Most people know Caleb Landry Jones as an actor, with prominent roles in films such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Florida Project. On screen, Jones’s characters are often intense. He played a terrifying white supremacist in Get Out, and in Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2014 flick Heaven Knows What, he was an emotionally abusive drug addict with a penchant for cruelty.
So it’s no surprise that the music he makes under his own name is also vivid, colorful, and theatrical. His debut album The Mother Stone, out now, is an hour’s worth of nightmarish psych-rock that flashes between tasteful pop, ‘60s-style prog, and what can only be described as avant-garde circus music. It’s absurd, over-the-top, and way more complex than what one might expect from someone’s first foray into music. But as it turns out, Jones, 30, has amassed a private catalog of nearly 700 songs since he began writing as a teenager; this is just the first time he’s decided to release any of it. Back when he started, his primary audience was an ex-girlfriend he was trying to win back.
“A girl broke up with me and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll make her an album and then she can’t resist me,’” Jones tells Entertainment Weekly. “And that didn’t work and then I made three or four albums over the next few months, trying to win her back, and it didn’t work. But I found myself making 30-40 songs in the equivalent of half-a-year.”
Jones is calling from his family’s farm in Texas, where he’s been quarantining with his current girlfriend and his parents. He recently turned 30, but he has the vocal affect and verbal mannerisms of a 60-year-old cowboy; a slow southern drawl, a reassuring chuckle, and a tendency to politely meander into self-deprecating tangents about his own quirks and struggles with self-confidence.
“I’m a really paranoid person sometimes — half of the time, most of the time. Sometimes that gets in the way of me doing things that should be natural,” he says with a chest-rumbling snicker.
After years of writing music in his parent’s barn, he finally found himself in L.A. with the time and resources to record a bunch of recent material that had been knocking around in his head. “I needed to record ‘em or forget ‘em,” he says. He made the album with producer Nic Jodoin and linked up with notable experimental label Sacred Bones Records to release it. For Jones, it felt like such a long time coming that he almost didn’t think it would ever happen.
“Any time somebody would ask, ‘What do you do with your off time?’, I’d always tell them the truth: [that] I made a lot of music. And then when they asked, ‘Are you gonna put that out?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know what it looks like yet but I have plans to do something with it someday.’ I was dying to release my music, I just didn’t know what way it was gonna be.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you realize you were musical around the same time you wanted to be an actor? Or did those talents form at different times?
CALEB LANDRY JONES: I wanted to make films…but I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to make it to NYU to record, and I don't think I got into Juilliard. But to me it was like, “Well if I can’t get into Juilliard for acting, screw it — the only way you’re gonna make it is if you go to one of these schools.” And then I got an [acting] job and that gave me five grand and I knew I was never gonna make that money that fast again, so I took that.
And it also showed me that acting could be something different than what I thought it could be. I thought it was very surface and very kind of superficial and it was all about pretending. Then that pretending became something that I found I could put more into than I thought. And so I thought music was going to take me another ten years — little did I know acting was going to take me another ten years. The acting thing I was getting a quicker response. With music I was probably going to be homeless in six months, with acting maybe I wouldn’t be homeless in six months. I just always kept on with the music and kept my ear to the wall and my finger on the pulse… just waiting until the right time.
Do you have a similar methodology for getting deep into your roles that you do with your songs and the subject matter?
Whatever I’m doing is what I’m doing. So for the most part if I’m making music, that’s all I’m doing. The mind might be in other places but that all gets brought to what you’re doing or it all leaves because what you’re doing has no room.
I find the album’s first song “Flag Day / The Mother Stone” so interesting because it starts out as this crazy psychedelic circus, and then right in the middle there’s a perfect pop-rock song. This beautiful melody for two minutes and then you just cut back to this crazy cacophony. I thought that was very funny because you’re teasing this sweetness and then taking it away.
Hopefully the audience finds as much humor out of the record that me and Nic did while we were recording some of it. Because there’s tongue-in-cheek, there’s “screw you,” there’s “ha-ha-ha,” there’s “he-he-he.” My friend Robert who played bass and some guitar on it had the same reaction. I’d always love showing him a song because then he’d get to a part where I know it’s gonna make him laugh. And then his head falls back and goes “ha-ha-ha-ha” and I go, “Yes!” Hopefully folks like you and other folks are going to [laugh] and go, “What a little dickens.”
Are there any artists in particular who’ve inspired that approach?
I really love Paul McCartney’s first solo record because it takes the whole record to get to “Maybe I’m Amazed.” I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me, but the record feels like it’s playing with you throughout the until you get to the end and then you get what you would expect from a Paul McCartney record. All the songs play with that, “You like it? You like it? OK, we’ll take it away.” I thought the cat and mouse game was extraordinary and I don’t know if it was intentional — to me that had to be intentional. The Beatles probably taught me the most, because I don’t know how many times they would do things but for the most part they don’t beat things into the ground too much.