Title: Tom Waits Interview
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (USA). October 3, 2004. By George Varga. Transcript as published on San Diego Union Tribune site: October 3, 2004. Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Date: September 8, 2004. Telephone interview
Key words: Real Gone, Blind Boys of Alabama, Mark Ribot, Sins Of My Father, Ray Charles, Wolfman Jack, Chickaboom, Kathleen, Harry Partch, parents


Tom Waits Interview

By George Varga UNION-TRIBUNE POP MUSIC CRITIC October 3, 2004

San Diego Union-Tribune pop music critic George Varga spoke by phone on Sept. 8 to Tom Waits, who was at home in Sonoma County. Two stories on Waits appear in today's Sunday Arts section in the Union-Tribune. A review of Waits' new album, "Real Gone," will run in Thursday's Night & Day section of the paper.

Question: So how's life up there?

Waits: Life's good. I'll start by getting rid of a few things on my mind. I don't want to make this one of those hometown boys (make good) interviews. I don't want to talk about (things related to San Diego). I don't want to be the homecoming queen (1). I just want to talk about music.

Q: That's fine with me, but it ruins the cover design concept we had.

Waits: What do you mean?

Q: Now we can't put you on the cover in a prom gown.

Waits: Well, if it was tasteful I'd be up for it.

Q: We had something more tasteless in mind...

Waits: I might go for that, too.

Q: Moving on, I believe you're a fan of the Blind Boys of Alabama?(2)

Waits: Oh yeah. I love them.

Q: Well, 12 years ago I was interviewing the group's leader, Clarence Fountain, and their guitarist had just left the group. I asked him what the criteria to be guitarist in the Blind Boys was, and Clarence's response was something like: "You have to be able to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously, sing well and listen well. But the most important thing, when you're the guitarist in the Blind Boys, is that you MUST be able to drive.

So I'm curious, driving abilities aside, what are the qualities - musically and personally - you look for in your musical collaborators?

Waits: Well, (laughing) - gotta be able to drive! - I'm sure there are other qualifications. Oh, you mean me? What I look for? A certain amount of bravery is essential, as far as avoiding the obvious, and people who can sleep anywhere and eat with their hands. You have to develop your own language with them.

Mainly, when musicians meet they have to sniff each other, like dogs, and find out what they know, who they've met. Nobody goes to school; it's more like: "What have you heard? And how have you integrated it into your own work? Can you speak seven languages?"

I like multi-instrumentalists myself and I am usually interested in how it sounds to have everybody switch instruments. When somebody is playing music on an instrument they're unfamiliar with, you always get interesting results. The fingers always want to go where they've been before, so the entire discovery process (comes) by "unfamiliarizing" yourself with the new keys or surfaces or strings. Sometimes the things you haven't played on before sound the best.

Q: You mentioned developing your own language. Do you mean something along the lines of: "Play like your hair is on fire?"(3)

Waits: I think I said that to (guitarist Mark) Ribot. But you don't have to tell Ribot to play like his hair is on fire because his hair is always on fire. All that means is: "play" (your instrument). Someone like Ribot doesn't draw distinctions between playing a wedding, at a trailer park or playing for the pope.

I guess most of the people I play with are adventurers in one way or another. With Ribot you have to be a little careful, because if you say you want a little feedback, you might get an automobile accident. It's always interesting finding somebody who, you know, they know just as much about pygmy music as they do (about) Big Boy Cruddup or Memphis Slim or Gavin Bryars(4).

Some people have a rich (frame of musical reference). Like, Ribot was in a soul band in New York called the Real Tones for many years, and they backed up Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and people like that.

Q: Lucky him.

Waits: Yeah. But he also is adept with industrial music or noise.

Q: Duke Ellington was once asked what inspired him to compose, and he replied: "Give me a deadline." How important are deadlines to you?

Waits: Well, you know time is always the collaborator. If you have an extra day you'll change it. Somebody told me: "Nobody finishes anything, they just take it away from you." Because, you know, you're arranging things that might be glued to paper and if you had another 30 seconds everything might be different.

Theater is different, (playing) live is different, because it will continue to change. I mean, everybody used to collaborate on songs. Everybody got to take a whack at it, or adapt it, so a child could understand it, or just take the melody and make all new songs.

Q: Randy Newman once told me that he had an office in L.A. with a piano in it, and that he would make himself go there every day - kind of like a mini-Brill Building - to force himself to write. Given that you have your own studio right where you live, do you compose and record whenever the spirit moves you, or do you set aside specific time to do that?

Waits: I don't really have a studio where I live.

Q: My mistake. I thought you had a studio on a chicken farm where you live.

Waits: No, that's a business, a studio, that's an hour away(5). It used to be a chicken ranch, but it's a studio now.

Q: Well, do you have an area of the house where you work?

Waits: The quietest place around here is in the car, so I write in the car a lot. Because here at home, I don't necessarily dominate the various turntables around here. When you have kids, there are things going on all the time.

Q: So you just sing into a tape recorder in your car?

Waits: Yeah.

Q: Do you carve out blocks of time to work?

Waits: Everyone has to discipline themselves. If you're given three months, you might wait until the last three days, although it's not wise. Or you might call all that time leading up to it "anticipation" or "preparation."

Q: "Sins of my Father," the third song on your new album, "Real Gone," is also one of the longest at more than 9 minutes. I was especially impressed by the subtlety of the song's arrangement and how certain elements are so understated, be it the sizzle cymbal that is struck a little over 4 minutes into the song and then not heard again, or the way that that what sound like tabla drums enter around the 9-minute mark. I'm reminded of that great Miles Davis quote about what you leave out being more important than what you put in. Because even your more overt and dense songs have a sense of space where the performer and listener can breathe.

Assuming you agree with this observation, is that a quality you specifically strive for, and could you discuss how you and your collaborators arrange a song?

Waits: Well, you allow for a certain amount of discussion. You trust the people you're playing with. There's a certain kind of telepathy you develop after a while.

I didn't realize he hit that sizzle cymbal just once; that's (former Primus drummer) Brain. He was playing several sizes of hand drums, a bass drum and a lot of ethnic drums. My theory is if you don't bring it (to the recording session), you'll definitely need it.

Silence is a huge part of music. It's essential. I'm always interested in what's not there and I like it when things are implied and things are left out. So I brought in Brain, Ribot and Larry Taylor. It was the right group because they're intuitive and telepathic.

Q: How important is the element of what some musicians call the "happy surprise," when you're writing or recording?

Waits: Music moves forward through its mistakes. That's what I like to do, you know, play pin the tail on the donkey now and then with songs and instruments. Because in a sense you're learning something and you're being told what to do.

Most musicians are rebellious in one way or another and a lot of them won't do what you ask them. Or they'll nod and say they will and then at that part of the song say: "F--k it," and not do it.

My son's like that. I'd say: "Hit the floor tom with a mallet, and the snare drum upside down with a regular stick." And he'd say: "Yeah, right." All he heard me say was: "Take out the trash."

We started with a rock-steady beat on "Sins of My Father," and Larry Taylor said: "I won't play that reggae s--t. I don't play that (rock-steady style)." He's played with Jerry Lee Lewis, Canned Heat - he's played with everybody - and he said: "I won't do it, man!" (laughing) I said: "Come on, Larry!"

Q: So who yielded?

Waits: Well, I appreciate the honesty of musicians; it means they are in there with you, and they are concerned about how they'll sound and what they can contribute. A lot of times (making this album), I'd play something to a guy, and he'd say: "I can't put anything on there. I'm not touching that."

Because I came in with all these mouth rhythms, beatboxing, that I recorded in my bathroom at home. And they said: "That's cool, don't touch it." You're asking for their opinion. They're all medical professionals, so I want their opinions. I care more about their opinions than the public's, because they're in the kitchen with me.

You know, people living are really just dead on vacation. We were dead before we got here, and we'll be dead after we go, so we're the dead on vacation.

It's like Ray Charles(6) - now there's a big silence. And that's part of his music, the silence that follows.

Q: My most memorable interview was with Ray was in 1992, over a game of chess, and I had to work hard to keep him from beating the pants off me.

Waits: You're very lucky. What a great experience. You don't need anything else in your record collection if you have Ray.

Q: He was a master of so many styles, including the blues, which has always been a vital part of your music. But the blues influence feels more pronounced on "Real Gone." For example, the way your microphone overloads as you sing on some tracks suggests Little Walter, only with him playing his voice instead of a harmonica. You even have a fleeting lyrical reference to Robert Johnson in the song "Baby Gonna Leave Me" in the line: "I'll get my 32/20 and it'll have to do."(7) Are these coincidences, or are they intentional?

Waits: Well, you know, I throw all that stuff in there because it's always going around in my head. If it seems appropriate, I'll stick it in.

Overloading the mic is like, if you listen to all the records Little Richard did on Specialty, the mics were always being overloaded. No one had ever done anything like that before. There were probably people in the studio saying: "No, no, don't hurt the mic!"; and "Get that man off the piano!"; and "No playing (piano) with your feet!" He was un-containable - he was talking in tongues! - and the equipment hadn't caught up with the level of emotion coming from him.

What happens with me is, I heard the needle being mashed down and those great mics being trashed, and it creates an energy in the music. It's like somebody wincing. It's like scratching off the linoleum or breaking a window, and you still feel it (now).

Q: Let me give you a few examples, and then you can give your own. B.B. King told me that when he was about 11 he heard a recording of T-Bone Walker doing "Stormy Monday," and - pow! - he knew that's what he wanted to do. Elvis Costello, who I believe you're friends with, told me he was around 7 when he heard his mother playing Frank Sinatra's recording of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and - bingo! - he knew he wanted to be a singer. Do you recall your first pivotal moment with music?

Waits: Well, I definitely remember listening to (legendary disc jockey) Wolfman Jack on the radio, a crystal set with an Ariel (antenna) on a broomstick, at two in the morning, all by myself. I thought I had a radio station nobody had ever heard before; I thought he was in some bar in Mexico and it was all illegal, which only added to the (allure of the) music when I heard people like Little Willie John and all that.

Q: How old were you?

Waits: Maybe 14, 15.

Q: Was there any immediate cause and affect, or were you already musically active?

Waits: Not really. I had heard "Abiline" on the radio and "El Paso,"(8) things that captivated me because of the stories. I also heard Roy Orbison. When I met Roy (years later), I said: "Where'd you get that voice, man?" Nobody was singing like that when he came up. He said he used to hear a band playing miles away, across the plains, and by the time it reached him it sounded all watery like that. He said: "So I wanted to sound all watery when I sang."

Half of music is what you came in with, and the other half is what you found when you got there.

Q: There's also a hip-hop flavor on your new album. How much of that hip-hop element do you attribute to your son Casey(9) and your other kids?

Waits: Well, you know, when you're talking to a drummer and trying to get him to do something, you can't really talk about it, mathematically. So you go: Oom pow ah boom pow. You start to speak in gestures and grunts, and (by) pointing.

But most beatboxing, I guess it was purely economical (at first). It's cheaper than a drummer; you put a mic up to your mouth and overload it in a Pignose (miniature amplifier), and you can make those sounds in front of a bank on the sidewalk. What I do with is is very crude (compared to) the people who do it, the pros. I'm not a pro. I'm just trying. I'm more like a rhythm guitar.

Q: But the crudeness is what I find appealing about how you do it.

Waits: Well, that's good

Q: I really liked the a cappella bonus track at the end of "Real Gone." What's the name of it?

Waits: "Chickaboom."

Q: Would you ever consider making an instrument-free, all-voice album?

Waits: We were going to do that with this one, but then thought this might be a little too crude. The idea was to do something a little more bread and water - just the bare essential rudiments of music - no geegaws, no buttons, no frills, no peanuts, no (he chuckles) drinks.

Q: Many people who grew up on rock 'n' roll seem to hate hip-hop. They say that it's un-musical and vulgar, which is pretty much what their parents said about rock. But the way you blend blues and hip-hop is a good reminder that one is an outgrowth of the other? How do you see it?

Waits: Yeah, it is the most logical extension. It's the growing edge of the blues and following in the same tradition and carrying the same rebellious nature. And it's just as crude and bothersome, or annoying and scary (as rock was) for some people

Blues was really scary, especially when it went up the river to Chicago (from the Mississippi Delta) and became electrified and sounded like: "Hey, we're angry!" Of course, they were getting louder and more (amplified) power. The same thing is happening in hip-hop; it's another level to the whole art form.

The recording techniques are all different. The guys my kids listen to are people like Sage Francis, ELP, and people like that. I like Missy Elliott; she's right in your face. It's amazing how clear she is.

Hip-hop is filled with the noise, and the rebellion and the anger and energy, of today. Most people, because it's young people's music - unless you have kids, you don't stay in touch with what's going on right now. There's no reason to; you just listen to your old records, just like your mom and dad did.

With kids you say: "Shut that thing off!` Then you think: "Maybe I better listen to it."

Q: I remember playing the first album by the MC5 when I was 12, and my mother coming in and saying: "Hey, that has a good beat, turn it up." I was horrified, and didn't play it again for a long time. Only later did I discover that my mother hated the album and realize just how crafty she was.

Waits: She asked you to turn it up? (laughing) Yeah, reverse psychology!

Q: In making "Real Gone," did you have specific goals, not only for what you wanted to accomplish, but what you wanted to avoid?

Waits: Basically, you're making songs. It's kind of like catching a rabbit - you want to make sure you catch something that's living and its tricky. So it's more like photographing ghosts. You're setting up this equipment, this elaborate trap, this very expensive contraption, so that you can capture the fly in the bottle.

It's hard sometimes because I think, basically, songs don't like to be recorded; I think they change in the process. At the same time, until a song is recorded, it's really not finished. It's a delicate operation and requires in some ways almost medical precision and, at the same time, almost a total blind intuition.

Q: Does the process get easier or more difficult with time? And if it gets easier, do you shake things up to avoid getting complacent?

Waits: My wife and I try to go in like we never did it before. If you go in like you know how to do it, and knowing you did it before, you don't want to bruise the thing. So you have to watch out going in (and) knowing too much.

Intelligence is highly overrated; in my case, I've found that to be true. But those elements are always there, with everyone who has ever recorded. You have the same things anyone who has ever made a record has had - and will have - at their disposal, so the only wild card, really, is you.

And in some cases, all hell breaks loose, and that's just really great when it does. But you can't (repeat yourself). If it happened the same way every time, everyone would stop doing it. It's not a science.

You know, it's more like, I don't know what it's like, really. It's like dancing like there's nobody watching you, even though you know somebody is watching you. That's the art of it.

Q: A lot of performers today are uncomfortable being called entertainers, like it's beneath them. You seem very comfortable coming out of a tradition of entertainers, which goes back to the vaudeville era and before.

Waits: Oh, yeah, of course. I'm in show business. I'm like a ventriloquist, or a magician, or a trapeze artist. I'm in the business. How do you take a picture of your driveway and make it look like the road of life? There's an art to it. If everybody could do it, there'd be nothing unique to it. At the same time, you could say everybody can do it. We're so consumer-oriented that people forget they can do it.

It's like when Alan Lomax recorded all those people for the Library of Congress, they couldn't believe he wanted to record them with a 500-pound recorder in his car and that he wanted to hear the songs people sing to put their kids to sleep. They thought: "He wants what? Who the hell is he?"

If you make dinner at home for yourself, you make music, too, (but) most people don't know they make music. I have recordings of these crickets at night in the summer, thousands of them, and they slowed it down. That's all they did - slow it down - and it sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir, (with) three-part harmony, tenor, soprano and bass parts, inner voicings, counter melodies. You wouldn't believe it! Just from slowing it down.

The Kaiser Orchestra(10) are Norwegian. You ought to check them out.

Q: Have you heard the Vienna Food Orchestra?

Waits: Yeah, yeah. They play all the food (on stage), and then cook it.

Q: Do you think you also impart something a little deeper while you entertain? Not in a finger-wagging, pontificating way, but...

Waits: I don't know. But I'm not embarrassed by (being an entertainer) at all. I don't want to overvalue myself. You have to be careful of the ego, it'll eat anything.

Q: So how do you keep it in check?

Waits: Chained to a bed in the basement.

Q: Isn't there a dichotomy there, in that without the ego the impulse to create..

Waits: Yeah, yeah, of course. It's like everything (else). There's a fireplace in the house, and it heats the place.

Q: One of my favorite albums of yours is "Swordfishtrombones," which was really a bold shift from your previous work. You mentioned your wife, Kathleen, earlier, who's been your creative partner on every album you've made since and including "Swordfishtrombones." How important was Kathleen in helping you make that major shift on "Swordfishtrombones?" And is it good, bad, both or neither to go to bed with the same person you work and create with during the day?

Waits: Are you married? You're engaged?

Well, a good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller.

I kind of plumbed more the depths of myself when I started working with her. She had a much better record collection than me; most of my records were all scratched and had cheese on them. She had a lot of real cool stuff.

Q: Like what?

Waits: I knew you were going to ask me that. The Animals, Mitch Ryder, Captain Beefheart, Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic," Harry Partch(11), a lot of doo-wop stuff, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Louis Prima and Mabel Mercer.

Q: Wow. With no offense. I know some guys who might have married her for her record collection alone.

Waits: Yeah, well, I've been accused of that! I really went through a lot of changes when I got married, and my music changed. That's normal.

Q: Did you feel like you were driving off a cliff at full speed with "Swordfishtrombones?" It was such a radical change from your previous albums, in nearly every way.

Waits: Well, I don't know, but I'd got as far as I could with what I was dong up to that point. I was kind of living my life upside down (before then); I wanted to be an old man when I was a little kid. And I think my first records were my attempt to sound like an old man.

Not that I don't still sound like that, it's just my approach then was as a very old man. I made records live to two-track. I wrote in a little room; I set up my own Brill Building. I wrote almost exclusively at the piano. Now I'm writing almost all a cappella. It's much more free (this way); it frees your fingers and confuses them.

Collaborating with my wife is kind of like setting off firecrackers - some of them you get to light, and some of them, you get to throw. If both of you know the same stuff, one of you is unnecessary, and we didn't really know the same stuff. She'd taken many years of piano lessons and was raised Catholic. She wanted to be a nun.

Anyway, we just threw in together.

Q: Have you developed a sort of unspoken communication between each other?

Waits: Yeah, I guess so.

Q: So the old saying is true, about how only your wife will tell you when you have bad breath?

Waits: Oh, yeah (laughing). Otherwise, it gets like the emperor's new clothes. (With my wife) I'll say: "Honey, is this crap? I just gotta know." And you have to be ready, because she may say: "It's crap." But you gotta have somebody in your life you might trust with that question, or you're lost.

It's hard to talk about. Because it's like Elvis Costello saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. You can't (do it). Some of these things you just gotta go out and do it.

And I find that not doing music for a long time is really healthy. It's like some gardeners shock their plants; they won't water them or trim them or add any nutrients to them for a month. It shocks the crap out of them! Then they water them, and they'll just flourish. That's just as important (in music), to fill up again.

The music I listen to is mostly crude, raw stuff. If you listen to too much contemporary music, it's like eating processed food - there's no nutrients for you. It's already been eaten, and digested, and crapped out. So I listen to he world.

And when I know it's time to make a (new) record, I go to the store and say: "Hey, Rudy, what do you got? Anything good?" And he says: "No." Finally, you realize there is nothing there in the store; it's the record in you that you want, and that's the one you eventually make.

You're hungry, but you don't know what you're hungry for. But you have to feed that (hunger) and you have some ingredients. Okay? Go! It sounds kind of cliched, but it's true.

Q: Franny Thumm (Waits' longtime San Diego friend and confidante) was involved in making several of your albums, beginning with "Swordfishtrombones," as well as being a member of the Harry Partch Ensemble. He'll be participating in an upcoming event here in October at SDSU to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Partch's death. Did he ever introduce you to Partch, and how important an influence has Partch been on you?

Waits: No, we never met. But I've heard stories about him from Franny, who is a great guy. We've been friends for many years, and he played the Chromolodeon with Harry's ensemble at SDSU, where all of his instruments were kept and where he was in residence for a number of years.

Q: Did you ever attend any of Partch's concerts in San Diego?

Waits: No I didn't. I don't know what was going on with me (then). The quote of Harry's I like most is when he said: `Once upon a time there was a little boy who went outside, and that boy was me - I went outside in music.' Because he really didn't ascribe to the traditional approach a young new composer would by studying in all the `right' schools.

He designed his own instruments - which are awesome to behold - and system of notation, and he incorporated Chinese poetry with the things he read on passing water towers when he was a railroad bum. He invented himself and his music.

Q: It's a tragedy that the Partch instruments are no longer here in San Diego and have been given on "permanent loan" to a university in New Jersey. Do you think you might make an album one day using the Partch instruments or his music?

Waits: Gee, I don't know. That's kind of a sacred thing. It's kind of like his instruments are these skeletons he left behind. I love those instruments, but I don't know if I'd be so careful playing them. If they were here in a room right now, I'm sure I'd be banging on them.

Partch lived and worked around Petaluma for a while, and there are a lot of his children up here - not really his children, but people who build unusual sound sources. "When Petals Fell on Petaluma," Partch wrote that about Petaluma.

He'll always be left of center; the music he made won't arrive in the mainstream. But there's a much wider awareness of him now than there was 25 years ago.

Q: How big an influence was he on you?

Waits: He definitely was an influence on me. When you hear Harry's music, you can't help but incorporate it," Waits said. "It's the kind of music that makes you start wondering about the things in your garage: `What would it sound like if I hit that with a mallet?

I've taken mallets to the hardware store and walked down the aisle and started hitting stuff. Or I pick up things on the side of the road and bring them into the (recording) studio. It's exciting for me, and for the things themselves, because now they're in show business!

Q: You and Richard Thompson are two of my favorite songwriters who use lovely melodies as the settings for very grim and disturbing lyrics. Besides the appeal of combining two seemingly disparate musical qualities, what are the other factors that lead you to do this? One point of view might be that if the music was as grim as the lyrics, it would be too intense for all but a select few listeners

Waits: I don't know. (Famed album producer) Jerry Wexler said that Ray Charles was one of the first people to take and use "the devil's words with God's music." So plugging this into that is not new. What would happen if...? Everyone thinks about that in the (recording) studio, if you have a story and how to present it. I don't know. Sometimes it comes at the same time, the melody and the idea (for the lyrics).

Any sound is music already, and sometimes I just make up sounds and don't know what they mean. Then I play the sounds back and listen to them like a foreign language. And I say: "If this was a foreign language, how would I decipher it? And pretty soon, I realize certain words are starting to form. What are they saying?

(When you listen to other artists' records, you think:) Did he say "medicine" or "mason?" All songwriters listen to records and try to figure out what key it's in. Or: "What voicing is that? I can't find it on my guitar." And then it's (like) your dissertation and part of your cycle of learning.

A kid taking down my lyrics from one of my records - I love that! Because that's what I used to do with (the Rolling Stones') "19th Nervous Breakdown" or (Bob Dylan's) "Desolation Row" or (Marty Robbins') "El Paso."

Q: Of course, people often get the lyrics wrong and hear something different than what is actually sung.

Waits: That may improve it. I always like that about my wife - she always thought that (in Creedence Clearwater's "Bad Moon Rising")(12) they sang: "There's a bathroom on the right," and that's all she can hear now (when it's played).

If you were scared of a snake as a kid and someone said that was childish, well, you're still scared of snakes (now).

Q: When someone buys one of your albums or a ticket to see you perform, what do you want to give them in return?

Waits: Somebody will get nothing from it, somebody else, it might change their life. That's the way it was with me, listening to music when I was a kid. I was looking for something, you know, (like when) you see a Fellini movie. I saw (the intense, Holocaust-themed 1965 drama) "The Pawnbroker" when I was 9. It was on the bill with - this is really weird - "Mary Poppins.'" They had the end of the "Poppins" run and then the start of "The Pawnbroker," but I didn't leave the theater. I thought it was a double-bill and these two films were being presented together. I think it scarred me.

Q: Well, that explains everything.

Waits: (laughing) Yeah. That explains everything!

I was always hearing music when I was a kid, so I'd like to say "hi" to my mom, Alma, and my (step) dad, Jim.

My mom came from a big family and they were all very musical; everybody stood around the piano when they got together. She had three sisters and they all sang in four-part harmony. Growing up, there was always music in the house - mariachi music and church music and stuff on the radio.

Radio used to be really interesting in the old days. So you would have disparate musical moments presented together, which is what I kind of try to do on my records, which is visit different places and combine and reconcile some of these difficult-to-reconcile musical lives of mine.

Q: Your dad (Frank) lived here too, right?

Waits: Yeah, he used to work with Duane Eddy; he managed him for a while and had his guitar. He was a strange guy - he was in real estate and was a private eye. He was very interesting.

Q: I know you're not fond of interviews. Was this an unpleasant experience for you?

Waits: No, it hasn't been unpleasant at all.

Q: Well, how would you like to be remembered?

Waits: Sheesh, I don't know. (Pioneering blues artists) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee lived on separate coasts. I used to open shows for them, and Brownie would go on stage and let Sonny (who was nearly blind since childhood) bang into chairs looking for the microphone. It was not very nice. But those are old vaudeville stories.

The thing about music is, if somebody can put your record on, you don't have to be remembered - they can listen to you.

I don't know. I don't even like the question. What do I want to be remembered for? It's like I'm getting ready to go (die).

When you hit 50, people want to lure you to town and give you some trophy, and then shoot you and mount you on the wall next to a moose. I don't really like that kind of stuff.

Besides, I feel younger now than I did when I was in my twenties.

Q: You said earlier in our conversation that when you were young, you wanted to be an old man, or at least sound like one. Now that you're older, how has that changed?

Waits: Now I'm different. I got kids, and they always want to fight. It keeps you in shape. They want to fight me, so I always gotta be on guard.



Title: Tom Waits Interview/ "This musical maverick waits for no one - well, maybe his wife" (alternate version)
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (USA). October 3, 2004. By George Varga. Transcription by Glen Davies as sent to Tom Waits Yahoo Groups discussionlist: October 3, 2004. 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Date: September 8, 2004. Telephone interview
Key words: Real Gone, Blind Boys of Alabama, Mark Ribot, Sins Of My Father, Ray Charles, Wolfman Jack, Chickaboom, Kathleen, Harry Partch, parents


This Musical Maverick Waits For No One - Well, Maybe His Wife

By George Varga UNION-TRIBUNE POP MUSIC CRITIC
October 3, 2004

"Half of music is what you came in with, and the other half is what you found when you got there," says former San Diegan Tom Waits.

'There was always music in the house'

Tom Waits, who approaches interviews with the same enthusiasm most people reserve for tax audits, had a simple request:

"I just want to talk about music," said the legendary singer-songwriter, who over the past several decades has created a provocative musical world all his own.

For the next 80 minutes, Waits spoke from his rural Sonoma County home, where he recorded parts of his gripping new album, "Real Gone," in his bathroom. He punctuated his remarks with raspy chuckles and verbal imagery every bit as vivid as his most cinematic songs, some of which have been recorded by Bruce Springsteen, Norah Jones, Johnny Cash, Diana Krall, the Ramones and Rod Stewart.

"It's like dancing (as if) there's nobody watching you, even though you know somebody is watching you," Waits said of his approach to capturing his songs on record. " ... how do you take a picture of your driveway and make it look like the road of life (on stage)? There's an art to it."

Despite his aversion to the media, the former San Diegan talked at length about his lifelong passion for music; his fond memories of Napoleone Pizza House in National City, where - as a teenager in the 1960s - he worked as a cook; and Kathleen Brennan, his wife, artistic collaborator and most trusted confidante.

"A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller," said Waits, who married Brennan in 1980 and credits her for encouraging his artistic risk taking.

She has co-written and co-produced virtually all of her husband's albums since 1983's epic "Swordfishtrombones," including 1999's Grammy Award-winning "Mule Variations," his first million-selling release in a career that began with 1973's "Closing Time." Brennan, a former playwright and film script editor, was also instrumental in getting Waits to dramatically expand his approach to creating music. She nurtured his quest to make the sounds he previously only imagined a reality.

"Any sound is music already, and sometimes I just make up sounds and don't know what they mean," noted Waits, whose appearance in the recent "Coffee and Cigarettes" was a highlight of the film. "Then, I play the sounds back and listen to them like a foreign language, and I say: 'If this was a foreign language, how would I decipher it?' And pretty soon, I realize certain words are starting to form. What are they saying?

" ... the music I listen to is mostly crude, raw stuff. If you listen to too much contemporary music, it's like eating processed food. There's no nutrients for you - it's already been eaten and digested and crapped out - so I listen to the world."

Waits had contemplated making "Real Gone" on his own before deciding to bring in such longtime instrumental foils as guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Larry Taylor to beef up his songs.

The wrenching ballads and Delta-blues-meet-industrial-funk songs they created together provide a perfect soundtrack for life in an increasingly harrowing world. Mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms, raw backwoods vamps and dissonant shrieks, the album is edgy and abrasive even in its periodic tender moments. Its lyrics are by turns abrasive and gentle, desolate and disconcerting, with several songs grimly focusing on these war-torn times.

His first piano-free album, "Real Gone" finds Waits deliberately overloading his microphone to achieve a distorted, in-your-face sound. The results suggest what blues pioneer Little Walter would have sounded like if he'd replaced his harmonica with primal screams. The blues influence is further felt on "Baby Gonna Leave Me," which makes a lyrical allusion to Robert Johnson's 1936 classic, "32/20 Blues."

"I throw all that stuff in there because it's always going around in my head," Waits said. " . . . the only wild card (when making music), really, is you. And in some cases, all hell breaks loose, and that's just really great when it does. But you can't (repeat yourself)."

Waits has previously dabbled with creating rhythms with his mouth, which in hip-hop parlance is known as being a "human beatbox."

But "Real Gone" marks the first time he has layered almost an entire album with his often distorted mouth percussion tracks, all of which he recorded live, rather than have them endlessly repeat on an electronic loop.

"I came in with all these mouth rhythms, beatboxing, that I recorded in my bathroom at home," said Waits, who credits his mouth rhythm style to discussions he has had in recording studios.

"When you're talking to a drummer and trying to get him to do something, you can't really talk about it, mathematically. So you go: Oom pow, ah boom bop pow oopa. You start to speak in gestures and grunts, and (by) pointing."

Given how effective his orally generated rhythm tracks are, would he consider making an entirely a cappella album?

"We were going to do that with this one, but then thought this might be a little too crude," replied Waits, who concludes "Real Gone" with "Chickaboom," an unlisted bonus track that showcases his unaccompanied human beatboxing skills. "The idea was to do something a little more bread and water - just the bare essential rudiments of music - no geegaws, no buttons, no frills, no peanuts, no drinks."

Waits and Brennan have three teen children. Their oldest son, Casey, 19, contributes percussion work and turntable scratching to "Real Gone."

Like his brother, Sullivan, and sister, Kellesimone, Casey is an avid hip-hop fan. Their love of the music influenced their famed dad's new album.

"Hip-hop is filled with the noise and the rebellion and the anger and energy of today," Waits said. "Most people, because it's young people's music - unless you have kids - don't stay in touch with what's going on right now. There's no reason to; you just listen to your old records, just like your mom and dad did.

"With kids you say: 'Shut that thing off!' Then you think: 'Maybe I better listen to it.'"

Waits sounded bemused as he recounted one of his recording studio exchanges with Casey, who performs on eight of "Real Gone's" 15 tracks.

"I'd say: 'Hit the floor tom with a mallet, and the snare drum upside down with a regular stick.' And he'd say: 'Yeah, right.' All he heard me say was: 'Take out the trash.'"

Waits' meticulous but liberating approach to writing songs and recording has earned him a fiercely loyal following over the years. It includes Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and past and present members of the punk-funk band Primus, two of whom - bassist Les Claypool and drummer Brain - perform on "Real Gone."

What qualities does Waits seek in his musical collaborators?

"A certain amount of bravery is essential, as far as avoiding the obvious, and people who can sleep anywhere and eat with their hands," he said. "You have to develop your own language with them. . . . "

Beyond a command of the musical lexicon, he looks for fellow mavericks who are willing to stretch and subvert what they know in order to explore and embrace the unknown.

"When somebody is playing music on an instrument they're unfamiliar with, you always get interesting results," Waits said. "The fingers always want to go where they've been before, so the entire discovery process (comes) by 'unfamiliarizing' yourself with the new keys or surfaces or strings. Sometimes the things you haven't played on before sound the best."

This approach also lends itself to what some artists call "happy surprises." It's a phenomenon Waits welcomes.

"Music moves forward through its mistakes," he affirmed. "That's what I like to do, you know, play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey now and then with songs and instruments. Because in a sense you're learning something and you're being told what to do. . . .

"Basically, you're making songs. It's kind of like catching a rabbit: You want to make sure you catch something that's living, and it's tricky. So it's more like photographing ghosts. You're setting up this equipment, this elaborate trap, this very expensive contraption, so that you can capture the fly in the bottle.

"It's hard sometimes. Because I think, basically, songs don't like to be recorded; I think they change in the process. At the same time, until a song is recorded, it's really not finished. It's a delicate operation and requires in some ways almost medical precision and, at the same time, almost a total blind intuition."

Waits has thrived - artistically, if not commercially - by making consistently challenging music and refusing to compromise. What exactly does he want to give somebody who buys one of his albums, or attends one of his rare live performances?

"Somebody will get nothing from it; somebody else, it might change their life," said Waits, whose last U.S. tour was in 1999. "That's the way it was with me, listening to music when I was a kid. I was looking for something, you know, (like when) you see a Fellini movie. I saw (the intense, Holocaust-themed 1965 drama) 'The Pawnbroker' when I was 9. It was on the bill with - this is really weird - 'Mary Poppins.'

"They had the end of the 'Poppins' run and then the start of 'The Pawnbroker,' but I didn't leave the theater. I thought it was a double bill and these two films were being presented together. I think it scarred me."

Waits laughed with delight when told this skewed cinematic experience just might explain his unusual aesthetic sensibilities, if not more.

"Yeah," he chortled. "That explains everything!" 'There was always music in the house'

'San Diego Serenade" was one of the standout songs on Tom Waits' 1973 debut album, "Closing Time," but the former San Diegan has kept his distance ever since, figuratively and literally.

"I don't want to make this one of those hometown boys (make good) interviews," cautioned Waits, a 1968 graduate of Chula Vista's Hilltop High School. " . . . I don't want to be the homecoming queen."

Asked to explain, the Pomona-born Waits demurred.

Instead, he offered a fond reminiscence of the five years he spent as a teenager working as a cook at Napoleone Pizza House in National City. He paid homage to that period in "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)," another standout song from "Closing Time."

"Well, let's see," Waits said. "I was 14 and worked at Napoleone's pizza parlor at 619 National Ave. - to this day the best job I ever had. I worked there from (the age of) 14 to 19. There is no better job. You got the square dancers in there, and the motorcycle clubs and the sailors.

"Right across the street was the Western (nightclub), where Hank Williams used to play, not when I was there (but earlier). . . . I liked hearing (that) Hank Williams had played there. Iwo Jima Eddie's was a (nearby) tattoo parlor; I have some swabbie in me, man.

"But it was really my home, National City, and I loved my job working there. I learned a lot at Napoleone, and the jukebox had 'I Can't Stop Loving You' (a 1962 hit for Ray Charles) - I must've heard it 10,000 times. I was a cook and dishwasher - you did everything there.

"Throw 'em a little business! They are still there. Go on over there and say 'hi' to Sal (the owner)."

Waits spoke with similar warmth about his parents, who still live here.

"I was always hearing music when I was a kid, so I'd like to say 'hi' to my mom, Alma, and my (step) dad, Jim," he said.

"My mom came from a big family and they were all very musical; everybody stood around the piano when they got together. She had three sisters and they all sang in four-part harmony. . . . Growing up, there was always music in the house - mariachi music and church music and stuff on the radio.

"Radio used to be really interesting in the old days. So you would have disparate musical moments presented together, which is what I kind of try to do on my records, which is visit different places and combine and reconcile some of these difficult-to-reconcile musical lives of mine."

Waits began nurturing those musical lives performing at such area folk-music hot spots as Folk Arts Rare Records (now sadly facing closure), SDSU's Back Door and the Heritage, a Pacific Beach club where he moonlighted as a doorman-cum-bouncer and befriended fellow San Diego musician Jack Tempchin.

It was during this period that Waits realized he wanted to "be an old man," at least musically speaking. That goal was furthered by his friendship with San Diego pianist-composer Francis Thumm, who has collaborated on several of Waits' albums and theatrical productions, notably 1983's groundbreaking "Swordfishtrombones" album. Thumm was also a member of the avant-garde Harry Partch Ensemble, whose music profoundly influenced Waits.

"Tom has a background that he doesn't give himself credit for, a very old-fashioned music background, where you're making music in the home," said Thumm, who once studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein. "He got a lot of that from his mom and church songs. When we met, that's what we found ourselves doing, singing great tunes by Gershwin.

"We'd sit down at the piano and go through all these Gershwin songs, like a couple of old men in the retirement home. Tom is great at leveling the playing field in music; there's no distinction for him between classical or any other style. He's a slave to sound and to music, and you have him from the instant you play anything for him. It's a very childlike response, and also very refined."

Waits and Thumm met here in 1969, when both were 20. They soon began making home recordings together, often with a proudly warped sense of humor.

"We'd create a premise and work through it and do routines," Thumm recalled. "For instance, I'd be a retired truck driver who went into piano teaching, and I had the instrumental attack of a truck driver, and Tom would be this little boy coming in for a lesson. Another tape we made was 'Frank Sinatra Sings the Music of Jim Morrison.' My favorite one was Tom singing (The Doors') 'Riders on the Storm,' as Frank. We're still doing stuff like that."

Alas, there is no record of Waits having performed in San Diego since a late-1978 show at the long-defunct Roxy Theater in Pacific Beach. His most recent North American tour, in 1999, came no closer than Los Angeles.

"I guess it's easier for me to play in Iowa or Wisconsin or North Dakota, where I don't know anybody. It frees me," Waits said.

"And," he added with perfect comic timing, "the guest list is much smaller."

Notes:

(1) I don't want to be the homecoming queen: meaning Waits doesn't want to be associated with San Diego as being the place where he started his musical career, ic. working at Napoleone Pizza House and playing at The Heritage.

(2) Blind Boys of Alabama: The Blind Boys Of Alabama covered "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and "Way Down In The Hole" on their album Spirit Of The Century. April 24, 2001 Label: EMD/ Real World Records.

(3) Play like your hair is on fire: As first mentioned in "Mojo Interview With Tom Waits" Mojo magazine (USA) April, 1999 by Barney Hoskyns (TW: "When you say you want musicians to play like their hair is one fire, you want someone who understands what that means. Sometimes that requires a very particular person that you have a shorthand with over time.")

(4) Gavin Bryars: "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet": Version with Tom Waits published by Mnemonic/ (MCPS/PRS), 1993 Official release: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet - Gavin Bryars, POINT Music, 1993. Further reading: "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet"

(5) A studio, that's an hour away: Prairie Sun recording studio in Cotati/ California. Former chicken ranch where Waits recorded: Night On Earth, Bone Machine, The Black Rider (Tchad Blacke tracks) and Mule Variations. Further reading: Prairie Sun official site

(6) Ray Charles: Charles died at 73, in Beverly Hills, California on June 10, 2004 (3 months before this interview)

(7) I'll get my 32/20 and it'll have to do: refers to the Robert Johnson song "32-20 Blues" (recorded on 26 November 1936 in San Antonio, Texas). "I sent for my baby, and she don't come I sent for my baby, man, and she don't come All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can't help her none And if she gets unruly, thinks she don't want do If she gets unruly, and thinks she don't want do Take my 32-20, and cut her half in two She got a thirty-eight special, but I believe it's most too light She got a thirty-eight special, but I believe it's most too light I got a 32-20, got to make the camps alright If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can't help her none I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my Gatlin' gun I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my Gatlin' gun You made me love you, now your man have come Aw baby, where you stay last night? Ah baby, where you stay last night? You got your hair all tangled, and you ain't talkin' right Got a thirty-eight special, boys, it do very well Got a thirty-eight special, boys, it do very well I Got a 32-20 now, and it's a burnin' -- If I send for my baby, man and she don't come If I send for my baby, man and she don't come All the doctors in Wisconsin sure can't help her none Hey hey baby, where you stay last night Hey hey baby, where you stayed last night You didn't come home until the sun was shinin' bright Ah boys, I just can't take my rest Ah boys, I just can't take my rest With this 32-20 layin' up and down my breast."

(8) I had heard "Abiline" on the radio and "El Paso":
- Abiline: Music/words - Lester Brown, John D. Loudermilk, Bob Gibson ( '63 Acuff-Rose Music). Abiline is in West Texas north of Austin. "Abilene, Abilene Prettiest town I ever seen. Folks down there don't treat you mean In Abilene, my Abilene. I sit alone most every night Watch them trains roll out of sight Wish that they were carryin' me To Abilene, my Abilene. Crowded city, ain't nothin' free Nothin' in this town for me Wish to God that I could be In Abilene, my Abilene. How I wish that train would come Take me back where I come from. Take me where I want to be In Abilene, my Abilene. Rotgut whiskey numbs the brain If I stay here I'll go insane. Think I need a change of scene To Abilene, my Abilene. Outside my window cold rain falls, Sit here starin' at the walls; If I was home, I'd be serene In Abilene, my Abilene."
- El Paso: Marty Robbins. "Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl Night time would find me in Rosa's cantina Music would play and Feleena would whirl Blacker than night where the eyes of Feleena Wicked and evil while casting a spell My love was deep for this Mexican maiden I was in love, but in vain I could tell One night a wild young cowboy came in Wild as the West Texas wind Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing With wicked Feleena, the girl that I loved So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden Down went his hand for the gun that he wore My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor Just for a moment I stood there in silence Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there I had but one chance and that was to run Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran Out where the horses were tied I caught a good one It looked like it could run Up on its back and away I did ride Just as fast as I could From the West Texas town of El Paso Out to the badlands of New Mexico Back in El Paso my life would be worthless Everything's gone in life, nothing is left It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden My love is stronger than my fear of death I saddled up and away I did go Riding alone in the dark Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me Tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart And at last here I am On the hill overlooking El Paso I can see Rosa's cantina below My love is strong and it pushes me onward Down off the hill to Feleena I go Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys Off to my left ride a dozen or more Shouting and shooting I can't let them catch me I have to make it to Rosa's back door Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel A deep burning pain in my side Though I am trying to stay in the saddle I'm getting weary, unable to ride But my love for Feleena is strong And I rise where I've fallen Though I am weary I can't stop to rest I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle I feel the bullet go deep in my chest From out of nowhere Feleena has found me Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for One little kiss and Feleena, goodbye."

(9) Casey: 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)

(10) The Kaiser Orchestra: further reading: Kaizers Orchestra official site

(11) Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist. Developed and played home made instruments. Released the album 'The World Of Harry Partch'. Major influence for the album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Partch died in San Diego, 1974. Further reading: Partch, Harry 1; Partch, Harry 2; Partch, Harry 3;

(12) Bad Moon Rising: Written by: J. Fogerty. Performed by: Creedence Clearwater Revival. The original chorus goes: "Don't go around tonight, Well, it's bound to take your life, There's a bad moon on the rise."