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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

The Sadness Behind the (Smog)

Author: Daniel Wolf Roda

Two Fridays ago, Middlebury music aficionados were treated to a captivating performance by the sad-core music minimalism of Bill Callahan. Think of hard-core, slow it down to a crawl, drown it in a birdbath full of self-indulgent teardrops and that's what I mean by sad-core minimalism. Callahan created a profound and chilling emotional experience for those who were brave enough to bear the pain and frustration transmitted through his songwriting.
(Smog) performed several songs that dated back to the early '90s with Callahan, enlisting band members whom he had met only a couple of weeks before this short tour. A look at (Smog)'s history shows us that this is not unusual for Callahan's method of assembly, both in the studio and on tour. I asked him a little about the chronic impermanence of his band-mates before the show. "It's a good way to meet people," he claimed. "It adds a different feel to each song." According to the unremittingly jaded Callahan, meeting people is his favorite activity other than music, but I believe that there certainly are better ways to meet people than to hire them as musicians.
The only time he put together a steady band for a full album was on his "Rain on Lens" release in 1998, which sounds almost like a pop album.
It is surprising how far Callahan's sound has come: since (Smog)'s emergence in the early '90s, their releases have become progressively more hi-fi. In fact, the albums "Julius Caesar," "Wild Love" and "The Cow Tapes," a series of early recordings by Callahan and friends, amount to strange minimal guitar melodies interspersed with somewhat avant-garde noise experimentation.
I asked him whether he had compromised his art with his recent use of cleaner production and more straightforward writing techniques, and he gave me this parable: "For me, making records is like ornamenting a Christmas tree. Each release has characteristics that are different from the last, but they all convey the same spirit and compliment one another."
His music is both relaxed and serious. During his performance he disregarded the audience altogether. Whether we were cheering, laughing, crying or cutting each other with razor blades, he seemed totally indifferent, which is fitting, as it preserved the focus and purity of his numbing, bitterly ironic art form.
Callahan conveyed a deeply rooted, hardened sadness, the kind that takes years of isolation and scenes of failed relationships to develop; call it overdone, or even self-indulgent, but it is credible, and Coltrane Lounge was most definitely filled with a strange and beautiful aura.
Callahan grew up in Maryland where he witnessed the punk rock explosion in Washington, D.C., during the '80s. He recalled seeing Bad Brains and Minor Threat as a teenager. Oddly enough, the music that he makes now is slow and progressive; his vocal lines are deep and lingering; his voice might be compared to the likes of Lou Barlow, Leonard Cohen or even a rather sedated David Bowie, though he told me that he "doesn't think that anyone would want to be compared to anyone else."
It doesn't surprise me that he was not very talkative when being interviewed. In a track entitled "Stick in the Mud" he claims to "hate songs with questions in them" and in the chorus of another song entitled "In the Orange Glow of A Stranger's Living Room," he complains of being "scared s***less." The floor above Coltrane Lounge was no orange living room, but one can see the similarity of our situation: Callahan embodied the still paranoia of one who simply does not want to be noticed.
Callahan's lyrics are clever and ironic, filled with angst that is a mature detour from the sophomoric emo-punk and indie-drama of our day. Dark, self-loathing lyrics such as "the type of memories that turn your balls to glass, turn your balls to glass," were juxtaposed against a very faint, almost happy mixture of guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer and the occasional flute.
For several days after his performance and the interview I was overcome with subtle and philosophical commiseration. I honestly think that Bill Callahan of (Smog) is one of the saddest people I have ever met.