Bittersweet Fancy: The music of Bill Santen
by John Wenzel
Birddog's new record, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy, ups the emotional ante from their last full-length, 1998's somber masterpiece Ghost of the Season. Balanced on the tip of folk-rock, with an eye towards country and a hand on the 70's pop gear shift, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy is a revealing title.
Nothing is black and white in Birddog's world. Lyrically, the best things are often the most damaging, sometimes changing within the same song. Instrumental structures are concise but relaxed, allowing room to let the mind wander. "Third and South" recalls Elliott Smith, with its gentle, crisp guitar work and breathy vocals (and, incidentally, Mr. Smith as backup). "Singapore Creek Seduction" is a canoe ride through the swamp at sunset, cool water lapping against the sides of the boat, cigarettes burning down to your fingertips, palms smacking mosquitoes on the back of your neck. Visceral music, let's call it.
Birddog is the singular vision of Lexington, Ken. singer/songwriter Bill Santen. His delicate approach to an assortment of moody genres speaks to his subtle genius as an arranger and composer. The listener is a kite in his hands, moving here and there in the wind, barely noticing the gentle operation below.
I had a chance to ask Bill a few questions about Birddog and the new record, (which features guest performances from such indie luminaries as Elliott Smith--a longtime friend of Santen whom he originally met in Portland--and Chicago's coolest singer, Edith Frost).
Is Birddog primarily your gig, or has it become more collaborative since you started in Portland a few years ago?
I guess that the band started as a solo project in Portland. I moved to Chicago and it gradually became more and more collaborative with Glenn Kotche and Chris Tesluk. We recorded A Sweet and Bitter Fancy as a group effort in basements across Chicago. Glenn decided to join Wilco and Chris is deep into Engineering, so I guess it's back to where I started.
Did you play music as a child?
I took piano lessons for lots of years.
What kind of impact did meeting Elliott Smith originally have on your music? Was he a mentor, or more of a friend?
I think meeting Elliott would have been different had it been six months or one year later. I met him at a strip club where a friend of mine set up a Wednesday night acoustic night. Why at a strip club? I have no fucking idea. Anyway, he played one night and he called me the next week to accompany him to Seattle for a show. So, we became friends through music. I respect/respected him a great deal. His impact on my music? I don't know. Elliott is a very inspiring person to be around. He makes people feel important. I guess he made me feel important.
A Sweet and Bitter Fancy sounds even more restrained and focused than past efforts. More is implied than is explicitly stated. Was that a conscious act on your part, or did the songs more or less coalesce that way?
Pure coincidence, John. I guess the songs were all written and recorded in a miserable, terrible, unforgettable one-and-a-half year period ... Maybe that gelled them all together? Luck?
Do you consciously try to convey a sense of place in your music? When I listen to "Baseball," I can almost smell the sea salt and feel the muggy Florida air. "Third and South" sounds a lot like Northern Kentucky to me (I used to spend a lot of time in Newport when I lived in Dayton). Your music is a lot more folk and rural-oriented than the urban hymns of a lot of indie artists.
I think all my songs have a specific geographic location ... mainly rural addresses. I think it makes a song much more interesting when you know what street the singer is singing about.
Do you think the Neil Young vocal comparisons are accurate?
I think Neil Young's vocal comparisons are accurate, although no one else ever says that. I always use Neil as a reference point when describing my band to ... aunts, uncles, bus drivers.
How did you hook up with Edith Frost? Do you have any plans to work with her or Elliott in the future?
I know Edith Frost through my last drummer, Glenn. He recorded and toured with her for a while. I would love for Edith to sing on more songs, and hopefully she will. I have not spoken to Elliott for a long time, but I hope we can work together at some point.
Where did you record the new album? Did the location affect the mood?
The last album was recorded at Elliott's studio, a Libertyville, Ill. living room, Chicago basement and another Chicago basement. Chris Tesluk had an 8-track recorder and microphones…but nowhere to record. The ever-changing locations were a constant headache. Maybe the recordings would have been happier, given a steady studio.
How do you write your songs? Do you start with a melody, a guitar line, lyrics?
I always start writing a song with lyrics and a melody.
For the most part, I find the new record to be pretty spare, and very organic. Do you gravitate toward certain production aesthetics, or does it depend on the song or the mood?
I like limiting the recordings to eight tracks, fewer if possible. Personal preference ... I like a very naked sound. I guess it depends on the song, as far as the extreme.
Are you touring currently?
Currently, my drummer and I have a show in Louisville 7/26, and back in Lexington 27th. August will be a Northeast tour.
What's your favorite mixed drink?
Peach Stoli Madres
What kind of stuff have you been listening to lately?
I've been listening to Garland Buckeye's new record, and Nick Cave's new record.
Birddog's new record, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy, is available on Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records