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'It's got its roots in sean-nós. It's all about imperfection' - Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones is coming to the NCH

Regarded by many as Tom Waits' opus, 'Swordfishtrombones' is coming to the NCH, performed by a stellar line-up hand-picked by David Coulter. But don't expect carbon cloned copies of songs from this pinnacle of Waits' enduring career


American singer-songwriter Tom Waits

American singer-songwriter Tom Waits

American singer-songwriter Tom Waits

For 17 years between 1971 and 1988, the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test was a must-watch show for generations of music lovers - a grown-up Top of the Pops. And it was during one episode at the end of the 1970s that David Coulter would have his world turned upside down.

"My brother and I used to stay up late and watch it," he says, "and then Tom Waits appears on it - and I was hooked."

Fast forward about 15 years and Coulter finds himself playing on a Waits album, 1993's The Black Rider, and touring with his musical hero. But before that, as he was making a name for himself as a musician in his own right, he was devouring every morsel of Tom Waits' music he could get his hands on and the album that knocked him sideways was Swordfishtrombones.

Next week, the album will be celebrated at Dublin's National Concert Hall in a special performance under the direction of Coulter and starring the Mercury-nominated Nadine Shah, US alt-troubadour Matthew E White and Austrian musician and producer Soap&Skin, among others.


Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits

Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits

Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits

Released during a fertile period of creativity in 1983, this seventh album marked the end of one Waits era and the beginning of the next. "It was such an about-turn, musically," says Coulter, speaking to Review from his adopted home of California. "It took us into the realm of Waits that so many of us now know and love - that junkyard cabaret-style.

"Prior to that, he had done that late night cabaret sound - it was all very slick and smooth although it always had that lovely jagged edge that Waits brings to things."

But Swordfishtrombones was different. This was an album that asked the listener to go on a journey and to rethink what they thought they knew about the art of songwriting. "What he did," Coulter says, "was throw a finger up at the industry, to do what the likes of Captain Beefheart had done before, to plough his own furrow."

Coulter will be hoping that those who love Waits - and one of his most enduring albums - will be enthralled by how the musicians he has hand-picked for the Dublin show reinterpret the songs.


David Coulter

David Coulter

David Coulter

And the performance will sound very different to the recorded version. "We're not in the business of doing carbon cloned copies of Tom Waits songs," he says. "There's no point. He doesn't do it himself. I've been blessed to see Tom perform live a lot and the thing that always amazes me is he never performs the same way twice. Every night, it's different. It's a living, breathing thing. That's what I've always loved, not just about Tom's music but about all music. You can't tame the beast when you're working with a great musician like Tom Waits."

Lisa O'Neill - one of Ireland's most singular musicians - will be among those singing on the night.

"I saw it before I heard it," O'Neill says, by email. "I bought the record for its cover and I didn't open it for several years. Perhaps I didn't want to disturb it, it is so beautiful to look at.

"Swordfishtrombones is having a curious affect on me at the moment as I am learning some of these songs. It's a wonderful challenge, to say the least."

For David Coulter, O'Neill is the perfect collaborator for a project like this. "Listen to how she delivers a song. It's got its roots in sean-nós. It's all about sliding between notes and it's all about imperfection. There's nothing worse than the clinical reproduction of a song, and that's certainly the case with Tom Waits.

"Swordfishtrombones introduced me to the work of the amazing composer Harry Partch and I think Waits was very inspired by him. Francis Thumm, who worked on the arrangements on the album, had played with the [Harry] Partch Ensemble, so you've got that lineage right there."

Partch - who died in 1974 - is an intriguing figure, both in music and in life, and it was his deviation from the standard western musical scale that so intrigued Waits back then - and Coulter, subsequently, too. "He [Partch] went from music as we know it to what was called a microtonal scale, which was 44 notes. You've got all those black and white notes on the piano and they're clearly divided up. I've always been very interested in all those notes - those liminal notes - in between."

Many believe that Waits experienced a creative rebirth when he met future wife Kathleen Brennan on the set of 1980s Francis Ford Coppola musical film One from the Heart. Waits had been commissioned to write the soundtrack and Brennan - also a musician and songwriter - was a script editor.

It was she - ever daring - who encouraged him to rip it up and start again. "Kathleen's importance to his artistic career - not just his life - can never be underestimated," Coulter says. "I saw it on The Black Rider. She's a huge presence in his art."

Waits would have a remarkably productive few years immediately after meeting Brennan. Not only would he make some of the best music of his life, but he would also show the world that he could act, too as he demonstrated in a couple of Coppola movies, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.

But the weight of Swordfishtrombones hangs over everything. In an erudite appraisal of the album for The Quietus on its 30th anniversary in 2013, the writer and musician Tristan Bath, captured the essence of the album.

"Swordfishtrombones is not an influential album in the strictest sense," he wrote. "It did little to expand the aural palettes of popular music, it triggered no major movement to speak of, and if anything, lost Tom Waits a sizeable chunk of his own dedicated (if rather dull) following.

"However, it's also a near perfect masterpiece; a 40-minute magical realist portrait of the human condition, and a missive from a sonically parallel universe. Its most lasting impact has most certainly been on Waits himself, for whom it represents both the high point and fulcrum of his entire career. The songs, instrumentals and monologues that lie therein paint a Brueghelian picture of an underground world of misfits and freaks, massively darker and more compelling than the jazz cafés of his previous work."

For Gary Sheehan, head of programme planning at the National Concert Hall, Swordfishtrombones remains a groundbreaking album. "It's that moment in his career when the cabaret [Bertolt] Brecht part of what he did came together with the Americana part and I don't think anyone had done that before. All that handmade instrument stuff and out-of-tune instruments are at the heart of it." The album credits list instruments as strange as 'glass harmonica' and 'metal aunglongs'.

"I love the boho Americana of it and, don't forget, it's really biting, lyrically - it's really a portrayal of the bad side of the American free-market economy. And, even today, I keep hearing [William] Burroughs and Raymond Carver in it."

But not everyone was happy with Waits' new direction back in 1983. "It's a bit like Bob Dylan going electric," Sheehan says. "I remember it coming out and it was like, 'What's Tom Waits doing with all this noisy stuff? Where have all the beautiful ballads gone?' But, the thing is, the lyrical sweetness is still in there."

And it's an album that endures. "Musicians still talk about this record," Sheehan says. "When young musicians find it, it's a bit like when you first read Naked Lunch [by William Burroughs. Who's been influenced by it? Everybody."

Swordfishtrombones Revisited is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Tuesday, October 29

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