It turns out that one thing that white dudes in their late 20s like myself have in common is a deep understanding of Bill Murray. Ghostbusters, and more specifically, Murray’s character in the movie, Peter Venkman, was a someone I understood at my core, even at a young age. Later, Murray would get darker, just as I got darker, just as you maybe got darker. Murray’s sadness is particular. It’s secret. It’s real. It’s unavoidable. It permeates everything he does. Even his most comedic lines are delivered with a weariness that feels so honest it’s sometimes hard to recognize. But there’s something appealing about that. In 2005′s Broken Flowers, Murray plays an over-the-hill suave dude looking for a son he didn’t know he had. Mostly he drives around alone listening to Ethiopian music. It’s that sort of wide-open loneliness that is at once attractive, but also deeply painful. I can’t say if he’s really like this—but it’s something he’s cultivated so well that Bill Murray the character seems to be inseparable from Bill Murray the human being.
Arkansas-based William Cody Watson feels a connection to Bill Murray as well. But rather than just think about it for awhile, he recorded a gorgeous album that, in the most abstract sense possible, is a day in the life of Bill Murray from the point of view of Bill Murray. It’s an album obsessed with drift and patience, with gorgeous moments that give way to sculpted feedback. What Watson does especially well is coax specific emotion (in this case, it’s generally a series of beautiful bummers) into abstract sound. With Bill Murray, Watson’s made an album that is entirely connected to its concept. I spoke to Watson on the phone about making drone-based music, Bill Murray, and why maybe we all need to be a little more accepting of nostalgia. Bill Murray is out June 26th on Bathetic. Pre-order it here.
How does this album reflect Bill Murray?
People could look at it and say, Oh the Bill Murray thing is a gimmick. This is just standard ambient music or whatever, but for me it’s not like that at all. It’s absolutely, 100% representative of me imagining what it would be like to spend a day in the life of Bill Murray. I don’t know anything about the guy other than the characters I’ve seen in movies and the stories I’ve read about him. There’s kind of a dark presence behind that. Where I was coming from was that I wanted to make a record that could soundtrack a night being Bill Murray.
It’s interesting, knowing the details of the record, to hear how you tap into that.
I say that the record is for Bill Murray. Like, my dream would be for him to listen to it. But it’s also more for people that are like me and are in the same situation. That grew up watching those movies. For me, the big turning point was Lost in Translation. When I saw that, and also when I was reading all these crazy stories [about him]…it was such a perfect parallel to his real persona. What’s crazy is when I made that album I didn’t sit around watching Bill Murray movies over and over again. I was really running on what I’d read and memories and using my imagination. But that whole Lost in Translation vibe, the meandering feel of it, that’s what really drove the record for me. Every day I would google image search Bill Murray and Broken Flowers was a huge one—the suit with the shades? That was the look. If I had to explain what the music looks like, well, it probably looks like Bill Murray in a suit with sunglasses on.
Why did you split the album into two longer movements?
I’m just really adamant about people listening to things the way I want them to listen to it. It’s the same reason that if somebody asks me to make like a mix, I’m like, Well, I’m gonna make one long MP3 mix because I don’t want you to listen to it out of order. I’m just like a huge stickler for that. Also, the record itself is super thematic and I really wanted it to be like a score. This way, you put the needle down and you have to go with it.
When I first started hearing about this record, I was told it was your “pop” album, which it clearly isn’t—although it’s not a harsh or especially difficult listen either, so I kind of understand that statement.
I put the test pressing on and sat out in my garage one night, I put the door up and I put the album on and as I was listening to it, I was thinking, it’s certainly not a pop album, but at the same time it is—to me at least. It’s way more accessible than anything else I’ve done. I think it’s accessible because—maybe it’s the theme, maybe when somebody sees the title, people that maybe don’t really give a shit about ambient music or whatever might be drawn to it. It’s important to me to have that emotional connection. There’s sadness but there’s also mystery and there’s a mischievous side to it. It’s much better to create this kind of music when you have a really strong, specific concept.
Was it mostly improvised?
It was improvised enough that I didn’t have anything written out. I don’t know how many ambient artists actually do. I’m not a composer, I’m not going to sit down and write out scores or anything, but for me it was like, pull out the equipment, let’s see where it goes. If I don’t like it, delete it and start over. You kind of build structures through that.
Was it difficult to record?
I had the ending piece of the whole record, and from there I had enough of a template that I knew how I wanted to approach this. I make things pretty quickly, but this was one of those things where I would make a piece and then let it sit and then I’d go back to it and see how far I could take it. I hate to say it was a grueling process, there’s motherfuckers cutting down trees and working on highways for a living, but it was intense. It was a hard thing. It was heavy on me to do it. This record is for you to put on and do what you need to do with it. I wouldn’t want to force someone into a situation where it’s like, Alright take this trip with me. It’s very personal for me. There are certain records I’m not just going to put on at a party with a bunch of my friends. I kind of hope that’s how this record is for other people.
Would you say it’s a personal album for you?
Definitely. My personal life at the time was running a very strong parallel to what I was reading. Maybe not quite on the same huge level. I mean, I was reading about Bill Murray going through a divorce and all this stuff that can seriously fuck somebody up. When I started working on the record, I had gone through a breakup and I was feeling a lot of that stuff—that whole going out and sewing your wild oats thing, but doing it with this darker side to yourself because you’re depressed. That really spoke to me.
Did this album help you figure anything out about yourself?
From the beginning, when I started making music, it’s always been cathartic. If it wasn’t a way to get demons out or work through issues, I probably wouldn’t even do it. Taking the perspective of a different human being, it made it a bit more odd. This album was cathartic to the next. No fooling around, I had to really make this happen.
Do you think that’ll translate to the people listening to the record?
I hope so. Maybe this is just me being an optimist, but I think when you put a record like this on, even if you don’t give a shit about ambient music, you’ll feel the emotional impact of it. Even if it’s totally in passing, you’re like, Oh man, that sounds like a fucking bummer, and then you walk off. I hope somebody can get that out of it. It’s definitely for a specific market of people. But that’s what I do. I cater to people that are like me. At this point in my musical career, this is the pinnacle. This is the top of the mountain. I want people to vibe on it and really sit down and spend time with it. I don’t want it to be a record that somebody puts on and says, Eh, that’s cool. I’ll check back on it later.
Does your connection to Bill Murray, which dates back to childhood, make this a nostalgic album? Do you agree with the way music, almost across the board right now, is attempting to reject the entire concept of nostalgia?
I went fucking bananas over the movie Drive. Like, I went crazy for it, and the reason was because it had a nostalgic feel to it. Nostalgia for me is huge part of my life. It’s a huge part of my persona. I thrive on nostalgia and the past. I’m not one of those people who looks at their past and is ashamed of all the dumb, stupid shit or anything like that. To me, that stuff’s very important.