Title: Tom Waits For No Man
Source: Time Out New York # 187 (USA), by Brett Martin. Transcription as published on http://www.timeoutny.com (the hotseat)
Date: April 22-29, 1999
Key Words: Smokey Hormel, Experimental instruments, Kathleen, Danish Tom Waits Society


Tom Waits For No Man


Tom Waits for no man. America's favorite gravel-voiced avant-troubadour skips from his new album to Chinese typewriters. Follow?
By Brett Martin

Tom Waits may want to rethink the prank-call thing. Just before he's scheduled to call from his home in Northern California, the phone rings. Someone says, "Wrong number" and hangs up. A few minutes later, another ring: "This the Department of Motor Vehicles?" the person asks and then laughs. "This is Tom, I'm just playing with you." I don't have the heart to tell him that with a voice as distinctive as his, he's not fooling anybody.

In fact, "the Voice" is the first thing most people mention when the eccentric entertainer's name is brought up. But the amazing thing about Waits has always been his many different voices. His albums are like theater pieces, with Waits taking on a whole range of characters from the seamier side of life. Taken together, they go a long way toward fulfilling what appears to be his ultimate goal: cataloging the American subconscious.

The effort continues with Mule Variations, the musician's 17th album and his first in six years. There's a good chance that Waits will embark on his first live tour since 1987. Maybe. It's not easy to get straight answers from Waits. "I don't like direct questions," he says, "so if you hit me with one, chances are you will get a very indirect answer." When faced with queries he doesn't like-ones that belabor a point, for instance-he tends to respond with factoids read from a nearby newspaper. It's a strategy as distinctively Waitsian as that rumbling voice.

Time Out NY: Where did the title Mule Variations come from?
Tom Waits: Well, people don't write a lot about mules anymore. Ever since Robert Johnson wrote about an automobile, it's kind of been rock's most popular vehicle.

TONY: Do you use a title as a guide when you're writing songs for an album?
TW: Halfway through a record you start riffing on something, and titles emerge out of the work somehow. Some of the songs had what we started calling a rural quality. They're kind of sur-rural - a combination of surreal and rural. They sound like old songs. And I sound like an old guy.

TONY: So would you call it a throwback record?
TW: Gee, I don't know. I hope people don't throw it back.

TONY: I mean, a lot of the songs seem to look back at earlier parts of your career.
TW: Most writers end up trying to say the same things different ways. Sometimes you spin out to places you rarely visit, but for the most part, songwriters come back to a certain familiar turf. Mine is a small little place, I guess.

TONY: Some would say that place is an America of another time. Is it harder to find the kinds of voices and stories you use?
TW: I don't think so. This stuff is all over the place. If by evening tomorrow you wanted to be by a campfire by a railroad track, you could do so. You'd be under a bridge somewhere, cooking beans in a can, with your boots sitting on the cold ground, watching a train go by. Everything is available if you're inquisitive enough.

TONY: Do you still go out looking, or does that stuff reside in you at this point?
TW: That's a big question. I might have to refer to my manual for the answer to that. [Rustles paper] Oh yeah, right here: Some Chinese typewriters have 5,700 characters. The keyboard is almost three feet wide on some models.

TONY: Is that what you mean by an indirect answer?
TW: Yeah.

TONY: Fair enough. You use some pretty strange instrumentation here. Where do you find a good chumbus and dousengoni player nowadays?
TW: Oh, that would be Smokey Hormel. He said he was coming up to play on the record and that he was going to bring a station wagon, and I said, "Well, throw some stuff in the back-stuff I've never seen or heard before." [Those are] West African guitars.

TONY: What about an optigon?(1)
TW: That's a mid-'60s keyboard that used floppy disks with optical filaments. It's like everything else in popular music: It finally washes up in the Salvation Army 20 years later, and someone picks it up, brings it home and makes a hit record out of it. Bury me, then dig me up-that's like the code of popular music.

TONY: Your wife, Kathleen Brennan, was heavily involved in Mule Variations.
TW: She's the sun, the seed, the soil, the leaf, the root and the rain of our work together. I think this record has a certain balance and light that she put there.

TONY: Some of the songs are among the sweetest and most optimistic-sounding you've done.
TW: Those are songs that, if I were left to my own devices, I probably would have junked for the sake of something rougher. I'm usually wrong about those things. She's the brains behind Pa-[we've] been working together since Swordfishtrombones.

TONY: Well, that record was a pretty revolutionary stylistic break for you. What happened?
TW: I hatched I hatched out of the egg I was living in. I had nailed one foot to the floor and kept going in circles, making the same record. Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly-folks that could never be on the bill together-and that they could be on the bill together in you. You take your dad's army uniform and your mom's Easter hat and your brother's motorcycle and your sister's purse and stitch them all together and try to make something meaningful out of it.

TONY: It's like you found a new language to tell the same stories.
TW: Yeah. I don't know. Do you realize that the right lung takes in more air than the left lung?

TONY: Right. Why did you stop touring?
TW: There are all these variables on the road. If you're [at home] with your instruments and a tape machine, you can fashion things how you want them. On the road, you're dealing with all kinds of wind and weather. You know, viscosity and thermal breakdown.

TONY: Your lyrics always use the best place names-like Hushpekena or Murfreesboro. Do you just sit around and study atlases all day?
TW: My theory is that songs have to be anatomically correct. They need to have weather in them and the name of a town and usually something to eat-in case you get hungry.

TONY: Did you know there was a Danish Tom Waits Society?(2) You're apparently very big in Denmark.
TW: Well, that's okay. In fact, I've had a Danish society here for years. I have my coffee and my Danish every morning.

TONY: What's a question you never get asked but wish you would?
TW: How about the oldest rocks in the world?

TONY: What are the oldest rocks in the world?
TW: The so-called St. Peter and St. Paul stones in the Atlantic Ocean. They're four billion years old. Can you just throw that in? I like to see these things in print.

Mule Variations (Epitaph) is out Tuesday 27. Issue 187 April 22-29, 1999


(1) Optigon: Should be spelled "Optigan". The Optigan was a kind of home organ made by the Optigan Corporation (a subsidiary of Mattel) in the early 70's. It was set up like most home organs of the period - a small keyboard with buttons on the left for various chords, accompaniments and rhythms. At the time, all organs produced their sounds electrically or electronically with tubes or transistors. The Optigan was different in that its sounds were read off of LP sized celluloid discs which contained the graphic waveforms of real instruments. These recordings were encoded in concentric looping rings using the same technology as film soundtracks. As the film runs, a light is projected through the soundtrack and is picked up on the other side by a photoreceptor. The word "Optigan" stands for "Optical Organ". Some Optigan Disc Titles Banjo Sing-Along, Big Band Beat, Bluegrass Banjo, Bossa Nova Style, Cha Cha Cha!, Dixieland Strut, Folk & Other Moods-Guitar, Gay 90's Waltz (6/8 time), Gospel Rock, Guitar Boogie, Guitar in 3/4 Time, Hear and Now, Latin Fever, Nashville Country, Polynesian Village, Pop Piano Plus Guitar, Rock and Rhythm, The Blues-Sweet and Low, Waltz Time (3/4 Time). Further reading: Instruments

(2) Danish Tom Waits Society: Defunct fansite from Denmark, formerly at: http://splunge.dk/tw