A Conversation with Chuck E. Weiss
Mike Ragogna: [sings] "If it ain't that old Chuck E. Weiss."
Chuck E. Weiss: Oh, you like that, huh?
MR: Between Tom Waits' "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" and Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E.'s In Love," I don't know which is the cooler shoutout! By the way, love your Weiss-guy title for the new album, Red Beans & Weiss, and you've got Johnny Depp and your ol' pal Tom Waits on board. What's the story?
CW: Look, I'm not a very disciplined person. I kind of like to have a deadline before I do something, and these guys are my friends, they know that about me, so I guess it was time to do another album. It was suggested to me by both of them that I do an album, so I said, "Okay, I'll do it." I sort of need the discipline, and they, as friends, understand that.
MR: Plus I suspect it's because they both wanted to have another album by you.
CW: And that's the way it goes, man! That's the same thing. [laughs] But unless I have a certain time to do the album, I procrastinate, so I was given the November deadline by Tom. I forget what month we started in, I guess it was maybe late summer or something like that. So I go in the studio and of course what happens is I've got a backlog of songs that I've done and I haven't recorded, so I did those first and then we started on the new stuff. That's how it came about.
MR: When you went to the studio and you had a certain idea of how these things should sound, did playing with other musical folks change their interpretations?
CW: That usually happens in new songs. With the old songs that I've been doing live, I usually don't change them too much, but with the new songs, there's a lot of experimental stuff going on here.
MR: Yeah, and though you're associated with the Tom Waits/Rickie Lee Jones camp, you've got your own moniker, your own stamp on your music and these recordings.
CW: Well, yeah. Look, of course I'm influenced by those artists. I'm a little different in the fact that I think I'm a little more rock 'n' roll based than either one of those artists are. I've always been a little more rhythm-oriented. I think that would be the difference between me and them in my approach. Of course, who else can you compare me to? I'm not that well-known, but the comparison is a little unfair, I think, because I'm not really like either one of those artists. When I first started, people were comparing me to Eric Burdon, so you've got to have somebody to compare me to.
MR: I think in your case, it's only because it's very well known you are friends with them, so it's guilt by association.
CW: It gets a little tabloid-y when you get into that area, and the music is lost because I become this character and you don't think about what the substance is behind the song. So there's a fine line to walk, there, for me.
MR: You're right, so let's get to the album. In addition to the new material, some of these songs were written a while back and gotten to where they are now. Can you talk about the songs and the stories behind them?
CW: Well the first thing that comes to mind is the song "Bomb The Tracks," which is a song about why on the way to the death camps in Auschwitz and all of those places, why didn't Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill bomb the tracks so the trains couldn't get there? Look, I don't like very serious songs, but this has always been a big mystery to me. Why didn't they do that? When I was a teenager, you never talked about that in school; teachers didn't say anything about that. After doing research, they came up with some pretty lame excuses as to why they didn't bomb the tracks. One of them was that they were on other fronts in the war, so they couldn't go devote the time to bomb the tracks, which didn't ring true to me. I've always thought about it, so I thought, "Maybe I should just ask the question in a song." And look, man, being Jewish, Roosevelt was bigger than Al Jolson in the Jewish community, so you couldn't dare say anything bad about him. But I always thought it was wrong of him to not give that more attention than he did.
MR: I was so curious about the concept of this track after hearing it, and it made me look into the history.
CW: Did it ever occur to you that they could have done that?
MR: Well, I'm not sure what the motivation would have been, so maybe it was just a dumb oversight. But I have to say, I never thought of it like that before.
CW: Well, being one of the first post-war babies, that was one of the first things you learned as a kid in a Jewish family. You know, "Uncle Saul was killed in Poland" or whatever, and then you start thinking about it and it becomes a real mystery to you, why didn't anybody do anything about it.
MR: It's great that you put some light on it. Another kind of song on the album is the kind of huysterical "Hey Pendejo." Do you want to take a swing at that?
CW: This is also from childhood. I had a nanny that would take care of me and she was from Veracruz, and she had a boyfriend named Rocky, and Rocky was teaching me all these Mexican slang words. So when I was four or five years old, his buddies would come over and I'd say, "Hey Pendejo!" I didn't know what any of the words meant, but all these older guys just thought that was so great that I was swearing at them in Spanish. That's where that comes from.
MR: I picked one, now it's your turn. What song do you want to talk about?
CW: "Boston Blackie." Boston Blackie was a Dashiell Hammetttype character. Along with Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan, we had Boston Blackie who was a gumshoe that did a lot of things, but the thing that caught my attention was that when they'd announce him at the beginning of the show, they'd go, "Friend of those who have no friends," and I thought, "Wow, man, what a great guy. He's friends with people that have no friends at all." I don't know why that stuck with me for doing a new song, but I thought that would be a great thing to write about in a song. And I do have certain people that come by and stay too long, if you know what I mean.
MR: I do that.
CW: I think we all do.
MR: Okay, my turn, and of course, I go right to "Willy's In The Pee-Pee House."
CW: Well, that's strictly about my bass player. I would not like to say that he has a bladder problem, but for some strange reason, at inappropriate times, he is in the pee-pee house, like when we have to get on stage or something. That's how that came about.
MR: Let me chose another; it's my favorite and the one you start the project off with, "Tupelo Joe."
CW: "Tupelo Joe," there was a great band here in LA, it was called "Tupelo Joe's Chain Sex." It was an experimental band that this guy Joey put together. It was a band that had a bass saxophone in it. I don't know if you've ever seen a bass saxophone, but they're about seven feet tall and they sound so weird. Then he had Sugarcane Harris. I don't know if you've ever heard of him, but he played the electric violin and it was just so out. I did a couple of shows with him, I saw him play, and it just knocked me out that this guy was trying to do something that was different and it wasn't pretentious at all. It was really trying to do something different and it knocked me out, though I never saw him again. But in the studio, my friend Tony Gilkyson the guitar player was just joking around and said, "Tupelo Joe went to the show" and boom, we had a song.
MR: It's as simple as that for you, isn't it, catching all the angles. And your clever angle on "Exile On Main Street Blues." So where does your creativity come from?
CW: Well, let me just say this, some of the best things come from the simplest ideas. For Tony to say, "Tupelo Joe went to the show" and then boom, you have a song, you think, "Well this came too easy, so it must not be good." But a lot of times those are the best songs.
MR: Exactly, it resonates. Just like how "Exile On Main Street Blues" resonates. What's the origin of that one?
CW: Oh, this is great, man. This is the only song on the album I didn't write. It was an ad for the album Exile On Main Street. It was one of those paper cutouts you get from a magazine. You put it on your record player and you listen to it. And then there was another version that was a radio ad for Exile On Main Street but they never recorded the song and put it on the album. It was just the ad. So I saved the ad, my friend Jeffrey Scales--he's a photographer in New York--is the one that turned me on to the ad. He's the one that gave me the cutout. I played it and it stuck with me and I always wondered, "Why didn't The Stones record this song?" So I decided to do the song, and that's our arrangement of it.
MR: More cleverosity. Speaking of The Beatles, which we weren't, your album cover's play on Sgt. Pepper is awesome. I tried to name everyone but I can't get most of them.
CW: Some of them are so obscure, man.
MR: Who are some of these less obvious ones?
CW: Marshall McLuhan's in there, Rimsky-Korsakov's in there. But there are some really, really obscure names in there. If there was a contest or something, nobody could ever get them all. My cats are in there; you'd have to name all my cats...and the handyman from the building I live in, he's in there. You'd have to really be good to name all those names, man.
MR: Seems like you had a pretty good time putting this album together.
CW: Yeah, a real good time.
MR: What's your advice for new artists?
CW: Well I'd say, because the field is so unlimited out there, it's such a big mess, that I think that if you want to be special, you have to be with the old traditional way of going with a record company. I think there are just too many alternatives out there. It's so hard for an artist to be special in this day and age because there are just too many alternatives. I think you have to go back to the way it was and be on a label. That's going to discourage a lot of people.
MR: I think you're right. Because of the extreme musical proliferation, it's hard to rise above the din.
CW: Exactly. It's gotten to the point where people are releasing singles, which hasn't happened since the '70s. Now they're releasing singles again and I think that's cool. Another thing that's great is that you don't have to have a great haircut or anything, people are just buying records because they like the songs.
MR Audio killed the video star?
MR: Chuck, you're awesome. What other words of wisdom have you got?
CW: Just please don't do what I've done. [laughs] I guess that would be the best thing I could say.
MR: Or do exactly what you've done; either one.
CW: Yeah. [laughs]
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
ARIANA & THE ROSE'S "HEAD VS HEART"
According to the artist...
"Writing 'Head vs Heart' really felt like the beginning of a new path for me in terms of my career and defining myself as an artist, and now putting these songs out into the world is the greatest pay off. These 4 songs are a taster, an introduction to what I'd like to share with people. The EP was inspired by the feeling of being torn, of being a part of situations where you never quite know what the right thing to do is. I try to approach these moments with humor and light, which is why I set these story-telling lyrics and melodies to fun dance beats and surrounded them with synths.
"The combination of the lyrics and music on this record is an outgrowth of how I handle the struggle between having my head and heart disagree: a dose of reality with a lot of playfulness and an open heart. I've always felt like the best pop music makes you feel like you want to dance and cry at the same time, that it can be so real and relatable and utterly infectious. My hope for 'Head vs Heart' is that it provides a bit of catharsis, that people feel like they can hear their story in the words and also dance out their heartache."
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