photo by Valgeir Sigurðsson
The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Will Oldham
by Jay Babcock
This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda. Shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. Still, almost four years later, it’s a good, pertinent read. Thanks to Will for his time and patience, and special thanks to a certain friend of Arthur who transcribed this conversation a long time ago.
Will Oldham, as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is traveling and playing shows right now with the Cairo Gang. More info: dragcity.com
Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)
Arthur: Do you prefer to play all-ages shows? Is it a priority for you, or does it even matter?
Will Oldham: It matters and it makes a difference, but it isn’t a ‘priority.’ Does that make sense? Every show is contextualized for what it is—in that way, it’s important. But I guess my skewed stance is that I’ve always approached this work of making music in terms of… I think my main drive is to write and record music, so playing live is always just a weird experiment. So to me, every aspect of playing live is part of that weird experiment, whereas a lot of bands and musicians seem to make records of the music that they make. [For me] it’s the reverse. I think that every time that you play live, it’s like, ‘Whoa! What was that all about?’ It’s great whoever the audience is. You try to find the most fun audience, I guess.
Arthur: I noticed that when you are touring shortly, you’re playing a bunch of record stores…
Yeah, an all record-store tour.
Arthur: One of the weird things, from what I can tell about the performance environment in America, is that one of the few places where people of all ages can see quality music in a live setting now is the record store.
Yeah. “Quality music.” One thing that I had started to think about before we started on this topic was… like, how old are you?
I’m 36, and my sense is that, if you won’t take offense, is that we are out of touch. There are quality shows going on six out of seven nights a week that are all-ages shows, in people’s houses, in public places, and we just don’t know those bands. Because I’ve seen some this year—I’ve seen some every year. And it’s like, Whoa, where’d these kids come from? And these kids came from the same places we came from, and they’re making great music that we don’t have access to, because… It’s the same way that bands that I went to see play 20 years ago, people who were 22, to 36, to 50, they would be saying ‘There’s just no music going on these days. There’s no shows like I remember.’ And meanwhile, I was having the fucking time of my life!
Arthur: Seeing shows at…?
At people’s houses, or at community centers that the 22-year-olds probably didn’t even know existed. They had jobs and didn’t go to the places where those shows were flyered, and so it just seems like… I don’t necessarily believe that there is a change in all-ages shows. It’s just that we don’t know people who go to them because we don’t have any friends who are 18 or 21 and under! Or very few, because it’s difficult to communicate with the younger kids these days! [Laughs]
Arthur: That’s coming up in a lot of the conversations I’ve been having on this subject. That, actually, yes, there are tons of places where these all-ages shows are going on. But they’re not the same places where the all-ages shows used to go on.
Right, and those all-ages shows weren’t the same places where the went on before that.
Arthur: Exactly. I guess I’m trying to track the migration of the all-ages events from where it was in the Sixties to where it is in the 2000s, and what it means.
It seems like the greatest, most energetic all-ages shows are always the shows that are based around kids putting the shows together themselves, or an older kid, like a 17 to 20-year-old who has some experience dealing with people who will rent out a facility to have a show at. Why do they have to do that? Why can’t they have a show in a bar? It seems like that’s because their needs aren’t being met, but it seems that their needs aren’t being met even musically by the venues or the radio stations or… And so, it’s probably kinds of music that is weird in a way that we don’t even comprehend as weird, because it’s so weird? You know, where you’d see it and just be like, you would have missed a couple spots in the evolution of why they need to do this themselves. Because when people do it themselves, it’s because nobody else is doing it for them and they need it to happen. And especially as you get older and stay into music, where music is super-valuable, it actually gets easier to find great music because you get more skilled at it over the years. When you don’t know that much, when you’re 12, 13, 14, 15… you have to do it yourself because you don’t know. Even the Internet doesn’t help that much—having massive amounts of choice doesn’t make it easier to find something that you completely identify with and feel related to. I still think it takes human contact and conversation and band practice and stuff like that.
Arthur: One of the reasons I’m doing this project is when we did this Arthur Ball festival earlier this year in Los Angeles.
I went to the first night. With the dance band, the girls from New York? ESG?
Arthur: Yes. Well, on the other two nights, our partners said that they only way they could stage it was for it to be 18 or 21 and over. Later, we got a post on our Internet message board saying, ‘Hey, how was Growing? I wanted to see them but I was only 17 and couldn’t go.’ That really got to me because we—Arthur—had taken part in excluding this experience from someone who arguably could get more out of it than the other people who were there, because they were 17 and open to it. That was sort of this conundrum, where we had quite a few bands who were of interest to people under 18 or under 21, who those kids never get to see unless those bands get very big and play in sheds. That was one of the reasons I started thinking about this so much, was this problem and what it means when you exclude kids and teens from culture.
The bright side of it, ideally, is that when cool kids’ needs aren’t being met, they’re going to meet them and create the great music of tomorrow. But yeah, I experience that a lot, where we’ll try to sneak kids into shows, or hear about where somebody couldn’t get in. I experienced it as a kid as well.
Arthur: Tell me of some shows that you wanted to get into but couldn’t as a kid.
Mostly, we would find a way, either by sneaking in the back door, or for a while we had these public transportation ID cards with our photos on them—because we went to a public school that wasn’t routed on the bus system, so the city issued us public transit ID cards, and it didn’t have a date-of-birth on them, so we just went to the arts store and bought stencils and stenciled “DOB” in a font that didn’t even exist on the card, and usually made us 18. And that was to go mostly to the Jockey Club in Newport, Kentucky to see bands play, and as long as you had something, they didn’t really care. I remember when I was 20 or something going to see the Didjits in Chicago on New Year’s Eve in 1989 or something, I forget where it was. And I had my older brother’s driver’s license, and I got in and then stepped outside to make sure somebody else was getting in, and when I went back to the door the guy got me. He was like 20 seconds later going ‘Let me see that again.’ I guess he knew the first time, and didn’t like that I was taking liberties. So I ended up on New Year’s Eve…and it was a great time because I parked in a car with my girlfriend while all of our friends were watching the Didjits play. [Laughs.] But that was one. And there’s a local club here where we’d sneak in the back and try to hide behind the amps or whatever, and probably half the time we’d get thrown out and the other half not.
Arthur: Were there any memorable house party shows, or non-bar shows that pop into your mind?
Yeah. There were so many.
Arthur: This was because it was a college town?
Well, there’s a college here, but there was never any college radio. I don’t know why there was a good scene here in the 1980s. Maybe because there wasn’t any college radio and people couldn’t listen to that middle-of-the-road, stupid music and feel halfway satisfied, and weren’t taking the wind out of their sails to do anything really fun, so people felt completely alienated from the mainstream—which was pretty easy to do in the ’80s, anyway. But this was even without like whatever other people were listening to, like 10,000 Maniacs and Talking Heads and R.E.M. and Sinéad O’Connor and stuff that probably satisfied a certain group of people. We didn’t even have that stuff. It was just all whatever people did themselves. The house parties also have lots of other things going for them that, no matter what the all-ages shows were like, the house parties gave you a little more of an education about things in general, about girls and drugs and police interference, things like that. You didn’t get that at shows in weird little rented halls. There was a laser-tag place here in the late ’80s that had shows that was super cool. Bands would come through and play the laser-tag place, and that was completely all-ages.
Arthur: Wow. That’s awesome.
Yeah, you could run around through the laser-tag areas.
Arthur: Through the maze?
Yeah. There’s a certain amount of legendary shows that people still remember and talk about that were just at people’s houses.
Arthur: One thing I’m getting is that it’s hard to tour across the country just doing exclusively “house” shows.
Yeah, but I think it’s possible and I think there’s a circuit.
Arthur: I know for the emo kids, there’s a circuit of venues for them now. It’s developed and it’s built-up and they can do it, and they do play all these all-ages shows.
As open-minded as everybody is in each scene, each scene is still pretty ghetto-ized and specific in terms of who knows. It’s hard to believe that you can walk into a place and see a show and know that you don’t know anyone else who knows about that show. It’s like, how does that happen? You can even say, ‘I went to this show, and it was like this,’ and people will be like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ It definitely doesn’t pay when you play a pass-the-hat show, you make … .
Arthur: Forty bucks?
Yeah, a huge take would be $200, and that’s with a respectful, awesome audience at a house show, you know, at a pass-the-hat show. Like right now, that wouldn’t pay for much gas, that kind of take, and nobody’s getting paid more money in the hat.
Arthur: So then the artist sort of has to make the choice between losing money on the road and risk a lot, or do the easier thing where you do a tour that’s agented, where you end up playing lots of bars that exclude minors. That seems to be the choice that a lot of musicians are faced with, and it’s brutal.
Yeah. I think that the strange and frustrating thing that I find the more is that there aren’t … I don’t understand why a decent all-ages venue isn’t at least half the time an option that’s put to you by a booking agent in all these cities. I guess one of the main reasons is because most music is booked into clubs because clubs want to make money off drinks, and they don’t make money off ticket sales.
So the shows wouldn’t happen at all if it weren’t for these bars that were making money off the drinks. Otherwise ticket prices might go up, or you’d play places that were publicly supported, which would be great and there should be more of.
Arthur: That’s an interesting idea. Does that exist more often in other countries?
I know less about the logistics behind the scenes of European touring, because although I really like to tour over there, I don’t know how they negotiate between the booking agents and the clubs. But I know that we will often play in these really radical places, especially in Germany and Switzerland, that will be government-supported complex arts centers that seem like they were created by artists and arts organizers, and then got government funding. The food there is usually great. You walk through the whole place and there’s two or three performance venues with crazy stuff going on everywhere. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.’ And you know that you’re being paid, in part, by the government.
Arthur: So it’s almost utopian.
Yeah. And you know that it’s being paid with taxpayers’ money, and that’s a pretty great allocation for taxpayers’ money. Then there’s other places, a place in Florence and a place in Portugal… Portugal’s pretty great in that it seems like kids have an infrastructure that they’ve put together, in terms of playing, like, squats. There are squats that seem to somehow know how to get in touch with a booking agent in London, and say, ‘We’re the best place for this show, we’re going to give you this much money.’ Those places are like B.Y.O.B., and those are kids who are paying the money, that’s the ticket money. But they’re not making money. Their overhead is low because they don’t have a staff. They have a volunteer staff. They’re not buying drinks. They’re squatting.
Arthur: So the rent’s kind of low—
Yeah, but they totally organize and have got it together on so many levels, especially in terms of getting the location. The most amazing part is when you get in touch with somebody who doesn’t deal with people like that, and making a viable argument for why the show should occur at their venue. There’s a great place in North Carolina, which was called the Wherehouse at one point, but it might have changed its name. It’s an owner-operated place, with rooms for artists to live and work in, and they do a variety of things. And then there’s a place which might be 21-and-up called Sluggo’s in Pensacola—it’s run by the woman in This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Her and that band seem really dedicated to making things accessible, and sometimes making things accessible is making a bar that bands can come and play at, because otherwise Pensacola might not even get the band.
A pretty rad scene, and I don’t know if it’s as focused as it was five or six years ago was the scene, a lot of K things, like Little Wings and Microphones and Ana Cortes’ people, because they were … I know like Bobby Birdman and Kyle Field would do tours where they would say, like, ‘We’re going to play a show in this park on this day.’ They wouldn’t [name] the park, but anyone who wanted to go could go. That was one aspect of a multi-aspected, pretty incredible like grassroots scene. I think a lot of shows that those musicians would do would be word-of-mouth shows, and definitely were not age-restricted at all.
Arthur: Do you know about Project Vera up in Seattle?
No, what’s that?
Arthur: It’s some sort of all-ages joint, and they’re doing a big push to get into a much bigger venue and do their thing. I’m wondering which artists know about it.
It sucks to always have to play late at night in places that smell really bad, and at the same time—I think it has recently closed, but there’s a place in Missoula that’s on the second floor and the alcohol makes the place. It’s so much fun playing there and people there get completely fried, but are also completely participatory in the performance as a result, and I wouldn’t trade that for an all-ages show any day because it’s just so much fun. I figure kids are taking care of themselves for the most part, and I think the best thing we can probably do would be to make fake IDs more available.
Arthur: We should do fake ID tutorials.
Yeah! Solicit fake ID manufacturers to advertise in full back-page ads in Arthur. [laughter]
Will Oldham, previously in Arthur: