|Title: Interview With Tom Waits
Source: Triple J's 2002 (Australia) radio show hosted by Richard Kingsmill. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library. Thanks to Michael Kordahi for providing soundfile (May 13, 2002). Copyright: �2002 ABC online.
Date: Telephone interview. Aired: May 12, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, recording, Kathleen, Table Top Joe/ Johnny Eck, Stroh violin, Kathleen Ferreira, tattoo
Picture: Richard Kingsmill
Interview With Tom Waits
RK: It's the brand new Tom Waits on "Triple J's 2002". Kommienezuspadt from one of his new albums Alice on "Triple J". Well, having sold over a million copies of his last album Mule Variations, Tom Waits has decided to now whack out two new CD's. The two albums Waits has put out are both collections of songs he's written for two separate stage productions(1) for theatre director Robert Wilson. The Alice album contains songs he wrote way back in 1992 for a play based on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the little girl Alice Liddell who inspired "Alice In Wonderland". Blood Money is a more recent set of tunes. Those were written for the 19th century German play Woyzeck which Wilson opened in Copenhagen at the end of 2000 and which is still touring through Europe and is about to get to the States.
Having said all that. ignore it. You don't need to know any of that to get into the new Tom Waits albums. The legendary American singer and songwriter is in typically fine form on both these new albums. The trade mark voice, the wonderfully twisted characters, the heart wrenching ballads, the clatter and clanging of all sorts of instruments. These factors are still very much at play on both the Alice and the Blood Money CD's. What's also at play is the contribution of his wife of over 20 years, Kathleen Brennan. All these songs were co-written by Waits and Brennan. Their marriage is like "borrowing the same 10 bucks from someone", he told me a few weeks ago. I had the thrill of being given 30 minutes to speak to Tom Waits about his new albums and his approach to making music.
RK: It's unusual these days for people to whack out two new albums at exactly the same time. The idea behind releasing these two bodies of work at once, whose idea was it? Was it your idea?
TW: Well I guess, if it turns out to be a good thing, it was my idea. And if it blows up in our face it was someone else's idea. Eh, so we're gonna wait and see whose idea this was anyway.
RK: Okay fair enough. I'll get back to you later in the year then to find out the answer to that question.
TW: Well, hopefully we don't have to wait that long.
RK: Okay, how are you feeling about it. It's still a couple of weeks before it's gonna hit the stores. Obviously you've had time to sort of live with these albums. How are you feeling about how the response is going to be once these two albums are out?
TW: Ghee, I have no idea Richard. Eh, you know you eh, when you're working on it you never listen to it as often or as deeply or with as much detail as you do when you... you know when you're working on it. And then when it's out you know, you tell those little songs to go out there and bring dad home some money.
RK: Heh, heh.
TW: Heh, heh, just kidding.
RK: The success of Mule Variations was not so much a surprise but that must have been pleasing. So do you feel like the audience is still very much out there for you and you've got that sort of confidence on side with the release of these two new albums coming?
TW: Ghee I don't know. Confidence? Eh, I hesitate to have confidence.eh. but eh. But you know... You know, I've got folks out there that listen to me. And eh, I like to... you know that's what I'm sending these out there for. The fans, people that follow my career and all that. Interested in what I have been thinking about. And eh these records are kinda like a. you know a letter, a letter or a newsletter, or a chain letter or something. So I don't know. We'll see how they do. I'll wait and see. We love the records and eh. but you know, I can't listen to them anymore.
RK: Can we talk first of all about Alice, because that's the older of the two bodies of work? Is there a simple reason why you did wait so long before you recorded these songs?
TW: I don't know. I took a break. Very long eh. You know at the time eh we did Mule Variations after a long break. But those songs were recorded just before the. eh the demos and all that were never actually recorded and released. So they were just. you know we set 'em in a box you know and eh came back to them later. You know hopefully songs have. you know eh. shelf live and eh... the freshness is somehow locked in. But we we're saying, we said: there's some good melodies here. And we believe in the tunes, and eh so eh somehow if you're gonna heat up the stove you might as well. you know there's no point in making just one pancake, right?
TW: Know what I mean?
RK: Yeah. I believe your wife Kathleen was quite [. ?.] that you should record these songs and she has been like that for a few years. So was her feelings kinda like the impetuous to finally put these out on a disc for fans to enjoy?
TW: Eh, well she was. she kept dripping on me. Yeah, she was encouraging eh to go ahead and record 'em. You know you need a little kick in the pants. I was more interested in doing something completely new but eh. you know? I like the songs and eh.. so we did 'em you know? And eh. eh . what was the question there Richard?
RK: Well that's why I am asking. Because I get the feeling from listening to your work through the years, I get the feeling that you're someone who likes to move on, who doesn't really like to stand still and reflect and all that sort of stuff. So that's why I was curious to know why you finally decided to record these songs. Because it seems unnatural for you to look back and to especially record songs that you wrote 10 years ago now.
TW: Well you know... but think about it, we're all listening to songs that are much older then 10 years old. You know we listen to songs that are centuries old forgodssake. We listen to. you know, most of the music that I enjoy is 60, 70, 80 years old. You know, so what's 6 or 7 years? You know? I mean eh, songs kinda live in their own ehm. wrinkle in time anyway.
RK: Blood Money and Alice. As you compare them, cause obviously people will compare them, for you, do you see more the similarities in the two bodies of work?
TW: Oh ghee I don't know. I see more the differences. You know, one's a. like a photograph and a negative, you know? It's eh different. They're like twins you know?
RK: But not identical twins?
TW: No I wouldn't say they're identical twins, no.
RK: Yeah. I find Alice to be, if you wanted to more simplify it and I know you can't really simplify these two albums, because there is a. I think there is a sort of a varied cross section of ideas feelings and emotions within them but, Alice seems to be something, which is more fantastical and more dreamlike. Blood Money, you kind of set off with Blood Money right from the first song really: Misery is The River Of The World. It seems to be something, which just kind of. you know that sets the tide of the rest of the record, which is then very different from Alice. Would you agree with what I've just said?
TW: Oh I don't know. Yeah I guess, maybe eh Misery Is The River Of The World that's like what's going on above the ground when you've gone underground into some of these chambers for the Alice Down The Rabbit Hole or whatever. Maybe it's the world that you've left behind, you know? So maybe one's more like the unconscious and the other one is more like eh you know a real calender that's made out of blood and rock and. blood and bone.
RK: The opening track to one of the two new Tom Waits albums out of on the moment. From the Blood Money album: Misery Is The River Of The World. And tonight on "Triple J's 2002" we're speaking to Tom Waits.
RK: Did you record these two albums separately? Did you record for instance Alice all on it's own and then move on to Blood Money?
TW: I went in there with over 30 tunes and eh I just recorded a big mezzo. So no, they weren't done separately, they were done in the same studio and eh there was a lot of the same musicians as well.
RK: How was the process? Any difference to previous albums you've done? For instance: do you get a lot smarter in the studio on how to work and get the music done quicker?
TW: I don't know. It's like taking a bullet out. You know? You get in there and you dig around and you hear "clink". You know? And then you grab it and you pull. And you hope you only pull out the bullet.
RK: Yeah, but that being said, you're a better surgeon now, then you were say 20 years ago?
TW: I don't know if I'm a better surgeon. I go in with really smart people and I think that's my saving grace. I go in with intelligent technical people that indulge my eccentricities, you know? I bring things in the studio that I found on the road on the way in, you know? But you really have to clean up after I leave.
RK: Okay. It sounds like you're still pretty much exited about recording and getting into the studio and working. Are you?
TW: Oh yeah. Am I?
RK: That's what I'm asking you. You are?
TW: Oh yeah. I'm fascinated with intervals and eh I'm a big fan of music. But I think maybe I'm getting deeper into it. Eh, songs seem to be kind of eh containers of sometimes bizarre emotional information and eh I find this. the form interests me more and more the older I get, you know? I collaborate with my wife. That's eh, always like eh borrowing the same 10 bucks from somebody you know? It's good and eh she's a hoot. She's a wild gal, she knows everything about motorcycle repair and eh high finance...
RK: Ha, ha!
TW: She's like superwoman.
RK: That's very diverse.
TW: . and eh, she used to be a Black Jack dealer in a card room over there at Memory Ville. We've been married about 23 years. We got married in Watts at 2 in the morning. And eh. at the Always And Forever Yours Wedding Chapel.(3) Eh we're still going strong.
RK: Absolutely and you work very much side by side. Do you ever reflect. Tom do you ever think about what would have happened to you if she hadn't come into your life, and how different your work might be these days?
TW: Ghee I don't know.. Eh ghee I don't know how different it would be. I'm sure I would probably be dead.
RK: Ha, ha..
TW: That'd be pretty different!
RK: Ha, ha!
TW: Isn't it?
RK: Absolutely that'd be.
TW: That's as different as it gets!
RK: Absolutely. Pretty much. That's a touch melodramatic surely. You didn't feel like you were on that much of a downward spiral in your life before you met her, did you?
TW: No I just eh. But you know when you mix your destiny with somebody it's always dramatic and eh you go through significant changes when you, you know, throw in with somebody on a deep level.
RK: With the songwriting you do with Kathleen, I mean I don't have the songwriting credits for instance for either of these 2 albums so I don't know from reading the album, but literally have you co-written all these songs with her?
TW: Yeah, these are all our tunes yeah. Yeah, these are all our songs and we work in studio together too you know.
RK: That's a pretty all-encompassing relationship really isn't it?
TW: Oh yeah. You gotta like each other.
RK: Ha, ha. To say the least.
(All The World Is Green)
RK: When you write a song, how quickly do you record it after you've written it?
TW: Some of 'em are like leftovers. Some of 'em you put on a stick and hold it over a fire. Others you eat raw. You know? Most people I think end up recording the feathers and throwing away the bird. It's a gift, I think the whole recording process is very tricky because it's eh. We're assuming that the technology is such that. that we can capture anything that we want on tape and I don't necessarily think that it's true. I think there's something about [...?...] a machine, repeating it over and over again. I don't know, it's like, it's more like hunting you know? You have to go out there with a scope and three days worth of food. You have to be really quiet if you wanna catch the big ones you know?. It's not as easy as you'd think. Even though everyone goes to the studio with the same equipment basically. Like most tape machines, instruments and... But it's a pretty interesting laboratory. A lot of things are discovered while you are there. The best things are discovered while you are there. One has to be ready for the unusual, you know? You know eh, Babe Ruth threw a piano in a lake(4) and eh. in 1932, and eh I guess he was angry, I think that the Red Sox weren't doing well and he had too much to drink. He drew this piano down to the dock and he pushed it of into the lake. And eh it's been down at the bottom of this lake since, I don't know, probably 80 years you know? And eh, there's this guy who wants to bring the piano up from the bottom of the lake and eh renovate it. He thinks he's gonna change the destiny of the Red Sox by completely restoring the piano and playing Take Me Out To The Ball Game on it. You know?... Ain't that beautiful?
RK: Yeah, beautiful. Is he likely to do it though, or is there gonna be opposition to that?
TW: Oh yeah, he's got Jacques Cousteau's rig, he's got cyber-optic cameras. He's down there, you know eh wearing Captain Nemo headgear. You know he's down there. Right now as we speak crawling around in the muck at 29 ft. of mud looking for an old babygrand piano... I don't know what... It's apropos nothing...
RK: No, but it's a good story and it maybe indicates that sometimes things are just better left. You know the stories are great and people should more or less move on you know and leave that as legend really.
RK: Why are you telling stories? Can you tell me the story of Johnny Eck(5) , because that inspired the Table Top Joe track, which is a terrific song of the Alice album.
TW: Oh, Table Top Joe yeah.
RK: Yeah, Johnny Eck. this is a true story?
TW: Oh yeah, Johnny Eck is eh. The Eck brothers they were twins. One was eh normal size anatomy and the other, Johnny, was eh. his body stopped at his waist. He was called "The Man Born Without A Body". But he played the piano and eh you know he had his own orchestra. He was a big hit in Coney island. Anyway, they had an act together on stage were he would. he would saw his brother in half. And eh, of course at the end of the procedure Johnny would come out of the box and walk of stage on his hands you know? To the thrill and astonishment of the viewers. Anyway it's just like eh kind of a tip of the hat. So I nicknamed him Table Top Joe cause he used to be on a, you know, on kind of a pedestal cause he had no legs. Kind of a tribute to Johnny Eck, or anybody really who is in show business or has the dream to go into show business, always discover something about them that makes them unique. You have a big nose or no hair or a funny way of talking or standing.
(Table Top Joe)
RK: On "Triple J's 2002" we're speaking to Tom Waits tonight. About his 2 new albums: Blood Money and Alice.
RK: I guess as we look at the person that is Tom Waits and the albums that is Tom Waits, your range of voices is just amazing and that's one of the things that defines you from other artists. There's a track on the Alice. the second song on the Alice CD: Everything You Can Think. I mean it's not the first time you have sung like that, but that voice, it's so distinctive when you hear it. Is it hard to sing. does that really take a lot out of you to sing a song like that?
TW: Oh no, I can do that all day.
RK: Ha, ha! Really?
TW: Oh yes.
RK: Of course you can.
TW: No it's. It just develops over time. It's like my instrument you know? I'm comfortable with it. I like to try and do, you know different voices. Bark and sounds like. Some girl in Indiana wrote me a fan letter. She's about 9 and she says she loves my music and she's taken the records to school and got in a lot of trouble. But eh. she says she loves my voice, she says it sounds like a cross between a cherry bomb and a clown.
(Everything You Can Think)
RK: And all the instruments that you use as well is something which people like to talk about as well as your voice, they like to talk about the range of instruments you keep on using. I know one of the instruments that people have singled out on these 2 new albums is the Stroh Violin(6) . And I've been reading a little bit about that violin. Is that the sound you hear on the Fawn track?
TW: Yeah right, yeah.
RK: It sounds a little like, you know like the saw that you play with the violin bow. It's got that feel about it, doesn't it?
TW: Well actually that was played with harmonica and with octaves you know? .. eh that approach. But the Stroh is a violin with a horn attached to the bridge. And you know, you're aiming at the balcony and it was designed before amplification so the string players could compete with hornplayers in the orchestra pit.
RK: And it's a very rare instrument, I was reading?
TW: They still make 'em. You know, you can get 'em out of a catalogue. But they're no longer as popular as they were, but they were essential and there were probably fist fights in the orchestra pit before the Stroh. Cause now a lot of people consider 'em obsolete but hey, when I see the word obsolete I get in line.
RK: Ha, ha, ha. That excites you?
RK: Do the instruments, when you come across these instruments especially ones you didn't know about them. Do they immediately suggest songs to you?
TW: Yeah, sometimes they say: "Take me home and eh... put me in the business"... But sometimes it's the coffeepot that says the same thing to me. Instruments evolved. A lot of things are instruments and they don't even know it. But they haven't been given half a chance, just like people you know? You know like this Kathleen Ferrier(7), you know the opera singer? She was a telephone operator in London. She was on the phone one night with this guy and he heard her voice and he just flipped. And he said: "You have the most amazing speaking voice I have ever heard in my life." He said: "Do you sing?' and she says: "No". He says: "Well, I have to meet you." He met her and this guy was you know with a big opera company. And eh. so he encouraged her to take... She had a natural voice apparently, the most natural musical voice you ever heard and she became eh one of the biggest opera stars of all time. And eh. from a telephone operator you know?
RK: Mmm, isn't that amazing.
TW: She had a 10-year career and died of cancer. But yeah, you hear her. She has a voice that make you say: "Lord God."
RK: Yeah, it makes you think about all the other people out there who don't follow a path in music. It's a damn hard career to make a living in and just think of the talent that must exist out there that no one has heard.
TW: Yeah, probably most of it is out there and hasn't been heard. You know.
RK: Listen, the half hour is nearly up, so I won't kinda push my limit and go past it, so thanks Tom for talking to us here at "Triple J". I can't remember, when was the last time you were in Australia?(8) I was trying to remember it before.
TW: Oh, I don't know, I got a tattoo down there a long time ago. I don't know.
RK: Was it 80's? You weren't here in the 90's at all. Was it back in the 80's?
TW: Yeah, maybe. [screaming of the phone to Kathleen] "When were we in Australia last time babe?".. [back on the phone] Eh '81.
RK: Wow, that long ago?
TW: Perth and Adelaide I guess, Melbourne, Sidney.
RK: What sort of tattoo did you get?
RK: What sort of a tattoo did you get in Australia?
TW: ... Oh god, you know a skull, you know, with flames coming out of it. You know eh, a pitchfork, and eh you know, horns and eh, you know. a world on fire.
TW: No just kidding.
RK: Ha, ha!
TW: No, I got a sofa. and a, and a. lamp. ..
RK: . . A sofa and a lamp... tattooed!?
TW: Yeah, but the sofa is on fire.
TW: .and the lamp is also on fire.
RK: Right. Did the guy do a good job?
TW: Heh, heh, heh... Eh, yeah he did a great job, yeah. He didn't even charge me!
RK: Okay. Well it's over due, you gotta get back to Australia, I don't know whether there's any inclination for you to come down here. I'm sure a lot of people are dying to see you on stage and doing some performances. So bear us in mind.
TW: Take it easy, don't die.
RK: All right we won't. Listen, a pleasure to speak to you Tom. Thanks so much.
TW: Okay, nice to talk to you too.
RK: Okay then. Have a good day then. Bye, bye.
(1) Written for two separate stage productions: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.
(3) At the Always And Forever Yours Wedding Chapel: There is actually such a wedding chapel on West Manchester Av. in L.A. Further reading: Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel.
(5) The story of Johnny Eck: Name checked in "Lucky Day Overture" (The Black Rider, 1993), and "Table Top Joe" (Alice, 2002). Eck, Johnny(also mentioned in Lucky Day Overture, 1993: "You'll See: Johnny Eck, the man born without a body. He walks on his hands, he has his own orchestra and is an excellent pianist".) Johnny Eck was born John Echkardt (twenty minutes after his twin brother Robert ) August 27, 1911, Baltimore, Maryland. The boys entered the sideshow circuit at the age of 12, where John was billed as "Johnny Eck, The Half-boy." Johnny went on to play a role in Tod Browning's "Freaks" before returning with his brother to Baltimore, where he became a screen painter. The only time Johnny and Rob were ever apart from each other was the time Johnny spent in Hollywood filming "Freaks". He climbed the stairs to the top of the Washington Monument, on his hands in 1938. In the late 1930's he was displayed in several Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditoriums, where he was billed as "The Most Remarkable Man Alive!". Height 1' 6". Johnny died January 5, 1991, at the age of 79, in the house where he was born. Personal quote: "I met hundreds and thousands of people, and none finer than the midgets and the Siamese twins and the caterpillar man and the bearded woman and the human seal with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing questions and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure." There's a site dedicated to Eck at: Johnny's world
- Tom Waits (1999): "... The Ringling Brothers at one point were exhibiting Einstein's eyes, Napoleon's penis and Galileo's finger bones, all on the same bill. Different tents. 'Course I missed that. You ever hear of Johnny Eck? He was a Ringling act. The Man Born Without a Body. Johnny Eck had his own orchestra and was an excellent pianist and he'd stand on his hands and wear a tuxedo." (Source: "Gone North, Tom Waits, upcountry " L.A. Weekly: Robert Lloyd. April 23-29 1999)
- Tom Waits (2002): "Table Top Joe is a nickname that I gave a real life character. His name is Johnny Eck. He had a twin brother who was of normal height and size, they used to have a magic act on stage. His brother would saw Johnny in half. Johnny walked on his hands, he was about two feet tall, but he was an excellent pianist and he had his own orchestra. He was a sideshow attraction."(Source: "Make Mine A Double", Black + White magazine (USA). Issue 61. June/ July 2002. By Clare Barker)
(6) Stroh Violin: To overcome the lack of carrying power of string instruments, John M.A. Stroh introduced new "violins" in England in the early 1900s. Stroh replaced the violin's usual wooden body with a metal resonator to produce a louder, more penetrating sound. The aluminum horn at the end of the fingerboard directed this sound either into the recording horn or into the ear of the singer. The performer placed the smaller aluminum horn at his or her ear in order to hear what was being played more distinctly. Further reading: Instruments
(8) The last time you were in Australia: October 1981, promoting Heartattack And Vine. Further reading: Performances