Title: Interview with Tom Waits
Source: New York Rock (USA), by Gabriella. Transcription as published on New York Rock
Date: May, 1999
Key words: Mule Variations, Kathleen, Epitaph, Touring
Accompanying pictures
As published on NY Rock.com. Astro Hotel, Santa Rosa. June/ July, 1999. Photography by Bob Sebree


Interview With Tom Waits


A lot of artists try to be eccentric, but for Tom Waits, it comes naturally. He's an expert of sorts on the most peculiar of subjects, like the daily lives of ants. As a musician, he's in a league of his own. His masterful, yet disturbingly odd, improvisations result in songs of sheer melancholic beauty - delivered by one of the raspiest voices in the business.

As an actor, his characters take on a life of their own. He's the notorious outlaw, the washed up hobo with a rough charm. Who could imagine Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law or Robert Altman's Short Cuts without him? Although in his early 50s, Waits manages to look like a 100-year-old beagle. A legend in his own right, who shows us the crooked beauty of dissonance, Waits always comes across like the guy who's got the blues so bad, he's ready to sell his soul for another glass of whisky.

Mule Variations is an interesting title. I almost expected to hear a mule as a guest musician...
My wife called me a mule. She once said, "I didn't marry a man; I married a mule!" I kept thinking about it. It was in the back of my head. I think it makes a good title for an album.

Sounds like you're pretty stubborn...
Of course, I am. She didn't call me a mule for nothing. But I'm rather consequent in my stubbornness. I think they're pretty straight animals. They don't listen to anybody else.

Do you have a thing for animals? I heard that you confused one of my colleagues a few years ago when discussing insects with him...
(Raspy laugh.) I like weird things, ludicrous things. I have a notebook full of eerie facts. Don't get me started on them. I could go on for ages and would confuse you - or probably even scare you.

Just one? And then I'll pester you about your work...
OK, this will scare you... If you decapitate a cockroach, a simple cockroach, it won't die. It's able to live for a couple of weeks without a head, but regular flies die after two weeks. Imagine that, just two weeks and they're dead. It doesn't even seem worth the effort it takes to kill them. Or there are 400 million sperm in each ejaculation - and if you look around, take a look at some people, it's kinda hard to imagine that they beat 400 million... It makes one wonder...

Wow, where do you get your information from?
I read papers. I read magazines, and if I find something that's worth collecting, I'll write it down in my little notebook. Just call it a hobby or a weird spleen.

You're signed with Epitaph now, the legendary punk label. How did that happen?
I like them. I like them a lot, and I like their taste when it comes to music, barbecues and cars.

Brett Gurewitz [owner] is famous for his passion for fast cars...
He is, and he infected a lot of other people...

A lot of musicians claim that Epitaph is completely different from other labels...
That's true. What I really like about it is that a lot of the people there are musicians. They're working for the label, but they're still playing gigs. It's not run like a business, it's more run like friends and partners who are working together. They're one of the few labels who give artists time to grow.

Between Big Time [1988] and Bone Machine [1992] were four years. Then you released The Black Rider [1993] one year later, but it was another six years until Mule Variations...
Well, yes. I guess I took my time.

What was the reason behind writing new songs now?
I think it's always the same reason. There's only one reason why you write new songs: You get sick of the old songs. It's not that I didn't do anything during the time when I wrote no songs. I was creative, but in another way. I had ideas for songs and collected the ideas.

Did you use all ideas?
No, of course not. Sometimes I didn't even use the songs I wrote. Sometimes we recorded as much as four or five different versions of one song before I decided that I wouldn't use it.

How do you view your old songs? Are they a part of you, or are you sick of them?
It's different. Some songs became a part of me and some just don't fit anymore, like an old sweater or a pair of pants you've outgrown. You hardly ever know what's going to happen with a song and how you'll feel about it in ten years time.

Are you going on tour?
I think I will. I might go on tour, do a few shows(1), but I'm not really a fan of touring. It's just so inconvenient. You're far away from home. You're wasting a lot of time sitting around waiting. When I was young - oh well, younger - I toured a lot. I lived out of my suitcase, but now that I have a home, kids, a family, it's different. I guess I'm getting old.

You're always the strange character in a movie. Is that what suits you best?
I think I get type-casted. A lot of actors are trying to avoid that. They're trying to avoid getting pinned down as always the villain, the cop, the pimp... But I'm not a real actor. I don't care.

May 1999


(1) I might go on tour, do a few shows: Waits would go on tour (promoting Mule Variations) from June 1999 to May 2000. June 09, 1999 being the premiere of the tour (Paramount Theatre, Oakland/ USA). Further reading: Performances