Prince of Darkness

Will Oldham plays in the shadows

by Philip Brasor

Why did Melt Banana, a local avant-punk band, open for Bonnie “Prince” Billy on his first-ever concert tour of Japan. Simple: Melt Banana like the music of Will Oldham, the man behind the moniker, and wanted to be part of his final show at O’Nest in Shibuya.

The match-up says something about Tokyo’s indie-music scene, where so-called genre differences make no difference to people whose appreciation of music has more to do with energy and imagination than it does with style and image. Still, you would be hard put to find a more contrary combination: Melt Banana’s music is angular, harsh and ear-splitting, while Oldham’s is smooth, slow and often very quiet. The only thing they have in common is intensity.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy plays a timeless kind of American folk music, but it isn’t pastiche. Oldham, who always uses a stage name, crept onto the indie scene in 1992 as the Palace Brothers with an album called “There Is No One What Will Take Care of You,” which sounded like a field recording made during the Depression. The songs, almost all originals, were about sin and retribution, drunkenness and fornication. As the nascent alt-country movement gained momentum, Oldham continued to release records under the Palace Brothers umbrella (Palace Music or Palace Songs or just plain Palace) that gained in sonic fidelity but lost none of their chilling authenticity. Unlike the music of a lot of contemporaries who were also exploring more traditional styles of music, Oldham’s songs were and still are felt rather than willed. He was often lumped in with alt-country or with anti-folk or with the purposely depressed style know as slowcore, but he didn’t belong to any of them. His songs, especially the ones he’s written since becoming Bonnie “Prince” Billy in 1999, are sui generis.

Oldham’s O’Nest show, however, wasn’t sui generis. It opened quietly enough, but soon turned into a rock concert of the conventionally loud sort, pushed upward in volume and energy by guitarist Matt Sweeney, formerly of the New York hard rock band Chavez. Surprisingly, Oldham matched him with a fierce vocal performance when fierceness was called for. On record, Oldham’s high, dry tenor comes across as so fragile that it seems on the verge of turning into dust and blowing away, but at times during the concert he was practically bellowing.

The original recording of “Death to Everyone” (as in ” . . . is gonna come”) on the first Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, “I See a Darkness,” was a swampy dirge that Oldham sang evenly, matter-of-factly. At O’Nest, he could barely contain himself, his body bobbing up and down, head twisting to the side. When he got to the fire-and-brimstone coda, “Death to me and death to you,” he called down the angels. The bobbing continued for a very dramatic reading of “Nomadic Revery (All Around),” during which Oldham looked the audience straight in the eye.

The next morning, in the Akasaka office of his Japanese record company, Oldham is relaxed and rested, looking me straight in the eye as he answers questions. The intensity of his gaze is compounded by a woolly blonde beard that covers his mouth except when he smiles and a head that is nearly shorn of hair.

You could call this Oldham’s “mountain man” look, as some writers have because they think it goes with the image projected in his music of a certain Appalachian species of Pentecostal preacher. On close inspection, though, the look has less to do with the Old Testament than with the New Bohemian: the left ear is pierced three times and on one hand is a huge, heavy-looking silver ring shaped like some animal’s head.

More significantly, Oldham’s speaking voice betrays nothing of his upbringing in Lousiville, Kentucky. It’s soft, totally accentless, and given to the kind of questioning upward lilt that characterizes the speech of any American who grew up in a suburb sometime in the last three decades.

Oldham is clearing up a confusion about the various relations among the four band members. His older brother Paul plays bass, but Matt Sweeney and the drummer, Spencer Sweeney, are not brothers. They’re cousins. “I met Matt about five years ago,” he explains. “I was living in New York City and he was living with a friend of mine from Kentucky.” Oldham has lived in a number of cities since first leaving Kentucky in the mid-’80s (he lives in Louisville now) and has in the past referred to himself as a “nomad.”

He is a trained actor and pursued a career as one for a short time before falling into music. His biggest role was in John Sayles’ 1987 epic “Matewan,” about a mine strike in 1920s West Virginia. Oldham played a preacher. Though the character seems to have made an impression on him, it’s only an image. He’s quick to point out that he doesn’t like the “roots” tag, and his music’s timeworn qualities are incidental to his lyrical vision, which is singular to the point of perverseness.

As if to prove once and for all that he’s not some skinny, pale inbred from deep in the Ozarks, he has re-recorded 15 of his Palace songs in a modern country vein for his new album, “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music,” which was released last week.

“For almost a decade I’ve been thinking how great it would be to have access to a real solid session with real session musicians,” he says. Many of the Palace records were recorded on tape machines in living rooms or in studios with only a few musicians, most of whom were family and friends, and as Oldham’s audience has grown into a worldwide cult he can now afford something less spartan. But even if he can do it financially, there were “politics” that got in the way.

“By ‘politics’ I mean, who is going to make the introductions,” he explains. “You could just hire [the musicians], but then there’s going to be suspicions or distance or coldness. So we worked with this guy Mark Nevers, a Nashville-based engineer, and forged a chain of trust. If he got people to do the sessions then they’d know we weren’t bullshitting.”

Oldham met Nevers through Drag City labelmate David Berman, the leader of the country-rock band Silver Jews. “Mark produced ‘Bright Flight,’ my favorite of the high-fidelity Silver Jews records. The first few Silver Jews records were all done on hand-held tape recorders, and then they started working in the studio and I thought those records were two-thirds awesome and one-third lacking in focus. It was frustrating. Mark was able to deal with some of David Berman’s nerves in the studio, which was one of the big stumbling blocks in making those records 100 percent solid. And this one was 100 percent solid.

“Nashville is only three hours away [from where I live] and I called David and said, ‘Do you think I should call Mark?’ And he said, ‘I’ll call him for you.’ And we went down there and did ‘Master and Everyone,’ the previous Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album.”

Ever since “I See a Darkness,” Oldham’s records have become more aurally polished, but they remained for the most part tonally dark and instrumentally spare, and “Master and Everyone” was no exception. “But we got a couple of session people on that and it was so cool. So we started talking about doing a whole record like this. Mark was really excited about it.”

Nevers assembled a crack band of Nashville veterans, including the legendary blind pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan and drummer Eddie Bayers. “They’re all these great studio musicians who never get a chance to play together anymore,” Oldham says. “They have to play on modern country shit that they’re not happy playing on. I mean, they’re happy that they have work, but it isn’t fun. So Mark thought it would be awesome, because he’d never gotten to work with all these musicians in one session. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ “

Musically, the songs are a perfect fit. Oldham’s melodies are already loitering somewhere in the country neighborhood. Set against the sometimes rollicking Grand Ol’ Opry arrangements, his voice sounds smokier, more seasoned. What’s missing sometimes are the emotional subtleties that made the original Palace songs so striking and disturbing. “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” a true downer (“When you have no one/no one can hurt you”), has been filled out with lilting pedal steel, weeping fiddle and complementary female vocal, changing the emotional tack of the song from despair to longing.

The only cut that retains its sense of dread is “Riding,” probably because it’s about incest. “She’s the only girl that I loved well,” says the narrator about his sister, as an ominous storm of pedal steel and eerie electric guitar brews in the background. “We were raised together and together we fell.”

Oldham has covered conventional country songs before. During the interview, he sings a line from a George Jones tune he once recorded, “one of his more rockabilly songs.” He even recorded a song by country-pop superstar Tim McGraw, who is the polar opposite of Oldham in terms of image, at least. Oldham is not interested in McGraw’s image. He only cared about the song.

“I think I’m crippled by an inability to recognize genres,” he says. “I know it’s divided on the radio. You can listen to a station that calls itself country or listen to a station that calls itself classic soul, but you’re going to hear as many good songs per hour on either station, no matter what the station is, unless it’s a college music station because they think too much about what they’re going to play.”

He’s therefore unconvinced that his own songs, which can be dramatic, run the risk of becoming melodramatic when dressed in modern country garb. Many are about infidelity, for instance, a hackneyed theme in country, but to Oldham there are no hackneyed themes in country.

“I think the melodrama is there because it’s there in the audience’s lives and it’s there in a lot of the singers’ lives as well. The people who listen to those songs and help them sell millions of records are living those lives, which are ridiculous to so many other people. They feel good when they hear on the radio that somebody else is feeling that.

“If you can’t learn something by paying attention to what’s going on in your own house or getting it from ‘Jerry Springer’ or ‘Cops’ on TV, you might think, ‘Oh, that song isn’t just all funny.’ You might think, ‘I broke my hand a couple of months ago in a fight with someone and how stupid is that?’ Or presents thrown out of a second-story window on Christmas Eve before you’ve unwrapped them because you got into a fight with someone. You can make a good song out of that, I guess.”

The song is the thing and exists independent of all other considerations, including the singer himself, which is why Oldham doesn’t like to explain the ones he writes. It’s also why he created Palace and now Billy, who is still useful.

“In terms of do-it-yourself and not having a manager or anything, it’s handy because if I see my picture or my birth name I don’t relate to it at all. I know that the person taking that picture or writing that doesn’t have any idea what they’re doing. It’s a projection that doesn’t have any bearing. It’s better to have a constructed name and a constructed image, because then I can say, ‘Oh, I know what they’re talking about.’ I don’t know what my motivations are. I’m just trying to make a living. I don’t feel responsible for anything beside somebody buying a record.”

When it’s pointed out that an instrumental EP he recently released, “Seafarers Music,” has his birth name attached to it, he explains it’s because the music was commissioned; in this case, for a documentary about sailors in Rotterdam. “If somebody likes it they’ll know how to get in touch with me so I can get another job.” At that is at least the second time he’s done soundtrack work for a marine-related project, people who only look at the image might get the notion he’s changing from a mountain man to a salty dog.

“I like the sea,” he says. “It’s less firm.”