photo by Cynthia Dall

Smog interview from Second Skin #7

Smog, or Bill Callahan, make tortured, strange, beautiful, and very personal records. I love Smog. Each new Smog record is miraculously better than the last. I love Smog. So, as the deadline drew nearer for this issue, I wanted one more featured artist. Who better than Smog I thought, and as luck would have it Smog were to be playing in my urban landscape as part of a mini west coast tour. This time out Smog were Bill Callahan and his trusty cohort Cindy Dahl.

I must admit that I was a bit nervous about interviewing Bill, he's got a little reputation you know, so my wise and stoic friend Julie did the good friend tak of accompanying me to the little rendezvous. After Smog played their spare but touching set, we grabbed Bill and took him to the train station. We sat on a bench at the train station around midnight and here is what we said.

B=Bill Callahan




A: So you're just doing the west coast up down thing?

B: Up.

A: Did you guys rent a car or is that your car?

B: It's rented.

A: So you could just dump it at the end and then fly home.

B: it's hard to find a place that will let you. Everyone wants you to bring it back to where it came from.

J: Have you been to Portland before?

B: Yeah a couple of times. We played at some club... What are the clubs here besides Satyricon?

J&A: X-Ray....

B: No... what other clubs are here?

J: La Luna, but that's the big place.

B: Yeah, we played there.

A: You played at La Luna?!?!?

B: Yeah. It was our biggest audience ever. It's a band from here, they're on Sub Pop. They're zany.


B: A girldrummer....

J&A: Hazel!

B: Yeah. There was like 2,000 people there.

J: They are well appreciated here.

A: I don't think they are appreciated anywhere else though. Jodie's in Team Dresch now, so she is doing just fine.

J: I think it must be a jip to just tour. You'd have to buzz into all these cities and you don't get to spend time there. I think it would be much nicer to get a glimpse of where you are playing.

B: I like it like that. You realize you have nothing to do in that city anyways.

A: Do you have any allergies?

B: I'm allergic to flea bites. They make me sneeze and give me a headache and stuff.

A: Do you have cats?

B: Not currently. The apartment I moved into came with a set of fleas that I couldn't get rid of even though I have any pets. I finally got rid of them, but they were there for about four months.

A: That's no good. Do you have a day job or do you just do Smog?

B: I live off the music.

A: Do you just sit at home and play music all day?

B: Sometimes I stand. Yeah, pretty much.

A: Do you sleep in real late?

B: I go through phases. I'd like to get up really early, but I can't seem to do that. I stay up until like 5 am, get up at noon. So, it's like 7 hours.

A: So you miss cartoons.

B: Yeah. I guess.

A: But you are up in time for Ricki Lake.

B: Yeah. I watch the "Simpson," that's like the only thing I watch. It's on every day... I watch that.

A: At 7: 00?

B: Is it 7? Or 7: 30? I think it's 7: 30 where I live.

A: It's 7: 00 here, so if you lived here you would just have to adjust your clock. So what other future Smog products can we expect?

B: Just the usual. More albums. I've written a whole new album- I just have rough tapes of it. I haven't started the final recording. Oh, there is a new single coming out, it's finished.

A: On Drag City?

B: Yeah. That should be out in a few months.

A: Any videos?

B: Not for that. We did a video for "My Family."

A: Did that go over real well?

B: There's only MTV, and they didn't want it. Except in Europe. MTV Europe played it.

A: That's cool.

B: They're more open.

A: I think Paul King hosts their show there. Remember King? Early 80's band?

B: Remember

A: Paul King was their lead guy and he now hosts, or did...

B: A band called King? I don't remember them.

A: I thought they were big, but I guess they weren't. They weren't as big as Queen.

B: Were they the straight version of Queen?

A: Maybe. They were new wave. Sure, they were the straight version 'cuz Prince wouldn't be. Speaking of Prince, do you like Prince?

B: Uh huh.

A: Is that why you wrote your little song about him?

B: (chuckling) That's why I wrote my little song. Yeah. I felt a kinship towards him one night. I was listening to "Purple Rain."

A: Do you collect any magazines, comics, cars?

B: No. I don't collect anything. I try to get rid of everything. I'm an anti-collector. I get rid of absolutely everything. I don't like to have anything around the house.

A: Guitars?

B: I like guitars. I've got two guitars. An electric and an acoustic.

A: Do you record at home?

B: Yeah.

A: Were all your records recorded at home?

B: No. The first 2 were entirely at home, and the third was 60% at home. It's more and more of the in the studio with each release. It was kind of a big jump because I mastered recording at home, and then I go to the studio and it's a whole different thing. I know how to work a 4-track. I don't know how to work a 24-track.

A: There's more tracks.

B: Yeah. There's a lot more.

A: Did you do all the recording for the new stuff in Sacramento?

B: You mean "Wild Love?"

A: Yeah.

B: A third of it was recorded on 4-track, and then mixed in Chicago. Three songs were recorded in Chicago.

J: Have you done all the artwork?

B: Most of the time.

J: Like the chair?

B: Yeah, that's me.

A: Do you like chairs?

B: Yeah.

A: Would you collect those if you had the room?

B: I guess if I had a mansion.

A: Just full of chairs. You could have lots of guests over and they could all sit.

B: Yeah.

A: Do you have a garden?

B: No. I live in a shitty apartment right now. It's an apartment so I don't have a garden. There's a bunch of drunks and welfare people. That's all I can afford.

A: But you get to sleep in this way.

B: Do you wish you could sleep in?

A: Yes.

B: It is nice. You never have to set the alarm clock.

A: You just get up when your body needs to get up.

J: Oh look. Someone asked for a taxi and there is no one here and it wasn't us.

A: Do you like Sacramento?

B: Yeah. I lived in San Francisco before that, and I'm from Maryland originally.

A: Where were you born?

B: Silver Springs.

A: I was born in Aberdeen.

B: That's in Maryland?

A: Yeah. It's the big army base. I think it's near Silver Springs, or Baltimore.

B: Really.

A: Just a little Maryland connection.

B: It seems like a lot of people are from there. It's kind of strange since it's such a non-descript state.

A: When did you leave Maryland?

B: I first left in like '88, moved to Georgia, and then I moved back to Maryland. And then in 1990 I moved to New Hampshire. And about '92 I moved to California.

J: How old are you?

B: 29.

A: So what do you want to be when you grow up?

B: I thought I was grown up.

A: When you grow up more.

B: A cranky old man.

A: That's not that hard to do.

B: I'm halfway there.

A: Do you like trains?

B: Yeah. I do actually.

A: Do you ever take them?

B: I was actually planning on taking a train ride as soon as the tour is over.

A: Just for fun?

B: Yeah. I want to go out to Salt Lake. Or maybe further to like Omaha or something. Mostly now i ride the Greyhound because it runs a lot more often than the train in Sacramento.

A: Where do you go when you take the Greyhound?

B: I always take it to San Francisco. To record and stuff. See movies and stuff like that.

A: How far is Sacramento from San Francisco?

B: Two hours.

A: Do you see a lot of politicians in Sacramento?

B: (starts moving his head frantically) There's a fly in my ear in case you were wondering why...(laughs)

A: I saw it whiz by you.

B: I don't really see very many of them. I don't go out that much.

A: Do you just stay home a lot and play guitar?

B: Yeah. How did you know?

A: A wild guess.

B: I try to go out once a day. To get some exercise.

A: Exercise is good. Do you eat at home a lot?

B: Yeah.

A: Any take-outs? Do you have people come to your house and bring you food? Like pizza?

B: Not really. I prefer to cook.

A: Any dietary...

J: Low salt diet?

A: Kosher?

B: I'm a vegetarian. That's about it.

A: Do you recycle?

B: No. I throw everything away. I guess I'm lazy about that.

A: Do they pick it up at your curb in Sacramento?

B: No, if they did I would recycle a bit. I don't have a car so it's hard to bring all those bottles... (little laughs heard all around)

A: What about the bottle deposit thing? Do you get your deposits back?

B: I don't know... it's like 5 cents. It's not really worth it.

A: After a while it adds up.

B: I don't feel bad about throwing that stuff away 'cuz there are these dumpsters in the alley and 4 shopping carts.

A: So you're helping out the less fortunate.

B: They do it. To me it's not really worth the labor involved, but to them it is.

A: Do you like tall buildings?

B: I like old buildings. Tall buildings are okay, I guess. I like cathedrals and stuff.

J: If you could have anyone cover a Smog song, who would you like to cover you?

B: The Flaming Lips.

A: Didn't they already do that?

B: Yeah. Uhhh...

A: Did they pay you?

B: It was a limited edition, so I got very little money. I got like $500. It's not much. If they had put it on the album I would have gotten something like a quarter of a million dollars!

A: Really?

B: Yeah. Or something like that.

A: Enough money to live off for a year or so.

B: A quarter of a million? I could live off that the rest of my life.

A: Off one song. That you don't even play on.

B: I played it last night.

A: Royalties are a nice thing in that regard. Are you going to stay with Drag City?

B: I think so. They are really great.

A: Did you contract with them in blood?

B: They don't have any contracts. It's a friendship. They're really nice guys. They have a really good profit split. It can't be beat.

A: Have you been approached by any majors?

B: No.

A: Just wondering.

B: I don't know why they don't.

A: Maybe they've listened to your records. Or seen you live. (chuckles from everyone) Do you like touring?

B: Yeah.

A: Is it nice to go back home?

B: For a little while. It's kind of a weird thing, like today was really stressful. We had to drive from Chico, and we didn't get going until like 11, and there was the thing with the key, which I already told you about.

A: Did you lose it or did it get misplaced?

B: What's the difference?

A: One you do on purpose, well, I guess there's not really any difference?

J: Misplaced is an accident, and implies that you will find it again.

B: We didn't find it. Well, Cindy had the key, she went to the bathroom at the gas station, and with keys she is just kind of careless and tends to put it anywhere, and I guess she forgot it. And then someone went in right after her and I guess they stole them because we went in there right after them and it was gone.

J: What was the key to?

B: The car.

A: So did you call a 24 hour locksmith?

B: Yeah.

A: What if it wasn't your car?

B: They didn't check. But it was sitting at a gas pump. We would have had to kill somebody.

A: I bet the gas station attendants weren't to [sic] happy.

B: It was in Cargo, Oregon or something. They didn't get much business.

A: Did you say Or-e-gone?

B: Yeah. Is that the wrong pronunciation?

A: Yeah. Or-i-gun.

B: Or-i-gun.

A: You should know. You are south of us.

B: My grandfather used to live in Medford.

A: Why do you live in Sacramento?

B: Uhhhhh, I lived in San Francisco before that and I was really sick of all the... everyone there is in a band. I just wanted to live with old people or families. There's no old people...everyone in San Francisco is in their 20's and it is just really unrealistic.

A: So Sacramento is more reality based?

B: Yeah, there's kids. Screaming kids in the grocery store and stuff like that. Old people, you know, just normal.

A: Not everyone is going to scarification clubs.

B: Yeah, exactly.

A: I hear that's what they do there.

B: It's pretty big there. It's pretty big all over America though it seems like. Oh, I'm thinking of tattoos... that's something different.

A: Well, it's all a part of the same thing. Getting scarred in clubs is the next step. I read it in "Spin." Do you match your socks?

B: With waht, my tie?

A: With each other. Or are you more of a 'I just grab 2 socks and put them on' guy?

B: I've got 2 pairs of socks.

A: So it's hard not to match them. What if one gets lost?

B: I don't lose them.

J: Well, what if one gets misplaced?

B: They usually stay on my feet so it's hard to lose them.

A: That's a good place for them. Do you just walk around Sacramento or do you take the bus? Is there a city bus there?

B: Yeah, there's a bus. It's a big city - light rail.

A: Oh really? Did you see our light rail? We call it MAX.

B: I don't think I saw it. I take light rail a lot.

A: How much is it for light rail these days in Sacramento?

B: If it's not during rush hour it's a quarter but rush hour is $1.25.

A: That's a good deal. With your hours you don't have to ride during rush hour.

B: Actually, by the time I get out of the house it's rush hour.

A: Have you ever been in trouble with the law?

B: Uhhhh, not really.

A: Clean record?

B: (chuckle)Yeah.

A: Any traffic tickets? On this journey?

B: On this journey - no. Actually I owe San Francisco city $800.

A: That's a bummer.

B: That's why I don't have a car.

A: They would take it away from you.

B: They did take it away.

A: They're smart. 'Cuz then you don't have to pay... or do you still owe them?

B: I still owe them. My license expires next June, and I can't renew it unless I pay them $800.

A: Ask the Flaming Lips to repay them. When you play live do you ever play with the full band?

B: Yeah, we usually do. This is the first time, since this is just a short tour... it's a big challenge not to have a drummer. I just wanted to try it. It's really difficult because people don't really...I mean me, if some guy is standing there with an acoustic guitar it's like really boring.

A: Do you think people are pretty responsive to this?

B: It depends on the city. Tonight was okay. In Chico they were dead silent, which is great. And

some nights it's so loud you can't even hear yourself sing.

A: Did you hear the guy telling people to be quiet because he is trying to sing?

B: I didn't hear that.

J: I think he said, "Pipe down!"

B: That's what my dad would say.

A: Where does Cindy live?

B: She lives in San Francisco, but she was born and raised in Sacramento. That's how I discovered it. When i first met her she lived there. She doesn't want to live there now because she has all these memories from growing up and people that she would run into that she doesn't want to. But me, I don't know anyone there.

A: Do you still not know anyone there?

B: Pretty much. I mean, I know a couple people. I've made one friend since I moved there. I'm really not, especially lately, I'm absolutely asocial. I don't answer my phone. I prefer to be alone.

A: So you never invite the gang over for football?

B: Uhhhh, no.

A: Just to throw them for a loop?

B: They would think I've lost my mind.

A: You should run for office.

B: Okay.

A: Do you have anything you want to talk about? Any political causes?

B: Cindy is the one to ask. She is on the ball with politics. I try to keep up with it...If I do buy a newspaper it takes me like 3 days to read it, so it's old news by the time I finish.

A: Well, it's better than not reading at all. Do you go see movies?

B: Yeah, I go see a lot.

A: What was the last movie you saw?

B: The last movie was "Postcards from America," it just came out it's by David....

J: Oh, the guy who wrote the book and it had the U2 record cover - the buffaloes jumping off... "Closer to the Knives" is a really good one...

B: The movie is based on some of those stories. That was just the last one I saw, it wasn't the greatest movie I've seen.

A: What's your favorite movie?

B: I like Gus Van Sant stuff a lot. "My Own Private Idaho," I thought that was a pretty good movie. I've only just recently found out about him so I've only seen his stuff on video unfortunately. He's got a new movie out, I saw a preview for it.

A: His last movie was horrible.

B: "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."

A: I read the book and it the book was great but..

B: I liked the movie. I'm reading the book, but I think the book is so so. I think the book is good for someone like a housewife who never thought of spirituality. It's got these really basic... or maybe if i was 16 or something. Some of it was kind of simple, and mixed in with that it had some stuff that really was very interesting. Like the thing about how westerners shouldn't be studying Zen and Buddhism because they are not easterners. That's good on a certain level, they should be going back to their roots, and you can never master Zen if you are western, it's an eastern thing.

A: Do you agree with that?

B: I think so. At least, I'd never heard it before. It kind of struck a chord with me. I studied that Zen stuff about 4 years ago. You don't agree with that?

A: I can see where he is coming from, but I don't think you have to be from some place to embrace a certain philosophy.

J: Did you feel discouraged as a westerner studying Zen?

B: Yeah, I guess so.

A: What other things do you read? Or do you read?

B: I read all sorts of things. Right now I'm reading a Martin Amis book.

A: Which one?

B: "Money." I read "Success" which I thought was better, have you read that?

A: I haven't read "Success." I read "Money" but I didn't like it.

B: It's okay. It's easier to read than a lot of the stuff I read.

A: "London Fields" was pretty good.

B: I haven't read that.

A: Do you check out books from the library? Or do you just buy them?

B: I just got my first library card in years a few weeks ago. Usually I would just buy them used. I wouldn't spend more than $2 on a book.

A: The one thing you have to remember with libraries is fines. Any final words?

B: You have to be more specific than that.

A: That's just fine. Do you like Smog? I mean the physical smog, not your band.

B: No, I think it's incredibly ugly.

A: Is that why you named your band Smog?

B: I don't know why I named it... I named it when I was on the east coast and we don't really have it there. I was in the country. I was in Maryland when I named it...actually I was in Georgia.

A: New York and New Jersey have bad smog.

B: That's true. I didn't notice it until I saw LA., and in San Francisco it's gotten bad.

A: Do you prefer brick housed or wooden houses?

B: It's great all these questions aren't about... everyone always asks about music, the same questions. It's nice to have something different for a change. Uhh, brick or wood. I guess wood. I like things that are really disintegrated, and I think wood is probably the best because it's more destructable. So I guess wood.

J: What's you favorite kind of sandwich?

B: I hate to say this, but I tempeh. I hate people who are into those things, but I like it. (everyone laughs.)

A: I've been having that same dilemma myself. I eat wheat gluten sandwiches, and I hate people like that...

B: I eat it but I don't talk about it.

A: And if you could have a vehicle again would you have a car or a motorcycle?

B: I guess a car. I can't ride a motorcycle.

A: Can you ride a bike?

B: Yeah.

A: Then you can probably ride a motorcycle.

B: I've tried it.

A: I've never ridden one, I don't know what I'm talking about.