AS many who've tried will attest, you don't so much interview Tom Waits as ask a question then hope for the best. His reply might be an evasive witticism, an uncomfortable silence, a strange analogy which makes sense later, or a mumbled "I dunno".

Which explains why, when I start by thanking him for his time he clears his throat and rumbles, "Don't thank me yet".

We both laugh. One of us laughs too soon.

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The reason for this encounter is Waits' new album Bad As Me, his first new studio recording in seven years, which finds him in a reflective mood as much as bellowing like a carnival huckster with a broken megaphone.

On Bad As Me as he explores dirty Chess-era blues (Satisfied with Keith Richards; they also duet croakily on the soulful Last Leaf), roaring political comment on Hell Broke Luce, and two piano ballads Kiss Me and New Year's Eve (the latter seguing into Auld Lang Syne much as Tom Traubert's Blues of 1976 included Waltzing Matilda) which reach right back to his earliest style.

Yet, at 61, Waits is finding other voices, notably on Talking at the Same Time where he conjures up some early 60s falsetto-soul singer.

"Yeah, you're always cutting the fingers to fit into the glove," he says. "You're looking for the right voice, just like an actor looking for the right hat and pair of pants. There I was trying to do a [bluesman] Skip James meets Smokey Robinson meets Marvin Gaye.

"These songs evolve, they are like dough, and you push them in the pipe hand. Some come out of the ground easy and some you have to break the bones and reset them."

Among those which came easy are the opener Chicago - a rollicking Waitsean R&B growler - and Get Lost which has a ramshackle rockabilly rhythm.

"They are kind of classic song topics: travelling, music for immigrants, cautionary tale, devotional music, that type of thing. The ingredients of most songs are such that they may easily include a stain on your bedroom wall or the flavour of a soda they stopped making, a variety of mis-recollections and a girl's name you made up.

"Rockabilly is not necessarily something I lived through in terms of the era when it was most popular, but all these things are perfectly legitimate to draw upon. We're all wearing our fathers' ties and our mothers' underwear - I'm being metaphorical - but no one is completely original, we're all just swimming in the same whale sperm."

Denying originality - and references to underwear - becomes a conversational refrain but he laughs about Satisfied with Rolling Stone Richards, which shaves off a slice of Howlin' Wolf's 1961 blues-shaker Wang Dang Doodle and mentions "Mr Jagger and Mr Richards".

"I howl a lot to Howlin' Wolf, I've been wearing his underskirts for years. But Satisfied was playing off, and is an answer to, [the Rolling Stones'] Satisfaction.

"If the Stones' can't get satisfaction then nobody can. I can roll my vertebrae out like dice and my skull can be a home for mice, I don't care after I'm gone. But while I'm here I'll have what's available and I'll order two. This is our only go-round so I like to have one of everything that's available, get myself some satisfaction right here."

But if Waits throws out his enjoyable blend of brawling clunk'n' grind and 2am piano ballads, Pay Me (which opens "They pay me not to come home") is an ineffably sad song where he inhabits a character.

"You have to shapeshift into somebody else's experience sometimes, like if you were a girl who left home during the Civil War and went to another town and got a job in a saloon. Coming home would shame your family, especially if you were a Quaker. So in those days a family would pay you not to come home.

"That was the idea. [But] 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" was "there's a bathroom on the right". But she still enjoyed the song."

Waits' wife Kathleen Brennan - a former script analyst for Francis Ford Coppola whom Waits met and married in 1980 while working on the soundtrack to Coppola's One From the Heart - is credited with saving him from a life as an increasing parody of himself as the boozy barroom balladeer of Los Angeles in the 1970s.

After their marriage they severed contact with his past and so gave Waits a very different and more fulfilling career and life. They are private, have three children (26-year-old Casey drums on some tracks on Bad As Me) ... yet this woman who mishears Creedence has been his co-writer for the past 30 years?

He wheezes with amusement and says Brennan is more like an opium dreamer and he works with sticks and wire, so they complement each other. And that makes for some interesting dinner table conversations?

"Yeah, plates are flying through the air, frying pans and silverware being thrown like knives. Sometimes what you are hearing in a song is the argument that somebody won, the songs are sometimes protecting the innocent."

Suggest to him - after a lengthy digression about innovative Italian film director Federico Fellini - that he too has been an innovator draws a closed response.

"There nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes. So I don't know about that, it's a huge spectrum, it just depends on where you are fishing. You got to keep your eye out for claim jumpers. There are things I write about that are mine, it doesn't work for everybody."

Yet today we refer to work of some artists as "Waitsean" because his style is so distinctive.

"Okay," he laughs as if defeated. "We're all just drawing on a dirty window with our finger, but I don't hold much stock in the longevity of this stuff we think is so important.

"You get older, some of it seems a little embarrassing sometimes. All the flags, the bras, the different sorts of buttons, the Underwears, the Collars... all those new groups.

"I'm not Sammy Davis jnr or Liza Minnelli, you know? Or Judy Garland. Not that there's anything wrong with those folks. But I'm not pouring my heart out to an audience in the hope they will shower me with love."

Yet that final track New Year's Eve with its Auld Lang Syne refrain will cut to the hearts of many.

On the expanded version of the album are three bonus tracks, the last being a fearful After You Die.

Does he think about that?

"Well, if you're not thinking about it," he chuckles like he's gargling gravel, "you're not paying attention, are you?"

LOWDOWN

Who: Tom Waits
What: Bad As Me, his first album of new material in seven years
When: Out now

-TimeOut



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