The word "cliché" is a sort of theme for you. It's as though you can't bear the thought of doing something that has been done in the past.
I think my whole generation's mission is to kill the cliché. I don't know whether it's conscious all the time, but I think it's one of the reasons a lot of my generation are always on the fence about things. They're afraid to commit to anything for fear of seeming like a cliché. They're afraid to commit to their lives because they see so much of the world as a cliché.
So I'm trying to embrace the world and all this stuff in a way that doesn't seem clichéd. [Laughs] I guess I'm creating the new cliché. I mean, there are things that are continuous through the ages, but we have this tendency to laugh at our parents and make fun of them, and I think that's healthy to a certain point. But I feel that it's also important to take it somewhere. Otherwise you're stuck.
One thing that really bugs you is when people don't get the subtlety of the humor in your songs and performances.
They think I'm being a clown. I'll come out in a fringe Nudie rhinestone suit, and I'm doing it as a tribute to the late-'50s George Jones or Webb Pierce. I've always loved the Nudie suit. I've always thought of it as one of the greatest clothing styles in any kind of music. But when I come out in one, people immediately say, "Oh, he's doing an Elvis." I mean, how simple-minded can you be? The reference is a little more interesting than just "doing an Elvis." It's like, you pick up a harmonica, and you're "doing a Dylan."
Your music is very uplifting. How can you be so optimistic in such a negative era?
There's some dark stuff on Odelay – I don't think it's all bubblegum. But I wanted it to feel good, too, in the way that any life-affirming music does.
I think of Brazilian music, because that's one of the main kinds of music that I listen to for my own pleasure. You've got a country there that's so riddled with poverty, and then there's this music that's so full of spirit. But it isn't just phony happy music – it's genuine. That's often the case in struggling cultures or among struggling people: The music does just the opposite.
If you have time to make really dark music, then it's a privilege. I've always felt that way. I didn't come from suburbia. I didn't come from a place where I had a lot of time on my hands. I couldn't relate to sitting around and complaining about being miserable. That didn't seem like an option to me.
What were your options growing up?
I was born in Los Angeles. My parents lived in a rooming house near downtown. My mom had just come from New York, and my dad was from up north. They were very young. My mom was 18 or 19 when they had me. Then, later on, we moved to Hollywood and lived just off of Hollywood Boulevard.
But you do come from a notable family. Your grandfather was a pioneering avant-garde artist, and your mother spent some time on the New York Factory scene of the '60s. From the outside, that might seem like a privileged situation.
Oh, man! What can I say? [Laughs, looking slightly appalled] No, it wasn't a privileged situation. What I'm doing now is pretty sweet for my family, because there's been a lot of struggle for a long, long time. My grandfather was an originator of so many ideas, but he never had it together enough to present them. He never documented himself like other artists did. He was pushing all these ideas, but he struggled with being recognized.
He died in June 1995, before he was able to watch you take those Grammys. What do you think he would have said to you?
[Gazes off] I wish he'd been alive to see what's happened. He was around when "Loser" came out, and he was incredibly proud. He kept all the articles. He connected with the things I was doing with hip-hop because he came out of the hipster, Beat thing – using language as freestyle expression, coming up with the most outlandish combinations of slang and rhyming things. But he didn't get to see what I'm doing now.
Was he around much when you were a kid?
He was this strange phenomenon, you know, who'd come from out of nowhere. I remember he came to stay with us when I was about 5, and he brought with him bags full of junk and magazines, cigarette butts, all sorts of refuse and materials that he would use for his art pieces. I had some some old toys that had broken and didn't work stored in the back room somewhere. He found an old rocking horse, the kind you buy at Kmart, made out of plastic with springs on it. And he offered me five bucks for it – which, for me, was an unheard-of quantity of money. I immediately said yeah, he could have it. But I couldn't understand what he would do with it, what use he could have for it.
So I came back from school one day and saw this thing sitting at the side of the house, vaguely familiar but somehow completely unrecognizable. He had taken the thing and glued cigarette butts all over it, severed the head off and spray painted the whole thing silver. It was this metallic headless monstrosity. I think I was interested, but something within me recoiled as well. It was – it was so raw: something so plain and forgotten suddenly transformed into this strange entity.
At the time, it was more of a curiosity to me. But in retrospect, I think things of that nature gave me the idea, maybe subconsciously, that there were possibilities within the limitations of everyday life, with the things that we look at that are disposable. Our lives can seem so limited and uneventful, but these things can be transformed. We can appoint ourselves to be – to be alchemists, turning shit into gold. So I always carried that with me.
How old were you when you found out that your mother had been a Factory denizen?
I didn't really understand it until I was about 16 or 17. I had gotten into the Velvet Underground's first record, and I pulled it out and started looking at it. My mom saw that I was into it and said, "I know them." I said, "Tell me about that stuff." I already sort of knew about it, but it hadn't really connected until then.
Was it exciting to you that your mother had a connection to the Velvet Underground?
You know, that time period – anything in the '60s, but especially something like that scene – is always blown up into this larger-than-life thing. The whole Factory thing – it was really just Andy's scene. It wasn't really a life-impacting situation. I mean, [my mom] hung out a few times; she was on film. It was all about "Everyone's a star."
Was your father, who played bluegrass music, instrumental in your decision to make music?
He was just a musician for hire. He played violin. I heard him play here and there, but it wasn't like I went into the living room and people were jamming or anything. I just remember that he was always working. I liked what he played, but it wasn't like I went out and picked up an instrument and started playing myself. It wasn't until a lot later that I picked up an instrument.
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