“If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it. Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, why are we wasting our time? Let’s just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something (take a drum sound from another record) and make it bigger in the mix, don’t worry about it.” I’d say, “No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard.”
“My theory is the best songs have never really been recorded. We’re listening to things that made it through but there’s so many songs that have never made it because they were scared of the machine and wouldn’t allow themselves to be recorded. The trick is to get it in there, don’t hurt the song when you record it.
I don’t know, music is a living thing, and so it can be . . . you can hurt it, you can bruise it . . . songs are strange, they’re very simple, they come quickly. If you don’t take them, they’ll move on. They’ll go to somebody else. Someone else will write it down. Don’t worry about it.”
“You know, in my early days, I was just studying the whole thing, trying to find out what I could bring to it that hadn’t been brought to it before,” he says. “Which is really hard to do. Most American culture-we just bury things so we can dig them up again. There’s nothing new under the sun, certainly not in popular music. By its very nature, popular music is repetitive and it’s constantly masquerading and then exposing itself again. If you just keep stirring it, different things come to the surface. So it’s sort of interesting to watch what’s bubbling up. What you recognized from before that you thought had gotten hidden at the bottom is now up at the top again.”
“In those days, people didn’t give money to an artist and say go produce your own record,” he says. “They gave it to a producer. If they gave it to an artist, it’d be like throwing the money away. They thought you’d spend it all on drugs or women, or you’d go to Mexico or who knows what. So they wanted you to get in there with a guy with a better haircut. Not necessarily better ideas, but a better haircut and cleaner clothes.”
“I’m the kind of bandleader, a keen student and collector of bizarre instruments, who when he says, ‘Don’t forget to bring the Fender,’ I mean the fender from the Dodge.
Marc Ribot is big on the devices. Appliances, guitar appliances. And a lot of ’em look like they’re made out of tinfoil and, y’know, it’s like he would take a blender, part of a blender, take the whole thing out and put it on the side of his guitar and it looks like a medical show…that look. And the sound seemed to come from, the way it looked and the way it sounded seemed to be the same. He works with alternative sound sources, he turns his guitar into an adventure.”
You don’t always know when a song is finished and I’m not sure if a song is ever finished, to be honest with you. You know, they’re constantly evolving. It’s like jump-rope songs, you know. When are they done? They are never done, you know, people are always changing them, changing the tempo, adding new verses, getting rid of old verses.
So when you are ready to record, there is a certain finality to it. It’s time to… cut the head off the fish.
That’s not really the right analogy for that. It’s more like a lot of people say, You really captured something on that. There’s something alive in a song, and the trick to recording them is to capture something and have it taken alive.
“A performance is not real life,” he asserts. “I mean, to light up a cigarette here is one thing, but to light one on stage is a whole other world. I have to be completely aware of the figure that I cut on stage. I’m a caricature of myself up there. It’s just an exaggeration of my own personality.
“That’s very important, personality, and most performers don’t think about it, I guess. Maybe most performers don’t have one, or else they don’t know how to show it to you on stage, which is the hardest thing in the world to do and come off unpretentious. It really has to be choreographed and calculated … to make it look spontaneous. I’m an entertainer, just like Rodney Dangerfield is an entertainer. I have one prop, an old suitcase, and the rest is just creating an illusion.
Everything is. Everyone wants the real story. What’s the real story? Well, there’s no such thing as a real story. A story itself is not real. It is like reality shows, reality shows… those are two opposite things: reality and a show. They are opposite to each other. So, if you are… as soon as something happens it is fiction. Because you tell your mom and you leave shit out. The word “truth” should always have an ‘s’ at the end of it.
When I listen to old field recordings, maybe you’ll hear a dog barking way off in the background. You realize the house it was recorded in is torn down, the dog is dead, the tape recorder is broken, the guy who made the recording died in Texas, the car out front has four flat tires, even the dirt that the house sat on is gone—probably a parking lot—but we still have this song. Takes me out when I listen to those old recordings. I put on my stuff in the house, which is always those old Alan Lomax recordings. My son Casey started doing his turntable stuff; he’s upstairs listening to Aesop Rock, El-P, Sage Francis and all those kind of guys. So I get exposed to a lot at home, and then, you know, I weave it all together.
I don’t want to mess too much with electronics. I don’t know if that’s my culture. Maybe it’s more of your culture. You’re younger than me. I don’t want to get a weird haircut just because I saw it at the mall.
Sometimes I’ll listen to records of my own stuff and I think, `God ,the original idea for this was so much better than the mutation that we arrived at. What I’m trying to do now is get what comes through, and keep it alive.
It’s like carrying water in your hands. I want to keep it all and sometimes, by the time you get to the studio, you have nothing.
There’s a certain kind of musical dexterity that you can arrive at that actually punishes a certain point in your development, or moves past it, It happens all the time with me, the three-chord syndrome.
And then if you try to ask a Barney Kessel to cut a simple thing, just a big block brick of chords, just dirty, fat, loud, mean and cryptic – no, he’s a hand-writer. He’s developed to that level.
Larry Taylor, this bass player I work with from Canned Heat, if he can’t feel it, will put down his bass and walk away, and say That’s it, man. I can’t get it. And I really respect that. I said, ‘Well,thank you for telling me.’
“I think everybody’s looking for something they’ve never seen before. You work on your songs, but your songs also work on you. So you absorb and you excrete and in some way you retain, and slowly you start to become some place that songs are passing through. I’d like to think that they enjoy blowing through you. There’s something electric about you, maybe, some kind of a force left behind by music that passes through you. Like everybody likes to be around someone who does something well and loves doing it, so songs would be no different, right? Like ‘Let’s blow down there and see that guy’.”Most songs have meager beginnings. You wake up in the morning, you throw on your suspenders, and you subvocalize and just think. They seem to form like calcium. I can’t think of a story right off the bat that was that interesting. I write things on the back of my hand, usually, and sing into a tape recorder. I don’t know.
“You kind of go into the world of a song,” says Waits. “They’re not necessarily autobiographical, sometimes you inhabit the lives of others. Or it’s just a daydream. Songs kind of write themselves sometimes. It’s like you’re kind of walking out on the diving board and you keep walking until you fall in the water and every line keeps you in the air and if you come up with a bad line you fall into the water. I don’t know how it works. If I did I’d probably stop doing it.”
You see, I’m like everybody else in music. I don’t have a formal background. I learned from listening to records, from talking to people, from hanging around record stores, and hanging around musicians and saying, “Hey, how did you do that? Do that again. Let me see how you did that.” And then I kind of incorporated it into what I was doing.
Everybody’s still really involved in the folk process of listening to each other. Even if you really try to do exactly what you think someone else did the night before, you can’t, unless you’re some kind of impersonator or impressionist. When you hear breakthroughs in music, it was their attempt to replicate something incorrectly, and that’s what puts a hole in the door and lets the light in. You know, Chuck Berry was trying to play guitar the way Johnnie Johnson, his piano player, played keyboards, with the same kind of stride feeling. When I was a kid picking up a needle and trying to learn how someone did something over and over again … it’s kind of how it gets passed along, and I’m proud to be part of that whole tradition.
“My theory is that if you’re going to make a song it’s like packing somebody a lunch. You’ve got to give me weather, a name of a town, you’ve got to give me something to do and something to eat. It helps with the atmosphere. If you want to invite somebody into a song of yours it’s kind of like inviting them into your home, and you have to give them some place to sit down. Because there’s too many songs that are already written that are well furnished. “With a new song you’ve got to use some old tricks.”
There’s a song about everything. And when you think about how songs were written and how they were kept alive before the recording industry, that to me is fascinating. ‘Cause we were all part of writing those songs when it says “Traditional” or “Negro spiritual” or “public domain.” Like all the songs that Alan Lomax collected. Those were songs that were written by all of us. Those were songs that if you learned it, you would change a verse or line. Just like a recipe. When you got a recipe from your neighbor, or if somebody asked for a recipe, the traditional thing to do was to change one thing about it. You never gave anybody your recipe. No, it’s only a cup and a half of flour, honey instead of sugar, chopped quince instead of apples. And that’s how songs moved along. You would add your verse. Or, it doesn’t apply in this town, in this weather, with that gender. I have to change it to make it fit.”
“I was born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and, with the meter still running, I emerged, needing a shave, and shouted ‘Times Square and step on it!'”
You can change everything if you want. If you don’t like the way something is going, you can totally change the bone structure of a song, or three or four songs in the way they all work together. The thing I hate about recording is that it’s so permanent. Ultimately you have to let it dry, and I hate that, cause I like to just keep changing the shape of them and cut them in half and use the parts that I don’t want on that one another one.
That’s the part that drives everybody crazy. I like to get in there with the songs and eat them up and push them around and explore all the variables. Sometimes it sounds Irish and then you tilt it a little bit this way and it sounds more Balinese, and over here it sounds more Romanian. I like that part of working with music;you can find yourself in a different latitude and longitude. There’s a lot of different coordinates for rhythm, and when you start exploring rhythms, you find that maybe it sounds Chinese, and then you realize it’s just kind of like banging sticks on the ground, it’s just something that comes naturally. You don’t necessarily have to put it in a particular country. Some of these things come out of your own rubber dream.
“Yeah, you’re always cutting the fingers to fit into the glove,” “You are looking for the right voice, just like an actor looking for the right hat and pair of pants, so you use different voices for different songs, and there I was trying to do a Skip James meets Smokey Robinson meets Marvin Gaye.”
It’s hard to break down the whole process of writing a song. People talk about it but you can’t.
“The ingredients of most songs are such are that they may easily include a stain on your bedroom wall or the flavour of a soda they stopped making, one chord, a variety of mis-recollections and a girl’s name you made up.
“You don’t have to be so completely detailed, it can be whatever you want it to be, it should be. I don’t like telling people because they may not even get all the words right . . . which is great too.
“For years my wife thought that Creedence song ‘there’s a bad moon on the rise’ thought that was ‘here’s a bathroom on the right’. But she still enjoyed the song.”
It’s hard sometimes If you are faced with having to deal with the traditional world of commerce. We seem to salute anything that you can make ten million of and sell to everybody; the fact that everybody’s got one is a triumph, not the fact that you made ten great ones. I don’t use that as a gauge.
But there are parts of America where music is a living thing. In New Orleans, music is just like this Tabasco here. They just go get some and put it on their food. The only thing really vital in this country, that is constantly evolving and working very hard, the only real American music is America’s black music. It’s infused with something so important. My daughter listens to the rap station and it’s a music that is like graffiti or jail poems, it’s like a brick through the window. It’s powerful and essential.” For Waits, making a culture of his own in the vast wasteland of middle America has been an ongoing project much like composing songs. “For me, white boy from California,” he says, “I listen to things and break a piece off of this, and a piece off of this, and I tie this to that, put these two together and then I take them out to meet the pieces coming down from the top and wrap it all in newspaper and set it on fire. It’s like making a record” (or maybe like doing an interview?), he concludes before driving off in the rain that nobody expected. “You don’t really finish, you just stop. You just keep painting it and doing things to it and eventually, you have to stop.”
“Music is always reinventing itself. Ideally it’s always moving, but if it isn’t it soon gets rolling again, and then it goes off here and it’s all new clover and then it’s like, no, the thing we had before, let’s bring that back in… and it’s always like, that guy was alright we shoulda brought him with us. But…. I dunno, when a scene starts to develop an anatomy and elect a president, then you have problems sometimes, the thing just becomes a popularity contest.
“England is constantly rediscovering, re-establishing, reinventing everything, it’s like when they blow all the tickets up in the air to draw the winning ticket. But you can trace just about everything that’s called new back to something old. “
Something compels you to be popular, but at the same time you hate the trappings of it. I like to be considered, but you also don’t want to end up like a shoehorn or a desk lamp. Seems like the politics of music do to a lot of musicians the same things they do to politicians… they sell all their ideas to get into office. It’s hard to make it through on the road with all the things you set out with… it’s like the wagon going up the hill, and they throw out the pump organ and the…. desk lamp and the…. wedding dress and the… bowling ball, and by the time they get to the top, well, they’ve had an easier ride, but they sold everything off on the way up. A lot of things get lost that way.”
I do not find the inspiration, it’s the inspiration that finds me. It must be constantly attentive. I often start with the title of a song; I must have hundreds of them in my notebooks … For example: “Maybe we’ll decide along the way” … These words come to me, from a blow, and they inspire me the beginning of a melody. They are like seeds in fact. Sometimes I plant them, I water them, and it gives a piece.
You have to keep yourself interested, and you have to be endlessly curious; I may be a bit more eccentric, and I don’t really care what people think, and to a large degree, I don’t care what anybody thinks. Because I have my own kind of world I’m in.
When you start worrying about intervals, that’s when you know you’re a composer. When you lay awake at night worrying about a particular section of a song.
Like last night I was looking at the wall, and the light was really low, and one eye was kinda cockeyed. And it looked like a skull with a big cloud coming out of its head, and a hand with a white glove. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty out there for this hotel, to do something like that.’ And then I looked at it again in the morning, and it was a bouquet of white roses, but it was out of focus.
So that’s what I do when I’m making stuff up. I don’t see what’s there. I learned that when I was little. We had drapes and the drapes had all these water stains on them, but there were also patterns, like leaves and camels and all that stuff. But there were all these really dramatic water stains, and I thought the water stains were part of the design of the fabric. And there were all these shapes, so I made my own shapes out of them. And I still do that. When I’m looking at any kind of pattern, I’ll find, say, noses or something.
The thing is, is it more interesting not to know the origin of things or interesting to know? I think we know too much about stuff these days. We’re in a deficit of wonder now because we’re buried between huge piles of information. I think things were better when we knew little. In the old days you just had the album cover to look at and you had to guess what it was about. For the picture, bring a tuba, a pitchfork and don’t shave. What does that mean? You decide. I don’t care. You were challenged to use your imagination about what that is. I think it’s just better to either be lied to or know nothing. I have a reality distortion box, and everything comes out of there.