Legendary singer, songwriter and "Down by Law" actor Tom Waits will release his first studio album in over five years with a project tentatively titled, "Mule Variations," due out in March 1999.The record is Waits' first as part of a new deal with Epitaph Records -- a company usually associated with neo-punk acts like the Offspring. The wizened troubadour is currently finishing up the album at a studio and part-time chicken ranch in Northern California. Waits told MTV News that he's recorded 25 new songs that are "real dirt simple" -- a move he says was caused by a current musical obsession with old Leadbelly tunes -- and deals with such Americana themes as trains, rain, redemption, farm animals, insects and freaks. Sample song titles include "Clap Hands" and "My Baby's Leaving on the 2:19," which features a guest appearance by Les Claypool of Primus, and "The Eyeball Kid," a song Waits describes as about a "guy born without a body, not even a brow." Waits also said that
much of his favorite material on the new album was actually recorded outside using an old microphone one of his engineers picked up at a yard sale. "When you go outside," he said, "dogs, kids on bicycles, chickens and airplanes seem to wait until you finish singing a line before they make a sound."Other guest musicians include bluesmen John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite and guitarist Marc Ribot. Waits' last release was 1993's "The Black Rider," a collaboration with avant-garde director Robert Wilson and the late William Burroughs. When asked why he hasn't recorded in all these years, Waits laughed and replied, "Well, I was stuck in traffic."