The actor discusses his debut album 'The Mother Stone,' writing a song for Jim Jarmusch, and his love of extremes
I first heard Caleb Landry Jones’s debut album, The Mother Stone, in the early days of the quarantine. Having avoided catching the virus in its devastating sweep over New York City, my life had settled into a months-long daze of sirens, Tiger King memes, spiked line graphs, and worried phone calls from my mother out in California. The album, a theatrical, psychedelic odyssey, was a welcome reprieve from the monotony. With its sprawling seven-and-a-half minute long opening song, ‘Flag Day / The Mother Stone,’ the circus tent flap was lifted, the rabbit hole traversed. A winding combination of carnival polka, Jones’s drawling, British-accented vocals, and a heavy dose of early Pink Floyd transported me—I was traveling between an underground cabaret in Weimar Germany and a hazy 1960s hookah circle, rather than from bedroom to living room.
Though his interests in acting and music coincided in his teens, The Mother Stone, released in May, represents Jones’s first significant offering as a musician. Entering the public eye in the X-Men franchise and cementing his stardom with his performance as the menacing, lacrosse stick-weilding brother in Get Out, Jones’s IMDb page now reads like any actors’ dream director list: Jordan Peele, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Sean Baker, Martin McDonagh to name a few. In fact, it was Jarmusch who introduced Jones to Caleb Braaten, who signed him with his label, Sacred Bones Records.
I connected with Jones some time in the murky timesoup between March and August to discuss his journey from actor to musician, recording at the legendary Valentine studios, and the metaphorical meals he has cooking.
Maraya Fisher: What’s your quarantine set up?
Caleb Landry Jones: I’m in Texas, at my parents’ place. I’m not in a city or anything, so it’s not really a quarantine setup I guess, except that there’s food in the fridge and stuff like that.
I was here already. I finished a movie, and we were supposed to go to the film festival but that got shut down so I came home just to say hi to my mom and dad, and then all that stuff happened, and it was perfect because me and my girlfriend were here already.
Maraya: I’ve been really enjoying listening to the album in the past week or so.
Caleb: Oh, thanks! Thanks for listening.
Maraya: I’m in New York City—
Caleb: Oh you’re really trapped.
Maraya: Yeah, and it feels like the album has this transportive quality. I feel like I can listen to it and sort of escape the reality of my situation.
Caleb: Oh good.
Maraya: I could definitely hear a Beatles, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd influence. Listening to vocals, I could hear you doing different accents. I was wondering, as an actor, did you feel like you were embodying various characters on the album?
Caleb: Yes and no. It feels more like that afterward, I suppose, when looking at it in the big picture. But when doing it, it just seems like the way it’s supposed to go. The song just happens to sound English in my head. It doesn’t feel like, ‘This character comes on at eight minutes in and this character comes at 15 minutes in.’ It just felt right for this voice to do this, and then it felt right on this song for the voice to do this. I have no idea why it sounds the way it sounds, except that I love what I love.
Maraya: It’s more intuitive.
Caleb: Yeah, just doing it, and then it comes out and you’re like, ‘Oh man, more English music.’ [Laughs]
Maraya: What was that process like—taking those songs, that I’m assuming have been in your head for a while, and recording them?
Caleb: It was a dream to get to come into such a great studio and to work with such a great producer. We were getting to know each other as we were doing it, which was really wonderful. We kind of just went with it. Took the cap off the pen and started going, and looked at it later and turned some things up and turned some things down. We did a lot more than that, but it seemed more about trying to get the ideas and get the sounds.
If I had a band it would probably be easier to go through the songs. But since it’s just me, Nic [Jodoin], and Travis [Pavur] for the most part; it takes a while to go through the instruments with just one guy. That’s the only struggle, I think, just trying to do as much of it in the space and time that you’re given.
I’ve dreamed of waking up and having to go to the studio like I’ve been going to a film set. To do both is pretty incredible. Never thought I would get to be going to a film set every morning, and then once I started doing that, I didn’t think I’d be going to a studio in the morning. But it’s been really, really great.
Maraya: Maybe the more conventional process would be to go on tour and perform these songs. Is that something you’d ever do?
Caleb: I’d like to do something like that, but I think we’re all in the same boat of waiting to see what this all really looks like and what it means later. I’d love to put some shows together. I’d love to make some really big, a cross between some kind of Funkadelic scene and some kind of Zappa scene. But I think if we do that, it’ll be in time.
Maraya: It’s going to be a little while.
Caleb: Yeah, but when making the record, I was really just thinking about making the record, getting it there, and not necessarily thinking about what we’re doing later. As we were making it we were thinking about what that would look like live and stuff, but that wasn’t the intention when going into it. The intention was to go in and make a really great record. And then live would come later.
I’m really influenced by those records that people didn’t play out. You know, the records that we haven’t seen the bands play live, like Sergeant Pepper’s or some of those Gorillaz records. I really like that it can exist in that way, then the listener can really have it to themselves…it’s directly for them. I really like the intimacy of a person with a record. I always loved, myself, when it feels like you’re the only one in the world and then you realize, ‘Oh no, there’s a bunch of people that like it too.’ And then you find the community.
Maraya: I love the video for ‘Flag Day / The Mother Stone’ because I felt like the insanity of the song was matched by the visuals. Can you tell me more about the genesis of the video?
Caleb: My girlfriend, Katya Zvereva, she’s an artist. She had this art space for a month in Los Angeles to make her art, and I needed to make a video. So we just went to Home Depot and spent some money on whatever I thought we would need, then came back to the studio and started painting and making stuff. I had a bunch of old phones; I plugged them all in to see which ones worked and then we started filming, and that’s kind of it. There weren’t any preconceived notions with that either, other than, ‘Let’s make something. Let’s make something and see what happens.’
“I’ve always been really into the extreme, I suppose, whether it’s emotions or whether it’s not. But my highs are very high and my lows are very low, so I think the music probably mirrors that in a lot of ways.”
Maraya: I read somewhere that you wanted to play Jim Jarmusch a song the first time you met him.
Caleb: He’s somebody whose work has really influenced me. I first saw his films when I was 17 or 18 or so. So I was very nervous to know that I was going to be talking to this man. For some reason, I had it in my head that I would get more across if I played him this song that I wrote for him. Which was really dumb. I thought that would get who I am across better than me trying to talk in sentences. But luckily, it went just fine with sentences.
We pretty much just talked about what we liked and disliked, some things that we’re into. Thoughts. Just a conversation. But I was very scared to have that conversation. As an actor, sometimes I’m not sure why someone’s wanting to talk to me, or [whether] it’s for a particular job or more than one job. I’m never sure who they’re hoping to meet or who it is I’m supposed to be. Sometimes there are too many head games before it even starts. I thought one good way of not playing any head games would be for me just to write a song. Because there are many times where I’ve met a director and I’ve projected what I think I’m going to be doing or the character I need to be playing. Sometimes they don’t want that. Sometimes they want to meet you and sometimes they want to see the character. Most of the time, you’re not sure what the character is so you’re afraid which side of yourself to show. But that’s just me being paranoid too and thinking too much and making it a lot more complicated than it really is.
Maraya: I almost feel like that translates to when you meet people in general, even outside of acting. Like sometimes you feel like you reflect what you think people want to see.
Caleb: Absolutely, yeah. Sometimes, if I’m talking with someone with an accent, I’ll start to use that accent, I don’t know why [laughs]. But I think we’re just trying to somehow meet in some middle place, even though mimicking someone’s accent horribly I don’t think helps at all to get to that place. If anything it might deter them from more conversation with you.
Maraya: Would you say piano is your instrument of choice or is there another instrument you’re more comfortable with?
Caleb: Well drums is the only [instrument where] I can sort of fit in with someone else and play. Everything else, if I haven’t written it, you know, I can’t play it for the most part. I feel like different instruments enable you to work differently. Almost like an actor wears a costume. Sometimes a costume can help you move differently, or helps me [act] based on how other people are looking at me because of the costume. If I was in a Batman suit, people would look at me a certain way. So I just go between them [instruments] to get certain things out. Maybe if you’re frustrated, you won’t pick up the guitar or the piano because you want to be more aggressive, or maybe you feel a lot more melancholic or moody, and then the piano is going to be the perfect home to encapsulate those feelings.
Maraya: I think one of the things I really like about the album is there’s almost, like, an exaggerated emotional and tonal range, even within a song.
Caleb: It doesn’t feel exaggerated, but I’m sure it sounds exaggerated [laughs]. I’ve always been really into the extreme, I suppose, whether it’s emotions or whether it’s not. But my highs are very high and my lows are very low, so I think the music probably mirrors that in a lot of ways.
Maraya: I definitely heard that.
Caleb: And those are the [reasons], I think, why I wanted to play Jim a song—because I thought I could show these things in a more precise, correct manner, rather than in a manic way with a racing heart. Of course, if I was playing piano for him my heart would have been racing anyways, I’m sure. I’d have needed a few breaths regardless.
Maraya: It seems like you’ve worked with some dream people in the film world, but who would you like to collaborate with musically?
Caleb: I’m just thinking of Bowie and people who have passed away. There are so many musicians that are doing so much great stuff. I just don’t know who they are necessarily, but I’m looking forward to meeting them. [Laughs] And to hearing from them, hopefully. But I really don’t know much of what’s going on. Like, I just started watching these KEXP‘s, because the sound is really good on the Seattle radio or whatever, like, two days ago.
Maraya: I love those.
Caleb: Yeah! So that’s turned me onto some bands, I guess, that I haven’t heard of before. All those bands on KEXP I’ve never heard of [laughs], except for, like, Cocorosie. I like Cocorosie a lot but I don’t know if we would work well together [laughs]. I don’t know. I’m sure when we hang up I’ll think of a bunch of people.
Maraya: I could see a collab with Cocorosie.
Caleb: I used to listen to a lot of Modest Mouse and was, like, dying to get over to Isaac Brock and see what it would be like if he recorded a record [of mine]…but right now that seems so out of the world of what it is. I feel like we opened a door and we started passing through but we’ve got to continue walking through it. We’re not done doing what we started so there’s still this itch. I don’t know if I can think about anything else until we’ve itched that.
Maraya: Once everything returns to normal, what’s next for you?
Caleb: I think it will take a bit. There’s a film that I’m going to be a part of coming out whenever that’s going to come out, hopefully in the next few months. And then we’ve got music at the studio waiting to be finished, and there’s stuff waiting to be recorded for the first time. There are, like, four pans on top of the fire and the beans have just started but they’ve—no, the beans are sitting out and no one’s put them on one of the skillets, there are eggs that have been cracked and they’ve been put in a cup so we know that they’re good, and then there are, like, hash browns that are almost done in one pan, and then there’s like sausages in another pan and those are almost done. It feels like that. Everything’s in a different place and now we’ve got to finish these other things that we’ve started.
Maraya: Get a meal ready.
Caleb: Yes [laughs]. Getting another meal ready. Getting more meals ready because we are trying to feed more than one person.