Waits discusses Bad As Me and his eventful career – plus, Tom's riddles!

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You seem to be more open than most musicians to different sounds, like the Harry Partch flavour that came through on Swordfishtrombones. I have a Partch album called And On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma, so I was intrigued to visit this area. And you did the introduction to that compilation of weird new instruments, Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones.
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of those guys up here. I think maybe they’re descendants of the Partch phenomenon – that this was a place where he lived and worked early on, and he was such an innovator. The way he put it was, “Once there was a little boy, and he went outside – that little boy was me, I went outside in music.” Because he was born into the conventions of the day, but he started incorporating haikus and Chinese instruments, and ultimately started creating his own instruments in order to play his own music – to play a scale and a form of musical notation that was also his own invention. All those micro-micro-tonalities – it’s just captivating. Very hard not to have that call attention to yourself.

And they’re such beautiful, sculptural instruments, all polished wood and strings. I loved the phrase he used about himself, that he was “a musician seduced into carpentry”.
Aaawww! That’s pretty nice, isn’t it? And then those Cloud Chamber Bowls – my god! It’s kinda like that he was a fine artist in both forms, creating new forms both for the eyes and for the ears. It’s fitting that it should look how it sounds; and that the existing instruments that were available to him, which I’m sure he was fascinated with, and loved, but just wasn’t interested in, as related to his art. So I was inspired by that. It’s hard not to be. After I started listening to him, I started seeing things by the side of the road, and saying to myself, “I wonder what that sounds like?”. I’d go into a hardware store and think, ‘I have to bring a mallet in here, start hitting things.’ It’s a place to go, and if you go there in earnest, and with curiosity, it’s amazing what you can discover, just because you’re willing to go.

It brings a whole dramatic effect to your music that you just don’t find in other people’s music.
Well, that’s good to hear.

And I also like that it’s not necessarily “beautiful” – that ugliness itself can be a kind of beauty.
Yeah, right. Then you have to redefine beauty.

It used to be said that art was all about truth and beauty. But I wonder if it’s not more to do with interesting lies.
Yeah, right. Well, my feeling is that there are so many different perspectives that the word ‘truth’ should always have an ‘s’ at the end of it. ’Cos there’s your truth, and my truth… I was just thinking, we’re never good at predicting what’s going to happen. We’re real good at taking some phenomenon, once it’s taken place, and explaining how it got here. But we can never say that’s it’s coming, or that it’ll be here soon – or warn everybody that it’s right around the corner. We can’t predict on any level at all. How, then, could you explain a balding man in an ill-fitting suit aiming his clarinet at the sky: Benny Goodman? How can you explain that? And he’s gonna be rockin’ the joint, he’s gonna be sweatin’, and people are gonna be movin’ to him, and falling in love with him on a deep level. How can you ever plan for that? The only way we can see it is once it’s happened. We have a thousand reasons why it got here, but we can’t tell you before it gets here that it’s coming. That’s interesting.

The melting-pot aspect of American culture is something that comes through your work strongly: there are elements of German polkas in there, mambos, rumbas, things from all over. It’s a redefinition of folk music as not just an old Wobbly with a banjo, but something that comes from all these places.
Well, there’s still an art to it. It’s like those culinary things – if you try and mix too many flavours from too many different cultures, it’s like a joke in your mouth. Like tomato ice-cream. So it does require a certain amount of decision-making as to what stage you stop. Like recognising that there’s a place where Chinese music and Irish music overlap. Even in the way that musical instruments evolve. They may have evolved separately in different cultures, without contact – they can’t really trace the origin of the banjo, it happened in so many different places at the same time. The rudiments of the banjo are skin, string, a gourd or whatever. I love this stuff. But when you’re making a song, you still have to decide what belongs, and how far you can stretch it.

You have to keep tasting.
Keep tasting, right. Sometimes you have to throw a whole batch out, and that really hurts. I had to do that once to a batch of tomato sauce. I was too heavy on the bay leaves, or something. Too much olive oil, or too much salt, then you try and balance it out, then it goes too far the other way, until finally you say, “Oh man, we’re gonna scratch this and start all over.” You do that with songs, too. You can mix something for three days until it’s just mush. Your ears are the same. You have to admit, “I don’t even know what this is any more. Let’s start again.”

So there are songs you’ve literally not found the right instrumental blend for?
Yeah. There are surprises that happen – you try something a bunch of different ways and finally you say, “Oh man!” Like that “New Year’s Eve” song – I was listening to it in the car the other day and I started singing it a completely different way, like I imagine Mick Jagger might sing it, or Sam Cooke, way behind the beat. Like “Bring It On Home To Me”. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good way to sing it – but we’ve done it now, we can’t go back and redo it.’

  1. 1. Introduction
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