Billy and Bitchin' Bajas will play two one-of-a-kind shows at The Music Box this weekend.
Will Oldham grew up in Louisville, KY by a bend in the Ohio River, and recorded his debut album, There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, in a shotgun house. Still, when I try to force a connection between his humble beginnings and his upcoming weekend double-header at The Music Box—a musical shantytown just off the winding Mississippi—he’s reticent.
“It sounds like a dream state,” he says. “I’ll see it for the first time in about 30 minutes.” Immediately after our interview on Wednesday, Oldham headed over to the venue for the first of two seven-hour rehearsals with the motley crew of musicians he'll play with Friday and Saturday.
Oldham, performing under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker he has used for most of his professional career, will be front and center, alongside Chicago psych-drone trio Bitchin’ Bajas, with whom he collaborated on the textural exploration Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties just over a year ago. They will be joined by their Drag City labelmate Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang), Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux), and local 11-piece all-female polyphonic Bulgarian choral group Trendafilka, as well as the Roots of Music Marching Band.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bitchin’ Bajas are the main event, and Oldham says they will stick with the “kind of repertoire” that characterizes Epic Jammers, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be overlap between acts. Oldham has collaborated with Emmett Kelly as recently as last year. They formed part of the supergroup Chivalrous Amoekons, along with Angel Olsen and others, and quietly released a Mekons cover album, Fanatic Voyage, in September, with proceeds from the sales going to Roots of Music. The group take striking liberties as it translates the works of its British punk predecessors into modern-day Americana, but the end products all feel somehow true to the originals.
In honor of this weekend’s shows, Oldham says the Roots of Music Marching Band has learned a Mekons song.
“We’ll definitely perform that song with them in their set, and I think some of the kids are into the idea of performing with us when we do our set,” he says. “We have rehearsal with them tomorrow, so we’ll see, because they’re kids, who are rambunctious.
“Their training right now is not in improvisation,” he clarifies. “But if, in association with their musical director, we can communicate an idea that they understand and can enjoy and have fun with, then we’ll make it happen. That’s our hope."
Oldham has connections in New Orleans, and he first came to town to see The Mekons play at Tipitina's when he was 19, three years before he put out his first record. He describes the trip as a “fantastic introduction to the city,” but it was his first Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday/St. Joseph’s Night that got him hooked.
“The first Sunday I witnessed was kind of a revelatory moment,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve had quite that much consuming fun and powerful absorption of a musical experience, at least that I can recall.”
Oldham features Mardi Gras Indians in his video for “There Is No God,” which takes place partly in the Bayou, partly in the streets of New Orleans on Super Sunday. The video was the first of five he shot with an L.A. production team led by producer Clark Baker and director Ben Berman. The fifth video was shot on Tuesday, the first to feature live rather than pre-recorded performance. Oldham has been in town since this past weekend’s Super Sunday.
“We drove in around 4:30 [p.m.], so we went to uptown St. Joseph’s Night,” he says. “It seemed a little more chaotic than in the past, which was awesome on some levels. But in terms of viewing suits, it wasn’t as orderly as it had been in the past. It seems like the colors were mixed together, where in the past it seemed like you saw tribes represented by units.”
The colors will mix again this weekend when Oldham and Bitchin’ Bajas attempt to recreate the timbral experiments of Epic Jammers using The Music Box’s unorthodox array of musical structures. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is listed as the show’s headliner, but the album lists Bitchin’ Bajas first, and their instrumental landscapes are often more prevalent than Oldham’s voice. On Epic Jammers, Oldham uses effects like reverb and delay, allowing his voice to melt into the fabric of the music. These effects are commonplace, but not to Oldham, who has been a stickler for vocal purity in the past.
“I guess in the spirit of collaboration with [Bitchin’ Bajas], it felt appropriate and necessary, so that the voice shared the same sonic realm as all the other instruments,” he says. “And because we’re dealing with repetition of lyrics, it’s OK to have a manipulated vocal, because there’s time for the listener to register what’s being sung. If it’s a lyric that isn’t repeated, I always feel it’s best if that lyric is delivered as clear and unadulterated as plausible.”
The lyrics on Epic Jammers are not only repeated, but entirely poached from fortune cookies, and then repurposed as “mantras” that slowly lose and regain their meanings over the course of eight-minute-long, minimalist odes to the banal.
“There are traditions in other cultures that have to do with lyric repetition, where the performer as well as the audience can get into ecstatic states, and it’s been my wish for a long time to try to figure out how to do that in English,” he says. “Even when Americans do their chanting, they are usually chanting in some language that most of them don’t know, which seems kind of strange. Like I could tell you to chant a certain thing, and you could get ecstatic, and then find out you were saying Your fly is open, Uncle John. You might feel a little hoodwinked by that.”
In 1998, Oldham released an EP titled Blue Lotus Feet, which comprised a series of shows in which he sang English translations of the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Cosmic Chants.” On the earlier project, however, the chants are used as devices in traditionally structured folk songs, rather than standalone refrains.
“It wasn’t wholly satisfying, because they were still these translations,” he says. “Like if you sing most Christian hymns or our own national anthem, when it comes down to it, the lyrics are pretty weird and obtuse, and the more you sing it the more you think, I don’t know what this means. I don’t understand why I’m singing this. It doesn’t feel good. Each time, it seems to get less and less clear what the intention is.
“With whoever the writers are of these fortunes and whatever their motivation is, there’s an intention,” he continues. “What’s the intention? To provide an uplifting contemplative morsel?” He seems unsure. Whatever these writers’ intentions are, though, Oldham clearly believes they are onto something.
“Maybe one day I’ll become a good enough writer that I can write something like that,” he waxes. “So many people are writing songs. So many people are creating new things, and the volume of new things that are being created tends to bury the preexisting things. I think there could be a little more emphasis on the resources at hand rather than feeling the necessity to create, create, create! and consume, consume, consume! We would have a stronger culture the more we emphasized the things we possess.”
To me, the sparse, opaque lyrics on Epic Jammers make the album less accessible than Oldham's previous work. His intention was the opposite.
“I guess in terms of the general public, it seems like lyrics are an obstacle that most folks don’t really care to deal with,” he says. “It seems like most musicians—popular musicians, at least—are making kind of sonic landscapes, and the lyric is not emphasized. Or if the lyric is emphasized, it’s something that’s repetitive and fairly light, not very substantive. The more lyric content there is, the less likely it is that people will listen to it. So that made me think that this record could be listened to by billions more people than other records I’ve been involved with, because it’s lyrically very simple, and people like simple.
“Using these fortunes feels great, because they’re at everyone’s fingertips,” he concludes. “If you buy one, an expensive one might cost a quarter. So it’s accessible, and you can just sing it!”
Oldham still feels like he is translating in real time onstage or in the studio, even when he's dealing with material from the new album.
“You need to understand the energy of the intention as much as the literal intention,” he says. “I came from an acting background, where the idea is to take words off the page and try to to translate into three, four, or more dimensions, and this is the same kind of thing. In any given situation—whether it’s a recording situation or a live performance in New Orleans or a live performance in Anchorage, Alaska—you ideally are translating for the specific audience or the specific situation. Even if you’re using the same words and the same sentence structure, you understand that the situation requires another kind of performance.”
“Friday and Saturday will be different kinds of performance than we’ve ever been involved with before,” he says. “Because if we do it right, we should be translating for the specific audience and environment that we’ll be contained in.”