Tom Waits
Mule Conversations

Tom, Mule Variations, it's your first new full-length record since 1993. And listening to it, the songs, they seem like an introduction to all the various styles that you've worked in over the years. Is it sort of like coming full circle?

Well gee I hope not, Jody. I get the image of somebody with their -- one foot nailed to the floor when I think about coming full circle. If I was coming full circle, I guess I'd move back to the town I grew up in, you know. At the same time, I guess I am circling in some way. Maybe I'm circling. I'm looking for a place to land. Ever since Swordfishtrombones I've tried to explore diverse musical styles and that type of thing. It touched on a few of them here, on this record. You know, some blues and a lot of... different kinds of things. I think there's some -- a lot of variety.

Well, let's take the title: Mule Variations. You know, mule has so many connotations. To me, when I think of mules, I think about work. So does that mean that these 16 songs on the album are 16 variations of your work?

Gee, I never looked at it like that. My wife said, "I didn't marry a man, I married a mule." That's what she said. You know, it's like the Goldberg variations. Only these are the mule variations. People don't write as much about animals as they sho uld. Perhaps they will now in the future. I don't know. No, it's just a -- it's one of those titles that stuck. At first I thought, that's -- I don't know what that is. I don't know what people are going to think Mule Variations are. But, I mean, we just hung on to it. You know, we'd done the song, "Get Behind the Mule". We'd done it several times. We did it -- you know, we did a Chinese version and we did a cha-cha version and ah, you know, raga version and all these different -- and acappella. And so, at one point, somebody mentioned that we had all these different variations on the same song. We had these mule variations. So we started referring to the record as Mule Variations, but in kind of a humorous way. And then it stuck, so...

Well, I heard there was like 25 songs written for this album. And ultimately, you used 16. The last album, I think, was Bone Machine, last album of new studio stuff. Have you been writing the whole time in between Bone Machine and Mule Variations?

Well, no, I haven't been. I have things here and there. You know, I accumulate, but I -- for the most part, I haven't been writing the whole time, or I'd have too many songs. I wouldn't know what to do with those songs. Yeah, we had 25. And then yo u put 16 on the record and the rest of them wind up in the orphanage. That's kind of how it works. And then, you know, you use them on something else or you cut them up and use them for parts. It's kind of like being in the salvage business when you're a songwriter. You pay attention to things and particularly things that other people don't seem to need or aren't using or threw away in a conversation and didn't pay any attention to it and hang on to it and use it later. It happens all the time.

You have a partnership with your wife, Kathleen Brennan, which I know is multifaceted. But I was wondering about your partnership with Kathleen as far as the songwriting goes.

Well, yeah, we've been writing and working together, collaborating together since Swordfishtrombones. She's great to work with. It's, you know, one of those things where it's, you wash, I'll dry. She's done a lot of things. She's an excellent pianist. She was a night clerk at a big resort hotel in Florida and then she was an elevator operator at the Taft Hotel. And then she was a -- played the organ on a cruise ship for a while. And then she was -- she's an opera buff and a bug collector, and, you know, she's done a lot of things. And she has dreams like Heironymous Bosch. So she writes more from her dreams. I write more from the world or from the newspaper or something like that. And somehow it all works together. She's -- she's gre at. So it works.

Do any of the songs that you've co-written with Kathleen, do they come from her presenting an idea and then you fleshing it out or is it usually the other way around?

Oh, it's a little bit of both. It's a free for all. You know, all the songs develop in a different way. Some of them, you know, songs happen and they're finished in five minutes. Others, you know, work on them over and over again and change them an d develop them and let them evolve. You know, every song is different. I usually sit down and write a collection of songs. You say, okay, for the next -- it's like fishing, you know. Just go out there and wait sometimes. That's what David Lynch said. He said, "You've got to have a very comfortable chair and you have to be very quiet if you want to catch the big ones."

On the Mule Variations, there's a lot of spirituality, there's a lot of animals. But one thing I've noticed is an obsession with Asian things, not only on this record, but going back to a song like Singapore, but on the new album, we've got Filipino Box Spring Hog and a mention of Saigon and a mention of Indonesia. And Mule Variations opens with Big in Japan. Is it the Japanese who have an obsession with you?

Gee, I don't know. I hadn't really thought of it that way or in that context. Don't know. It's one of those -- it's a motif, I guess. But had it not been pointed out to me, I never would have thought about it. Sometimes you just reach for somethin g when you're working on a song. And you might -- that's why I like to have maps up on the wall when we're recording, because it always feels like we're off on an adventure. And I like to refer to the maps.

Well, are you big in Japan?

Well, I hope to be big in Japan after this. I don't know if I'm big in Japan. I've been over there several times, but I haven't been there in many years. Yeah, the people that are just big in Japan, which is, this is a song about that. You can't wo rk anywhere else but Japan, and, so it's just a goof, you know.

"Big in Japan" opens your new album Mule Variations and there's some strange sounds the minute you put the CD in. Is that a sample of your own vocal percussion or what's happening there?

It's just a contest I had with myself in a hotel room. I wanted to see if I could sound like a band all by myself, without any instruments. So I stood banging on the chest of drawers and the wall and headboard, just trying to, you know, get that soun d, like that full band sound. And so that's what I wound up with and, you know, hung on to it. Looped it and sampled it -- or sampled it and looped it or whatever they call it.

That heavy rhythmic sound that's on "Big in Japan" started turning up on your records around Swordfishtrombones, you know. Between 1980 when Heartattack And Vine came out, and then three years later there was Swordfishtrombones, there was a big shift in the work of TomWaits. What happened back then?

It was a James Brown disorder. There's no hope. But with research, they say that they might find a cure. I don't know. I guess just trying to do things. Up until that point, I was doing more -- I guess there was more of an abundance of ballads on the records. And then I started banging on things and playing the drums myself and just trying to do things that sounded more angry. Actually, I don't do enough of it. I'd like to do more of it. I'd like to do a record of just that. Maybe the next on e.

That was around the time that you moved from one label to another. I think that's around the time you met Kathleen. And also, around the time when you were doing some of your first movie work, right?

Yeah, there was a lot going on back there. I was with a manager for a long time and broke off with my manager and was kind of out on my own. And Kathleen and I kind of had a little mom and pop business, which was my career. And I don't know, tried to write songs in different ways, be less precious about it and more spontaneous. And I used to sit at the piano more like Tin Pan Alley style. And I would just wait for a song. I always, I guess, fantasized about what it must have been like to work in the Brill building and write songs in that fashion. And then I realized I was missing something. And so I started paying more attention to how kids write songs. Kids write songs really fast. And they write them about anything. And then they're gone. And so I tried to approach it more from that angle.

So are you always looking for things -- non-musical instruments that you can make noise with?

Well, sure. But I think everybody does that in the studio. That's just in the natural course of recording. Inevitably, someone will look around the room and find something that, when they hit it, it sounds better than their cymbal or better than the ir bass drum. You might use the dumpster in the alley. Get a bigger sound than your bass drum. So you go ahead and do it. You put a mic in it and you use it. That's just kind of part of the whole evolution and forward development and movement of reco rding itself. You know, from being curious and inquisitive and blasphemous or, you know, investigative. And that's just part of recording.

Where did you record Mule Variations?

Right down the hill from here, in a small studio called Prairie Sun. I've worked there before. I've done two records there -- three records there now. So just a small room. Not really a recording studio. The room itself is not a recording studio. It's just a concrete room. But they run these lines down from the board. And that's where we work so...

And we're here in Northern California. On Chocolate Jesus on the record, there's a rooster crowing - where did that come from? 'Cause the rooster is crowing on cue!

Well, hey, a rooster will never crow when you're crowing. They wait 'til there's some clean air. They wait 'til you're done and then they get the best spot. Which I've found about recording outside, because you -- you know, most people are afraid to record outside because they're going to have too many collisions with the natural world. But I've found if you do go outside, everything collaborates with you, including airplanes. And movies-- they make movies outside. You have to wait, sometimes, fo r a train to pass or a school to let out or whatever. Dogs, kids, trains, cars, planes and chickens will kind of find their own place, if you do go outside, so...

Was there a point for you when you realized that the sonic atmosphere of your song was almost as important as the lyrics. I'm thinking about Pony on the new album. It's a sad, desolate song and it has a sad, desolate sound.

I guess that particular one we wanted to have it bare and by itself, like those Lomax recordings, those Library of Congress recordings that I love so much. Yeah, you try to find the right sound for the record. That's the whole challenge of recording is to find the appropriate environment and atmosphere for the song. What suits it. And that's kind of what you spend most of your time doing. Where should we record this? How should we record this? It worked -- on that one it worked.

The song "Pony" has a lot of characters. These names, Burn-Face Jake, Blind Darby, I think you're in Evelyn's Kitchen. Are these real people that live in these songs?

Evelyn's Kitchen, that's my Aunt Evelyn, who passed away during the making of the record. And her and my Uncle (inaudible) had 10 kids and lived in a place called Gridley. And I guess, I've been far away from home, I've thought about her kitchen a lo t and then a lot of people feel the same way when they've been far away from home. Dreamed about getting back home to her kitchen. So that's why we put her in there. And -- a tribute to Evelyn. The other people are just different people I've come across over the years and known, heard about, read about.

Now, every one of your songs you give it its own musical setting and it reflects the lyrics or brings it to light. Do you cast the musicians in your songs like they're actors in a play. Or do you feel like on this album you have a band working?

Oh, we took it more song by song. It started out with a group, and then kind of stripped things away and add things and it's more elimination and -- we started out with a certain group, but it did change.

There's definitely continuity with Mule Variations because you're working with a lot of people you've worked with in the past. But there's something that's very different, because Mule Variations is being released on Epitaph Records. And your enti re career -- you worked with big labels like Elektra and Island. Why did you choose to work with Epitaph this time?

Well, you know, they put together a very impressive proposal. I was in between labels. They're young and hungry and do an excellent job. We just did one record with them. Probably do more. You know, it's owned and operated by musicians. And it's just been a real good place for us right now. You know, if I wanted to do a record of just cha-chas, and play only in Buenos Aires, you know, in a place that held three people, they'd say, "Cool, we like it. I can get behind that." They like unusual ch allenges and they -- you know, a lot of the larger labels, you find yourself falling between the cracks sometimes, if what you're doing is not -- doesn't have a wide, broad appeal. And so they're kind of eccentric like me. And that's what I like about i t.

Speaking of eccentric, there's a song on Mule Variations. It's a spoken-word piece, a little reminiscent of the work of Ken Nordine called What's He Building? Do your neighbors look at you with this sort of bewildered curiosity?

Gee, I hope not. I don't know. Yeah, it's kind of tipping my hat to Ken Nordine, who was a big influence on me. And I've listened to him, you know, since I started recording. Ken lives in Chicago. He has a peculiar imagination and tells remarkable stories. This one started out as a song. I wasn't able to get it to fly as a song. And so it just took the words and started talking them. And it all just kind of came together. So it's just what we all do to each other, I guess, neighbors living in an apartment building or on a block, wherever you are. We all know two or three things about the people we live around and we put them together and create a story. He said he was from Tampa, but yet, he's got Indiana plates. Gee, what is that about? H e wears all his clothes inside out. He walks backwards. He shaved his head, only on one side. And so we all do that, I guess. And just wondering about those things. It's just a song that happened pretty fast. And then the music in the background is -- was spontaneous as well. We just set up a room with a lot of percussion and everyone just kind of moved around, banging on things while they talked.

"What's He Building?". So, Tom, what is he building in there?

He's a tweaker. I don't know. My theory is that he's talking about himself. I don't know what it is. It's just one of those strange little short stories.

"What's He Building?" is like a short film. And, of course, it's no secret that you've done a lot of film work over the years in movies like Down By Law, Short Cuts, Rumble Fish, Bram Stokers' Dracula. When you're doing this film work, does that free up your musical writing in terms of being able to explore other characters besides yourself?

Well, I do some acting, but I -- to say that I'm an actor is perhaps a little ambitious. I do some acting. I'm working at it. Usually I end up doing a very small part in a large film, or I'm offered a large part in a very small film that no one will ever see. So, film work is a lot of dead air. You have to bring a book. You have to bring a library. It's a lot of waiting around. With movies, I say the acting's free and you charge them for the waiting. But I enjoy them. I do one, you know, ever y now and then and I get a kick out of it. But as far as writing, you know, when I'm in the studio, songs really are, at their best, are like little movies for the ears. I'm in charge and I'm producing them and casting them and directing them and -- so it's much more interesting to be able to be responsible for the whole thing, instead of just your little bit.

Well, do you feel like you're growing as an actor, because you've got another film coming out this summer, right?

Yeah, I have a small part in this picture called Mystery Men, which is a superhero movie. William Macy and Ben Stiller and Eddie Izzard. Lot's of people. Janeane Garafolo, Paul Reubens. So it's, you know, one of those superheros that -- the guys th at make their own costumes and argue with their wives and never get the girl. And they complain a lot. They all complain a lot about their position. And then when they get a chance in the movie to save the day, you know, it's pretty wild. But I play a weapons designer. I'm not a superhero, but I do have a, I guess, a key role in that sense.

But you didn't tell me. Do you feel like you're getting better as an actor?

Yeah, I do. Yeah, I do. I like doing a small bit. Less pressure. But I enjoy it. Yeah, I enjoy it.

You've not only acted in films, but you've done music for films. Dead Man Walking recently, going all the way back to One From the Heart.

And there were some theatrical productions you were involved with. One was Frank's Wild Years, which, I think, that was done in Chicago...why didn't you ever take that on the road to other cities?

Too much work. Too much trouble. A play is a lot of work. So...you know, we did it and it ran and people came and saw it. And everyone seemed to love it. And we had fun doing it. And that was it. It was good being in Chicago. I've got a lot of friends in Chicago. We did it at Steppenwolf Theater. They're all amazing people and great actors. You've got to be really devoted to a play in order to get on it and stay on it and then ride it all over the country. So I don't know if we really had th at level of commitment.

Well, what about your level of commitment to playing some live concerts after the release of Mule Variations?

We'll do some dates somewhere. I'm not sure where or how many...Buenos Aires for one night in that small little place that only seats three. No, we're going to play some places. You know, probably the big cities. Touring is hard. There are a lot of variables. And I've been doing it a long time. And so...I don't know. We'll probably go to, Portugal and Kansas and Tampa and then come home. No, no, I'm not promising. Some of these laces we'll go to and some of these places we won't.

If you were to play a concert, would you consider any of your material open game or would you just be concentrating on the later stuff?

I don't know. I get requests for things from the early records. I do a smattering of that. It's hard. Pretty much you've got to do whatever you feel like doing. I'm not a juke box, you know. So I play whatever I feel. And different bands are su ited for different material. Try to find a group that can accommodate a lot of different styles.

It seems like one of the moods you're in lately, at least after listening to Mule Variations, is a very personal mood. There's a lot of direct songs here, even some sentimental tear jerkers, if you'll give me that. Tell me about one, Picture in a Frame.

Oh, yeah. Well, that's a song to Kathleen. And, you know, I don't know what to say about it. It's a love song. So there.

So much of the new album, Mule Variations is...this is a bluesier record than some of your later stuff. Is there a reason for that?

Well, I don't know where it all came from. Maybe I'm kind of re-examining my folk roots...my roots, as far as music, is perhaps diverse sometimes. You know, sometimes you try and find a way to reconcile the diversity of your influences. And so you li sten to Elmer Bernstein and you listen to Skip James and you like 'em both. And then you'll never see them on a bill together. But they can be on the bill together in you, right? In some way, in some form or another or on your record, you can have elem ents of those styles. It's really my wife that started helping me see that you can find the place where Leadbelly and Schoenberg overlap...yeah. Or Cryin' Sam Collins and Beefheart, you know, intersect with Monk or Miles.

The Mule Variations, you know, one minute it's really primal with the blues thing going on. And the next minute, you're kind of in outer space. I was thinking that was kind of where Dylan was at on his record Time Out of Mind. What did you make o f the last Dylan record?

Oh, I love that record. Yeah, that was a great record. Great sound, too. You know, very intimate and... I love all his records, really.

Are there any current musicians that you like to listen to?

Oh yeah. Well, I like Guy Clark a lot. I've known him for a long time. And I like Lucinda Williams. I like her a lot. Met her at some point back a couple of months ago. She came through and she was playing on a bill with Dylan and Van Morrison. I got to chat with her a little bit. That was very pleasant. Loved her record. Sparklehorse, you know, those guys? I like all that stuff. And who else? Tricky. I like Tricky a lot. Portishead and Eddie Izzard. Yeah, you know, this band called The Mean Old Man Next Door? They got that record out called Tijuana Moon. You know that one? That's a good one.

So you just rattled off a pretty eclectic mix of artists there. And a pretty eclectic mix of artists have done your songs: Springsteen, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, Marianne Faithfull. What makes a cover of one of your songs please you?

You have to kind of bury it and then dig it up later. Because when you first hear it, it doesn't sound right. But it's a good thing people do other people's songs. It's just -- you know...and then when I use somebody else's song, I'll kick a hole in it. You know, you just do, because you're doing somebody else's song. You're going to bend it around to fit you, so it feels right for you. You'll break the arm just so it will fit into the coffin. You're just going to do that. Everybody does. So I 'll do it and...But, you know, a lot of them I do like and some of them I go, "Oh, man, they -- boy, they missed the mark on that." But all in all, it's still very flattering when somebody does your song. I liked the Ramones doing that I Don't Want to Gr ow Up. I liked Jeffrey Lee Pierce did Pasties and a G-String and... there's a couple. But, yeah, all of them -- oh, Johnny Cash did a song of mine, which was a big thrill. I said, "Okay. I can quit now. I'm all done." On that last record of his, the one he did with Rick Rubin.

Like Leonard Cohen, Tom, you were "born with the gift of a golden voice." What's the most interesting way anyone ever described your voice?

Oh, jeez, you know, I don't know. I'm the gravelly-voiced singer. Invariably, that's how I'm referred to. And so I don't know. There have been lots of descriptions of it. Gargling with various cleaning products, that type of thing. They're trying to be funny. I'm okay with that.

Do you ever surf the Internet?

I've never been in the water.

Well, you've got some obsessive fans who keep up some pretty intense websites. And I know they have a festival devoted to your work in New York every year. How do you deal with such fanaticism when you meet these people?

I don't meet these people. I get letters from people. I got a letter from a guy in Michigan. He was like nine. He brought one of my records to school and he got in big trouble. And he wanted me to come out there and defend him. He wanted me to fly out there and go to school with him, talk to his teacher. I said, "Well, I just can't do that. I'm busy here with other things, and..." Another guy, this fellow wrote and said that he -- him and his wife ran a motel out in Wichita and then they sold i t. But they wanted me to go by the old motel that he used to own and say hello to the new owners. But I didn't know this guy. The connection was just too vague. He said he had had double bypass surgery and everything. Yeah, people tell you things in these letters that they probably shouldn't. But because I'm a stranger, maybe it's easier. It's like talking to a bartender, probably.

So Mule Variations, it's finished. It's coming out. You release it. It's out of your hands. What do you expect to happen with the music after that?

I don't know. Sylvia Miles said, "People will come and go, but theatrical memorabilia will never let you down as long as you keep it in clear plastic." And that's always stayed with me. I don't know what that means, but I always loved that.

 

 

 


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