Communication chord

Bill Callahan spares nobody in his songs - himself least of all. Ben Thompson talks to the American who chooses to go by the name of `Smog'

There are two categories of insight: the one that elicits a mild shrug of respectful recognition, and the occasional complete table-turner - the insight that goes beyond the commonplace - that eats away at your psyche like a boll weevil in the biscuit tin. It is the latter kind that mournful minstrel Bill Callahan trades in. Callahan is an enigmatic American who releases records under the obfuscatory name of Smog. There's a song he wrote called "I Break Horses", on last year's four-track CD Kicking a Couple Around (Domino), which can reduce strong men and women - people who work on oil rigs, people who understand the Inland Revenue's new Self- Assessment system - to heaps of quivering gelatine.

Above a hauntingly austere guitar accompaniment, a deadpan voice with a deceptive hint of sweetness recites a chapter of human calumny. "I break horses," Callahan avers bleakly. "It doesn't take me long - just a few well placed words, and their wandering hearts are gone." This would be strong stuff if it was just about horses, but in the context of an extended metaphor about how homo sapiens treats his (or her) mate, the line, "Tonight I'm going to my favourite island, and I don't want to see you swimming behind" is frightening in its cruelty. Yet the song has a stark beauty that is riveting.

"I Break Horses" is not the only shot in the Smog locker. In fact if the human impulses to weakness and wrongdoing and self-indulgence were a cow's eye in a school biology lesson, Callahan would be the kid who came to class early and brought his own scalpel. Though he has only recently begun to attain any sort of renown, he has been releasing strange and remarkable and sometimes disturbing records (both on his own and with various accomplices, most notably his erstwhile soulmate Cynthia Dall) for nigh on a decade. And no simple designation - the post-punk Leonard Cohen, a one-man acoustic Joy Division - can quite encompass the strangely uplifting effect of his mordant balladry.

Smog's forthcoming album, Red Apple Falls, with its lovely melancholic wash lit up by unexpected dashes of colour from French horns and pedal- steel guitar, is a far cry from the scruffy, home-made feel of earlier efforts like 1993's Julius Caesar. It is likely to open a willing legion of new ears to Callahan's unsettling talent, but how Callahan is going to react to this is anybody's guess. The man who brings such conviction to lines like, "The orange glow of a stranger's living room looks so much warmer than mine" ought to delight in the glare of public approbation, but it wouldn't do to take that for granted.

The woman from his record company has decided to arrange a meal before the interview, in the hope that food and wine might loosen Callahan's tongue (like many a great communicator, he fights famously shy of conversation). The omens are not good. Call- ahan sits bolt upright at the restaurant table, with the formal, slightly pursed-lips demeanour of the hero in a Whit Stillman film, or perhaps a lesser Henry James character dying of consumption. He has just informed his press officer that he can't talk while he eats.

Prompted into letting slip that he is a vegetarian, Callahan goes into his shell for several minutes - as if this revelation will somehow compromise his integrity as a dealer in savage truths and meaty perspicacity. As a child, he once became repelled by the way the flesh on his thighs spread against the chair when he sat down. How did he get over this? I ask, by way of small talk. "Puberty - your body grows faster than it can make fat," Callahan says. All of a sudden, he is very nearly beaming.

Callahan was born in Maryland in 1966. His family lived in Britain until he was three, went back home for four years, and then returned to Knaresborough in North Yorkshire for another five. What does he most remember about his life between the ages of seven and 12? "I saw Star Wars in Harrogate."

Though he now regards himself as "100 per cent American", growing up not quite fitting in on either side of the Atlantic has surely heightened his isolationist sensibility. There was another, smaller American boy at Callahan's school. By the sort of twist of fate in which his songwriting would later revel, the two colonials once found themselves inadvertently wearing each other's trousers after PE. Feeling somewhat constricted, and observing his compatriot stumbling in legs much too long for him, the young Bill tried to bring what had happened to his attention. "It was too traumatic," Callahan shakes his head sadly. "He just couldn't face up to it."

When it comes to expressing uncomfortable feelings, does he feel sorry that he has to, or happy that he can? Callahan thinks for a moment. "There's a certain pleasure in expressing anything really clearly - however bad it is". Does he mind being personally identified with songs as disturbing as "All Your Woman Things", on last year's album The Doctor Came At Dawn, whose narrator describes arranging the possessions of his departed lover into the form of a "spread-eagled dolly"? "I don't think the `I' that is me is at all important to the song," Callahan insists. "Besides, if you're a person, your faults are universal."

When he last played in London, in 1996, Callahan found himself in the unaccustomed position of having a celebrity admirer. The comedian Sean Hughes, impressed by the poetic quality of the Smog oeuvre, offered to announce him. Moments before going on-stage, Callahan asked what he was planning to say. Oh, Hughes responded genially, something along the lines of "Miserable bastards of the world: welcome our leader". Bill quietly suggested that it might be better if he said something else.

Smog's `Red Apple Falls' (Domino) is out on 19 May. Bill Callahan will tour Britain later in the year.

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