Willis Earl Beal on Why He’s Leaving His Label and Self-Releasing His New Album
Clearing the Air
Jun 10, 2014
Photography by James Loveday Web Exclusive
When I first spoke with Willis Earl Beal last summer, I was immediately struck by how unguarded he was in venting his frustration and disenchantment with the music industry. He didn't want to promote his new album, Nobody Knows, and he seemed to resent the need to sell his work as a product at all. He didn't want to tour, either, and appeared to be particularly put off by the implication that he needed to have a backing band when he had already traveled the world with a reel-to-reel machine as his only musical accompaniment. In fact, he seemed to cringe at the sound of the word "career," as if using such a term cheapens the art that he'd been creating at home since he was a lonely Army vet in Albuquerque. More than anything, he seemed disappointed. His work was indistinguishable from his life, and he was no longer satisfied with either.
Last week, I received an email from Beal asking if I'd be interested in talking to him about a recent decision that he'd made that would have significant implications for the direction of his career. After much deliberation, he had decided to leave his label, XL subsidiary Hot Charity, and he was preparing to release his new album, Experiments in Time, without the support of a label or a publicity team, if that was his best option. This was a difficult decision, he said, and he wanted to explain his reasoning before other people spoke for him.
This isn't typical behavior from an artist on Beal's current trajectory, of course, and he has a lot to lose by daring to shake off the restraints of the industry that has given him the sort of platform that similarly-minded home-recorders such as Jandek and R. Stevie Moore have never had. But there is nothing typical about Beal, and he seems more than willing to sacrifice comfort for control over his work. After all, if he hadn't been willing to take things in his own hands, we never would have heard about him in the first place.
Make no mistake, it's nothing short of remarkable what Beal has been able to accomplish in three short years. From his 2012 outsider classic Acousmatic Sorcery to 2013's comparably cleaned-up Nobody Knows, he has established himself as a singularly hypnotic talent, an entrancing performer who creates an aura of self-lacerating defiance in everything he does. Even more mysterious is Beal's starring role in Tim Sutton's Memphis, a dazzlingly meditative examination of a musician (played by Beal) who feels so torn by his talent and his desire for transcendence that he ends up drifting into solitude before he fully realizes either. Speaking with Beal, one fears that he could be subconsciously chasing this outcome, too.
Beal's new album, Experiments in Time, sounds unlike anything he has yet released. Full of cold synthesizers, minimalist melodies, and emotionally raw storytelling, it's much closer in spirit to the music he made before anyone knew his name. If Beal sounded somewhat out of place among the glossy production touches and dressed-up arrangements of Nobody Knows, he now has completely reconnected with his inner auteur, playing and producing everything on the album and ending up with a set of songs that reclaim the unkempt idiosyncrasies that some said he lost after his musical makeover. Beal says he hopes to self-release Experiments in Time digitally on August 8 via the website CD Baby (www.CDbaby.com). Here, in a wide-ranging and at times rambling interview, Beal talks about his decision to strike out on his own, the album that he sees as his lo-fi symphony, and the film that seems to have predicted it all.
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): How are you doing today?
Willis Earl Beal: Well, I really appreciate you wanting to do the interview. Or, rather, accepting me wanting to do an interview.
Well, I'm glad that you reached out. I think you've got an interesting story to tell.
I hope so.
So, I guess the main question is what has inspired you to make this move with your career at this point?
Well, a series of very, very tedious circumstances, like legal disputes, misappropriations of funds, songwriting credits—all sorts of things. Then, on top of that, I haven't had autonomy with when I want to release music. Rappers, they do mixtapes and all sorts of things. I had a very simplistic outlook as to what I could and couldn't do from the beginning and what all this would mean. In fact, I probably didn't even have an outlook at the beginning. All I saw was the good money I was being given. The alternative to not taking the money seemed to be just continuing a life of mediocrity. And I can't lie: signing a record deal was the best, most exotic thing that had ever happened to me. But it was incongruous with what I really needed. What I needed was the attention by the record label and the support of the record label, but I think I should have been signed to a more substantial subsidiary within XL Records, because the subsidiary I signed to [Hot Charity] was an upstart. I was the flagship artist. And with respect to the people involved, I just don't think that they were prepared—not only to deal with an artist but to deal with a human being.
I haven't been poor all my life. I was lower middle class—that sort of thing—if that even exists. I got all the food I needed and new gym shoes every Christmas. But it came to the point where I was, in fact, poor. I was on public aid and all this stuff, and I developed certain ideas about the entertainment industry that the moment you got signed, all of a sudden you were destined to be rich. I feel like the people that signed me—not XL but the subsidiary—I don't really [think] they understood my perspective. I think they went into it bright-eyed and wide-eyed, and I think they were very naïve. And I think that I was very naïve, so I believed I was going to be this instantaneous rock star. And there was some hype around me in the beginning, because there was this backstory.
But as I began to go on tour and I began to see just exactly who my so-called peers were, I realized that I was more of a novelty than the second coming of Robert Johnson—which is a title that I never really dug. I'm not a guitarist—I'm not anything like that. I'm a modern artist anyway. I'm a modern musician. I'm not trying to be a throwback. I have influences but a lot of stuff got attached to me that was unfair, and I just felt like I was misrepresented. I don't want to spend time blaming people—I do that enough in my spare time. I want to promote my music. I want to promote my sound and my message. And I was to show people—all the artists out there and whoever would be paying attention—that it's very important to know what you want. It's very important to dream—not only to dream, but to write things down and think about what you want. That way, when you get an opportunity—if you get an opportunity—you'll be able to steer your own ship and they won't be able to dictate so much what they want to do. You'll have that resolve built up in you. That was something that I did not have. I spent a lot of time dreaming, but my mind was scattered and I'd never taken responsibility for my own actions. And when the people came knocking, I wasn't quite ready. But I went out there anyway, because I had a very grubby mentality about grabbing for the money. So I grabbed for the money and the people involved with Hot Charity.
It wasn't all my fault, but I acted like a damn fool on the road. And the reason I did was because I had a false sense of reality. And then certain people weren't paid, and that wasn't my fault. But certain people weren't paid, and I just came out of a legal dispute, and then XL said they would try to help me find another label. A lot of people at XL were really good; they have supported me. But XL is compartmentalized. I wanted to sign with someone else at XL, but it's compartmentalized in a way that you can't really do that. Your people are your people. Whoever discovered you—that's pretty much it. So I talked to a couple people, and they were like, "Well, we'll do whatever we can to help you, because we like you." And I feel like I unwittingly made enemies, not at XL. It's really just one or two people I'm talking about, and I don't want to put their names in here. It's really a shame, because I think that guy who I'm talking about, he really had a pure heart about wanting to take a risk and create an opportunity for someone he believed in. Then, when the shit hit the fan, and I didn't turn out to be this trendy-ass, Ed Sheeran dude.... You know, [the man who signed me] is a trendy guy. He wants to go with the modern times. He doesn't want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about all the lonely psychopaths that listen to music in the middle of the night while riding their bikes. And those are the kind of people I want to make music for. I'm not interested in Ed Sheeran's fans or Bruno Mars' fans or even James Blake's fans, for that matter. I'm my own guy.
I saw how things were done, and I thought, "Okay, I don't want to do things this way." Not that things were bad, but I decided that I didn't want to be a part of the hype train, so I came up with this idea to wear a mask. I had this emblem, this "nobody" symbol and this whole philosophy about subverting capitalism—not really ending it, because you can't end it—but subverting it and promoting things that I started to believe in over time. For him, I believe that was a little bit too much. That was a little bit too much individuality, and he had other interests. We were both interested in different things. When I first got interested in music and started to really pay attention, I was paying attention to guys like Nick Cave and Tom Waits and Vincent Gallo-these are my guys. I don't know who the hell he thought I was going to be—Aloe Blacc or somebody. I don't know.
So the reason I'm talking to you about it is that I've been feeling really stifled, and I wanted to release this record. I'm sure you can imagine: every day you're waiting at home. Your wife goes to work, and you're supposed to be a musician. But you're not making any money, you don't have any money to put yourself on tour, and your only outlet is to make music. And the result of that has actually been good, because I've gotten better at using better equipment and recording my own stuff and self-producing. I don't depend on producers anymore, because that's a whole other headache. I'm at home, and I play a new song for Jessica, and she's like, "Oh, that's nice. That's great." But I've always got a new song, and what am I going to do with this? You may be aware that I released a couple of free EPs. One was because my tour got canceled, and I had been wanting to release that for a long time. But what had been delaying that was that I had worked with a producer on that EP [A Place That Doesn't Exist], and he's the one that I owe money to. And his lawyers say, "Well, you can't release that music because you still owe my guy money." And there's the guy that I'm involved with that says to me, "Oh, yeah. This whole thing is your fault, so quit pestering me to release this music." And finally we get ready to go on tour, and it's canceled! Now, I don't like touring, I have to admit. I always complain about it in interviews. But at the same time, if you're in the industry, that's the only way that you're going to make some money. You don't make any money off record sales. So, naturally, I was thinking, "Damn, that's messed up." This was an opportunity for us to appease the people, whoever had bought tickets, to go ahead and release the music. Honestly, the reason the tour got...well, I'm not going to say it. But this was a chance for us to appease people by releasing that music, and I was really happy that that happened, because I'd much rather be a recording artist than a live singer, anyway. I'll do what I have to do, push comes to shove.
And that second EP [Curious Cool] came about because of total fucking boredom. That wasn't even finished—I just released it. That was a desperation release, and at the same time I was working on my opus. But these were throwaway tracks. I hadn't really fully fleshed them out, and I wanted to see what people would think on SoundCloud, because I didn't think anybody was going to notice them. And, as it turned out, 10 or 15 blogs blogged about them. It wasn't like an international sensation or anything, but it got more attention than I thought it was going to get. And they were saying, "He's XL's most uncontrollable artist" and that there were record disputes. And I did this movie Memphis, directed by Tim Sutton, and then Rolling Stone did this article on it, like, "See how Willis almost sabotaged the movie." I've made myself look like a drunken, difficult asshole over the past three years, and for a little while that was true. But I can blame certain people for the legal difficulties that I've had, and I can also blame some of that on myself.
But the way I see it is that the real problem is a deeper problem, and that problem is with the whole perception of entertainment and signing a record contract and this idea that you're going to be rich and famous. And I've realized over the last three or four years that being famous is not what it's about. It's nice to get people's attention and for people to say, "Hey, I love what you do." We all look for a pat on the back. But when you graduate high school and your main goal is "How many ladies can I get with?" and "How popular can I be?" and "How much money can I make?"—that's a misguided thing that's sold to artists. And that's not artistry; that's something else. That's a certain kind of hedonism. I'm not saying that it's right or wrong. If you want to be a hedonist, go ahead. Hell, I've been a hedonist in my life from time to time, too. What I am saying is that when capitalism and art get involved in this whole rock and roll mentality, it dilutes everything and it makes everything be about trends. Sitting down with a guitar or a keyboard or singing a song to yourself—that's what it's about. You feel something, you put it down, and you share that with people, and you get feedback. Hopefully, it can be a very Zen kind of thing, and you receive what you give. It's all about resources. We're all trying to get resources. We're trying to use our talents to get those resources. You're a writer. I'm a singer; I'm a musician. But we get wrapped up with our roles. That's the main reason I wanted to do the interview. I wanted to promote my record, and for anyone who cares to listen or read about it, I want to set the record straight about what's really important and what I've learned along the way.
So at this point, are you done with XL?
No. Not entirely, because they're trying to help me find a new label. In the meantime, I've decided to go out on my own. You're sitting around waiting on people to do stuff for you, and it gets old after a while. It's like, "Okay, I'm glad that you're going to help me. I'm glad that you're helping me clean up this legal dispute." I'm actually friends with the guy that I'm having the dispute with—he was my sound guy. We talk on the phone periodically, and I tell him, "Well, they're trying to straighten it out, and I'm sorry you're going through what you're going through." We're still friends. He came to my wedding and everything, right in the middle of when he hadn't been paid. I'm not going to get into all of that. But, yeah, [XL] is trying to help me out, and in the meantime I decided that it was time to take a stand for myself and release a record if I'm ready to release it.
I'm the kind of guy that after I do something, I have to hear it drop. I have to see what happens, even if it means that I'm not going to be cool in the process. Nobody wants to hear from one person too many times, and a lot of people have warned me about that. That's why labels so closely curate what their artists release and when they do it, because they don't want to oversaturate people with the product. But even though I do intend on selling it this time, because I need to make some cash, I have to release records and music according to how I feel. And I feel like that's a sign of how I'm evolving as a human being. It's how I communicate. And I'm willing to take a reputation hit if it means that I can express myself at the rate that I feel like. So, technically I'm still with XL. I still have the website and everything, but certain things are happening to change that. Like I said, I don't have anything against XL. In fact, I'm not blaming anybody for anything. There were a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of shit that happened that had to happen that way.
I believe that because I believe in destiny. I believe I'm a much better person than I was when I had money in my pocket. I'm much more focused, and I don't drink alcohol anymore. I'm more healthy. Going on tour, you have this trumped-up idea of what you're supposed to be, and you never feel like you match up to what it is that you think that people think you are. I really prefer not to tour. But if I do have to tour and do a live show, you best believe that it will be my backing tracks and it will be on my terms, rather than me having a band and people telling me "Oh, you have to trend upwards. Once people see that you've had a band, they want to hear bigger sounds." In a certain regard, fuck what the people want. It's like they say, "If you build something, the people will come." There might be five people or there might be 5,000. But I'll take those five any day. I think I have really humble standards and ambitions. I'm already trying to make preparations for getting a second job, to show you where my mind is. Even though I might get a [record] deal, I might not. People are sending me emails, and you don't know what people are thinking. You don't know whether people care about you or not. I have a hard time communicating with the booking agents. These are nice people, I'm sure. I've met them once or twice, and they seem nice. But everybody is so fucking busy all the time, and me, the artist, I'm sitting at the crib staring at the trees. It's really bizarre, but it has given me a lot of time to think.
Are there any artists who have the kind of career you'd like to have if you could?
Yeah. At the risk of repeating this guy's name too much, it's Tom Waits. I've heard that he lives on a farm, and he never really goes on tour. And when he gets ready to release some music, he and his wife Kathleen [Brennan], they get together and make a record and then release it. And [his label] ANTI- supports it and they make the duplications. That would be great, because right now I'm living in a beautiful place in Washington, and I could totally see myself like Tom Waits. And Vincent Gallo, he owns real estate in Los Angeles, and the last record he made was When, and the last film he made was, I believe, Promises Written in Water. And he was like, "I'm not playing it for commercial release. I'm just not. I'm only screening it for my friends. Yeah, I made a movie. I directed it, I wrote it, I starred in it, and I took my time on it. And it's beautiful and no one is going to see it." [Laughs] I want people to see my stuff; I'm not quite so insular. But to have that kind of control—that's what I want. I have that auteur mentality.
In retrospect, was there a certain moment where this whole deal with XL and touring wasn't what you wanted?
Yeah. Many times. I think the strongest moment was when I was on stage somewhere...I think it was in Amsterdam. I was standing on stage at a free concert, like a festival, and I was performing. I was having a particularly hard time, because it had been a difficult tour and I'd had some consecutive shows. The sound quality of the system was bad. There were some people who were there to see me, but I was largely unknown. I had the reel-to-reel machine, and Matt DeWine, my sound guy, was up in the booth. You know, I perform on all emotions, and I was up there singing and a man in the front row, he was yelling and he was drunk and he was setting his drink on the stage. I didn't know what he was saying, but it was really distracting me. So I came over to him with the microphone in my hand while singing this song, and I stomped at him and looked at him to let him know to quit doing that. And he gave me this glazed-over look, like he didn't care what I was doing. At that moment, that man became the face of every piece of rejection I've ever felt in my life. In that moment, I felt totally humiliated, even though it was probably trumped up in my brain. I felt like, with all these people there, I was no longer a performer: I was a clown. This whole thing was a lie.
And I kicked the man in the face, and he fell back in the crowd, and I looked at him. Everything went in slow motion, and he fell back and people moved in to catch him. And at that point, people started to boo. And I stopped singing, and I looked. The music kept playing, because I was singing to my backing tracks on a reel-to-reel machine. And I looked out at the people. That was probably one of the definitive moments you could talk about where I felt like, "You know what? My whole life has been a joke." [Laughs] Here these people are to give me what it is, apparently, that I deserve. So I picked up the microphone, and a normal person would have walked off the stage, but I chose to continue my set. And they booed louder and louder after each song, and I'm told afterwards that during the performance they were demanding that Matt turn off the sound and good ol' Matt wouldn't turn off the sound. And with each song I felt more and more defiant, like, "You know what? Fuck that guy and fuck the people, too." I'm sitting here singing a song, and you don't care about it, but that's okay because I care about it. I made myself feel real proud about a violent act that I committed. I could have given this guy a concussion.
Afterwards, the police were waiting for me. I was going to go across the street. A guy says, "Where are you going?" I said, "I'm going across the street to get a drink." He says, "No. I don't think that's a good idea, because we can't ensure your safety, and we've called the cops. We're going to need you to hold back." I said, "Well, I can pretty much guess why." So the cops came and took me in and put me in this room with nothing in it. It was cold in there. The sole of my boot was gone. My jacket was gone. And I just sat there. The superstar was sitting there with no heel, thinking about everything. And finally it occurred to me that it was just a fucking song. It doesn't matter! It's just a song. The people—they may as well have not been there. The whole thing was a show. I was performing a show, and life beyond the stage is a show. And, certainly, even if that guy was drunk and was yelling at me and being disrespectful, I didn't have any right to kick him in the face. It was ridiculous. That's when it occurred to me that maybe I needed to rethink things and figure some new shit out. I think it cost me $1500 to get out of there, but they didn't charge me with anything. Those Amsterdam cops are some fucking criminals. They took my money.
That's not the first time I got detained in Amsterdam. One morning I was running down the street; I was jogging. And I left my phone and my passport in my hotel room. This was on my last tour when I was with my band. And I just happened to be wearing a mask, because I like to wear masks. Me being an American, I didn't think anything was going to happen, because you can do what you want to do [in the United States]. So I was running down the street with a mask on, and I got stopped by the cops. And the cops are like, "Where are you going? Take off your mask!" And I'm like, "I'm going where I want to go, and no." So they cornered me, and one of the cops grabbed me, and he was like, "What? Do you think I'm some kind of bitch?" And I was like, "You don't want me to answer that question, do you?" So he ended up twisting my arm and putting me in a car, and at this point I started to panic because the mask I was wearing was a full face mask, so I started believing that I couldn't breathe. So I was like, "Hey! Hey! Take the mask off!" And he was like, "No. You fuck with me, I fuck with you." So he took me in, and that particular infraction cost me $300. And my whole point was, "How do you have a right to detain me for wearing a mask?" And I later found that in Amsterdam they are racist against Muslims, and they don't allow them to cover their faces. So there I was, detained on a trumped-up charge of not identifying myself and resisting arrest because of prejudice and some religious bullshit that I have nothing to do with.
How early on would you say that the way you were portrayed in the media started to get away from how you saw yourself?
I think pretty early on, because, again, I had the misguided idea that all artists are eccentric, so this was my chance to act out every kind of Jim Morrison fantasy that I ever had. Again, I'd like to emphasize that's not what art is about. But that started pretty early on. And, also, it was spurred on by realizing how cliquish everything was. When I went to the music festivals I would try to be exuberant and I would see famous people and I'd go up to them, and they would be very cold and standoffish. I thought that I had ascended to apotheosis. I thought that I had risen beyond boundaries and had overcome a life of rejection by becoming a professional musician and entertainer. But what I realized is that everything is an infrastructure. Everything is a matter of social class, and you are never a member. You are never a part of anything. That, more than anything, further encouraged me to quote unquote rebel. I don't think I was misguided in that idea that everything is cliquish, but I was misguided in my approach, and I regret how I handled it.
So how long ago did you start working on Experiments in Time?
It has been off and on, ever since I did the movie, Memphis. The first song I did on that record is a song called "Now is Gone." There was a piano in the front room in the house I was staying in in Memphis, and I had a tape recorder. And the tape recorder is actually in the movie. I just recorded myself playing and singing with the piano and made up the song. When the movie was over, I took the cassette tape back to New York where I lived at the time and sang again with my voice on the original recording. It sounded really strange because it sounded like a combination of cheap electronics and analog, and it had this really timeless feel to it. The idea that I actually recorded it in another place on the piano and you can hear the birds in the background, combined with the fact that I sang over it again in New York City and mastered it again to make it more even—that really struck a chord with me. I thought, "Wow! That's what modern recording is, isn't it? They're experiments in time." There's an entire month associated with the original recording of that song and an entire group of experiences—a whole different time. Also, I have a very particular kind of sound. It sounds a bit scratchy, and the way I decided to sing sounds old-fashioned. I used this Casio synthesizer that gives it this retro-futuristic minimalist feel. That's why I decided to call it Experiments in Time, because it has this gray tint. I have synesthesia, so I see colors and shapes of sounds, and it felt very white, gray, and silver to me. And there's a picture that I'm going to release with it, and it's a picture that my wife took on New Year's with her iPhone. She has this feature where she can put together four pictures to summarize the day, and she happened to do that on New Year's Eve. So I felt like, "This is great. Everything is coming together." It makes total aesthetic sense about why it should be called Experiments in Time. What did you think of the record?
I liked it. There's nothing you've done yet that sounds much like this. I like the idea that it has, like you said, this gray, overcast mood. I like the textures and the singing and the songwriting. It's a totally different thing than what you've done so far.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
So if "Now is Gone" kicked off the record, what was the next batch of songs that you worked on?
Several of those songs are songs that are as old as 10 years. "At the Airport" was a very old song that I wrote prior even to getting a career. A lot of them are songs that I had already written. The other half of the songs are ones that emerged once I got out here to Washington. "Traveling Eyes"—that's one that I had written in Albuquerque. I was riding my bike one night out here, and I realized that all of the things that I'm talking about in "Traveling Eyes" are actually things that I'm experiencing now. I talk about rivers and bays and evergreen trees, and I wrote that song when I was in the desert. And now I'm in Washington, and I'm seeing that stuff come full circle. And then I wrote some others songs, like "Wasted Away," and that's a political song about how I feel disillusioned about how people are destroying trees and the earth for greed and stuff like that. It's very antiquated subject matter, but I realized I have this great appreciation for nature, and I think that's also a theme. So half of those songs emerged when I was in Albuquerque and half of them emerged once I was out here. And I think it's such a strange and beautiful thing to juxtapose aesthetically desert, desolate images with trees, because this is something that has been in my heart my whole life.
When I was kid in Englewood [in Chicago], we lived near a forest preserve, and we used to go to this mall called The Evergreen Plaza. Even though the areas were only sparsely populated with trees, when I did see one it was a huge evergreen tree. So I have this green tint to the majority of my childhood. And I liked road trips, and I like these broad expanses you would see on road trips, so I developed this fascination with the desert. So the fact that I've lived in Albuquerque and now live in Washington—that all filters into this record. In many ways, this record is the story of my life. It's profound only to me, but I'm really happy about it.
Do you think you knew, on some level, you'd eventually end up in an environment where you'd be surrounded by trees?
I wouldn't say that I knew that I would, but I think I set myself on a certain trajectory of predicting things and having them come true. I'll predict something in some haphazard way and then go about living my life in this totally half-assed manner. Then somehow situations will come together to bring what I initially predicted to the forefront and manifest it. I tell Jessica all the time, when I'm feeling good about my life, "Yeah, you see, everything always happens for me." And she says, "Yeah, but then you complain like a madman in between." [Laughs] I don't know the pattern for the way things go. I don't really have a system, but everything seems to be coming through, and the inspiration is there and my talent is better. I see noticeable changes in my life that other people wouldn't notice. I see signs of intelligence outside of myself and outside human beings. I see patterns, and these patterns come together to create a very distinct reality, where I'm just being guided over all of the superficial, superfluous crap. I don't know if you call it God or what it is. But it's something. I've got a religion and something is working.
Would you say that it feels like you're directing this process or that something else is pushing you?
It's like I put the order in and something fulfills it. I write it on a piece of paper or sing it, and something happens where it comes true. I used to tell people around me about this, and they'd say, "Well, you've really got to get organized, Willis. You've got to get your shit together." My dad, to this day, doesn't fully comprehend what it is that I do. He's been to my shows and he understands, "Well, yeah, he's standing up on that stage." But nothing will be real to him until I get a fucking Cadillac or I'm R. Kelly or something. And I hate to tell my dad this—I don't know about the Cadillac—but I'm never going to model my career on R. Kelly. No offense to R. Kelly.
You said that a number of these songs originated years ago in Albuquerque. Do you feel differently about them now than you did then?
No, actually. The songs have really retained all of their original magic for me. In fact, I was a lot more articulate back then and a lot more imaginative. A lot of that stuff, I've lost. I'm just starting to regain it. I've been grounded ever since I left Albuquerque, and I had some romantic difficulties and job difficulties, and I got brought down to earth. So I started being a lot less verbose when it came to writing songs. But those songs retain a lot of magic, and they've got all that original stuff that I wanted to express. I still find myself trying to write, and I discover that I already said this, and I said it better five years ago. So why try to write it? The words have been given to me, so why not utilize what it is that I've been given?
When you revisited those songs, did you feel as if you're still the same person you were when you wrote them, even though so much has happened since then?
In many ways I'm still the same. Despite my three years of assholery, I've discovered that I haven't really changed inside. My goals are still really simple. That's a beautiful thing, to look around you and discover, "Wow, I've been through a whole lot of stuff, but here I am with almost exactly the same thing I had when I started out." The only difference is that now I'm not by myself. I have a lady, and I'm surrounded by this beautiful environment. I have a platform. There are a few people that want to hear my music. That's the only thing I wanted. I got everything I wanted, and everything I wanted wasn't very much at all. But all that money that I had-I didn't need all that fucking money. You always think you need a lot of money, but all I did was drink every night. I can't tell you how many times I've gone in a bar with a pocket full of money, and for what? To poison myself and sit there staring straight ahead at the bottle, waiting for someone to say, "Hey, you're Willis Earl Beal!" I don't need that. So I'm still the same person, and whether I get a [record] deal or not, now I know what's important. I have a gift, and I'm going to use that gift whether people care or not.
The first song on the record, "Questions," it seems like you're laying out the thesis for the entire record right there.
Yeah. If you notice, it starts out with analog and ends with analog. It starts out with me saying something, and it has a tape-y sound to it, and then the record ends with me turning off the tape.
So it's like one long conversation.
I consider it to be like a symphony. The way I mixed it, I cut off a lot of beginnings, a lot of those edges. I wanted it to blend together, and I intentionally use the same synthesizer in each song in different ways. I wanted to limit myself and find new ways to use the same instrument, just like people use a guitar. People complain when they hear a synthesizer 10 times, but they don't complain when they hear a guitar 10 times. And I thought, "Why? I like the sound of it, so why not use it?" I listen to a lot of classical music, and I always wanted to write a symphony. But since I'm not classically-trained, that seemed farfetched. But I consider this to be my lo-fi symphony, and each song is really a different mood from the same period. It is experiments in time. Imagine a guy sitting in a chair. And he's sitting in this chair, and it's morning when he starts out. And he feels one way, and then the day wears on and he's still sitting in the chair. And he feels a different way by noon, and then he feels a different way by evening, and he feels a different way by night. And he's still sitting in the chair. Time has passed while he remains totally still. Time and moods and seasons have shifted. He's a microcosm of the past, present, and the future. So that's another reason why I called it Experiments in Time.
As a performer and musician, would you say this record stretched you as a player?
No. I'm not a great player, quite honestly. But I look for moods and things that cause a particular mood. I'm not really focused on virtuosity. I'm focused on what causes a feeling inside me and what I like to hear. That's why a lot of my songs are kind of redundant, and it just so happens that if I were attempting to use an objective voice, that's the kind of stuff I like to hear—really, really simple, minimalist stuff. It's really convenient that that's pretty much what I can do. Things that are really complex, they confuse me. I don't really know how to feel about it. But I feel like I'm making the kind of music that I try to listen to—chamber music.
I can definitely pick up that vibe on some of this. Some of it almost reminded me of Gregorian chant music, like this ethereal, almost hymn-like quality.
Yep. That's exactly right.
Would you say your vision for this record as a whole changed over time or was it pretty much there from the beginning?
It was there from the beginning, oddly enough. I can't say that about too many things in my life, but most of the time when I get a vision for something creative it pretty much sticks. It starts with a feeling or a color, and I keep thinking about that feeling or color, and I go through my life from that period on with that color in my brain. And everything I do is colored with color, and whatever comes out of me will be colored in that fashion. And once the color fades, everything is over. And when everything is over, I go back to being a shit-head.
Overall, what would you say is the message you're hoping to communicate with this record?
Well, I don't think there is a definitive message. I think the messages are inclusive to the individual songs, and I think that I would like to probably express or give people the feeling of the passage of time and how important time is. And how simultaneously important time is, yet how nonexistent it is. And to think about every single step you take and to value everything. If you listen to the record, you'll see that there's a lot of very specific things that are expressed. The song "Heads or Tails," I was on the beach, and I hadn't been talking for two or three days. My wife and I had gotten into an argument, and I had decided that I was not going to talk, if you can believe that. And it really helped me out a lot, and I wrote that song in my head. I didn't even sing it or anything. And it came to me because I was feeling bad about certain things that I had said, and the argument that we had hadn't made any sense to me at all. So it was like, "Okay, obviously reason has nothing to do with this. It's just a flip of the coin, heads or tails." Sometimes reason doesn't factor into what happens in life.
Is writing a song like that therapeutic for you?
Yeah, writing a little two-chorus, two or three verse song is very cathartic for me. I can walk around, and I've created an instantaneous mantra for myself. And it's great, like, "Wow! There's a whole world inside me." Then I listen to my music constantly, and it's a way of organizing my thoughts. Whenever I feel confused or whenever I feel like I don't know what I believe in, I just plug my ears up and go for a bike ride, and suddenly I know everything. I have all the wisdom in the world, and that's wisdom you can't get from anywhere else. Sometimes writing regularly, when you don't sing, it's hard because you're always second-guessing yourself. You write a sentence, and you're like "Shit! That isn't exactly what I want to say." But a song is much more free-flowing.
It seems like songwriting connects much more intimately with your subconscious. You can bypass your intellect and your conscious mind in ways that you can't with prose.
Yeah, because you repeat phrases that might be a little nonsensical, but they create a feeling inside you. That's what songs are all about. I dig the Native Americans a lot, and I started paying attention to the Nisqually people, in particular. I like the way they use songs; the way they used to use songs and rain dances and that sort of thing. I've done a few rain dances myself over the years. [Laughs]
Have you been working any more on your novel?
Do you mean Principles of a Protagonist?
Well, you mentioned it the last time I talked to you, but you didn't mention the title.
Oh, that was just a novella, a short story. But I was just on a podcast yesterday, and Michael K. Williams from The Wire, he read a short story I wrote when I was in Albuquerque called "Brown Dog Chronicles." He was reading my story. As far as a novel is concerned, I'm always working on that. I don't know what the hell it's going to be about. I need to get my Hemingway on and go away somewhere.
Do you think you'll do any more films?
Oh, I don't really intend to. Doing a film is hard. George Clooney has got his work cut out for him. I thought it was going to be easy. I thought, "Well, I'm a charismatic guy. It'll be easy." But, no, it's hard.
I would think for someone who approaches his life and work as an auteur, it would be uncomfortable to do a film simply because so much of it is out of your hands.
Yeah. It was pretty uncomfortable. It was even uncomfortable for me to be in a situation where they were like, "Well, we've written a script, but you don't necessarily have to follow it." And that's precisely what I did. I didn't really follow it, but I ended up getting too wrapped up in the character and got carried away. And it turned out that the character was me and my argument was, "Well, you can either get a real actor or you can get somebody who is the character." And if you get somebody who is the character, then you could be dealing with something a bit difficult, because the character was a struggling musician who had this sudden mysterious inclination to shuck it all, and no one understood why. And he was gravitating toward the trees—he was going out to the forest. And he was not inspired to create or do things in the ways that other people wanted him to do them. He was getting drunk and doing all these kinds of things, and I think the director wanted some authenticity, so he got me. But in the meantime, I took the method approach, and it almost didn't work out. But what came out—I love it. Sometimes I love it, but I don't always like it. Sometimes I look at that movie, and I think "Oh, it's a piece of shit." But if I call it a piece of shit, I'm really critiquing myself. The film outside of my performance is a beautiful film, because the cinematography is very vivid. All the greens and the browns and the blues, all the beautiful colors in Memphis—it's just a beautiful-looking movie. It's just the perfect kind of film that I could be in, because it's got that ethereal quality that I always wanted to express. I wanted to write my own movie, but it turns out that someone else wrote my movie, and it's not even mine. It's somebody else's script, somebody else's direction, somebody else's everything.
At the time did it seem like you were playing yourself? You were playing this character who wanted to go out to the trees and make his own kind of music, and that's exactly what you ended up doing. Did it seem like you were telling your own story?
It was a damn Twilight Zone, I have to admit. There are a lot of black people in Memphis, and I come from an area that is predominantly black. I left because the black people where I was from, I didn't relate to them. And since I left, my life has been populated by mostly white folks. I don't know if you know about it, but there's a particular thing that's happening where you have a culture that is limited by a perception. And you have certain people who rise up within that culture that choose not to allow themselves to be limited by that perception, consciously or subconsciously. I was one of these people. I wanted to be a part of things, but I didn't necessarily relate to what was going on [in the African-American community]. So I left; my intentions were different. So I went up north with the white folks, and I didn't quite get on with them, either. They were hipsters. So I found myself alone. And this movie, Memphis, I ended up being back in the environment that I left. The Baptist church and all the things that I left—I ended up back in that environment. And not only was it apparent that I didn't belong, because I'm not from Memphis, but also it was apparent that I didn't belong because I'd never belonged. I'd left the church and all that stuff. That turned out to also be what the film was about, being a part of something while simultaneously not being a part of anything. There we all were—all under the title Memphis, and under the canopy of trees and children and burning spirituality and all that shit—but I didn't necessarily belong to the people that were around me. And that's not to say that I was better or that I was worse. That's just to say that there was something about me that didn't fit in in that particular society, and I fit in more with the trees. There was no one around me by the end of the film, and I think that's the way I feel a lot of times in real life. It just so happens that I found a woman who was interested in being with me, but I still to this day don't really understand why.
So what's next for you?
I don't know. Right now I'm trying to pour all of my energy into self-promoting this record and other than that, I don't know. I don't know if I'm going to get a record deal. I don't know what will happen.
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