2009 - 2011, STREAMING NOW

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy | 24/07/18

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Funtime Comedown - Streaming Now

It’s with great pleasure that we offer FUNTOWN COMEDOWN to the streamverse.  A live record born of good times and friendship, FUNTOWN COMEDOWN has had only  a limited availability up to this point. 

Here’s how it happened: One summer, Oscar Lee Riley Parsons asked Will Oldham what it would take to induce Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to perform at a strange and special little place called Funtown, of which Parsons’ friend Brad Reinstedler was the mayor (and is still the mayor, by the way).  Oldham replied that all he needed was a rehearsed ensemble, and so Parsons put his own group, Thomas A Minor & the Picket Line (including Reinstedler, Bob Dixon, Jon Kempf, and Danny Kiely), to work learning a set of Bonny pieces.  Parsons enlisted Cheyenne Mize as fiddler and duet partner. They rehearsed the songs and soon invited Oldham into the rehearsal process.  Tickets were sold for the Funtown event, commemorative kazoos were purchased as giveaways (and to facilitate audience participation on “Goat & Ram”), folks gathered on a warm summer day outside of Louisville, and music and merriment went down a-plenty.  So much fun was had, in fact, that it was decided that this ensemble ought to play some more together before disbanding.  There had a been a handful of practice shows around Louisville, at Joe’s Palm Room, the Back Door, and the Nach Bar.  Now sights were set further afield...as far as Lexington, KY for a benefit show intended to raise awareness of the plight of the Kentucky Hemlock tree.  Hence the group learned Ralph Stanley’sHemlocks and Primroses”.  They were all invited out to San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.  And then it was thought that they ought to record their efforts, and so one more show was arranged at the recording studio of bassist Danny Kiely.  Invitations were sent out, about fifty people gathered, and a little live show went down, recorded on high-fidelity multi-track recording gear by KielyOldham and Kiely spent a week or so mixing (during which time the King of Pop passed away; this will give you an idea of when all of this occurred.  Perhaps the timeline won’t match up precisely but you will forgive if a date is out of place here or there).  The record artwork is made up of photographs by Louisville photographer Dan Lubbers.  Yet another Merle Haggard song is covered by Bonny on this record, “Ramblin Fever”.  It will still be a few years before Bonny undertakes a full record of Haggard tunes, BEST TROUBADOR.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Beware - Streaming Now

In deep Kentucky winter, Will Oldham asked Cheyenne Mize and Emmett Kelly to come to his house and record a four-song EP.  The EP was to be called “Chijimi”, after a style of fabric crafted in northern Japan during snowy months.  It was just the three of them in the room together, and to Oldham it felt ideal.  Why weren’t all recording sessions like this?  The sounds of the room were captured by the microphones, the three voices worked very well with each other, the material was in turns poetic, evocative, outlandish and devotional.  It felt to Oldham like a new model had been established and that all could be right in the world of music-making from that point on.

The artist Thomas Campbell had recommended to Oldham that he apply for an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts outside of San Francisco.  Oldham got himself a three-month stint living and working there in the Marin Headlands National Seashore.  It proved to be a productive time.  Among other endeavors, Oldham worked daily on new songs and planned the next performance journey (with booking agent David Viecelli and tour manager Jesse Fischler) and recording session and touring ensemble (with Emmett Kelly).  Oldham was assigned a small studio in the main building at the Headlands, but soon was able to secure a larger, more remote studio space overlooking a former missile launch site.  The building was huge and wooden with plenty of room for thinking and making noise.  The basics for all of the BEWARE songs were built here.  Oldham’s plan was to meet up with a group of musicians, assembled by Kelly, in Chicago; to tour extensively with this group; then to take a break, give all of the musicians demos of the BEWARE songs, and to reconvene in Chicago at a studio called Engine with knob-twiddler Neil Strauch at the board.  Oldham and Kelly constructed the set of songs to be performed on the tour, including four cover songs: Shaun Camp’s psychedelic country hit “Would You Go With Me?” (made famous by singer Josh Turner), the Gun Club’sCarry On”, Susanna’s “Stay” (foreshadowing the full-album cover of Susanna’s SONATA MIX DWARF COSMOS that Oldham and Kelly would record years later, in 2017, as WOLF OF THE COSMOS), and “One Day at a Time” by Yusuf Islam (known also as Cat Stevens).  The four covers would be performed every night on the tour and then recorded first at Engine, in order to get sounds established for the new songs.  The band that Kelly corralled included percussionist Michael Zerang and bassist Joshua Abrams; Oldham brought in Jennifer Hutt, a violinist he had met through Baltimore’s Dave Heumann.  All sorts of Chicago musicians contributed guest performances to BEWARE, including Azita Youssefi, Nicole Mitchell, Rob Mazurek, Jim Becker and the Mekons’ Jon LangfordD.V. DeVincentis and Greg Leisz flew in from California to play their parts.  At one point, Kelly and Oldham decided that they needed to find a Mexican accordion player to play on one of the songs, so they scoured Chicago’s cantinas one night, coming away with a significant tequila buzz and a single telephone number.  They called the number, and the following day a gentleman came to the studio with a broken accordion and alarmingly primitive musical abilities.  It was decided to find a ringer instead, and Robert Cruz was called.  Once again, Katy Kolego was hired as production supervisor, and she kept things running solid and smooth.

Simultaneous to the BEWARE recording session, Susanna Wallumrod was in Scandinavia making her FLOWER OF EVIL record.  She asked Oldham to sing on two songs, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”.  She sent the basic tracks to Engine and Oldham did his singing on Susanna’s songs near the beginning of the BEWARE time.

The cover art of BEWARE was dominated by a drawing of Oldham sent by artist Jeff Hamilton.  The back cover and LP/CD labels were painted by Sammy HarkhamOldham and Dan Osborn worked out the poster details together: Hamilton’s skull-like drawing of Oldham’s head with a staircase rendered in primary colors leading to the top of the head, where a village is seen being established by tiny figures.  Jennifer Parsons made a video for “I Am Goodbye” featuring Oldham walking through the streets of east L.A. with a Turkish t-shirt and black contact lenses.  TV commercials were made for the record by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, including one spot featuring Neil Hamburger.

The title for BEWARE was inspired principally by two things: the first was the EP by the Misfits released in the early 1980s of the same name, and the second was Oldham’s own warning to himself and everyone else that the ideas behind this record were moving him in the opposite direction from where he felt he should be going.  “Chijimi” had established a template of meager ambition and home-spun workings and here they were with a huge (for BPB) tour, and an expensive out-of-town recording session featuring a wild and wonderful assemblage of talents.

Chijimi” came out exclusively as a 10” vinyl record.  There were two editions, the first with a rubber-stamped plain white paper sleeve and the second as the BEWAREUltraload”.  At the time, Bonnie Prince Billy vinyl purchases did not come with a free download the way that many new releases did. In this instance, a compromise of sorts was made: you could buy the “Ultraload” package, which had the “Chijimi” EP slipped into a 10” BEWARE sleeve with a download code for BEWARE included.

The recording of “Stay” was released as a 7”, with Susanna’sPeople Living” (recorded live outside of Milan, Italy, performed by Kelly/Mize/Oldham) as the B-side.  The recording of “One Day at a Time” was released as a digital single.  Yusuf Islam heard it eventually, and proclaimed it his “favorite cover”.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy & The Cairo Gang - The Wonder Show of the World - Streaming Now

Emmett Kelly (the Cairo Gang) writes:

I would receive a manila envelope at certain intervals. the envelopes contained finished works of lyric. completed music-less songs. I was living in the farmhouse that was once Will’s brother Paul’s home and studio. The house was somewhat of a husk of that previous existence placed in a small clearing inside of a 170 acre cornfield. I sought to live here as a come down from what had been the longest tour I had been on thus far. I was burnt out on people, and as what I find men in their late 20s tend to do, I had idealized the idea of being totally isolated from people. Live alone out in the nature, or.. on a farm. During this time, I would receive a manila envelope. In it would be 2 completed songs. And I would stand them up on my music stand and start playing guitar and messing about occasionally taking smoke(weed) breaks until my mind would start to sizzle, at which point I would ride my bike around the farms. i would ride and ride and ride until I was totally exhausted. No people anywhere, just bike, stop, bike. Ride to the taco stand, attempt to speak to the people working there(really good tacos in Shelbyville, KY!) ride home. Maybe veer off the path at times. Once I found a road I hadn't seen before and took it for a while to look at the tobacco fields turning brown as it was starting to get late in the season. There was a point when the road turned and there began this canopy of trees that covered the road like a tunnel. I rode and rode and when I reached the end of the tree tunnel, it was really starting to darken and I had no lights. I started riding back and of course got completely lost. Lost amidst endless tobacco and soybeans and corn. Old barns filled with tobacco. There was literally no hope of me finding the main road, and I rode in the dark for like 2 hours before I found some kids playing in their front yard. Straight out of a horror film, I rode up to them and asked hey, I'm really sorry, but I'm totally lost! Can you tell me how to get to the main rode.. the kids apprehensively walked up to me, saw that I was obviously confused and said. Yeah! You go that way for a little while and when you see a graveyard, turn left and take that road into Eminence, where you can meet up with the main road back to Shelbyville. Riding again, looking for a graveyard in the dark in the middle of nowhere, turn left, find Eminence! Get on the main road and ride along the shoulder with the semi-trucks and other trucks. Completely dark in the dark. I think I was wearing a straw hat. Eventually making it home, and exhausted went to sleep on the couch. Woke up to go and look at the words. Everyday it went on like this until one day I heard this noise outside the window. A huge and menacing noise, and when I went to open the curtain to look a giant machine came driving by. They were plowing the fields. And in a few hours, that enormous sizzling cornfield was no more. It was time to go. That was The Wondershow Of The World to me.

And this:

Recording the Wondershow was a wonderful respite from being in the studios we had been working in. Not that working the studios was particularly difficult or unrewarding, in fact they were all the opposite of that! But this was just us knowing that we could make our own record at home and do it how we wanted to, easily. Thats exactly what happened. It was immensely interesting to hear how Will would interpret the music I had written. I'm sure it was equally fascinating to him to hear how I imagined his words. But we never marry ourselves to a definitive version of anything. Everything is constantly morphing and changing. before this record, my experience making records with bonny was always an intense search party. We would be in a weird place, trying to do our best at being ourselves, which isn't exactly an easy task. Its like standing in front of a mirror naked, knowing that there is going to be a point when the rest of the world sees you standing there naked. you look there at your body thinking, yeah this is alright, its me, and no what the fuck, this sucks, I'm disgusting and back and forth. Everything you do comes back to you. My memory of The Wondershow was that it wasn't so much like this. It was us in “our” house. we are who we are. And it felt good. There were things I remember feeling during that session that are unusual to note. I remember cutting the drums for troublesome houses, we put the drum kit in the closet.. the drum kit was was one of those micro little I don't know what you call them, cocktail kits? But it fit right in there in the closet. This dead little room and I crawled in there and played it. I just remember feeling like I did as a kid making a clubhouse in my friend Jono’s weird little secret cupboard in the hallway. And the drums sound so good. Dead as dead can be just like I like them. i think that was a good moment for us in our paths making records. Because of course there are many approaches and many environments one can do this type of thing. But I think from that point, sorta it became the main place to make stuff. and its cool to realize you can do it sorta as good as anyone else can. haha. On the session we had with us Shahzad Ismaily mostly playing bass and some percussion and odds and ends. and for a little vocal addition our friend Phil Elverum was passing thru playing in town, and we convinced him to come and help us tell the “folks” to “go”.

Once we finished the album, we took a drive thru Oldham County and listened to it and signed off on it. I remember drinking a margarita with Will on Frankfort Ave once Shahzad left town. I said to him, “I cant believe its over!” To which he responded, “It’s only just started!” 

Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) says:

The title came from three places.  It’s the tagline for the Burt Lancaster movie TRAPEZE; it’s a mutation of the title of the awesome TV series WONDERSHOWZEN; and then our own brains loved and embraced it because it was always meant to be.  Emmett had been wrapping Bonny jams in brilliance for a number of years, and it felt like a good time to explore Cairo jams in a more fully collaborative approach, building the songs together from the ground up. I was spending a lot of time in Richmond, VA, working in a movie that eventually came out as NEW JERUSALEM, directed by Rick Alverson (who would soon direct a clip for the Bonny/Cairo jammer “New Wonder”).  In that film, I play a fundamentalist Christian, and the job required that I improvise all of my dialogue, so I was pretty deeply soaked in American Christianity at the time.  We recorded twelve songs.  In part due to the time limitations of a single LP and in part due to their sticking out a little bit, thematically and structurally, we cut two songs from the LP and simultaneously released a 7” single featuring those two songs, “You Win” and “Midday”.  My mom, Joanne, had made a lot of artwork over the years for various records.  At the time of WONDER SHOW, she was getting well into Alzheimer’s.  I asked that she make some work for the record that Emmett and I were making.  She was able to come up with a bunch of things, enough to use her spiral drawings for the full-length and a collage for the 7”.  Emmett’s dad, Chris, drew portraits of Emmett and I for the back covers of the LP and 7”.  Chris Kelly passed away soon after, and Joanne’s Alzheimer’s soon robbed her of her abilities to make further art, so the fine work that they did here represents, in tragic coincidence, the closing pieces of Chris Kelly’s and Joanne Oldham’s lives in art.

The last song on the record, “Kids”, was inspired by Piero Ciampi’sSporca Estate”, which we were asked to perform in Sicily in the year prior to the writing and recording of WONDER SHOW.

The record was made in the same little room where we made “Chijimi”.  The vocal/drum booth was a tiny cedar-lined closet that reminded us, sonically, of nothing less than the vocal booth in Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis, where the vocal sound of Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Syl Johnson was solidified.  Jim White had got us into that studio when we were in Memphis on tour.

Eventually, Bonnie Prince Billy & the Cairo Gang toured the USA and then toured the Netherlands.  Simona Dalla Valle made a documentary of the latter tour called THE ROYAL DUTCH TOUR.

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy with The Cairo Gang – Island Brothers – Streaming Now

Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Must Be Blind – Streaming Now

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – There Is No God – Streaming Now

Will Oldham first heard Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause’s BABBLE record from friends Rich Schuler (the original drummer for Louisville’s King Kong). He becameengrossed and enchanted, maybe a little obsessed, to the point where he began to envision covering the entire record from beginning to end. The biggest issue Oldham faced in undertaking this endeavor was that the music required a skilled, emotional, dynamic female singing counterpart, and he hadn’t yet met someone to perfectly fit the bill. He played the record for Emmett Kelly and Kelly was similarly compelled. Then one day Kelly called Oldham to say that he might have found a singer up to the task, a musician living in Chicago named Angel Olsen. Olsen made a demo of one of the BABBLE songs and sent it to Oldham. Trusting Kelly’s instinct along with what was evident on Olsen’s demo, Oldham asked Olsen to join the Babblers, which was the name being assigned to the ensemble who would convene to make the BABBLE project real. The full band would be Kelly, Olsen and keyboard player Ben Boye, all based out of Chicago; then Oldham, bassist Danny Kiely (of the Picket Line) and drummer Van Campbell (of the Black Diamond Heavies), all out of Louisville. The first task at hand for this band was to tour the BABBLE record. Oldham bought patterned fleece hoodie-footie pajamas for everyone in the band. Each musician had to bring his or her own stage lighting. Then a tour was booked. It was billed as a Bonnie Prince Billy tour with openers The Babblers out of Shreveport, LA. Promoters along the way were told that the two acts would share gear, and that Bonny’s tour manager would handle business for both the headliners and the openers. Audiences were not informed at all about who or what the Babblers would be. The tour was a musical success.

Next up, Oldham wanted to record three singles, each single representing a significant branch of the Bonny musical story at that time. The first single was a Bonnie Prince Billy & the Cairo Gang 10”, featuring two new songs, “Island Brothers” and “New Wonder” (a powerful video was shot for the latter song by filmmaker Rick Alverson). The aforementioned BABBLE sextet was the band, with a guest appearance from Rob Mazurek. The artwork was made up of photographs by New York Times photographer Damon Winter; the photos were from Winter’s coverage of the devastation wrought in Haiti by the massive earthquake of 2010.

Then, a Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy 10” single was recorded in Nashville at the studio of David Ferguson, who also played bass. Sweeney and Oldham had each separately met Ferguson during their respective workings with Rick Rubin on the Johnny Cash American Recordings. The single included “Life in Muscle”, originally conceived for (but not used in) Richard Linklater’s film FAST FOOD NATION. The other side of the record was a new song for which Oldham and Sweeney switched hats: Sweeney wrote the words for “Must Be Blind” while Oldham was responsible for the music. The great Ronnie McCoury played mandolin on the session. The back cover photo features Sweeney and Oldham at the New Orleans JazzFest, with Lionel Richie performing live on the JumboTron screen in the distant background.

Finally, a third 10” single, credited simply to Bonnie Prince Billy, was recorded in Nashville by Mark Nevers. “God is Love” had been written along with THE LETTING GO songs but never fully recorded. “There Is No God” was written for an Oldham Brothers EP that was never completed. Ben Berman made a video for “There Is No God”, introducing the character of Zombie Bonnie, who would appear in many an Oldham/Berman collaboration as the years rolled on. A ringtone was made available of Rachel Korine and Cassie Berman singing the chorus of “There Is No God”. The cover art for this single was made up of monochromatic paintings by Tracy Nakayama.

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Wolfroy Goes To Town – Streaming Now

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Quail & Dumplings – Streaming Now

In a first for him, Will Oldham scheduled a recording session and performed all of the material to be recorded PRIOR to the session itself. There was a free tour of Florida featuring Oldham with Emmett Kelly and Angel Olsen; all shows were at record stores and radio stations, no money changed hands. This helped the three singers work out some of their voice harmonies. There was also a show in Chicago’s Millenium Park at which all of the songs intended for WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN were performed. The band was the Babblers band: Oldham, Kelly, Olsen, Ben Boye, Van Campbell and Danny Kiely. For the recording, which took place in Louisville in the same small room that had previously hosted the recordings of “Chijimi” and THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD, Shahzad Ismaily was brought in to oversee the engineering. The cover of WOLFROY was made by Sammy Harkham. The title comes from a painting by Lori Damiano. Two songs were recorded in Louisville later as B-sides to a “Quail & Dumplings” single (for which Ben Berman made a wonderful Polynesian video shot on Oahu). These were “Black Ice Cream”, which was written along with the LIE DOWN IN THE LIGHT group of songs but not recorded then, and “E Iesu”, a song sung in Hawaiian which was learned from a recording by Darren Benitez.