Bill Callahan: 'I've finally accepted that I'm an entertainer'

The former Smog man is back with a new album, Apocalypse, that deals with America, emotions and the 'cattle inside you'. Just don't tell him it's a change of direction ...

Just as Bill Callahan is pondering which seat to chose in a half-deserted London hotel lobby, a news item about the sex offenders register comes on the TV in the corner. "If my name comes up," Callahan requests – deliberately turning his back to the screen – "please let me know."

As beginnings of interviews with Callahan go, this is about as good as it gets. And not only because the laconic one-liner with a sleazy undertow is one his lyrical calling cards. Alongside the resonant baritone and mordant wit that have – in the course of a career now stretching into its third decade – earned him the right to be considered the post-punk Leonard Cohen, this most saturnine of American troubadours has also built a fearsome reputation as a uncommunicative and sometimes even malevolent interviewee. So his decision to kick things off with a gag certainly bodes well.

Recently, there have been welcome signs of Callahan's stern public visage cracking into a smile. "A couple of years ago," he explains, "I realised that I was an entertainer" – he pauses for a moment, as if waiting for an unseen drummer to round off a punchline – "and that helped me immensely. From the first time you can look in the paper and you accept that you're the entertainment for some people that night," he continues, "it becomes so much more enjoyable to play live. Before that I was always wondering, 'What am I?'"

Callahan's moment of clarity has benefited both audience and performer. First, he abandoned the wilfully off-putting stage name Smog (on the characteristically gnomic grounds that "hanging on to it any longer didn't seem healthy"). Then 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle – the second album released under his own name, and one of his most accessible records to date – struck a chord with a wider audience. By an irony that will not be lost on its writer, the song which did more than any other to bring him a new audience was Eid Ma Clack Shaw – a hilariously unsparing depiction of the vanity of the artist, in which a lovelorn Callahan "dreams the perfect song", then wakes to find the lyrics are gibberish.

For those who are already devotees, it will suffice to say that Callahan's new album, Apocalypse, bears roughly the same relation to its surprisingly accessible predecessor as 2005's blues-tinged A River Ain't Too Much to Love did to 2004's unexpectedly palatable Supper; while less accessible, it flows with a sinuous unity every bit as captivating. For those not yet properly acquainted with this man's compendious oeuvre, a riveting encyclopedia of human frailty awaits your exploration.

I think Callahan's best work – any of the three albums named above, as well as earlier creative highlights Wild Love, The Doctor Came at Dawn, Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock - ranks alongside that of his friend and Drag City (and formerly Domino) labelmate Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) as the finest English-language songwriting of the last 20 years. And while not so explicit a departure in terms of subject matter as, say, Sonic Youth's Dirty or PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, Apocalypse registers an intriguing shift away from the forensic self-examination that has been his traditional stock-in-trade towards a more external, geopolitically rooted brand of lyricism.

Callahan – who once observed that his tendency to instinctively refute all statements made by interviewers was "natural in any exchange between someone who has the answers and someone who doesn't" – is having none of this. Apocalypse's opening number is a thrilling frontiersman's lament called Drover, which switches viewpoints from cowboy to herd with a generosity of spirit not seen in Callahan's most celebrated previous excursion into extended animal metaphor – the exquisitely heartless Smog classic I Break Horses. When asked if the line, "The pain and frustration is not mine – it belongs to the cattle", signals a more empathetic, outward-looking approach, Callahan demurs with some force.

"I think this is a really inward-looking record in a way that I haven't really done in the past," he insists (I thought everything was going a little too smoothly). "The cattle in that song are things inside you, so I suppose it's about corralling the emotions."

Is it possible that he could write something which seemed more inward-looking than usual to him, while having external ramifications other people might see more clearly than he did?

"Yeah," Callahan admits grudgingly, "I guess that's possible. To me, this record is like a lot of mirrors, and I suppose if you hold up a mirror to yourself and then you turn it around, it reflects outwards ... also, if you look in a mirror you might see someone standing behind you who you'd didn't know was there..." Like Uncle Sam, for instance.

America! – the song on Apocalypse that most leaps out at the listener on first hearing – is partly a touring performer's yearning for the land of his birth ("I watch David Letterman in Australia"), and partly a defiant celebration of cultural imperialism, in which Callahan seems to be enlisting "Captain Kristofferson, Bucks sergeant [Mickey] Newbury ... Sergeant Cash" into an imaginary army of patriotic singer-songwriters.

"Those are the ranks those people actually achieved in real life", Callahan corrects me sternly, "I did research."

America! seems to be looking on almost enviously at his musical forbears who had the opportunity to serve their country. "It's more like an observation: these people made great music and they did that other thing as well ... so maybe I should've too."

Some might think that the global reputation of the US military is at a low enough ebb already, without Callahan bearing arms, but that, in a way, is exactly his point. "I know that since 9/11 the world has sort of turned against America," he explains, "and America turned on itself too – 'everyone hates us, and maybe we do kind of suck'. But with the election of Obama our self-esteem almost came up again. Then that kind of fizzled out too – even though it wasn't necessarily his fault – so the song was concerns the thinking that America could still actually be a good place to come from."

The pioneering tone that Drover sets seems to carry through the whole album, and the suggestion that Apocalypse might have been conceived – and can certainly be listened to – as a Western meets with a surprisingly favourable response. "Maybe because it starts with a cattle drive," Callahan nods. "Then the second song, Baby's Breath, is about what happens when you finally choose where you're going to settle down and get your own plot of land. After that comes America!, which is looking at the bigger picture of stuff that's gone before in terms of the whole country."

Before the shock of Callahan collaborating in an analytical discussion of his own music has had a chance to really take hold, he's run through all seven tracks. He graciously concedes that Apocalypse's "most inward-looking" song, Universal Applicant, could best be described as a metaphysical boat ride, and identifies the ecstatic Riding for the Feeling as "the point where the searching stops and everything is much freer, to the point where you're able to just ... experience".

The strangely titled Free's, the shortest song on the record, is, he explains, "supposed to sum up the whole thing in the broadest possible terms – that's why there's no character in it". And the tear-jerkingly transcendent 8:45 finale One Fine Morning seems as close as a Bill Callahan album is ever going to get to a riding-off-into-the-sunset moment.

"I wanted that open feeling Westerns give you," he almost enthuses. "They're kind of minimalist because the landscape is so blank and stark, which means that when people appear, they stand out, and their personalities are magnified because there's nothing much else around."

That is pretty much how Bill Callahan interviews used to play out – the long pauses were like the mythic expanses of Monument Valley, and the songs he was so reluctant to talk about were the isolated lawmen. Anyone nostalgic for the inscrutable enigma of the Smog era will find him elegantly memorialised in the pages of Callahan's recently published "epistolary novelette", Letters to Emma Bowlcut. This slim and discreet volume will be a great disappointment to those hoping for prurient insights into the exact circumstances of his real-life romances with alt-country pin-ups Joanna Newsom and Cat Power, but its glimpse of the inner Bill could hardly be more revealing.

"I don't fill the silences often" the unerringly Callahan-esque writer of Letters to Emma Bowlcut's titular missives warns at one point. "About our visit," he advises at another, "I'm not mild-mannered, but you may want to bring a book."

Taking advantage of the new mood of glasnost to pose a question few would have dared to ask the remorselessly closed-off Callahan of 10 or 15 years ago, I wonder if this creator of so many memorable equine-themed lyrics can actually ride a horse? Callahan dissembles nervously for a few moments before seeing the opportunity for a suitably provocative and salacious last word: "There's nothing like riding an animal," he maintains, totally deadpan, "it doesn't even have to be a horse ..."

Apocalypse is out Monday


Ben Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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