Mule Conversations

Tom Waits
Tom Waits, Paramount Theatre, SXSW 99

photograph by John Anderson

The songs Tom Waits has written over the last 25 years are so deep and wide emotionally, it's hard to believe one mere mortal is responsible for all of them. From "The Heart of Saturday Night" to "Downtown Train" and beyond, the songwriter's myriad compositions are filled with otherworldly music and universal guttural utterances that seem to come from on high. Yet here he is, in the flesh, on a crisp February afternoon, ambling from his blue, 1970 Coupe DeVille toward Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, Calif., carrying a small stack of books under his arm and wearing a pair of reading glasses that lend him a professorial air. He has on the same dark denim jacket and jeans seen at Austin's Paramount Theatre two weeks later for his South by Southwest performance, and is clean-shaven except for a small blond soul patch below his lower lip.

That Waits is smaller in person than in song makes him fairly easy to talk to. In order to break the ice before our "formal" conversation, we chat about Austin musicians like Charlie Sexton and Alejandro Escovedo, with whom he is acquainted, chuckling about all the water under the bridge since he taped an edition of Austin City Limits in 1977. Because we're recording a promotional interview disc in conjunction with his new album, Mule Variations (out April 27, see accompanying review), Waits has asked for an outline of the questions beforehand. He doesn't want to talk about his children or his impending 50th birthday; otherwise he answers freely by thinking out loud, laughing good-naturedly, and rapping in a low rumble like he was still playing the disc jockey character Lee Baby Sims in the film Down by Law. Some of his answers turn out to be stock shtick he repeats a few weeks later on VH1's Storytellers, but for the most part he digs deep for these Mule Conversations.

Austin Chronicle: Mule Variations is your first full-length album of new material since 1993. Listening to the songs, they seem like an introduction to all the various styles you've worked in over the years. Is it like coming full circle?

photographs by John Anderson

Tom Waits: Well, gee, I hope not, Jody. I get the image of somebody with 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. At the same time, I guess I am circling in some way. Maybe I'm circling -- looking for a place to land. Ever since Swordfishtrombones, I've tried to explore diverse musical styles and that type of thing. I 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 a lot of variety.

AC: Take the title: Mule Variations. Mule has so many connotations. When I think of mules, I think about work. Are the 16 songs on the album 16 variations of your work?

TW: 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 should. Perhaps they will now in the future, I don't know.

Tom Waits
photograph by John Carrico

No, it's just one of those titles that stuck. I don't know what people are going to think Mule Variations are. We'd done the song, "Get Behind the Mule." We'd done it several times. We did a Chinese version, and we did a cha-cha version, and a raga version -- and a cappella. 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.

AC: You have a partnership with your wife, Kathleen Brennan, which I know is multifaceted. How does it work as far as the songwriting is concerned?

TW: Well, yeah, we've been writing and working together -- collaborating together -- since Swordfishtrombones. She's great to work with. It's one of those things where 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. Then she played the organ on a cruise ship for a while. She's an opera buff and a bug collector, and you know, she's done a lot of things. She has dreams like Hieronymous 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 great, so it works.

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

TW: 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 happen and they're finished in five minutes. Others, you work on them over and over again and change them and develop them and let them evolve. Every song is different. I usually sit down and write a collection of songs. It's like fishing, you know. You 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."

AC: On Mule Variations, there's a lot of spirituality, a lot of animals. But there also seems to be an obsession with Asian things, not only on this album with "Filipino Box Spring Hog" and references to Saigon and Indonesia, but going back to a song like "Singapore" [from 1985's Rain Dogs]. Mule Variations opens with "Big in Japan." Is it the Japanese who have an obsession with you?

Tom Waits
photograph by John Carrico

TW: Gee, I don't know. I hadn't really thought of it that way or in that context. 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 something when you're working on a song. 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.

AC: So, are you big in Japan?

TW: 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. This is a song about those people who can't work anywhere else but Japan, and, so it's just a goof, you know?

AC: "Big in Japan" is the first song on Mule Variations and there's some strange sounds the minute you put the CD on. Is that a sample of your own vocal percussion? What's happening there?

TW: 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 sound -- like that full band sound. That's what I wound up with; looped it and sampled it. Or sampled it and looped it or whatever they call it.

AC: That heavy rhythmic sound on "Big in Japan" started turning up on your albums around Swordfishtrombones. Between 1980, when Heartattack and Vine came out, and then three years later with Swordfishtrombones, there was a big shift in your sound. What happened?

TW: 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. And, uh, 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 one.

AC: That was around the time that you changed labels. I think that's also around the time you met Kathleen, and did some of your first movie work, right?

TW: Yeah, there was a lot going on back then. I was with a manager for a long time and broke off with my manager and was kind of out on my own. Kathleen and I kind of had a little mom and pop business, which was my career, and I don't know, I tried to write songs in different ways, be less precious about it and more spontaneous. I used to sit at the piano, Tin Pan Alley style, just waiting for a song. I guess I always 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. 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. So I tried to approach it more from that angle.

AC: Are you always looking for things you can make noise with -- non-musical instruments?

Tom Waits
photograph by John Carrico

TW: Well, sure. But I think everybody does that in the studio. That's just the natural course of recording. Inevitably, someone will look around the room and find something that, when they hit it, sounds better than their cymbal or better than their 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 mike in it and you use it. That's just kind of part of the whole evolution and forward development and movement of recording itself. You know, from being curious and inquisitive and blasphemous or investigative. That's just part of recording.

AC: Where did you record Mule Variations?

TW: 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.

AC: On "Chocolate Jesus" there's a rooster crowing. Where did that come from, 'cause the rooster's crowing on cue?!

TW: 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. 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, for 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.

AC: 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" from the new album. It's a sad, desolate song and it has a sad, desolate sound.

TW: 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. 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.

AC: 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?

TW: "Evelyn's Kitchen," that's my Aunt Evelyn, who passed away during the making of the record. Her and my uncle had 10 kids and lived in a place called Gridley. I guess I've been far away from home, and have thought about her kitchen a lot and that a lot of people feel the same way when they've been far away from home. I dreamed about getting back home to her kitchen. That's why we put her in there -- a tribute to Evelyn. The other people are just different people I've come across over the years -- known, heard about, read about.

AC: In all of your songs, the musical setting reflects the lyrics or brings them 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?

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

AC: There's continuity between Mule Variations and some of your past albums, because you're working with a lot of people you've worked with before. Yet there's something very different here, in that your entire career you worked with big labels like Elektra and Island, and Mule Variations is on Epitaph, an indie known for its punk rock roster.

TW: Well, they put together a very impressive proposal. I was 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. It's just a real good place for us right now. If I wanted to do a record of cha-chas, and play only in Buenos Aires in a place that held three people, they'd say, "Cool, we like it. I can get behind that." They like unusual challenges. A lot of the larger labels, you find yourself falling between the cracks sometimes, if what you're doing doesn't have a wide, broad appeal. They're kind of eccentric like me. That's what I like about it.

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

TW: 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 since I started recording. Ken lives in Chicago. He has a peculiar imagination and tells remarkable stories.

This one started out as a song, and I wasn't able to get it to fly as a song, so I just took the words and started saying them. And it all just kind of came together. It's just what we all do to each other, I guess, as 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's that about? He wears all his clothes inside out. He walks backwards. He shaved his head, only on one side. We all do that, I guess; it's just wondering about those things. A song that happened pretty fast. The music in the background 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.

AC: What is he building in there?

TW: 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.

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

TW: Well, I do some acting, but 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. 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, every now and then, and I get a kick out of it.

As far as writing, when I'm in the studio, songs really are, at their best, like little movies for the ears. I'm in charge and I'm producing them and casting them and directing them. It's much more interesting to be able to be responsible for the whole thing, instead of just your little bit.

AC: Do you feel like you're growing as an actor? You've got another film coming out this summer, right?

TW: 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. Lots of people. Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens. One of those superheros that makes their own costume and argues with their wives and never gets 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 key role in that sense.

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

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

AC: You've acted in films, and done music for them; Dead Man Walking recently, going all the way back to One From the Heart. There were some theatrical productions you were involved with as well. One was Franks Wild Years, which was done in Chicago. Why didn't you ever take that on the road to other cities?

TW: Too much work. Too much trouble. A play is a lot of work. We did it and it ran and people came and saw it. 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 the 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 that level of commitment.

AC: Will you tour Mule Variations?

Tom Waits
photograph by John Anderson

TW: 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. 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 places we'll go to and some of these places we won't.

AC: If you do some live dates, would you consider any of your material fair game or would you just be concentrating on the later stuff?

TW: 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 jukebox, you know. So I play whatever I feel. And different bands are suited for different, different material.

AC: Mule Variations is a bluesier album than some of your more recent efforts. Is there a reason for that?

TW: Well, I don't know where it all came from. Maybe I'm kind of re-examining my whole folk roots. My roots, as far as music, are perhaps diverse sometimes. Sometimes you try and find a way to reconcile the diversity of your influences. So you listen to Elmer Bernstein and you listen to Skip James and you like 'em both. And though you'll never see them on a bill together, 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 elements of those styles. It's really my wife that started helping me see that you can find the place where Leadbelly and Schoenberg overlap. Or Cryin' Sam Collins and Beefheart, you know, intersect with Monk or Miles or ...

AC: One minute Mule Variations is really primal and the next minute you're in outer space. I was thinking that's where Bob Dylan was at on Time Out of Mind. What did you make of the last Dylan record?

TW: 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.

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

TW: 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. 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.

AC: You just rattled off a pretty eclectic mix of artists there. And a pretty eclectic mix of artists have done your songs. What makes a cover of one of your songs please you?

Tom Waits
photograph by John Anderson

TW: 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. When I do 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. A lot of them I do like and some of them I go, "Oh, man. 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 Grow Up." I liked Jeffrey Lee Pierce doing "Pasties and a G-String" and -- there's a couple. Oh, Johnny Cash did a song of mine ["Down There by the Train"], 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.

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

TW: Oh, jeez, I don't know. I'm the gravelly-voiced singer. Invariably, that's how I'm referred to. 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.

AC: Do you ever surf the Internet?

TW: I've never been in the water.

AC: Well, you've got some obsessive fans who keep up some pretty intense Web sites. 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?

TW: 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. 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, him and his wife ran a motel out in Wichita and then they sold it. 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 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.

AC: Now that Mule Variations is finished and out of your hands, what do you expect will happen with the music?

TW: 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." That's always stayed with me. I don't know what that means, but I always loved that.

"Mule Conversations" with Tom Waits airs April 25 during the KGSR Sunday Night News, 8-10pm on 107.1 KGSR.

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