Interview: Jim White on “Waffles, Triangles & Jesus,” Magical Realism and the Ephemeral

Interviews

Americana Highways had an opportunity to talk to artist/musician Jim White last week. At the time the phone rang, White said he was sitting in a chair in an attempt at ascetic self-discipline, writing a novel, a “magical realism memoir.” It’s a collection of stories surrounding his life at a time when he was having paranormal experiences.   “Coincidences happen all the time; I have some that I would place at 10 on the Richter scale that need to be documented,” he said.

“I won a Pushcart Prize for my story about how David Byrne (Talking Heads) and I got together; it’s called “Superwhite.” My novel is going to be about several more things of that magnitude that will all be interwoven into the book. “Superwhite” is going to be shredded into the book because it’s part of that field of experience; there are ten or so things of things of that level. I’m chopping the prizewinning story into pieces and rebuilding it, hoping that it’ll still have the oompf, momentum, and psychological charge that it had in its short form.” The novel is aptly named Incidental Contact.

Speaking of naming, how did you name your new album Waffles, Triangles, and Jesus? “A long time ago I was working at a restaurant in Soho in NYC, and Tom Waits came in, this was right when he first started to be famous. He walked out without ordering anything and walked across the street where there was a homeless guy who had a guitar with one string on it. He was a wreck; he lived in this doorway. His name was Hank; he thought he was Hank Williams’ illegitimate son. Tom Waits stopped to talk to him, sat down, pulled out a notebook and sat there for about an hour listening and taking notes. I was watching through the window; the next day I went out and bought a notebook and started writing things down—I figured if this was Tom Waits’ method then I should try it. Somewhere in my notebooks I had written “Waffles and Triangles,” and underneath it said “Jesus”. At the time, I thought: ‘those things go together.’”

“Mike Nichols (the director of The Graduate) once said that when you’re working on a project eventually it comes to life and starts negotiating and telling you its demands.   I went back through my notebooks and saw where I had written those words, and, it was as if the album demanded that it wanted to be named Waffles, Triangles, and Jesus.”

What’s your process for writing, do you have a muse? “When people in medieval times would have a breakthrough, they would say that the “genie” over there in the corner came up with the information, and that’s where the concept “genius” came from. Works of genius, by definition, are works where something comes to you from beyond yourself. I can’t prompt it. I guess maybe I have an ascetic route: all I can do is make myself suffer by sitting in a chair for 3 months without moving. (laughs) And then all of a sudden, something happens.”

“That happened with “Static on the Radio” (my duet with Aimee Mann), the song Joe Henry produced. I got out to California, I had been working hard on the song for weeks at a time but I just couldn’t find the third verse. It’s a song about synchronicity and collective unconsciousness, and how sometimes we are privy to things beyond our understanding.  Nikola Tesla talked about this—there’s a core of information in the universe. We can somehow tap into it from time to time, well, I just hadn’t been able to tap into it.”

“We worked on Friday and at the end of the day I told Joe: “I don’t have the third verse.” He said “Well, you will by Monday morning.” (laughs) I’d been working on the verse for 5 years. So I figured I’d do something different to try to free the logjam. I drove up the California coast, listening to funk music, I did everything I could and then on my drive back, all of a sudden there was the third verse! I showed up on Monday morning and we recorded it.   It’s my second most popular song and I firmly believe that’s because of the third verse.”

“It came from somewhere else.”

On Waffles, Triangles and Jesus, you have such ethereal imagery. Yet, for example with your song “Far Beyond the Spoken World,” you combine that ethereal feel with eclectic rootsy musical parts, like banjo with African beats.   “Yes my songs are very mosaic.   My process is to come up with the music first, and then I look back into my notebooks to find some pattern, I read the notes while the music is playing. Certain ideas will just rise to the surface. The musical hook for “Far Beyond the Spoken World” I wrote 30 years ago. It just came rising up out of the murky waters of consciousness.

“I was never trained as a musician.   I learned music as therapy.”

“When I got signed to Luaka Bop record label (with David Byrne), I went in for a meeting and my little cassette was sitting on the desk, with the pictures of angels that I drew on the cover, all by itself next to a stack of cds. All these professionally made cds. I asked the guy if he had listened to all those. He said, “yeah, no, no no, we want this one.“

“I thought to myself at the time, “If I had gone to music school, I wouldn’t be talking to this guy, because the world is full of experts at this point.” You can probably find an 8 year-old kid who can play guitar better than me.   What I have to offer is not technical accomplishment. What I have to offer is my personality. I’m selling my personality as an artist, and so far it’s going okay, there are enough people that like my personality to keep me doing this.”

“I had so many ideas at once, I had dozens of ‘voices.’ David Byrne and my first label would limit me to “3 of my personalities” per album. The three were: “Ragamuffin Poet,” “Sinister Minister,” and “Oakey on Acid.” (laughs)

“Another song on Waffles, Triangles, & Jesus, “Playing Guitars” was influenced by Ray Stevens, I listened to him on AM radio growing up in the south, so there’s part of me that wants to write gimmick songs. It confuses people sometimes. I can’t make one of those magical albums where we all get in the room and play together all at once. I tried to compromise when I worked with Joe Henry—we’d get 5 people in the room together then make some changes and call it a deal. (laughs). The point is, there are different ways to be a songwriter, simple and straightforward, or complex, ironic, and heady. In “Playing Guitars,” the vocals are “humming “ which is irony while you should be playing guitar. That song, and the whole album really, are musically complex with a whole host of contributors.”

““Drift Away” is a song about individual experience, it’s a testimony of a lost lonely soul, singing about a depth of mournful loss, drifting away on a river. Rivers are sacred conveyances. It’s important to understand that.   On the bank of the Ganges River in India, Banaras is a burial city and after a beautiful burial they throw the charred body into the river, that’s beautiful and sacred. “Drift Away” is a simple song—there’s not a lot to it.”  And yet, there is.

What’s music’s role as therapy, is it useful for self-development or guidance? “Music is a conveyance that carries me home. In any art making—if you’re not throwing yourself into a river that carries you closer to self-realization it’s not worth it. For many people, art saves their lives; it literally saves their lives. I wrote songs in solitary cells for 20 years before anyone ever heard them—I did that as therapy because I was losing my mind.”

Our conversation shifted from discussing “ethereal” airy elements, to the concept of the “ephemeral” — things that appear for a time but then disappear.    “A number of the fingers on my fretting hand were chewed to pieces in an accident in my 20s. So I started writing one-finger songs, and two-finger songs. They were like “etudes.” You know, not a lot of Americana guys are writing “etudes.” (laughs) I didn’t know there was such a thing as standard pitch. The guitar was tuned to the weirdest tunings ever.   Recently I played them for a classical guitar wizard here in Athens named Kyle Dawkins. He said “Why don’t you rerecord them?” I told him it wasn’t possible but he said he liked a challenge. He took my songs and figured out how to play them, and then we recorded them. They came out really well. So we sent the recordings to a friend in Denmark and he put a bunch of them into this Danish TV show he was working on. These songs were an inch away from oblivion, and all of a sudden they’re going to be in Denmark on a television show.“

“The ephemera, these things, so many beautiful things disappear.   I go to the dump a lot, a couple times a week near my house. Just to see what important things are about to disappear. So, I got this offer to do an exhibit at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin at Trinity College. They like musicians to do shows for them in other art forms. I sent the director paintings and photographs and he was bored to tears. And then I sent him my “It’s a Weird Thing” bulletin board, which is literally a bulletin board filled with things I find in the dumpster. He said, “We’ll need at least 10 of those.” So I got a lot of things together to send over there. But when I filled out the customs form to send them there, I labeled it “garbage.” (laughs)   It was really beautiful because all those things went up in a gallery in Ireland, and the next day they would have disappeared at the dump. They are beautiful, there are love letters, paintings, drawings, newspaper articles, paper and journals, that I find.”

“There are other things that almost disappeared that I have turned into art. I wrote a score for a Juilliard play in 2009, and one of the songs was just musical backing to reading from this teenage girl’s diary. It was so beautiful that this turned into art. “Sounds of the Americans” was the Juilliard Drama department senior play based on “The Americans” by Sam Shepherd. Once again, I wasn’t musically trained but the director was an experimental theatre director so I fit. I did a bunch of readings set to music. I also found a sermon from a preacher who believes the true missionary fields are in outer space, advocating intergalatic missionaries. I just read it . I don’t have to make this stuff up. I just find it.”

Tell us about your work with “Shirt Off My Back” campaign. “I was touring with David Byrne, in London at a fancy hall so I went to a thrift store and I found this $4 exotic leisure suit coat to wear that night. It was a white one, kind of a joke on the David Byrne suit. When I looked in the mirror at the dressing room backstage I thought it was goofy looking, so on impulse I walked out on stage and said to the people that they could buy it from me after the show. After the show I went down and the bidding started among 4-5 people, it ended up being this one man and this one woman, bidding against each other. And after awhile the man said “Honey, I’ll let you wear it.” (laughs) It was a lot of money, so I just decided to donate the money to charity.   So I started doing this at several shows, the most I ever got was around $250, which I donated to a community fundraiser for a local family.   Every year I do this and donate something.”

“The thing is, it’s the perfect show souvenir. I’ve talked to people about starting a nonprofit that does this. Everybody could be bidding online, even. This could really be something: “Shirt Off My Back Campaign.”   [Americana Highways thinks this is a great idea. If anyone is interested on working on this, please contact us at americanahighways@gmail.com]

On the horizon for Jim White: “ My next album is going to be a quasi-punk record.  I’m touring the West Coast this spring, then in April I’ll have a run on the East Coast. Thank you for talking to me, this conversation feels like free therapy to me. “  It feels like that to us, too.  Thank you Jim.  Buy the album here.

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Selfie, photo by Jim White

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