing experience?
WO: It depends. Again, when you leave the theater after watching a movie like Milk, there should be a lot going on inside you. And if the first thing that you do is sit down and get that weird little facsimile of an important piece of information, some part of you is going to be satisfied—quieted—by that weird little bit of insider knowledge. And what a terrible place for your satisfaction to lie, when it should or could lie in something, I don’t know, that might benefit somebody else, or might benefit you tomorrow, rather than just in this five minutes today when you feel like “Oh, that was the real camera shop. Neat.” I mean that’s the kind of thing that could be neat to know in five years, if you work in film or you work in progressive civil rights for homosexuals, and in casual conversation someone says, “Oh yeah, in the movie Milk, that was actually Harvey Milk’s camera shop.” That’s when it’s a valid piece of information. But not when it’s just in a magazine article or on an IMDB page.
AVC: To change gears toward the business side, the news broke recently that the indie label and distributor Touch And Go is having trouble. Do you have any idea yet how that’s going to affect your label Drag City?
WO: I’m sure it’s going to affect Drag City in a major way. Touch And Go, Thrill Jockey, and Drag City are all at least superficially closely tied because they’re all in Chicago. Touch And Go was the leader historically among those labels and many other labels. It precedes Matador, it precedes Merge; it’s probably of the same vintage of SST. It became this incredible label with so many incomparable records and incomparable bands, and then it developed into a distributor. It can’t close its doors or significantly change its way of working without affecting a label like Drag City. But also as friends, as colleagues, as a model for how to do business… It’s a huge deal.
I heard that Touch And Go might downsize to the point of being a two-person operation, and that’s a lot to chew on for everybody. I don’t even know where to begin thinking about what that means to my friends who are in Slint, when they’re ready to do re-releases or re-masters. Or Quarterstick bands like the Mekons. Does it mean that we’re getting to the point where we’re gonna stop making records? Is it getting to where the way kids are taking in music is… I don’t know, the world of ringtones? Is that music? I’m not sure. But I know it’s a big deal.
AVC: Would you be comfortable with the idea, five years from now, of not releasing physical records? Of just having everything you record be available for purchase exclusively online?
WO: I don’t know. I don’t know if it would be interesting or exciting enough. The problem for me is that I haven’t shared enough experiences with people who have really strong relationships with music that they’ve downloaded. Whereas I’ve experienced so much with hard copies of music. I’ve always felt wary of a lot of web technology and how it relates to music, because it feels strange to think that you might be contributing to the building of an audience that sits at their computer and listens to music. I don’t want to live in that world, and thankfully, being 38, I’ll have minimal contact with a world like that if it continues to go in that direction. If everybody has to have an Internet connection in order to buy music, and therefore has to have a computer… If there’s no other way to get music, I don’t really see being excited about making records, making music. It doesn’t seem like I could get up in the morning and make music for that audience.
AVC: Could you tour?
WO: I don’t know. Again, five years in the future… I’m getting older, so I like the idea of less extensive touring, but who knows? The nice thing about touring is that you meet the audience. You meet a lot of good, fun, interesting people out there. If that’s my only way of finding the kind of sustenance I need in five years, I’ll have to tour a little more! [Laughs.]
AVC: Currently, when you have a new album coming out, do you generally have a cautious feeling or an excited feeling? Do you look forward to people hearing it, or are you looking ahead to the next thing already?
WO: On some level, I’m ready to move on to the next thing, and on some level, I have moved on. I’ve been recording since then, writing since then, and playing since then. There’s a lot of tension and labor that goes into making a record, so when the final mixing is done, and the final mastering, the final artwork and all that stuff are done, then it does feel like, “Aw, yeah.” Then I look forward to beginning this yearlong process again. In that way, it’s more like movie-making than a lot of people think about record-making. People think of making a record as the end of something.
Also, this record, Beware, I like it very much, but it’s a very different record from Lie Down In The Light. With Lie Down In The Light, I was waiting every day for the record to come out. It was exciting. The feeling I’ll always relate to when a record comes out is when I would wait for a favorite band of mine to put a record out. Seeing a release date and waiting and waiting and waiting. With Lie Down, thankfully, I got Drag City and Domino to agree to have that be a universal experience, essentially, by not sending out review copies. With Beware, it’s weird. Doing the press, sending the record out. A lot of people whose opinions I respect will have the record in advance, so the excitement is kind of dispersed. Who heard the record when? I don’t know. Did somebody play it for somebody else who maybe supposedly shouldn’t have heard it at this point?
When the record comes out, I’ll be kind of excited. But for me, this kind of promotional thing destroys a lot of the excitement of making records. Having to talk about it, for one, then also knowing that the excitement of the release date is moot in a lot of ways. It’s just like, “There goes a lot of the fun of making records.” Having to talk about it and having no excitement about when it’s being released. I don’t know. We’ll see when this one comes out. I’m looking forward to it coming out, but on some level, I feel like a lot of the fun has been taken out.
AVC: It all goes back to the idea of the mystery. You’d like it to just appear?
WO: Records, movies, books—they’re not supposed to be like math books. The purpose of them is to kind of take us out of ourselves and give us some sort of alternate experience or respite. To try to maximize the relationship of listening to a record through promotion is like experiencing driving a car by reading about stimulus programs. It kind of defeats the purpose. The idea is for escape and then re-entry into your life, and not to have it be just like People magazine. You want it to be more like Disney World than People.