Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs
Follow The Big Takeover
Photo and illustration by Casey X. Waits
It started with a random hit on Instagram. Black and white eyes looking at me, looking away, and a background sound on repeat. I liked the eyes, but I stayed for the sound. The sound that turned into a song, which led me to an understated EP on Bandcamp. An EP that swiftly became one of my favorite releases of the year.
Five songs, clocking in at about fifteen minutes, and holding a depth of vision that can turn shadows into gold. A vision that belongs to Casey X. Waits. The X is for Xavier, but for me it marks the spot.
Each song on this EP holds a singular space, and together they form a shape. I move first to the eyeballs on the cover. I want to see the whole picture, the whole shot. These songs are brand new but built on a history. Little sonic explosions of nostalgia mixing with an ache for the future. This is an experiment that works. A lo-fi foray into found visions and sonic stories.
Another aspect that might pull this release away from the live stage experience is the actual lack of instruments used to create it. While Waits is known for playing drums for his father, Tom Waits, appearing on a number of projects, including Blood Money, Real Gone, Bad As Me, and Glitter and Doom Live, he has also made a few journeys into creating music as a rapper. So, for this EP, while wanting to do something different, he started out in the same way. No instruments.
“Ironically not even drums. I approached it in the same way I did my rap tracks. I just scour YouTube for beats, purchase licenses, then drag them into GarageBand before adding my vocals. Some claps here and there but nothing more for this last project.” Waits says, noting he’s not sure if it’s going to be the same approach he’ll use for his next project. “It was just a means of inspiration and convenience this go around.”
Listening to the songs, I wonder if the equipment falls in line with the EP title, and it turns out the title, and sound, stems from the man behind the man behind the music, audio engineer Karl Derfler. Karl also had a hand in the mastering, mixing, arranging, and producing, so this one-man band is a two-man show. Evidently, Karl also had a hand in the title. The simple but effective $100 MIC EP.
About that, Casey says “I’m not sure if it’s good $100 mic or not. I’m no expert when it comes to recording equipment. Karl told me ‘All you need is a hundred-dollar mic’ so I drove over to the Target by my house and found one by Blue Microphones. And hell, after years of rapping into the internal mic on my laptop, spitting all over the screen … this was a major upgrade. I still don’t use a spit screen though.”
Listening to the songs, it’s still a lo-fi venture, but according to Waits it’s always getting better. “With all my previous recordings being made on an old Mac, self-recording and mixing in GarageBand, this last project is sonically better than anything I’ve done in the past due to Karl’s genius. Lo-fi will always be a part of what I do and shape the sounds I make.” Casey explains, “I don’t plan on upgrading for the next project … at least as far as equipment. I will keep my ears and eyes open for new inspirations and sounds. All the sound choices I make are out of ignorance and accessibility. I’m like a self-taught surgeon using the tools he finds in the backseat of his car.”
And it sounds like this doctor is operating on an original body of work. Making a home base in Austin, but not trying to fit into any scene, Waits scatters his songs to the winds, seeing where the notes will land. He appreciates his community but is still pretty much an outsider.
“I’m a hermit that makes songs in the shadows of his home. I’m not a big self-promoter or socialite. So, you won’t catch me down on sixth street handing out CDs.” Says Waits, “My best friends are my fiancé and my pit bull. Though I did see on my app that tracks where my listeners are, apparently, I have a budding fanbase in Helsinki, Berlin, London, and Paris.”
Noting that I discovered the songs via social media, Waits points out that Instagram seems to play a little role in getting the sounds out. “Bandcamp has only seven listeners on there, so I can’t give much credit to them. I just try to get the music on as many platforms as possible and see if it has legs. I’m still a skeptic awaiting results.”
I hope he gets those results, and it inspires more. Maybe even enough to warrant a solid release on vinyl, perhaps?
“I would love to get some vinyl pressed.” Waits says, “I’m still unsure of the response to this project. I’d like to do a run of vinyl eventually, but I don’t know that the demand is high enough yet at this point. Fingers crossed!”
But even at these early stages, the songs and sounds found on this EP showcase a range of influences and inspirations. While it pushed Waits out of his comfort zone, it also maneuvered through some styles. As a listener, I hear bits and pieces of bands like The Killers, Sonic Youth, The Pixies … a little 90’s pop, a little 80’s rock …
Casey adds to the list, while clarifying that some of his inspirations might not be found within the music. “Really this was just a first attempt at something new. I only ever thought of myself as a rapper or a drummer prior to this. And I still think that is in what I do. Of course, I’m a fan of The Killers, Idles, Viagra Boys, The Gorillaz, Action Bronson, Joy Division, The Strokes, Slowthai, Interpol, Mareux, King Krule, FIL BO RIVA, Molchat Doma … and so many more.”
And outside of that there are atmospheric influences. There’s a definite dark blues, a southern style that snakes through the sounds. A dusty road through jazz and groove, crossing americana highways and paying those dirt road dues.
“Yeah man, I definitely love a fair share of Americana” Waits acknowledged, “And I’m a real fan of Outlaw Country. Colter Wall, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Ryan Bingham. I soak it all in. Luckily now that I’m out here in Texas I get to go to the San Antonio Rodeo, see folks like ZZ Top, George Strait and Lynyrd Skynyrd … it’s a good time. I’m sure eventually it all will find a way into what I do and who I am.”
And we are all learning who Casey X. Waits is, with these songs, these stories. Because he is a storyteller.
“I wouldn’t say there is a difference between a songwriter and a storyteller,” Waits shared, “Personally, I’ve always been drawn to character studies, poems and short stories. Bukowski is my life blood. Cormac McCarthy, Charles Portis, you know. I spent a fair amount of time in school in creative writing and screen writing classes. So much like how hip hop and rap influence my style so does the writing and reading that I do.”
And that style is always adapting and changing and exploring. Will the next series of songs move in the same direction? Or will something else emerge?
“I’m hoping with this next project to explore new avenues rather than trek down old roads,” Casey tells me. “Now that I’ve opened this door, I want to see what else I can push myself to create. But I will always be a hip hop fan and it will always be a part of who I am. I don’t want to get pigeonholed. I just want the freedom to create whatever I’m feeling is true to myself at the time. Whether that be rock, country, jazz, indie, alternative, rap… I embrace it all.”
And as evidenced by the EP cover photo, and random illustrated posts on Instagram, it’s not just the music that is being created. Clever little animations, scrawled caricatures, photos, and sparks of vision fly amongst the sounds.
“I did study some art at the Academy of Art University for a year but I’m mostly self-taught. My style is the same as it was when I was a kid. Only difference is my fiancé got me an iPad and I started experimenting with animation. I’m able to crank out art and it’s enjoyable for me. But I’d say even my art is lo-fi.”
And the eyeballs?
“The photos are me.” Waits confirms, “Again, nothing fancy, just used my phone in my own face. I wouldn’t ever claim to be a photographer, but I did spend a lot of time in the dark room throughout high school. These days I just throw a black and white filter on humble shots from the phone. Though I do enjoy capturing random moments from my life.”
I move back to the cover. This is the eyeball kid, and I know what I want to see. The entire EP thrown across the stage into real life. Casey’s not so sure, yet.
“I haven’t played live since 2013 at the Bridge School Benefit with my dad.” He says. “When the time is right. When the music is there. When I’m somewhat content with my creations and there is enough to share… then perhaps I’ll put the saddle back on and get out there. Until then I treat my music like hand grenades that I throw into the universe.”
More in profiles