A novel tribute to the music, method and madness of Tom Waits

An interview with the Quebec City band/troupe that’s bringing their touring show to Montreal this weekend.

Tom Waits

Like so many other good ideas, Quebec City performing arts company l’Orchestre d’hommes-orchestres began with a group of friends, a few beers and a spirit of improvisation. Friday-night jam sessions led early Orchestre members to put household objects like teacups and gas cans to work recreating the rhythms and percussions of the eclectic repertoire of Tom Waits.

Fifteen years later, the troupe spends several months a year performing their dozen-or-so different shows to audiences across North America and Europe. This weekend, the Orchestre brings its acclaimed flagship show L’Orchestre d’hommes-orchestres Performs Tom Waits to Montreal for one night only.

“We went into Tom Waits’s repertoire as a playground,” explains vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bruno Bouchard. “You can really feel that we have a lot of fun on stage. Every song is kind of a living picture while the song is going on.”

Bouchard describes the performance, featuring energetic and visually engaging interpretations of 20–25 Tom Waits songs, as not your typical tribute show but rather an original concoction of music, poetry and theatrical choreography that uses Waits’s stylistic codes and aural vocabularies to take the audience on a journey through American culture animated by jazz, blues, rock, hip hop and poetry.

“We really do what we want with his music, with a lot of respect,” explains Bouchard. “You can recognize the songs, most of them, but there’s a lot of free space we gave ourselves artistically. The way we perform the music, it suggests a lot of fiction — it gives images. When you tie a rope around the guitar and then try to hold it as if it was a horse while doing a solo, when you play the rhythm with a Bible, when you do the percussion with a teacup, when you sing through a gas can, it changes the voice. It brings you to Tom Waits’s poetry in a visual way while the music is going on, and it brings you to our world, which is a theatre of action.”

Tom Waits 2

Bouchard explains that their performance style of incorporating non-instruments in new and unusual ways works so well with the music of Tom Waits because of the multi-styled singer-songwriter’s own approach to using disparate elements that normally don’t belong together.

“Tom Waits creates this complex world that’s made out of things that should not be together but have been put together. It’s very personal and very original — that’s why we don’t pretend to be him. We want to present ourselves as real with our own acts, feelings and interpretations as he did with his own world. He’s been working with so many different things, different kinds of music and different instruments. It’s a rich repertoire for us.”

In order to creatively repurpose everyday objects into instruments and stage props as the six members of the Orchestre have done for this show, Bouchard explains that by necessity there’s a sense of humour involved in everything they do.

“It’s a way of living and looking at things, to change the meaning of an object,” Bouchard says. “We laugh a lot when we work. As Tom Waits’s poetry does very well, we like to bring the use of an object, the transformation of an object, to this very weird limit where humour and horror gets really close — just like he can put roses in a skull and talk about cold coffee and warm women, and scary things and love stories through the same song. There’s an inspiration there.

“This way of doing poetry and doing music, it’s like a road trip — hitchhiking on a new style of music and doing something very personal with it. It gives a poetry to life and a new way of looking at life. That’s exactly what we’ve enjoyed. We never thought we would travel the whole world with this show!” ■

L’Orchestre d’hommes-orchestres Performs Tom Waits comes to Théâtre Outremont (1248 Bernard) on Saturday, April 8, 8 p.m., $39/$33 students