BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Will Oldham is many people, and who he is in a particular moment in time depends on where you were to encounter him.
There is the serious film actor in independent favorites “Old Joy” and “Junebug,” and a child actor in the John Sayles classic “Matewan.” He is known for transforming canonic standards — Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” with Tortoise is the highlight — into versions that are unrecognizable but just as powerful. Many people, from Deer Tick to Marianne Faithfull, have covered his songs, but a defining moment for him was sitting in a room with Johnny Cash when the country legend recorded his song “I See A Darkness.”
Of course the most enduring Oldham incarnation is Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the prolific troubadour who makes minimalist country and folk music sung in a voice that is itself a character: wondering, knowing, it refuses to reveal the person behind the singer but only serves to enhance the mystery imbued in the music.
Oldham, 43, emerged from Louisville’s underground music scene of the late 1980s that included Slint and Freakwater, but in 1993 he signed to Chicago’s Drag City label, where he has remained ever since. He has recorded a flood of albums over the last 20 years, but the latest represents a kind of pause. “Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues” (Drag City) is a deliberate reworking of musical ideas and lyrics from his 2011 album “Wolfroy Goes to Town.” The opportunity allowed him a familiar starting point, but the recording itself represents a defiant act in our over-saturated era where anything new lasts a day and can easily vanish within the steady scroll of media noise.
Oldham, who performs Friday at Thalia Hall, says he is concerned that record labels and movie studios, among others, are often more concerned with releasing new product than they are reminding the public of what sleeper gems they may already have at their disposal that are deserving of renewed attention.
“Stuff gets lost,” he says. “I’m not in favor of reissuing and re-mastering, but just saying that ‘this is still here, you don’t have to buy new records, this record is still here, they’re not tired, they are full of potential energy.’ Even just encouraging in people the idea that growth is not necessarily a positive thing and progress, in the way we understand it, is misleading. Actual progress can be made listening to an old record.”
At the same time, Oldham is not a pop culture snob. This is the same person who appeared in a gorilla suit in “Jackass 3D” and who performed in a chapter of the ongoing R. Kelly video saga “Trapped in the Closet.” Oldham also performed as a temporary member of the Mekons, the long-running art-rock collective.
“Collaboration is chance to get schooled,” he says. “One of the great driving forces in doing this kind of work is revealing the community that exists out there, or creating it. It’s up to the time to reveal how deep that relationship can possibly be.”
His longtime fans, however, will recognize his own music as the kind that may be best performed around a single microphone, or requires a quiet listening room. While the music certainly has the plaintiveness of folk music, and the musicianship associated with country, Oldham is quick to say he is more motivated by the post-rock scene in Chicago 20 years ago that aimed to deconstruct genres to mine the energy within a song.
But what keeps him recording music under his own name, even one that’s made up, is to keep the music informal and accessible, not just among musicians but with listeners.
“You can’t get together with friends and play a song by Boston very quickly. Or Thin Lizzy. Or Matchbox Twenty. Because the recording process of popular music is such that what we end up hearing does not end up having a relationship with what the musicians actually play,” he says.
Oldham says his new album is intended as a kind of testimony to qualities he believes should be fundamental to any musician: the hard work of connecting a series of songs together to make a complete statement and the relationships that can develop from collaborating with live musicians.
“There’s been a change in how music is produced and distributed and listened to and found over the course of the last 10 years or so to the point where in many ways it’s hardly recognizable compared to what I grew up with or when I began to be involved in making records,” he says. “If I was 15, I wouldn’t be interested in doing this kind of work at all. I can’t imagine being 15 and saying, ‘One day I want to make music on SoundCloud so people can listen to it on their computer.’ That sounds ridiculous.”