Mule Variations Q&A with Journalist Rip Rense
Q: Are you really, as the opening track declares, "Big in Japan?" How do you know this? Ever been there?
Tom: I see myself in the harbor, ripping up the electrical towers, picking up cars, going in like Godzilla and leveling Tokyo. There are people that are big in Japan, and are big nowhere else. It's like going to Mars. It's also kind of a junkyard for entertainment. You can go over there and find people you haven't heard of in 20 years, that have moved over there, and they're like gods. And then there are all those people that don't do any commercials. They have this classy image. And over there, they're hawking cigarettes, underwear, sushi, whiskey, sunglasses, used cars, beach blankets.
Q: The beginning of "Big in Japan" is one of the more startling sounds you've ever put on record.
Tom: I was in Mexico in a hotel, and I only had this little tape recorder. I turned it on, and I started screaming and banging on this chest of drawers really hard, till it was kindling, trying to make a full sound like a band. And I saved that. That was years ago. I had it on a cassette, and used to listen to it an laugh. It sounded like some guy alone in a room, which it was, trying his hardest to sound like a big, loud band. So we stuck that in the front.
Q: By the way, as an aside, that track sends my very docile, 15-year-old cat into hostile fits. He runs around, tearing things up.
Tom: Really. Therapy for him. That's a whole untapped audience. American housecats.
Q: Who wrote the Mule Variations songs?
Tom: My wife Kathleen and I collaborated on just about all of them. Of the sixteen songs that are now on the record, we wrote ten or eleven together. We've been working together since Swordfish... I'm the prospector, she's the cook. She says "you bring it home, I'll cook it up:" I think we sharpen each other like knives. She has a fearless imagination. She writes lyrics that are like dreams. And she puts the heart into all thins. She's my true love. There's no one I trust more with music, or life. And she's got great rhythm, and finds melodies that are so intriguing and strange. Most of the significant changes I went through musically and as a person began when we met. She's the person by which I measure all others. She's who you want with you in a foxhole. She doesn't like the limelight, but she is an incandescent presence on everything we work on together.
Q: What prompted you back into the studio? It had been a few years.
Tom: Mainly the only reasons to write new songs is because you're just tired of the old ones. Throw something out and get another one. It wasn't like a lightning bolt. For me, it just kind of starts with something amusing. Something amuses me, and I let it pass through my mind, along with a lot of other things. Hundreds of melodies and ideas go through your head when you're not writing. You just let them wash over you. When we start writing we put up a little dam and start catching them. It's the old butterfly net theory.
Q: One of the nice things about this and your recent albums is the piano sound. It sounds like a battered old upright, a practice room upright. And you can hear all the ambient squeaks and pedal noises. Probably the only record made in the last ten or twenty years where you can hear that, where it doesn't sound like a digitized concert grand.
Tom: I don't think that most people notice that stuff, but I do. I appreciate you mentioning it. Pianos have to be in the right room. Most studios are designed to keep the outside world out, and they rely heavily on baffling and carpeting and all kids of architectural devices on the wall to shape sound waves, and whatnot. I don't go in for it, myself. We've got a concrete room with a wood ceiling, and we got a great sound. We just brought the piano from home and moved it in. I gave it to Kathleen a long time ago for a birthday present. It's a Fischer from New York. We use it to catch the big ones.
Q: You commented the other day that this album is more blues-based. Some of the melodies are real simple things like "Picture in a Frame." And the ones that sound like old blues records, with the 78 scratches and hiss- "Black Market Baby" and "Lowside of the Road." How deliberate was it to do more blues this time?
Tom: I don't know, I guess it's where I keep coming back to. As an art form, it has endless possibilities, as an ingredient or a whole meal. Definitely part of the original idea was to do something somewhere between surreal and rural. We call it surrural. That's what these songs are -- surrural. There's an element of something old about them, and yet it's kind of disorienting, because it's not an old record by an old guy.
Q: What are you, about 60 now?
Tom: How'd you like a punch in the nose?
Q: Ida Jane . . . Old Blind Darby . . . some of these names in Mule Variations . . . are there stories behind them?
Tom: Well, they're all real people. They all come from history, or my history. Or letters received, or things read, or half-remembered . . . or made up!
Q: Who plays the rooster on "Chocolate Jesus?"
Tom: That's a real rooster.
Q: Yes, but he was crowing right on cue.
Tom: He was crowing on cue. You know one thing about animals -- when you record outside, they'll pretty much wait till you're finished with your phrase. Because no one wants to talk while you're talking, especially a rooster.
Q: Is this rooster leftover from when the studio was a chicken ranch?
Tom: It still is a chicken ranch. So if you got outside, which we did on that song -- we just set up in the driveway -- you use directional microphones. They look like rifles, and they use them for field recordings. The engineer found them at a flea market. So if you set up right outside with the dogs and chickens, airplanes and trucks, it's amazing how your surroundings will collaborate with you, and will be woven into the songs.
Q: "Chocolate Jesus" -- what is the source of inspiration? You ding Don't want no Abba-Zabba...' Were you just tired of Abba Zabbas?
Tom (laughs): My father-in-law was trying to get me interested in this business venture -- these thing called Testamints. They're these little lozenges with little crosses on them. If you're on the road or something, and you can't worship in the way you're accustomed to, or it's during the week, you can have one of these little testamints, and it kind of gets you right in touch with your higher power.
Q: "Eyeball Kid" is based on the comic strip you once mentioned that your son, Casey, is a fan of?
Tom: Could he tour? Could he get Bausch & Lomb to sponsor a tour? Spends most of his days in a jar of Vaseline. Or would it be Ray-Ban? One Ray-Ban? He's be doing the Monocle Tour.
Q: Tell me about "Filipino Box Spring Hog."
Tom: That would fall in the category of surrural. Beefheart-ian. When we lived on Union Avenue in L.A., we had parties. We sawed the floorboards out of the living room, and we took the bed, the box spring, and first dug out the hole and filled it with wood, poured gasoline on it, and lit a fire. And the box spring over the top, that was the grill. We brought in a pig and cooked it right there.
Q: I know you recorded a lot of songs for this record, and you had to do a lot of trimming . . . is it hard to make those edits?
Tom: Sometimes you have to take stuff out to let other stuff shine better. We talk about it. Flip for it sometimes. I'd like to do a record with twelve songs, but I just couldn't let go of all those songs. I didn't know which were the best songs out of 25.
Q: Anything you want to add?
Tom: The blue whale weighs as much as thirty elephants, is as long as three Greyhound buses, end-to-end. Remember that a giraffe can go without water longer than a camel. And even though the neck is seven feet long, it contains the same number of vertebrae as a mouse's. Seven. And a giraffe's tongue is eighteen inches long. It can open and close its nostrils at will. It can run faster than a race horse and make almost no sound whatsoever.