will oldham

On August 27th Chicago-based label Drag City announced a new Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, by uploading a staged interview with Will Oldham, the cryptic force and songwriter behind the “Prince” Billy moniker, dubbed “The Most Awkward Radio Innerview Ever!?!” For 17 minutes and 47 seconds, Oldham berates, threatens, and belittles a clueless sounding radio deejay, all the while refusing to reveal anything about the album he’s ostensibly trying to promote.

It’s a brilliant piece of comedy, but one nervously rattling around in my head as I called Oldham, whose records occupy mythic status in my collection. Few songwriters cast the kind of shadow Oldham does, and many of his albums, I See A Darkness, Master and Everyone, Sings Greatest Palace Music, Viva Last Blues, and Superwolf, included, have defined me as a music listener. Luckily, I fared better than the hapless disc jockey of “Innerview,” and found Oldham warm, friendly, and eager to discuss his new album, which falls in line with his countrypolitan classics Master and Everyone and Lie Down in the Light. Featuring many songs that appeared on his 2011 album Wolfroy Goes To Town, the album gave Oldham a chance to try those songs with a crack Nashville session band, featuring longtime collaborator Emmett Kelly, Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs), and the gospel singing McCrary Sisters, who’ve contributed vocals to albums by Bob Dylan, Charlie Louvin, and Solomon Burke.

Ever fascinating, Oldham discussed the “mind-blowing” pool of talent in Nashville, the nature of “God,” the internet, WTF with Marc Maron, and one of his favorite Samhain lyrics.

Aquarium Drunkard: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the players that appear on Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues. How did you meet Chris Scruggs?

Will Oldham: This record sort of carries on from Master and Everyone, Lie Down in the Light, and to some extent the Sings Greatest Palace Music record, in that they’re all these Mark Nevers [produced] records. He approached me about making another record, one he thought would be a third part of a trilogy for us. One of the great revelations of making the Master and Everyone record was working in Nashville, and beginning to have contact with and access to the Nashville session players’ scene.

We were talking about a couple songs for this album – specifically “Mindlessness,” where there’s this weird little moment, a time change situation, where there was a gap. It sounded very strange, because the timing changes — and we thought, “Let’s get a mandolin player to come in and fill that gap.” He said, “Chris Scruggs,” and I said, “Great.”

I had met Chris Scruggs when he was playing steel, about four years ago or so at a celebration of the musical work of Shel Silverstein in Chicago. There was a house band and featured singers would come up and do different Shel Silverstein songs. I was one of the singers and Chris Scruggs was one of the band members. So that’s how we met, though that had nothing to do with this record, other than I was excited to see him again and work with him again.

AD: Emmett Kelly appears on this record. You’ve maintained a partnership with him for quite a while now.

Will Oldham: The first thing we did was the record The Letting Go, about nine years ago. We’d run into each other a couple of times in Chicago, usually late at night at a bar or something, and I liked him. Then, he came to Louisville as part of Azita [Youssefi]’s band. He blew me away. It was just so tremendously exciting, his moments on stage with Azita. I started talking to him about playing on a record, and then I gave him the songs, and some records to listen to sort of potentially inform what we were going to undertake. And that began it.

AD: The gospel singing group, the McCrary Sisters, are all over this record.

Will Oldham: I don’t think I was fully aware of how subconsciously aware I was of one or more of the McCrary Sisters when they came into the recording studio, but then through conversation with them and conversation with friends afterward I realized I knew different people they had recorded with, either personally or by reputation.

AD: When I realized that Regina McCrary sang on Bob Dylan records…

Will Oldham: Specifically those born again records. Which, if I’m thinking right, might be the last musically exciting Bob Dylan records that were made.

AD: Those records have a strange reputation, kind of a complicated legacy, but I like Dylan’s religious records a lot.

Will Oldham: I do, too, yeah. And there’s a couple of great bootlegs from that period as well. I’m fortunate enough to not have instilled in me an aversion to Christianity, and to Christian terms and concepts. It’s sort of easy for me to translate any religious or Christian term or concept into a language I understand in a heartbeat. I think a lot of people have a fucked up relationship with religion because of how it was delivered to them early on, and that unfortunately sort of bars the gate and keeps them from a lot of really good musical experiences, those Bob Dylan records being a really great example.

AD: “We Are Unhappy” is my favorite song on the record, and the vocals are pure gospel.

Will Oldham: And that’s funny, because there was a great moment in there where Mark said in advance, “You might have some problems with this song with the McCrarys.” One of the other sisters is deeply religious and deeply spiritual, and when it came to the line “we are unblessed,” she said she couldn’t sing it. So you know, we talked about it for a while, I tried to explain the intention behind the song, tried to see if there was a way that she could find her way to singing that line. She couldn’t; we ended up doing sort of a hum or an “ooh” underneath that line. But it was funny because when it came time sing the song “Whipped,” which is all about vaginas and fucking, she had no problems whatsoever with that. [Laughs]

AD: I wondered if the lines about “demonized bodies” and “exorcized minds” might create some tension.

Will Oldham: Those didn’t. They didn’t have to sing those lines… and they have a kind of professionalism. She didn’t mind participating in a song with the line “we are unblessed,” but she just couldn’t let those words come out of her mouth.

AD: I’ve long been fascinated by your use of religious language. In Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, your book with Alan Licht, you talk about using religious language in a completely open manner. You aren’t confined to the terms you use; you say something along the lines of “God can mean a lot of things.”

Will Oldham: Yeah. I love to think, for better or for worse and right or wrong, my default is to think of “God” as literally being all things, and in so being God is also nothing. God is the absence of God, and God is God, so that God is the word for all things, and therefore there is nothing untrue that can be said about anybody’s concept of God. So you can just say, “Yeah, that’s true: God is merciless, God is merciful; God is good, God is bad; Of course God doesn’t exist, and of course God exists.” Do you ever listen to that WTF interview show?

AD: Yeah, all the time.

Will Oldham: I was listening to the beginning of the Jay Bakker interview, you know him? [Televangelists] Jim and Tammy Faye’s son.

AD: Yeah, I do.

Will Oldham: They were rapping a little bit about the role of faith and the role of religion, and for some reason this line came into my mind, as it does now and then, from this Samhain song that I learned as a child. It’s from the first Samhain record, Initium. There’s this song, and I think Danzig intended it to be about the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer, or whoever, but the song is called “He Who Cannot Be Named.” I think about one of the lines he uses — he describes “he who cannot be named” as an “intricate entity,” which is a nice little phrase.

herbie-hancock-synth

“…I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to earth…” Herbie Hancock, 1997

Cascading back into the etheric plane, Hancock centered his new 70’s quintet, the Headhunters, around the filthy sounding clavinet and flanked it with a slick rhythm and blues section composed of Paul Jackson (bass), Mike Clark (drums) and Bill Summers (percussion). Not to be forgotten is saxophonist Bennie Maupin, the only member left of the original Hancock sextet, whose fiery solos flirted with breaking the earthly boundaries set by the new group. With a funky groove the 1973 album Head Hunters ushered in a new era of jazz that appealed to a far wider audience – making jazz listeners out of rhythm and blues fans, and vice versa. Long circulating proof of the dynamic chops of this group is this live set from November 1974, captured in Bremen, Germany, where we find the group ripping up the stage for an hour straight on ‘Chameleon’, the aptly named ‘Sly’, and newer joints from the follow-up album, Thrust - ‘Butterfly’, ‘Spank A Lee’, and ‘Palm Grease’. So. Nasty. words/ d norsen

abner-jay

Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.

Luke Winslow-King’s latest long-player, Everlasting Arms, hit shelves last month via label home, Bloodshot Records. Once again, the New Orleans based journeyman’s latest collection is a swirling medley of primitive blues, gospel, folk and beyond. For this installment of Diversions, Winslow-King highlights a choice selection of Delta Blues and NOLA favorites.

Abner Jay :: The Reason Young People Use Drugs

I think Abner Jay really understands America’s youth. He has a knack for singing very direct lyrics without metaphor. His sadness and life experience are shared so purely and honestly. You can’t tell from this video that Abner Jay is a one man band; singing, and playing harmonica, guitar, and drums with his feet.

They don’t make ‘em like The Johnny Cash Show anymore. In September 1969, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott appeared on the program and performed this spellbindingly cosmic rendition of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” Perhaps it’s the aging of the footage; the sepia-toned wear and the forested set, but there is something completely enigmatic about this performance. Jack’s posture is mysterious, his voice alien – high and reedy one moment, then deep and gravelly the next, nailing the poignancy of a line like “If I were a miller/at a mill wheel grinding/would you miss your colored blouse/your soft shoes shining.” His guitar-playing, meandering, especially at the end, accentuates the unknowingness of the tune. It carries the song’s question mark punctuation to its only logical conclusion – a mystic frontier of clouded love.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott :: If I Were A Carpenter

Post script – The studio version of Ramblin’ Jack’s cover, off his 1968 lp Young Brigham, is no less powerful, with just the right elements intertwining in the mix: organ, tabla and reverb. words / c depasquale

NeilYoung

Dig into this — a wide array of Neil covers from his first decade or so in action. There’s folk rock, funk rock, country rock, yacht rock, pop rock — all kinds of rock. And plenty of other stuff, too. New perspectives on old favorites. Say hello to Mr. Soul.  / t wilcox

STEVE GUNN

With 2013’s Time Off, guitarist Steve Gunn took a leap that often proves disastrous for guitar soli performers: he started singing.

His albums had featured vocals before, but Time Off was different. On it, Gunn embraced proper songcraft, echoing the timeless strains of the Grateful Dead, Rob Galbraith, and J.J. Cale, pairing impressionistic lyrics and his smoky voice with Appalachian drones, cyclical riffs, and long-form boogies. Gunn was terrific as an instrumental bandleader and improviser; he proved to be an even better songwriter.

Ever prolific, Gunn followed the album with works more rooted in the instrumental realm, Melodies For a Savage Fix with Mike Gangloff, Cat Mask at Huggie Temple with Desert Heat, and Cantos De Lisboa, recorded with British folk guitarist Mike Cooper. But his new long player, Way Out Weather, is indeed the proper follow up to Time Off, a continuation of that record’s transformative ideas.

Time Off was us kind of getting more comfortable in a studio,” Gunn says over the phone from New York, speaking in the same deliberate tones as he sings his songs. “Most of the recordings that I made previous to that were live or kind of home recordings… recording live shows or setting up a rat trap of microphones in my apartment.”

Gunn says Time Off was an extension of his work with drummer John Truscinski, freeform jams drawing from a wealth of deep music the two shared: early sixties electric blues from Chicago, Malian blues by Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré, the sounds of Musa Ma’rufi, tanbur player Ostad Elahi, sitarist Nikhil Banerjee, and the Dagar Brothers.

ATOZ_12in_TIPONWorking in at Black Dirt Studios in upstate New York with Jason Meagher, Gunn, Truscinski, and Justin Tripp took those vibes and added in elements of West Coast psychedelia and sterling J.J. Cale grooves. With a proper singer/songwriter album under his belt, Gunn invited an even larger band to Black Dirt to fill out Way Out Weather: Truscinski and Tripp returned, along with stringman Nathan Bowles, harpist Mary Lattimore, Meagher on bass, James Elkington on lap steel and Jimy Seitang playing synth. Tripp served as producer, arranging parts while others tracked.

“Everyone was workshopping things while we were tracking other things,” Gunn explains. “It was really a kind of awesome process. People would just kind of drop in and accompany what I was doing.” Gunn and the band had discussions about specific studios — Capricorn, Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios — and players, like the Wrecking Crew and Ron Elliott, the guitarist and arranger on some of Gunn’s favorite records: Candlestick Maker, the Beau Brummels’ Bradley’s Barn, and the Everly Brothers’ Roots. “We got real interested in approaching things influenced by some of the records we were freaking out about,” Gunn says.

With a larger ensemble in tow, Way Out Weather is more colorful than its predecessor, evoking the full band interplay of Fairport Convention or Van Morrison and band live at Montreux in 1974. The band sounds exuberant, like prime Dead on “Milly’s Garden,” playfully ornate on “Shadow Bros,” evoking the haunting layers of Frippertronics on “Wildwood,” and gets ominously groovy on the album’s stunning closer, “Tommy’s Congo,” where Gunn intones, “Never look down at what you need to do,” over a looping drumbeat and swaggering bass.

unnamedLexington, KY’s Bear Medicine doesn’t occupy a space–it invents one. Any description of their music using rock crit shorthand—“chamber-prog-folk,” for instance—seems inadequate, even misleading. To put it plainly, Bear Medicine leaves me speechless. Joshua Wright’s songs simultaneously nod to and annihilate time-tested songform traditions, while the band’s spooky energy and skillful arrangements combine to reveal a multiplicity of ideas within each strange, evocative song. Fans of artists as varied as Comus, Led Zeppelin circa III, Kayo Dot, and Townes Van Zandt will be unable to resist the Aquarian Dream Music of this precocious and deeply psychedelic young band.

Bear Medicine’s debut album, The Moon Has Been All My Life, is a concept album that loosely threads together themes of uncertainty: life, loss, doubt, and fear. Using the unlikely combination of cello, flute, piano, acoustic guitar, and skittery percussion, the band creates songs as beautiful as they are odd, as lucid as they are meticulously composed. The Moon Has Been All My Life will be released on vinyl by the band on October 14th and though the album’s myriad charms are best revealed in one uninterrupted sitting, the hastier among you can check out an exclusive premier of the song “All You Celestials” below. words / j jackson toth

Bear Medicine :: All You Celestials

trish_keenan

Tuesday marked the late Trish Keenan’s birthday, she would have turned 46. Her partner and bandmate, James Cargill, released two demos this week from the 2004 Tender Button sessions, via the band’s “Future Crayon” website, in her remembrance. That record is often referred to as “the minimal one” by fans — a more simplified-sounding collection compared to the blooming psychedelia of its predecessors; Ha Ha Sound and The Noise Made by People. These Tender Buttons demos, “Goodbye Girls” and “Tears in the Typing Pool”, do not sound far off from the album versions, but Keenan’s voice is somehow even more comforting in demo form. words / s mcdonald

Related: do not miss the group’s Black Session recorded in Paris for La Maison de la Radio in 2000.

reggaegang

Just in time to help you squeeze the last remnants of heat out of this Indian summer, the fifth installment of our ongoing Bomboclat! series is an atmospheric and predominantly dub heavy mixtape. Hat tip to Jon “Sir Lord Comic” for his help in compiling these tracks. Find volumes one through four, here. – Cognoscere

Download: Bomboclat! Island Soak 5 :: Jamaican Vintage Dub (zipped folder)

tracklisting after the jump. . .