I don't care, let's have some
A conversation with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
By Colin Cheney
a Soho hotel in late February, Will Oldham graciously agreed
to talk with me on the occasion of the release of his new
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy release on Drag City, "Greatest
Palace Music." Our conversation ranged from the re-recording
of Palace songs with old Nashville session musicians, to
Hassidic Judaism, Mel Gibson's The Passion, Johnny
Cash, Rudy Giuliani, and patriotismwith something
in between about spitting in Chan Marshall's eye if she
apologizes one more time.
Nashville: I met a girl
and I liked her
used to live in New York?
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy:
Yeah, I lived in Brooklyn in DUMBO in '89, and more recently
I lived pretty much in this neighborhood in '99 or so.
FW: You're based down
in Kentucky now. Isn't that where you grew up?
BPB: Yep. I am based
down there againI hadn't been for a long time and
then last year I moved back.
FW: Did you want to
settle back where your family wasneed a place to call
BPB: No, it was more
that I was passing through and I met a girl and I liked
her. I was in the process of moving away from Baltimore
where I'd been living and where my older brother lived.
So yeah, I met this girl and I spent time with her so I
just decided to base things there.
FW: Did the recording
of the "Greatest Palace Music" come out of your
time therehad you been thinking about this project
to go back to the old Palace songs for a while?
BPB: Yeah, I'd been
thinking about it off and on for a while. I had recorded
Master and Everyone with Mark Nevers [of Lambchop
eds.] in Nashville the year beforeand had started
to work with a couple Nashville musicians. Just being around
there, I started to think this would be really great to
take advantage of. The initial sessions were all done with
a group of hardcore, A-list older Nashville fellas [including
Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Eddie Bayers, Stuart Duncun,
Mike Johnson eds.]. We did all the initial tracking like
that and over the course of the next couple of months we
hauled the tapes around to different states to get people
who I'd played with before and I brought people to Nashville.
FW: Approaching a record
like this one where you're going back to older songsdo
you find that in moments like that you're also working on
new material? Are you always working on songs?
BPB: Pretty muchduring
the recording of these songs, yeah. I found as it got towards
the fall that since recording Master and Everyone I had
accumulated a bunch. Before working on this record I'd recorded
a bunch of music and then I'd stopped, but I had a heap
of words and I fixed them into some songs and then I asked
my friend Matt Sweeny [of Chavez, Zwan eds.] if he'd be
interested in collaborating. He wrote music and we had a
record's worth of material.
FW: Is this a Bonnie
'Prince' Billy record?
BPB: Don't know what
it's gonna be. I've never made a record like this before.
I mean, I really like having used the name Bonnie 'Prince'
Billy now for four full-length records and I'd like to use
it again, but this record needs to identified as having
come equally from Matt and myself and we're not sure how
to do that.
Hassidim and Dick Tracy; Mel Gibson's
FW: In January you
played over in Williamsburg at Pete's Candy Shop. Do you
enjoy playing there?
BPB: YeahI think
I'd played there only once before.
FW: It's got this great
BPB: That's cause it
tiny. (Both laugh.)
FW: Do you enjoy playing
small venues like that?
As small as we can get it and still afford to playit's
the best. It was a moot point that night cause weMatt
Sweeny and Ididn't get paid anythingat least
I don't think we did. We requested to play because we wanted
to play these news songs.
FW: When you were in
Williamsburg did you catch any of this business that's come
to a head between the Hassidic community and a lot of the
artists there? A poster written in Hebrew was put up that
has a drawing of the World Trade Center crumbling and someone
has translated it as saying "How long did it take the
Twin Towers to fall8 seconds. How long will it take
to save Williamsburg from the artists?"
BPB: Does that work
as an argument against the idea that the Jews were behind
the destruction of the towers?
FW: I think that would
workwasn't it Amiri Baraka who put that theory out
BPB: Did he? Huh. I
thought he was cooler than that.
FW: Yeah. Williamsburg
is trying to reconcile this tension between a religious
and cultural community, and this new artist community that
has moved there. Anything strike you about that?
know. That's greatit sounds really funa really
fun conflict. I get a real kick out the Hassidic community.
I remember onceat risk of being hit by a car, struck
by lightning when I get out of hereI remember once
in Los Angeles in 1989 going onto a movie studio lot. And
all of a sudden noticing that the pallet of colors that
were attacking my rods and cones was getting smaller and
smaller and smaller. And I was like what the fuck is going
on? All of a sudden I realized it was because I was walking
onto the set of Dick Tracy. And Warren Beatty had
decided that there were five colors that were allowed in
any of the costumes, sets or anything like that. It was
like black, red, blue yellowprimary colors plus black,
and white maybe?
And that's always what its like walking into that neighborhood
over thereall of a sudden everything becomes black
and white. It's so great visually, you know. So, if I was
an artist I'd love to live there for a while. You don't
need to go to the south of France to get an interesting
place to play with colors and light. At the same time, I
remember somebody told meand I have plenty of respect
for Hassidic Jews but someone said that a cool thing about
them is that you can ask them any question and they'll answer
itor they will do their best to answer it. It's a
sort of policyaccepting that someone is inquiring,
asking something of you. So we used to walk down the street
and ask them the stupidest questions possible, without trying
to be disrespectful. The same way David Letterman will do
the same thing with people on the street with the idea that
people will be entertained somewhat but that they'll have
to have to come up with something.
At the same time I know that any religious group that's
confined and restricted that there's a lot of tension
and energy that's not good and it's gonna find its way out
every once and a while. The nice thing about these religious
communitieswhatever faith it isis that they
are so insular that most of the negativity filters right
back on themselves. But during some interactions the irrationality
comes to the surface and its impossible to negotiate the
FW: Flash out to pop
culture for a minute. You've got Mel Gibson putting out
his film, The Passion of the Christ where it seems
like in many ways it is a lot of these, what you could call
"irrationalities" about a certain sect of Christianity
that are making their way, making themselves known through
this film to the rest of the country.
BPB: Yeah, and mostly
being reacted to by people who are equally as irrational.
Because most people would just be like, "It's Mel Gibson,
dude, he's just crazy. It doesn't matter."
FW: Are you gonna see
BPB: Yeah. I've always
no, I've increasingly recognized Mel Gibson's insanity.
The more he's in charge of somethingit's never uninterestingit's
never badit's just not always inspirational.
Joanna "Mayor" Newsom, The
Governator and President Kerry
It seems like our culture is in an interesting moment. We
have The Passion coming out raising this fervor,
you have Massachusetts judges saying you have to legalize
gay marriage, and what's going on in California
BPB: Yeah, I was just
thinking about thatwhy is it such a big deal right
now. I don't knowthere is no time free from these
issues, not as long as I've been alive. If I can trust any
of the books, magazines, or oral histories then there never
has been and there never will be. But it is strange. It's
funny because there's this woman Joanna Newsom who is about
to put a record out on Drag Cityit's a really good
record. The last time I saw her she said, "My cousin
is running for mayor in San Francisco." And then I
noticed yesterday on the televisionMayor Newsom of
San Francisco. And he's sitting there having to defend his
constituentsthe large homosexual community there and
a large liberal community who are all supporters. And then
he's battling with, you know, another old friend of mine,
Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose movies I've seen since I was
six years old. Since my dad took me to see Pumping Iron.
And thinking, why are these people, you know, why are they
talking about this right now? And while totally important
on some levelit's also so ridiculous, because its
so obvious. Human beings should be allowed to do what they
like as long as it doesn't hurt another human being.
FW: Yeah, at a certain
point you have to think, well it's a sign of the world becoming
figuring itself out bit by bit.
FW: Moving up to this
election do you feel like you are in the fray or are you
watching it from the sidelines, seeing what's going to come?
BPB: No, I think, like
most people, I'm more in the fray then in the past few elections.
Partly because necessity demands it. Partly because there
are people like Howard Dean who did a really good job in
helping give people a focus, helping them recognize the
fact that they could participate and that there are real
issues at hand; he got people excited when people needed
to be. I mean when people said, what do you think of President
Bush when he was first elected. I was like, he's probably
pretty incompetent, but probably pretty harmless as long
as nothing terrible happens during his tenure as President.
And then something terrible happened and so many bad things
happened as a result because he doesn't know how to deal
with it. And so I think everybody feels like they need to
participate now so they don't feel completely impotent.
So yeah. Do I follow politics? Yeah. Did I know who John
Kerry was before the Iowa Caucuses? No, I didn't. I'd heard
his name but I couldn't have placed his name with a face.
I couldn't have told you he was from Massachusettsthat
he was an elected official from Massachusetts. Not at all.
But I hope he's elected President.
FW: Johnny Cash passed
away on Sept 12th. When was the last time you saw him?
BPB: I only ever met
him the one day that we worked together [To record Oldham's
"I See a Darkness" for Cash's American III,
eds.] and I'd seen him only one time before, here
in NYC in 1989.
FW: What was he like?
BPB: He was big. And
interested. And interesting. And just more involved with
the musical and social proceedings of the day then I ever
would have expected. And it was a joy all around.
FW: It seems like his
last records, the American recordings, they gave him a sort
of resurgence at the end of his career and at the end of
his life. Do you feel like he was comfortable with where
it has put him in those last years?
BPB: I think totally.
He began his musical career with a flood of original compositions
and then he began to integrate covers with his original
songs. And I think that working with someone like Rick Rubin,
who has an encyclopedic knowledge of recorded music, such
a huge passion for music and such a respect for Johnny Case,
who was able to inspire him to write new songs, rewrite
old songs, rerecord old songs, record old favorites, record
new favorites, learn who was writing songs now, learn who
has been writing songs over the past 15 years. I can't imagine
a cooler way of bringing your career full circle and I think
that Johnny Cash was aware of it. He was one with music
in such a way that I'm sure he appreciated every aspect
FW: Did you find that
there was some particular resonance about working on a song
that you'd written, and watching how with him it came into
a different sort of being?
BPB: Yeah yeah yeah.
I mean I was using all my mental faculties that day just
to get moment to moment so I wasn't doing a lot of reflecting
during that time. But yeah it was totally charged knowing
how many times I was going to be able to replay the event
in my head and get something new out of it.
FW: He was a very religious,
spiritual man. Did that come across?
BPB: It comes across,
sure. The way he talks he seems to be a reverential man
who was also aware of balances between the spiritual and
the physical, between good thing and bad things.
FW: Do you feel that
you're in a similar process of working out the same balances?
BPB: Probably. He's
a nice public figure to look to at during a variety of points
in his life where he wasn't for any great lengths of time
fully satisfied with his relationship with the good or the
bad, you know. And in that way, I figure that
couldn't completely figure it out, then, well you know.
Just absorb, absorb, absorb
What was the greatest experience coming out of recording
this particular record at this time?
BPB: Easily, there's
three main things. Having the chance to rerecord these songs,
the chance to work in this classic form with this caliber
of musicians, not just the way they play in the end result,
but the process of doing the recording. This was a huge
lessonlike the day with Johnny Cash or working with
Chris Renait's a different situation all together
and you try to open up all your senses as wide as possible
and just absorb, absorb, absorb. So you can recycle it during
the next months, days, years. And then the third thing was
being able to share all the great things about it with friends
and family contributing, and then being able to share it
with the audience, you know. Being able to do all these
really cool things. And then have as many people as possible
be part of how cool it is, and just be like "isn't
this fucking fun?" It costs more for us to make the
record, you know, but it doesn't cost anyone anything more
to buy it, or download it or whatever you want to do. That's
the third thing, getting to share it with everybody else.
FW: You seem really
happy about this record. Do you always feel this way after
finishing a project?
BPB: Usually I do.
There were two records, "Rise Therefore," where
I was super in awe of the performances of my brother and
David Grubbs and working with Steve Albini, and what it
meant to me personally working with those three people and
musically what I thought was achieved. But at the same time
I didn't feel like the vibe of the record was necessarily
all that positiveand that I'd felt a 100 percent positive
about the fact that it was gonna be released, on the emotional
end. I wasn't sure about "Master and Everyone,"
the same thing. There's something creepy about these songs
and I don't know if its necessarily a good thing to put
it out. It took a long time, relatively, to put out
mean three or four months went by where I was just like,
no I don't think so
And then listening to it in company
with a friend of minewe were listening to it and she
was like, this is good, I like it, it makes me happy. So
I said okay, we can put it out.
FW: Do feel like you
are continuing to get a little bit more just what you need
your music to be?
BPB: Definitely, yeah,
definitely. Every time we go into make a record I think:
these are the objectives I want to achieve. And I never
achieve any of them, you know. But we end up coming up with
something that satisfies at another level. Then its like,
well, I still have to make that record I wanted to make
when I came in here, I still haven't made it, so one day
we'll make it.
The therapists who lobbied Giuliani
FW: I read somewhere
that you said that the reason that there is sometime such
dark themes in your songs this darkness, lies and
blood and disease, I think you said is because it
is out there in the world and that the songs are a good
place for this stuff to be. Do you still believe that?
BPB: Exactly, yeah.
It has to go somewhere, it can't just sit inside of people.
FW: Yeah I mean
you look around and it seems like people are constantly
trying to figure our where to put all this shit.
BPB: Yeah, it was probably
like the psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, who
lobbied Giuliani to take all the benches out of Manhattan.
I mean if people can sit down, they can relax and they won't
FW: Seems like you
are probably gypping some psychiatrists out of a helluva
lot of material.
BPB: I think most people
who buy the records are people who couldn't afford to go
to a therapist in the first place it works out fine.
FW: Your community
your family and friends are clearly very important
to you. Does your music come from the experience of that
BPB: Yeah. I mean the
principle reason for making music at all is in order to
make a living or to live, you know? And that means to live
in a way that you can stand behind and standing behind that
means maintaining if not increasing friends and family and
deepening the experience with friends and family in addition
to doing work you can get behind and feed and feed from
and feed into.
FW: Is your family
sort of a homing signal for you?
BPB: I've always wished
that I could be the sort of person who get a lot of satisfaction
out of striking off on his own, but I don't. I like to go
somewhere with someone or to see someone.
FW: Johnny Cash and
his family there's a lot in his music that clearly
came out of family. Do you feel like you are able to find
certain resonances with your family that you don't find
BPB: Yeah, its great
that both of my brothers are so musical in such a variety
of ways that we can always turn each other onto different
things, turn to each other for different support, help and
criticism. And when I sing with my older brother
I think there's musical and a scientific term for the harmony
that's produced by people who are related, and I can't remember
what that term is, but there's enough tonal similarities
that the way they interact with each other is different
from the way that your voice interacts with someone who
doesn't have the same, you know, basic genetic makeup.
I'll spit into your eyeball, Chan
FW: It seems like there's
been various points in your career where attention from
fans or from the press threatened to invade a very personal
life that you were trying to protect. Do you feel like you've
been able to separate your private life from, say, when
you have to come do a bunch of interviews in New York, so
that it's not going to feedback negatively?
BPB: YeahI feel
like it's carved out pretty well. To a certain extent, in
a negative way, I'm unaware of what sort of outside perception
there isI'm pretty unaware.
I don't know who listens to the records, or why they do.
FW: Why negatively?
BPB: Well, it sucks.
Somebody might try to nurture an interaction or a relationship
and it doesn't' occur to them that its based on anything
other than the fact that we're just doing something, just
talking. But that's not always what the motivation is. And
I have to learn that sometimes people have created a human
being by listening to the records, and that's not who they
are talking to. And I don't realize that at first. And I
forget that they have the opportunity to create that perception,
because I don't have that opportunity with that person.
And I don't nurture that, I do try to let that aspect of
this work wither and corrode, but that also means that I'm
ignoring it, and sometime ignoring something is not the
most productive way of dealing with something.
FW: Do you feel like
you have an ability to say, "yeah I understand that
what you are putting out into the world is not necessarily
all of you." That you're not going to look at Chan
Marshall and think of her simply as Cat Power
BPB: Yeah, I would
say you know, I revere "You are Free,"
but if you get in my face, if you tell me you're sorry one
more time, if you get in my face and tell me you're sorry,
I'm going to spit into your eyeball, Chan Marshall. (chuckles.)
Two different things.
Because I am good or bad
FW: You're about to
leave for a tour of Japan. Are you looking forward to it.
BPB: Yeah, its my first
time in JapanI am. I know it'll be a nonstop barrage
on the senses as well as a work trip. But I'm looking forward
FW: My girlfriend was
visiting Kyoto a while back, and she said it was incredible
that the temples were incredible it was one of the
only cities in Japan that had not been bombed in World War
II, and the temples are still standing. And she was there
when the Iraq War broke out. And it was tough being in a
place as an American and trying to represent to an international
community, because that's who she was there with, why Americans
were doing this thing. Because you as an American carry
that responsibility with you.
BPB: Yeah yeah totally.
FW: Do you feel like
you identify yourself as an American?
BPB: Yeah, totall.
I mean I've been in similar situations. I was in Prague
just before the first Gulf War. Or within three or four
weeks after Sept 11th, flying to Europe to do shows and
interacting with an international community there. Or not
long after that going to Morocco for a month and being one
of few American tourists there at the time. Or being in
France not long after the most recent Iraq War began. I
was taking a subwayI got into the Metro and came up,
came up in the middle of tens of thousands of people demonstrating
against the war. And just how, walking in the demonstration
for the next hour and a half, fully afraid of being an American,
but fully aware of it and also knowing its fine. Frank Capra
you know did a good job, you know infusing me with a degree
of patriotism, if not just responsibility for saying, I'm
not going to hate men, I'm not going to hate the masculine
dominance of world culture, I'm not going to hate America
because I am all those things, and I can't do anything productive
if I hate what I am.
FW: If there is something
you as a person visiting Japan, or even Iraq, what would
you want someone to know about you as a songwriter, an American?
BPB: I don't have that
kind of agenda, you know? Its basically just accepting that
I have certain privileges
you know you have increasingly
things that are negativeactively negative things about
being an American. Definitely, there was a lot of fear in
people's voices when I was in Morocco
people stated the obvious, which was, you know, "I
don't really care." I mean somewhere out the blue,
someone would say, "I don't really care." I'd
be like, what do you mean? And they'd be like "It doesn't
matter to me, let's have some tea." Yeah, totally,
let'd do it. I'm not gonna prove to anybody that I'm good
or bad. Because I am good or bad.
Well thank you so much for your time.
BPB: Sure. Did you
see the most recent issue of The Onion. Where it
says Osama Bin Laden's been found a bit inside all of us?
That's really cool.
FW: Around wartime
they seem to hit their stride.
BPB: Yeah, even retrospectively.
Like when they did that Century of the Onion.
FW: I think that should
probably be given out in high school history classes.
BPB: You know, actually,
it totally should.
-- Colin Cheney
"Colin Cheney" lives in Brooklyn, where he
writes poems about the Gowanus Canal.