Title: The Deep End Interview
Picture: Vickie Kerrigan, 2004
The Deep End Interview
Vickie Kerrigan (November 2, 2004): "We're gonna give you another opportunity right now to hear Tom Waits in full flight. He is a bit of a stayer Tom Waits he is, he's been writing and recording songs for over 30 years. And he's one of those artists who successfully operates outside commercial parameters. Tom Waits has now released his 20th album which is called Real Gone. And here in The Deep End I was extremely lucky to be offered one of only two radio interviews(1) he agreed to do for this new album. And we had such a response to this interview the first time we played it, we thought we'd give you another opportunity to have a listen. But before we get into the conversation, let's just enjoy some of the music this man creates. This is a track from 1987 of the album Franks Wild Years, the song is called Way Down In The Hole. Tom Waits."
"Down In The Hole" (studio version)
Vickie Kerrigan (November 2, 2004): "An oldie but a goodie from Tom Waits. Way Down In The Hole. We're talking about Tom Waits tonight because he's just released his 20th album. And of course in between writing and recording his own music Waits is an actor, most recently appearing alongside Iggy Pop in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. He also composes scores for theatre and movie soundtracks... I don't know if you remember but there was the absolutely haunting soundtrack to Dead Man Walking? Which of course was composed by Tom Waits(2). Tom Waits, his music has pushed us to our aural limits. From the confessional country blues he started out singing when he first released his album in 1973 to the avant-garde musical theatre he swings towards today. And at the heart of most of his work is the piano, but not this time around. Real Gone has no piano, so I started by asking him why."
TW: Uhm I don't know. You know I brought the piano in there, just never used it you know? My theory is, if you don't bring it with you, you know you're gonna need it. But sometimes if you, you know, the stuff that you bring you don't necessarily use in the studio. Seemed to look out just fine without it so we kept it out.
"How's It Gonna End" (studio version)
VK: On a lot of the tracks there's a real kind of mechanical sound and then there's a Latino kind of Salsa sound. And then an almost Enio Moricone style guitar. I mean that's my impression, but maybe you can describe the record a little better for me in your own words, cause sometimes it's not really good for a journalist to put poison into a musician's mouth.
TW: Well, you know some of them are kinda like incantations, talking in tongues. It's hard to say what it is all together, you know there is some mechanical stuff, there is some... Some songs are like contraptions. You know, you build them and then if you got one that you can't use, sometimes you just cut it up and use it for bait, you know? To catch other songs. And uh you might just use the title, you might just you know eh, heck you might just, I don't know, you know use the bridge. You know some come out of the ground like a potato and some of them you gotta make out of wood you know. It's always different you know?
VK: (laughs) I heard you use the potato euphemism before in interviews to describe making a song. Can you explain that a little bit for me?
TW: Well, you know, I mean songs just grow, you know and then there are (... ? ...) Some of them are growing in you like a tumour. You know. I mean really, when you think about it, pearls are really just tumours, you know. That formed inside the oyster. So you could very easily tell a woman that you really like her tumours, you know, in reference to her pearls. Those are some of the most beautiful laces of tumours I've ever seen! So I don't know, what where we talking about?
VK: (laughs) You were talking about potatoes as songs.
TW: Oh okay. Yeah well songs grow. You want something living. You know, uh on record. That's the whole idea. You're trying to... you know, you wanna be dancing while there's nobody watching. And have a certain kind of wildness to it. But yeah, kids write hundreds of them every day and throw em away. So, you know, we get all precious about it you know. What is that about?
VK: What IS that about?
TW: I don't know maybe it's just eh. You know it's an over inflated sense of importance about oneself and ones products. (laughs)
VK: You say you don't have that feeling about the works that you do. I mean you've been doing this work for a very long period of time? And I mean, you know everybody that I know holds you in very high esteem.
VK: Do you feel the work that you do is important. That it's sacred?
TW: Gee I don't know if it's sacred, but you know it's, after a while it kinda becomes part of the cycle, you know, that you're on and, you know, uh becomes part of what you do, you know.
VK: On the new album Real Gone there are a couple of tracks, when I was listening to it, where I just started to think about the black American singers recorded by Alan Lomax in the prisons and plantations in Southern America in the 30s and 40s?
TW: Oh yeah.
VK: Had you been listening to those Lomax recordings or, because it really struck me I just kinda went, I mean your voice is so distinctive but there are a couple of tunes where I say: "Wow, it really seems to be very similar to some of those Lomax recordings".
TW: Well, hey I'm very happy that all that, it has finally been released. You know, I mean, that's all the Library of Congress Recordings and Smithsonian recordings. I'm glad they're out there, folks can hear them, you know. And it becomes part of your education, you know. And I think it's... Yeah, they're like relics. You know, a lot of the... the fact that it was recorded outside I think just added to the mythology of it and the equipment was very crude. And part of the charm and the sound and the feel of the music is in the fact that the equipment was very crude, because the equipment is part of the story itself. I becomes part of the music, you know.
VK: So did you say that you had recorded some of the tracks of Real Gone outside?
TW: No, we recorded some in the bathroom. You know we started... you know like everybody...
VK: Not everybody records their songs in the bathroom.
TW: No, no I mean you find a room that sounds good. You know, it may be the bathroom, it may be the kitchen, you know. It may be a store room or something. I think I like the rooms that weren't designed as studios cause, just like I like certain sound sources, unusual sound sources that become experimental musical instruments you know, because... Yeah it's great, if you go to a hardware store and buy a can you know or a bucket or you know and then you bring it home and you hit it you know, you're also giving that bucket an opportunity to be in show business.
VK: That's very true. There's an amazing busker in Melbourne where I live. He's a street busker and on the street on a certain street corner every day you can see him he is playing ice cream containers. He's drumming on ice cream containers. He make's a fantastic sound with those ice cream containers.
TW: Yeah. I'll bet. There's a guy on Times Square that does that. You know, I think that there must be a network of them. Maybe he saw the guy in New York and said: "Hey I can do it down here, I'm the only one!"
"Top Of The Hill" (studio version)
Vickie Kerrigan: "You're in the Deep End tonight, on ABC Radio National. And I'm speaking with Tom Waits about his latest album Real Gone."
VK: You said that you recorded these tracks in the bathroom. It was just the vocals that you recorded first? Did you record them a-capella in the bathroom first?
TW: Yeah, just tryin to make mouth rhythms you know and (Pfooshh-Ah, Pfooshh-Ah-Ah, Pfoosh-Ah) you know? My little rhythmic incantations. We couldn't really replicate them in the studio, so we just used the crude sounds themselves and then built around them yeah.
VK: Well but, yeah, that sounds amazing on the record.
"Top Of The Hill" (studio version)
VK: You were once quoted as saying, Tom Waits, that you wrote new songs because you were sick of the old ones.
VK: Is that still the case?
TW: I don't know any other reason! You know. I mean uh yeah, you know when it's time to make a bunch of new ones because you're tired of the old tunes, you know. I mean, they made that way
VK: There's a song on the new album, it's called Day After Tomorrow. And it was a song, that I understand, you contributed to a compilation album(3) that supports the change of government in America?
TW: Alright yeah. You know I have to be careful about that, cause I've been told that certain things I can and cannot say about that. The government, with regard to that recording and the money that it will generate, and what do they use it for, and all this...
VK: Are you serious? Who told you that, that you can't talk about it?
TW: Oh no, I mean not talking about the song, it's just that it's an organization that... the money is being used, it's a political thing. So there are certain restrictions on how you can discuss it in the press.
VK: I can't imagine Tom Waits ever agreeing to being censored or being...
TW: Oh no, this is... I just read that, just today you know. So I haven't really finished... I haven't really absorbed it so you know. But I can talk about the song you know.
VK: Well the song itself is about a soldier?
TW: Well, yeah, it's a letter home you know. From a soldier, yeah.
VK: And it's a song I suppose that, you know, that is right for the times. I mean in Australia and in America there are people who are still in Iraq?
TW: Yeah right. And I've got kids that are draft age. And it's a troubling time we are all living through. You know, it was written to try and be a song about the civil war or Vietnam war. Just war you know, a war song you know. So that's the level we were trying to do you know, yeah.
"Day After Tomorrow" (studio version)
VK: Look, you mentioned you have children who are draft age, and you've worked a lot with your wife Kathleen Brennan. She works closely with you on this album. And also your son Casey appears on the new album.(4)
TW: Yeah, yeah, he's on there.
VK: Is that important for you, to work with family?
TW: Well (laughs), yeah. I mean it's kind of a family business I guess around here. So it's good you know. He got paid, you know. He wasn't just doing it because like we were going on a family trip.
VK: But you wouldn't have him on an album if he wasn't any good. He's a percussionist.
TW: He's a drummer and a percussionist yeah. So, it was good. The spread in ages was good. Because there was... Yeah, my bass player(5), I don't know, he's in the 60's and Casey is 18, it was a good balance you know. But you know kids, you know, mostly your exposure to younger music is through your kids you know.
VK: So what does Casey listen to?
TW: Oooh, Aesop Rock and El-P and Sage Francis and you know. All kinds of really obscure hip hop mostly you know. That's his world and... So you know it was a collaboration on some of the songs that went pretty good. You know it's like cooking, you know you try and see if it works. You know.
VK: Do you cook?
TW: Do I cook? I make a few things pretty good.
VK: What do you make?
TW: You know, mostly I make chicken. (laughs). You know I'm really good with chicken. (laughs) And uh you know, everybody likes my chicken. They get me involved when we're having chicken. If we're not having chicken, I can forget about it, I'm not allowed.
VK: Are you a roast chicken man, or do you prefer pastes, breast or thigh?
TW: Well gee I, you know, I dig a hole out in the yard and, you know, I build a fire and the whole thing and... It's kinda famous around here, around the family.
VK: You have a big old barbecue chicken out in the back or something?
TW: Well, yeah. First you have to catch the chicken, then you have to cut its head off, you know, and then you have to take all the feathers off and, you know. So you start at the beginning, you know.
VK: (laughs) Are these your chickens from your own backyard? Are you serious when you're saying this?
TW: I think it was my chicken, or you know, if it's not I have a very unhappy neighbour you know? I think you can make parallels between different disciplines you know. Eh, whatever, if it's work on a car you know or fix the TV or building a fire. You know, my wife, she can take a truck engine apart and spread it out on a blanket you know, then put the whole thing back together you know. She does all kinds of stuff.
VK: She sounds like an amazing woman. Your wife, I've heard you talk about her in the past. And I suppose I'm kinda interested in talking to you about muses. I'm wondering if she is your muse, or if you find inspiration in other places.
TW: Oh, yeah. Well sure yeah, she is my muse you know. She's like a flamingo, you know. And she's quite something. You know when you write songs together it's kinda like shooting off firecrackers you know. You hold it and I'll light it and you throw it. Actually my dog wants to eat fireworks. It's the only dog... most dogs around here, I mean on the 4th of July shooting of firecrackers, some of them run away for 4 days. But not my dog. He will try and eat the fireworks as they're going off, you know. And I don't understand why, I think he thinks that firecrackers are just light, uh generated by water... at night. That's what water looks like at night. (laughs)
VK: Do you really think the dog is thinking that much? Or is the dog just attracted to the sparkle?
TW: I think they do something probably much more important than thinking.
TW: I think thinking is highly overrated.
"Circus" (studio version)
Vickie Kerrigan: "This is The Deep End on Radio National. My name is Vickie Kerrigan and tonight we're speaking with Tom Waits about his latest album called Real Gone."
VK: Tom Waits, your voice is so distinctive, and I'm definitely not the first person to have said that to you, I know that, but did it come from smoking too many cigarettes? Or drinking too much Whiskey? Or did it happen as a teenager, your voice broken, all of a sudden you started talking they way that you speak?
TW: Well when I was a little kid I wanted to be an old man. That was all I wanted to do. As I remember I wanted to be an old man when I was like... 13. So, I don't know where that came from, it just... I was compelled to speak in a lower voice. I even... I had a cane and a hat and I listened to old men's music and you know... Just that, as long as I could bypass that whole teenage thing. All this rebellion and let's just cut right to the old age, you know. So I had...
VK: Do you still look forward to being an old man?
TW: No, not now! See, I skipped all that and now I'm going back and picking up my teens now. I'm living upside down. So now I, you know, I jump out of airplanes, and I, you know, fall asleep on the beach. You know, I hold up liquor stores. You know, I do a 120 on the freeway. So, I'm getting it all done, but I'm just, I'm dyslexic and everything's out of sequence. So...
VK: Do you really hang out at the beach?
TW: Well you know the beach is different... I don't like the beach culture. Around where I live, the beach doesn't look like a beach. You know, nobody is out there and it looks like the end of the world. You know. So I like that better. You know, no ice cream or bikinis or skateboards. You know it just kinda looks like... I don't know. It's more of a rough coast around here. The seagulls, the dog and the shovel and you know, dig around, see what you can find.
VK: What's your dog called?
TW: What's my dog's name?
VK: Oh... Any reason for "Bob"?
TW: No he came to that, when I said that name he came to me. So we kept the name, and it must have been his name and he must have known it. "Bob! Come here Bob!" And he came! (laughs)
"Shake It" (studio version)
VK: Tom Waits, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. I have just a couple more questions that I'd like to run past you. Uhm we're talking to you because you just released a new album called Real Gone. It will be out in October, and you've been quoted as saying that when you make music you don't change your clothes for months at a time. Is that true?
TW (laughs) Eh..., that's a good one! Where did you hear that?
VK: I think I actually found it, you said it to Roberto Benigni in an interview that you did with him(6).
VK: Did you make it up?
TW: No. actually I have to admit that, yeah I have gone, you know long periods of time without changing. Eh, it doesn't make me very popular at home. But it helps me organize, you know where my things are, my keys... I know where everything is. But, I don't know, I think there's probably a lot power in that. Everyone has some kind of ritual or something that they do that is peculiar.
VK: Well in the interview that I read, where you said this to Roberto Benigni. He told you the story about Michelangelo not washing while he painted the Sistine Chapel.
TW: Oh, yeah I remember that. Well, you know, I guess your clothes are kinda like your skin and you know, your clothes have a certain amount of power. Because they've come in contact with you. You know, I mean like when they're looking for somebody, and they give the dog a little smell of the guy's shirt an he goes of, you know, into the woods looking for him... or they use it as voodoo and you know.
VK: Do you have any other rituals that you subscribe to when you're making music?
TW: Nothing very unusual. Except that I keep different hours and I write things down on my hands. And I sing into a tape recorder in the car for... Hey, you're asking for the trade secrets here!
VK: I am! I know, I'm sorry.
TW: I get my own thing. I'm the albino catfish, you know, in the lake for a long time. I'm getting bigger and I ain't been caught.
VK: Please don't ever let them catch you! Look reading interviews that you've done. I have to say, very often your story changes. Do you get tired of doing interviews? Or more precisely I think the question I wanna ask you is: do you start just making stuff up, do you just start telling stories to keep yourself entertained during these interviews?
TW: Hey look: "Anything you can think of is true"(7). Anything you think of. Somebody else told me: "Always answer the question you wish that you thought, that you'd wished they'd asked you." (laughs) Answer that question!
VK: Tom Waits, a real honour speaking to you. And thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.
TW: Okay, okay goodnight.
VK: Oh no! I need to... one more question! Eh, you haven't toured for years but I read a rumour just today(8) actually that you might be heading to London to play a few gigs. Any chance...
TW: Yeah, we're playing over there. Somewhere. Amsterdam, Berlin, London.
VK: And any chance you'll come to Australia?
TW: I don't know, we've been talking about it. I don't know. I really don't know at this point, you know. I'm not really, I'm kinda grumpy on the road, so I don't go out for very long. It makes me too cranky you know. I'm gonna play some shows somewhere.
VK: Well if you could come to Australia we would love to have you here.
VK: And I do hope to see you soon and once again congratulations on Real Gone it's an amazing piece of work
TW: Oh thanks a lot, we'll see you down there.
Vickie Kerrigan: "Hope so. Haven't heard anything more on that, but hopefully Tom Waits will actually make his way down to Australia to perform some of the music that we've loved for so long. You're in the Deep End tonight on ABC on Radio National. Vickie Kerrigan here, his new album is called Real Gone and this song is Hoist That Rag "
"Hoist That Rag" (studio version)
(1) One of only two radio interviews: the other Australian interview being Waiting Game: Sydney Morning Herald
(2) Which of course was composed by Tom Waits: The soundtrack for Dead Man Walking was not composed by Tom Waits. Waits did however contribute two tracks to the Dead Man Walking CD (Dead Man Walking: music from and inspired by the motion picture, Sony/ Columbia 1996).
(3) Contributed to a compilation album: Future Soundtrack For America (various artists). August, 2004. Label: Barsuk (sponsored by MoveOn.org). TW contribution: "Day After Tomorrow" (first release)
(4) Your son Casey appears on the new album: Casey Xavier Waits played on the 4-track album 'Hold On' (1999). Drums and co-writer ("Big Face Money"). The album 'Real Gone' (2004). Turntables (Top Of The Hill, Metropolitan Glide), Percussion (Hoist That Rag, Don't Go Into That Barn), Claps (Shake It), Drums (Dead And Lovely, Make It Rain). Production crew. Casey also stepped in a couple of times for Andrew Borger (drums) during the Mule Variations Tour (Congresgebouw, The Hague/ The Netherlands. June 21, 1999)
(5) My bass player: Larry Taylor was born: June 26, 1942. Brooklyn, NY/ USA
(6) You said it to Roberto Begnini in an interview that you did with him: Friends: Roberto Benigni by Tom Waits
(7) Anything you can think of is true: quoting from Everything You Can Think Of is true (Alice, 2002)
(8) I read a rumour just today: First information on the 2004 Real Gone tour was August 4, 2004 (Anti.com)