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I don't care, let's have some tea
A conversation with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
By Colin Cheney

In 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 patriotism—with 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

FREEwilliamsburg: You 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 again—I hadn't been for a long time and then last year I moved back.

FW: Did you want to settle back where your family was—need a place to call home?

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 there—had 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 before—and 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 songs—do you find that in moments like that you're also working on new material? Are you always working on songs?

BPB: Pretty much—during 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 Insanity

FW: In January you played over in Williamsburg at Pete's Candy Shop. Do you enjoy playing there?

BPB: Yeah—I think I'd played there only once before.

FW: It's got this great intimacy…

BPB: That's cause it tiny. (Both laugh.)

FW: Do you enjoy playing small venues like that?

BPB: As small as we can get it and still afford to play—it's the best. It was a moot point that night cause we—Matt Sweeny and I—didn't get paid anything—at 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 fall—8 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 work—wasn't it Amiri Baraka who put that theory out there?

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?

BPB: Oh… I don't know. That's great—it sounds really fun—a really fun conflict. I get a real kick out the Hassidic community. I remember once—at risk of being hit by a car, struck by lightning when I get out of here—I 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 yellow—primary colors plus black, and white maybe?

And that's always what its like walking into that neighborhood over there—all 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 me—and 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 it—or they will do their best to answer it. It's a sort of policy—accepting 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 so… 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 communities—whatever faith it is—is 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 situation.

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 it?

BPB: Yeah. I've always… no, I've increasingly recognized Mel Gibson's insanity. The more he's in charge of something—it's never uninteresting—it's never bad—it's just not always inspirational.

Joanna "Mayor" Newsom, The Governator and President Kerry

FW: 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 that—why is it such a big deal right now. I don't know—there 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 City—it'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 television—Mayor Newsom of San Francisco. And he's sitting there having to defend his constituents—the 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 level—it'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.

BPB: Yeah.

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 Massachusetts—that he was an elected official from Massachusetts. Not at all. But I hope he's elected President.

Johnny Cash

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 of that.

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… if he couldn't completely figure it out, then, well you know.

Just absorb, absorb, absorb

FW: 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 lesson—like the day with Johnny Cash or working with Chris Rena—it'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 positive—and 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…I 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 mine—we 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 have problems.

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 closeness?

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 elsewhere?

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 make—up.

I'll spit into your eyeball, Chan Marshall

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: Yeah—I 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 is—I'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 Japan—I am. I know it'll be a nonstop barrage on the senses as well as a work trip. But I'm looking forward to that.

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 subway—I 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 negative—actively negative things about being an American. Definitely, there was a lot of fear in people's voices when I was in Morocco… but basically, 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.

FW: 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
[email protected]

"Colin Cheney" lives in Brooklyn, where he writes poems about the Gowanus Canal.

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[email protected] | March 2004 | Issue 48
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