Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy talks about his early punk leanings, and his surprising work with famous friends
In a profile for the New Yorker in 2007, Will Oldham’s own mother describes the singer-songwriter as “ornery,” referring to both his contentious relationship with the press and his overall demeanor.
I just don’t see it. In fact, in the course of my chat with the man otherwise known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—coming to Don Quixote’s in Felton with opener Big Eagle on Monday, Oct. 25—there are a couple myths about the Louisville-bred indie folk-rocker I feel have been kind of busted. Not only is Oldham pretty friendly, thoughtful, and forthcoming, but it also seems that his Jandek-like reputation for elusiveness is a bit overblown.
“I’ve always done tour press because I feel it’s self-sabotaging to not do what you can to let people know,” explains Oldham. “Record press doesn’t make any sense, and in fact tends to border on kind of a false advertising, I believe, whereas tour press is just trying to be sure people are aware that the show’s going to happen.”
Oldham has been long critical of the traditional way of doing business in the music world, a product of his Midwest punk rock roots, embodying a DIY ethic which has undoubtedly cemented his reputation as indie royalty.
“I feel like a record should sell itself,” says Oldham, “and you can’t really say a show is going to sell itself, because once it happens and someone says ‘That was a good show,’ they can’t go back and go to the show, because the show’s over.”
But here’s the paradox: as much as Oldham does eschew the limelight, he has friends in high places. Not only did he take a cameo as a police officer in R. Kelly’s infamous “Trapped in the Closet” saga, he and fast-rising comedian Zach Galifianakis have more in common than just awesome facial hair.
“I’m friends with Galifianakis, I needed a place to hide out, and I called him because he had repeatedly extended an invitation to come visit him at his farm in North Carolina,” recalls Oldham. “When I got there he said ‘We’re gonna shoot a Kanye West video.’”
The remix video for The Voice of a Generation’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” mostly features Oldham and Galifianakis engaging in the kind of juvenile antics more suited for Jackass or Adult Swim. Still, it’s damn funny and somewhat surprising it never became more viral. But it also presents a contrasting side of Oldham to his slow-boiled, country-leaning pseudo ballads.
In fact, listening to Oldham’s output, his musical background is kind of surprising. In his youth he described himself as a rabid fan of the Misfits and Samhain—spending a few days on the road with the latter during its heyday—but he also knew original members of sludge rockers Slint since the sixth grade. In fact, the cover of the group’s retroactively-anointed classic Spiderland is a photograph taken by Oldham.
“There were different places we liked to hang out, and one of them was this quarry in Southern Indiana, where we liked to swim,” remembers Oldham. “We went swimming, and took pictures. My father had taken the picture for the first Slint record, so it was nice to keep it in the family.”
Though Oldham has a reputation for enjoying the chaos of constantly switching up the musicians he performs with, this will be the ninth consecutive tour he’s undertaken with Emmett Kelly (aka The Cairo Gang), collaborator on The Wonder Show of the World, released earlier this year.
“Even if you’re accustomed to change,” explains Oldham, “keeping things the same becomes in itself a change.”
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performs at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25, at Don Quixote’s Music Hall, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $16.50 in advance, $20 at the door. For more information, call 603-2294 or go to Folkyeah.com.