When Bill Callahan of Smog first set out on a road trip from South Carolina to Maryland,
writing songs was the furthest thing from his mind.
The soft-spoken singer/guitarist said he didn’t even have a guitar with him on the solo
sojourn. But by the time he reached his destination, he’d written five songs for his Jan. 12
release, Knock Knock.
“I kind-of kept singing the songs to myself as I was driving,” Callahan, 32, said. “I wrote a
few things without stopping. I just kind-of wrote something on my knee, and not until I got
to my destination did I really … make them concrete.”
Working as a one-man band affords the flexibility of impromptu songwriting sessions.
The one in Callahan’s car spawned such new tunes as “Let’s Move to the Country,” “Hit
the Ground Running” and “Left Only With Love.”
When not crafting songs in the cozy confines of his automobile, Callahan was intent on
expanding the spare sound developed over the course of six previous albums, including
1997’s Red Apple Falls, which featured such mournful songs as “The
Morning Paper” (RealAudio excerpt) and “To Be of
Use” (RealAudio excerpt).
“This is probably my most drum-laden record. I think when you don’t have drums it
kind-of excludes a certain listenership,” Callahan said. “I think it’s more upbeat sort-of, at
least in tone.”
Producer/guitarist Jim O’Rourke, formerly of the experimental ensemble Gastr Del Sol,
wrote the string arrangements for the album and said he served mainly as a sounding
board for Callahan to bounce ideas off while recording Knock Knock in Arlington
Heights, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Setting Callahan apart from the pack are such songs as Knock Knock’s “No
Dancing” — with the lyrics “No dancing/ No dancing/ No dancing/ Not while your wires
are showing” — which set a scene but establish an underlying tension that threatens to
wreck the scene it sets.
“It’s like when you can see through somebody, and you see their motives, you see them
acting a different way than what you know, or what you think you know their motives are,”
Callahan said. “They’ve gone to a place they shouldn’t be … because there’s some other
hurdle they need to cross.”
O’Rourke said that kind of nimble lyrical footwork is one of the factors that have
compelled him to work on Smog’s last two records.
“Bill is one of those … rare songwriters who can say … profound things about the human
condition in eloquent, simple ways that can be understood without some complex system
of symbology or ’personal language,’ ” O’Rourke wrote in an e-mail. “It’s this strength that
endears him most to me.”
The album’s sonic ingredients include a chorus of children’s voices that breaks into “Hit
the Ground Running.” While the children add a light moment to an otherwise melancholy
song, Callahan said working in the studio with the rugrats was anything but a frivolous
“Hell. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” Callahan said. “I didn’t actually
give it a second thought. They have really short attention spans. They did a great job, but
it was kind-of a handful. But it was definitely better than working with adults; [kids’
attention spans are] short, but they’re longer than [that of] adults.”