Willis Earl Beal

Willis Earl Beal: Fighting Chaos with Community

Zach Phillips

By Zach Phillips

on 08.07.14 in Features

Willis Earl Beal’s backstory precedes him and, at times, it risks overshadowing his music. Raised in Chicago, Beal started making music in Albuquerque after his enlistment in the U.S. Army was cut short due to illness and ideological dissonance. After years of local distribution, his music, poetry and drawings were collected by Found Magazine and eventually came to the attention of Hot Charity, a label eventually distributed by XL Recordings. After releasing two full-length albums for the label, one of them a reissue of his Found-era recordings, Beal has once again struck out on his own, independently releasing his third full-length Experiments in Time via CD Baby.

Beal’s music has changed considerably over the years. His first album, Acousmatic Sorcery, consisted of tape recorded songs for guitar and ukulele, with little accompaniment other than Beal’s insistent voice and unconventional lyric poetry. Even last year’s Nobody Knows bears little resemblance to this year’s Experiments in Time, which he’s described as a kind of “symphony” of “gray.”

I reached Beal in Olympia, Washington, where he and his wife recently settled after a few years in New York, to discuss his new record and the problematics circumscribing musicianship today.

First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and for rushing me a copy of Experiments in Time.

The only thing I hope is that if you decide to write about the record, that you don’t criticize it, and you attempt to objectively analyze it. The difference to me is really huge. Critics — it’s almost like they’re talking to the artist: “You should have done this, you should have done that, and this is why it’s wrong.” And I feel like creativity is like nature: You can’t really judge it; all you can do is analyze it.

Yes. I have questions for you about your essay on this subject for Pigeons and Planes. But before we get into the questions I’ve prepared, is there anything you want to say about Experiments in Time? Would you like to describe it to the readers?

Well, there’s some static in it. I see Experiments in Time as a collection of electronic minimalistic melodies. It’s not exactly “lo-fi,” but it’s not exactly “hi-fi.” It’s in fidelity purgatory. And when I say purgatory I mean everything is gray and white: Aesthetically, sonically, everything is in a sort of middle ground. And any kind of static that you hear is probably equivalent to the static in my brain.

My favorite songs on there are “Who Knows” and “Now is Gone.” And they happen to be the most lyrically forward to my mind — a lot of words. I wanted to ask you about that song “Now is Gone,” where that came from and how you relate to it now.

That particular song, the piano and the birds you hear, that’s not a sample. That’s just the fact that the piano and the birds were recorded on an old tape recorder —

In Memphis?

Yeah, in Memphis. And the reason it sounds different from the other songs, and why I put it on this record, is that I realized a pattern was starting to form. [The record] starts out with tape hiss and a question — a monologue. And I wanted to end the record like that. ["Now is Gone"] came about because while I was out in Memphis, we were staying in this house — my wife came out to stay with me, but initially I was by myself — we were staying there for a month and after a while we started to get used to the place. We met this small kitten, a cat really, that came into the house, and we started to feed the cat, and there was a piano in the front room… We just got a real routine going.

But then I realized I would probably never see the inside of that house again. I find that to be really jarring, to have all of these experiences, and then maybe a day later you wonder: Did that actually happen? And although you could refer to pictures, the pictures don’t actually tell you the truth. There’s no truth regarding whether something happened or not. It’s difficult for me to grasp reality, and that’s where that song comes from.

I can relate to that.

The non-locality of time. That’s what the whole record’s about, and that song probably is the summary of the entire record.

‘It’s people’s inherent prejudice and racism that allows them to categorize everything that they see, put it directly into a box so they can understand it. These same people, they say, “Well, this isn’t Sun Ra,” or, “This isn’t Moondog,” or whatever. And I’m thinking to myself: “Who said it was?”’

So you’re off Hot Charity now — you’re taking a break. Now that you’re self-releasing and self-promoting this record, dealing with press and sales yourself, are you finding the process of releasing music more gratifying?

I’m still independent, but very early on when I mentioned I was going to release my record through [CD Baby], they stepped in and asked me if I wanted some help. And I’d have to be a fool to decline, because there are certain people who have a feel for these things, who have contacts, connections. I’ve had to be pragmatic about it, but I still have been able to be in control.

And that feels really good, because I have a chance to see the other side of the coin as well — more than just the creative approach that you take to actually put the project together, but also the creative approach that you take toward drumming up interest. And initially, it was a mad dash trying to reach out to anybody and everybody I could. I wasn’t always successful, because the music industry, like most industries, is extremely fickle, and despite the fact that they know who you are and they’ve written an article about you before, if you don’t have what they consider to be substantial backing behind you, suddenly you lose credibility.

But I’ve been really fortunate and successful, considering what I was up against. It feels liberating, but it’s kind of scary, too, because this time I’ll get a chance to see directly whether or not people care. So we’ll have to see. It would be kind of like if you attended a film premiere of a film you directed and starred in, and everybody’s there with you. You get a chance to see the people’s reaction directly. And that can be very frightening, and it can be very good.

I self-release music as well through my label OSR. I haven’t been on a label as large as you were, but even the difference between releasing music via the labels I’ve worked with versus doing it myself — it might be that the number of people is smaller, but having all of the feedback go through you, having any comments or thanks or criticism addressed to you personally — it feels a little bit like community sometimes.

Did you say community?


Well, I have a question for you. And I’ve considered this a lot. As a musician, I didn’t really struggle. I struggled as a person, but during the time I was struggling, I wasn’t really intending to become a musician. It was more like I was trying to find a job. So I didn’t deal with a lot of clubs or the difficulties of a struggling musician. Is it disturbing to you that I would actually stumble upon a recording contract and then discard it? Especially when you yourself are an independent musician?

No, not at all. Honestly, I didn’t like the way your music was being framed by Hot Charity. It was an instinctive, personal problem. I really like Acousmatic Sorcery, and I liked it when it came out. But a lot of the conversation about it, based on a vocabulary I assume originally propounded by your label in press releases and the like, disturbed me. I don’t know if you personally feel manipulated, but your representation seemed to me to be fraught.

Well, everything they said about my past was true. But it was the way they said it. I don’t think it was XL’s fault. I think XL probably welcomed it. I feel like labels are always made out to be pretty bad, and I didn’t disprove that with my Under the Radar interview. But I did specify that it wasn’t actually XL that I had a problem with. I had a problem with Hot Charity, which is a subsidiary of XL. But XL just went along with whatever happened. And in all honesty, it wasn’t even Hot Charity that made this image of me come to the forefront. It was really people in the media.

‘The whole purpose for me for even doing music or for doing anything was to communicate and feel like I’m part of something — to feel like I wasn’t alone. But then you get on stage and you realize: “Shit, I’m alone. They’re down there and I’m up here.” That never changes.’

And it’s people’s inherent prejudice and racism that allows them to categorize everything that they see, put it directly into a box so they can understand it. These same people, they say, “Well, this isn’t Sun Ra,” or, “This isn’t Moondog,” or whatever. And I’m thinking to myself: “Who said it was?” It is what it is, and you either appreciate it or you don’t. But don’t say that it isn’t something and then use that as the basis for liking or disliking it. I personally don’t like the way [Acousmatic Sorcery] sounds, and I never intended to release it, but that’s a whole ‘nother bit of bitching. You don’t judge a tree for growing out of the ground.

Back to your question: You asked if it upset me that you had this ostensibly great financial and promotional opportunity and you decided that it wasn’t for you. No, it doesn’t upset me in the slightest. I completely respect your decision, which seems to me to be an informed one. Some people have a reflexive anti-music-industry attitude that is not informed — it may be correct, but it’s not informed. But you went out there and interacted with that system and you didn’t like how it treated you, how it represented you — I wonder who would — and that’s completely understandable.

Yeah. Well, I’m glad. I’m glad to hear it from an actual independent artist, what you feel about it. Because I expect a lot of people thought, “Ah, this guy’s a fucking bullshit artist, that’s what he is.” So I know you can’t speak for a lot of people, but you can speak for yourself.

I really liked your Pigeons and Planes essay arguing against the basis of music criticism. A large part of my interest in interviewing fellow musicians is that I can attempt to portray their practices in good faith as they actually are. And in your essay, you get to the bottom of the notion of evaluating works which it’s impossible to call purely intentional, deliberately crafted products; they’re also natural, self-identical. So I appreciate that you’re defending artists from their evaluators. Why do you think people decide to hover so close to art without making it themselves?

Because they are afraid. They’re afraid to be as vulnerable as the artist. But simultaneously, they want to create art. And rather than creating a kind of free and expressive and sincere and risky kind of thing themselves, their art is the art of criticism, the art of putting somebody down or lifting somebody up. They want to manipulate culture, they want to figure out what the zeitgeist is, go with the flow and then be given a pat on the ass for being right on. That’s the main thing, whether it’s a writer for the New York Times or a small blog.

You’ve spoken before about issues you take with live performance. Now that you’re independent again, do the problems you’ve had with live performance in the past still hold?

Well, I haven’t performed as an independent artist, so I don’t really have that perspective. But I don’t see why it should be any different. When you’re with a label, you have more resources. Your live performances will be more comfortable. You have a backstage rider, they get you whatever you want, you probably make more money because you’re at a better venue. So for all outside views, performing live when you’re with a label should be better. When you break off from that label, you’re basically starting from square one, unless you’re Kanye West. And you’re liable to have much more difficult circumstances. The toilet might not work. You certainly won’t have a backstage rider. And you’ll be working for less money. So I have some practical, emotional reasons for not enjoying performance — I just don’t see what I get out of it.

The whole purpose for me for even doing music or for doing anything was to communicate and feel like I’m part of something — to feel like I wasn’t alone. But then you get on stage and you realize: “Shit, I’m alone. They’re down there and I’m up here.” That never changes. They clap for you and afterward people come up to you and you sign whatever it is they have for you to sign. All your conversations are about how great you are. You can’t really meet them halfway and talk about life. They are constantly enamored with who you are. And nine times out of 10 you can’t meet those expectations, and you know damn well what you did wasn’t as great as they thought it was. So it becomes this false kind of thing. And it’s okay to be masturbated every now and then and have people say “You were so great,” even though you know you weren’t. But if you experience that night in and night out, you become a bit of a head case. You start seeing a false representation of reality. And you walk out into the world from your performance believing that silver spoons should and will be handed to you when the case is often quite the contrary. And I guess it’s a problem I have to deal with myself, a limitation inside of me. Nevertheless, it’s mine, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t like live performance — it’s all so damn false. I hate live music; I hate to see it. It bothers me because it takes me away from the sincere kind of feelings I feel when I’m by myself.

What we’ve been talking about so far, and reading the Book of Nobody [Beal's Tumblr of reflections on the alienating effects of today's heavily mediated culture and the possibility of resistance to it], listening to your music and trying to listen for its message… It seems to me that you’re concerned about the way things are right now — the difficulty of relating to oneself today, the risk that the representations of ourselves we might overtake and replace our actual frame of experience. When I hear you say we’re “consuming a false representation of reality,” with respect to the way shows are structured, this is what I think of. So there’s a kind of madness today I see you speaking out against. A madness possibly undergirding or accompanying contemporary economic politics, contemporary racial politics, and so on: a madness pertaining to a politics of selfhood and of community. Am I right to think your activities are aimed at this problem?

One hundred percent.

Have you seen the [Sion Sono] movie Suicide Club? The relevant thing I remember about it is that repeated like a mantra throughout the movie, there’s this J-pop band of young girls going, “Are you connected to yourself?” Your music makes me think about that question.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s a little jarring. Almost obnoxious. I mean the concept of a church or a J-pop band yelling out, “Are you connected to yourself?”


A little bit, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of this pinprick sort of thing. You take your average, unaware, cloudy-minded existence and then this little J-pop band yells out, “Are you connected to yourself?” in a sing-songy way. Or something like the Church of Nobody [Beal's loosely conceived invitation to community in the face of an atomizing, alienating cultural state of affairs] — people often equate serious, reverential feelings with the Church and then you go ahead and bastardize that by calling it the Church of Nobody. So I understand the parallel.

A couple things you said struck me: the word “pinprick” describing the activity of the Church of Nobody, this annoying thing. You know Socrates was commonly referred to as a gadfly. He’d prick your mind. This is still looked down on — you’re not really supposed to question the framework. You’re free to question things within the framework: That’s the political sphere. But you’re not supposed to question the framework outside of the limited and self-indulgent sphere of academia, or in certain institutions of spirituality. And the word “criticism” goes back to a dialogue by Plato on the subject of the execution of Socrates for his truth-telling activities. So even though at a certain point “criticism” became associated with the European concept of good taste, originally it had a totally political meaning. And so for me, when I hear the word criticism, where I’m going to look for that is in people’s music, not in the writing that gets done about it. Your music is good criticism.

I hope that it is, and I’m glad that you see it that way. And I don’t always see it as something that’s conventionally political — I also see it as a questioning, and not just a defiant questioning: “What does it mean?” It’s a declaration of complete uncertainty. Often music is nonsensical — you sing a song, you hear your voice, you put it out there into the ether and it’s a movement of energy. People can’t accept that, because that’s not something you can sell. You cannot sell this ephemeral explanation of what music is any more than you can sell the air. Although I think they’re selling pure air these days… [Laughs.]

Sometimes I feel I’m being ridiculous even making this argument, because nobody’s watching Twitter to see what I’m going to say. I feel like Moses shouting out into the wilderness — “Who’s that crazy guy?” “He doesn’t know anything, move on.” It’s completely and utterly pointless, everything that I do. But then sometimes I think, “Maybe somebody’s listening, maybe it matters.” I don’t know. That’s the fire that keeps you doing it.

That, and whatever compulsion you’re feeling that’s far beyond any sort of evaluation. Sometimes you just want to sit down and make some music.

Yeah, fuck around with a guitar, sing a song. It’s got nothing to do with any of this shit sometimes.

A couple of things you said in other interviews were particularly interesting to me. You’ve said, “I’m trying to show you that nobody on stage is anybody.” And in another interview: “If you look at things as tools rather than something that you must learn, then you go about it in the right way.” “I just plug my ears up and go for a bike ride, and suddenly I have all the wisdom in the world.”

Statements like these remind me a great deal of the 17th-century zen master Bankei. During his adolescence, he was devoutly ascetic and practiced to be a serious scholar of Zen. But he became very ill, and at the apex of his sickness coughed up a huge amount of phlegm on the wall. At that moment he claimed to become enlightened, withdrew from his studies and began essentially touring his sermons, based on the concept of “the Unborn,” which basically can be summed up in the following quotation: “You are Buddhas to begin with. There’s no way for you to become Buddhas now for the first time.” He wouldn’t even have wanted us to be talking about him right now, because he didn’t consider his statements particularly important. Another zen monk, Ikkyu — I sent you some of his poems — who, like you, wasn’t afraid to mix raw sexuality, political statements, environmental observations and spiritual advice in his haiku: “only one koan matters/ you.” Will you talk some more about your interest in zen?

Well, I can’t really — when you tell me about all these very specific people with these beliefs, it’s really daunting for me to talk about it. I don’t really know what to say other than that I agree with the first guy.

That’s beautiful, because the irony is here I am telling you about famous zen practitioners and it’s totally immaterial who they are.

I mean, it’s not immaterial — it’s encouraging to know that there are other people that felt the same way I feel. And also that I started to feel this way without knowing who these people were. That’s encouraging to me, and I’m glad about it. Everything is important.

That’s fitting. Back to Experiments in Time. I know you’ve redone other songs before — you did “The Axeman” from Acousmatic Sorcery on A Place That Doesn’t Exist

Oh dude, you went all the way back. You listened to everything, didn’t you?

— why did you decide to do a new version of “Monotony” for Experiments in Time?

Just like “The Axeman,” just like all those songs. I wanted them to sound better. The newer versions of all those songs, that’s how I always wanted them to sound.


It fits with my current mood. It’s more strung out, more lethargic, the way it should be.

‘My career is unique in that it’s been an exact document. Everything’s been an exact document of my evolution as an artist and as a person. Everything from skill to philosophy.’

More monotonous?

Well, it’s not monotonous, but it is lethargic. The other song was in fact monotonous, because there’s the same chord structure — it’s not even a chord structure, for me to even calling it that is ridiculous — it’s just me plucking on a ukulele. A very small song. But the way it is now, it’s not monotonous but you get this strong feeling of this person — this longing, this dragging. But it’s also beautiful, because it’s expansive, this voice right in the middle of nothingness. I’ve always wanted to learn to compose like that. And I’ve had to do a lot of work and a lot of listening in order to get to that point, because I’m not a trained musician. This is just me fucking around with different limited materials that I have. And now I believe I’ve finally gotten to the point where I know how to create soundscapes, where before all I knew how to do was make noise.

So I’m getting better all the time; my career is unique in that it’s been an exact document. Everything’s been an exact document of my evolution as an artist and as a person. Everything from skill to philosophy. In some cases, things have come full circle: the same song, rerecorded, but with a different feeling behind it. When I think about how many connections I see in my whole life, physically where I’m actually standing, looking at the trees and the lake, and how I started out, I can see the innate intelligence of nature. And I can see that once you see it, it’ll see you. And somehow you get aligned. And things won’t be perfect, but there’s this alignment that happens and you can’t get out of it. People present you with logistics: What are you going to do about this, this and that. I don’t know. The same thing I’ve always done. I don’t know anything. I’m standing here and I feel like I’ve walked — like five years ago was 5 feet ago. I have to answer everything in a sort of broad way.

You’ve said you’re not “classically trained” but you’ve referred to Experiments in Time as a “symphony.” Why use the language of classical music if you don’t consider it part of your practice? Also, I understand you listen to a lot of classical music — I’m curious what you enjoy listening to and what it does for you.

I called the record a symphony despite having no classical training because that’s what it reminds me of: one hour-long piece that has the same sonic core from song to song that explores different facets of one mind, one dream and one vision. I use the language in order to verbally draw the connection for the average mind from so-called “rudimentary” music (presumably mine) to the “serious” music of history (classical). In essence, I mean to say that I believe that I have the same spiritual approach to music as some of the great maestros. I don’t know too many names, but I dig Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss among the old guys. I like Debussy because of his chamber music. I enjoy the lone piano. It’s very intimate. Strauss, his stuff is perfect and efficient yet soft and amorphous, like a beautiful jellyfish just beneath the surface of the water on a sunny day. Otherwise, I enjoy modern composers like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Leila Jocefowicz, ORPHANSPACE, Jane Parker-Smith, Angelo Badalamenti, Goran Bregovic, Gonzales and Max Richter.

I understand you listen to your own music a lot. I do that, too. What do you find in it? Does it help you?

Sometimes it helps me. Sometimes it really, really kills me. Because you realize — sometimes you think, “Goddamn that’s some good shit, that’s really profound.” And then other times you feel like you’re kind of a prisoner, like you can’t get out of it. And then you listen to it and you think, “Boy, I’m really limited. Here I am with all these thoughts and feelings and ideas, and this is the product, this is the main thing that comes out of it?” So it’s very difficult. It’s the whole thing about the narcissist looking in the water — couldn’t move.

So you find you sometimes listen to it for the wrong reasons?

Yeah. I mean what I consider to be the wrong reasons. “Is this impressive enough?” “Will people like it?”

I call that kind of listening “checking.”

I call it “praying over it.” It’s no better than “checking!”

It’s like praying to a fetish or something.


‘The first time I heard Tom Waits, the first time I heard Bob Dylan, my personal dialog started to begin. I started to understand who I felt that I was. And it was only through recording that that could have happened.’

On the subject of fetishization: You were probably just riffing, but you described photographs as “evil,” because they fix an image and present it for fetishization. But you’ve also said that “the best way to listen to my music is through recording,” which I think is an amazing formulation of something a lot of recording musicians feel, myself included. So how do you reconcile these ideas? What makes your recordings interesting and encouraging to you while photographs seem false and threatening?

It’s better for me to listen to the music through a recording, because when I first started listening to [recorded] music, I was forming my own individual outlook, my adult identity. This was at the age of 23. Prior to that, I didn’t feel like I had an identity. I was drifting through life, going from one thing I didn’t care about to the next. The first time I heard Tom Waits, the first time I heard Bob Dylan, my personal dialog started to begin. I started to understand who I felt that I was. And it was only through recording that that could have happened.

I rode my bike out in Albuquerque a lot because I was a floater; I was a security officer, once I finally got a job. And I would go from location to location, at all times, any hour. I was listening to a compact disc player with headphones. I had all my CDs in my book bag and I would listen to entire records. And I developed a real intimacy with these artists. I’m looking at the moon, riding my bike and I’m thinking about my own life. And those rides were some of the best experiences of my life. I felt so free, because prior to being out there alone in Albuquerque, I was living with my grandmother in what has been called a “concrete jungle.” I was also a security officer in Chicago. And there was this very rigid kind of atmosphere in Chicago, this atmosphere of limitation. Being in Albuquerque as a grown-ass man riding my bike with my suit on listening to all this music I had discovered, that was irreplaceable, and that’s something a live show could never have given me. I had tried live shows and they’d always irritated the hell out of me — I had to leave. So that’s how I started out, and that’s transferred into my own music.

A lot of musicians get down on recording for being not as faithful to the true experience as a live performance, in the same way that photographs mime objectivity compared to the actual image. So it’s interesting that you say recordings have something going on that live performance doesn’t. I feel the same way, but it’s an unpopular point of view.

Everybody puts a value on their sight. What I believe is that we can’t see reality as it actually is. I’m looking at all these seemingly physical, compact pieces of matter, when they aren’t really compact at all. I don’t have to tell you that — all these molecules swirling around. It’s just random that they’re collected in the way they are. We can’t really see the way things are. I believe our intuitions are more accurate than our sight. As evidenced by the fact that if you [choose to date] a woman or a man based on how they look rather than based upon how you really feel about them, your results could be dangerous. So that’s a primary example of why you can’t trust the sight as much as you can trust the feeling. And for me, I get feeling through sound.

That’s a cool perspective. Speaking of which: You’re married. Is the first album you’ve made since getting married?

Let me think. I think so!

Has your relationship with your wife changed your relationship to music?

Yeah, it has. I always said I would never write a song about a romantic relationship, but I’m starting to do that now. I’m not writing “I love you” songs. I did write a song called “Stay,” but I wrote that song as a joke for Jess because she knows that I don’t go for that type of shit. So I just wrote an all-out, Lionel Ritchie-style thing. And she thought it was funny: mission accomplished. But even though ["Stay"] was a joke, that was how I was feeling when I wrote it. “Girl you know that I love you and I never want to let you go.” You find out that’s for real, that’s how you actually feel. You feel like a damn low-rent pop song about your lady, and there’s no other way to say it. You can’t intellectualize it. And so now I’ve learned to really just stop being such a snob and write how I feel, however that is, even if it sounds corny.

‘The whole reason for my career is really growth. I’m on a personal journey. There’s nothing [other people] can say to improve the way I feel about it.’

That’s a great development: accidental sincerity. You don’t get that from “aesthetics.” And I really appreciate the message you’ve repeatedly sent, that art is about much more than aesthetics. As you’ve said, “The Church of Nobody is more important than the music.” This is, to my mind, a largely unpopular view today, but for me personally, the messages you’ve sent about and in your music were my gateway into your world. I don’t know that I listen to any music exactly for its beauty or for any other definable or vague aesthetic feature. I think I listen for the connectivity the music itself has with its message. I hear your new record and it sounds to me as if you’re working through pain and frustration. Then I read recent interviews with you and you say things like you “feel like you’re folding in on yourself,” you feel “pressed down,” “stifled” and “trapped,” “completely helpless.” I think I understand something about how you feel. And I’m wondering: What kind of reaction to this record would make you feel better? Or is that irrelevant — is the public reaction irrelevant to the feelings you’re dealing with right now?

Well, I’d be lying if I said public reaction was irrelevant to my feelings. I wish it was, but it’s not. I don’t really think there’s any reaction they can give that would make me feel better about anything. If I’m telling the truth, it’s in creating the thing: That’s where you get all the goodness that you’re going to get. Once people get their hands on it and they start breaking it down, and they will — at that point, that’s all just candy that you don’t need. And I’m going to eat that candy, and I’m going to experience five minutes of joy or five minutes of pain, but the truth is inside me. The whole reason for my career is really growth. I’m on a personal journey. There’s nothing they can say to improve the way I feel about it. I do hope they like it and I hope they find personal inspiration from it, but they can’t give me anything that I don’t already have the ability to get on my own.

There’s a bonus track on Experiments in Time where you keep repeating “I submit my resignation.” Your question for me about whether I fault you for walking away from your recording contract — it makes me think of this guy Bern Porter from Maine. He actually worked on the Manhattan Project and he helped develop the cathode ray tube, the basis for television.

Jesus, both of those?

Yeah, he was on both of those projects. He was a self-taught engineer, grew up on a farm in Maine. He was also a collagist of found material and a kind of improvising poet. He got so disillusioned working on the Manhattan Project that he quit science, moved back to Maine and continued his art activities. He wrote a book about his experiences called I’ve Left: “Pity then, only yourselves in your own stew. As for me, I’ve left!” So congratulations on leaving the music industry for now.

I haven’t left completely, but I intend to. As an example, I didn’t write that song even in the last month or in the last year. I wrote that song five years ago. And I just recorded it. So that just goes to show you: My mind said to leave at the very beginning, when I started. I’m still trying to leave.

So given the problem of the music industry, the problem of social media, the difficulty of approaching things as they really are when our imaginations are permeated by these different media, it’s hard to feel community sometimes, even pertaining to music and art. My sense is there are many, many people heavily invested in their music practices who feel largely alone and disconnected from each other, despite their shared experience of alienation and confusion. So what can be done?

I don’t know. I think my solution would be that we expand our awareness. And we do that by looking at our environment: looking around us, and really paying very close attention. Make a conscious effort to open your eyes. And I don’t mean open your eyes and look at the news, I don’t mean open your eyes and look at the terrors that are happening in Greece or wherever. I mean look at your actual environment: the room. Go outside, step away from the computer. Take inventory of your feelings. Think about the fact that you’re alive. I don’t know anything, but that’s what I do.

And that’s why I wanted to move to Washington [from New York]. I realized, I’m caught in the system. My mind has been infiltrated. So what can I do about that? I can surround myself with beauty. So when I get off the computer from Googling myself, because that’s something that I’ve accepted — I’m in the entertainment industry, I’m going to have to communicate with folks who are talking about me — I go out to nature. I ride my bike, I spend as much time around the trees as possible. Once people do that, they’ll realize the same thing I’m realizing. They’ll feel good, but they’ll also feel this disconnect, this inconsistency. “Here I am in the midst of all this beauty, but I’m investing all this time and energy into this other thing that has nothing to do with this reality. What can I do to preserve this environment and also connect with people?” You might decrease your activities on the computer or you might continue them, but you’re definitely going to increase your efforts to connect with others. And once you have an intention, everything goes toward that intention. That’s the power of electromagnetic waves; you bring things in. So it’s the simplest thing: look around you. Step away for a minute. Look at the people.

I grew up around trees. I was miserable until I was 17 and I started hiking — my life began on a mountain. Now that I live in New York and work in the federal prison in the financial district —

Jesus Christ. There’s a federal prison in the financial district? “A federal prison in the financial district” is what you just said [laughs].

— and I see how the failure of people to recognize what’s going on in their immediate environment is at its best perpetuating all kinds of oppression, normalizing it. I was walking with my boss back [to the subway] from the prison the other day, and this Wall Street guy’s behind us with his shirt unbuttoned talking super loud into his cell phone: “Give me one $10 million trade and I’ll go to prison for a year.” We’re walking back from the prison where he’d likely be held, and he, of course, works two blocks from this prison but is completely unaware of its reality, so much so that he’s joking about it.

On a lighter note, you’ve periodically collaborated with a number of people — John Mulhouse, Emily Nelson, Matt DeWine, the band pictured in the Church of Nobody Episode #1 video, your wife Jessica and, of course, Cat Power. Do you have any collaborators now? Is collaboration enticing to you?

I just sent an email to Cat Power yesterday and asked her if she wanted to do a jazz record. And you never know with her, about what she will or won’t do. But she immediately agreed that we should, so take that for what it’s worth.

Well, thank you for talking to me, Willis. It’s been great getting closer to your music.

And thank you. And stick around — keep in contact. 15, 20 years, five years, if I can get together with a group of like-minded people, we might be able to do something substantial. You never know. I’m just out here searching for community just like everybody else.