Waits And Measures
A voice like the water running out of the bath; an interview by Chris Maillard
Night time had called it a day. The Puerto Rican pygmy crossed the bar and dropped a piece of paper on the piano stool. Roughly translated from Serbo Croat it read 'Tom Waits invites you to a fat-chewing session.' How could a transexual dancing bear refuse?
Whether it's that nobody can emulate the gravelly, wrecked non-voice, or that nobody can master the art of conjuring up such strong atmospheres from the most basic of instruments, or that nobody has such an eye for the low-rent side of life, there's nobody quite like Tom Waits.
He used to write and perform songs using that most sleazy of instruments, the bar-room piano, but for the last few albums this traditional approach has regressed yet further. Left to his own devices as a producer he embellishes his half-sung, half-talked songs of quiet desperation with clanks and bangs, guitars without a shred of studio tinsel, and rhythm tracks that lurch like bourbon-sodden down-and-outs.
He is unlikely to be invited to join Barclay James Harvest.
There is a new Tom Waits album just out, and as you read this he is playing a long string of nights at London's Dominion Theatre; a sudden burst of activity, and the first since Swordfishtrombones, the October 1983 album that spawned the much-admired single and video In The Neighbourhood.
Rain Dogs is the new LP's name, and its subject matter, too. As you might guess, there are stories behind all the songs on the record. Tom Waits is, after all, a master storyteller. You can tell in conversation with him by the long, measured pauses that highlight the carefully-chosen phrases, and the way he chews his words around and savours their flavour, always eager to digress from the most menial of subjects and tell tales.
"Rain dogs... it's the people in the songs, the people I've written about that are the rain dogs. You see, in the rain dogs lose their scent and they can't find their way home. So in the rain you see all these dogs out waiting for the sun to come out so they can find their old neighbourhood again.
"All the people in the songs are lost that way, I guess. There's a certain shared sense of pain and discomfort."
That's not very cheerful.
"My wife says that when I'm writing I'm miserable. And when I'm not... I'm miserable. I guess I'm just a miserable guy."
Where do you find your inspiration?
"Oh, from real life. I could tell a little story about every single one, but basically they depict my observations of New York since I moved here three years ago.
"There's always something of where you write in the songs, too. I had a little room where I wrote, which I shared with a couple of other bands. I worked at night there. In fact it was the boiler room, so this record should maybe have been called Songs From The Boiler Room.
"That came out in the songs... you hear the water going through the pipes, a cat in the hall, the drummer practising down the way. You get up in the middle of writing and have to walk six blocks to get a coffee, and what you see along the way usually ends up in there too..."
"I don't see why music should be the biggest thing in the room. It should be the same size as the furniture"
How do you write a song?
"It's different every time. It's like, how do you make friends with someone? How do you get acquainted with people? It's the same thing.
"Some people you start off in the middle of an argument and end up friends, other people it takes you six weeks to say hello. Some songs happen overnight, some take months."
Are you prolific?
"Well, I was raised a Catholic."
Time for a new tack. Where does the musical mixture — that odd coupling of polkas, marches, waltzes and R'n'B come from?
"That's from living in New York, I guess. The city's like the world on the head of a pin. Everybody seemed to move here and settle in their own neighbourhoods. Like there's Little Italy, Little Spain, Puerto Rican neighbourhoods, Russian cab drivers... it's a very international city.
"You just hear that sort of music all the time... if you're listening. On radios, coming out of windows, people whistling on trains."
What do you listen to at home?
"Well, I don't actually like sitting down and listening close up to music. I like music that you hear through walls, when you don't know what it is and you can only catch snatches of it. It's more interesting that way, it doesn't get right up and push its face into yours. I don't see why music should be the biggest things in the room. It should be the same size as the furniture, or the pictures on the walls or whatever."
Do you want to write Pop music? Would you like a hit?
"I don't know. I would like to get a little more exposure, but on my own terms. It's like, in order to be admitted to the organisation you have to wear a hat and a tie. You've got to make sure you get to pick them, or it'll be a uniform.
"I don't think I'll get played on the radio. Not in America, anyway. The radio here is very predictable, everything sounds like a jingle. The songs are jingles, they're very product-orientated.
"But people need something like that, something they can pin on their lapel or wear in their hair. You have music for different needs. There are songs you sing on your anniversary and songs you sing in the car on the way to the dance... some music we use like furniture in the house and some is just for special occasions.
"My wife says that when I'm writing I'm miserable. And when I'm not... I'm miserable"
"Pop music is like a match, it has a very short life. You strike it and it burns and pretty soon you'll have to throw it away. Some music is more lasting."
"I'm not saying that..."
But the mainstream is getting closer, or at least Waits has stolen some of its ideas and bent them to his own shape, because Rain Dogs contains a quota of famous names. Like Keith Richards, who injects some of his trademark ramshackle rhythm guitar, Chris Spedding, Hall and Oates' guitar player G E Smith, King Crimson's bass player Tony Levin, The Uptown Horns who have just finished a tour with Robert Plant's Honeydrippers, Robert Quine of Lou Reed's band... the names call to mind some sort of self-indulgent superstar back-slapping session. But the record is a contradiction of that. The egos appear to have been checked in at the door. How did he manage that?
"They were all paid well. They'll do anything for money. No, I'm joking I'll take that back. It's a question of casting, finding the people who are right for the songs. Sometimes you're better off taking somebody who's not familiar with a particular musical genre, and having them explore it to get that sense of discovery. And sometimes you're better off finding somebody who's already familiar with the territory."
So what part did you take? Did you play much yourself?
"I mostly arranged. I wrote everything, I organised all the musicians and I sang. I played guitar on some stuff but mainly to establish a feel so they knew what I was doing, just as a communications device so people could watch me and take their cues from that."
Are you a 'good' musician?
"Well, I'm.... pedestrian. I have my own moral approach — it's like falling downstairs for me. As a musician I'm like what they usually tell the guy in the orchestra who's new: 'play quiet and look interesting'. If I want somebody who's really good I'll hire someone.
"I'm stuck with the piano, though I'm getting a little more venturesome. I like banging on it now. Just walking up to it and hitting the low end with my head, kicking it and stuff. I like noises like that.
"I don't know if I've really found my instrument... there must be one somewhere for me. I'll stick with the piano for the time being, but it always brings you indoors. And the guitar... well, you know, all the world needs is another guitar player. I'm still looking. Maybe I'll have to design it myself."
How did you start?
"Trumpet. I used to play Reveille at school when they raised the flag. My first performances. Then I moved onto trombone.
"Then I bought a Mexican guitar. And after that an old girlfriend gave me a piano that had been out in the rain for about a year. Nothing worked on it except the black keys, but I learnt how to play in F sharp...
"Radio here is very predictable — everything sounds like a jingle"
"I like to pick up new instruments. Anything you can write with... if I pick up an instrument I don't understand I usually want to write something on it. Familiarity usually gives you a sense of complacency. You tend to play the same thing over and over..."
Talking of new experiences, Swordfishtrombones was the first self-produced album. This is the second. What have you learnt about being a producer?
"I've picked up as much technical know how as I can handle. I backed my way into the studio kicking and screaming. It's called walking Spanish. That's what one of the songs is about. Like walking the plank, someone's after you with a cat'o' nine tails...
"It's just a tremendous job of organisation, that's all. But I was much more willing this time than I have been before."
Was it easier to produce yourself, or harder?
"Both. Easier in that you don't have to argue with anybody aesthetically about what you're looking for, you only have to help them help you to get the sound you want. But it's harder, it's more challenging in that you need to be much more articulate about the sound you want.
"It's like getting a haircut — you say 'no, take a little bit more off the sides' but the trouble is once you've taken too much off the sides you can't put it back...
"The main thing I require from musicians and everybody else is patience. Certain sounds particularly, like banging on a pipe, I take a while to get. It's very easy in these days of synthesizers and sampling and so on to get a sound by just hitting a button. But that's too easy. But I don't feel they belong to me unless I really chased them and killed them and skinned them and cooked them. Then they belong to me.
"For the percussion I used a lot of found objects. Things you bang on with a stick in a cement room. Like hitting a bunch of drawers with a two by four, or a wooden desk in the bathroom. Instead of electronically impregnating some amorphous device and sampling something off the sidewalk and putting it through a phaser or whatever, I tried finding everything in the room.
"If I was looking for a sound I just walked around the room until I found something to hit and then I put a mike on it rather than solving the problem electronically during the mix."
"If I pick up an instrument I don't understand I usually want to write something on it"
Don't you use synthesizers at all?
"No, not at all. If I'm using a synthesizer I'm trying to get it to sound very human and it's usually better to use something human. For instance I've in the past got in a synthesizer player and said to him 'can you make it sound like an old Hammond B3 organ?' and the guy says 'sure, but why not bring in a B3?'
"If you want a Mexican accent you might as well bring in a Mexican, you know? I'd like to work with synthesizers more but I don't really understand them."
Are you going to learn?
"Maybe. It would save time. But it would make a lot of things very easy, and I have trouble with that. If it's too easy I'm usually suspect."
You must have picked up some technical knowhow. For instance, you chose the studio yourself.
"Yeah. I used RCA studios in New York. It's opposite the old Belasco Theatre and you have to go up in the lift with the Janitor and the President. It smells of Chlorox disinfectant. I used Studio C which is a huge room, about six acres of battleship linoleum and a ceiling that's competing with The Poseidon Adventure.
"I liked those old rooms, they've got ghosts in them. I looked at a lot of the new studios, the Power Station and all, the ones that get the most business, but they felt too much like an emergency ward to me. RCA felt a little more human."
So how are you going to translate these ghostly textures to the live act? What will the live shows be like?
"Thrilling. I hope. We're going to have a dog act and dancing girls, and an MC with a tuxedo and a foreign accent."
And a band as well?
"Yeah. Midgets. All Midgets."
"No. That was actually the last tour, when I'd planned an all-midget orchestra. I spoke to Billy Barty, who's President of the Little People's Association of American, and he was one hundred percent behind me. But I ended up doing a film instead which interrupted my touring plans, though it looked like it was going to happen. That one's down the road somewhere...
"This band I'm using now, the guys are all normal. In one sense or another. A full band. It should be something to behold, I hope."
One last question. What do you think is going to be the next big thing in the music business?
"Accordions. I think it's going to come back and it's going to come back big. It's going to have a whole new life. It's going to break out. There'll be a whole new accordion scare..."
Interview by Chris Maillard
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