Boozin’ With Bonnie “Prince” Billy

And driving through Hollywood spoo.

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," is sloshed and leaning on Oldham's shoulder as he relays a bizarre conversation he had the night before while cruising through the Hollywood Hills. 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 under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy, recalled that the conversation started with an abstract idea: "Imagine if men ejaculated not with a liquid, but with steam. Like, every time you came, it sprayed out instead of squirting."They continued to roll through the hills, laughing at the 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 as a young man in the late 1980s. But he fled not long after arriving, so telling stories like this eases the distaste Oldham often feels about inserting himself into the record-industry promotion machine.Now that the 38-year-old is a celebrated folk artist, he spends more time evading the media than he ever could have as an actor. Though he's far from a household name, in a certain segment of the music world Oldham's work is considered essential listening, a body of primal American song created on guitar and piano and delivered with honesty. Conversely, throughout his career he's wrestled with the personal difficulties of promoting new material, and has come mostly to hate the requisite interviews and, especially, the photo shoots. But he has a remarkable new album out, Beware, and he still has to pay bills. This is why he's ventured out of his hotel room 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 17, having never stepped 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. In the 1987 release, Oldham looks like he's 12, 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 after settling at a table by the pool. "I thought that it represented the professional actor's life, the professional crew's life, and it doesn't at all." After landing another role in "this TV movie about Baby Jessica, who fell down the well in Texas," and realizing that his first filmmaking experience had been an 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 eventually returned to Kentucky, dove into Louisville's post-punk scene, and concentrated on songwriting.He holed up with his friends in a band called Slint, recorded a 7" under the name Palace Brothers ("Ohio River Boat Song"/"Drinking Woman"), and released it on Drag City Records. A tiny segment of the music world eventually took notice.Twenty years later, Oldham's "productions"—first as the Palace Brothers, then as Palace, then Palace Songs, then finally Bonnie "Prince" Billy—have accumulated to make a vast body of work, each release another plotline in a gnarled, nonlinear story. He's constructed this fiction through songs about cinematographers and Russian novelists, Japanese filmmakers and impending death, burning balls and lust and hate. He wrestles with big existential ideas without seeming like he's "wrestling with big existential ideas." His narratives often craft their own tiny world.The world of Beware is typically dark, but there are a lot of belly laughs in it too. The cover is modeled a little after Neil Young's Tonight's the Night—actually, a lot of Beware's songs also suggest that record as an inspiration. But unlike Young, Oldham employs marimbas and a well-placed flute to convey his stories. One of the best is "You Don't Love Me," a joyous romp about casual sex: "You say you like my eyes only/or just the way I giggle/sometimes you like the smell of me/Or how my stomach jiggles/But you don't love me/That's all right/Because you can do me/All through the night."Oldham is known just as much for his oddball lyrics as for his wicked sense of humor. 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. Although he's abandoned acting as a career, small parts continue to come his way, most notably in the quiet film Old Joy and in a video for Kanye West's "You Can't Tell Me Nothin'," in which he and comedian Zach Galifianakis posture and lip-sync with rap-star braggadocio while cruising around a farm on tractors. There's always a head-scratcher in Oldham's arsenal, but as an oeuvre (which comprises at least 15 studio albums, just as many EPs, a few live albums, and collections), all of which could be called American fiction, Oldham examines America as though he were striving to construct a modern-day version of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.And, after all, Whitman didn't need a publicist to make an impression. "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 eventually removes himself from the poolside and returns to the group 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, we move on to the logistical hurdles of nostril-fucking, and somewhere in there a group of four young Asian women approach and giggle nervously. They recognize the singer, and without saying a word Oldham looks at them standing there; 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, 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 a blue vest underneath. With his jumbo beard, balding head, and a little protruding belly, he looks like a 19th-century senator. He's got that shit-eating grin on his face, which continues to radiate as he bids farewell and heads out into the misty night.feedback@seattleweekly.com

 
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