Title: Wider Public Greets Waits' 'Variations'
Source: USA Today, by Edna Gundersen. Transcription as published on USA Today
Date: April, 1999 (published June, 1999)
Key Words: Mule variations, Kathleen, Studio recording, Blues musicians, Commercial success, Internet, Fan mail
Accompanying picture
Astro Hotel, Santa Rosa. June/ July, 1999. Photography by Bob Sebree


Wider Public Greets Waits' 'Variations'


Stardom is stalking Tom Waits, pop music's trend-upsetting, fame-retardant eccentric. The singer/ songwriter, long admired by peers and worshipped by discerning cultists, is losing his grip on mainstream anonymity as the public finally gets wise to his unconventional, and long uncommercial, wisdom.

Mule Variations, his 17th album and first in six years, entered Billboard at No. 30, his highest debut ever and the loftiest chart arrival for Epitaph Records, home to young punks and scrappy rockers. At 49, Waits is the indie label's elder statesman. "They need adult supervision," he cracks. The real reason he enlisted? "They're not jaded yet".

He's the focus of a VH1 Storytellers episode (next airing July 6). Alternative radio is spinning Big in Japan, a bluesy hoot with rock trio Primus, and fans are packing venues on Waits' brief Get Behind the Mule Tour, his first string of dates since late 1987. Tickets to shows Saturday through Monday in Los Angeles vanished in 33 minutes.

Shaped by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, James Brown and Bob Dylan, Waits' music has retro credentials, fierce individuality and a backwoods ease that deliver a perfect tonic for pre-millennial tension.

Collaborating with wife Kathleen Brennan, Waits conjures earthy characters and wry vignettes in Mule's stubbornly organic music, a sound he calls "sur-rural." He can: ricochet from poignant ballad Take It With Me to country ambler House Where Nobody Lives to rustic oddity Eyeball Kid without skirting formulas that stoke '90s pop hits.

"I'm not everybody's cup of tea, nor do I aspire to be." he says from the northern California home he shares with his wife and three children. "This isn't musical imperialism."

Q: How did these songs evolve?
A: Some songs come out of the ground just like a potato. Others you have to make out of things around the house like your mom's pool cue and your neighbor's ostrich and your grandma's purse.

Q: How do you and your wife split songwriting chores?
A: It's an adventure. You've got a, flashlight, I've got the map. You, hold the nail, I'll swing the hammer. You wash, I'll dry, If two people know the same thing, one of you is unnecessary. My wife has dreams and is telepathic and clairvoyant and female. I write more from the news or what I see in my field of vision. I'm boots and hats and pocketknives. She's filled with musical and lyrical surprises. She's a joy to work with.

Q: Did she take you places musically you might not have explored alone?
A: Oh, yeah. She said, "You can jump off that cliff and you won't crash down on the rocks." She encouraged me to take some giant steps. My wife loves ethnic music, tangos and polkas and waltzes, Bavarian bands and mariachis and Balinese stuff.

Q: So she suggests the more exotic ideas and instruments?
A: Yeah, she's more adventurous with irreconcilable influences. If you like Iggy Pop and Schoenberg, what do you do? You'll. never see them on a bill together, but they can be on the bill in you.

Q: Did you try any offbeat ideas that flopped?
A: Bagpipe players. With all due respect, forget about it. It's hard for them to play with anyone other than another bagpipe player. And even that is a challenge because they have their own scales. And they're so loud. I ended up telling them to play far, far away.

Q: Let's talk about this animal fixation. You sing about mules, ponies, dogs, hogs and turkey neck stew.
A: Do you realize that the weasel and the ermine are the same animal?

Q: Really? How tragic.
A: No, this is good. In winter, their coat is white; in summer, it's, brown. You could walk up to a woman wearing ermine and say, "I really like your weasel." And you'd be 100% accurate, She still may slug you.

Q: Do you pick up this stuff on the Discovery Channel?
A: I don't have a TV. We threw it in the pool, and then we drained the pool and filled it with golf balls.

Q: Too bad You'd like Animal Planet.
A: I wish I could score one of those shows. like a documentary on the lives of insects. I hear music when I watch those nature programs. And I watch the ants in the woods. You know they create highways and drive on the right-hand side of the road

Q: Except British ants.
A. Ants also have the equivalent of parades and awards ceremonies. Ever see one carry a big leaf? Those are banners,

Q: Most recording artists strive to keep extraneous noise out of the studio. You seem to seek it out.
A: Well, someone has, to. One man's garbage is another man's clothes. I just like to open up the variables. Most people isolate the music. I am slowly trying to integrate it.

Q: How do you avoid a sterile recording environment?
A: Open the door

Q: And let in the ants?
A: If it's appropriate. Recording is a mad adventure and the studio is a laboratory. Like anything creative, the unpredictable stuff is what's interesting. I'm getting more eccentric in my recording.

Q: How much are you still influenced by the blues pioneers in your record collection?
A: An old record is pretty amazing when you think about it. Something was captured, and the essence is still as fresh as the day it happened. Leadbelly made a 12-string guitar sound like a piano. I love those old guys

Q: Are you hoping your music outlasts you?
A: Hey, we're all going to wind up at the Salvation Army. Popular music is all about burying you so they can dig you up later. The first thing a musician does is sift through old records at the Salvation Army. There's some amazing stuff there if you're open to the experience. It's a history lesson.

Q: The rooster on Chocolate Jesus --
A: It's a real one.

Q: Did he get paid?
A: He was not paid. He's just a transient. But I paid him in one form - he's still alive. And now of course, he's considered a big shot in the barnyard. You can't even approach the guy.

Q: What if Big in Japan becomes a huge pop hit?
A: I'd get a red sports car and start talking like a big shot.

Q: I bet you'd find commercial success a little unsettling.
A: OK, I'm mistrustful of large groups of people enjoying anything together. You try to be careful that you don't wind up in one of those darkly ironic situations where you've become the very thing you despise. What you want is a faucet and a sink for your popularity. Otherwise you don't get a drink for six years or the whole living room fills up with water. There's very little in between.

Q: You've acted in several unorthodox movies (next: Mystery Men, opening July 30). What are the ups and downs of film work?
A: Bring a book. Bring a library. It's an expedition with a lot of waiting. It's like air traffic control - long moments of boredom broken up by sheer terror. You can wait in your trailer for eight hours before doing some microscopic shot with your hand and ear.

Q: Are you nervous about doing your first cyber chat?(1)
A: I'm afraid I'm going to get really cyber mad. I might have a cyber fit and make some cyber enemies.

Q: In other words, you're cyberphobic.
A: I have no computer. It's, in the pool with the TV and the golf balls. The cyber world creates the illusion of communication. You put the word cyber in front of something and it's like "new and improved. " It's part of the advertising virus. Cyber chats, cyber love affairs, cyber discoveries. It's a way of selling us things that are already available. I'm suspicious of it.

Q: How odd is your fan mail?
A: Very. I get a kick out of it. I get a lot of autograph seekers, but then they'll say stuff like, "My wife and I owned a motel for 30 years. We just sold it and we want you to visit the new owners." They tell you their triple bypass. I'm like, don't make me care. We're strangers, let's enjoy that.

Q: Do you reply?
A: Not as a rule. It creates a false sense of intimacy.

Q: Are you big in Japan?
A: You know where I'm big? In Oslo, of all places. I'm bigger than Michael Jackson in Oslo.


(1) Your first cyber chat: pretty special and kind of entertaining as Waits was known to have no "connection" with computers/ the Internet what so ever. Further reading: Quotes on computers