Monday, November 20, 2006 John Soeder Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
Tom Waits' new three-CD set, "Orphans," arrives in stores Tuesday, Nov. 21. The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter rarely gives interviews, but he recently spoke to The Plain Dealer's John Soeder...
WHERE ARE YOU AT THE MOMENT?
Oh, I'm at a little roadhouse out on 101.
ARE THEY TREATING YOU RIGHT?
Oh, yeah. Things are good. We were on the road for a while. We got home. We had in a good night in Cleveland.
I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO SEE YOU IN AKRON AS WELL AS IN CLEVELAND.
Oh, no kidding. Yeah, Akron was a good show. We taped that. We've been listening to that. It came out good.
TWO SHOWS IN ONE NIGHT HERE IN NORTHEAST OHIO - DID YOU ENJOY YOURSELF?
I had a good a time, yeah. That's why I went out there on the road, to see if I could have a good time. I'm a pretty comfy guy and I don't always enjoy myself on the road. So I said, "OK, we'll see if we can do this."
I got my son (Casey) playing drums, Larry Taylor on bass, Duke Robillard from the Fabulous Thunderbirds on guitar and Bent Clausen on keyboards and percussion.
It came out good.
YOU SAY YOU DIDN'T ALWAYS HAVE A FINE OLD TIME ON TOUR BEFORE. DID YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY OFFSTAGE THIS TIME, TO MAKE IT MORE COMFORTABLE?
Gee, I don't know about offstage. We traveled by bus. That was good.
Stayed out of the airports. Had a little extra time to go to a car show now and then or a music shop. I bought a two-by-four guitar in Cleveland.
I'D HEARD YOU DID SOME GUITAR SHOPPING HERE. HOW DID YOU MAKE OUT?
It's a guitar made out of a two-by-four. Y'know, in Iraq, they can't put guitars in the window, ¤'cause they're too sexy, with those curves. So I thought I could really clean up over there with the two-by-four guitar.
HOW DOES IT SOUND?
It don't sound bad. Through the right amp, it's pretty hot. I don't think I've ever seen one in my life. I don't think anybody else has, either.
It's a homemade guitar. It was hanging over the door. It was like the mascot instrument of the shop. It was in disrepair. It was an oddity.
SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS WAITING JUST FOR YOU.
I think it was.
"ORPHANS" IS AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES.
(laughs) Embarrassment of riches!
WITHOUT THE EMBARRASSMENT. OK, well . . . I HAVE TO TELL YOU: WHEN YOU HEAR AN ARTIST IS PUTTING OUT ONE OF THESE ODDS-AND-ENDS COLLECTION, YOU'RE NOT ALWAYS EXPECTING MUCH - YOU KNOW, SONGS THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE CUT FOR OTHER ALBUMS. Rejects. YOU TOOK THE WORD RIGHT OUT OF MY MOUTH. BUT I WAS PLEASANTLY BLOWN AWAY BY "ORPHANS." I FEEL THE OPPOSITE OF CHEATED.
Oh, OK. So you feel like you owe me more money - is that it? You need to write me a check (laughs). You need to come and work in my yard.
I REALIZE THERE HASN'T BEEN A QUESTION IN THERE YET. I GUESS WHAT I'M WONDERING IF YOU HAD HIGH HOPES FOR THE PROJECT. DID IT GAIN MOMENTUM, THE DEEPER YOU GOT INTO THIS STUFF?
Well, usually what happens when you start a project is, somebody pulls you off the tractor and asks you to do something else. That's why it usually takes a long time.
Yeah, it had its own momentum. I guess my feeling is, if you have songs left over from a record, I usually cut ¤'em up and use 'em for bait, to catch other songs.
A good butcher uses every part of the cow, as they say. I guess it did have some kind of momentum. You think, "What else would go well with this?" Y'know, like making supper.
TRUE STORY: I HAD THE "BRAWLERS" DISC ON THE OTHER NIGHT IN THE CAR. I WAS STOPPED AT A RAILROAD CROSSING AND "LUCINDA" CAME ON. THE RHYTHM -"HAH bomp, HAH bomp" - SYNCED UP PERFECTLY WITH THE FLASHING RED LIGHTS.
With what? THE RED LIGHTS.
Oh. I thought you were gonna say with the train, with the sound of the train going by.
No kidding? Well, that's always a good thing.
Songs are either slower than your heartbeat, at the same rate as your heart or faster. I don't know where those rhythms come from.
That was a mouth rhythm, y'know. My son is an expert in that, making it sound like a corporation (laughs).
"ROAD TO PEACE" IS RECEIVING A LOT OF ATTENTION. HOW DID YOU COME TO WRITE IT?
Well, it's right out of the New York Times, really.
It was a human-interest piece they did in the Times. They'll do a whole thing about a wedding planner in Baghdad, y'know, and the fact she has melting wedding cakes in the back of her Datsun. It's 2 in the afternoon and she's dodging bullets on the way to a wedding in somebody's backyard, things like that.
This was about this guy, Abdel Madi Shabneh, who died. Never spent a night away from home, if you can imagine. This was the first night he spent away from home. So there were things like that in there. He studied so hard he had a seizure, things like that. I guess it stayed with me.
THIS MUST BE ONE OF THE NEWER SONGS.
Yeah. It's Marc Ribot on guitar and my son on drums.
I WAS WONDERING ABOUT THE LUNAR THING. IN "LOWDOWN," YOU SING ABOUT "SECONDHAND MOON." IN "BOTTOM OF THE WORLD," THE MOON IS "THE COLOR OF A COFFEE STAIN." IN "SHINY THINGS," YOU SING: "LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU BIG OL' MOON."
DO YOU SPEND AS MUCH TIME CONTEMPLATING THE MOON AS IT WOULD SEEM?
I don't know about that. I like to put weather and the names of towns and something to eat in songs. They're kinda like voodoo dolls. You have to seal something up in ¤'em, then sew ¤'em shut. A great many songs are like riddles. You don't necessarily understand them. Those are the ones you keep singing, in hopes of finding a new way in.
HOW DO YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR VOICE? DO YOU MAINTAIN A PARTICULAR REGIMEN?
Marinated herrings in wine sauce. You have to marinate your throat. Caruso used to do all kinds of weird stuff. He used alcohol. In those days, they would try anything. Tomato sauce. Plus, he was a heavy smoker.
They asked Caruso once what he thought of Babe Ruth and he said, "Actually, I've never heard her sing."
How about that grilled cheese sandwich that was on eBay a while back? It was going for like 30 grand. It had the image of the Virgin Mary on
it. Somebody has saved it in a plastic bag in their attic for a long time. It went way up. It went up to 30 grand. Then it started dropping, even after they ran pictures of it and all that. And it did look actually quite a bit like the Virgin Mary, if you saw the pictures.
But by the ar Oh, OK. So you feel like you owe me more money - is thtime they were done, I think they ended up getting what you would get for a grilled cheese sandwich at a coffee shop (laughs). They got about $2.99 for the damn thing.
I READ RECENTLY WHERE THEY NOW HAVE THESE CUSTOM TOASTERS THAT ALLOW YOU TO BURN WHATEVER IMAGE YOU LIKE INTO YOUR TOAST. SERIOUSLY. HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THESE?
Oh, no. I don't know about that. Maybe that's what that was. Maybe they used that Virgin Mary attachment.
I REALIZE THIS MIGHT VARY DEPENDING ON WHICH SONG WE'RE TALKING ABOUT, BUT IN GENERAL, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS BETWEEN YOU AND KATHLEEN BRENNAN? HOW DOES THE DIVISION OF SONGWRITING LABOR BREAK DOWN?
Gee, I dunno. She's a remarkable collaborator. And she's a shiksa goddess and a trapeze artist, all of that. She can fix the truck. Expert on the African violet and all that. She's outta this world. I don't know what to say. I'm a lucky man.
How does it work? I dunno. Trade secret, man. If I told you how it works, you wouldn't understand. What's the recipe for anything? It's more than the recipe. It's more than the sum of its parts.
She has a remarkable imagination. And that's the nation where I live. She's bold, inventive and fearless. That's who you wanna go in the woods with, right? Somebody who finishes your sentences for you.
DO THE TWO OF YOU COLLABORATE ON MUSIC AS WELL AS LYRICS?
Oh, yeah, everything.
SO KATHLEEN AND YOU WRITE SONGS TOGETHER AND YOUR SON CASEY IS IN THE BAND. IS THIS A FAMILY BUSINESS? DO YOUR OTHER CHILDREN HAVE MUSICAL ASPIRATIONS?
Yeah. Everybody's a little touched. We're a mom and pop corner store. It works. Keep it in the family. It's like the Mafia. Cosa Nostra.
CAPICHE. AS FAR AS I KNOW, HE ISN'T RELATED TO YOU, BUT YOU'VE DONE A LOT OF WORK OVER THE YEARS WITH A FAMOUS AKRONITE, RALPH CARNEY.
Ralph is a daring swordsman. He'll go anywhere. He's fearless.
He was living in Brooklyn when I first met him. It was Hal Wilner who introduced me to him.
Ralph came over, did something on bass sax. I'd never seen a bass sax before. Geez - you have to stand on a box to play it!
He has a wide range, Ralph. I used to say my ol' buddy Teddy Edwards could sound like a train, and he could sound like he's drinking champagne on that train.
Ralph has some of that, where he can sound like a bird and he can sound like a bear.
SOME OF THE MATERIAL ON THE "BASTARDS" DISC FREAKED ME OUT.
It freaked you out?
A LITTLE BIT.
Tell me what you freaked out.
AND I MEAN THAT IN THE NICEST POSSIBLE WAY. A TRACK LIKE "ARMY ANTS." IS THIS YOU GOING STRAIGHT OFF THE ENCYCLOPEDIA?
It's just a dissertation. A lot of it is out of the field guides from the Audubon Society. It still requires organizing the facts in a meaningful fashion. I'm interested in all those things. They're all true, y'know.
THE ONLY BIT I WONDERED ABOUT WAS THE SCORPION GOING MAD AND STINGING ITSELF TO DEATH IF YOU POUR A DROP OF ALCOHOL ON IT.
Have you ever tried that?
UH . . . NO.
Don't. It's not pretty.
I'LL TAKE YOUR WORD FOR IT. HOW AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL IS "THE PONTIAC"?
That's my father-in-law, a ride down to the corner store w my father-in-law, talking about endless catalog of cars he's owned and the detail with which he remembers each one lovingly.
ON "ORPHANS," YOU COVER TUNES BY EVERYONE FROM LEAD BELLY TO FRANK SINATRA TO THE RAMONES, ALL OF WHOM PROBABLY AREN'T ACCUSTOMED TO FINDING THEMSELVES MENTIONED IN THE SAME BREATH. ARE THEY ALL SWIMMING AROUND UP THERE IN YOUR HEAD?
Yeah. The trick is to create a melange of all that and have it make sense. You're kinda making a sentence out of all these ar Oh, OK. So you feel like you owe me more money - is thwords. It all belongs. It's all music. Most of us have some irreconcilable differences inside of us. Hey, look, Howlin Wolf loved Gene Autry.
There's no reason you can't do a Sinatra song, then talk about insects, all that stuff on the same record. You just try to hold the crowd (laughs).
Hey, Memphis Minnie? They found a set list that she had. It had fallen inside of her guitar. She died in 1973. "Warm My Wiener," all that stuff. She did a lot of blue material.
But they found a set list in her guitar. And you know the very first song on the set list? It was the Woody Woodpecker song. (sings) "Duh duh duh da-duh, duh duh duh da-duh. . . ."
She played dances where they had kids. She was a songstress. She would do a Broadway show tune, then do a blues, then do a dance band hit or a children's song. All kinds of stuff together.
It's just whether you can make it all make meaningful sense together. That's the real trick.
SPEAKING OF COVERS, HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL WHEN OTHERS TAKE A CRACK AT YOUR SONGS - SAY, ROD STEWART DOING "DOWNTOWN TRAIN"?
It's all good, y'know. If somebody is doing your tunes, that means there's something in there that someone else was able to recognize. It wasn't so very personal. That's the trick.
Anybody does your song, it's a good thing.
THROUGHOUT "ORPHANS" AND ON YOUR OTHER ALBUMS, THIS THEME OF HOME COMES UP AGAIN AND AGAIN. YOU MENTIONED THE GUY IN "ROAD TO PEACE" WHO HAD NEVER BEEN AWAY FROM HOME. OTHER CHARACTERS IN YOUR SONGS ARE HOMELESS, LEAVING HOME OR FINDING HOME.
It just comes up as a topic for songs. Songs are sometimes cautionary tales. Or waltzes. Or rumbas.
It's a common topic for a song. Have you heard the Bob Dylan radio show? Every week he picks a new theme. Songs about eyes, songs about marriage, songs about divorce, songs about prison, songs about coffee, songs about liquor, songs about the road, songs about home.
All songs break down into one of those categories or another.
DO YOU FIND YOURSELF DRAWN TO, FOR LACK OF A BETTER DESCRIPTION, DOWN AND OUT CHARACTERS?
Well, if you examine my discography, I think you'll find I've tackled a variety of subjects. People have a tendency to say, "Oh, yeah, that guy who sings about hobos." But . . .
Y'know, in Minnesota, it's illegal to sleep naked? Swear to God. In Tulsa, it's against the law to open a soda bottle without the supervision of a licensed engineer.
YOU DON'T DO MANY INTERVIEWS. WHY NOT?
You're recognized as much for the things you say as you are for the things you don't say, and the people you do or do not talk to.
You gotta keep a balance. If I did everything I was offered - Jesus!
Can't imagine doing that.
I get offered all kinds of weird things to do. Go to Thailand and play a strip club with, y'know, a band from Florida with matching jumpsuits.
We'll pay you five grand. Stuff like that.
YOU TALKED ABOUT ENJOYING YOURSELF ON THE ROAD THIS SUMMER. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN IN TERMS OF TOURING AGAIN IN 2007 AND BEYOND?
I dunno. I don't look that far ahead. I really don't.
SO WHAT'S ON THE BACKBURNER? WHAT COMES AFTER "ORPHANS"?
Let me think. Maybe a hip-hop rockabilly thing with a little mariachi and West African music. I like to combine different musical genres, see what I can come up with.
I don't really know. I haven't really thought about it. But I will.
IF IT INVOLVES VIRGIN MARY TOAST, COUNT US IN.
OK (laughs). OK, man, good talking to you.