[INTERVIEW] We talk with long time home-taper Bill Foreman about "The Duck Hunter"
Singer-songwriter Bill Foreman is reissuing some of his self-released recordings. The Duck Hunter was released originally in 1998, and is available on cassette, with a unique lyric booklet. This release has a timeless quality to it that caught me off guard. It could easily be from any era, and I was about halfway through it before I checked the album description and saw that the album was twenty years old.
While The Duck Hunter is plainly recorded, with no overblown reverbs or overproduced arrangements, it still holds a depth and complexity - due to variety of instrumentation and heady lyrical content. The writing is the takeaway in this release, despite Bill's abilities to arrange and record. It is the kind of album I would take over to my buddy Jake's house and listen to over a glass of whiskey - and excitedly comment when we find a real zinger in the lyrics. For example, there's a great line from the title track that goes something like, "I'd forgo my cigarettes and my meals/ To sense the way her curvature feels."
I decided to reach out to Bill Foreman to get further insight. The following is an unedited email interview:
You have described yourself as a 'home taper' back in the 80's and 90's. Can you describe that experience? Having been a part of that scene, in what ways is it different from the way things are now?
I feel like I wasn’t part of any scene at all, but I did go to school in Claremont, CA, in what is known as the Inland Empire, which was something of an epicenter for tape labels, particularly Shrimper Records. Dennis Callaci, who worked at and I believe for a while managed Rhino Records, the good record store in Claremont. So not only did Dennis make all of Shrimper’s stuff available but did a real service stocking cassette releases from other labels, several of which were more or less local.
I guess that the biggest difference between then and now is that we had record stores, and more to the point we had the people who worked in them. The biggest name probably to come out of all that stuff at that time was Beck. I remember after he got signed, but before “Mellow Gold” came out, there was an article about him in the LA Weekly, or one of the free papers. I walked into Rhino and asked Dennis, “do you know this guy? Is he crap or is he legit?” And Dennis said he liked his stuff and that they had some of his tapes for a couple dollars if I wanted to check it out. So I did, and a few weeks later his record came out, though in his case it was actually a lot better than his cassette release. But for me, I had this random good fortune to be right there, physically. It happened to be where I went to college. The thing now, and this is the great benefit of the internet, is that there is broader access to stuff, not only through Bandcamp but primarily, to people all over.
I was in a band called The House Carpenters that put out, at great expense, a CD. We made up a label for ourselves called General Ludd Music. After that band fell apart I kept the name and actually in a small way ran a cassette label, then as things happened CD-R label up through 2004. It fit the budget I had. This would have been starting in 1997. It was limited to stuff by me and a few good friends, but in its way we did quite well. The Duck Hunter was a typical release: the recording, with a photocopied booklet with lyrics and text, in a ziplock bag. At the time, it felt easy—I’d put something together or a friend would give me something, and I’d send it out for reviews, which usually came back positive because I really didn’t have an interest in dealing with music I didn’t love. I certainly see some of the cassette labels at this point as having that same kind of affection for what they put out, and it builds a trust in the music and in the label.
I guess it’s that trust in a source for new music that I got from Dennis at Rhino in Claremont, more formatively from Lou at Lou’s Records in Encinitas, CA when I was younger, that I see many cassette labels rebuilding right now. Basically, the people running tape labels are like the people who used to work in real record stores.
You are reissuing several releases from that era. What was the motivation to re-release?
I came to a point in my life where I realized that someday I was going to die, and it was very clear I needed to gather together what it has meant to be me in this world and get it in good shape. I was with my grandmother when she died and was able to say good things to her as she left this world. It was a great privilege for me. My father, I wasn’t with him, but I did get to spend time with him, particularly at one moment when doctors told his wife to gather everyone around him because he wasn’t likely to live for 24 hours. He actually made it through that episode but died six weeks later. Anyway, he told me at one point in the year before he died, “I love you, Bill, but I love you most when you’re playing music.” I knew exactly what he meant. I have built up other things in my life, but the one thing I was always best at was music. It was just always the most natural extension of the best I have to bring to this world.
With this in mind I wanted to on the one hand get a series of tunes I’d written over the last several years that were really solid into a good form and release it. This was the record I did called “The Bliss-Chasers,” which I put out in 2016. I put together I compilation of my stuff that is like “Endless Summer” or the Beatles’ “Blue Album”, with the idea that if I got hit by a bus tomorrow you could point to those two things and say “wow, that guy was good!”
I finally got equipment which has allowed me to go back to my old tapes and really remaster them. All that means in my case is getting proper compression and EQ, because I don’t generally go in for a lot of effects. But the masters I had really didn’t sound that great, and I’ve never been “lo-fi” as a matter of principle. I’m not an audiophile, but I want things to sound their best, especially when it’s my stuff. So my old stuff needed a remaster from that perspective.
Also, I wanted to have these things available in the form I imagined them in the first place. Over the years, I tried to do things with more ostensibly professional or conventional packaging, and in hindsight I never should have bothered. I’ve never been a candidate for mass-appeal, and whatever good I had to offer was always idiosyncratic. So the cassette (or CD-R) and booklet packaging really works for my stuff. Among other things, people like to have the lyrics to read, which you can’t really do effectively with a j-card. And for me, I’d always liked liner notes.
There is a lot of intricate, detail-laden storytelling in your music, one song on this record that stands out to me is The Czech Philologist. Whats the larger story behind this one?
I’d gone to school and studied a lot of Soviet history, and in that context became interested in first Russian and then other Eastern European literatures. I went through a major Czech lit phase a few years before I wrote this tune. I also, probably because of when I was born, in 1969, had always been very interested in 1968. I was reading a lot of New Left, so-called, writers at the time. All this, and when I was in grad school I heard so much talk about the publish-or-perish issue and I’d known people who’d gone down professionally because of it.
So that’s what was circling around in my head when I wrote the tune. It developed into this story about an untenured and we imagine fairly untalented lecturer who lucked into discovering some manuscript which, when published, should have gotten him tenure. But his cat wrecked it—the man remained a screw-up. This takes place at the end of the Prague Spring, and the lecturer is so upset at the cat that he breaks the curfew looking for it and, of course, is lucky not to get killed by the Red Army guard. He swears vengeance on the cat.
This is a good example of something I do, which is that I’ve got a lot of stuff going around in my head, and I have some internal sense that no matter how disparate the various ideas in my head are, there must be come kind of narrative context that can contain them, if only I can find it. Writing the song is the breaking through to that context. When it works, it’s really good.
Your lyrical approach is very traditional, and appears to utilize meter and rhyme prominently. What influences led you to that style? Did these lyrics begin as poetry?
I grew up on Johnny Cash and The Beatles and as I got older developed deep love for both jazz and traditional folk musics, especially US folk music, the likes of which my Dad used to sing me on his guitar when I was a kid. The literary quality of the lyrics in jazz standards—the Great American Songbook, as they call it—is massive, much higher than most of what passes for literate pop or singer-songwriter stuff. And the lyrics in traditional song are impeccable. I love a lot of different kinds of music, but those sources are the ones that made me.
I don’t precisely use meter. What I do is use melody. The lyrics are going to need to work with a melody, but the melody doesn’t need to conform to a meter in a poetic sense. You can use more or fewer syllables in one line of a lyric as long as those syllables can conform to the form of the melody in the song.
The thing with form of any kind in art is that it can either be constricting or it can be liberating. Neither one is good or bad in itself. This is true of poetic meter, a song form, or rhyme.
Rhyme is a great example. On the one hand, you can look at it like a requirement—the word at the end of this line has to rhyme with the word at the end of that one. That’s constricting. But rhyme can break you out of your habitual patterns, especially if you’ve got a good vocabulary. You wrote one line, and then you have to think of all the words that rhyme with the word at the end of the line you just wrote. Those words, from all over the map, will send you places in your writing that you didn’t expect to go and wouldn’t have gone if left to your own devices.
“The Czech Philologist” is a great example. I remember that I’d wanted to know the name of a Czech university and I looked it up. Olomuc came up, and I knew how to pronounce the “c” because I understood how Czech used the Roman alphabet with Slavic sounds. So it made me think of all the words I could think of that ended in the sound “-oots.” Shoots, flutes, cahoots, boots. Given the context “boots” was obviously the right way to go, and “boots” immediately suggested “jackboots.” The rhyme freed me from imagining I knew where I was going and let me go somewhere I hadn’t expected. That’s a good use of rhyme, that’s liberating form.
The other thing, though, is that when you have a general use of rhyme in a tune you can choose to not use a rhyme where a listener might expect one. The effect is jarring and powerful, and causes a person to notice. You’ll see this kind of thing fairly often in my tunes, though not in that one.
It’s worth noting that even though people talk about “free jazz,” etc., that none of those great musicians felt that that term described what they were doing. There are a few people who can consistently make interesting music with little or no structure, but for nearly everyone, what people do when they have no form or no constraints is that they stick to what they already know. Some people take it the other way and are basically aesthetically fascist. For me that was never going to be a problem. I was always prone to chaos—interesting. In my case, I never found artistic freedom until I really found a way to work with form and make it my own.
What is next on the horizon for you? Any plans to release something new in the near future?
I’ve started writing, yes. Immediately, I’ve got two more things to remaster, and then I will be off between July and December doing retreat practice and then staying for a while as a volunteer at the retreat center. This is another thing, like getting my back catalogue back out, that I feel like I better do it now because I may not be around forever. Once that’s done, I am going to relocate to somewhere I can get a house rather than the condo I’m in now. The last time I could have a studio with my drums set up was in 2005, when I lived in Riverside, CA. For someone like me, that’s absurd. I make music, and I need a space in which to work. So that’s the concrete plan. I imagine it will take a year or two to get something proper in order to release. I’ve never been someone who put out a ton of stuff, who wrote quickly. I could do it, but the results wouldn’t be the kind of thing that mean a lot to me.
Bill Foreman's reissues are available on his Bandcamp page.
For further reading on Bill Foreman, check out his site here: