John Waters, iconic film director, screenwriter, author, and artist, has just released Make Trouble, his first spoken-word vinyl record, on Jack White’s Third Man Records. It was produced by Grammy-winning producer and acclaimed author Ian Brennan (Zomba Prison Project, Malawi Mouse Boys, Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott), whose latest release is the Tanzania Albinism Collective’s White African Power album. He is also the author of How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording And The Battle For Democracy In The Arts. We arranged for the two of them to have a chat about the artistic process, recording in Africa, and being the oldest artist at Coachella.
Ian Brennan: So, you have a new record out. With Jack White’s label.
John Waters: I never thought I’d say that - “a new record”. Especially a 45. Especially one that comes in a limited-edition of red. I love that! My parents used to have red 45s that would make me crazy when I saw them, so I am happy to have done it. The difference is that when I was young, that little spindle you put in the middle to play them, we’d get them for a nickel. Now they’re like $80! I find that even more ludicrous and funny. People say is there any other possible way that you are going to try to exploit this speech? And I say, yes. Opera! (laughter)
IB: But it’s a very moving speech.
JW: Thank you. But your work. I could probably make an opera out of the one that you did in Zomba Prison – the one where they are playing broken water-bottles and buckets. That’s so great. It’s punk rock, though, isn’t it?
IB: Yeah, I think it’s more punk rock. Often the records we’re working on get labelled “world music”, which I really don’t like since all music is of this world.
JW: Yes, mine should be in that category. (laughter)
IB: Yes, it should. Well, your record is field-recording because I came to your apartment and we did it.
IB: It’s a form of field-recording. It was just done in Manhattan rather than in the rural countryside somewhere in Africa.
JW: How did you ever find people in Africa?
IB: Well, I and Marilena Delli – my wife who does all of photos and video for these projects – have for almost a decade been seeking out underrepresented populations which unfortunately are too easy to find within entire nations where you don't see a single music release or film in any given year. But also within those regions, we try to focus on those within the population that are most persecuted or underrepresented. Which again tends to be pretty plentiful as well.
JW: Are they familiar with your past? Do they listen to a lot of records? Do they know about Grammys and that kind of stuff? I wouldn’t necessarily assume so.
IB: They certainly don’t know about Grammys for the most part. For a lot of the people that we have worked with, recorded music is not a big part of their lives because many of them live without electricity. With the advent of cellphones, it has become a little bit more accessible to people, but it’s a bit of a self-serving Silicon Valley fantasy that somebody that is a subsistence-farmer spends their precious few SIM card minutes searching for music by way of a faint and intermittent signal.
JW: What is the name of the island?
IB: Ukerewe Island.
JW: Well, that’s not in my vocabulary. When you got there, what did you say? Did you have some introduction or did you just start knocking on people’s doors? Like Michael Anthony in The Millionaire.
IB: Well, every situation has been different. With the Tanzania Albinism Collective we had the good fortune of working with a really good organization, Standing Voice, who have helped the individuals on the island form a community and they did outreach to see who might want to try their hand at music, since they were not musicians. And it is those eighteen people who showed up every day and wrote songs and were brave enough to share their stories and voices. Those are the ones that are on the record.
JW: But they already had this music? The frying pans and sledgehammer percussion were already there.
IB: No, they made music especially for us. Certainly, the sledge-hammer and the empty beer bottles were already around, but those with albinism had been turned away from music so strongly and ostracized so much that they weren't even allowed to go to church. So when we sent instruments ahead – keyboards, a guitar, bass – they didn’t even touch them. They left them in their boxes and cases even though they were meeting once a week preparing in some way for our arrival. They didn't cross that threshold to try to express themselves that way until we actually arrived there. It’s hard to believe that a lot of this stuff – the rapes and mutilations – are still going on in the 21st century, but through outreach and community education, they have made headway in Tanzania. But the problems kind of shift around. Now in Malawi – where we did the Zomba Prison Project records – they are having an escalation of murders towards those with albinism.
JW: And the prison there in Malawi just let you in?
IB: Well, not exactly. But the prisons there are very different. The guards don’t even carry guns inside. The two Zomba Prison Project albums were made up mostly of the women who didn't even have previous access to instruments and by the men who were on the margins of the official band – the backup bassist or a percussionist. They were the ones that offered up the most compelling songs, and that is what led to that Grammy nomination.
JW: I know you from the music world and the alternative music world. And we have worked together for many years. Did that world lead to this world?
IB: To me it’s all related – alternative voices and counter-narratives. Since I did the free shows every week in a San Francisco laundromat for five years I sort of learned that you could record anywhere.
JW: I made a lot of my early movies in laundromats because they already had bright lights in there. (Laughter) I figured people in laundromats would be okay with it – people are never meant to you in laundromats. They’re kind of nice. And they’re so shocked when you come in and start filming a movie while they’re on a spin cycle. It kind of perks up the whole experience.
IB: Yeah. I guess literally airing their dirty laundry makes them a little bit vulnerable.
JW: How does the Grammy board find out about records?
IB: Well, they get submitted by labels. And I have been lucky enough to have produced four Grammy-nominated albums and to have won one (Tinariwen— 2011).
JW: I want to know since we have a record out right now. Can’t we do some payola? Is that still illegal?
IB: I don’t know if anything is illegal anymore.
JW: That’s what I’m saying. Can you please start paying off some radio stations so that we can get some sales here? (laughs) I want you to be my new Alan Freed.
IB: Maybe we can leave that to Jack White. (laughter)
JW: Well, I’m proud to be working with him. It’s such a hip record label. It adds more to my street-cred at my seventy-one-year-old career mark. My career hasn’t quite been seventy-one years, but maybe it has – I had a puppet show when I was young doing birthday parties.
IB: Puppet shows are a pretty good way to start.
JW: I had soundtracks for all my movies. But I didn't know you had to pay for them and that was a problem. Certainly, from Pink Flamingos on, every film had a soundtrack. And when I turn in a script, the songs are all already on there. Music has always been like narration to me, that’s just how I think when I’m thinking up a movie. To have a new record out on vinyl is great. I miss packaging. Downloads are not going to be collectible ever.
IB: Yeah, well that’s part of the artifact feature of vinyl. And Third Man has been a big part of boosting the resurgence of vinyl along with jobs in east Nashville and Detroit. Also, they make the releases special, like with the red vinyl on your record.
JW: Yes, and that’s why we spent so much time on the cover. Because the presentation is part of it. A lot of people will buy it and never play it. It’s like a printed program. One of the biggest record collectors in Baltimore said he went and bought every copy. Maybe they weren't carrying that many, but he knew somebody would want them one day.
IB: A true collector would probably buy the red one to put on the wall and the regular vinyl to play.
JW: Does the red one cost more because they made less of them?
IB: Yes, it is a collector’s item. They only pressed two hundred copies and it’s already sold out.
JW: I don't think we will be on the charts anytime soon. But nowadays you can sell thirty copies and still make the charts sometimes. Maybe we have a chance! (laughter) Last time I had my Grammy-nomination for Carsick - and I almost choke on the words – but this year there are fifty bigwigs in the running.
IB: Yes, lots of former and would-be Presidents are in spoken word. (laughter) We started working together in 2001. We did a show at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with Tammy Faye Bakker.
JW: Yes, I remember. And I hate her. She wasn’t funny and her rotten Jesus-freak husband was upstairs selling religious literature to drag queens who I am not so sure that they as a couple were truly for. They played gay theaters because no one else would take them. They’d already been busted and thrown out of the church…..Just because she wore too much eye-makeup, that wasn’t enough for me.
IB: Luckily that led to us doing more shows together.
JW: Oh, yeah, the show was fine. And we’ve done a billion of them since. And on this year’s annual Christmas tour, besides the books, we will have records for sale too.
IB: Music has always been a big part of the shows. Jonathan Richman and Peaches and Wanda Jackson are some of the people that I have paired you with in the past. And Wanda Jackson put out a record herself on Third Man, so I guess it’s kind of come full circle, pun intended.
JW: I wish Third Man would put out a record by The Satanic Temple. They have fought for separation of church and state and won the right to have Satanic bible studies any place that has Christian bible studies. They are pretty funny.
IB: Well, maybe. And also you have been at Coachella and Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot.
JW: I thought I was going to be the oldest person at Coachella, but then Sly Stone came out. But he didn’t make it through the entire show, so I guess I am the oldest one that made it to the end. (laughter)
IB: You were the oldest person to actually finish your set.
JW: I met Beth Ditto (The Gossip) there and we are still friends. And I recently saw one of the Dirty Projectors, they were in the trailer next to me at the celebrity trailer-park that they put you in backstage, which was kind of fun. Kind of like Pink Flamingos, only everyone was famous and each one had their own trailer. It was hilarious. I love paying those music festivals. You reach all the young lunatics. I love playing the Burger Boogaloo punk festival which I have done the past three years. I like reaching all kinds of people. That’s why I was in the Chucky movie. When I’m on the subway in New York they say, “Hey, it’s the guy from the Chucky movie.” They don’t say, “Hey, you wrote a book or are a filmmaker.” (laughter) Children come over to me at airports, they know me from The Simpsons. And Alvin & the Chipmunks, that was a real bucket list item.
IB: Now they are going to say that you are the guy with the #1 Spoken Word record in the country. (laughter)
JW: Well, is there even such a list?
IB: I think so.
JW: Then send them some payola. (laughter)
IB: But at Coachella, you were on first thing in the morning. And in that tent (Mojave) it was the biggest audience they had ever had first thing in the day.
JW: That’s good. They should book me again. It’s time to go back, right?
IB: That would be good. It was awesome when we pulled back the curtain and the tent was just overflowing with people long before you even went on.
JW: I have a rock and roll version of my live comedy-show. I played the Fun, Fun, Fun festival in Austin. It’s like running off to the circus. And now I have a record so I can lip-synch to it. (laughter)
IB: That will extend the life of the tour. Now you just have to have the “world music” version of your act.
JW: The world music version exists already, you just have to get some of the people from my early movies. They are other-worldly themselves. We did come from another world; we could be in a world cinema class.
IB: Yes, that’s true. Well, thank you, John.
JW: We aren't in the same Grammy category, so we don't have to sabotage each other's campaign, right?
IB: Well, I produced your record, so no matter what it’s a win/win I think.
JW: Well, I’m glad we did it. I had fun.
Make Trouble is out now via Third Man Records and can be purchased here. For more information about John Waters, please click here. For more information about Ian Brennan, please visit his official website.
Photo Credit: Greg Gorman