Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Will Oldham interview, August 2003

I did this interview with Will Oldham at the Babylon club in Ottawa the afternoon before his solo show that evening squeezed into a day off on his North American tour opening for Bjork. Oldham is legendarily reticent about interviews, but I was surprised to discover that after the first couple of questions, he sat back and began to talk with comparative ease (at least by contrast to his mood as we sat down, at which point he got up, said, "I'm going to need a beer to get through this," and went to the bar). It was broadcast on CKUT Montreal and I transcribed it for some reason, though now I can't remember what that was. I suppose it was ultimately so that you could read it. And now, here you may:

JB Staniforth: Are you happy doing what you’re doing with this big tour?

Will Oldham: Sometimes.

I got an idea from your tour diaries, but I want to know if you’re enjoying doing 10,000-person stadium dates.

I really don’t know how you can conceive of it—it’s really sort of not like playing music. It’s just like doing something. It was a little bit like playing music the last time, the second New York show, because I had a friend come up and play with me. But otherwise, it really is just like doing something, like… [long pause] …rock climbing, more than it is like playing music.

Is there any personal fulfilment in having tens of thousands of people clapping?



There’s not a lot of personal fulfilment in five or six hundred people clapping. There’s more personal fulfilment, like, knowing that you’ve made it through the night playing music. I can appreciate when an audience is great, or is rambunctious, or when it changes, but I don’t appreciate it as the goal. I don’t appreciate it the same way.

What kind of effect does it have on your relationship with yourself to be standing and playing these songs that are—I mean, I recognize that your music isn’t personal, in the sense that you don’t write about yourself, but it’s still a personal creation.

Sure, even just being a performer in front of people.

Is it difficult to get in front of 10,00 people and do what is, to them or to you, not necessarily an intimate thing at all?

The main reason it isn’t difficult is because it’s a challenge on some level, and it’s doing something that’s unknown, and so if someone said, “Do you want to jump off of this cliff into that water,” I would say yes before I’d say no. It’s more like playing… [trails off]. I have no idea what anyone in the audience is thinking, beginning, middle, or end. Every once in a while, there will be this weird feeling, where you feel like you know what someone’s thinking in the audience. But as far as it being intimate at all, it changes. On one given night, the intimate part could be just the melody, the intimate part could be the clothing that you’re wearing. The intimate could have something to do with one part of a lyric, or a whole song, or a series of three songs that you put together. So, it remains intimate in a way, unless the distraction is so great that you don’t have an experience at all, except like in a traffic jam—which it can be, sometimes. But rarely, because there’s enough going on, and there’s enough to think about, that you don’t get distracted.

Is it a pain in the ass to have to be the opener?

Well, is it a pain in the ass to have to be the opener? I wouldn’t put myself in the position of opening for almost anybody ever, and I almost never have, because it doesn’t configure. The main reason for this is that I was invited by someone I respect a lot, someone whose show I wanted to see. So, for me, my meal ticket is opening. That’s the reason I can be here. I’m glad to be here, because I’m enjoying everything else about the trip, which is why I’m going, rather than going to play my own music. Because I feel like I don’t know if anyone’s going to listen. I’m going to play the music as well as I can, but the reason I’m going is because I wanted to see these shows and I thought it’d be an interesting trip. I think opening sucks, unless it’s a similar situation where you have a symbiotic relationship with the other group, whether it’s the headliner, and you travel for a period of time with them, and there’s some sort of musical evening happening, some sort of correlation, some sort of A to B that the audience is going to go through if they pay attention. Then it’s okay.

Do you think in terms of the audience when you’re writing music?

Yeah, I think so.

Is there something you’re trying to bring about in them as a reaction, or pathos, or is it just—

Sometimes I try to entertain—

I recognize that it’s a bit of a bum question.

The whole reason for making records is that, ideally, there’s an audience. It’s inextricable, the concept of writing for an audience. It’s always thinking, like, “Will this make any sense? Will this melody sink into someone’s head, or will it just go right past them?” The only real thing you can base it on is your own experience. You try to listen to different music that affects people in different ways and figure out why it does, and say, “I think this song will work if it’s done like this, because I know it works on this level, and somebody—I don’t know how many people, maybe five, but ideally more—will pick up on it, because that’s what’s being put into it. And it’s always thinking that it’s for the audience.

I’m not much of a musician myself, but I think that in terms of music, it’s almost like building bombs, because you never know what it’s going to do people.

That’s true.

I know having an immensely personal reaction to music you’ve done, and seeing people having intense personal reactions to other music that I just don’t get.

Right, like Ani DiFranco, or something.

Sure. But it must be pretty bizarre from the position of the person who’s making the music to know that for some people, it’s just going to go flying over their heads, or they’ll just turn their back on it, but for other people, it’s going to lay them on the ground.

Yeah. And at the same time, that’s only at the present moment. Because that person who’s on the ground, maybe then, the rest will go flying over them, hit the person who’s turned their back, and they’re now going to turn around and listen.

When I listen to the early Palace records, I listen to the progression of the past ten years. It seems to me as though the things that you’re writing are a lot less manic, confused. But at the same time, it seems as though there’s much more of a comfort, a sense of your own capabilities. Is that true?

I think so, yeah. The way that I think of it is that making the Palace records was like going to college. Rarely in all of those—or just sometimes—the lyrics can be more. Which is one reason that I never bothered printing them in those records, just that the lyrics might just be musical, they might just work on a visceral level, and were not intended to be on the printed page, ever. And they were worked, like, “If it fits into this verse, on a rhythmic level, if it makes the melody sound good, if somehow there can be something that approaches a theme in the song, then that’s great, that’s perfect.” But it was all a question of “How do you take this totally amorphous song and record it?” So we had to go into the studio and learn that. To the point that after making Viva Last Blues, it was sort of, “Okay, now I know how to do all of this stuff. Does that mean I should stop making records now?” A part of the excitement was always in, “Let’s try this, let’s try this.” And then, it’s like, do you continue with what you know, or do you do something completely different? Trying to figure out if life is only a discovery thing, or if it’s about learning to do something with the discovery.

It was after Viva Last Blues that you started printing the lyrics.

Mm hmm.

With I See A Darkness?

With Arise, Therefore, and Joya.

I’m not that familiar with those two records, but with I See A Darkness, was that because you were willing to deal openly with the issue of death?

At that point, it was—I mean, there have been various times when it’s been, like, everything seems to matter so much, and yet, and yet… Those kinds of times. Or where I don’t know why I’m happy, why I’m not happy, for what purpose, for what person. And with that record, and a couple of songs right before that record, I said, “Let’s deal with all these things, but try to make it as fun as possible. And try to formalize it as well. Let’s sort of deal with these things, but then also make it something that resemble music, with a structure. Maybe even an A,B, C-type structure.” Just trying to make it a little bit fun. An Addams Family kind of fun.

I See A Darkness has always seemed to me like a really fun record.

Yeah, I think it’s really fun.

Recently a friend of mine lost her mom, she died really suddenly. My friend didn’t listen to music for a long time after that, but when she finally started to buy records again, I recommended that to her as something to start with. A couple of friends of mine said, “Jeez, that’s really morbid.” But I didn’t think that at all. In my experience, that record was about having some fun with death as something real.


Has your relationship with death sort of been sorted out a little further since then?

No. [pause] It always seems like there are periods of time when, say, you’re on a plane, and there’s heavy turbulence, sometimes you think, “that’s fine. If this goes down, this is totally fine.” There are other times when you think, “this is not the right time. This is a bad time.” If it’s a bad time, it’s usually because everything isn’t right. It seems like I’ve had more of those “it isn’t right” periods of late than times when it’s okay for the plane to go down.

I’m sorry to hear that.

It’s okay—it gives you the motivation to run away from the plane when it lands. You get your bags, you start doing something else.