For the Sake of Song
It's about dusk on a weeknight and Bill Santen sits in his kitchen, gazing at a Velvet Underground record.
"You know, this may be my favorite record in the world," he says with a smile.
It's obvious from the delivery that Santen is a guy who truly loves music, both listening to it and creating it. With his band Birddog, he crafts beautifully fragile songs that deal with the ragged edges of emotional life. As his third full-length release, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy, hits the streets, Santen finds himself a little bruised and battered, but in it for the long haul.
Formed in 1995, Birddog started off with a desert rock sound that slowly developed into something more haunting and resonant. Birddog's first two records, The Trackhouse, the Valley, the Liquor Store Drive-thru and Ghost of the Season, were released on the ever-blossoming Sugar Free Records. But Santen soon found himself heading in a completely different direction than his record label. Soon they parted ways.
Searching for a new label, Santen began his search with a load of new songs in tow.
"It seemed like ten years between the last record and this new one," explains Santen. "Things just kept getting put off, from one record label to another. Then a friend of mine in Florida decided to turn his fanzine into a record label and make my record his first release. It could have been a very scary thing. But at that time I was up for anything. As it turns out, it was probably the best thing for me."
That new record was released on Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records. Recorded with cellist/guitarist Chris Tesluk and drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche, this is an album that realizes a rare confluence of delicate beauty in words and music.
Heavily influenced by masters such as Townes Van Zandt, Chris Bell and Skip Spence, Santen's songwriting is impressive and indicative of a passion for verse.
"The lyrics are the main reason I want to make music," comments Santen. "That's the thing I do well. I don't think that there's much I could do without other players, other musicians helping me out."
Helping out this time around are several talented friends. Drag City recording artist Edith Frost lends some vocals while pop maestro Elliott Smith makes a more prominent appearance. An acquaintance of Santen's from his days in Portland, Smith (with whom Birddog toured) has aided in the recording of several Birddog songs over the past few years. A Sweet and Bitter Fancy finds Smith producing and playing everything but guitar on the gem "Third and South."
The rest of the tunes exhibit Santen's expressive and subtle lyricism, sometimes darkly quirky and others wistfully endearing. The record emerges an aching, desolate jewel with tunes that deliver a sliver of hope, presenting themselves as moody and mysterious glimpses of a larger think-piece.
Birddog's powerful songs caught the attention of a filmmaker from California who contacted Santen asking permission to use some songs in a full-length 70mm film titled The Big Weird Normal. Four tunes were chosen and woven into the film. The director also developed a video for the song "Rattlesnakes," perfectly conveying the haunting surrealism of the song. The video will soon be sent out for consideration on MTV2.
Once again, just as things seemed to be hitting right, drummer Glenn Kotche received an offer to join the band Wilco. After a friendly parting, Santen soon found Birddog without a drummer. But he bounced right back when drummer/guitarist Travis Shelton showed up to fill the open spot. Second guitarist Mikey T. also surfaced to aid in fully delivering Santen's songs.
Recently, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy obtained widespread European distribution as Alice in Wonder Records bought the rights to release the record to several countries overseas, guaranteeing that the record will soon hit stores in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere. In addition, A Sweet and Bitter Fancy is scheduled to hit U.S. radio stations on September 1, 2001.
Lately, Santen's been counting his blessings and feeding on a steady diet of talk radio. He also finds himself having more of a hand in the whole process nowadays, working all the angles and pushing things along.
"I didn't think I would, but I really like being at the bottom," says Santen.
There's a simple purity to what Santen does, something satisfying that just seems right. As he talks, he sounds like he deserves a life filled with music, like there's nothing else in the world that would suit him any better.
"You know most of the time," Santen says with an earnest gaze, "I'm completely miserable trying to do music. Dealing with rude club owners and people who don't listen to the music and all that. I've gone through seven record labels trying to get this last record out, the whole time trying to convince myself that it's worth putting out. It's literally one door after another being slammed in my face, all day, every day. It is few and far between that anything good ever happens. But somehow the good things make it the thing I want to do most in the world."
Birddog plays with Garland Buckeye Acoustic on Friday, July 27th, 10pm, at Detour. No cover.