Willis Earl Beal Bonus Q&A
The Trouble I've Seen
Jan 09, 2014
Photography by James Loveday Web Exclusive
Willis Earl Beal wants you to know that he considers himself a fortunate man, or, in his words, "more fortunate than unfortunate." But from the outset of our hour-long interview, it's clear that Beal is growing weary of his life as a musician. Pushing out his words with a tangible sense of frustration, he speaks like someone who has thought through every word that comes out of his mouth, as if he's been walking around repeating an internal dialog and just waiting for an opportunity to vent. Still, one gets the sense that Beal is nothing but sincere when he admits that things could be worse. After all, he has a critically-acclaimed new album, Nobody Knows, a startling leap forward from his engrossingly primitive 2012 debut, Acousmatic Sorcery. He also took a starring turn in Tim Sutton's Memphis, playing—what else—a conflicted musician, adding yet another unexpected chapter to a life that has been marked by struggle and success in nearly equal measure. Today, however, Beal is mostly interested in talking about the former and not so much the latter. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Willis Earl Beal, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on him.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): How are you doing today?
Willis Earl Beal: Confused, as usual. I would imagine that people looking from the outside would say, "Well, everything is very simple. It's very cut and dry." And I suppose it is. It could be. But it never has been for me.
Are these feelings particularly prevalent right now, since you just released an album?
Particularly prevalent, yeah. I don't know if you even bought the first record. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't. But I made a statement about the first record about how I'm a prime example of why anybody can do anything within the constructs of a conventional civilized society. I just express. I just do it the best way I can do it. I don't fuss over the small stuff. If I want to write a poem, I'll write a poem. If I want to compose a song, I'll compose a song. I don't need training to do that. And that's what it's about. I just resent the whole thing. But right now it's my bread and butter. I'm waiting on a check from Universal right now, you know what I mean? But, shit, I've got to pay taxes.
Would you rather not be making music? Is there something else you'd rather do?
Honestly—and I'm not being random here—my dream is to have an evergreen tree farm somewhere in Oregon. And to have the farm and make music in my spare time, and then when Christmas comes around, I'd take a trailer, and I'd put all the trees in the trailer down and I'd go down to the city and I'd sell them. So I'd make money during Christmastime, and I'd make money by doing mail order and selling music and my art. That's the way a real man is supposed to live, off his resources and doing things that he loves and doing things that are peaceful. And not begging somebody. And not waiting for the record company, like, "When am I going to get paid? Are you going to help me out with the tour? Do the people love me?" None of that crap. I want to be where people, if they want me, they know where to find me. I'm 29 years old. You've got all these young kids at all these music festivals, and I go to them and I'm seen as some young rookie novice, and I'm like, "You may be a seasoned veteran of holding a guitar and standing in front of people and shouting out lyrics, but I'm a human being. I've been alive for 29 years, and I'm just as valid as anybody else." That's the point, and that's what I represent—humanity. Not a bunch of fucking bullshit music. I got pretty good reviews for my record, too, but it's a frustrating scale to be put on, especially when people don't see that what I'm saying is bigger than that. And I'm not mad at you. Please don't think that I'm mad at you—I don't even know you. I'm just shouting down the phone.
You got any questions?
Sure. Absolutely. I was wondering, when you started pursuing a career in music, did you expect this to be the outcome? Or is this something that you've only realized since?
I never pursued a career in music. I got out to Albuquerque—you know the story. When I finally got to the place, it was just a natural thing. I started listening to music for the first time when I was in Albuquerque, too. I was just like, "Wow, it's cool. I want to hear my voice on tape." And that's what I started doing. And I never, ever, ever, ever sought out shows or anything like that. I didn't go to shows to see other artists, because, to me, I was too jealous of other artists. I would go to poetry open mic nights and recite poetry, but if someone came with a guitar, I'd leave. And then when I finally started to perform for people, it wasn't even because of any desire to be famous, it was more out of boredom. I would perform a cappella on the corner of Central Avenue. Sometimes a guy would have a guitar, and I wouldn't walk away from him, because I'd convince him that I'd make him some money. A lot of times, I'd have some money in my pocket, and I'd make him some money. He'd just be sitting there lonesomely strumming a guitar, and I'm thinking, "This guy is going nowhere. I want some attention, and he needs some money." And the attention that I wanted wasn't like, "Oh, I want to be famous." It was like, "Maybe I can meet a girl or something." I was starting to write songs myself, and I had tried to learn how to play guitar, but I didn't have the patience for it, so I cut that out. I bought a little rinky-dink guitar, and I tried to layer things and see how I could use that instrument in my own way. And that leads to a lot of my beliefs now about not being a traditionalist ever, because that shit's dead in the water, unless you want to be a composer, like a symphonic composer.
So you were just looking for a response?
Yeah, just a response. Really, it was all about ladies. That's all it was about.
I've read that you don't really like to play shows, either.
No. I don't like that stuff at all. I like to travel, and I do like to be around people. But I would much rather not be the center of attention, and I'd much rather travel and be writing my novel, rather than standing on a stage and trying to get people to understand something. Really, honestly, I'm a little bit deluded, because I should realize that people don't come there to listen to me talk about my beliefs. They're coming there to listen to my voice, and I can't blame them. But my motivations are different than their motivations.
You're writing a novel?
I'm always working on my novel. I write a lot, but I haven't written in a very long time. I guess the reason that I haven't is because of the career. But I'm very prolific in terms of recording. I record a lot, and I've got a whole other record, and it's going to be called A Place That Doesn't Exist, and I'd like to give it away for free. But I'm not entirely sure. Seeing as how I used other musicians on this record, and I'm not sure if that would be the best use of resources to just give it away for free. But I would like to.
Is making music cathartic to you?
Everything is cathartic to me in terms of creativity, but, specifically, yeah. I love to record and I love to write lyrics and tinker around with instruments. "Tinker around" is the operative term, because I don't play instruments in the way that other people play instruments, because I'm not trained. What interests me about an instrument is not picking it up and playing chords and all that. It's just a particular sound, of one string or two strings or one key or two keys. So I don't really see it as other people see it, I think—not that I know how other people see it. But it's all based on feeling and intuition, and if the intuition and the feeling is not there, then there's no song. On top of all of that, I'm constantly humming and singing to myself, but it's all totally organic. So that's why I don't really like working with other people initially. On Nobody Knows, for example, I did work with other people, but it started with me in the apartment or wherever it is I was at the time. And if I needed some help, I'd send it on down the pike to Matt DeWine or Rodaidh McDonald, and I'd tell them, "I want to add some strings" or "Add a bass guitar" or whatever. The only thing I don't touch is my voice. That's the only thing I refuse to...I won't autocorrect it. No pitch correction or anything like that. But the instrumentation, I fuck around with.
But, honestly, I didn't fuck around with it too much on this record, as you can see. "White Noise"—nothing was done with that. That's just me half-assed playing the guitar like a lap steel, and then other songs like "Ain't Got No Love" or "Coming Through"—that was played by other people. I initially laid down the composition on those songs, but I didn't particularly feel like those compositions were suitable for what I was doing. "Coming Through," me and a guy named Miles Raymer actually composed that song. And I liked it, but it fell apart at the end, and I guess the producer felt like we could do better. But I enjoyed that falling apart at the end. I wanted to put that on the record, but then they recorded a tighter version of what it was that we had done. "Ain't Got No Love" is actually very literally note-for-note a song called "Masquerade" that I did on Acousmatic Sorcery [as a bonus track], but they added some synthesizer and they interpreted it in their own way. I had a pretty strong hand in each and every song on the record, and I led them every step of the way. My hands are all over this thing, but there are people like Rodaidh McDonald and Matt DeWine and a guy named Alex Epton and Jahphet Landis and Cat Power. There's a lot of people involved in helping me bring this to the table, but it was just a matter of knowing what it is that you want, and you've got the resources.
That must have been a thrill, to have Cat Power on the album.
Oh yeah. Most definitely. When I was down in Albuquerque, she was a spirit guide for me—her and Bob Dylan and Vincent Gallo. These people were voices in my head—Nico and Lou Reed and Scott Walker. I can name all these people, and I discovered them all when I was in Albuquerque.
How did you meet her?
What happened was that she had gone to Tokyo, and I had went out there to do some damn thing with Bloc Party and Here We Go Magic and some other bands. And she had discovered me out there. A couple of people asked her, "Have you ever heard of Willis Earl Beal? We think you'd like him." And she looked me up on the Internet and liked everything she saw. She did not know that it was her on the cover of Acousmatic Sorcery. She decided that she dug me and she called my people—that's a strange thing to be able to say, "my people"—but she called my people. And now we're friends. When I was in Albuquerque, I never thought of her in a romantic way, and I still don't. Like I said, she was a spirit guide, and every time I see her, she gives me something new. The one time she gave me a necklace, like a prayer necklace, where every bead is a prayer. You just say, "I can choose" for as many beads as there are. And the second time was in Amsterdam, and she gave me a bracelet—it was a pentagram bracelet. I don't know why in the hell she had it, but she gave it to me, and I treasure it simply because she gave it to me. I wear it occasionally and people look at me like, "He must be a Satan worshipper." I don't even believe in Satan, but it has special meaning for me. I've got a wife, so there's no funny stuff. But there are times when Cat Power looks at me as though she has always known me, and that's something that I'm totally not surprised about, because I was a nut, man.
I used to just fantasize about so many different things. I'd take a picture of myself, cut it out, put it next to a picture of some person that I admired, like John Lurie or Jim Jarmusch or Cat Power—any number of them. And I'd put my picture in the midst of all of them. I'd make sort of a collage, like we're all in the same room, and then I'd Xerox it again, so that all the pictures would have the same tone. But then some would be darker than others, so I'd color some in and make it all even, and then Xerox it again. I'd Xerox it a million times, and I'd put these pictures all over my apartment or write little affirmations. I used to study voodoo, witchcraft, I prayed—anything spiritual, I devoured. It was less about skill for me and more about faith. Prior to going to Albuquerque, I had turned away from religion. During those days, I got to be very, very religious. This time around, I'm not religious at all. I think that I laid the groundwork, the spiritual groundwork, for me to be on a path back then. I did a little bit of sorcery back then, and now I'm living it out. Certain things happen, they happen, but they don't happen the way I thought that they would, which lets me know that you can't control everything. You can paint the picture, but you can't control how it will affect other people, and it might look a little differently than you thought it would. Because I sure as hell never thought that I'd be married by now. I didn't think that.
I was also wondering about the movie you are in, Memphis. How did that come together?
That thing just came around randomly. Somebody called my manager and was like, "We wrote this character, and we think that Willis is the character that we wrote. Does he want to be in the movie?" And I said, "Of course," because I've been a film buff for a long period of time. They showed me a clip of [Tim Sutton's] movie Pavilion, and that's the type of film that I like to watch, a slow-moving, laconic, sparsely-plotted film. And I'm like, "This looks awesome, and if he can make me look half as chill as these actors, then cool." So I got involved in the project, and I thought that it was going to be seamless, but I found it to be incredibly difficult, mainly because, being the narcissist that I am, I always wanted to tell my story but tell it on screen. I had written a couple of screenplays, but they were really, really lackluster. So getting this script, I thought, "This is great, because this is a character who is not dissimilar from me." But it turned out to be very difficult, because I started to feel like I was exploiting myself. Basically, I felt like some sort of basket case, and it was all being filmed. So me and the director got into a couple of arguments, but we resolved it, and we ended up coming up with something that we all felt was really great. I'm a better person for having done that film, because we went through a lot, and then we went down to the Venice Film Festival. And we take this thing that we've created that's going to last forever, that we all feel great about, and we take it down there to watch it and sell it. Let's just say this, man—there's no cream filling down there in the middle of the ice cream sandwich. It's just hollow, man. You've got something that you love right there, and they're just so damn callous. People walking around there, they're not looking for anything with heart. They just want the bullet points checked off: is there sex? Is there exploitation of some kind? Is there some sort of stereotype that's being fulfilled? Is it going to make a lot of money, or is it going to make a small amount of money? I don't want to say that whole fucking thing is rigged, because there are some good people, but the surrounding hullaballoo was really disconcerting. That said, Venice itself is a lovely place. Lots of beautiful things. But the film festival was a damn shit-show.
So what would be a gratifying response to Nobody Knows?
I've already had it. I've already read certain reviews that were so heartfelt. I'm not sure that they weren't biased, but it's nice to have a few lunatics on your side who see things that you didn't even intend. That's the best compliment, to have the lunatics on your side.