I should have known better than to call Caleb Landry Jones hoping for a linear conversation. Jones is best known as an actor, attracting critical acclaim over the past few years for his unique approach to eccentric and challenging roles. He’s the viciously anaemic Jeremy Armitage in Get Out!, the charmingly oblivious Red Welby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the delinquent Steven Burnett in 2017's Twin Peaks. Even his acting debut as a kid in The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, telling Javier Bardem that a bone was sticking through his skin, placed him near the wide-eyed fringes of cinema. With his piercing and pallid good looks, at age 30, he looks like the prom king at a high school that’s hiding a horrible secret.
He’s also a prolific songwriter, who says he’s recorded hundreds of songs at the studio built into his parents’ barn in Texas. Fifteen of those have made it onto The Mother Stone, his debut, out now via Sacred Bones — a label that, in keeping with all this oddball cinema, was first introduced to Jones by director Jim Jarmusch. On The Mother Stone, Jones has taken his American outsiderdom and blown it up into an opera-sized pageant. It is an album as decadent and depraved as its cover — Jones in a powdered wig, lips painted red, a cigarette between his fingers. It jumps from place to place, tempo to tempo, a trudge of baroque horns giving way to melancholy woodwind before the strings whip up. His voice is constantly changing too, from a reedy faux-British chirp to a graveled Southern grunt and occasionally a sudden scream for manic punctuation. He clearly sees White Album-era Beatles as a foundation, but The Mother Stone is freakier than that — less interested in enlightenment, too. Syd Barrett and Frank Zappa might be closer, but at their most lucid even their lyrics made a little sense from word to word. The Mother Stone, conversely, opens with a four-minute instrumental romp before Jones slithers in: “Short bone, with me / Don't know, through dreams / This state, supreme / Our heads, our seeds.”
So, again, it was my fault for calling Jones — who’s self-isolating at his parents’ farm — in the hopes of running through The Mother Stone one song at a time. We got halfway through a conversation about the album’s second song, “You’re So Wonderful,” before he graciously stopped me. “It's rare that I know what I'm doing while I'm doing it,” he said. From there we discussed the way he harnesses his obsessive-compulsive disorder in the studio, his approach to myth, and the perception of his unconventional music as “psychedelic.” Our conversation skittered around with little warning, so it’s been edited for clarity where possible.
The FADER: The Mother Stone is a difficult record in a lot of ways. Are you expecting to surprise people with this?
Caleb Landry Jones: I don't know if you could surprise anybody anymore, with everything that's going on right now. The record's a lot of fun for me, and [it] does a lot of the things that I enjoy in music. I hope that other people dig it too. I just think it's funky. I hope others think it's funky too. You never know. Nashville didn't get Hank Williams at the beginning, so what is that? Sometimes you just don't know what's going to happen.
You’ve played unconventional characters in film, and parts of the record seem to have you on the outskirts of life. Is there an allure to being an outsider?
As a kid I was attracted to it, just because it was something I didn't understand. Maybe I also felt like I identified with some of those characters. I’d be with my mother, and she’d see a person and get a feeling. Maybe we'd walk a little faster, or she'd look away. I always found myself wanting to look over there. I always found myself wanting to figure out why my mom had this attitude, this feeling, because I was oblivious to it.
Going to school, there'd be these kids that looked like [they were] doing something different. Sometimes you'd get to be friends with them and you'd realize they're not doing anything different at all. They were phony. I'm sure I was a bit like that too, but [you’re] just trying to figure out who you are, and you find yourself stretching this way or that way in order to figure it out.
What’s your process like? Do you write your lyrics before you write the music?
It all just depends. Sometimes words feel like they're coming faster than the pen can write them down, and faster than you can get a hold of it. And then other times, it's like a school bully, [holding] a kid upside down and trying to get change out, and then five cents or a few pennies fall out after five minutes of shaking the kid, [and] the bully goes, "Okay, well I guess I'll take my few pennies and go." I don't know. That's a terrible analogy.
I remember listening to an interview with Neil Young. He was talking about this necessity — when he had an idea, he needed to do something about it, because he knew how important it was to him. He felt like there was a responsibility. And that just made me feel so good to hear someone I love and revere so much say something that I felt the exact same way about. Sometimes you get some ideas of stuff and it's your responsibility to do something about those ideas. And I'm a bit obsessive, so it doesn't hurt.
Obsessive in what way?
Oh, just OCD and stuff. And as a kid, I wasn't aware of it. [Now] I come home from the barn and I feel that ticking clock. I feel like if I don't write the idea down that I've got screaming in my head, something bad's going to happen — something bad's going to happen to someone I love, or me, or someone I don't even know. But that's just the OCD. Everyone's going to be fine if you don't write that song.
When did you first become aware that you had OCD?
My mom took me to a therapist when I was really young. It was mostly me not being able to... I had my patterns, and those patterns would keep me from doing normal things, being able to go to the same places everyone else was going. The little things that everyone does that we all take for granted, it'd keep me from some of those things. Like the person you see going back and forth between the door 20 times before they go out — just the craziest, ridiculous little patterns that keep you from being able to live freely.
How does that work for you in the studio? Does it hold you back?
No, because I'm such a bad musician. I come from a place where there's not too much technical know-how, and I don't know all the scales under the sun, and I don't know every chord half the time when I'm playing it. There's so much error that happens all the time. I think a quarter of what's on the record is error, but it's great error. It’s good in the studio to be meticulous [with] aspects of the work, where the attention to detail and the obsession comes. It's very productive. In some places it's not, when it comes to beating yourself up, or hanging onto things.
I'm so anal in one way, I have to be so absolutely the opposite in another way. If I'm making the perfect gingerbread house, if the structure's perfect, you bet I got to make that thing wild with the icing and all the gumdrops and everything — just [go] crazy because the structure's so contained and perfect. I feel like then a part of me needs to get that other side out. Maybe that’s why the album fluctuates like it does, and it just feels natural.
Fluctuate is an interesting word for the way this album moves. I was thinking about the way that it's sequenced. How much do you think about and plan out a journey in music?
I feel like there's a few journeys in one song. It just happens naturally. You get to the end of that song, and you find yourself going into this [other] one. And [working in] a period of three or four weeks, I find I've had the songs [written] in the first two weeks more or less, and so now the other two weeks are spent playing them so I don't forget them. Which means mix-mashing them up, throwing them all over the place, trying things upside down, trying things on top of other things, trying other things behind other things, seeing what's the best fit, and then just making a choice a few days before going to the studio. You just let it unfold, and you've got to stick with that because it felt right a few times when you'd done it, and it felt the most secure. And then if it ever feels stale, you either break it apart, kill it and resurrect it, or be gentle with it.
There’s something buried in this record about actual geographical journeys as well. The first movement is quite operatic, and then, starting with “For The Longest Time,” there are slide guitars, country sounds.
I didn't think about that till afterwards going, Oh man, am I going to get in trouble for that? Am I going to be able to get away with that? I always wanted a fiddle for that song, but I never thought of it as kind of country-esque or anything, or any elements of that. But you're absolutely right. It's there. I'm listening to Ernest Tubb the last few days.
Did you grow up on country?
Yes and no. My dad, he raised me on Hank Williams and I remember I also really liked Stevie Ray Vaughan. As a kid, I remember this Chevy, and those two CDs that he had. But yeah, he listened to good country, as I say. He liked Merle, and he liked Waylon alright. He liked Ernest. He liked the guys that I consider the real... I'm not too much of a fan of your Brad Paisleys, your Tim McGraws out there. I've got to have respect for what they do because I think it's hard to do. They've got it down. They do what they do well. They really do what they do. They just ain't my cup of tea. I like the outlaws.
Well, that's the thing — those guys were all outsiders as well.
Yeah, and there's something about that. I'm making the records, putting them out, and I haven't toured a single country. But I’d have to break my back in that kind of way that some of those guys have done before. Before Waylon was able to record a record his way, he went through hell.
Another thing that's interesting about those guys though is, while they did really go through hell to get to where they were and they really lived that life, a lot of their music was storytelling — things were exaggerated. You’re an actor, you work in fiction. Do you think about your music in those terms? What's your relationship with fiction and myth?
I'd always get confused as a kid [between reality and fiction]. I'd never be able to understand. I'd always get confused [about] which one was which, and I haven't gotten any better, which one meant what, and to this day at 30 years old, I'm still always going back on which one's which. Maybe that says everything. I think those lines are blurred already quite a bit for me. As a kid, you use your imagination so much,. There’s this desire to fit in with the real, physical world. I don't know. I can't even talk about reality. I don't know.
I love the thoughts you're not supposed to have, the words that aren't supposed to go together, images that aren't supposed to go together but somehow are supposed to go together because they have for me. I've only smoked my second joint just now, so I'm not even on the rail I need to be on.
Well, I'll ask you one more question that might be very appropriate then. How would you feel if somebody were to call your music psychedelic?
I never thought of it as that, but I was listening to it with my mom and dad and my girlfriend. We got the record yesterday, it came by the mail, the post guy. We got it and we were listening to it. It is psychedelic I guess. I never really thought about it as psychedelic, because when I think of psychedelic I think of The 13th Floor Elevators and stuff. So I guess I don't hear that. I feel there's an expression in there that doesn't give two shits about how big it is. But I don't know. It’s like you were saying — the journey. I love records that take you places. I think it's very visual — I hope it is. That was the goal: to make something that I saw and heard. I hope that everyone else saw things and heard things too, outside of what existed on the record. That it opens something up.