Smog - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Smog, or as it's sometimes spelled, (Smog), is the name used by singer-songwriter Bill Callahan. Often vaunted as one of the pioneering artists in what is called the lo-fi genre of rock, Callahan has steadily moved away from the amateurish sound and approach of his earlier releases to emerge as a distinctive and important voice in American underground rock.
Bill Callahan was born in Silver Springs, Maryland in 1966. Soon after he was born, he moved with his family to England, where he lived until he was three. The family moved back to Maryland for four years, and then again back to England, where Callahan stayed until he was 12. Callahan moved back to America, and has become something of a gypsy ever since, living at different times in Maryland, Prosperity, South Carolina, San Francisco and Sacramento, California, Chicago, Illinois, and his present home, Austin, Texas. As a teenager, Callahan fell under the spell of both the hardcore punk scene and underground rock, especially the outsider Texas singer-songwriter Jandek, and used Jandek's primitive working methods as a template and inspiration for what he wanted to do. In the late 1980's, a scene of sorts was developing in the American underground where artists were recording themselves on primitive boom boxes and four-track cassette recorders with minimal and often times primitive musical backing, and releasing the results on home-made cassettes and albums that were sold at independent record stores and through mail order. These artists, who early on included such artists as Sebadoh/Lou Barlow, Daniel Johnston, New Zealand's Tall Dwarfs, Beat Happening and K Records, and Refrigerator and Shrimper Records, to name a few, used lack of funds and experience as a virtue rather than as an impediment. Callahan adopted the band name Smog, and began releasing home-made tapes in 1988 on his own Disaster label, starting with the tape/album Macrame Gunplay. Callahan followed with Cow (Disaster) in 1989, and three more tapes in 1990, A Table Setting, Tired Tape Machine, and Sewn To The Sky (all Disaster). All of the tapes featured Callahan's primitive, repetitive guitar riffs and minimal backing with his distinctive subdued, baritone vocals over the top.
His tapes found their way to the Chicago-based independent label Drag City, and the label signed Callahan as Smog in 1990. Drag City released an EP, Floating, in 1991, and Smog's full length debut for the label, Forgotten Foundation, in 1992. Forgotten Foundation still retained much of the lo-fi sound and fuzziness of Smog's cassette releases, and found Callahan still experimenting and casting around for a definitive style and sound. For his next album, Callahan enlisted the help of multi-instrumentalists Jim O'Rourke and Cynthia Dall, who, with Callahan, fleshed out the sound of his songs with touches of banjo, violin, cello, drum machines, and even some primitive-sounding tape loop sampling. Julius Caesar (Drag City) was released in 1993, and was critically hailed as not only a good record, but an important step forward in Callahan's songwriting. Whereas before, Callahan seemed to be casting about for ideas, Julius Caeser seemed a much more poignant and focused effort. Smog followed Julius Caeser up with the Burning Kingdom EP (Drag City) in 1994, a dark, brooding effort that dealt with such weighty subjects as death, loneliness and alienation. Callahan has often remarked that he usually feels very much an outsider, most likely due to his frequent moves as both a child and an adult. Callahan finally got himself into a “proper” studio with producer Rian Murphy for his next album, 1995's Wild Love (Drag City). While Wild Love kept some of the lo-fi sonic qualities of Smog's earlier work, it also expanded Callahan's palette to include more elements of indie rock and chamber pop, using such instruments as cello, chamberlin and keyboards to complement Callahan's increasingly more accomplished songwriting. Wild Love was positively reviewed by critics, and added to Callahan/Smog's increasing profile among serious music lovers. Drag City re-released Smog's cassette-only album Sewn To The Sky in 1995 on record and CD, and it gave his growing legion of fans a look into the early workings of his musical imagination.
After releasing an EP, Kicking A Couple Around (Drag City)(1996), that included a solo acoustic performance of the song “Your New Friend” recorded live for the BBC, Smog's next album, The Doctor Came At Dawn (Drag City), was released in 1996, and contained some of Callahan's darkest songs, most concerned with what sounds like a document of a love affair that is unraveling. The tone of the album was mostly hushed, and relied more on acoustic instruments including guitar, piano and a string section. Callahan continued using primarily acoustic instrumentation for his next album, Red Apple Falls (Drag City), but also expanded his sound by incorporating horns, drum machines and pedal steel. While The Doctor... was a mostly subdued, down-beat album, Red Apple Falls showed more elements of hope and Callahan's flair for dark humor in his lyrics. While Callahan's early lyrics were obtuse almost to the extreme, as he progressed in his musical career, his lyrics became sharper and more to the point, while still maintaining a clear poetic sense. For his next release, Callahan moved to Chicago and again worked with Jim O'Rourke, and the two produced 1999's Knock Knock (Drag City). Knock Knock was a break from Smog's previous albums, in that instead of the having the overhanging sense of dread that Callahan had sharpened and perfected, the album had a lighter, more accepting tone. O'Rourke and Callahan also crafted a more wide-screen, orchestral feel to the musical arrangements, even using a children's choir to add unexpected sonic touches to the album. Smog's 2000 release, Dongs Of Sevotion (Drag City), showed Callahan's razor-sharp dark humor in full effect, and was an amalgam of much of Callahan's material and sounds from his decade-plus career. Most of the songs featured just Callahan on solo guitar or piano, with John McEntire from Tortoise on drums. Later that same year, Smog released the Strayed EP (Drag City) and the 'Neath The Puke Tree EP (Drag City). 'Neath The Puke Tree found Callahan going back and re-recording and re-arranging two songs from earlier Smog records, “A Jar Of Sand” from Sewn To The Sky, and “I Was A Stranger” from Red Apple Falls, and including three more new compositions.
In an effort to divert attention away from how Smog was perceived as an extension of Bill Callahan's ego, Callahan, (jokingly or not), renamed his project (Smog) for his next release, 2001's Rain On Lens (Drag City). Callahan also tried a new approach with his songwriting, building each song up with layers of rhythm and repetition. In 2002, Drag City issued a compilation of some hard to find singles issued by (Smog) over the years, titled Accumulation: None, that also included five newly recorded songs. (Smog) moved back to more emotionally direct feel with his next release, Supper (Drag City)(2003). A beautiful blending of (Smog's) recent albums and his mid-90's output, Supper contained songs that were at one moment dark, the next moment unabashedly pretty. The record leaned more heavily on Callahan's use of country instruments like banjo and pedal steel, and was given a sweeter flavor by the backing and duet vocals of Sarabeth Tucek. In 2004, Callahan relocated to Austin, Texas, and recorded his next album at Willie Nelson's Pedernales recording studio in Spicewood, Texas with backing from the Dirty Three's drummer Jim White and Connie Lovatt on backing vocals and bass. The album also featured Drag City labelmate Joanna Newsom on vocals and piano, (Callahan also became romantically involved with Newsom around this time), and fiddle player Travis Weller. Now again without the parentheses, Smog released A River Ain't Too Much To Love (Drag City) in 2005. Though the album was recorded in Texas and had definite country leanings, it was still a Smog record, though the arrangements were looser and had a much more organic feel than previous releases. Callahan's lyrics, long one of his strong suits, continued to mature, and continued to take on an increasingly more literary tone. In a new spirit of his own developing self-confidence, Callahan stopped using the Smog name after A River..., releasing his next two releases under his own name. Callahan released the Diamond Dancer (Drag City) EP in 2007, followed by the full-length Woke On A Whaleheart (Drag City)(2007). Produced in collaboration with former Royal Trux mastermind Neil Michael Hagerty, Woke On A Whaleheart was not only a departure from his previous band name, but also a departure from Smog's sound. A curious combination of Smog's sparseness mixed with country and western and rhythm & blues, Callahan sounded more free and loose than he had ever sounded before. If Smog was the cocoon that Bill Callahan had built around himself to develop as a songwriter and performer, he is now the chrysalis embarking on a new stage of his career.