|Title: Coffee With Tom Waits
Source: Zembla magazine - Issue 7, by Richard Grant. December, 2004. Photography by Tom Sheehan. Thanks to Pascal Fricke for donating scans.
Date: interview October/ November, 2004 (pictures from May, 2002)
Keywords: Real Gone, Kathleen, studio recording, politics, Britain, Nick Tosches, religion
Magazine front cover: photography by Tom Sheehan (2002)
Coffee With Tom Waits
In a roadside bar and restaurant near his farmhouse in northern California, Tom Waits sits with a cup of coffee and consents to a rare interview. As a singer, songwriter, musical innovator and wordsmith extraordinaire, his career spans four decades and more than twenty albums. Bob Dylan calls him a "secret hero", and a consortium of American music critics recently named him as one of the most influential artists of all time. He has written plays and acted in more than a dozen films, including Short Cuts, Ironweed and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes. His latest album, Real Gone, co-written with his wife Kathleen Brennan, was released in October 2004.
Richard Grant: Is it true that Real Gone was largely recorded in your bathroom?
Tom Waits: Yeah, yeah, the acoustics are great in there. I moved instruments in there, a four track recording rig. When I went into the studio we set one in an empty schoolhouse near Sacramento. I had all these raw tapes that I made in the bathroom and I was hoping to replicate them, but the studio sounded nothing like my bathroom at home. Not even, the bathroom in the studio sounded like my bathroom. So it was really disturbing and kind of disconcerting to find out that you can't recreate what you've already done. Some things only happen once. And you can never re-create the conditions under which they happen. So I ended up using the tapes I brought and the musicians played over them.
RG: What were you trying to do with this album?
TW: What's interesting about most people is that they're great when they don't know they're great. Did you ever see someone dancing when they think no one is watching, or singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror? Is that the best or what? So how do you keep that unforced spontaneity in a song? It's tricky. It's like catching birds. You have to sneak up on it. Songs are living and hopefully they will be living when you catch them, because otherwise you're just taking pictures of dead people.
RG: The album sounds more stripped down and raw than the others.
TW: Yeah, yeah. Bread, meat and cheese. That's what we wanted. Rudimentary, you know. A three legged table.
RG: If a table will stand on three legs, why add a fourth?
TW: Exactly. If you can say what you want to say with a gesture then you can just keep your mouth shut. The Italians can tell you a whole story with their hands. They can tell you anything. And music is a language, so why not?
RG: Was it liberating to strip it down after AIice and Blood Money which were both quite carefully orchestrated and written for European stage productions?
TW: Yeah, yeah. It was like the difference between sleeping in a hotel and sleeping out in the weed. Keep it basic, use cheap equipment. Its a good thing. Who says the best stuff costs more money?
RG: How do you and your wife work together?
TW: If you're doing a high wire act, you've got to have someone on the ground, right? You need someone around to tell you when you're full of shit and I'd rather have my wife say it than someone in the newspapers. So, you know, I watch her back, she watches mine.
RG: Do you have a lot of failures in the studio?
TW: Oh yeah. Sometimes you just have to cut up a song and use it for bait, You've tried everything to resuscitate this thing and now you're just going to use it for parts. It happens.
RG: Is it hard to say goodbye to the words?
TW: Nah, nah, you can always use them again. They're like screws or nails. People used to burn down their house before they left town, go through the ashes and take all the nails, put them in a bag. Square ones were the best. Blacksmiths would make them.
RG: Do you feel nostalgic for that old America. Compared to where it is now or might be heading?
TW: You know, everything that you want is always here depending what you want to focus on. If you want to go tonight and sleep by the railroad tracks, and eat food out of a can and play I Dream Of Jeanie, you can do it. No one is going to keep you from doing it. I really don't know where the whole country is going. I can't pull in that much information. And where are we now? I think we're a nation of alcoholics, interested in cigarettes and underwear and hooked on diesel and ... I don't know. But the television, I got rid of the television so I'm really out of it, I poured a Coke in the back of it and it did really interesting things to the image at first and then it just went out.
RG: Do you pay much attention to politics?
TW: Not really. But I read The New York Times. I know the whole world's at war. I know our whole country is in deep turmoil and division. I don't think we've been this divided since the 60's. My kids are old enough if there was a draft right now, I don't know what I'd do. I sure wouldn't want to let my boys go.
RG: I've heard that you don't like Britain. Is that true?
TW: You guys had a sandwich crisis when I was there(1). They absolutely refused to make a sandwich in the way I wanted it to be made. It seemed almost like there was a federal plan for every sandwich in the country. No one was open to any influence from the outside and I remember getting angry and I jumped over the counter and I grabbed the meat and grabbed the bread and the guy wanted to call a constable on me. I guess his position was, 'I'm the manufacturer, it's my sandwich," and, being an American, my position was, "I'm paying for it, I'm eating it, it's my sandwich and I should be able to have it the way I want it."
RG: What are you reading at the moment?
TW: I start about ten books at the same time. My wife's a reader. She'll actually finish a book. I can't. She'll read Moby Dick and then some Buddhist thing and then some hysterical visionary Italian poet. I get what I want from a book and then put it in the stack. It's like the way I listen. I just suck out what I need and leave the rest.
RG: Which writers do you admire?
TW: Nick Tosches(2), I like him. If you write about music, you've got to be musical in the way you write. Bukowski is very musical. Maybe that's what I'm looking for when I pick up a book and if it's not there I put it down again.
RG: And Kerouac was a big influence when you started out.
TW: Yeah, yeah, Kerouac's very rhythmic. It's a little dated now but he was building something, you know. Like Little Richard opened the door for a lot of musicians. A lot of the innovators are crushed beneath the weight of the people behind them that trample over them. And then the innovators are looked on as cornball and naive, even though they were engineering the escape. I think that's true in a lot of different fields.
RG: Who do you admire in other fields?
TW: Roberto Benigni the Italian comedian. I just love Benigni. And of course Ricky Jay the prestidigitator, the guy that could kill you with a card. He could throw a playing card into a watermelon and make it disappear. If you can do that, you can throw a card at somebody and kill him. Everyone was real polite around him, I think. He's got a deck of cards and he's rifling them and he's looking at you and it's always Mr Jay, you know, Mr Jay.
RG: Judging from your songs you seem to have an endless fascination with midgets and dwarfs.
TW: Oh yeah. The little people. I had a doctor once who was late for an appointment and he told me he was stretching a dwarf. I laughed and he said, "No I'm a doctor, I was stretching a dwarf." There's an operation that can get you six, eight, maybe ten inches. They cut the bone and then they separate the two ends of the bone. Both growing edges of the bone will try and join together. Then they pull and it grows. And they pull and it grows. They can get a lot of height out for the ones who want it. It's just as controversial among the little people as getting the round eye surgery in Japan.
RG: The characters in your songs are often building weird contraptions and devices from unlikely components. On the new album there's a tattoo gun made from a cassette motor and a guitar string(3). What interests you about that idea?
TW: I do the same thing with music. You know, what would it sound like if I hit that heater over there with a hot poker? Or hit the side of that refrigerator with a two by four? I bet it would sound better than a drum. I wrote an orchestral piece once for a squeaky door a Singer sewing machine and a washing machine set on the spin cycle. But the tattoo gun is a real thing. I know a guy who applied for a job teaching guitar to prison inmates, some kind of rehab therapy. This was at San Quentin, one of the toughest prisons we've got. The first day he gave them all a guitar and the next day everybody needed strings. Not just one string. They aII needed six more strings. So the guards all thought, "That's it. End of the programme. They're using the guitar strings for weapons." But they were aII being used to make needles for tattoo guns And they would wrap the device in cut up pieces of T-shirt and make the most beautiful handle for it.
RG: Where do tunes come from?
TW: Well, nothing comes out of nowhere. Nothing comes out of your hair. There's always a story that happened before it emerged in you. By the time you see something new in the garden it had a long history getting there. The same is true of tunes. It's really about the migration of seeds. That's how music changes. And I'm always interested in volunteering in the garden, you know. Pour a little extra water.
RG: There's a lot of talk in your songs about God and the devil, sin and redemption. What are your thoughts about religion?
TW: I don't know. I think the world is at war over this with Bush talking about crusades and whatnot. The things that fall out of his month are just. obscene. I don't know what to say abort religion. It's not really my area.
RG: But a lot of your characters think about the world in religious ways.
TW: I guess I think about it through them. That's my way of thinking about it. It's like the joke about the guy who goes to hell and they show him all these different rooms. In the first one everyone's on fire and screaming. "Nah, nah," he says. "You got anything else?" They show him another room and everyone is being stabbed by swords going at all angles through their bodies. "Nah, nah, nah," he says. The third room is a lot of guys standing around up to their waists in crap. They're drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes ... . 'This looks good," he says. "This is the room for me." And the devil goes, "Fine. Go get your coffee, get your cigarette and take your position." And then the devil gets on the microphone and he yells, "Coffee break's over. Everyone back on your heads." Maybe that's hell. Maybe there are more hellish places on earth. I think it's aII right here.
RG: It seems like your philosophy has got bleaker over the years. I'm thinking about songs like Misery Is the River Of The World or We're All Gonna Be Just Dirt In The Ground.
TW: Gee, I don't know. There are people who are being more afraid of being seen with an entertainment magazine than are afraid of the bomb, and people who are too scared of dying to leave their apartments. All you've got is your particular view from your bunker. I have a bleak view but I also believe in the mercy of the world(4) so I weigh them both.
RG: Did you say "mercy of the world" or "mercy of the Lord"?
TW: World. But maybe the world is the Lord. And we're God's eyeball. Hell, I don't know I need another cup of coffee [He comes back with a refill] I think you're born after you die. You go through a birth canal and you're born into another manifestation. Everything was alive once, right? Like Buckminster Fuller said, "Fire is nothing more than the sun unwinding itself from the wood." So perhaps we will be fire some day because the sun is in us waiting to be released. I don't know what the world is. Your interpretation is just as valid as mine. And right now I gotta make tracks and get on down the road.
(1) You guys had a sandwich crisis when I was there:
- Tom Waits (1999): "You ever try to get a sandwich made for you in England? It'll just make you crazy. "Put a little more sauce on that." And it's your sandwich, you're gonna pay for it and you're gonna eat it. But they look at you like [snooty voice], "I won't do it." "Put a little more lettuce on that for me." "I can't do it." "And don't cut the crust." "I have to cut it off." I used to get in arguments. I used to end up going over the counter. I'd say, "Gimme that bread, goddamn it. Let me have that thing. I'll show you how to make a goddamn sandwich." I was young. I was rude. But there was something real and sincere about my reaction. [The waitress approaches with a coffee pot.] You got a decaf? I got to calm down." (Source: "Gone North: Tom Waits, Upcountry", L.A. Weekly, by Robert Lloyd. Date: Santa Rosa. April 23-29, 1999)
(2) Nick Tosches: "American writer Nick Tosches was born in Newark, New Jersey and began his writing career with music magazines like Creem and Fusion after a series of very odd jobs. In 1982, he published Hellfire, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis that Rolling Stone claimed was "the best rock and roll biography ever written." Further reading: Nick Tosches official biography, Salon.com interview with Nick Tosches
(3) A tattoo gun made from a cassette motor and a guitar string:
- Q (1987): "Speaking about the need to impose limitations, about constructing a framework within which to write, he draws an analogy.TW: "Like the guy in prison who made a tattoo machine out of a Bic pen, a guitar string and a cassette loader. Some red ink. He wrapped the handle in such a way, with a T-shirt, it felt just like a bird in your hand." (Source: "Tom Waits Makes Good" Los Angeles Times: Robert Sabbag. February 22, 1987)
- TW (1988): "I'll tell you, the best thing I ever saw was a kid who had a tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor and a guitar string. The whole thing was wrapped in torn pieces of T-shirt, and it fit in your hands just like a bird. It was one of the most thrilling things I'd ever seen, that kind of primitive innovation. I mean, that's how words develop, through mutant usage of them. People give new meaning, stronger meaning, or they cut the meaning of the word by overusing if, or they use it for something else... I just love that stuff." (Source: "Tom's Wild Years". Interview Magazine (USA), by Francis Thumm. October, 1988)
- From Thousand Bing Bangs (1992): "And she had a tattoo gun that she made herself from a cassette motor and a guitar string And she always had leaves in her hair." ("Devout Catalyst" - Ken Nordine, Grateful Dead Productions Inc., 1992)
- From Circus (Real Gone, 2004): "And me and Molley Hoey drank Pruno and Koolaid and she had a tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor."
(4) The mercy of the world: quoting from "Make It Rain" (Real Gone, 2004): "I want to believe in the mercy of the world again. Make it rain, make it rain!"