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Farewell to the Pathetic Aesthetic 

On Knock Knock, Smog's Bill Callahan rejects lo-fi recording and finds a higher purpose

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
Ten years after his first tinkerings with a four-track recorder, Smog's Bill Callahan has traveled from Sacramento to Chicago to, on this day, a lounge in the Manhattan offices of his publicity company. He's here to describe the impetus behind his eloquent and -- comparatively speaking -- grandiose eighth album, Knock Knock. Released this week on Chicago's Drag City label, it's a far cry from Callahan's lo-fi beginnings: Knock Knock's production (courtesy of Chicago avant-pop guru Jim O'Rourke) includes a children's choir, as well as backing musicians playing cello, piano, tape loops, and keyboards.

Like other four-track indie mavens -- Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, or Palace's Will Oldham -- Callahan feels himself at odds with his modest success, as well as his role as the champion of the lonely lo-fi everyman. "I was like [infamous B-movie director] Ed Wood in my early days," Callahan recalls, "trying to do the best I could with cheap-ass equipment, while always envisioning a bigger treatment."

The big treatment was a long time in the making; Callahan's reputation is built around being a prolific, wispy-voiced whiner, and the unwitting figurehead of lo-fi minstrelry. His early releases, 1991's Sewn to the Sky and 1992's Forgotten Foundation, were exercises in melodic fumbling buried in obtrusive distortion. Like a well-worn diary, Callahan's meager four-track cassette recorder was crammed with confessions and insecurities. Simultaneously, however, he was plotting a new modus operandi, as if to prove there was more beneath the, er, smoke screen of Smog's depressive lyrics.

The changes began on 1993's Julius Caesar, which started Smog's flirtations with genuine studio recording and orchestration, and also resulted in a mid-fi follow-up EP, 1994's Burning Kingdom. But Callahan's lyrical themes remained dour and unyielding: "I let you crawl into my shell/ Didn't mean to do it." 1995's Wild Love continued Callahan's tightrope walk between threadbare acoustic songs and bombastic orchestral pieces, like the title track's lament, "Somebody chopped down my wild love."

Following up 1996's The Doctor Came at Dawn and the next year's Red Apple Falls, Knock Knock shows Smog dabbling in different musical styles while retaining its trademark minor-key melancholy. The approach to songwriting is similar to Lou Reed's: Callahan looks at his song's subjects unflinchingly under a magnifying glass. The repetitive riffs and bruised lyrics of "Cold Blooded Old Times" lock on images of domestic abuse: "How can I stand/ And laugh with the man/ Who redefined your body," asks the song's protagonist. Elsewhere, overdriven dance drum loops and droning guitars supply the backbone of "Held" while Callahan muses, "For the first time in my life/ I let myself be held/ Like a big old baby."

Like Reed's or Hank Williams' work, Callahan's seemingly confessional lyrics are fragments of prose dialogue, visiting charac-ters as they lick their wounds from countless failures and traumas. "I don't know if there is anything that is truly autobiographical," says Callahan. "Any time you put something into words, it becomes a fiction. Definitely, my songs are rooted in my life, but someone else who was there might say that it's not what really happened."

Callahan's approach is to reflect upon common situations within fictitious accounts; as a result, his songs illustrate a universal human experience. Smog's lyrics "are about people who are evolving from one womb to the next womb," explains Callahan. "That's when interesting things start to happen. If you're moving, or falling in love, or getting a new job, those are ways of going from an internal into the external, then back into a new internal thing. I try to write something that's just dropping into someone's situation coldly, without judgment."

While it's easy to consider Callahan's lyrics as, well, depressing, upon closer examination, the words do tend to arrive at positive conclusions or understandings of particular events. "Most people don't listen that closely," laments Callahan. "They think [my lyrics] fit into a pre-made groove that was made long before I was born and was just sitting there waiting for me." Smog's deadpan cynicism is often misinterpreted as a bleak worldview, but the self-effacing mockery of songs like "Prince Alone in the Studio" and the flippant juxtaposition of upbeat music and unsavory lyrics in "Cold Blooded Old Times" reveal a dark sense of humor beneath the band's apparent pathos. "I think it's funny to have a pop song about something heavy," says Callahan.

The changes Callahan has made in his music mirror changes in rock music -- particularly indie rock -- that have been taking shape over the past decade. To put it bluntly, in the early '90s, human beings became interesting again. After new-wave pop, hair metal, and the glitz-drenched superstars of the '80s, audiences began turning their attention to artists who oozed honesty. And fallibility as well: In multiple arenas of expression, many artists shifted their focuses away from the smashed TV sets, paint-splattered canvases, and political grandstanding -- and the dead end of irony.

Musicians, for their part, began to forsake the malefic mutations of recording studios in favor of the immediacy and intimacy of home recordings on slipshod lo-fi equipment. No one was pulling the wool over anyone's eyes -- the music was captured with every blemish and sour note intact, while the lyrics dwelt on the most personal examinations of one's own failures and shortcomings. It was more than amateurism: It was a pathetic aesthetic.

The surprising success of Nirvana's Nevermind marked a turning point toward earnest emotional expression in popular music. That public validation of emotion quickly brought such bared-soul sounds as Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Codeine, Palace, and the Afghan Whigs to public attention. Callahan and his contemporaries represented something altogether different in their rudimentary songwriting skills: They weren't really all that good. They were real people with real limitations and vulnerabilities.

Callahan hasn't renounced these vulnerabilities so much as the lo-fi aesthetic they're generally married to. Currently, he's selecting backing musicians to accompany him on a March tour of the eastern U.S, with later treks to the West Coast and Europe planned. While he once toured alone, playing only guitar or keyboard, Callahan finds his newest music best represented by a group. Numerous singles, EPs, and albums into its existence, Smog's seemingly perpetual musical gloom continues to fester -- regardless of its metamorphosis into a refined studio entity. And Callahan continues to illustrate the everyday significance of his lyrics as found fragments from anyone else's life.

As Smog exits the decade with Knock Knock aimed at leaving the pathetic aesthetic behind, Callahan remains rooted to his sense of universal experience and empathy. Describing Smog's ongoing endeavor, he says he considers himself one among a common multitude. "I feel like a bee in a beehive," he says, "just doing what I'm supposed to do without much question.

About The Author

Dave Clifford


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