Making Love to the World: the Chode School Interview With Will Oldham

Will Oldham

For the latest Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy release (w/the Cairo Gang), Island Brothers b/w New Wonder, Will Oldham decided against doing interviews with popular music publications and settled on a few personal blogs, Chode School included. Before we delve into the conversation let me just share that Mr. Oldham has always been a favorite of mine. Not only for his nakedness in song but also his ambiguity in interviews, something he hates doing and something I hate giving. It was there that we connected, as well as being raised in the same part of the globe (him in Louisville and myself in southern Indiana) and likeness in views of the many things we touched upon in this conversation.

The audio of the entire interview is available at the bottom of this post. Enjoy reading/listening as much as I did being involved in it.

Will Oldham: How are you doing?

Chode School: I’m doing well, how are you?

WO: I’m gettin’ better. Had a rough week, physically, yeah.

CS: Yeah, you got sick, I heard.

WO: I got super sick. Sickest I’ve been in ten or fifteen years.

CS: Oh, shit. Sorry to hear that.

WO: <coughs>

CS: I appreciate you taking some time to just talk for a little bit.

WO: Yeah, I appreciate your part as well. Sorry to push it back, yeah, I didn’t tell Nicole (PR for Drag City) that we had a little rehearsal scheduled so I just asked if we could push it back another ten or fifteen minutes cause we’re learnin’ a few songs.

CS: Oh, cool. What’s this for?

WO: This is like, uh, two songs we’re rehearsing now and we’ll record ’em tomorrow, I think, and hopefully it’ll be like a summertime 7″, I think. They’re both sorta summertime songs, I think.

CS: Excellent. Well, I don’t want to take up much of your time I’ll just go right into it here. About this 10″ you’re releasing with the Cairo Gang…the charity that you’re working with, could you tell us about them?

WO: What?

CS: Could you explain a little bit about the charity and what it’s for?

WO: Oh, yeah. We wrote these songs…it had kind of a tropicality to it…we wrote ’em and were performing them but thought about how or why to record or release them…it was just two new songs that we put in the sets…and I though, you know, I was just trying to think, at certain times, you know, well, why try to make another record, you know, why make a record, but, you know, I like the idea of being supportive when you can, but, you know, I don’t have a lot of faith in…I have a lot of faith in the intentions of people who run charities [but] I don’t have a lot of faith in the work that actually gets done by a bunch of charities…you know, human nature can get tied up in bureaucracy or corruption or procrastination and I feel like a lot of money doesn’t get to where it’s supposed to go and a lot of energy doesn’t get to where it’s supposed to go. But then I found, uh, around the corner from my house here in Louisville there’s this group that I found through a friend of mine…they have a big warehouse space pretty much within walking distance from my house where they make these extremely portable, functional water purification systems and they take ’em places where water is difficult to come by. They teach people how to use these systems and they can just leave the systems there and they have clean water. I could see the systems there and see the people that were gonna take them to their destinations and teach people and I knew that they were accountable people and I knew that they worked a few blocks from my house so I could always go over there and throw eggs at their windows if they didn’t do what they said they were gonna do. But also the idea of water, clean water, being something very tangible…in terms of health and education can allow people to get their shit together. And it seems, you know I have a perverse anticipation for things that people…people down there…from what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through…what they can bring to the rest of the world, but they won’t be able to do it without the basic building blocks, I guess.

CS: Sure, people like us, sometimes it’s easy to take clean water for granted. Just being born and raised in America, you know it’s a first world country and it’s always just been on our doorstep…

WO: I am actually, right now, standing, coincidentally, in front of a sink in this recording studio and this sink has a leaky faucet. It’s dripping…drip, drip…and you can’t turn it off. That is just beautiful, beautiful, malicious clean water that is just going right down the drain.

CS: Wow, wow. Huh. (Loss for words.) You grew up in Louisville, correct?

WO: Yes, sir.

CS: You see, I grew up in southern Indiana myself, and, uh…

WO: Where at?

CS: I grew up in Bedford.

WO: Alright.

CS: I know the area pretty well and actually grew up watching Louisville television but never actually made my way to Louisville until a few years ago. For some reason my family never went down there. I was actually really pleased. It was really a nice city and it was kind of surprising.

WO: Yeah, not a bad place.

CS: Yeah! One of the things I love the most, about this area of the country, where both of us grew up is just being on the outskirts of the Appalachians…the hills and everything, just camping. So, just reading about you and the things you’ve said, are you an avid camper? It seems like you enjoy the outdoors a fair amount.

WO: I do enjoy the outdoors. In fact it’s one of the few things about southern Indiana is how beautiful it is around there.

CS: Yeah.

WO: I like the outdoors, for sure.

CS: Do you have a favorite camping spot?

WO: I don’t….nooooo, it just depends on who you’re with, I guess.

CS: Yeah

WO: More than just where you are. Haha. I like goin’ out west because it’s just so easy to camp out west. So much easier than the eastern United States. They just make it easy on you. In the southwestern United States, in the parks, like in Arizona and New Mexico it can get cold at night but then you wake up in the morning and it’s so beautiful and, like I say, it’s so easy, and often times the places you can camp in the Eastern United states can get pretty dense in terms of people.

CS: Sure. Yeah, that’s the best part in finding that special place where no one else is at. I mean I don’t see any other reason for camping besides escaping society for how it is or having your quiet time to talk with your personal god whatever that may be.

WO: Yeah, yeah.

CS: Kind of on the same subject…I am always thinking about it during camping or in certain places…where do you most feel at home? Like, to me I feel that way if I am camping or in my apartment. But some people, they live their life on the road…I just watched that documentary on Lemmy, he feels that road is the home for him. Where do you feel most at home?

WO: A number of years ago, I started to notice about five years ago or so there was…it started to take me by surprise, that feeling of being at home…and continues to do so where There’s this, um, There’s this feeling of being…it sort of sneaks up, this feeling of, ‘Wait a second, I feel at home,’ but realize I’ll be in the strangest place. I think I started to notice it really specifically about three or four years ago. I was driving from Kentucky to California by myself and was not always on the main interstates and when I would go into these more older, family-run motels that still had these little kitchenettes or murphy beds in the room, I would walk into this motel room room by myself and feel like, you know I would be caught of guard, I would feel like I was, haha, at home which I don’t necessarily feel like at home. Being at home, yes, it feels like a holding spot or, uh, a refueling spot, or, even feel like school. Being at home is just an opportunity for reading, listening to music, or catching up with friends and family so it feels more like a recharging, refueling, re-education station. And then the places where one can truly let one’s guard down and be all the things that have become absorbed into one’s self are the strangest places, you know? Usually I feel most at home when there is no telephone around. Or an electronic device, or emails, you know, I find, those kinds, cell phones, computers, are feeling comfortable or at home. So if I am by myself or with somebody else and we’re able to be present that’s when this insane comfort feeling starts to come around.

CS: That’s really interesting in that home can be a feeling of anywhere, I guess.

WO: Yeah, I mean I don’t have any children, so I mean, home could just be any old place at any old time.

CS: On the subject of you talking about the feeling of home comes about when you’re not inundated with phone or electronic devices, I also read where you don’t ‘social network’, Facebook and things like that. I’ve heard good arguments on both sides of it. What are your feelings about things of that nature. A lot of people say it brings humanity closer together, a lot of people say the exact opposite. Both of them have rather good arguments for it or against it, so…what are your feelings? Not about Facebook, per se, but social networking in general and how it has changed from a person-to-person meet up to just words on a screen.

WO: I have seen some of the social media reveal its value, most extremely, as we’ve heard in the news in the past month, as a way that people can communicate very quickly about things that are actually happening that require community support or community action. I’m talking about things that have been going on in, um, north Africa…I can see, um…I have used a Facebook page and made a fake name and a fake picture and used it to sort of make a virtual newspaper for myself by becoming aligned with different kinds of musicians or different political causes and getting news from these sources without ever having to share anything…or never…I would never be interested in accessing someone’s page for shared personal information…that seems to erode, I believe, community. But when people are using it in a way of identifying and informing community for things that are kind of vital seems pretty great. I’ve never done anything with the Twitter stuff, that seems to be kind of an unfortunate…um, outside of telling those people that need information NOW about something, it seemed to be taking advantage of our vulnerability to feel like…we feel incomplete. A lot of us feel incomplete most of the time and here’s this thing that composites itself as a temporary completion of ourselves and it’s the furthest thing from that. Ugh, it’s pretty horrible in that it disguises itself as being helpful or informative or positive.

CS: It’s kind of interesting in the same subject of…for this 10″, you decided to just talk to personal blogs rather than actual music publications, mine included. What brought that on?

WO: I think mostly it’s the quality of thought and quality of writing and the quality of readership is higher outside of the music publications more and more because people that are using the internet are so allowed to create their own space that it just seems that the point is clearer, the message is more efficient, the message is better phrased outside of the music media, the music online media, which seems so referential…and my hope with the music, you know, it applies a little to the music but it applies to as many things outside of the music as possible. And it seems that with the rise of…the music media, it supplies itself to where the music seems insubstantial or it loses its value or its applicability to our lives.

CS: Wherein an album becomes not an album but a scale of 1-10?

WO: Yes, a 1-10 in relation to other albums. but, yeah…for example there a list of ten albums and they review them using the same standards, what the hell is that? I mean I have very few records that could be or that I could describe or evaluate using the same set of standards, much less give it a similar evaluation, summary evaluation.

CS: Sure.I’m in agreeance there in that…the general mass media reviewing records on a numeric scale…to me, an album has always been a living, breathing being in its own, and maybe it has to do with getting your information now and quick instead of reading about anything you can just look at a number, and know, “Well, it’s below this certain number I’m not gonna go out and buy it,” and vice versa.

WO: There was a moment many, many years ago, for me, I think it was when Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out and there was a lead review in Rolling Stone magazine about it and I read the review…it seemed kind of a lukewarm review, you know, but the stars they gave it was four or five stars. And this puzzled me and I asked around about it and I was told that the writer writes the review and the editor assigns the stars and it’s basically like they need a lead review, they needed to have a record be four or five stars, but they chose this record even though the reviewer didn’t feel it necessarily merited whatever that status is, excellent or classic. In reality there’s no relationship between the praise a reviewer gives to a record and the quality of that record. There’s no accounting for taste. There’s no accounting for value. The records that are most valuable to me, many of them probably never got reviewed in music magazines and if they were I don’t have faith that they would’ve received four or five stars. They have made my life so much fuller.

CS: There’s so many things that aren’t taken into consideration like environment, who you are, who you grew up listening to, how something can impact your life in a way that would not even touch anyone else’s. It all goes back to what art is and what art is to different people. You, yourself, are an artist in many different mediums…acting, music…uh…

WO: Those two. Haha.

CS: Haha, there’s many more but what I was leading into was I heard a quote from Lady Gaga saying that her art was fame. You know, fame is her art. That was really confusing to me. I don’t get it. I don’t know if you’ve heard that before or heard that quote from her. What does that mean to you? ‘Cause I’m utterly confused by it.

WO: That makes perfect sense to me. Her art is obviously not her music. There isn’t anything…I think she’s figured out a combination of sounds and visuals and I’m sure a lot of behind the scenes politic-ing that makes her famous in a specific way. In a way that she thinks is cool. She uses the medium of music and she uses the medium of being a pop culture figure but it’s not that far from Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons or Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, but it’s a combination of Jeff Koons and Paris Hilton…and there’s Lady Gaga, she has a…it has an art project vibe to it but the medium is this mass media explosion of money, power, and fame. Different people do it in different ways, you know. Donald Trump does it in his way. But I think they’re in the same business, Donald Trump and Lady Gaga are in the same business. Just using slightly different mediums, but not significantly different.

CS: How is it that somebody like yourself that has really stuck to your own way of doing things and making those things happen, and then you are able to find yourself, for instance, in a Kanye West video, you know, one of the biggest stars in the world. How does that happen?

WO: Yeah. Haha. Oh, no. Things just, yeah…I don’t know how things…haha…I don’t know how things happen.

CS: I don’t either.

WO: I don’t know.

CS: I’m not lookin’ for cold, hard facts here. Just lookin’ for conversation.

WO: I never met Kanye West, it was all through Galiafinakis, and that was because, um, I happened to be visiting his farm when he happened to be shooting this Kanye West video.

CS: Oh, so that was all done on Galifinakis’s farm in North Carolina?

WO: On Galifinakis’s farm in North Carolina, exactly. Basically, I drove in, went and sat on the porch, then his camera guy showed up and we just kept sittin’ on the porch and they started shooting and I hadn’t moved from the time that they had arrived there, and they started shooting this video. We were still sitting there and then we just started moving around the farm. I didn’t even know I was going there two days before that. I just thought, ‘I need to get away…oh, yeah, he’s always asking me to come visit his farm. I’ll ask him if he’s around.’ He said, “Sure come on over.” And when I got there he was like, “Oh, yeah, we’re shooting a Kanye West video.” So, yeah.

CS: Are you friends with Zach?

WO: I guess so, Yeah.

CS: How’d you guys meet?

WO: We met because he had an idea a number of years ago where he thought it would be funny if he wrote some jokes and then I came out and sang the punchlines. He kept saying, “Can you come to New York on this day?” I said, “I can’t do that.” “Can you come to LA on this date?” “No, I can’t do that.” Then we were both on this TV program called Wonder Showzen where they did an episode called Horse Apples. And that’s where we finally got to meet face to face.

CS: Excellent. Yeah, it was just an instance of two artists that I admire working together on a video of an artist that I don’t know anything about, and that would be Kanye. I’m kind of slow when it comes to hip hop or rap. I know metal pretty well, that’s what I do most of my writing of, but, uh, yeah, when it comes to that, complete foreign world to me.So, what are some of the other things you’re working on right now?

WO: I guess I am trying to assemble a group of songs to try to make a record about. And it looks like they’re gettin’ there but, uh, I can’t tell if we’re gonna do it sooner or later, you know? And the trying to plan a trip where we play a bunch of music in the state of Florida. Hopefully in May.

CS: Cool. Is this all with the Cairo Band or is this some other…

WO: Oh, the Florida trip will be a trio…Cairo Gang is him [] when he’s in his writing mode, so this next set of songs will be straight up Bonnie songs, but he’ll be involved, I’m sure. He’s in the other room playing the dobro right now.

CS: Oh! Wait, remind me what a dobro is.

WO: Well, actually what he’s playing is a four string guitar which is also a resonator guitar. Means it’s got one of those aluminum sorta speaker horns inside of it that amplifies it.

CS: Okay.

WO: And then he’s raised the nut where the strings ride higher on the neck so he can play it with a slide really easily without the frets getting in the way. A dobro are oftentimes made of fully metal, maybe all the time, and the strings sit fully off the neck so you couldn’t really comfortably play, couldn’t comfortably fret it with your fingers, you have to play it with a slide.

CS: Okay.

WO: But we couldn’t get our hands on a real dobro in time for this session.

CS: Um, let’s see. I’ve basically gone through all the questions I had.

WO: That’s beautiful.

CS: I didn’t really type out too many questions ’cause…

WO: That’s awesome.

CS: You know, we’re both friends with Nico and I don’t like doing interviews and you don’t like giving interviews…

WO: Yeah.

CS: So I kinda based this around having conversation about, whatever.

WO: Haha.

CS: Haha.

WO: Ha, yeah, it’s strange, uh, I don’t really like doing most interviews because…I mean I like talking to people but I don’t necessarily have words to speak about the shit that I’m involved with, I guess? I try to think of things but I don’t feel that they apply to what we’re up to or what I’m trying to do, so…

CS: Sure, sure.

WO: Yeah, when a conversation can go around on different points there’s plenty of things to talk about, that’s just not how it works out. Often.

CS: Yeah, well actually when Nico told me we were gonna do this I had no idea. She just kind of told me outta nowhere that I was gonna interview you, which I think is awesome because I’ve been a fan for a long time and I respect you as an artist. As a musician, actor…you know I think Old Joy is a great movie. Actually, one thing that I’ve always mentioned to people is if I ever got to talk to you…the end of Old Joy…

WO: Yeah.

CS: It always just made me wonder. THe movie’s about trying to rekindle this old friendship and then it had the scene where you’re rubbing the shoulders of the other guy in the woods. What was that about? Was it about relaxing the situation? Was it..uh…I get confused easily, so uh…I loved the movie but I just didn’t understand, well, it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the movie…

WO: One of the great…one of the things I cherish about when I get the opportunity to act is releasing myself into the hands of another, or others. In the case of Old Joy, into the hands of Kelly Reichardt, the director and into the writer’s hands, and to some extent into the other actor, so you know, there are some things, as an actor you are told to do certain things and you can question it aloud or you can question it inside. I like the idea, because I do so much directing and controlling when it comes to music stuff, to not question those things out loud and just be like, ‘Wow, okay, my character’s doing this,’ it’s this great feeling of being allowed to have conflicting motivations or even having conflicting interpretations of the moment because it doesn’t matter. It’s not my responsibility. The responsibility is the director, the overseer, the writer, the editor, they know what these characters are doing and why. I can know somewhat, like in real life. Why am I telling you this story? Why I sing in a certain way? I don’t even know why. I don’t even know what the fuck is happening, you know, when I am fighting with a woman. I don’t know why I am fighting or what it’s about. In music I usually try to not feel that way, in music I try to know why I am writing a line in a certain way or singing it in a certain way but when I’m acting, when the director says, “Now do this.” ‘You know, I know a lot more about this character than she does,’ but she knows a lot more about this character than I do…and I’m gonna wait and see who this character is out of our collaboration. When it comes to that scene, for example, she kept getting very specific on how the action should be and, um, and how fast and how slow and how gentle and how violent it should be. For me, the whole time, it was like riding a wave or something like that. And just following, and then seeing, wow, this is something about this character that I can only see later. That’s basically a roundabout way of saying I don’t know what, uh…I mean I know that there’s…I am certain that my character a certain perverse hostility towards humanity in general, you know but it was covered up by this supposed openness, but the openness never gets repaid. When a certain kind of person is really free, you know, or easy going, they think that’s the way to experience the world, that’s the way to receive positive energy from people and it doesn’t always prove to be the case. The result is this person has these resentments, or sometimes…yeah, resentments, or anger, or violent feelings that they don’t even understand because it doesn’t enter their program. You open up your doors to the morning and say, ‘I’m gonna make love to this fucking world today.’ And at the end of the day the world has not made love back to you and you don’t know what to do with all the negativity. By opening up your arms you let all this negativity into your space, and then what do you do with that? You’re not prepared! Your whole point at the beginning of the day was, ‘This is all gonna be great, this is all gonna be beautiful,’ and you opened your arms and you opened your mind and what came flooding in was not all beautiful, and you try to be positive the next day but that’s ignoring the fact that you have taken in some sort of hostility or injustice or whatever terrible things that just came flooding in when you opened yourself up to it. Specifically a character like that who keeps saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna do this, and think this and nothing can go wrong,” but of course everything can go wrong. It’s not taking into account the duality of the world. There’s a bad turn for every good turn that people offer you. So, this character, does he want to screw him over by drowning him? Does he want to screw him over by making a pass at him? This vulnerable moment when it would throw disharmony into his relationship with is pregnant significant other? Does he even know? Or does he want to create a bond between them that is unlike any other bond that has never been experienced before? He probably doesn’t even know at that time.

Good question.

CS: Wow. Yeah, thanks. Good answer. Now I feel like sitting in silence for a little bit and mulling that over.

WO: Well, mull it over and I’m gonna go back in and sing a song with these folks.

Download audio here: Don’t read, listen.

2 Responses to “Making Love to the World: the Chode School Interview With Will Oldham”
  1. Dave says:

    Very nice interview – my favorite part was after the interview “ended” and he spoke about acting and his ideas around the character he played in Old Joy. What I liked about that movie was how much of the interaction and character development was outside of the dialogue. I’ve picked up Wendy and Lucy and look forward to watching that as well.

  2. Thanks. I always said that if I ever talked to him that I would ask him about that. He was such a good conversationalist and pleasant guy to talk to, despite a lot of interviews he does where it is very limited in response. I think it may have something to do with jerks trying to pry into his life. That is none of my business, nor anyone else’s. Thanks for reading.

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