A Very Cathartic Conversation with billy woods

“There’s no free rides. Everybody pays for all the things that they do, sooner or later.”
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billy woods interview, 2019

billy woods has a phenomenal sense of humor. He must. For him, there’s no other way to make it through this life other than by striking a worthy balance between the bleak and the hilarious. This is why his latest solo effort, Hiding Places, produced almost exclusively by LA’s beat mad scientist Kenny Segal, stands to be one of his most open projects to date: the writing is direct and intense, with hilarity baked in.

“It’s just about where the balance is,” woods tells me over the phone in regard to his weaving the funny and the macabre into one. “I’ve always worked at the balance between humor and darkness. That’s how I am, probably. If you know me, I think I’m pretty funny and I also can be morbid. I have a morbid sense of humor. That’s what I’m saying: things come with their corollaries.”

With that, Hiding Places is intent on exploring these corollaries and what scares billy woods, which would be returning to a place once our emotional ties have been cut. There’s an eerie sense to retreading the past that permeates the album. Debt collections, talks of insurance notes, and endless streams of forwarded mail coalesce to leave us with the sensation that while the past may be the past, it will not rest. For better or for ill, as woods likes to say.

“You know something that used to scare me?” He asks. “Going back into a movie theater after the movie is over. You realize you forgot something. The feeling of still being somewhere that you were supposed to have left, it’s scary in a way that always creeped me out… This certainly is a record that has a lot to do with the past.”

Hiding Places, though, is not about fear. These are not the places woods retreats to when overrun by emotion. This is an album about the places hollowed out and left behind. These are the places woods scavenges for signs of life—much like the decaying home of the cover—in order to make sense of what was and what will be. There is so much life and aura tucked away in the ruins, and Hiding Places makes it a point to stir that life, to privilege the forgotten.

“It was definitely a very cathartic space,” woods remarks. It was; indeed it is.

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Since the album is called Hiding Places, we should start with: what scares you?

billy woods: Good question: death, pain, being separated from the things that are important to you.

How does that drive you?

I don’t know if I could triage it quite so simply. For the most part, it’s something that informs my decision making for better and for ill. It’s an awareness. It’s always there.

And the cover, it’s kind of perfect. Whimsical and decaying, which is the mode of this album.

That’s very interesting.

You don’t agree?

Like I said, very few people have heard the record. People I’ve actually spoken to in person about what they thought about the songs? You might be number six. That’s not journalists and people I don’t know, I’m talking about including Willie Green. It’s just interesting for me to hear somebody else talk about what they’re taking away from it. I think both of those things are true, at least on some level. There’s definitely decay.

There’s definitely a sense of… You know something that used to scare me? Going back into a movie theater after the movie is over. You realize you forgot something. The feeling of still being somewhere that you were supposed to have left, it’s scary in a way that always creeped me out. It’s hard to explain it, but a sense of having been left behind or going back into a place that you’re not even supposed to be. Or, like, being around the ruins of something that’s already passed through. Like a carnival grounds after the carnival has left.

Do you feel like you’re trespassing on the past?

Eh, no, because it belongs to me. But I think that, that happens. That’s a good question. This certainly is a record that has a lot to do with the past.

Why do you find the past compelling?

It informs anything that you wanna talk about or discuss today. It’s like an onion, there’s always more and more layers to anything, you know? You get older, and then you have a person in your family tell you something and it’s like, how is it that you’ve known this person your whole life, that person has been around for X amount of time, and you just hear a story when they’re 80 years old? There’s an endless amount of layers and secrets. Little springboards for things that exist later.

I think this album is about uncovering things, too. So my first question is kind of a misnomer because I don’t think you’re hiding. I think you’re scavenging. That’s why the “Speak Gently” outro works.

That’s an interesting perspective. Yeah, I didn’t really think about that, but that would creep me out, too. If I went back to the apartment that I’m talking about in that [song], it would really creep me out. Actually, I did! After I left, I realized I needed to go back for something—to take a picture of a mural. I was with the producer, Bond [produced most of Camouflage and The Chalice], who I did all my early records with, and so he had helped me move out of the place. It was funny because he helped me move in. And he’s a visual artist, who had done this huge mural on my wall.

If you moved out of your childhood home, and then somebody was like “Hey, I think we forgot something in the basement, go back. Go get it.” At that point, you’ve already done your emotional goodbyes and everything.

So are you scared of retread emotions?

I don’t know if that’s how I would describe it. It’s just always felt weird to me. Once you go and have that interaction and you empty out a place of the energy that was in it, going back obviously seems weird.

That’s the energy of the album.

After the funeral, you don’t wanna come right back into that place where you had the wake. You dispelled, presumably, all that emotional energy so you’re gonna come back into it hollow, which would be strange, right? Imagine if your relative, God forbid, dies in the hospital room and they’re like “Oh, go back to the hospital room.” That would just be fucking awful.

billy woods Interview, 2019

There’s a lot of mentions of debt collection and money on this album, and on the last Armand Hammer record. What’s the deal there? This obsession with owing.

There’s no free rides. Everybody pays for all the things that they do, sooner or later. Any good thing, necessarily, has to come with its corollary. The more fun you’re having, the sadder you’ll be [laughs].

There’s a lot of humor here, too. I think of “Steak Knives” as a song with some tucked away humor. The outro to “Speak Gently,” the title of “BigFakeLaugh.” Why turn to humor?

That’s what I do, I think. I think in varying degrees, it’s just about where the balance is. On Known Unknowns, I think [it’s] primarily upbeat and funny. I mean, the album starts with “Walked in the room, looking for human shields,” which I thought was pretty hilarious. I think it’s all about the balance, and in this one, the balance is more stark. I’m curious to see what people think. For me, I’ve always worked at the balance between humor and darkness. That’s how I am, probably. If you know me, I think I’m pretty funny and I also can be morbid. I have a morbid sense of humor. That’s what I’m saying: things come with their corollaries.

How do you find it in you to have fun when the world is kind of miserable?

You have to. I really don’t know how anyone makes it through life without a good sense of humor. Otherwise, you’re gonna fucking snap.

Have you always had a sense of humor?

Yes! Although, I definitely have spent plenty of time in my life around people who did not have a sense of humor and plenty of them have snapped. I mean, you could snap either way, but I’m just saying… For me, it’s an integral part of making it through life and not just making it through, but enjoying my life.

I’m just very taken by how casually hilarious this album is.

Thank you! That’s good. I always think my music is about that balance, in some way. Sometimes that balance is meant to skew more in one direction, but hopefully, it’s there. I would fully expect some people, especially on first glance, that this is one of the most [bleak]... But I could agree with that, like I said, things come with their corollaries. This could be the most bleak and the funniest. That would kind of make sense, actually.

billy woods Interview, 2019

Now, on to business, how did you connect with Kenny Segal?

Kenny and I only met because of Elucid. Elucid has done work with milo and Kenny, they did that song on So The Flies Don’t Come. I just met him when we were working on Armand Hammer. That’s when we did the first thing, “Pergamum” on Rome. We made that song and it ended up being, I think, a pretty key song on the record.

We were working on Paraffin and I was like, “We should do some new stuff,” and he was like “Why don’t I just come by your house?” since he was in New York. So he came through my old place and had all of these weird samplers he built. He’s just that type of mad scientist. He had these samplers made out of children's toys with him. He had given me a couple things already for Paraffin, and then we’re chopping it up. I think he was like, “I’d rather do a whole project,” type of thing.

How was working with him different than Blockhead?

Kenny, in my experience, is not one of those people who sends you mountains and packs and packs of beats and you’re just combing through. He would send a little pack, you’d pick a couple. And we actually hit success with me sending him a sample and sitting back and giving him time to figure out what he wanted to do. A lot of times, I was really surprised by what he sent back.

It was different from Blockhead, who tends to be “Here’s a folder. Here’s a folder. Here’s a folder.” It’s more like you gotta pick out the ones you want and hope somebody else didn’t pick them. Whereas with Kenny it was like, “Here’s a pack of beats, you better pore over them and find some that are gonna work” because there’s not gonna be another pack for a little while.

How did that change the way you write?

Any art you do is defined by the framework. Once you decide to work with a single producer, it’s going to change the way you work. You can’t just go find the beat you feel like rapping over at the moment. That already is a limitation, which is part of what makes it interesting. How are you gonna work, within this framework? Also, of course, how you influence each other’s moods. Once we started working, there was actually a point at which he was like “Don’t use any of those other beats I sent in the beginning… I’m doing new stuff, I know where we’re going now.” He needed to see where I was going and go off of that.

By the end of recording Hiding Places, who was billy woods?

It was a very, very, very, very, intense time in my life and a very intense record to make. The ironic thing might be that for an artist who hides a lot, figuratively at least, maybe there’s less of that on this record than any other. It was definitely a very cathartic space.

I feel that catharsis; this might be the most open album you’ve released.

Possibly. There’s a strong argument to be made.

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