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In a rare interview, US alt culture icon Tom Waits talks to Dave Fanning about touring with Zappa, getting the nod of approval from Dylan, his fastidious approach to songwriting and why Bill Hicks remains America’s foremost political commentator
Dave Fanning, 22 Oct 2004
From his roles in classic indie films like Down By Law, Rumble Fish and Short Cuts to theatrical productions such as Frank’s Wild Years and The Black Rider (with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson) to a slew of albums that don’t so much constitute a canon of work as a whole other weird vaudevillian universe, Californian alt.culture icon Tom Waits has remained a peerless chronicler of American life and myth over the past thirty years.
Beginning as a quasi beatnik cross between Bukowski and Lord Buckley, his gin-soaked ballads and jazzy raps chronicled LA lowlife as seen from the lounge of the Tropicana Motel. However, his muse took a U-turn on meeting his wife Kathleen Brennan, then working for Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope company. Under her influence, he began incorporating elements of everything from Captain Beefheart’s primal blues, hobo composer Harry Partch, Brechtian theatricality and Fellini phantasmagoria, all of which made albums such as Swordfishtrombones and Raindogs among the most remarkable and original recordings of the 1980s.
With the release of 1992’s apocalyptic Bone Machine, Waits found himself lauded by both his peers and juniors as an icon of integrity and outright contrariness in an era of corporate rawk. 1999’s Mule Variations - his biggest selling album in decades - was quickly followed by the double barrelled dose of Alice and Blood Money. A staunch advocate of unconventional and often primitivist recording techniques, Waits’ new album Real Gone finds him still pushing the sonic envelope, incorporating human beatbox noises and chain-gang rhythms into an already groaning palette of sounds.
Here, in a rare interview, Dave Fanning speaks with the coolest man in the known universe.
DAVE FANNING: In the liner notes of Real Gone, it says that these 15 tracks run “ from “primal blues” to “cubist funk”. Could you explain Cubist Funk to me?
TOM WAITS: Gee I don’t know Dave – I made it up. Now I’ll make up a definition to go with it. It’s when you cut up a piece of funk, then you mess up the ingredients and you put it back together wrong. You leave a few pieces out.
What about the vocal mouth percussions – is that just a lot of stuff that hip-hop people do on street corners without the music?
Well I don’t know, most of it originated as purely economic. And I’ve always used it to communicate with drummers. You know when you try to explain to a drummer what you want them to do, you kinda go (makes drum noises) and then they go “I got it, ok”.
One of the nice things about the ’90s albums of Tom Waits is the piano sound: you can hear all the pedal squeaks and the ambient noise. Is this the first album you’ve made with no piano?
Well, you bring everything with you into the studio. My theory is if you don’t bring it with you, you’ll definitely need it. It doesn’t mean that if you bring it, you’re gonna use it. I brought it, and I didn’t use it. It’s like cooking – is this particular ingredient correct for this particular item I’m making? And if it’s not, then we’ll leave it out, you know? When you make soup at home you don’t put everything in it, do you?
Do you think you’ve been deliberately out of step with popular culture or years ahead of it, or just an adjunct to it?
Am I a what?
I mean, during the Brit invasion you had this R’n’B band, The Systems, and people say you missed out on The Beatles ‘cos you didn’t really want to know, or during the Height Ashbury scene with all the hippies, you were into the beat poet stuff and jazz from the ’40s and ’50s. Were you deliberately out of step with popular culture?
Gee I don’t know Dave, when I was a little kid, I wanted to be an old man, you know? I wanted a limp and a hat and a cane and a coat and a beard, so I’m kinda living upside down I guess. Nowadays I feel a lot younger than I used to be when I was younger.
I don’t know, I listened to old man’s music cause it seems more reliable. I didn’t know about these young kids and their music. “Maybe they won’t be around very long, I better listen to something that’s a little more established.” That was really my feeling about it. It was the permanence of it.
So when you were a kid, you’ve said before, you were on your own a lot. Do you think that solitude was important to your development later on?
Gee, I don’t know. I feel like I’m in therapy Dave, am I?
Yeah, sorry, that’s a bit heavy!
Should I lay down?
It’s fifty dollars an hour here Tom.
Can you recall a moment that set you in the direction of becoming a musician?
I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins when I was a teenager. That had a big effect on me. I saw James Brown when I was about 15. Heck, I wanted to look like him, and dance like him. I wanted his hair and his money. But it’s a long road from wanting to play music to actually doing it.
Do early memories of Mexico still filter through your songs?
Memories of Mexico… I don’t know. Everything you listen to or eat or dream about doesn’t wind up in your music. Or if it does, you may not notice it. Howlin’ Wolf loved to listen to Jimmy Rodgers and Frank Sinatra loved The Rolling Stones. Go figure.
Most of the significant changes that you went through, musically and as a person, you said began when you met your wife Kathleen. Has she been writing with you on this album as well?
Oh yeah, we collaborated on this one too. She’s the best. I don’t know how to describe her. She’s done a million things. She kind of pushed me out onto the freeway in a baby carriage.
She’s done a lot of stuff. She used to be a newscaster. She actually drove heavy equipment for a while, which I really admired, you know – that she knows how to start up an earthmover, she can run a caterpillar, a steam shovel, all that stuff. She understands music and engineering. I appreciate her a lot.
Is she Irish?
She’s Irish yeah! That’s why I appreciate her.
Where’s she from in Ireland?
Let’s see...her father’s father was from County Cork, I believe. We get over there every now and then. She comes from a big, wild, loud Irish family. There’s a lot of noise and carrying on at the dinner table. So I fell in love with the whole clan.
On this album you experiment with all the ethnic instruments, unusual recording techniques, found sounds and bizarre textures – had Kathleen got a lot to do with that?
Aww… I don’t know. It’s hard to say. In every relationship sometimes it’s 50-50, sometimes it’s 70-30, you know. It’s hard to tell. It’s kind of like lighting off firecrackers, sometimes you get to light them and she gets to throw them. It’s different every time. She did encourage me to produce my own record. I hadn’t done that before and didn’t really have the guts to do it, nor had I found a record company with the guts to allow me to, so when we did Swordfishtrombones and we handed it in, the guy said, “You’re gonna lose all your old audience and you’ll never get a new one”. So we played it for Chris Blackwell at Island. He loved it and he put it out. So that was a big turning point for me, 1980. I started hearing things differently and doing things differently.
To many people, that was quite a startling turning point.
Well, when you’ve entered some other portal, or you’ve made a left-turn off some highway, you want people to notice.
Making songs the old way, for me, was more like putting my head on somebody else’s body. I was trying to sound like an old man, and I think I’ve gotten a lot younger in a lot of ways. I sort of write songs a lot faster, we write a lot of them acapella. I write in the car – it’s the only place I can get myself alone nowadays.
And when you write in the car, do you have a tape-recorder to take down what your head is saying?
Oh yeah. So we go out for a drive, pick up a bunch of strange tunes then come back home.
What makes you want to go back into the studio?
What makes you want to go back in? The only thing that makes you want to go back in is that you gotta make some new tunes ‘cos you’re tired of all the old ones. There’s no other reason to do it. Otherwise you just make one record and then you’d be done with the whole business. I think after a while it gets like a seasonal thing. There’s a planting, then there’s a watering, then there’s a pruning and some kind of harvest at the end, it’s like everything else – it’s alive. It’s exciting when you say ‘Let’s start a record’ – and you gather all your forces. It’s hard to talk about. It happens naturally.
You were working in a pizza place for most of your teens. Is that when you started writing?
I didn’t really start getting serious about it as a career ‘til I was probably in my 20s. As a teenager I wasn’t even thinking of it as something that was even possible to do as a career. I thought I’d wind up in the restaurant business, that seemed to be what I’d been doing up to that point. I thought I’d run a café or something.
The Eagles covered your song, and there was all this Asylum crowd like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Brown, The Eagles and Judy South. Did you feel part of that camp at all?
With all due respect I guess I’ve always felt like somewhat of a loner, uncomfortable with crowds, so I guess I’ve always been on my own. Those folks were all great, and you gotta wind up somewhere. I was on a record label with a lot of well-established people, so I was glad to be recording. On one of my first tours I went out and opened a show for Frank Zappa, and I think that kind of snapped my head around a little bit. I was his opening act for a number of years. It was a rather rude experience, but that’s what I thought it was all about, paying the dues and all that – I took the knocks.
At that time when you toured with Frank Zappa, was he somebody you’d look up to and almost be scared of?
Oh god yeah, he was like a wizard, you know. He looked like he came out of a bottle. He was spooky. But he was very hard-working and highly imaginative and iconoclastic and it was someone to aspire to. He was doing what I wanted to be doing, so I paid attention, I watched him. I loved all of the band members he was working with then, Bruce Underwood and George Duke and Bruce Fowler, Chester Thompson, those folks.
So it was an exciting time for me. I was hearing a lot of music that was inspiring to me, taking it all in. Takes a while for it to all come back out though.
People say that Tom Waits draws from a very deep well of American song idioms – you go from folk to blues to country to jazz to ballads to polkas to waltzes, cabaret, swing, popular ballads, all the rest – when you were a doorman at The Heritage nightclub in San Diego was there was so much music on offer you were taking all that in?
It’s not always a conscious thing. It’s more an absorbing of all kinds of things.I was listening to the radio a lot. I was listening to Ray Charles and Solomon Burke and ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ on Broadway, ‘Movin On Abbeline’, ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’. I love soul music, love The Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. All this stuff was on the radio.
When Bob Dylan says “Tom Waits was one of my secret heroes” – does that make you feel good?
Hell, yeah sure. Course it does. Bob Dylan’s definitely a planet to be explored. He changed music permanently – he’s one of the giants. When a giant acknowledges you, it affects you.
One of the people who could’ve been a giant and could’ve changed music was Randy Newman. Did you look up to him?
Oh yeah, I love Randy Newman. Amazing songwriter. Randy Newman’s a giant, no question about that.
Would it be possible to say Mule Variations is your most intimate album?
I don’t know. When it’s done, it’s done. You move on to something else. It’s exciting when you’re working on it, but when it’s done, it’s released and it’s out – it’s finished for me. There isn’t a lot else I can do to it. I like the tunes on there. We did about 14 different versions of ‘Get Behind The Mule’. We did a Cuban version, a Chinese version and an acappella version and one with strings and we couldn’t seem to land on the right one and my wife said “Oh, sounds like another mule variation.” So that’s where our title came from.
When you’re acting, you always play the strange character in the movie. Does that suit you best, or are you just typecast?
I’m not really an actor, you know? I do some acting. I’m like a plumber that does a little electrical work, like a farmer who writes a little poetry, that’s all. And I dig it, I have fun with it. I meet interesting people and go to weird places. But it is hard to play a small part sometimes because you gotta get up the steam. It’s hard to get up to speed on a film that’s been going on for six to eight weeks and you come in and do your bit for three days. It looks easy but it’s not. I’ll leave that to the people who really do it well. I get a kick out of it, but it’s not my real calling.
One part of your real calling is onstage. Some of your gigs from years ago in The Olympia are still being talked about. So when are you coming back?
I think, sometime in November, we’re going to London for a couple of days.
There’s something that happens in upstate New York called “Waitstock”, kind of an annual celebration of Tom Waits. Would you think “Hey, I might drop in on that”, or would you run a mile?
Jesus! I have heard about it and I can’t imagine what these people do. What, do they get up late and then have whiskey and eggs? I don’t know what it is. To be honest it’s some form of worship of some kind but I can’t even imagine being there. I try not to think about it. (Laughs) I mean, God bless their hearts, it’s their form of entertainment, but there wouldn’t be anything in there for me.
You never got involved in huge tours.
It’s kind of supply and demand really. It’s much better to be in more demand than supply, than the other way around. If I wanted to play a 10,000 seat arena I could in some places but I really don’t like theatres like that. They were designed for sports events. I don’t think of music as a sporting event, I’m just more comfortable in a theatre, that’s all.
There’s a song you have called ‘What’s He Building In There?’, the whole idea of climate of fear, not getting on with your neighbours – do you think there’s a lot of that going on in America now, with George Bush, in terms of home policy, let alone foreign policy? In the ’70s you could give out about the Vietnam war. If you did that now you’d be called ‘UnAmerican’.
Mmmm… Gee I dunno. You mean is that what ‘What’s He Building In There?’ is about?
No, not necessarily...
Your questions are so long I get lost in them! I keep looking for the question mark and I can’t find it. Have you had too much coffee? Jesus Christ. (Laughs)
We’re coming towards the general election – do you think America has weirded itself out a little and could do with a bit of chilling out?
Well, I’d say this is probably one of the most important elections we’ve had in a long time. Not that they aren’t all important. I join the voices of a lot of Americans in hope that Bush is voted out of office. I can say that. I can’t say that Kerry is a logical and most effective alternative. I think we’re one party with two heads. I like what Bill Hicks said: “I think when you’re elected president of the United States, they take you into a small room and they run a film clip of the Kennedy assassination from an angle no one has ever seen before. And then they turn to you and say ‘are there any questions?’”
Do you still have a tattoo of Easter Island on your back?
Oh yeah, I do. Who told you that?
I don’t know. Kathleen maybe, I can’t remember.
The front’s a menu from a Vietnamese restaurant.