There may be no better artist to embody the beautiful chaos of contemporary culture than Willis Earl Beal. His 2012 album Acousmatic Sorcery, was a dizzyingly diverse collection of boom box recordings made while the Chicago native was exiled for a time in Albuquerque, working dead end jobs in between stretches of homelessness. This material was discovered and issued by XL Recordings who thrust him onto international stages backed only by a reel-to-reel player, along with a few instruments he couldn’t really play. Yet, Beal’s powerfully soulful voice and Dylan-esque lyrics spoke directly to anyone searching for an identity within the corporatized world, a sentiment displayed on the “Nobody” t-shirt he wore for every appearance. That concept is the foundation of Beal’s new album, Nobody Knows, a cri de coeur that fully fleshes out the primitivism of Acousmatic Sorcery with the aid of producer Rodaidh McDonald, and cameos by Cat Power and TV On The Radio’s Jahphet Landis, who’s helped Beal put together his first band for his upcoming tour. In the past year, Beal was also tapped to star in director Tim Sutton’s second feature, Memphis, which recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Once again, despite not having any experience in front of the camera, Beal’s artistic instincts created something unexpected and mesmerizing. When speaking from his current home in New York City, Beal still seemed to be making sense out of how or why fate had brought him to this point. He had also had six cups of coffee before our conversation.
It’s a real pleasure to talk to you. I’m a huge fan of your first album. The new one is fantastic too.
Do you really dig it, or is this just one of those things you say?
I really dig it. I’ve been writing about music for a long time, and I hadn’t heard anything like your first record before. It blew my mind.
That means a hell of a lot to me, because as far as the first record is concerned—I mean, I know you know the story of how pissed off I was that it got released, not that I didn’t know it was going to be released—but I was doing festivals for a year and a half, and every time I’d go to one I’d feel like a fucking novelty. And the musicians that were around, I don’t know if they were cold particularly to me, or if they’re just cold to everybody. Like, how I was being marketed at the festivals was, oh yeah, the guy with the back story. Then people would trepidatiously come over to my stage, and they would dig it because it sounded way different from what they imagined or what they’d heard. It was disenchanting for me to have to sell one thing and give another. I felt like a fraud, you dig? I didn’t really entirely understand what the motivation of the people who’d hired me was. Did they think they could just dig me for a while because I was some type of novelty, and if I ended up having a bit of talent, then they could use it. But if I didn’t, it would be no loss. These people that are working with me, they’re not bad people at all. But when you have a lack of confidence in the product you’re putting out, and the shit’s old, then naturally you’re going to feel all type of ways. So it just makes me feel good that someone like you dug the thing.
The biggest difference I noticed on the new record was the range of your voice. Was it important to you to finally get into a real studio?
You still sound pissed off on a lot of the songs, but there’s some hope too. Does this record encapsulate the last couple of years of your life?
No. I mean, it does, but honestly it encapsulates the entire 29-year experience I’ve had. I don’t consider the other record to have been my debut because those songs were skeletons of songs and things I was trying to figure out, and that just started. What you heard on Acousmatic Sorcery were my formative years as a musician, which was no earlier than 2008. So, the new record, Nobody Knows, is really the record I was going to make as my debut. I had written a majority of these songs in Albuquerque during the Acousmatic Sorcery times, and I had them in my head. I had them just memorized. Because my sound engineer knew my approach, that I wasn’t actually trained on any instruments, we were going into a studio in Amsterdam with very little hope that anything was going to come out of it, at least anything that wasn’t a complete debacle. At the time, I was at the tail end of a tour, and I was touring with that damn box—the reel-to-reel player—and we were also responsible for working on the record. So we were down there in Amsterdam, and he’s like, we’ve got to get up and go to the studio, which I had no intention of doing. I wanted to be in Amsterdam for different reasons. It was supposed to be my vacation period, and they didn’t tell me that the real reason I was going down there was specifically to record. [Engineer] Matt [DeWine] would knock on the door every morning and say it was time to get up, and I’d be like, alright, I just got to make a stop first. I’d go down to the coffee shop, get a pure skunk joint, a hash muffin and a cup of coffee and sit there for an hour. I’d come to the studio laughing my ass off, totally zoned. Of course, Matt’s reaction was, this is really going to be fucked up—he doesn’t actually play any instruments and we don’t know what we’re going to come out with. So, for example, how I composed “Burning Bridges” was, I just sat down at the piano and pressed keys and laughed for the first 30-35 minutes. Finally, I started to play some keys together and I’m thinking, yeah, this is sounding pretty good. So I’m starting to recall the melody I’d originally had for the song, and I go into the booth and tell them to loop what I was just playing and I start playing another part. I get them to loop that and I go over to the drums and put down a beat. Now, the drums on the record are not my parts, that’s Jahphet Landis [TV On The Radio], but my drums were the basis of what he did. I can’t play drums like him, but I was able to lay down something that was coherent. So, that was the process, and what we came out with was the basis for half the record. The rest of the record was recorded by other musicians in Chicago, and then there were a couple of songs recorded in my apartment with my girlfriend Jess. What I mean by other musicians is, [their parts] are based on my original compositions. Like, “Ain’t Got No Love” is based on “The Masquerade” on Acousmatic Sorcery. They copied that note-for-note. On “Coming Through,” that’s all other musicians, but it’s based on something that me and this guy named Miles Raymer did in the studio where I was on an organ and he was on a piano. I overdubbed a harmonica and some drums, and on the strength of that recording they figured out how to redo it and make it richer. Anything that was added on the record, like the violins on “Blue Escape,” I would call those shots over the telephone. I’d tell either Rodaidh McDonald or Matt DeWine that I want some strings on this part, and they went and got Ray Suen from the Killers. I really consider myself to be a composer, but I’m not going to sit up here and pretend I played all those damn instruments. I knew how I wanted my record to sound, and—no pun intended—I was instrumental in the creation of the record. I’m really happy that all of these competent players were willing to listen to orders coming from this guy, but I needed it to be a very particular way. It came together so easy I guess because when you’re dealing with pros it just works like that. I don’t even speak musical language, but I was really able to communicate well with this record.
Looking at it from a musician’s perspective, I could see how it wouldn’t be that difficult to get what you’re doing, because you have such a natural ability with rhythm and melody. It’s interesting that you say you were trying to remember the original songs as you were recording this album. When you finally listened to it, did it bear any resemblance to what you’d written back in Albuquerque?
The melodies didn’t have any resemblance to those at all. When I was in Albuquerque, I didn’t have a preconceived understanding of how a song should be economical in terms of language. I was layering too much language; the melodies that my language would create—or should create—were entirely too complex for my rudimentary abilities. It was either that or the songs were overly naïve. I didn’t understand anything about structure, and I think you hear a lot of that on Acousmatic Sorcery, despite the fact that you liked it. I’ve been listening to a lot of music, and now I’m able understand where pauses need to go, and everything comes through a lot clearer. You can not only like the sound better, you can understand what I’m saying a bit better—it doesn’t come off as unintelligible. A guy named Tom Noonan wrote a critique of a couple of my songs, specifically “Ghost Robot,” where he said it was unintelligible, and I was so pissed off about that. I mean, I can understand if you don’t like the music, that’s fine, whatever. But don’t say it’s unintelligible because I had a real intent behind all those songs, you know? When they say it’s unintelligible, what they’re saying is they don’t understand it. It’s not that it’s unintelligible. But I’m happy that I’ve gotten a chance to make this record, because I feel the critique is going to be fair. The people aren’t going to be critiquing a child’s drawing; they’re going to be critiquing a full work of art. And if they don’t like this, then fuck it, I can’t do any better.
What’s your relationship with the blues?
Well, I can tell you that I’m not a blues enthusiast and I’ve never been a blues enthusiast. The only reason why I started singing that way—in that blues fashion that you’re talking about—is because I got heavily into Bob Dylan. A lot of people call Bob Dylan just a folk artist or a rock artist, but if you listen to a lot of his newer stuff, obviously there’s the Americana, but there’s also a very heavy R&B, blues and soul influence. His voice may not be able to carry those notes, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. Chuck Berry is one of his role models, and he’s an R&B, rockabilly-type guy. But all of that stuff has origins in blues and soul, and that’s derivative of jazz, and then country and folk play a part in that as well. So, the only reason why I sing the blues is because of Bob Dylan. I never got into Muddy Waters or Screaming Jay Hawkins or Robert Johnson. I get these Daniel Johnston comparisons, and I guess I can see it the way “Evening’s Kiss” sounds, even though he’s not a blues artist. But the people I get compared to were never my influences. I like people like Vincent Gallo and Scott Walker. So, the field recording, field holler, Alan Lomax thing, it was very frustrating because I knew exactly what they were doing—not they, meaning my label—but the machine had turned me into some idiot savant, rugged blues guy, and that was never my intention, you know what I mean? I wanted a modern experimental, updated sound. I wanted to create lullabyes. I wanted to make music like Lana Del Rey, honestly. When I first heard “Video Games,” I said, see, that orchestral, jazzy torch singer sound, that slow, romantic ambient, cinematic sound is what I want and that’s what I’m capable of, but I’ve got to play this fucking lo-fi thing. That’s no disrespect to the blues, but being from Chicago, being black, being from the south side, all that shit played a part in how they looked at me. But I know my voice sounds like a blues man.
I definitely did notice the Dylan influence more on the new album, especially on the title track where you do that great rap at the end.
There’s also Captain Beefheart. Not all of my influences, in fact most of my influences, don’t even come out in what I do. You might be able to call that originality, but that’s a really tough word to use. I don’t think that really exists, but the best you can hope to do is find a few styles you like and try to imitate them. When you fail, that’s where you get originality from. In fact, that’s what they call Bob Dylan: a bad imitator.
Was there a specific target for the anger you display on Nobody Knows?
Yes, most definitely. Outside of my own small-minded, contrived and mediocre pursuits, the purpose of this record is to highlight the struggle of one person, but to make that person just generalized enough so that a listener could almost believe it’s their own conscience or their own thoughts. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end is a kind of peaceful resignation. The beginning is a complete obliviousness and the middle is a disintegration, or a delving into some sort of darkness. There’s a peak, and then you come out of it. I wanted to highlight that, and I wanted to try to bring people together and make them understand that old cliché that we’re all one. In a more extreme sense, in society we’re always encouraged to be ourselves, but we’re encouraged to be ourselves by conglomerates, corporations, people selling products. They say, you can be yourself, but you can be yourself even more if you buy this product. I’m an artist, and you can be yourself even more if you listen to me and buy my CD. Now, I realize the irony in that, but I wanted to show people a generalized struggle, while at the same time saying, turn inward, look to yourself and create your own product. The way I’ve done that is I’ve included a manifesto that I wrote about this very thing. I say, I hope you like the composition, the lyrics, the aesthetics, the literature and the pictures in this package. But just know that after you put this down, this is an encouragement for you to go back to yourself. That’s why I didn’t put my face on the CD. I also mention the contradiction of wanting to really break the system in half, but understanding my limitations, understanding that I lost 25 jobs and I fucking need to eat. That’s a strange sort of line to walk. So, the music itself highlights an individual’s struggle, that ends up being a universal struggle, and then the stuff around highlights… It’s more like activism, the stuff around it, and the music is more existential. I’m not trying to make a cult, I’m just asking people when they see me holding the Nobody symbol on stage, or see it on the record, to think, me. That’s how I feel. Let’s not kiss Willis Earl Beal’s ass, let’s go and make our own shit. Let’s not pay attention to everything they tell us to pay attention to. Let’s not all keep dressing the same and acting the same and thinking that we’re doing something different. Let’s learn how to govern ourselves. I feel like I’ve always wanted to lend something to the area of consciousness expansion, but I realize how arrogant that sounds. Because, for me, writing a song, recording an album, doing a stupid fucking photo shoot, it’s not enough for me. It’s just not enough. I’m just tired of living an aimless life. The past two years have been the most self-indulgent years of my life. I spent all my money and acted like a damn fool. Now I’m sitting here, I got my girlfriend, the record’s coming out, the movie’s coming out, and I’m thinking, I don’t want to go on tour, I just don’t want to do it, because I don’t have anything to really contribute except recycling the same thoughts I’ve already said. If you want some spontaneity, listen to the record, but I’ve gotta do it, because the only way you can make money these days is to tour. It’s a struggle, but I’ll tell you this, my belly’s not swollen because I’m malnourished, so there’s always a perspective. Frankly, I’m just another privileged artist with a big mouth, and that’s the end of it.
I think every artist who experiences some level of success has to face the reality of the music business. Do you feel now that you weren’t prepared for that?
No, I was not. I was working at Fed Ex at the time, having gone from one shitty job to the next. I never believed in myself, and I never had any morals or any integrity. I just drifted from one situation to the next. One minute I was a thief, one minute I was homeless, one minute I was a self-described alcoholic—that’s debatable, I drank alcohol and romanticized the whole thing. I just feel like I’ve been lying my whole life and so many years have been wasted. I’m at a point now where I’m ready to discover some type of religion or some type of truth. And it’s weird that my truth happens to be “nobody.” It’s very poetic and nice, but I really hope that I accomplish my goal and not succumb to whatever paltry little attention I get and think that that’s going to tide me over for the rest of my life. Essentially, I want to make a mark, but I also want to get my forty acres, you know what I mean?
Tell me about the movie you’re in, Memphis, and what that experience was like for you.
The movie’s about me, but I don’t think Tim [Sutton] intended for it to be. Tim wrote the character separate from me; he didn’t even know who I was when he wrote it. Then John Baker, the producer, was like, this dude is the character you’re writing about, and he went out and got me. So then I’m thinking, oh shit, something else for me to fuck up. Sure enough, I go to Memphis to talk about the project, they hired me and they’re all excited, and I damn near screwed it over. What happened was, the movie is largely improvisational—Tim had overarching ideas, obviously, and he had a story board—but he allowed for little idiosyncrasies to an extent that I was able to sort of blur reality and fantasy. I got into my old habits—I was in an environment that was like the south side of Chicago, and I found myself back in church, bored as hell listening to the preacher and the choir. It was exactly the same as when I was a kid, going from church to church with my mother, feeling bored and alienated. So here I am in church, and everybody’s for real, and there’s a big camera on me. I have to interact with these people who are totally in their element and not acting, and I’m like half-in, half-out. I just lost my mind for a while and I almost fucked this movie up because Tim and I argued quite a bit. But in the end he decided he didn’t want to make the movie without me, and bless him for that. I know I’m a shit to work with, but I’m just glad that it came through and hopefully it’s going to be successful. I think it’s a kick-ass movie. Tim’s a great guy, it’s just that we’re both children. When you’ve got two enthusiastic dudes, it’s gonna be hard.