In the Moroccan-tiled patio of downtown L.A.’s Hotel Figueroa, Will Oldham and a half-dozen friends and acquaintances have been drinking for a few hours now. One person’s already gone to puke and returned to continue drinking. RTX singer Jennifer Herrema, who’s on this trip for “moral support,” leans on Oldham’s shoulder while he relays a grotesque conversation he had with some fellow travelers as they cruised through the Hollywood Hills the night before. It was foggy, he recalls, taking a sip of his Patron tequila, and the car’s headlights accentuated the mist in front of them. Oldham, who records his lonesome electric folk music these days as an oft-mascara’d character named Bonnie “Prince” Billy, recalls that the conversation started with an abstract, whimsical thought: “Imagine if men ejaculated not with a liquid, but with steam. Like, every time you came, it sprayed out instead of squirting.”
He describes how they continued to roll through the misty hills, laughing at their notion, when a new idea occurred to them. The fog they penetrated, it was decided, was the collected spoo of Hollywood.
Oldham did his time in the Hollywood fog when he was a young man in the late 1980s. But he fled not long after arriving, and so telling stories like this eases the distaste he often feels about inserting himself into the record-industry promotion machine. After wrestling with the rigamarole of album rollouts for 20 years, he’s come to hate the requisite interviews and, especially, the photo shoots. But he has a remarkable new album out called Beware, and he still has to pay the bills. This is why, after being cooped up in his hotel suite since morning, he’s come to sit beside the empty pool under a crescent moon for one more conversation.
Oldham, whose beard is as dense and tangled as an Appalachian forest and is growing so long that it’s starting to Yosemite-Sam in the middle, is in a good mood. He flashes a cheesy, round smile that, coupled with his joyful eyes, has no doubt charmed many a stranger. That charm is likely what landed him the choice role of a teenage preacher in John Sayles’ film Matewan, about a union clash between coal companies and miners. At 18, having never set foot in Hollywood, Oldham — who had been attending Brown University after growing up in Louisville, Kentucky — found himself working with actors Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and David Strathairn in a deadly-serious story set 250 miles east of his birthplace. Oldham looks like he’s about 12 in the film, which came out in 1987, but delivers defiant sermons with the vigor of an aged snake handler. His work earned him good notices, so he headed West.
“Matewan was very, very inspirational but very deceptive, as well,” says the singer earlier in the evening, not long after settling in at a table by the pool on the hotel patio. “I thought that it represented the professional actor’s life, the professional crew’s life, and it doesn’t at all.”
After dealing with L.A. cattle calls, landing a role in “this TV movie about Baby Jessica, who fell down the well in Texas,” and realizing that his first filmmaking experience had been the exception to the rule, he made a decision. “I can’t be a professional actor,” he recalls thinking, “because you can’t count on being the exception.” Oldham says he felt a profound sense of loss, and returned to Kentucky. “It went to, ‘Well, I don’t even know. I wish I could just die now.’”
His two brothers, one older, one younger, played music, and Will had close contacts in the budding Louisville post-punk scene, so he gravitated there and started thinking about songwriting. “I realized, ‘Oh, I can take all that I’ve learned from acting and put it in there as well. And what if I try and do it myself? Make these productions, put these groups together. The point was to have quality of life as part of the equation.”
He joined up with his friends in a band called Slint, and recorded a 7-inch record under the name Palace Brothers called “The Ohio Riverboat Song.” He released it in 1993 on an up-and-coming Chicago record label called Drag City, and a tiny little segment of the world took notice.
I saw Oldham perform for the first time that year, in what, he now tells me, was the band’s first show outside Louisville. It was in Columbia, Missouri, that the Palace Brothers opened for a reunited Big Star. I had become obsessed with the film Matewan — especially Oldham’s Danny Radnor character — and at that show, in a gravel parking lot behind the University of Missouri basketball arena, he looked nearly the same as in the film, manifesting that same preacherlike fervor. “I Was Drunk at the Pulpit” was about a fall from grace; “Riding,” about sibling lust; “O Paul,” a tender ode to Oldham’s ailing brother.
Sixteen years later, Oldham has accumulated a vast body of work through his “productions” — first as the Palace Brothers, then shortened to Palace, then changed to Palace Songs, then to Bonnie Prince Billy — each release another plot line in a gnarled, nonlinear story. He erects these fictions through songs about cinematographers and Russian novelists, about Japanese filmmakers and impending death, burning balls and lust and hate. I’ve followed the narratives that whole time, lapping up each little story and crafting a world from the tidbits. Though he’s far from a household name, in a certain segment of the music world Oldham’s work is considered essential listening.
The world of Beware is typically dark, but there are a lot of belly laughs in it, too. The cover is modeled a little bit after Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night — and, in fact, a lot of the songs suggest Young’s record as an inspiration. But unlike Young, Oldham employs marimbas and a well-placed flute to convey his stories. One of the best is a romp about the joy of casual sex called “You Don’t Love Me.”
Details are important to Oldham, and part of a lesson learned from a lifetime of being a fan of “constructing stories between records of artists that I love, or movies. Every clue is important. It could be a thank-you credit, an artist’s credit, just a font, or something like that. But knowing that the back story is important to everything you put together is as important as anything else.” Oldham allows for that kind of experience, strives to create a piece that, he says, is “not just the material and the listener but the material, the listener and one or two other things from the world at large.” Hence the period when he wore mirrored cop sunglasses at his gigs and insisted that people call him “Push,” or his appearance as a policeman in an episode of R. Kelly’s video series, “Trapped in the Closet,” or the very song title “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick is Hanging Out,” from his mid-’90s high-water mark, Arise Therefore. (Oldham has a bawdy brain, and a wicked sense of humor.)
Even after he abandoned acting, small parts continued to come his way, most notably the quiet film Old Joy, and a video for Kanye West’s “You Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” in which he and comedian Zach Galifianakis posture and lip-synch with rap-star braggadocio while on a farm cruising around on tractors. There’s always a head-scratcher in Oldham’s arsenal, but as an oeuvre, which at this point comprises at least 15 studio albums, just as many EPs, a few live albums and collections, experienced as one big American fiction, Oldham examines the nation and its heart as if he were striving to construct a modern-day version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which the poet revised and updated over the course of four decades.
And, after all, Whitman didn’t need a publicist to make an imprint. “You can have faith that things will come back around if they have a reason to come back around,” he offers, “if it’s got little pockets of energy yet to be mined.”
Oldham, who has removed himself from the group to discuss these issues, returns to his friends congregated on the patio. Beer, pizza and, at some point, a discreet bowl of weed are shared among the table. After the sperm-as-steam discussion, the conversation flows into the logistical hurdles of nostril-fucking. Not long after, four young Asian women approach Oldham and giggle nervously. They recognize the singer, and without saying a word, Oldham looks at them standing there and his eyes get wide, then turn a little nervous. He greets them, but the moment turns awkward, and the women retreat to another table.
At some point, Oldham and Herrema disappear. A half-hour later, as the table is dispersing and people exit through the lobby, the pair descend from a staircase. It’s near midnight, and both have changed clothes. Oldham’s dressed himself up in a vintage suit with the blue vest underneath it. With his jumbo beard, balding head and a little protruding belly, he looks like a 19th-century senator. He explains that Herrema, still somewhat tipsy, is going to show him “her Los Angeles.” He’s got that shit-eating grin on his face, which continues to radiate as he bids a farewell and heads out into the misty night.
Bonnie Prince Billy performs at El Rey Theatre on Thursday, April 2.