Caleb Landry Jones :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

I met Caleb Landry Jones back in 2012, years before he’d turn in a string of memorable performances in films like Get Out, The Florida Project, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He was just a kid back then — grinding in LA, auditioning, meeting young writers and directors like myself, trying to make things happen. I remember watching him arrive at the cafe we were meeting at in a taxi (even in 2012, Uber was already ubiquitous, only weirdos took taxis, especially to coffee shops at 9am on a Tuesday), and seeing this redheaded scarecrow emerge from the backseat with a maniacal grin plastered across his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips. I had no idea what Caleb Landry Jones was supposed to look like — I admit, I’d done a bad job researching the person I was scheduled to sit down with — but I knew this cat had to be him. I’d never seen anyone in my life who looked more like a Caleb. I also knew he was incredibly special. I knew he’d go on to do great work. I knew he’d be famous one day. He just had that thing. I guess it’s called star power, although that’s not quite right. Harry Styles has star power, Caleb’s like a walking stick of dynamite. Sitting down with him for coffee, he was every bit as raw, electric, and captivating as he has been in all the work I’ve seen him in since. It’s been a joy to watch his career unfold.

When I found out Caleb was releasing an LP with Sacred Bones, I wasn’t surprised. I knew he was a musician. After that first meeting in 2012, I drove him back to his apartment in Hollywood, and he played me a few original compositions on his laptop. They were incredible. Acid-drenched, schizophrenic pop; the mongrel offspring of Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, and Guided By Voices at their most bizarre. I was immediately hooked. I asked him if he would burn me a CD, but he declined. He wasn’t ready for his music to be out there in the world just yet. He needed more time to tinker, to experiment, to record in his bedroom, and further hone in on his sound.

The Mother Stone is a collection of fifteen tracks entirely out of step with whatever modern trends are currently gripping independent music. It feels peerless, out of time, from a different dimension. None of the songs are going to be programmed on Spotify playlists anytime soon. It isn’t a record you can play quietly in the background as you respond to emails. It requires headphones. Focus. Attention. Which isn’t to say it isn’t any fun. Because it is. Between movements of orchestral noise and calamity, there are hidden moments of pop bliss on the record waiting to be discovered. Van Dyke Parks byway of Elephant 6-era Of Montreal sugarcoated nuggets of Beatle-esque melody. It’s a record you’ll be going back to again and again all year, uncovering new details, new sounds, new feelings. 

I connected with Caleb about the record over the phone a few weeks ago. He was back home in Texas, on his parent’s farm, riding out stay-at-home orders like the rest of the country and writing new music in the family barn — the same barn he wrote and recorded his first batch of songs in as a teenager. We discussed everything from The Mother Stone’s bold and distinctive cover to The White Album to Joanna Newsom’s Ys and everything in between. – Eddie O’Keefe

Aquarium Drunkard: Where are you right now?

Caleb Landry Jones: I’m in Texas, over in Farmersville.

AD: How are you holding up during these crazy times?

Caleb Landry Jones: I’m at my parent’s place right now. It doesn’t seem too crazy. I’ve been crazy busy making this music.

AD: I loved the record.

Caleb Landry Jones: Yeah, thanks. I’m excited that Caleb [Braatan] over at Sacred Bones is going to put it out.

AD: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is the album cover. I love album covers, and I don’t think modern artists pay enough attention to them nowadays. Maybe because less and less people buy physical media and it’s perceived as less important than it used to be. Anyway, I was really struck by the image of you on it, or that “character.” It’s very bold and odd. I kept returning to it while listening to the record and imagining that character as the singer, not necessarily you, the Caleb Landry Jones I know. What’s the inspiration behind it?

Caleb Landry Jones: My girlfriend is an artist, and she makes these particular types of monotypes. She wanted to make a monotype of me, and I was thinking that’d be great if we could use it for the cover too.  We went to a costume place and looked for a good wig. We found a cheap Marie Antoinette wig, and then it all just fit together. She had this space for a month that a guy in downtown LA was giving her for free, so she was finishing stuff that she needed to get to a gallery before a certain time. At the same time, the label gave us some money, and we went to Home Depot and fabric places and got a bunch of stuff. We came back to the space and just chipped away at it every day. We put up four old phones because we use old phones from the last 10 years that I’ve collected, and we shot it all. I think she took a still while we were doing it, and we left them running for a good 20 minutes to see what would happen. That became the basis of all the visuals thus far.

AD: It’s a really striking image and feels representative of the music.

Caleb Landry Jones: Hudson, who plays bass on the record, said “Yeah, I could see that guy on the record,” and that’s great that me and Katya weren’t the only ones.

AD: There’s a real lyrical cohesion to the record. Every song seems to be coming from the same author. Yet at the same time, it feels like you’re traveling through this psychic slipstream, like the narrator is wearing different masks and occupying different realities from song to song. Is point of view important to you while you’re writing lyrics?

Caleb Landry Jones: It’s mostly just kind of reacting to a feeling or the idea when it happens. Or you’re playing along on an instrument and fumbling around, then you hit something that has a feeling and brings certain thoughts to you. Then, sometimes that takes a while to get down, but the last 6 or 7 years, I’ve kind of been letting it go a little more in that way. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t care or if it’s easier for me.

AD: A lot of the lyrics content is open to interpretation; up in the air. Then, there’s songs like “Katya” and “For the Longest Time” and “I Want to Love You,” which seem to be coming from a more personal place.

Caleb Landry Jones: I don’t know. Those lyrics in the verses, I’m thinking “That’s pretty wild. I wonder how folks are hanging onto that when they hear it.” I wonder what’ll come to their heads. I’m glad you see that as cohesive material.

AD: When you fall in love with a new record, is it because of the words or the music or is it both?

Caleb Landry Jones: I guess it depends if you can understand the lyrics or if they’re a good lyricist. Some folks grab me because they’ve got a lot of intellectual property verbally that they’re well equipped with. Then, you’ve got others that might not be able to do that word-wise, that communicate solely through the music and leave it very minimal, lyrically. I like both. Then, there’s the ones that are just screwing with words and screwing with ideas. I like those too. I think I’ve probably leaned into the third party more. We could talk about Bob Dylan and that Tarantula idea of broken logic, but maybe it’s not as broken as you think. It feels pretty fragmented, but at the same time, it also feels like it comes from the same place. I remember I took a meeting with a producer once, and they were telling me I had to pick one lane. That’s what would need to happen if we were going to make a record together. I was like, “that’s great, we can do one-lane. It just won’t be the music that you asked for. It’ll be a one trick pony, and you can ride it all the way to Tinseltown.”

AD: I read that one of the records that influenced you as an artist and informed this record was The White Album, which it seems like you heard for the first time, like many people do, when you were very young.

Caleb Landry Jones: I like those aspects about The White Album that felt cut up. Where it could be in one place, then the next song you’re in another place. All of a sudden, you’re back at it again. I liked how that felt.

AD: Is that your favorite Beatles record?

Caleb Landry Jones: No, that was just one that I was saving. I hadn’t listened to them for a while because I listened to them so much as a kid. I wanted to hear other things. I saved that record, so it was one of the ones I hadn’t heard yet and then when I finally did, it kind of restarted all that. That’s been going on the last 8 years, I suppose.

The Beatles are one of those bands that are easy to take for granted, because you discover them when you’re so young. They’re ubiquitous. They’re like the air. Eventually, you move on to more obscure stuff or you dig deeper into their solo discographies and stop going back to those records so much. But then, some song comes on the radio — “Help” or “Hey, Jude” or whatever — and it’ll send you back onto a Beatles kick, and you’re reminded of how elemental and powerful those songs are.

Every time you hear one from those certain years, you’re going “Man. Wow. That’s just one track!” As a kid, I listened to Sgt. Pepper as a kid, and then rediscovered it as a teen and wore it out again. It affected me so largely. More of their work amplified those thoughts and ideas. It was more about them and other artists that pushed the boundaries and showed that we could go and play in other areas too.

AD: I think it’s cool that you mentioned The White Album as an influence for this because I feel there’s a tendency to hide that.

Caleb Landry Jones: I don’t know if The White Album influenced this particularly. It’s just influenced me musically and overall in terms of “how many times to do things before you wear them out,” and fluctuating between left and right and left again. I keep saying, it’s not until George’s song comes on that all of a sudden the bar is set. There’s great songs before that by John and Paul, but at the same time, George is just – there’s things I’ve learned from that record, the same as Revolver. Like how the electric guitar sounds. Sharp guitar and that shaker right in your ear. It’s the same thing with Bowie records. Nick, the producer, equated what he was hearing to Bowie. It’s a mix between both of those, what we were hearing ourselves. Then, he would show me something that I didn’t know we could get it to sound like that which leads to the song being weirder because of that. The Beatles helped show me that you don’t always have to make a circle the way you think.

AD: You just mentioned collage. The White Album is the perfect example of collage. I’ve heard people say that as good as The White Album is, it would be better if it was 15 songs instead of 30.

Caleb Landry Jones: It’s like if you take bubbles out of a bathtub. They’re all important. You’ve got 15 bubbles in your bathtub and no bubble bath. All those records by them are just excruciatingly, painfully impressive.

AD: Speaking of length, your record, by modern standards, is pretty long. It’s 15 tracks and a little over an hour. Were there any songs left on the cutting room floor, or did all the stuff you recorded make it onto the record?

Caleb Landry Jones: Everything we recorded, we kept, other than a few seconds here and there of alternative transitions.

AD: Were the songs already written going into the studio or did you compose in the live room as well?

Caleb Landry Jones: Everything was written before hand, so it was only a question of what order to put things and how many times to do things. I just told myself, “Don’t repeat anything more than you have to,” and then I made the order the day before I went into the studio. I knew it was going to get messy. Originally, we were just going to record a few songs, and I was hoping Nick would dig it and we could make a record. That’s what ended up happening, but it could’ve not gone that way. Luckily, the first segment was 15 minutes long, minus that piano part. Then, we laid on vocals. After a day, he started seeing what I was doing, and we had to keep working on drums, more vocals, and percussion. Before we knew it, we had the whole record.

AD: The album sounds big. Orchestral. When it came time to expand the songs in studio and bring in more musicians, I imagine that feels pretty different from writing songs alone in your studio or your parent’s barn.

Caleb Landry Jones: Some of it was planned, as far as “these parts will be held for this long, and this will definitely have horns or some kind of quartet.” George Martin of course was a big influence. And Nick showed me artists like Van Dyke Parks. I really like him, but I only heard him after all the songs were recorded and we were working on instrumentals. The second record that we’re mixing when we get all back together has a lot more of that Van Dyke Parks-type swinging and dipping in and out of dramatic places sound. I’ve only listened to one of his records, Song Cycle. I’ve heard some of the stuff he’s done with Beach Boys, but that’s the only record of his I know.

AD: Did you ever hear Joanna Newsom’s second record “Ys.” Van Dyke Parks produced it with her, and some of the stuff on there is mind-blowing. He has such a distinctive signature as a producers. You can really feel him on the records he’s involved with.

Caleb Landry Jones: I have one of her records, and I never found myself going back to it too often. I don’t know her work too well.

AD: Obviously, most people know you first as an actor. Does your career as an actor inform the music that you make, or vice versa? Do you write while you’re shooting something? Do the characters you play ever infiltrate the songs, lyrically or sonically?

Caleb Landry Jones: Yes and no. I let the roles dictate that as best as I can. Sometimes, there’s nothing I can do, but it’s like I’ve got to find a guitar or a piano. It leads to me writing pieces in my off time. Either there’s too much off time or emotionally, there’s things I can’t bring to work in that way. This provides another outlet for that.

AD: How long did these songs take to compose?

Caleb Landry Jones: Some songs were very fast, like minutes. Others took hours, and others are over days and weeks. I was fiddling around with the piano any time I had a chance, which meant every night when everyone was asleep in the hotel. I’d get to maybe twice or three times a week because of how busy I was on the film. That took over three or four weeks. I was working on the piano in Bulgaria. I think I went to do a film in Toronto, and that’s when I started writing the songs. I spent probably two weeks in New York and finished it, and then wrote 4 more for the album. Then, I came back to LA, and started recording a week or so afterwards.

AD: So these songs came together relatively quickly.

Caleb Landry Jones: It was just the last batch of songs that were ready to go. I either had to come to Texas and do them in the barn, or do them in LA. I couldn’t go to the barn at that time for a month or two. I had money from this military film, Outpost. So I contacted this guy, Nick, and had the money to do a few days, so he said yes. Now we’re making a few records. To me, it wasn’t relatively fast because I had to sit on these songs for so long, which is good. Normally, I would’ve wanted to record as I was writing, but that means the album would’ve been so different. There probably would’ve been two or three records rather than one. The last four records I did have all been this kind of one song goes into the next song with 30-minute melodies type thing. This all was because of practicality and being on films, unable to record. I haven’t put any of these other ones out, but I recorded them in Texas.

AD: Are you planning on releasing those?

Caleb Landry Jones: That’s what I made them for, but some friends said don’t put them all out at once.

AD: I read you shared a collection of instrumental piano recordings with Jim Jarmusch, who then helped you get in touch with Sacred Bones and set the wheels in motion for this record coming out. What were those compositions like, you shared with Jim?

Caleb Landry Jones: I gave him these two records I made called Microastro and Macroastro. It was two records I did in a few weeks while I was home one month. I think it’s around 20 something songs, so I split it in half into two records. I don’t think I’d showed anyone those two before, but out of all my music, I thought Jim might dig them the most. They’re not instrumental at all. It’s got keyboards, drums, everything that this has minus string and horn players and no bass. Everything is done on Casios and Yamahas instead. Same dramatic sound, but a lot more lo-fi.

AD: How did you find the transition from working out songs alone in your family’s barn in Texas or your apartment, to working in Valentine Studio in LA.

Caleb Landry Jones: The studio is great, and the boards and everything are timeless. It’s more so Nick being the engineer and producer that he is. We were able to zip through it in a way that was really natural. I had to trust him to go where I was wanting to go, and he had to trust me that I knew where I was going to some extent. We also pushed each other into more or less going this or that way. Sometimes, we’d butt heads, but it would alway go where it was supposed to go. Even the times where we’d butt heads was natural. It was healthy. It allowed us to do good work. When you get angry or something, you can put it in the song. Like a song has always had that vibe lurking in the back, but now it just came to the front and took the mic for a little bit. It’s all really positive stuff, and at the end, you’re there for the same reason, to make some kickass shit that we can go to bed with. I don’t want to get too vulgar, but hopefully it’s something you can make love to. Fuck it, kill it, and bring it back to life. It is my first proper record in that sense.

A lot of musicians coming out of their first experience in a studio making a proper record, there’s growing pains to that process. Having to do something that was once so private in a setting where you’re collaborating with producers and engineers.

It’s more like a movie in the sense that it’s a collective. You’re all responsible for your shit. Enjoy yourself and have fun, but at the same time, there’s fucking work to be done. It’s a mix of all of it. You have to lean on each other, but also be strong to help keep everyone together.

AD: The album title is The Mother Stone, and there are repeated references to stones throughout the record. What’s the significance of the word stone within this record? I took it as a synonym for spirit. Is that accurate?

Caleb Landry Jones: I’d rather leave it up for interpretation, but you’re kind of on the right track. I don’t want to limit it to that. At the same time, I think I’d thought a few things, and it developed later. It painted different pictures, as well as the ones in the beginning. The title came out of nowhere. My manager, Kevin, was needing the title. It took me a while to think of something because everything I thought of didn’t feel right. That one felt right.

AD: Now that you’ve publicly entered a new art form, are you experimenting with other art forms? Would you like to write or direct films?

Caleb Landry Jones: Since I was 17, I really wanted to direct movies, but that seemed difficult. I couldn’t get into NYU, so I just said “Fuck it.” Acting, I was able to get jobs and it became more interesting than I even knew it could be. I already thought it was fun, but I didn’t think it could stretch you as a person as well. Directing seemed more impossible to do because it seems like such a crazy job. You really have to have cojones to put it together. It always seemed like you needed the right people and this or that. If it wasn’t all perfect, then you have to be a tyrant. It seemed less possible. I’ve always written ideas in a little journal, things like reading a short story and mapping out how I’d shoot it. I went on one meeting with some producers, and they told me they wanted me to write out my idea. It was for some web thing. I thought, “Screw them. They don’t believe that I know what I’m doing and have got it all in my head,” which I did, but who’s going to know that? That was good because I went back to my place, and I wrote something down and went to my neighbor Joe’s wife, Kim. We sat down and made it better. For the first time since I was 16, I’d actually written out a short film. Maybe I’ll make one of them one day. I’ve got a bunch of things written, just not in a typewriter format. As long as the person helping can understand the pieces, we’ll all get along just fine. It is important to some degree for everyone to know what you’re trying to achieve, but I don’t want to give everything away. A part of me worries about that.

AD: What does the next year hold for you, in terms of your creative focus? Is music the thing you’re most focused on?

Caleb Landry Jones: I just finished a film two weeks ago, and I’m supposed to do one coming up in a few months. Gotta wait a second for the storm to settle a bit. I can’t remember where we’re shooting, but it takes place in Tasmania.

AD: If you could condense The Mother Stone, what ideas, themes, or notions where in your head while writing and recording this?

Caleb Landry Jones: The same ones as always. Abuse, loss, hope, the good tickle, the bad tickle, the runaway train, the perfectly timed flying bus. To me, I’m always doing the same thing in a roundabout way, even if it’s more of this or less of that. It all feels to be unified by the same presences in the end. Most records I make have something to do with women, the planet as it is right now, what it was, or what it will be. There’s ideas of grandeur, dreams, what-ifs. It’s all true because none of it can be.

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