Born Bill Callahan in 1966 in Maryland. Addresses: Record company--Drag City, P.O. Box 476867, Chicago, IL 60647 Phone: (312) 455-1015.
With a rotating lineup of backing musicians, though most of his early releases were one-man efforts, Bill Callahan has released work since the late 1980s under the Smog name. A pioneer of the lo-fi movement, the eclectic songwriter and minimalist musician combined elements of rock, blues, country, and experimental sounds that usually revealed a dark and hopeless view of the world. His words are largely intimate self-revelations: melancholy, often bitter pessimisms that veer between painful candor and self-parody. His low-end production style has said to have been an influence on such bands as Pavement and Guided by Voices. Throughout the 1990s, and especially since the issue of The Doctor Came at Dawnin 1996, Callahan amassed a loyal cult following, primarily in the United States and Great Britain. One of his most vocal supporters includes Lou Barlow, the indie rock guru and leader of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion.
Despite comparisons to diverse styles and other musicians, such as Neil Young and the Replacements, Callahan always hesitated to align himself with one particular genre. "It's hard to wake up in the morning and say, `I'm a country musician today,'" Callahan explained to Corey duBrowa in Magnet magazine. "Or, `I'll be a rock musician now'--(those) jackets don't really fit. You can't look at yourself in the mirror and say those things. If there's a rock element in a song, if anything, I'll put an opposite element in there just to balance it." And when asked about how he feels about the music press placing him in the lo-fi category, Callahan replied, "It never meant anything to me, and I never really understood it," as quoted by Marlene Goldman from a February, 1999, interview with the Rolling Stone.com website. "I don't believe in these sorts of movements in music. I don't even think they exist . it's just music, and has been since music started."
Callahan was born in Maryland in 1966. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to England, where he lived until the age of three. The family then returned to the United States, remaining in America for the next four years. At the age of seven, Callahan returned to Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, England, for another five years, before going back to the United States at age 12. Despite his frequent moves between the two countries during his early childhood, Callahan, as an adult, regarded himself as 100 percent American. Nevertheless, the songwriter admitted that he has always felt he never really fit in anywhere he lived. During his adult life, Callahan called several cities home, including Prosperity, South Carolina, San Francisco and Sacramento, California, and Chicago, where he has lived since around 1999.
Callahan, who realized in his early twenties that he would never enjoy working in an office and wanted to maintain his freedom, began his recording career releasing a series of self-made cassette tapes on his own Disaster label under the name Smog. The first of these tapes, Macramé Gunplay, arrived in 1988, while his second cassette, Cow, was released in 1989. 1990 saw the release of three more tapes: the enigmatic, minimalist A Table Setting, Tired Tape Machine, and the primitive yet promising Sewn to the Sky. Sewn to the Sky caught the attention of Chicago's Drag City label, echoed the Residents and Captain Beefheart. And as the vague, atmospheric title and the name Smog suggest, Callahan's repetitive guitar riffs, complemented by his occasional and deeply subdued vocals, formed the bleak soundscapes of notable tracks such as "Garb" and "Fruit Bats."
After signing with Drag City, Callahan released his first EP, Floating, in 1991. Smog's debut full-length album for Drag City, Forgotten Foundation, arrived in 1992. Though still purposefully crude in terms of musical development and production, Forgotten Foundation nonetheless showed Callahan's song-oriented side for some tracks with more traditional arrangements, additional vocals, and more fully developed melodies, paving the way for Smog's follow-up, Julius Caesar. Released in 1991 and recorded with musicians Cynthia Dall and Jim O'Rourke, the spare, folk-inspired Julius Caesar was Smog's first release to earn critical acclaim. Here, Callahan incorporated cello, violin, acoustic guitar, and banjo into the mix and established himself as a focused songwriter. He composed tracks that revealed both elation, as in "When You Walk," and more commonly depression, as in "Your Wedding." Highlights from the album included the upbeat "I Am Star Wars!," the instrumental cello piece "One Less Star," and the immortal "37 Push Ups."
Smog released the six-song EP Burning Kingdom, which found Callahan further breaking with his lo-fi tendencies, in 1994. For the song "My Shell," for example, Callahan's words of alienation are complemented by electric guitar, cello, and drums. Other notable tracks included "My Family," a low-key, relentless psychodrama, and "The Desert," which tells the story of crawling through the desert without water to the accompaniment of a funeral-like organ. In 1995, Smog released another more fully-produced album entitled Wild Love, which found Callahan for the most part abandoning hopefulness--excluding the brilliant "Prince Alone in the Studio," a metaphor for an artist's lonely existence--in favor of a relentless, often bitter pessimism that some critics found hard to take seriously. Throughout the album, Callahan tells stories of an unhappy childhood, failed romances, and life's disappointments in general.
In 1996, Smog released the Kicking a Couple Around EP, which opened with a solo acoustic performance of the song "Your New Friend" from a British Broadcasting Company (BBC) broadcast and also included three tracks recorded and produced in Chicago with Steve Albini. Overall, Callahan again focused on introspection, gloom, and feelings of displacement, such as in "The Orange Glow of a Stranger's Living Room" and "I Break Horses," a song "which can reduce strong men and women to heaps of quivering gelatin," according to Ben Thompson of Independent on Sunday. That same year, Callahan followed with the groundbreaking album The Doctor Came at Dawn, comprised of quiet, acoustic songs of reflection. However, Callahan admitted that unanticipated events led him to concentrate on his acoustic side for his 1996 records. "I'm really haphazard how I work. I like to work around difficulties and not really plan things," he said to Goldman. "Like, I had a keyboard that got stolen [on tour in Barcelona]--the keyboard I used on the Wild Love album. The I made Kicking a Couple Around, which is just with acoustic guitar. It was my reaction to having my keyboard stolen."
Callahan returned in 1997 with another mostly acoustic effort, Red Apple Falls, a country-informed album with unexpected dashes of French horns and steel guitar that bore similarities to the songs of Neil Young. Red Apple Falls took just five days to record, but included songs that reveal concepts that could take years to understand, exemplified in the tracks "Inspirational" and "I Was a Stranger." His subsequent release, Knock Knock, appeared in 1999 and was co-produced by O'Rourke. Considered Smog's most diverse release, Knock Knock featured orchestral qualities and members of the Chicago Children's Choir for the chorus in tracks like "No Dancing," as well as acoustic numbers like "Left Only With Love." Unlike his prior work, which overwhelmingly centered around a doomed and pessimistic view of life, Knock Knock provided a more optimistic view of the world. "It's more forward-thinking. I guess I had some realizations about not letting things crush you," Callahan explained to duBrowa. "The fact that you can always move you don't have to stay in a bad place."
by Laura Hightower
Released series of self-made cassettes on own Disaster label, beginning with Macramé Gunplay in 1988; signed with Chicago's Drag City label, released EP Floating, 1991; released debut album for Drag City, Forgotten Foundation, 1992; released acclaimed album Julius Caesar, 1993; released The Couple Came at Dawn, 1996; released the more optimistic Knock Knock, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Macramé Gunplay , (Cassette), Disaster, 1988.
- Cow , (Cassette), Disaster, 1989.
- A Table Setting , (Cassette), Disaster, 1990.
- Tired Tape Machine , (Cassette), Disaster, 1990.
- Sewn to the Sky , Disaster, 1990, reissued by Drag City, 1995.
- Floating , (EP), Drag City, 1991.
- Forgotten Foundation , Drag City, 1992.
- Julius Caesar , Drag City, 1993.
- Burning Kingdom , (EP), Drag City, 1994.
- Wild Love , Drag City, 1995.
- Kicking a Couple Around , (EP), Drag City, 1996.
- The Couple Came at Dawn , Drag City, 1996.
- Red Apple Falls , Drag City, 1997.
- Knock Knock , Drag City, 1999.
- Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to `90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
- Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1997; January 29, 1999.
- Guitar Player, May 1997.
- Independent, April 19, 1996, pp. 8-9; October 22, 1997, p. 4; February 12, 1999, p. 12; May 18, 1999, p. 9.
- Independent on Sunday, May 11, 1997, p. 18
- Magnet, April/May 1999, p. 25.
- Washington Post, February 26, 1999.
- "Quiet Knocking," Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (January 14, 2000).