I've been listening to Bonny "Prince" Billy's Master and Everyone a little obsessively lately, so it seemed auspicious when the chance to interview him came up. At his hotel, we talked about the new Bonny sings Palace album, and about recording, the relation of music direction and vocabulary, favorite new artists and bourbon until the sun set.
What's your role been in the technical aspect of recording or do you pretty much stay out of that?
I always think that it's better, no matter what you're capable of doing, to not take more than one job on at a given time. I tried to stay out of it by working with people that I trusted and felt that I could communicate with. I didn't place any microphones. The second record I recorded myself, but it was just to the Tascam — one microphone. There's one song with multitrack, what we did was recorded the song onto the thing, and then played it on the stereo, and then recorded again onto the Tascam, because it was just a 2-track machine.
Do you work like that to do demos now?
The default machine used for notes or for demos would be just a hand-held tape recorder from Radio Shack, or a Sony. I got to where for Ease Down the Road, I had a different cassette for each song, for notes, and I'd fill a side with different versions, so I'd have, 'how that bridge should go now, but I don't want to lose that old bridge,' on this tape. For Master and Everyone I used the Mini-Disc, but just as if it was a tape recorder... linearly.
How much prep work do you do in the demo stage before doing an album in the studio with a band?
Zero prep work. Just to get the songs structured, yeah, and get the lyrics down and the chord changes, the key, and the speed, or tempo, whatever you call it. And then everything else is going to be dependent upon what the other musicians bring.
What happened on Master and Everyone? Your brother said you wanted to re-track things.
Well, I'm not sure, really. At a certain point, the songs aren't about anything at all, except for rhythm, meter, rhyme, key, structure... Maybe on some level I felt that the session wasn't doing justice to what the songs were about, but I wouldn't let myself go to thinking about the lyrical themes of the songs. At the same time I needed things to be taken care of, because I couldn't think about too many things at a given time. On Ease Down the Road, I was working with David Pajo — whenever I was at a loss, I could turn to Dave and say, "What do you think?" But Paul doesn't really play that role — he plays more of a Steve Albini role, which is the technical job. So if you say, "What do you think of that?" He'd say, "I dunno, sounds fine. You know, that's not my job."
What I like on Master and Everyone is that everyone's playing is so restrained. I was kind of surprised on the new one, to hear so much more playing from the band.
Partly that was inspired by mixing and overdubbing on Master and Everyone, and wanting to get a female singer. Mark [Nevers] called the singer's union, who gave us some numbers. Marty Slayton came over and it was perfect. And working with her was so fast, it was like, "Change this note, on this word, on the second half of the word." And she was like, "You mean do a fifth instead of a third?" Yeah. "Okay, roll it." She did like four songs in about 45 minutes. I was like, "Wow, it would be so awesome to make a record like that." So it was [me] wanting to be in a situation for experience as much as anything, where everybody played like that. At least in the initial session, where there was, you know, zero direction. I played them the demo, we ran through it one time, and we recorded it.
So what was the Castle like as a studio, and moreover, what do you want from a studio? I know you like to record in houses, and less formal settings...
Yeah. I like to have windows. That's a huge thing. I don't like to record in places without windows. I like isolation for mixing, but I also like as much eye contact as possible, so if there's isolation booths, there should be windows between the rooms as well. It's always nice if there's something else. The Castle's very nice because it's out in the country
What's Paul like in the studio?
Paul is a solid human being. He's unflappable. Say Pro Tools is fucking up, he gets upset in a way that doesn't get you upset. And it's always amazing every time we go in to record with Paul, the amount of knowledge he has gained since the last time we recorded, because he's constantly working on that, constantly reading about things, trying out new things with the equipment.
Do you do any vocal warm-ups or exercises or anything like that for recording, or for playing?
Mmm. No. I do find that the voice gets better as a tour goes on, the closer to the end of a tour that a recording occurs, the better, because the voice is in much better shape. But in terms of right before, I don't do anything.
What was it like recording with Johnny Cash?
It was uh. [pauses for a long moment] An inspiration. It was so cool because it was so much more exciting than I had expected it to be, which is a rare occurrence. I didn't have a lot of expectations, but I didn't expect it to be such an involved and invigorating day.
Are you a bourbon drinker?
What kind of bourbon do you like?
My favorite bourbon... What have we been drinking lately? WL Weller is what I've had mostly in the last six months. Overall my all-time favorite is just Maker's Mark. I used to drink Evan Williams a lot. Probably because it was inexpensive, but I thought it was delicious as well. I always feel like Maker's Mark is the standard, it's the benchmark, in terms of not being too rarefied, and it's delicious, and it makes you feel good. You ever been to Kentucky?
If you ever go, it's a really great distillery to go to. It's in a dry county, so they can't sell any there and it's just a beautiful setting, you walk in and there's like old women hand dipping the bottles, to get the wax dripping on there. Yeah.
I recently was sitting around the living room with a friend drinking Knob Creek and playing some songs, and we had a crack at "I See a Darkness", then listened to the album, so I guess I associated it. I gotta know what kinda bourbon this man drinks. [Will laughs]
We were probably drinking Maker's during the making of that record. I was living out there with Paul.