Title: Interview: Tom Waits
Source: Pitchfork (USA), November 27, 2006. By Amanda Petrusich. Transcript (online article) as published on Pitchfork site, 2006. �Pitchforkmedia Inc.
Date: published November 27, 2006
Key words: Orphans, California, musical instruments, Chamberlin, Stroh violin, acting, Kathleen, Casey, Missy Elliott, Scarlett Johannson, public image
Accompanying pictures
Source: Pitchfork (USA) Tom Waits interview. November 27, 2006. Date: unknown. Credits: photography by Michael O'Brien
Source: Anti promo picture/ MarketWire (UK). Date: September 2006, published November, 2006. Credits: photography by Danny Clinch


Interview: Tom Waits


Tom Waits' latest endeavor, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, is a three-disc compendium of 30 new tracks and a mess of hard-to-find soundtrack pieces, all organized into three categories that manage to accurately encapsulate more than three decades of brutal noisemaking. Like most of America, I'm so convinced that Tom Waits exists in a world populated only by freight trains and barmaids, rodeo clowns and shortwave radios, that to hear him say "Chamillionaire" is about as jarring as a car crash: Here, Waits opens up about his songwriting, Scarlett Johannson, and his own glorious artifice.

Pitchfork: Have you ever thought about living anywhere besides California?

Tom Waits: I've been around. Chicago, New Orleans, New York, L.A., Portland [Oregon]. California has the public image, the land of milk and honey. It has one of those images that's completely and utterly removed from what it really is. Like all great fantasies. Where are you calling from?

Pitchfork: Brooklyn.

Tom Waits: Everybody's from Brooklyn! We lived in New York for a while(1). About 14 different places in two years.

Pitchfork: Do you ever miss it?

Tom Waits: I don't know. Sometimes when I go back I go, oh man, I remember this. The energy of it. It's like a big dragon. But I'm a hothead. I wasn't well-suited for the temperament of that town. I need something that's a little more -- not as volatile. I get in arguments with shop owners. And slowly, all the little businesses in our neighborhood, the lights started going out and I had to go further and further from home to get supplies. I'm better off here in the sticks where I can't hurt myself.

Pitchfork: You have a fine reputation for haunting California's salvage yards and pawn shops. What attracts you to certain objects?

Tom Waits: I'm interested in things when I don't know what they are. Like "Hey, Ray, what the hell is this?Oh, that's lipstick from the 1700s, that's dog food from the turn of the century, that's a hat from World War II. I'm interested in the minutiae of things. Oddities.

Pitchfork: Do you collect anything?

Tom Waits: Like little ceramic dogs? I collect instruments. It's ongoing.

Pitchfork: There's a blues singer in Clarksdale, Mississippi named Super Chikan who makes the most beautiful-looking guitars out of oil cans and other bits of hardware that he paints and strings. He has a guitar made out of a toilet seat that he calls the Shit-tar. Do you ever make your own instruments?

Tom Waits: I have friends who are builders who make instruments(2). "Alternative sound sources" is the technical way of saying it, which could really be anything -- maybe something you found along the side of the road. I think hardware stores can be fascinating if you go in there with a mallet! I look for things that are left of center, something you've only seen your whole life, but never heard. Hit it! With a stick! I have a guitar made out of a 2x4 that I bought in Cleveland. You know, in Iraq, you can't have a guitar in the window of a music store because it's too sexy. You know, the curves. So I could go over there with these 2x4 guitars and really take the country by storm.

Pitchfork: Do you have a favorite instrument?

Tom Waits: I have a Chamberlain(3) I bought from some surfers in Westwood many years ago. It's an early analog synthesizer, it operates on tape loops. It has 60 voices -- everything from galloping horses to owls to rain to every instrument in the orchestra. Including the human voice [Waits sings a scale in "synthesizer voice"]. Eleven-second samples! I like primitive things. I've used that a lot over the years on different recordings.

I have a Stroh violin(3). Stroh is the guy who created the violin with the horn attached to the bridge. This was around when orchestras played primarily in pits. In old theaters, the string players would complain that they couldn't be heard in the balcony. So this guy created the Stroh violin, which was a way of amplifying sound before electricity. It sounds almost like the violin is coming out of the horn of a 78 record player. He made Stroh basses, Stroh cellos. He even has a one-string Stroh violin. Those are interesting. I used one on a record called Alice.

Pitchfork: Do you have a favorite sound?

Tom Waits: Bacon. In a frying pan. If you record the sound of bacon in a frying pan and play it back it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33 1/3 recording. Almost exactly like that. You could substitute it for that sound.

Pitchfork: There is a long human history of seeking impure sounds. In his book Deep Blues, Robert Palmer talks about the influence of West African music on early American blues, and how so many African musicians aggressively eschewed clean sounds -- by attaching pieces of tin to their drums, humming into flutes, things like that. Do you have a natural affinity for sloppier tones?

Tom Waits: I think it lets you incorporate your own voice into the voice of the instrument. By nature, I think we're all curious and looking for mutations all the time. It's not peculiar to me. I guess it's a question of taste. How do you like your eggs?

Pitchfork: You sing Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski on this record. To what extent has literature influenced your music?

Tom Waits: I'm usually more concerned with how things sound than how they look on the page. Some people write for the page and that's a whole other thing. I'm going for what it sounds like right away, so it may not even look good on the page. But I'm still a word guy. I'm drawn to people who use a certain vernacular and communicate with words. Words are music, really. I mean, people ask me, "Do you write music or do you write words?" But you don't really, it's all one thing at its best. Sometimes when you're making songs you just make sounds, and the sounds slowly mutate and evolve into actual words that have meaning. But to begin with, most people who make songs just start out with [Waits makes noises].

Pitchfork: Sure, and the Beats were very musical writers.

Tom Waits: And the Beats were performing their work in clubs, shouting their work. That's another element of it.

Pitchfork: What sorts of movie roles are you attracted to?

Tom Waits: I do some acting. And there's a difference between "I do some acting" and "I'm an actor." People don't really trust people to do two things well. If they're going to spend money, they want to get the guy who's the best at what he does. Otherwise, it's like getting one of those business cards that says about eight things on it. I do aromatherapy, yard work, hauling, acupressure. With acting, I usually get people who want to put me in for a short time. Or they have a really odd part that only has two pages of dialogue, if that. The trouble is that it's really difficult to do a small part in a film, because you have to get up to speed-- there are fewer scenes to show the full dimensions of your character, but you still need to accomplish the same thing that someone else has an hour and a half to do. In terms of making them anatomically correct. And you have to make sure that you're working with people who you really trust and admire and feel safe with. That's not always the case, and if you want to stay working, you have to take chances a lot of time.

Pitchfork: It seems like that's the same case with making records. How different do you think your music would be if you hadn't married Kathleen Brennan?

Tom Waits: It's so hard to say. Everything would be different. She's a remarkable collaborator(4) and we have a real rapport, and that's really what anybody who is working with anybody else is looking for. It clicks.

Pitchfork: I'm interested in the way songwriting works in your home. Less the artistic process, more the physical one -- do you and Kathleen write in the same room, do you snack, do you bicker?

Tom Waits: Sometimes we go in the car, just take the tape recorder and go on a long trip. Sometimes we just sit around the piano-- if we have a deadline, it tightens up the perimeters of the whole thing. We work independently and we work together. If both of you know the same stuff, one of you is unnecessary. Hopefully we're coming at it from different angles. But I don't really know how it works. It's one of those things where you can't really take it apart.

Pitchfork: What was it like touring with your son on drums?

Tom Waits: He's been playing drums since he was eight. He's a big strong guy, taller than me. He's a giant of a man. He has a lot of interest in music, he does beat-boxing and listens to music and it stays with him. He was playing with old-timers -- he's only 21. With families and music, you're usually looking for something that can make you unique. And it can be hard to find that. But he was excellent, it was terrific playing together, as you'd imagine it would be. You learn as much from your kids as they learn from you.

Pitchfork: The new record is such an interesting compendium of your work, giving equal weight to all sides of your sound. How did you decide to organize the songs into brawlers, bawlers, and bastards?

Tom Waits: It was just a big pile of songs. It's like having a whole lot of footage for a film. It needs to be arranged in a meaningful way so it will be a balanced listening experience. You have this big box with all these things in it and it doesn't really have any meaning until it's sequenced. It took some doing. There's a thematic divide, and also pacing and all that. There are different sources to all these songs and they were written at different times. Making them work together is the trick.

Pitchfork: Was there a song where it wasn't immediately evident to you which disc it would fit best on?

Tom Waits: Yeah. But, you know, ballads went on one -- we wanted to call it "Shut Up and Eat your Ballads". The blues and gospel stuff seemed to go together. And the more uncategorizable stuff wound up on Bastards. That's the stuff that's spoken word. After a while it made sense. "Form three lines. You're in the wrong line, buddy."

Pitchfork: You cover Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene", which is one of my favorite songs. It's also, I think, one of your strongest vocal performances. Do you listen to a lot of early American folk and blues?

Tom Waits: Oh yeah, sure. Over the years, yeah I have, and I still do, sure. Most of the things you absorb you will ultimately secrete. You know that. You take something in and that's just what happens, whether it's Jack T. Gardener or Bo Carter or Memphis Minnie or Barbecue Bob. It's all out there and available for you to enjoy, absorb, and be nourished by. Which is a pretty great thing -- somebody did something a hundred years ago and it lasted three minutes and now they're gone and everyone who worked on it is gone, but it's not gone. It's still just as fresh as it was the day it was recorded. I always find that interesting. We don't really know of what we do, how it's going to still be around. But I try to keep that in mind when I record. I've recorded stuff I know I'll never sing again, and I've recorded stuff that I know I will keep singing, in order to try and solve the riddle. But I think it's good to listen to as much as you can, of the old and the new.

Pitchfork: Are there any new artists or people performing right now that you're excited about?

Tom Waits: Missy Elliott. I'm crazy about her(5). She did some video where she's on the beach doing the jerk in a wife beater. She's out of her mind. She's so natural. It's like she's always been around. Chamillionaire. I listen to a lot of stuff that my kids listen to. You know, Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys, all that. Most of the stuff that dominates the household is not stuff I'd necessarily listen to, but now I put on what the kids put on. My wife, when I met her, she had a remarkable record collection. And they were all still in their sleeves! I couldn't believe it. She took care of her records. Rachmaninov, Beefheart. For me, most of my records were out of their sleeves and in a drawer somewhere. I married a record collection.

Pitchfork: What moment in your career are you most proud of?

Tom Waits: Most of the time I just want to make another record. This stuff is always the best stuff, the fresh material. It's always what's up ahead. I don't really have one of those "Oh, that was my big moment" things.

Pitchfork: I'm sure you know Scarlett Johannson is recording an album of your songs?

Tom Waits: Well no, I read about it in the paper.

Pitchfork: No one consulted you beforehand?

Tom Waits: No, no. But, you know, more power to her.

Pitchfork: Are you excited to hear it?

Tom Waits: I don't know if I'm excited to hear it, but I'm curious. People make songs so that somebody else will hear them and want to do them. I guess it's an indication that the songs aren't so ultra-personal that they can't possibly be interpreted by anyone else. I've seen her in movies. I don't know what she's going to do with the tunes. When you get a hold of somebody else's song, you make it your own. That's all you can do. And that usually requires a certain amount of tailoring. Cut the sleeves off, lay some buttons. Everybody does something different to a song, that's the tradition.

Pitchfork: In your artist's statement for the new record, you say that your voice is really your instrument, which certainly seems true to anyone who has ever heard your records. Some of my favorite singers are the ones who sound a little out of control. Are you ever surprised or offended by what your voice can or cannot do?

Tom Waits: If you're still pushing the envelope and wanting to find out what this baby can do, or if you're still trying to imitate things -- most people start out by imitating. Slowly you develop your own voice. I like vocal word stuff. But I don't always write with an instrument, I usually write a capella. It's more like drawing in the air with your fingers. It's closest to the choreography of a bee. You're freer. You have no frets to constrict you, there are no frets on your voice, and that's a good feeling. So for composing melody, it's something you can do anywhere.

Pitchfork: Did you always know you wanted your voice to sound a certain way?

Tom Waits: I talked to Robert Siegel, the newscaster on NPR(6), and he said that most announcers and people in radio, they want their voices to sound older. Because a lot of the news you're delivering is very serious and very heavy, and you don't want to sound like a little kid talking about how thirty-three people were killed in a roadside bomb. You have to compose your voice and your whole demeanor so that it's situated to give weight, dignity, and gravity to all the things you're saying. You want the same thing for your voice when you're a singer. You want your voice and how you're approaching it to suit the material.

Pitchfork: There is a rich and wonderful American history of tough, scrappy songwriters -- everyone from Ramblin' Jack Elliott to Bob Dylan -- compulsively mythologizing themselves, inventing backstories, changing their names, developing personas to work alongside songs. Is there a Tom Waits mythology?

Tom Waits: I'm sure there is. The fact is most of the things that people know about me are made up. My own life is backstage. So what you "know" about me only what I allowed you to know about me. So it's like a ventriloquist act. And it's also a way of safely keeping your personal life out of your business. Which is healthy and essential. I'm not one of those people the tabloids chase around. You have to put off that smell -- it's like blood in the water for a shark. And they know it, and they know that you've also agreed. And I'm not one of those. I make stuff up. There's nothing that you can say that will mean the same thing once it's been repeated. We're all making leaner versions of stories. Before there was recording, everything was subject to the folk process. And we were all part of composing in the evolution and the migration of songs. We all reached out, and they all passed through our hands at some point. You dropped a verse or changed the gender or cleaned up a verse for your kids or added something more appropriate for your community. Anything that says "Traditional," it's "Hey, I wrote that, I'm part of that." Just like when a joke reaches you -- how did it reach you? If you could go back and retrace it, that would be fascinating.

Pitchfork: So the second you write something down, it's fiction.

Tom Waits: There is no such thing as nonfiction. There is no such thing as truth. People who really know what happened aren't talking. And the people who don't have a clue, you can't shut them up. It's the same with your own stories, the ones that circulate around with your family and your friends. We're all part of the same hypocrisy.

Pitchfork: Do you keep a notebook?

Tom Waits: Oh yeah, everybody does! Life is too confusing. Monkey wrenches, pocket knives, dog food, instant coffee, lipstick. You gotta get it organized somehow.

Pitchfork: Thanks so much for talking with me.

Tom Waits: Oh! OK. Alright. I'll leave you with a few little things out of my book here. In Los Angeles, it's illegal for a man to beat his wife unless he's on the courthouse steps. In Tulsa, it's against the law to open a soda bottle without the supervision of a licensed engineer. In Texas, the Encyclopedia Britannica is banned because it contains the formula for making home brew. In Claradon, Texas, it's illegal to dust any public building with a feather duster. In Washington, it's illegal to paint polka dots on the American flag. There are only two things you can throw out the window of a moving car, legally. Do you know what they are?

Pitchfork: Um.

Tom Waits: Water. And feathers. Everything else you can get in trouble for.


(1) We lived in New York for a while: Waits lived in New York from late 1979 to April 1980. The Waits family lived in New York from early 1983 to April 1987.

(2) I have friends who are builders who make instruments: Those would be the musicians from the "Gatmo sessions" (Moanin' Parade/ Swarm Warnings, 2000). California Sonic Instrument Designers Ensemble (C-Side): Richard Waters, Darrell DeVore, Tom Nunn and Bart Hopkin. Petit Mal: with Gary Knowlton, Michael Knowlton, and Richard Waters. Improvisors: Big Skin, Steve Shain, Bob B. Hobbs, Wayne D. Doba, Tom Dondelinger. Further reading: Gatmo Studio

(3) I have a Chamberlain/ Stoh violin: further reading: Instruments

(4) She's a remarkable collaboratorfurther reading: Quotes On Kathleen

(5) Missy Elliott. I'm crazy about her: further reading: Missy Elliott official site

(6) I talked to Robert Siegel, the newscaster on NPR: "Tom Waits: The Whiskey Voice Returns", November 21, 2006