Why Caleb Landry Jones Is Channeling John Lennon In Marie Antoinette Drag on His Musical Debut

Caleb Landry Jones
Jacqueline Castel

Caleb Landry Jones

Caleb Landry Jones didn't become one of the most compelling and acclaimed young actors of the past decade by playing it safe. His work is bold, visceral, and unconventional and tends toward high-wire, often troubled or toxic roles into which he invariably pours himself. Caleb's CV reads like an indie cinema dream come true, with a bucket list of collaborators: God's Pocket with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro; The Florida Project with Willem Dafoe; an immersive turn as a destructive junkie in the Safdie Brothers' Heaven Knows What; Brandon Cronenberg's directorial debut, the currently-timely title Antiviral; Jim Jarmusch's star-chocked zombie flick The Dead Don't Die; David Lynch's Twin Peaks season 3, playing an abusive husband; the upcoming Bios with Tom Hanks; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri alongside Frances McDormand, and, unforgettably, his role as Jeremy Armitage in Jordan Peele's Get Out – the family dinner scene alone is a master class in creepy, racist, passive-aggressive trolling.

So it will come as no surprise to learn that on The Mother Stone, Caleb Landry Jones the musician leans into the drama with gusto. It's a remarkable beast of a debut album, more "trippy" than psychedelic, he says, though surely some will use the p-word to describe tracks that vary wildly in length, from two minutes to north of seven, with titles including "I Dig Your Dog" and "All I Am In You / The Big Worm," "The Hodge Podge Poke" – hoedown-flavored, with fiddle. From its Brecht-Weill-evoking instrumental scene-setter "Flag Day" through the clattering, curious little closer "Little Planet Pig," it's a wild hour-plus of guitar, drums and vintage keys all played by Jones himself, along with a complement of strings, woodwinds, brass, and oom-pah tuba, by an ensemble largely wrangled by Caleb's co-producer Nic Jodoin and arranger Drew Erickson.

Mood changes abound, especially on the big, baroque sprawlers like "Thanks For Staying," a crazy quilt highlight, which sports half a dozen sonic shifts. Jones is, after all, a natural actor, and he alternates multiple vocal characters on the LP, including a menacing snarl on "The Great I Am" and a go-to reedy higher register that undeniably channels John Lennon, back in the day when the Beatle asked us to picture a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Jones is the first to admit it. Far from denying his influences, he readily cops to the impact that The Beatles' White Album had on him, as well as Lennon's solo work, and that of Pink Floyd's psych god Syd Barrett.

Throw in, perhaps, the freaky ghost of Frank Zappa, once a regular at the historic Valentine Studios in North Hollywood where The Mother Stone was recorded, and you have a record that feels a world away from the Dallas suburbs of Garland and Richardson, Texas, where Jones began making music even before he found a calling in acting. In his teens, he and friend Robert Hudson played under the name Robert Jones, and compiled several years' worth of alt rock onto a 2009 release, Men and Their Horses, still available on Bandcamp. Once Hudson left for college though, Jones was left to his own devices, and, inspired by the likes of Dylan, Radiohead and Pet Sounds, concluded that the most interesting art is the kind that chucks structure and rules out the window, in much the same way Caleb's ginger mensch Red Welby was dispatched in Three Billboards.

While Jones has written and recorded on his own for years, a proper album release eluded him – a combination of increasingly packed film commitments and a general insistence that any kind of creative partnership or record deal happen organically, without calculation or reliance on string-pulling. The first part of that equation came to him in the form of Jodoin; as for a label, Jones' friend Jim Jarmusch facilitated a meeting with another Caleb – Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones. The esteemed Brooklyn indie imprint with an experimentalist streak proved an ideal match for an artist who's down to try anything – as evidenced by his look on The Mother Stone's cover art and first video, "Flag Day / The Mother Bone." Conceived by the singer and his artist girlfriend Katya Zvereva, Caleb dons, with wicked, camp nonchalance, a Marie Antoinette wig and white makeup – the same kind of powdered look, to bring it back around to pandemics, used centuries ago to mask the ravages of smallpox.

Our current health crisis has recently impacted Jones' plans in several ways. His most recent work was on John Michael McDonagh's film The Forgiven, which he finished shooting overseas just as America's COVID-19 lockdown went into place. He had been scheduled to attend the South By Southwest premiere of his Afghan War drama The Outpost – a movie whose generous paycheck helped fund the recording of The Mother Stone – before the Austin festival was canceled. Caleb then decamped to his folks' place, where, for now at least, he's spending quarantine, and where we caught up with him by phone.

Caleb, this has been a strange month for everyone, but it's been nice to have had time to spend with this amazing record of yours.

Oh thanks man. I'm glad you've gotten to get into it! I'm walking through a barn, so just give me a second 'cause it might cut out or something. Just give me one second. Oh, I left the dog outside…one second! Sorry about that. [laughs]

Were you in the middle of anything when the whole shutdown happened?

I was on a movie when it all started, [The Forgiven, with Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain] but I got the film done just in time. I think I left just as it started getting pretty hectic. That was in Morocco, and I returned on March 14th. So, it was a relief to get back.

I know you've been writing and recording for years, even though The Mother Stone may be the first music many people have heard from you. Do the songs on here date back a long time?

I've written and recorded a bunch of stuff, but the songs on this record I wrote while I was on two films. I wrote the beginning, the instrumental ["Flag Day"], the theme and all that, when I was in Bulgaria working on The Outpost, and then I was in Toronto making another picture, The Kindness of Strangers, that was when I wrote what was most all of the record. And then we finished that film in New York, and so I stayed behind in New York for a few more weeks and wrote a few more songs for the record. And then I came back to L.A., and we started recording pretty soon after that.

And The Outpost paid me pretty handsomely, and so I was able to put that money toward making the record. That's why I was able to make the record was because of the money from that film. If it wasn't for that I don't know if I would have been able to make it.

So it was all done in L.A.?

Yeah I needed to either go back to Texas and record it, or find a place in Los Angeles. So I ended up staying in L.A. and doing it. And also it kind of forced me to put the record out, just because of the time and the money, I guess, that we all spent on it, it had become a collector's piece. And then if I didn't put it out it was me sitting on all the hard work, rather than with my music before it was just me sitting on my own work, not putting it out would have been me sitting on others' hard work too, you know – me and Nic [Jodoin, co-producer] and Travis [Pavur, engineer] who recorded the record. So I think I felt very much like, "Okay, we've got to put this out, somehow!" [laughs]

It's interesting to hear you say you wrote a lot of the music while working on a movie, because I would think that would be really distracting, and/or exhausting.

Well the first film was a military film, so I didn't have a lot of time, and that's probably why I wrote just like the instrumental piece, you know? But then with this other film, Kindness of Strangers, sometimes I'd have like almost a whole week where I had nothing to do except be in the hotel room. [laughs] And so it was either work on my lines, which I already had – or, read a comic book or something! And the songs just kept coming, and so I was trying to be diligent about it and just keep them for as long as I could. So the majority in Toronto, but we came to Manhattan for one week of filming. And then I met my girlfriend, and so I just stayed in New York for another two weeks, 'cause we got to know each other and started to get involved, and so that led to there being some other songs on the record that there would not have been if I hadn't met her.

Well there's one that's straight up named after her ["Katya"]!

[laughs] Yeah! Exactly.

Did you always envision it as a record with so much orchestration going on? You've got strings and horns and tuba, a fiddle on one track…

It was really just a question of time and money. You know, it was a question of resources, limitations, could we do it? Was it possible? Could we find that many people? And Nic and Drew, the fella that did the arrangements, they were the ones that worked with people here and there, before, that they could call up, to come in. And I was just so lucky to get these folks that they had worked with before at different times or had heard about. So that was really special. It's just been a dream come true in the sense of finally meeting people that you can work with, and who want to work with you like this, and want to build the same house that you want to make.

Then there's this crazy story of Jim Jarmusch being the one who put you together with Sacred Bones and Caleb Braaten.

Yeah! I gave Jim some music, and he said, "Hey you should get this over to this guy Caleb at Sacred Bones" – he said, "I'm telling you he's gonna love it."

Have you ever known another Caleb? I think I've only known one in my life.

Yeah, yeah. I met a few as a kid, but I didn't like it, I remember. But I've grown out of that I think. So yeah – two Calebs working together! But for Jim to talk about anyone, artistically, it's like, I thought, "Wow, this guy must be great!" [laughs] And then we got to talking, and it just seemed right. There's no other way to say it. It just seemed right, and it seemed like it would be a mistake if I didn't take them up on it. And it's just perfect, in so many ways. The people over there are just really great. It's a special thing, I think – especially in this age of…everything.

In the bio for the record you talk to [writer] Alex Pappademas about your influences, and you really lean into the John Lennon and Syd Barrett comparisons, in a way you don't always see artists own up to.

Well I think it's pretty clear! [laughs] I remember once as a kid, there was this one guy at an open mic, really lovely, and he was playing this music, and I was thinking it was just like Primus. And I was telling him, "Man I love your music, it reminds me of Primus so much!" And he was like, "Who's Primus?" And I was like, "C'mon, man! You're 40-something, you know who Primus is! You're older than me!" He's like, "Nah man, I've never heard of them." And I'm like "BS, man." I don't know, I'm always happier when I hear no bullshit from the artist. [laughs] When they'll say, "That song, I loved it, and I wanted to remake that song!" That's what I want to hear. To me, it's obvious that I listen to The Beatles, it's obvious that I listen to Bowie, you know what I mean? I was affected big time by John's solo stuff, by Paul's solo stuff, by of course the stuff they did together. I'm 30, and in my twenties I really went down a rabbit hole of getting into them by themselves as well discovering The White Album for the first time. [laughs] And if it sounds like John, it's gonna sound like John! I don't know how to explain it. Maybe I'm just an actor, that's all! Or maybe there's a part of me finding my voice still.

Or voices, plural.

Yeah. When I was 15 I loved Dylan, and I loved folk music, and that's all I was writing, was folk music for a while, just things I could play with my acoustic guitar and usually it all ran 3/4 and they all had the kind of lyric that would just run on and run on. Simply because I had never heard an artist do that before Dylan, or I didn't know you could do that. And so it kind of opened this avenue of – "Wow, you can put as many lines as you want in a song! You can tell as big a story as you want." Or, hearing Sgt. Pepper's for the first time and realizing that you can make those feelings in music, and it's okay. Some of these dark places, some of these weird places, some of these silly places – that music can be that, and it's alright. For so long I thought that the construction of songs or paintings had to be a certain way, and if it wasn't by that design then it was no good. Or, they'd lock me away, 'cause they'd see this and this, and this was "bad" or something. You know, if you write a song when you're ten years old about necrophilia, you're gonna get some heads turning! I didn't do that, but I knew there was subject matter that you stayed away from! [laughs] But the older I got, the less I cared about that.

A piece in IndieWire from a few years ago kind of really insists that, despite what you infer from his roles, Caleb is not a "tortured artist."

I think in that interview I wanted to kind of not parade that image anymore. You know, 'cause that image was getting created, and I didn't want to keep hearing, "You seem like you're really going through a lot!" "Oh, I am! I am! But I'm not gonna talk to you about it!" [laughs] I didn't want anybody thinking of me as a "woe is me" type of actor, 'cause I hate those actors! And also I'm not always – I'm very happy sometimes! I've got very high highs and very low lows. When I'm up there I am way up there, and when I'm down there, I'm way down there. [laughs]

As for Syd Barrett and his influence on you – do you think we are guilty of romanticizing people who struggle with mental health issues? Whether it's a Nick Drake or Ian Curtis or Elliott Smith or the late great Daniel Johnston?

Oh yeah! And we forget that they're human sometimes. People will be like, "Why didn't he put out another one?" And I'm like, "Do you know what it took for him to make that one?" [laughs] "Do you know what he put onto that tape? He bled onto that!" And I don't know, I think we forget that a real – someone like Daniel Johnston, it was painstakingly beautiful. In one way I find it so hopeful, and in another way, I find a lack of hope, the struggle with mental disabilities. I always related to him a lot in that sense of, he was dealing with something, and he found a way to deal with it, and this was how he was dealing with it, in this most beautiful, healthy way.

Finally, what can you say about this wild look you've got on the album cover and in the video for "Flag Day / The Mother Stone"?

Yeah that's Katya. She's an artist, and she wanted to make a monotype of me. So we went out and we bought a bunch of things, kind of whatever we thought we would need. And the first day, we bought a Marie Antoinette wig from a costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and some white makeup and some other little things that we wanted that weren't crazy expensive, or ridiculous to buy. And then we came to a space that she'd been given to make her art. We just put four cameras – old phone cameras, taped them to things, and had them film for around 20 minutes. And I sat in the chair with the wig on, and everything started to marry. I don't even know what we were going for. We were just trying stuff out and that just happened and so that became the main character very quickly, for everything. And she took a still from that and made a monotype of that. And that became easily the best image that we created over the month, for the record.

You've already had an amazing run as an actor these past ten years, now you're introducing yourself to most people as a musician. Can you compare the two? Are they different kinds of fulfilling?

I don't know if I'd use the word "fulfilling" because you certainly don't feel satisfied in the moment sometimes. Or at the end of the day you might not feel satisfied. At the end of a week you might not feel satisfied. And you might never feel satisfied. So it's not necessarily about a feeling of fulfillment as it is that they've provided you a space to be alive in. And if you're working on a good project, then the script is incredible, and you're lucky to be in that moment. And you're just dying to do it. And if it's a bad script, then it's the last place you want to be. But I've been very fortunate that I've been a part of more really great projects than bad projects. But yeah, at the end of the day I think it's all about, kind of not letting anything stop you, so that you're able to reach that goal, because you know what it needs to be. And at the same time, working with other people, to maybe raise that bar even higher, or stretch something further, or maybe see something differently. So – same thing, but a different thing. Music's just another language, I think.