Will Oldham,1996


It is difficult to describe the music of Will Oldham other than to say it is as lovely and painful, calm and frisky as any encounter called intimate. With his careful, haunting voice and the rotating group of musicians (frequently his brother Ned; in the past, members of Sebadoh and Stereolab) who provide Palace's comfortably steady, never-afraid-of-being-momentarily-weird, -freaky, or -sleepy accompaniment, Oldham delivers the often inexplicable liveliness of living with other people, some of whom will leave you. If this sounds rather serious and somber, well, at times it is, but at others it is very funny: frequently both at once - as in the title of one of the best songs from Palace's most recent album, Arise Therefore: "you have cum in your hair and your dick is hanging out."
In addition to his Palace explorations, Oldham has started, in conjunction with Drag City, his own label, Palace Records. The singles Palace Records produces are by young bands who might not otherwise find their way to vinyl. All have a sharp if idiosyncratic aesthetic; more of the offerings than might be expected are instrumental.
This fall brings two more seven-inch releases to the Palace discography: "Palace Live," done to benefit the Chicago club Lounge Ax and recorded there in the fall 1994, and "Little Blue Eyes." After years of being a fan of everything he's done so far and one who awaits whatever will come next, it was a pleasure to sit down with Oldham in a dark bar on a bright day and discuss music-making.

BRUCE: You had a lead role in John Sayles' movie Matewan in l987. Was there a decision to stop acting and start singing, or was it always singing, and acting was just a way to get the singing done?
WILL: No, it was always acting as long as I was ignorant of what possibilities there were in acting. Then once it was apparent that acting was not what it appears to be to a kid, it was easy to get away from it. Singing is more like what acting should have been - singing and making records, making music.

BRUCE: Had you been playing guitar long when you made the transition?
WILL: No, not really.

BRUCE: When did you start picking that up?
WILL: About nineteen years old. I guess I'd always been singing, not with groups or anything like that, but I always had sung, just unprofessional.

BRUCE: And that was in Louisville?
WILL: Yeah, Louisville, Kentucky.

BRUCE: How do you decide who you want to collaborate with? I know with Hope you were working with people whom you hadn't worked with before. Hope was defined by where you were and where you traveled.
WILL: Everything affects the other thing. Like the "West Palm Beach"/"Gulf Shore" single. I guess those were different ideas: we were gonna be on a tour and have a day off in New York, and we sat down at the pool to try to do a single framer. And then I thought about what that can do for music: a day, just one frame.

BRUCE: You try to always take advantage of what's going on right now.
WILL: Yeah, yeah. And then you have other times, like that song "Stable Will," which was mostly written by this other guy. To get across what the song is about, it was like doing a cover even though no one else had ever done it. It was done within the forces of the cover.

BRUCE: In terms of covers, listening to other people's music - what gives you listening pleasure? What do you listen for when you're listening to other music?
WILL: Oh I'm sure something, but I don't know what it is.

BRUCE: No music you keep returning to? A particular song, particular album?
WILL: You mean over the years?

BRUCE: Um-hum.
WILL: Not so much. Maybe sometimes for reference, because I remember how much I like a song, and I listen to it again, but I usually don't get the same pleasure out of it.

BRUCE: Momentariness. The pleasure to be had right now. By the time you're touring you're on to something very, very different.
WILL: Yeah.

BRUCE: And could you talk about that?
WILL: Usually touring is something that's not enjoyed very much - unless the audience is a strange audience. I get a lot out of a show when I know that I don't know anyone in the audience and don't think the audience knows much about the music. I don't like the idea of touring because it usually is done at a separate time. By the time a record comes out it's at least three months - or more, between three and eight months - after it's recorded and so everybody's changed.

BRUCE: Elaborate on that strangeness. Is it resistance to your music or an element of surprise for both you and the audience because they don't know the music that you enjoy?
WILL: I guess maybe it's the energy of creating a relationship, be it positive or negative. People come expecting the show to build upon their experience with the records - and that often doesn't seem like it's gonna be a positive experience. When the relationship is totally foreign, I get more out of it - because then you can't tell, you can't read any of the energy. So it's all potential energy.

BRUCE: What's your song-writing process like?
WILL: It's different for each song or each album. Usually the songs don't begin to be put together unless there's a goal in mind, like a single or EP or a record - and by the time they become song structures, that unit is always there as well.

BRUCE: Music first or lyrics first?
WILL: Well it depends. Most of the time - all the time - is spent on music, words, sometimes separate, sometimes together. When there is a recording goal in mind, it'll start to get shape.

BRUCE: By the time you go into the studio do you have a rough or a pretty fixed idea in your head of how you want to get it down?
WILL: Well, we go into the studio with lyrics, chords, and a basic melody, but have - usually - no concept what it's gonna sound like, but - usually - the lyrics, words and basic melody don't change.

BRUCE: Do you write things down - pencil and paper - or is it all in your head?
WILL: It depends on the stage that the song is at. Right now I'm working on songs that have been typed out for, like, could be a month or a month and a half, and when the typed-out thing becomes obsolete because there's so many revisions on it then I'll re-type it.

BRUCE: And do you save them?
WILL: Usually. To save paper I'll type on the other side.

BRUCE: How did the German seven-inch "Gezundheit" backed with "Let the Wires Ring" come about? I was interested in Julie Cruise coming in at the end.
WILL: Julie Cruise was something I found out about later. "Gezundheit" is the one Palace song that was actually done on a four-track. I think I used a cassette that was lying around that wasn't my cassette, and the other side had Julie Cruise on it, so I mixed it and it just came in. The religious monologue was on the tape at the beginning. There are a few other songs from that tape, some of them have backwards Frank Sinatra and forwards rap music, from the same cassette.

BRUCE: Had you recorded the songs in Germany or were they done and sent?
WILL: Done and sent. The two songs were done separately, maybe even a year apart. The other song, "Let the Wires Ring," was done in preparation for the first record and was supposed to be maybe a song on the first record and was a tape I had made for one of the other musicians to listen to, to see if we were gonna record it, but we didn't.

BRUCE: Let's talk about the formal differences between a seven-inch and an album.
WILL: Experimentations with a single can be broader. It's committing, like, one song to this experiment rather than committing ten songs to something. Most of the singles I think have much more of a definable atmosphere to them than many of the records, and that's because it was allowable to do that with just two songs. Usually the singles would be done in one or two days, as opposed to a week, which is around what the records take.

BRUCE: What are your decisions in terms of putting out Palace Records when you think about who you want to record?
WILL: If there's music I'm not sure I can convince Drag City of its merits, then I think it would be wasted energy anyway to try to do that. So I asked Drag City if they would manufacture or distribute records that I would assume financial responsibility for. There's not that much effort necessary. It's more, I guess, to give access to a lot of music that other people wouldn't get access to.

BRUCE: And are these bands you're hearing about by word-of-mouth, people you already know, friends of friends, or do you scout?
WILL: Mostly it's been stuff from Louisville. But then there have been - it's gotten to where a guy came up and gave me a tape and we put that out.

BRUCE: The first time I put E/Or's "Mike" single on, it made me stop and think, "Oh wow, this is not what anyone would expect!" I mean when I heard Appendix Out, I thought, "There are connections here." It's not a huge leap to think of your music and then to hear Appendix Out.
WILL: Right. That's probably why they get into the tapes, you know?

BRUCE: But with E/Or, it's not immediate.
WILL: I don't know, I thought it was - it is a lot of ignorance, in some ways, on my part or on the part of other people who are involved with this music. And part of that ignorance shows in people hearing Appendix Out or Songs: Ohio and thinking that they're not as different from Palace music as E/Or or Broadcast Choir. Palace music is almost principally about confrontation and narrative. And that's what E/Or and Broadcast Choir records are: they're essentially about the interaction between musicians, the interaction between the song and the artist, the interaction between the musicians and the history of music, and then about the development of the song from beginning to end, which I don't see in Appendix Out and the Songs: Ohio. E/Or is still very moving to hear to me. I think about it a lot, just because it goes ... It's surprising. Even by the end it goes places. Each time I listen to it, it goes places I didn't imagine it was gonna go, from the first two minutes of the song - and it's, at seven minutes, a pretty epic song.

BRUCE: In terms of your own music and Palace Records, do you like putting out something that is hard to talk about?
WILL: Yeah. There is obviously an obscure quality to a lot of music, including most Palace music, but I think that Palace does work more on the level of, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd music or Bon Jovi music or Madonna music than say on what my impression is of Jon Spencer music or Talking Heads music - music that seems like it cries out to be talked about. The way some of the people have talked about me is not how music really should be talked about and I don't think Palace has been that successfully talked about. Palace is music made for pleasure. It's just that the kinds of pleasure are different from a lot of mainstream music pleasure. I think it hits the hearts of people who just aren't moved by Bon Jovi or Lynyrd Skynyrd - but hits in a way like that music.

BRUCE: Two different friends of mine listening to Arise Therefore said, "It's so good to listen to in the morning." That was their praise.
WILL: When the first record came out the highest praises that I heard came on two separate occasions: people came up and talked to me, two couples, in different cities, and said how important it was, how much of a good time they had together listening to it, and that was exactly what the record was supposed to be. It's a record for being with someone else.

BRUCE: The visual style of Palace's albums and singles and the Palace Records - they're very beautiful objects. Do you have a group of friends that are visual artists, that you go, "That's a great photograph or drawing, I'd like that on an album." In terms of Gene Booth doing the cover of Arise Therefore, was the drawing there before, or was it done just for the album?
WILL: Visuals are very important. For Palace Records everyone puts their own designs together. Gene's drawing was done just for Arise Therefore. I asked if he would draw a cover for the album. He had a tape of the record, and I asked him because he played guitar on this last tour, the last tour just before we were recording. It was about a month worth of shows, and he would draw very intense, detailed flyers for every show. He made them on that day - the day of the show. He would xerox ten copies and just put them up, around, right before the show, but each one was so spectacularly different - it was hard to believe that they could come day-by-day from the same pad and be executed in that way. He also did a T-shirt that's still available in the Drag City catalogue - it's from that time, it's just great. Gene worked on a few drawings and then we just decided on one. I think about half is asking people to do things and half asking if we can use things that we've seen.

BRUCE: The photograph, the delicate line drawings - they're often strange images that do somehow go along with the music and yet it's certainly not the most obvious choice in terms of packaging. How do those things influence you to do something different in your own work - if they do - or are they two separate things?
WILL: It's hard. The drawing on the cover of Viva Last Blues was something that had been drawn maybe a year before. It was drawn not very big and cut out, so it was the contour of the animal. It would be around in different places - in a notebook, in a book, on a desk, on a table, in the kitchen, anywhere - and I always found it to be a provocative image. When the record started to come together, I immediately associated the drawing with the record, but to what extent the drawing affects the record ...

BRUCE: Talk about working with Steve Albini. Does he push you where you might not go yourself?
WILL: He's sort of aggressively hands-off in terms of the music, and I think he's that way all the time with the music that he records. If you could see a thought balloon, he'd be like, 'I'm doing my job, you do your job.' I appreciate that because the session's usually designed around the strengths that are already brought into the studio. When Steve sees respect being given to the recording process, he does his best work. There's some stuff that I think he would be like, "Well, you know I don't really like that," and he'd give an accurate representation of the music. For his participation, it seems like you have to respect him by respecting the things that he respects. His method of recording is one that I find very valuable: to record things with a lot of fidelity to the sounds that are being produced and to be willing to, to be more eager to experiment. It's one thing in music that I like - an accurate representation of what was going on. The Monkees probably didn't really know what was going on with their recordings - if they were even playing their own instruments - and to me the songs don't have very much value. You can tell when there is an understanding going on between the engineer and the producer (if there is one) and writers (if there are writers) and the musicians: those are the coolest recordings.

BRUCE: Do you go record shopping a lot?
WILL: Very rarely go without knowing exactly what I'm looking for.

BRUCE: What was the last thing you were looking for?
WILL: Right now I'm sort of looking for a Traci Lords record. Have you heard that? We heard her song on the radio the other day, it's really good. I went to the record store yesterday and they had two Traci Lords sections and they were both empty. I want to get the new Al Green record, and the new Waylon Jennings record, but I saw it in the display and I'm not sure if it's gonna be very good.

BRUCE: Do you dislike being grouped with country music? What does that mean to you?
WILL: It doesn't mean much. Even when people make specific references I don't understand them because we usually don't have any relationship to what they refer to specifically. If ever someone makes or would make a reference that would make sense to me, I would know what they're talking about, but I guess usually they're talking to their readership. Usually it doesn't make any sense. I don't think they know what they're talking about, if they're trying to really talk about the music.

BRUCE: What are some of the things you've recommended for Drag City's reissue label, Dexter's Cigar?
WILL: The first record by Volcano Sons, The Bright Orange Years. They went on to make a few more records that I didn't like as much, but that record - it came out in '85 or '84, between '84 and '86 - I still listen to it now. It's actually a beautiful looking record, beautiful sounding record, just a really good record. It's been out of print for a while.

BRUCE: You've been touring with Bill Callahan of Smog. While there are connections, I'd say the places you end up are remote.
WILL: This is the first time we've done a string of shows, a tour where he plays and I play. Previously there were a couple times when our tours would coincide and we'd play two shows together - once we actually did five shows together in a row. I only started having conversations with Bill last fall, when we did those five shows. Otherwise we know each other through Drag City and that's also the main reason why we play any shows together. We just did Europe. I thought that was really cool. We played a bunch of places, mostly places that we'd never been before, music we'd never done before, and that was good. When we got back this tour was already set up. I started thinking it was a really bad idea and would have changed it maybe at that time and not done it this way because I think that people will make connections that don't exist.

BRUCE: Could you name one mistaken connection you think people might make?
WILL: Just that there's something similar going on. Our music doesn't seem to have much of a relation and I don't think it's imperative to. With Bill there's a satisfaction and a desire to be solitary at this moment, which is something that, you know, is not ideal - for me it opposes being alive and it's a totally rebel-ish idea. I like using music to do things to be with people, to interact. On every level.

© index magazinegelatin1
Wll Oldham by Yael Routtenberg, 1996
© index magazinetobias
Wll Oldham by Yael Routtenberg, 1996



Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
Site Design: Teddy Blanks. All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller