It feels fitting that on my last New York City visit, I met with PremRock in a Lower East Side Polish bar to toss back $4 short-n-tall specials and discuss his tribute album to Tom Waits. Rather than focus on business, we discussed other rappers, our sports allegiances (burrowing deep into his Phillies going up against my Giants in the 2010 NLCS), and the thrills of cheap whiskey, which again felt apropro of Waitsian matters.
Without hearing it executed, the conceit of a marriage of Tom Waits and hip hop is not entirely left-of-center. One could look to a considereable chunk of Old Tom's work and hear nuggets of sample-worthy material. One could consider the bravado in “Big In Japan” to be akin to the braggadocio of a rapper. But, knowing PremRock's gruff baritone from his work with Willie Green, I knew even if he wasn't a Waits fan, he had the voice for such a record. PremRock is a Waits fan though, as you can read further in our interview below, which is paramount in crafting a memorable tribute. He adopts the off-kilter Waitsian writing style for Mark's Wild Years. He's wandered the dives and alleyways to scour the downtrodden stories. He's been penpals with a hooker from Prague. He's gambled with a dwarf. From being down and out in Singapore to drunkenly singing to the moon, Mark's Wild Years is at the barstool next to Old Tom at the Nighthawk's diner.
Stream Mark's Wild Years below and download the album for free at PremRock's Bandcamp.
When did you first discover Tom Waits? What was the song or album that roped you in and what about it spoke to you?
My proper introduction to Tom Waits was a twist of fate as it were.. I worked at a record store in High School and a couple walked in and wanted to get rid of what they described as a “ton” of vinyl. My boss was no longer buying vinyl but his right hand man Jus (Coincidentally, now my graphic designer) informed them the acne faced kid in the back would probably jump at the chance. They gave me their number to arrange a pickup. I was a full-fledged vinyl junkie at the time, but also a stoner and forgot about the couple until maybe two weeks later and decided to call. They answered and said they couldn’t sell it and I could have the whole lot for free as long as I came tonight because they were moving tomorrow… and I would need a truck. My girlfriend luckily was one of those petite girls who drove big trucks so she gave me the lift to the life-changer of an event. Amongst the enormous 500+ mint condition vinyl was damn near Mr. Waits’ entire catalog, I went home and spent the entire night organizing. His artwork and persona jumped out of the massive depth immediately and I believe the first song was a Red Sovine cover on his Nighthawks at the Diner live LP. I loved it, but didn’t truly connect with the rest of the catalog until years later.
After acquainting yourself with Mr. Waits, when did the you start kicking around the idea of applying his style to a hip hop tableau? Did it feel like an obvious pairing, or was it something you mulled over as to how to do it properly?
The idea hit me when myself and Willie Green were touring Europe last fall. We had a couple off days and spent them in the Czech Republic town of Chomotuv with local producer Talpas. Talpas literally sits and chops records ALL DAY. There’s nothing else that he does (aside from occasionally running outside to rip off a stalk of his homegrown for creative fuel.) So I was in a full-fledged Tom Waits vortex and listening to Blood Money and thought the song “The Part You Throw Away” would be a dope chop, I gave it to Talpas and it sounded great. I started thinking about it deeper and asked Green’s opinion on an entire album done this way. He thought it could be dope, but continually emphasized it had to be done right. I agreed, but placed it on the backburner until the end of tour revisiting it when I returned.
Who all produced tracks on Mark's Wild Years? How did you approach them with your passion project?
Production was handled by Yuri Beats, Willie Green, Steel Tipped Dove, Zilla Rocca, Spills, Talpas, Mr. Simmonds, Taj, and Adam Selene.
Some of these guys I already knew to be Waits fans and kind of led to the approaching. Funny enough I was drinking beers at Steel Tipped Dove’s house and Yuri was there, the concept came up and Yuri asked if anyone had done “Step Right Up.” I told him No and he returned the beat the next day. I loved it and decided to tab him for a couple more. Green hadn’t been super familiar with the catalog but he’s no stranger to working in sample requests by the artists so his productions came pretty natural. Everyone did a great job and were true professionals, I salute all of them and really hope they dig the project.
What was the first track you completed for Mark's Wild Years? How did it shape the record or when did the record truly take shape?
I think “Alice” was the first I wrote but “Christmas Card…” was the first completed one. I finished a four track EP consisting of those two as well as “Tango til You’re Sore” and “Jesus Loves Me.” My idea was to have that in my pocket to show people who I thought might be interested in the project. I hit a decent size road block after that as I couldn’t seem to focus and whittle down the songs I wanted. That all changed pretty quickly and I must say “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” was a catalyst. I was re-energized and things started to shape up much better and I guess that was toward the end of the summer.
Billy Woodz joined you on this record. Was he familiar with Waits?
Yea Woodz definitely knows Waits’ stuff. I was g-chatting with him and I’m pretty sure were both weren’t sober and talking about future projects and I mentioned the idea and he told me there’s a song he always wanted to sample by him since college. That song wasn’t on my radar but another was and I knew he’d be the right guy for a feature. Interesting caveat is he texted me a couple weeks later asking if I used a particular song because him and Blockhead were about to flip one for their upcoming project and he didn’t want to use the same. I appreciated that and actually can’t wait to hear it… but I can’t reveal which song. I didn’t want many features because I didn’t necessarily trust many people with the vision but Woodz is a cat I know who wouldn’t let me down and plus I had just turned in a damn good verse for a remix of his so I figured now was a good time to ask for a favor.
In your writing, it sounds as though you were truly channeling the living spirit of Waits. Did this come easy for you?
Yea it did but I definitely put in some work to it. Before the majority of the writing I had read a lot about his life and although his notoriously guarded about such things, I gleaned enough info to channel some things. I also like to put myself in situations that are pretty similar to ones I believe he’s been in. The drifter motif is something I’ve always embraced and my art has taken me to some ramshackle places on this earth. He’s always appeared to be a friend of the downtrodden and more at home at a dive bar, train car or cheap diner than rubbing elbows with the industry types, and that is certainly something I can identify with.
Were there any Waits songs you wanted to sample, but it just didn't work out?
Me and Zilla tried to get “Down in the Hole” going a couple times but to no avail. Since it’s been featured on The Wire it could have made a sense of recognizability for the masses but it would have been out of place it was forced. Also I used to work overnights at a hotel and my manager at the time, Manev, dabbles in beats and we took multiple stabs at “Ruby Arms,” but again you can’t force things, so I just enjoy the originals.
Who's the kid on “I Don't Wanna Grow Up”?
That would be 6-year old Elijah Timlin one of my best friends and a crazy talented little guy. I had the pleasure of watching him grow up being close with his Mother since his birth and it made great sense… Oh, he charged me a remote control airplane for the feature. I still need to make good on that, dammit.