I went to a free show at The Empty Bottle last Monday to see Willis Earl Beal. I’ve been a fan of his work since he blew up in the Chicago scene at the beginning of the decade, but this was my first time seeing him live. There was no talk of doing an interview beforehand, but my friend August Forte, who works in the industry, was able to facilitate and get me some time in the green room after the show through his connections at The Minimal Beat (who put out a limited edition 7″ single of “Flying So Low” b/w “12 Midnight”).
Willis played a whole set of new material, mostly in the dark and always behind a mask. The performance was lively and unnerving, like he had demons that needed exorcising, forcing him to work them out on stage. The audience sat on the floor (a first for me at the Bottle) and hung on every sound. CD’s of the music were for sale afterward, so I bought one and a few minutes later I was downstairs with Willis, August, my friend Sam, and Willis’s sound guy Matt DeWine, who now runs sound at Tonic Room. For a few minutes Leor Galil was there-the writer who first discovered Willis and got his name known around Chicago.
We talked for a while, without recording, about touring in Poland. The biggest show he’s done to date was in France, where he played a set between the xx and Mark Lanegan. It was a fun chat, and then some other people joined us, including Chicago rapper Sharkula. Once we were all settled in I hit record and delved into the psyche of one of the most interesting guys in the music industry.
(Josh): August touched on some good points already. Uh, upstairs while you were performing I was kind of wondering about the creative freedom you have because of where you are as an artist, but also the pressure you’re under to try to make a living doing what you do…
(Willis Earl Beal): Yeah I do feel a lot of pressure.
(Josh): So I wondered how you balance that (group of people walk in and Willis graciously invites them to join us if they’d like)
(WEB): My girlfriend, I guess we could say she’s tolerant of it. She’s had a difficult time with it because she’s come out on several tours with me and she had a hard time dealing with crowd reactions. She enjoyed it, but she simultaneously…I try not to talk about her, but I need her as a form of context. But she just had a really difficult time with that. My career has been kind of a double-edged sword the whole way. It’s not even a career. It started out that way, they tried to get me on some kind of fast track to stardom or whatever, and I was never born to be a star. I’m an anti-star, if anything. I was still figuring things out. I think people are always figuring things out. And the industry, or whatever it is, does not cater to people who are constantly evolving. Especially if you’re evolving in a non-linear, or perceivably non-linear way.
I had a show [in Chicago], and I was still figuring things out. The first time they really enjoyed it, and they invited me back. They paid me six or seven hundred dollars the first time, they paid me the same amount the second time. And it was very similar to the last performance. It was the same, really. Very free flowing, very free consciousness. Then the guy tried to walk out on me, he didn’t wanna pay me. His guys tried to beat me up. And then when I contacted them about this craziness that was happening, they said it was because I had a shitty performance. And I had people come up to me after that show and they all liked the performance. They all thought it was something they related to. So, whatever I’m doing, I don’t know if it’s extraordinary or not extraordinary, it’s very simple.
I started doing this for lack of being able to do it another way. And now I see there are nuances to even the most simple things. So I discovered different nuances of crowd manipulation. Mind control, just, within the context of the situation, not necessarily long term. So I can get people to focus on me for a while. More than just my voice, there are other elements. Pathos. I’m a clown. And that’s what I like people to see. People are interested in pathos. People are interested in failure. People enjoy seeing a personality, it’s voyeuristic, and that’s what I play into. I want to make it seem like I could almost be in a room by myself and you’re looking in.
Certain easily categorizable ways of thinking of things can marginalize my message. I’m not trying to be a soul guy. I wanna be, like, a shaman. It’s not even about the quality of my voice, even though I try to sing really well. I’m trying to channel a universal feeling of isolation. A universal isolation. That’s what I’m channeling in my music. And I think through understanding that isolation and connecting to the universality of it, then we can come together.
I’m affirmatively declaring nothing. Declaring a total separation from the politics of what’s governing our society and I say “Break the walls down.” That’s why my performances are anti-experiences. Because it’s all about deconstruction, that’s all I do is deconstruct everything.
(Josh): During the show tonight you looked out at the audience and said that when you look in the mirror, you see them. Is that what you think about when you’re alone thinking about your music or is it all the time?
(WEB): When I’m by myself, I’m either masturbating or I’m thinking about the fact that I don’t have enough weed or that I love my girlfriend and I want to know how she feels, you know what I mean? I don’t think about music at all. And if I am thinking about music, I’m just listening to my own words. It’s a sickness. It’s all a sickness, you know? The idea of doing the same thing over and over again every day, and for the purpose of molding it and perfecting it to present it in this way. It’s like doing your hair like this (ruffles hand through hair) and saying you have bed head. That’s what I do. I have a lot of problems in my real life, so I figure out “How can I make this just contrived enough to be beautiful?” So I give them that. A contrived version of my actual neuroses. I’m trying to capitalize monetarily off that.
(August): Just monetarily?
(WEB): I want redemption. But,
(August): Do you want people to have a good time?
(WEB): I have no interest in that.
(August): Do you want people to have a good time during your set?
(WEB): I have a good time by looking at things that I find disturbing.
(August): If you see someone smiling in the audience…
(WEB): If I see someone smiling then I know that they understand some of my idiosyncrasies. But I’m saying, I present what it is I would look at. You know, I’d be more likely to watch a Lars Von Trier film than a Michael Bay film. That’s too big of a contrast…
(August): No I get it, man. Your stuff reminds me of [Lars Von Trier’s film] Dancer In The Dark.
(WEB): I mean, maybe that’s a bit arrogant
(August): No it’s not, man. It’s where your art’s coming from. I think it’s brilliant. It’s some dark shit. It’s some sad shit. I like the Bjork thing, I like the Cat Power thing. You have a lot of female antecedents in your work.
(WEB): [surprised] You are so weird to say that, cuz that’s true and no one’s ever noticed that.
(August): Yeah like Cat Power [who appeared on Willis’s album Nobody Knows], Bjork, Sinead O’Connor.
(WEB): Sometimes I dance a lot. I dance more than I did tonight. And I always wanted to be in the ballet and do classical music. I can’t do either one, I don’t play the cello and I ain’t a ballet dancer. But I didn’t do any ballet moves tonight. But I try to be as feminine as possible most of the time on stage. That’s my whole philosophy on stage is to be feminine. I got a girlfriend ya know, but I just, I don’t know how you can perform when you’re not thinking feminine.
(Josh): Like your masculinity hinders your ability
(WEB): Masculinity is like some weird mutation or something. Even when I’m screaming, that’s a woman, too.
(Josh): Like the frustrations…
(WEB): I’ve never seen a man experience that kind of frustration. Except me, in that way.
(Josh): Do you feel like when you’re writing music you write in a female voice?
(WEB): Oh yeah. That’s why I hate “Too Dry To Cry” so much. It sounds like a man with a cock. Which is not a problem, I have a cock. But why do I HAVE a cock, why can’t I just have it. Why do you have to HAVE it all the time. Why do you have to walk around with it. You know, ok, I happen to possess a penis. In this country, you know [puffs out chest] “I’m a man with a penis and the way I walk is an indication of that and the way I talk is an indication of that and the fact that my neck is stiff is an indication of that.” So, I don’t know. I feel like women are more comfortable than men, but I don’t know I’m not a woman. I can’t say that. But as a performer, I take a feminine perspective.
(Josh): So then does it bother you that “Too Dry To Cry” is the song that most people equate you with?
(WEB): Oh my God, I hate it. I hate that song. Performing and music is so meta, everyone should do it. It’s like being on acid. Because you realize why you hate yourself based on what you write and what you sing and how it manifests itself and how they react to it. You’re learning so much just by exposing yourself. I expose myself through concealing myself. It’s all lies. It’s truth, but it’s also lies. I’m presenting an exaggerated version of myself on the stage for the entertainment and amusement, and hopefully the inspiration of people. But it is contrived, it’s a performance.
(Sharkula): That’s deep.
(WEB): I’m only a frail person. I am not that, that’s just a projection, you know. So all these dualities, all these juxtapositions are in my mind when I’m doing what I’m doing. And I’m thinking all high about it, but your average person is like “Hmmm…he needs a band.” You know, that’s just how it is. People aren’t going to see you as deeply as you see yourself. That’s the struggle.
(Josh): Do you feel like when you travel you see less of that mindset outside of the U.S.?
(WEB): I gotta say, based on what I’ve seen, it seems to me Europeans have more patience most of the time. I’m not saying they’re better, they just have more patience. Tonight’s crowd was really good, but American crowds don’t have a lot of patience with me. They either have patience or they absolutely do not and they’ll walk out. Or rage against it. I’ll tell people to be quiet and they’ll outright yell. I elicit reactions or compliance. They seem reverent to their own emotions and that’s why they’re watching the show. They expect to engage in some way and when they’re told the can not engage, they react to that.
(Josh): Does it help when you’re on stage to get that kind of reaction?
(WEB): Yeah. [pounds fist] Cuz it’s like I’m fighting against something. I like it. Then it’s the show. Is this guy losing his mind or this kind of thing.
(Sharkula): Could you ever live somewhere else?
(WEB): I could live in Manchester. [Stands up] I sang “Dance To The Radio” [“Transmission” by Joy Division] in Manchester. I just did it and everyone went nuts. I was like the black Ian Curtis for the night.
(August): You kinda have his mojo
(WEB): Don’t say that!
(August): The way he danced on stage, and that poetry behind his lyrics. I think you totally have that.
(WEB): I just don’t wanna hang myself from a ceiling fan. I wanna explode like he did, just now how he did.