Page One

Introducing Billy Bob Thornton — The roots singer

By Andy Sywak, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday May 17, 2002

Keanu Reeve’s Dogstar, Russell Crowe’s Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, now Billy Bob Thornton… the list of crossover stars (or attempted crossovers) is longer than a Hollywood rap sheet.  

Before you shake your head at the latest actor moonlighting as a musician, it’s worth mentioning this: Thornton played drums and toured widely in his youth. In fact, he played in acts that opened up for such bands as Humble Pie and the MC5 before moving to Los Angeles and striking success as an actor.  

Stopping by the Fillmore in San Francisco this Saturday as part of a brief U.S. tour, Thornton will sing songs off his "Private Radio" album, released last fall. Self-described as a "Southern hippie music" artist, Thornton collaborated with country recording artist Marty Stuart for an album characterized by breathy, bluesy numbers heavy on wandering anecdotes and storytelling. 

The Daily Planet got a chance to speak with Thornton and catch up on his projects. 


Daily Planet: How ya been? 


Billy Bob Thornton: I’ve been great, just great. I just got back from Europe and we did our European tour. We went all the way from Dublin to Milan. We just had great shows everywhere, it was such a great thing. My record is very well respected over there.  


Why the two-week mini-tour now in the states? 


We were gonna do it last year, right when the record came out, but then 9/11 happened and so we had to cancel the whole tour. We were coming to the Fillmore then also. We just had to cancel because it was just not a time to be out there and frankly who wanted to be, you know what I mean? It was just such a dark time for everybody. 


When you’re up there on stage, how is it for you? Are you bothered that people are there to see you the actor or do you sense a lot of positive audience reaction to the music? 


We’ve only seen positive reaction to the music. I don’t know how it’s gonna be here in the states but in Europe – other than a couple of cities that are big film places like Milan and London - they were very good about it. And even the journalists, I did interviews with people where they never even mentioned the acting. It was really such a treat. I mean there will be those people who come out of curiosity, which I’m obviously prepared for because if you’re well-known in something, you can’t fault people for that, that’s their right. The thing is, it’s a very serious record which has been taken very seriously by the critics, and I’m making a new one now. I’m going to be having a recording career and touring all the time… Tom Petty and Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips are all big fans of the record so it’s gotten credibility which is great - that’s really what I wanted.  

I didn’t care if I sold twenty million records – I knew that wasn’t going to happen – and because when you’re playing roots music you just don’t sell that many records anyway... It’s a nice show and we’re real proud of it. If I wanted to do a vanity project, in other words, I’d make a more commercial record than this (laughs). 


From the publicity biography I read about you it seems as if you basically put music away for 15 years of your life. Why is all this musical output coming out now? 


Well, I never actually gave it up. I was always playing music and writing songs and stuff. What happened is you kind of have to go with where you’re making a living. And when I started in the mid-80s to scratch out a little bit of living as an actor I was just trying to get by. Then once I started to get little parts here and there on television and movies, option a screenplay, I just had to keep doing it to work. And then all of a sudden I get successful and then that takes off. 


The other thing is, I could’ve signed with a major label years ago just for my name. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to sign when someone talked to me about the music and it was for the music… Somebody compared my music to a mix between Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. And that’s pretty accurate, not that I’m ever gonna be anywhere as good as those guys. I think my more up-tempo stuff is along the lines of the Byrds and Tom Petty and the darker, moodier stuff is more like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits.  


So what are your filming plans for this year? 


I just finished a movie earlier this year in Montreal called, "Levity." And it stars myself, Morgan Freeman. It’s directed by Ed Solomon. And I start "Bad Santa" in July.  


I take it you’re Santa Claus. 


Yeah, in a way (laughs). You might say that. It’s a very, very funny, kind of dark comedy. It’s directed by Terry Zweigof. He lives up there… he’s wonderful. He’s doing this with me, that takes up July and August. And then I’ll probally start making another record. I love it so much.  


What do you find is the difference between being on stage as opposed to being on screen? 


Well, when you’re doing a movie, you’re there with a crew. Your audience is not there. The movie doesn’t come out for a year and when they see it you’re not there. Music is more immediate, more personal, because first of all, it’s just you - there’s nothing between the thing you’re putting out and the people. It’s just whatever’s in your heart. So it can be a little bit more exposing but at the same time you get such a charge from music ‘cause you’re there with the audience. And I like to be able to talk to the audience. The reason we’re playing places like this… you see everybody, they’re all right there with you. It’s also a place where you don’t have to play in bars where you see everybody but don’t necessarily want to, you know what I mean? That can be fun when you’re playing s---kicker music, but it can be not fun when you wanna play a ballad, believe me.  


So if it ever came to you making a film or making music, if it was either/or, what would you do? 


Well, they’re the same thing to me, there’s not a separation to me. Because it’s all art of some form. Whether you like it or don’t like it, it’s all entertainment for people, and it is all creative things coming out of your soul. I think writing is writing and since I do a lot of story songs, they’re real hard to separate… The award is if the people accept the music or the movie, that’s the award right there. I know that sounds like some sentimental, humble hogwash but these days, maybe a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have said that, but these days, frankly, I just don’t give a rat’s ass.  


It doesn’t matter? 


It doesn’t matter about awards ‘cause, that’s not what you’re doing it for. And if you are doing it for that reason you’re going down the wrong road. I do it ‘cause I love it.