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March 22, 2006
(Smog) is Chicagoan Bill Callahan. Callahan, who used to be known in the recording world as simply Smog, added the parenthetical last year as a matter of differentiating between band name and album title on the cover artwork for Rain on Lens, and he continues to use the parenthetical because, in his words, "aesthetically it is pleasing to me, to contain such an ugly word."

I interviewed Callahan via email, his preferred method. His answers were brief and to the point-just the facts mam. His favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip-or at least it was as a child. He no longer eats ice cream because it hurts his teeth. Late at night he enjoys black and white movies on AMC or listening to the sex and relationship talk show Loveline on the radio. His favorite writer is Scottish author James Kelman, who was awarded the Booker Prize for his 1994 novel How Late It Was, How Late. Callahan prefers cars to public transit and finds the Windy City unglamorous. Of all the songs he's written Callahan has no favorites. He does, however, wish that he'd penned "Little Green Apples," a country song, written by Bobby Russell, that Roger Miller turned into a top 10 country hit in 1968. Callahan seems more comfortable answering silly questions about his taste than he does serious questions about his music, although even here he is terse.

Callahan is a bit mysterious and a bit coy, like the family cat that everyone knows lives in the house yet is rarely seen. But (Smog) is most definitely heard, as Callahan is one of the most prolific indie singer-songwriters of the past decade. Since 1988, (Smog) has released 13 albums (including four self-released cassettes) and at least 13 singles, mostly for Chicago label Drag City, which (Smog) still calls home. His latest album is a collection of unreleased, hard-to-find and out-of-print singles spanning the duration of his career entitled Accumulation: None. This is the first year since officially joining the Drag City roster in 1991 that (Smog) has not released new material. "I recorded this year," Callahan points out, "I just did not release." (Smog) has a new LP (Callahan's preferred language for discussing albums) due out in the spring. He expects to perform some of the material on Accumulation on this tour, although he admits he has yet to actually rehearse with his band, so he's not certain. For the month-long tour in support of Accumulation, (Smog) will consist of drummer Jim White (Dirty Three), multi-instrumentalist Beth Yates and "two other people".

On record, few can match (Smog)'s intimacy. It's a music so stirring and soulful that listening to (Smog) records has become a solitary endeavor. "Intimacy is a word I shy away from. I guess I shy away from any descriptive words for music," Callahan relates. "Music can be appreciated in the presence of others, you just have to find the right others." Although Callahan began as a 4-track "lo-fi" songwriter (which he feels is an "unfortunate category"), he has since moved on to bona-fide recording studios with Chicago producers Jim O'Rourke, John McEntire and Rian Murphy. Regardless of the recording process, (Smog)'s melancholy songs are poignant and lyrically narrative. On "I Break Horses," originally released in 1996 and now re-released in a stunningly different live recording from a Peel Session, Callahan tells the story of on an old horse he is determined to rid himself of. "Well at first her warmth felt good between my legs/ A living breathing/ A heart beating flesh/ But soon that warmth turned to an itch/ Turned to a scratch/ Turned to a gash/ I break horses … I don't tend to them." The horse, of course, symbolizes a woman, and while it's not the first time someone has made a similar allusion it is nonetheless an effectual sentiment. With a knack for both plaintive rock and roll and brooding ballads, (Smog) recalls early Lou Reed and Skip Spence as well as contemporaries like Will Oldham and Crooked Fingers. His ability to merge the abstract with the tangible is his strongest talent. "Real Live Dress," recorded in 2000, marries an eerie synthetic backdrop with lyrics both sexual ("She was wearing a real live dress/ …There's no substitute for human flesh") and succulent ("my anaconda don't want none unless you got buns hun…") in nature. Yes, that's a Sir Mix-a-Lot lyric redone (Smog) style. "[The lyric] is enduring. The song is old but Mix's lyrics still hit. When will they ever not be relevant? Never," concludes Callahan.

But do not pass Callahan off as a fool. His work is ambitious, at times too challenging for even the subject matter to handle. In 1995, (Smog) released the Wild Love album to rave reviews throughout the independent press. It was the album that for many began a cult-like love affair with Callahan's music. Amongst a strong batch of dark songs sat the cumbersome ballad "Prince Alone in the Studio," a song apparently written about Sir Squiggly himself. Callahan playfully pokes fun at Prince, painting the picture of an anal-retentive artist who passes up sex with groupies to nail a guitar track he's been working on for hours. The song's lyrics, which actually refer to Prince by name and at one point mention "raspberry headphones," offended the recording artist previously of (and now again of) the same name. Legend has it that Prince approached Callahan after a (Smog) performance in Minneapolis and presented him with a slander lawsuit. The two settled out of court, although the details of the settlement are unclear (it's believed that Callahan can no longer perform the song live). "Part of the settlement was that I was not to discuss [any details] in the press," says Callahan.

Live, (Smog) is a baffling equation. Often amazing, Callahan dazzles audiences with his wit, poise and boyish good looks. But much like his former girlfriend Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), (Smog) is also prone to breakdowns on stage. At a concert in Chicago last year as an opener for Cat Power, (Smog) struggled to get through three songs, ending his set abruptly and leaving the audience scratching its collective head. Whether the mental concerns are legitimate or gimmick, it all lends itself quite nicely to the hazy lore of (Smog).

As he himself stated on his 1994 single "A Hit," Callahan will never be a rock 'n' roll saint: "It's not going to be a hit so why even bother with it?" he asks. But to a few (Smog) is already a saint of sorts. Not Mick Jagger-like, mind you. But realize for every Jagger there's a Barrett or a Spence or a Rapp, songwriters bubbling under the surface with far more ferocity than the masses will ever realize. (Smog) is part of a growing breed of modern singer-songwriters who make no attempt to humor fame, resisting temptations to cater their art to consumers while crafting truly touching music. "I've got no direction," claims Callahan. "I don't shoot for anything except for the target." More often than not, that equals a direct hit.

SEE ALSO: www.dragcity.com

--
Doug Hoepker
A former staff writer for LAS whom we like to call Diggles, Mr. Hoepker is currently laboring away on various music-based projects. He now works in academic publishing (ahem), but is perhaps still best known by his DJ moniker, The Noiseboy.

See other articles by Doug Hoepker.

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