Title: Tom Waits '99 Q&A
Source: ATN (Addicted To Noise) Coverstory, by Gil Kaufman and Michael Goldberg. Photography by: Jay Blakesberg, Michael Goldberg, Marina Chavez, Anton Corbijn. Transcription as published on Addicted To Noise
Date: Petaluma. April, 1999
Key Words: Mule Variations, Kathleen, Creative process, Recording technique, Buzz Fledderjon, Musical influences, What's He Building?, Primus


Tom Waits '99 Q&A


Real estate, it's been said, is about three things: location, location, location. Music, Tom Waits says, is also about three things: location, location, and being able to piss outdoors (in other words, location).

Waits chooses to emphasize this last point prior to our interview at the Prairie Sun studios in Northern California (it was here that Waits recently recorded his first album of new material in more than six years). Following a growled yet polite greeting, Waits, who is seated in a cramped control room of one of the ramshackle buildings on the former chicken farm, suggests a change of location. His jeans drooping under the weight of some mysterious objects in his pockets, Waits grabs a handful of pretzels, ambles out into the sunshine, and makes a natural pit stop.

Like most of his 30-year career, the move is unconventional, unexpected, brash, a bit rough around the edges and, yes, a tad odd.

But then the 49-year-old Waits has built a career around such oddities -- another of which is his tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that Waits has often been the wrong person in the wrong body, a persona more than a person, really. He's built his character around a cracked-china voice, a porkpie hat, a hint of a goatee and a sense of sartorial and musical style stuck somewhere between the baroque social commentary of playwright Bertolt Brecht, beat poet Jack Kerouac, and late poet/ author Charles Bukowski.

Waits is the kind of artist who's likely to answer a question with a question. Ask him about the boastful protagonist on the clattering, shouted blues of his new album's opening track, "Big In Japan," and the singer/songwriter might question your intentions.

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with being big in Japan. It's OK, at least he's big somewhere," Waits says, his voice somewhere north of hoarse and miles south of mellifluous.
"If he really is big," Waits' interrogator wonders, "Doesn't that come into question too?"
"He's got the whole damn nation on its knees!," Waits shoots back, citing a line from the song.
"That's what he says," the interrogator says.
"Well, I don't know," Waits demurs. He fiddles with his reading glasses, pauses a beat, the gears clearly turning. "Are you calling him a liar? Now I have to defend him? What is this? Is this a tribunal? Or a deposition? What's going on here?"

The collection of songs was co-produced and written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and features collaborations with a number of Waits' longtime sidemen. Among the returning musicians are avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, horn player Ralph Carney, drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist Greg Cohen and guitar player Joe Gore, as well as new collaborators Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel and Primus bassist/ singer Les Claypool.

Waits' alliance with arty rocker Claypool continues the relationship begun when Waits added his voice to the character of "Tommy The Cat" on Primus' 1991 album Sailing the Seas of Cheese. Claypool returned the favor by playing bass on "Big in Japan," the contentious, clattering, greasy blues track that opens Mule Variations.

Wearing the poker face of a bemused observer, Waits peppers his conversation with outrageous tidbits he swears are true and banal half- truths you wouldn't even think to question. He talks lovingly about a childhood neighbor named Buzz who was 6'9" and had no fingernails. "She was wild," he croaks with an innocent arch of his eyebrows. About his wife he says, "She's an excellent pianist, opera buff and bug collector. She was an elevator operator at the Taft Hotel [in Los Angeles]; that's where we met."

Looking around the main recording room at Prairie Sun, you begin to feel what it is about this place that appeals to Waits -- besides the outdoor plumbing, of course.

The main space is referred to by Prairie Sun staffers as "The Waiting Room." It's a square, barren concrete bunker, perfect for dragging the odd piece of metal across the floor to create just the right kind of clatter. An adjacent room is an explosion of brilliant color. Filled with various instruments and amps, the room's ceiling and walls are hung with random rectangles of spray-painted cardboard featuring vaguely agrarian themes. In the entrance hallway there's a dusty soda machine and the skeleton of an early-'80s video game. Nearby is a room that contains a lonely vintage keyboard strewn with empty lyric sheets. There's also the gnarled bit of driveway just outside the door that was so inviting.

At various times Waits has asked his band members to drag their instruments outside and try tracking a few things. This is a man who is comfortable with relocation, as one would expect, given the fact that his career has taken Waits to some unexpected places.

It all began with the 1973 album Closing Time, a suite of ballads about lost and troubled love that was wholly out of place at a time when bombastic rock by bands such as Led Zeppelin was king. Unlike his later works, Waits' voice was on the grizzled side of angelic on his first album, which is perhaps why he says he can't listen to it anymore: "It's like looking at pictures of yourself with big ears," he says.

Waits spent the rest of the '70s dodging the musical trends of disco -- then punk -- with similarly anachronistic albums such as The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Nighthawks At the Diner (1975) and Small Change (1976), all of which found Waits slouching deeper into the whiskey and cigarette-voiced troubadour persona he would come to be defined by.

By the early '80s Waits had taken a turn into a dark, noisy direction from which he never seems to have returned. His mid-'80s albums -- Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank's Wild Years (1987) -- reveled in a dramatic world of dissonance and down-and-out characters, a world that was fully realized on Waits' Grammy-winning 1992 album, Bone Machine.

And so, we give you Tom Waits. (Not so) full of piss and vinegar, evasive one moment, effusive the next, talking about life, love, maturity, mysteriously overgrown lawns, fishing with Primus, the sound of metal stools scraping concrete, and the ugly shirt his stepfather gave him that doomed the singer to a life of showbiz.


Addicted To Noise's Gil Kaufman: It's been a while since your last studio album. What motivated you to make another one?
Tom Waits: Gotta pay the rent. [laughs] I don't know. It's kind of like fishing. There's fish out there and just 'cause you're not fishing doesn't mean there's not fish out there. You can go out and go fishing anytime you feel like it. [laughs]

Kaufman: Is that what the songwriting process is for you, bringing in the fish, so to speak?
Waits: I guess so, something like that.

Kaufman: So, in other words, two years ago, you could have said, 'Now's the time.'
Waits: I've been in traffic school, so I haven't been allowed to record.


Kaufman: Too many tickets between here and home?
Waits: Oh man. They put me on a pretty short leash, you know. [laughs]

Kaufman: Are these all recently written songs?
Waits: All completely reconditioned. New material. They've all been vacuumed.

Kaufman: It seems like a lot of the Mule Variations songs are sad tales. Is there a particular demon that has been on your mind and that came out in a lot of these songs?
Waits: No, I didn't really think they were sad songs.

Kaufman: You didn't think they were sad songs?
Waits: No, but if you think that they are, then I guess they are. For you, they're sad songs. But I didn't think of them as sad.

Addicted To Noise's Michael Goldberg: How were you thinking of them?
Waits: Just fresh material, a lot of fresh material. [laughs] I don't know. We wrote 25 [songs]. Sixteen of them made the record and the others go in the orphanage. You line up these guys and you tell them, 'OK, now go out and bring dad home some money.' [laughs] There's a relationship between the songs because they're written around the same period of time.

Kaufman: Which was when?
Waits: Summer. We recorded in the summer.

Goldberg: A line like "I'm on a black elevator going down"(1) is an incredibly strong opening to a song, but it's a very dark perspective.
Waits: Yeah.

Goldberg: That's where this idea of wondering about struggling with demons came from. That's a heavy way to be feeling for that character. Usually characters come out of somewhere from the writer.
Waits: The origin of songs is usually very different than anything you would probably imagine. They come from all kinds of places, not necessarily my songs. They're just songs. That one's all about the Battle of Hastings and Jacqueline Onassis and the whole thing that happened on the yacht and the fight in Tampa and the Cuban connection and ... .[laughs] The whole thing that went down between the princess of Monaco and she blackmailed the ... Do you know what I'm talking about? It's been all over the news. [laughs]

Goldberg: I missed that one.
Kaufman: I'm not familiar with that story.
Waits: Well, it's out now.

Kaufman: So it's sort of a historical piece?
Waits: A historical piece. It's all about the black plague and the 14th century. Wrong side of the road, low side of the road, everybody knows where the low side of the road is. You make that U-turn and you come back and your tires get stuck, and you keep spinning and spinning and spinning, and you wish you'd just kept going instead of stopping and trying to turn around. I don't know. It's one of those images. It can be about anything you want it to be about. Wherever the low side of the road is for you, whatever road you're on, whatever the low side of that road there is for you, that's what it's about, I guess.

Kaufman: Then you have a character like this guy in "Big In Japan." He seems like this guy who's bragging about all the things he has and all the things he doesn't have. He's trying to impress his buddies. He's got the sizzle but he doesn't have the steak. Who is that guy and what inspired you to write a song about that kind of character?
Waits: I don't know. He's just a goof. "I'm big in Japan, baby. Check it out."

Kaufman: You see a lot of people in the music business and elsewhere who are like that guy, who are always trying to impress people. It seems like you nailed that guy pretty well.
Waits: Well, there are people that are big in Japan and not necessarily anywhere else.

Goldberg: That's true.
Waits: Hey, there's nothing wrong with being big in Japan. It's OK. At least he's big somewhere.

Goldberg: If he really is big, doesn't that come into question too?
Waits: He's got the whole damn nation on its knees.

Goldberg: That's what he says.
Waits: Well, I don't know.


Waits: Are you calling him a liar? Now I have to defend him? What is this? Is this a tribunal? Or a deposition? What's going on here?


Kaufman: We're just trying to find out why this guy thinks he's so big in Japan.
Waits: Yeah, well ... You do a couple of Suntori whiskey commercials, you can be big in Japan.

Kaufman: What about a song like "Georgia Lee"? You've done a lot of stuff in Hollywood, you've had quite a few movie roles. That song has a real cinematic feel to it. Do you perceive songs like that? Did you see that song before you wrote it, before you sang it?
Waits: Hmm. No, not really. There was a big article in a paper up here about a gal who had been kidnapped and was found murdered in the trees off the freeway. It was a sad story. So we wrote it about her and about what happened. It was a really sad story.

Kaufman: When you say we wrote it, I imagine you're talking about you and Kathleen [Brennan]?
Waits: Yeah, me and my wife, we wrote it together. We wrote most of the songs together, a complete collaboration. The writing and arranging and production and everything else. It was good.

Kaufman: Had you done that before, that complete a collaboration?
Waits: We've been working together since Swordfishtrombones, at one level or another. We're kind of a mom-and-pop liquor store.

Goldberg: How has collaborating with her, do you feel, changed your work, changed your art? Obviously you did many years worth of stuff before that.
Waits: Well, it's been good, it's really been good. She has these dreams like [Dutch Renaissance painter] Hieronymous Bosch(2). I write more from the paper or from the things I see around me. She's done a lot of things. She's an excellent pianist and opera buff and bug collector. She [was] an elevator operator at the Taft Hotel; that's where we met. We were married in Watts in '79. We've been together a long time. So yeah, we've been collaborating on various things. It's been good, it's been great really.

Goldberg: My perception is that your music took a big leap forward when you began to collaborate with her.
Waits: Yeah. She's the brains behind Pa. [laughs] Is that what you're getting at?

Goldberg: No. I'm just getting at that you were inspired. I don't know because I've never seen how you used to work. It seemed like you were inspired.
Waits: Yeah, she's the one that gave me a good swift kick in the pants, I'd say. I'd say up to that point, I was looking to see my head on somebody else's body. She said let's check this out. She has a lot of diverse influences. You try to reconcile the fact that you like Collapsing New Buildings and Skip James and Elmer Bernstein and Nick Cave and Beefheart and Eric Satie and all this stuff that you don't know what to do with. I guess it was her that gave me the notion that you can find some reconciliation between these things that you like. That was the beginning, and we've been working together since then.

Kaufman: Do you think the collaboration took your music in a direction that it otherwise wouldn't have gone in?
Waits: Oh, definitely. Plus collaborating, you have to give and take, you wrestle with things a lot. But ultimately, you have to come to the notion that somehow the combined energy of both of you working on something is greater than working on something individually. It's good working in the studio with her. She's got great ears. It's been really good.

Kaufman: You said she's an opera buff. It seems like your music took a turn, especially in the '80s, in a Bertolt Brecht direction. Had you incorporated those influences prior to that?
Waits: Well, you look for your place in it all. It's kind of like cooking. Is it soup yet? You wait for it to be soup. You wait for it to be something other than the individual ingredients. And that part, you kind of have to wait. Then you're creating a collage of things for awhile, just tearing the heads off dolls. But then it gets more developed as you go, I guess.

Kaufman: The new album has this really gritty, very real feeling to it. It's very immediate and in some songs, it almost seems like you're so close to the microphone you're really right in someone's face. It's a contrast to a lot of what goes on in music today. Does that come naturally to you, to give it that immediate, gritty feel?
Waits: Gee, I don't know. You're not really sure what you're doing when you start and you figure it out on the way. You find some kind of a motif. You record one song and you may end up doing seven or eight versions of the same song. You've got the cha-cha version, spoken word, a little Cuban thing, you record it inside, you record it outside. I did want it to have somewhat of a field recording mood to it 'cause I love those Library of Congress tapes. I always loved the fact that they were grainy documents of raw music. When they record kids' jump-rope songs and the kids are like, 'Oh, why do you want to record this for?' Like the stuff you hang on your refrigerator and somebody wanting to publish it. I think what I like about recording is before someone's learned a song or they think they know the song and they're, 'Ah, I know what you're looking for on this.' I don't like it when it gets to that point. I like it when you still try to discover what it is. That's the exciting place for a song for me, when it's completely undeveloped and raw and could go in five different directions. What's he building in there? We try to do that as a song over and over and over. It wouldn't work as a song. I just spoke the words and the whole thing came together.

Kaufman: There's one song that feels like a field recording. It's almost like there are crickets in the background. Was that done outside?
Waits: No, right in here, just set up a whole bunch of instruments. I work with really great engineers. They don't make value judgments. If you bring a strange ... you can bring something from a ditch that you found on the way to the studio, they'll put it in the room and circle it like it's a moonrock. They'll tap on it with a hammer. They're like scientists that way, and I like that. Everything is a potential instrument, it depends on how you use it. I remember I was doing Swordfishtrombones and somebody took a stool -- a metal stool -- and started dragging it across the studio floor to move it out of the way. And I said, "That's really thrilling. Do that again and abundantly and carefully and repeatedly, please." It sounded like bus brakes on a big city bus. So I like things that fall outside of the spectrum of what we consider traditional instruments and acceptable sound. I love all that.

Goldberg: What was the first time you did that? When did you suddenly go, 'Yeah, I can use this for a sample. It doesn't have to be a guitar or a piano.'
Waits: Probably Swordfishtrombones. My wife and I used to make multitrack recordings at home. And we'd take two pawn-shop tape recorders and we'd do a song on one. Right away you want to hear some other part, so she would just hold the two tape recorders up together and bounce it over to the other tape recorder and get the two tracks going. And sometimes surprising intervals and textures took place just because of how raw the thing was. Then I read something about John Lennon -- that's what he used to do. We thought, 'This is crazy,' but we'd play it for people apologetically and we would say, 'This is really ragged and ignore that part,' but now I know that John Lennon did it.

Goldberg: A little stamp of approval.
Waits: Yeah. Most musicians that I know are not technically inclined and I am one of those. Some of these things are born of my limitations.

Goldberg: I think what Gil's trying to get at about the realness of this record is ... To me, it sounds like a Howlin' Wolf record. I don't mean literally. It sounds like that kind of power and grittiness. You feel like your hands can get dirty in it. It's not like the complete opposite, like a Celine Dion or something that's studio-slick pop where they were seeing dollar signs as they made it.
Waits: Gee, we were going for that Celine Dion sound. You just about hit me in the jaw there with that remark because I thought we really captured that. Well, it seemed to be the right way to go on this record. I like to scratch things up. But still, you can't just distress the surface of a song. You have to start with a good song and then you can do whatever you want with it. What was the question?

Goldberg: We just wanted to get you to talk a little bit about what you're after when you're making these records.
Kaufman: A lot of artists will say, 'I want to go to the [Record Plant] and I don't want any extraneous sound and I want to be able to hear a pin drop.'
Waits: Yeah, but don't you know the standard request of the day now is, 'Let's go outside and record this in the driveway with a bad microphone?'


Kaufman: Well maybe around here.
Waits: Don't you know that's what everyone is asking for now? You've got to get with it. They're like stone-washed jeans; everybody's wearing them.

Kaufman: You did take it outside on this record, set up in the driveway. Is that something you've done before?
Waits: This is the first time we recorded outside. We had another song we recorded outside. It was a song about my neighbor when I was a kid. She was about 6'9" and had no fingernails. She was wild. She had four boys and we wrote a blues song about Buzz. She was pretty amazing. Yeah, we set up outside for that. If it's right for it, then it works. If it's not, it doesn't work. You know right away if it's not working. Most blues people like the texture on a record. And the grit that's there through time and the limitations of that particular time become part of the charm of the record. I'm no different. I like 78s for that reason. I like something that sounds like it's trying to reach me from far away. I feel more connected to them. I feel more involved, like I'm trying to dial it in on a shortwave. I'm trying to help it get clearer. It's just what I like, it's not for everybody. [laughs]

Kaufman: Do you wish you'd been born in a different time, or do you sometimes feel like you're almost trapped in a different time?
Waits: I wish I'd been born.

Goldberg: Born in a different time?
Waits: No, I wish I'd been born. I was built.

Kaufman: From scratch?
Waits: From scratch, from things they found around the house. What was the question?

Kaufman: Do you wish you'd been born --
Waits: -- at a different time? No! I'm OK here. I'm fine with everything here, I'm all right. I don't wanna go back 100 years. Maybe I wanna go back for a day but I don't wanna go back there and live. I'm just fine where I am. Everything is really available to you. If you want to live in the cyberworld or if you want to live like they lived 100 years ago, you still can. You can go out and you can get on a freight train and you can be sitting by a campfire tonight if you want. Right? No one's telling you you can't do that. You can sleep under a bridge tonight if you want, you can sleep in your own backyard. You can go to outer Mongolia. Everything is here. It's like when they portray a particular period in the movies and all the cars are from the '50s and the clothes are from the '50s, but it's never really like that. There's people that are really forward-thinking, they're already in the next decade and beyond. Then there are people that are stuck 20 years ago and people that don't know who they are. Then there are people that are a combination of all three. I don't wanna go back. If I did go back, I'd go back for a day, maybe get a coffee, then come back. Meet Albert Einstein, that's what I'd like to do.

Kaufman: And teach him how to get the sound off a stool when you drag it across the floor?
Waits: Yeah, right.

Kaufman: You've always sort of had this voice. We were talking about this gritty sound to this album. You've always had this voice that sounds like a guy who's been around to see a lot of living. Your life is populated by people like Buzz, who's 6'9" and has no fingernails. Not a lot of people have seen that kind of a person. Is that your voice? Has that become your voice or was that always your voice?
Goldberg: On those earliest records, you sounded like you were so much wiser and beyond your years.
Waits: I can't listen to those earlier records -- I have a hard time listening to them

Kaufman: Why is that?
Waits: I don't know. It's like looking at pictures of yourself with big ears.

Goldberg: Junior high school.
Waits: Yeah, right. Look at that lame shirt. My stepfather, when I said I wanted to go into show business as soon as possible. At a certain point in my life, I realized I needed to get into show business immediately and that was the only hope for me. And my stepfather gave me this shirt. It was just amazing. It was about 20 shades of lime. There were sequined parts of it, then there would be this whole paper mache area, then strange sleeves, like seven buttons around, different shapes and colors, and big wide collar, like wings, a flap in the back and six pockets. It was really one of those shirts that you'll never see again. What was the question?

Goldberg: You were talking about needing to go into show business.
Waits: Get into show business. Yeah, you need a shirt like that if you're going to go into show business. You've got to have an outfit. I didn't have the heart to tell him it wasn't the way I was going. I was going a different way. But I hung onto the shirt for a long time. I might break it out, maybe it's time.

Kaufman: Could be. Maybe it's back in vogue.
Waits: I don't think it ever was. It was just the strangest thing.

Goldberg: Are you saying that Tom Waits started out as a character that you grew into?
Waits: I don't know. I'm a lounge act. I'm a bad lounge act.

Kaufman: Yeah, but bad lounge acts go away and you've obviously kept the act going.
Waits: And become big in Japan.

Kaufman: Is this ...

Goldberg: Wait I ...
Waits: He wants to dig in this area. OK, you wanna dig.

Goldberg: No. I just want to know a little bit about the voice, the Tom Waits voice. Was it just there from day one?
Waits: No, no, no. No, I screamed into a pillow for years trying to get it to do this. 'Don't do that, Tom, don't do that. It'll stay that way!' I don't know, it's still growing.

Goldberg: Just lucky.
Waits:: Just lucky I guess.

Kaufman: I've talked to other singers. There was a guy I was talking to one time who was saying that he used to smoke a lot of cigarettes and he used to really do everything you weren't supposed to do for your voice because he wanted to get that husky -- I don't know if he said 'Tom Waits' sound, he may have said that.
Goldberg: He probably said that.
Kaufman: And now he said, 'Shit, now I've got it. I can't fucking get rid of it. Now it won't go away.'
Waits: Don't cross your eyes or they may stay that way. I don't know. It's just my voice, that's all. It's my instrument.

Goldberg: It's amazing how expressive you are. We were talking about some of the lines on this album where if someone else sang them, you wouldn't believe them. But the way you deliver them ... like when you listen to Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters, you believe it.
Waits: Yeah. I love Howlin' Wolf. I love Muddy Waters. Seminal artists.

Kaufman: We were going to ask you about blues artists that you feel are the ones that are really meaningful to you.
Waits: Oh yeah. I don't know, I've got a list of them somewhere. [He looks through a notebook.]

Kaufman: Those are your notes?
Waits: You guys get notes. I don't get notes? When I first started listening, I made a crystal radio set when I was about 13. I remember listening to Johnny Horton, Floyd Cramer, Ray Charles. Then I found Wolfman Jack, forget about it, man. Love Wolfman.

Goldberg: You mentioned Skip James.
Waits: Sure. Yeah, yeah. Him and then ... Of course. Leadbelly. I listened to a lot of Leadbelly. See, Mike, if you listen to enough of it, you listen to everything. Some of these guys have an all- encompassing history -- you hear the history and a development of the music itself and through their own development, you hear the development of all of blues. That's what I listen for, to try and learn.

Goldberg: I was thinking about the very earliest John Lee Hooker stuff where he was using his foot for the percussion. He was playing an acoustic guitar that went through and around to get that sound, as I understand it anyway. I was thinking that here we are all these years later and Tom Waits is using stuff that's not normally associated with instruments for instruments.
Waits: Well, everything swings out and swings back. It has to. There was a time when electric guitar was very forward-thinking and very revolutionary. The idea of singing about an automobile was considered scary. That you would choose to sing about your car. Up to that point, everybody sang about animals. There were more songs with ponies in them and mules and horses and chickens and cows than there were airplanes or cars. So, I don't know. All this is still available. It's amazing with recordings you can still have a dialogue with someone who's been dead for 30 years and allow them to move you and affect you and influence you and change you, just from listening to a record. So that, in and of itself, I think, is a pretty remarkable thing about recording.

Kaufman: You signed this deal with Epitaph and they had these guys on Fat Possum like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford. Do you ever listen to those guys or were you aware of then before?
Waits: Yeah, it's pretty great.

Goldberg: That to me is the real thing.
Waits: [sings] "Going over that hill, going over that hill."(3) Those guys are pretty great.

Kaufman: Did it help you decide at all to do the deal with Epitaph?
Waits: Yeah, a little bit. With a label, it's your own relationship to begin with. People check out who else is on a label, you can't avoid that. I'm on a label, someone else might come along and say, 'Oh, Tom Waits, he's on there, maybe we'll check that out.' It's normal. But it's a good place. They're musicians. Brett Gurewitz engineers and still plays music. Andy Kaulkin [president of Epitaph Records] is a huge guy with massive hands who plays blues piano. He plays in blues bands. So I guess you trust that aspect of it. It's not like dealing with people from DuPont. It's a little more personable, and I like that.

Kaufman: Is it keeping with your style of doing things the way you want to do it that you're now on a label that's known for punk rock? In a lot of ways, what you do is -- setting up in the driveway is a punk- rock thing to do.
Waits: Oh really? Oh cool. All right.

Kaufman: Don't you think? I don't think Celine Dion sets up in the driveway.
Waits: But it's a real slow song. Punk rock's usually 160 beats a minute but I guess they needed a parental figure at the label. Me and Wayne Kramer(4).

Kaufman: You've done sporadic performing the last couple of years. Is there any particular reason why you haven't done a lot of live performances?
Waits: I break out. I don't know. It's a lot of headaches, it's a lot of variables and it's different every night. I don't know. I lived out on the road, I liked it out there, I lived in a motel, it was fine. You've got to bring your own coffee, you've got to bring your own coffee pot. I don't know. We're gonna go out and do some shows.

Goldberg: But you're not gonna do a year-long tour?
Waits: All sports facilities, nothing but sports facilities. Hockey arenas and rodeos, that's all we're doing.

Goldberg: Sheds, right? You're gonna do the shed tour.
Waits: We're gonna play in Buenos Aires, that's it, then we're gonna come home.


Kaufman: There's a lot of songs on this album that have these details like "stirring brandy with a nail" and "broken china voice."
Goldberg: Where did those two images come from?
Waits: I don't know. Stirring my brandy with a nail. Where did that come from? I don't remember. You just kind of go off.

Kaufman: Obviously you have a notebook -- do you jot down quick things all the time when things get to you?
Waits: Yeah, when I'm jotting. I'm in the salvage business basically, yeah. Simply. Trash day is my day, my favorite day. You ever catch somebody going through your trash? 'Hey, what're you doing out there?' All of a sudden, your trash starts to look a lot better just 'cause someone else is going through it.

Goldberg: Actually, someone was trying to collect my garbage because I was doing some investigative reporting.
Waits: Ah, yeah.

Goldberg: And I really think this record company had hired people. We looked out the window, we heard this sound and they had laid out this big plastic bag, dumped the trash in, put it in the back of the car and took off at, like, two in the morning.
Kaufman: So maybe you're that guy out there, you're going through stuff.
Waits: I'm gonna give you all that stuff back at the end of the year. End of April. End of the fiscal year.

Kaufman: Is that where "What's He Building?" came from? You're that guy out there going through the trash? Were you thinking about that guy doing that to you? Or is that you?
Waits: All of the above. Yeah.

Goldberg: That's kind of a scary song, actually.
Waits: It's about a tweaker. I don't know what it's about. Everybody is curious about their neighbors, right?

Goldberg: You've seen "Rear Window" obviously?
Waits: Right. What little they know about you, whoever your neighbors are, they have already designed a story about you. Wears those fatigue jackets, he's got the baseball cap with the wings on them but he's not in the service -- what the hell's going on? Drives that Valiant. Plays that crazy music all the time, sounds like Japanese stuff coming out of the window. We all do it, we all do it. You know three things about your neighbor, you can make a story, then you'll add to it as it develops. So. And we do feel as if we have the right to know what each of us is up to, right?

Kaufman: I keep coming back to this neighbor of yours, 6'9" with no nails.
Waits: Buzz?

Kaufman: And "Get Behind the Mule" you have these characters like Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, the Pock Mark Kid. You hear the name and immediately that image comes to mind, like this woman I can't get out of my head with no nails and 6'9". Is your life populated by those --?
Waits: What about 'em?

Kaufman: Who are they? Are they real people?
Waits: Yeah, they're all real people. Trade secret -- they're just folks, just plain folks. Read the paper, listen to the radio, look out the window, go to a cafe and eavesdrop. Correspond with people. It's just people I've come across in ... just names of people. Some I know, some I've heard of, some are famous blues guys from the '30s, some are people I used to go to school with all mixed together.

Kaufman: It certainly seems like you've met your fair share of odd characters. Do you seek those odd characters out? Or did they just flock to you for some reason?
Waits: No, I don't know if I seek them out necessarily. But we're all antennae for different things. I get some weird mail. A kid 9 years old wrote me a letter from a Michigan elementary school. He says, "I took one of your records to school, I got in big trouble. Would you fly out here and talk to my teacher?"

Kaufman: What record was it?
Waits: Small Change. He was really upset. He wanted me to represent him.

Goldberg: What's the toughest thing you've had to deal with in your life?
Waits: Oh, I don't know. Growing up myself, raising kids, being a grown-up, living in the real world, paying the bills, bringing home the groceries, having responsibilities.

Goldberg: So has that been hard to deal with, just dealing with responsibilities? As you got older?
Waits: No, it's very satisfying actually, very satisfying. There's a notion that artists are kind of impetuous and eccentric and irresponsible and unreliable. We have this kind of codependent relationship with artists and we allow them to be nuts and knocked out and coming home late and all that. I guess for a long time I've subscribed to all that. But I don't think that you have to be in order to ... Most people, I think, trust artists more that seem crazier. You trust the work more.

Kaufman: The Kurt Cobain role.
Waits: Yeah, right. Live hard, die young and leave a good- looking corpse(5).

Goldberg: But what you're saying is that you don't subscribe to that.
Waits: No, I don't think you have to, though. But I think most teenagers and most kids in their 20s believe that to be an artist, you're going to have to really dig all the way to China and come back with chow mein in your hair. [laughs] You're going to have to go to hell in a handbag. But I don't believe it. I think you can be creative and all that, but I think you can still be reliable. Those are big things for me. I've been married almost 19 years now and it's been the best thing I ever did. My wife's great, she's the best.

Goldberg: Did she help ground you?
Waits: Oh yeah, no question about it. Yeah.

Goldberg: Are you an optimist?
Waits: No, I dropped out of school after the first semester. [laughs]

Kaufman: No, not optometrist.
Waits: Oh, I thought you said optometrist. I thought you said ophthalmologist. I was an ophthalmologist.

Goldberg: The reason I ask you that is because there's a lot of characters in your songs who, even though their situations in some cases seems pretty bad, they have their dreams, they have their hopes.
Waits: Yeah, right. Barnum & Bailey had Sarah Bernhardt's leg on display for a couple of years. They had it in formaldehyde. There was a certain point where Sarah Bernhardt's leg was making more money than she was 'cause she was doing Shakespeare in bars. I don't know how that ties in, but help me.

Kaufman: We were talking about optimism.
Waits: There you go! And she stayed optimistic throughout in spite of the fact that her leg, her severed leg, was making more money than she was because they were charging like eight bucks to see it in the big glass case in the main tent. And she was bringing down like four bucks a night. For a while, she was very depressed. Then she started singing this little song. [sings] "Always look to the golden light ..." And it lifted her, it lifted her spirits. [laughs]

Kaufman: There's a sort of continuity. You were talking about those first albums, Closing Time and ... There's a lot of optimism in those songs, "Old 55" and "Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You." But there's a sadness to them too. They seem like characters who want to look on the bright side of life but keep getting kicked for whatever reason. Do you struggle to be optimistic? It seems like the characters are stuck in bad situations but they can always see the light even if they can't reach it.
Waits: Yeah, I think so.

Goldberg: You recorded some stuff with some of the Primus guys. How did that come about and do you think that stuff will come out? You did six tracks?
Waits: No, we did two songs on this record(7) .

Goldberg: But aren't there some other things too?
Waits: There's a bunch of songs left over. We had 25 songs recorded, only used 16. The rest of them are in the deep freeze. Those guys are great. I bought a fish off of them. I'd been fishing for three days, I hadn't caught a damn thing. They were going by in the next boat and I bought a barracuda off of them for six bucks and put it on my line so I could bring it home. So I didn't have to stop at the market, the humiliation of that. So we started collaborating and corresponding. I sang on "Tommy the Cat" on Sailing the Seas of Cheese. Yeah, they're good guys and fearless adventurers. They love adventure. They will play anything, they will do anything. They like the unusual and the bizarre, they're game, they got zeal. We did another song with them called "2:19."(8) It's about a train. We sawed a log in half and took the voomfa, voomfa sound and looped it. So we had voomfa, voomfa, which sounded like a train, like a steam-driven train. That song came out great but it didn't make the record.

Kaufman: You talk about how a lot of the songs are things you read in the paper or things that happen, like "House Where Nobody Lives." That's one of the ones that you actually wrote on your own on this album. You didn't collaborate with Kathleen. It seems so specific. It almost seems like it had to have been true. What changes a house where nobody lives with broken windows into a house that's more broken dreams, like it is in this song? What makes it worthy of a song other than just being a house that's broken down?
Waits: I don't know. Just you go by it everyday and wonder about it. I went by it everyday on the way to school.

Kaufman: When you were a kid?
Waits: Yeah. Over time, the weeds got higher and higher. First you think, 'They've got to mow that lawn, must be on vacation.' Weeds got higher and higher. Then I remember at Christmas time, all the neighbors were concerned about the house because it was like the bad tooth in the smile. And they strung some Christmas lights on it just to give it a little pep during the season. It was a soul tune, really. I really like that [Marc] Ribot guitar on there.

Kaufman: You've worked with Marc a lot.
Waits: I have, yeah.

Kaufman: That's a collaboration that seems to come up quite a bit. Are there certain people you feel comfortable calling up and asking if they want to collaborate?
Waits: Yeah. Greg Cohen, bass player, has been with me for a long time. Greg plays with all kinds of people now. He's excellent. We have a longstanding relationship and Greg plays percussion, he plays everything, he plays alto horn and guitar. I like multi- instrumentalists. Marc [Ribot] plays trumpet too. And he's got all these bizarre things he does to his guitar to give it that dental sound that I like so much.

Kaufman: And you also brought in Smokey Hormel. There's a couple instruments he plays on this record that I never heard of, the chumbus and dousengoni.
Waits: West African.

Kaufman: Did he bring those in?
Waits: He brought them in. He brought his own.

Goldberg: You reminded me when you said the weeds grew higher. You said, "Always keep a sapphire in your mind/ always keep a diamond in your mind/ never let the weeds get higher than the garden." I took that as, 'Don't let the bullshit get in the way of seeing the truth or the gems in life.'
Waits: There you go, yeah, sure. [laughs] You got it. Yeah, that sounds good.

Goldberg: What were you intending when you wrote that?
Waits: Just that, you got it, you hit it right on the head. You got the message.

Kaufman: There are a lot of lyrics on this record that if sung by somebody else might not have the same resonance as they do when Tom Waits sings them. "Take it with me when I go" is a time-honored phrase.
Waits: You can't take it with you. Well, everybody knows that we take a lot of things with us when we go. I think that we take a lot of things with us.

Kaufman: If someone else sang that it would sound like a cliche. But you've elevated it to a different level.
Waits: I don't know. It's all style, isn't it? It's all 70 percent what you're wearing and how you look and 20 percent the way you say it and 10 percent what you're saying. It's all how you put it together. You give the same lines of a movie to somebody and have them do it and the whole thing falls apart. You give them to somebody else and it lifts it, I don't know why. It's timing, how you deliver something. I like that song a lot. It's a love song.

Kaufman: It seems like you come up with a couple of those on every record. Again, it's that optimism, it's the optimism of a person ...
Waits: Of a cynic.

Kaufman: Exactly, the optimism of a cynic. We were trying to figure out a way to say that before. That's what it is. You still have that in you, it seems like you've always had that in you from Closing Time on. How do you keep that?
Waits: Therapy. I don't know how you do that. Most of us are skeptical about certain things or are waiting to be convinced of certain things. We're all evolving and we're all in process one way or another, right? Songs are really just containers that you put things in. Some songs you sing them once and you'll never sing them again. Other songs you sing it for years and still try to figure out what it is, what it means. Another time, you may hear a song that you haven't heard in 20 years and it may break your heart because you've changed. I heard "96 Tears" on the radio coming up here. Damn, that's a killer, man. ? and the Mysterians, and they still play in Central Park. And they're like in their 50s.

Kaufman: They're touring again, actually.
Waits: They're touring. I'm all for that. Actually, do you know how many tears it takes to fill up a teaspoon? One hundred and twenty-seven, actually.

Kaufman: You counted?
Waits: I counted when I was depressed but I was curious and I wanted to turn it into a project. I wanted to work toward something. I didn't want to just be down so I wept into a spoon and I counted the drops. There you go. One hundred and twenty-seven, you might want to put that down. [laughs]

Goldberg: Do you get a lot of satisfaction out of your life?
Waits: I do, yeah, I do.


Goldberg: Can you elaborate on that?
Waits: I can't elaborate on that. It would be unsatisfying for me to elaborate on that. Yes, I do get a lot of satisfaction in my life. I do.

Kaufman: Is it reflected in something like this album? Is that part of what gives you satisfaction?
Waits: It's satisfying to make a record. And once you come out and have the songs go out there, yeah. Actually, there's a period when nobody's heard the songs and that's nice too. It's just a family record. Everybody knows the songs and nobody else has heard them. Then you send them out there. To finish something, it's cathartic and all that. Well, I gotta get home before it gets dark. I got a long drive. Good talking to you again. Mike, Gil.


(1) I'm on a black elevator going down: opening for "Lowside Of The Road" (Mule Variations, 1999). Read lyrics: Lowside Of The Road

(2) Hieronymous Bosch: Dutch renaissance painter. Further reading: WebMuseumArtcyclopediaArtchiveDutch domain

(3) "Going over that hill, going over that hill": from RL Burnside's "Over The Hill" (Mr. Wizard, Epitaph Records 1997. Written by Mississippi Fred McDowell (1964): "I'm goin' over the hill I'm goin' on over the hill I'm goin' over the hill Yeah, as soon as I can make me a few round Finally master see me, just a few more ups and down I'm goin' on over the hill I'm goin' over the hill, I'm goin' over the hill, I'm goin' over the hill, Oh well, I went in the valley, I didn't go to stay Soon God had me child, I stay down there all day I went on over the hill When I get to heaven, gon' sit right down Askin' master, just to get my starry down." Also reminds of "Top Of The Hill" from Real Gone, 2004

(4) Wayne Kramer: another old goat on the Epitaph label. Further reading: Wayne Kramer official site

(5) And leave a good-looking corpse: quoting from "Mr. Siegal" (Heartattack And Vine, 1980): "... on the other side of the Nevada line. Where they live hard die young and have a good lookin' corpse every time."

(6) We did two songs on this record: only one song identified as such. "Big In Japan" - Brain Mantia: drums, Les Claypool: bass, Larry LaLonde: guitar

(7) We did another song with them called "2:19": this version was never released. Later recorded by John Hammond. Published by: Jalma Music (ASCAP), � 2001 Official release: "Wicked Grin", John Hammond. 2001. Emd/Virgin. John Hammond: Acoustic Guitar and Vocal. Stephen Hodges: Drums, Larry Taylor: Bass. Augie Meyers: Piano. Waits version later released on Orphans, 2006. Read lyrics: 2:19