Interview: Jim Fairchild (Grandaddy, Modest Mouse, All Smiles)
Published on September 1st, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Indie royalty: how else to describe a man who has played guitar for both Grandaddy and Modest Modest, two of our planet’s very best bands of the past twenty years?
A man who was able to call upon the services of Danny Seim [Menomena], Gary Jarman [The Cribs] and Joe Plummer [Modest Mouse/The Shins/Mister Heavenly] in order to help him record his third album as All Smiles, the really rather lovely Staylow and Mighty? Indie royalty: that’s Jim Fairchild, alright.
As you may know, last week saw the ‘Deluxe’ reissuing of Grandaddy’s classic 2000 album The Sophtware Slump, so Rocksucker jumped at the opportunity to bombard Jim with questions pertaining to one of our favourite albums, and more besides.
It turned out to be a highly enjoyable and illuminating chat which we feel privileged to reproduce for you below.Ladies and gentlemen – speaking about his Modest Mouse/All Smiles present, his Grandaddy past (and possible future, wink wink), being compared to Radiohead, jostling for position with Johnny Marr, his love of Elliott Smith and Super Furry Animals, and the in-band tension that existed during the recording of The Sophtware Slump – please welcome to our pages Mr Jim Fairchild!
How did the Modest Mouse sessions with Big Boi go?
I didn’t go out to those sessions. They were trying out some songs with Big Boi. I’m not really sure what’s going to come of that. I think Isaac’s still in the process of deciding who he wants to record the record with.
So it’s going to be primarily a Modest Mouse record, as opposed to some kind of collaboration?
Yeah, they were recording Modest Mouse songs out there. But I don’t think Isaac knows what he wants to do with the new record yet so it’s very early stages.
Did it blow your mind when you were asked to take Johnny Marr’s place in the band? And was it Isaac Brock who asked you?
Yeah. My relationship with Isaac had existed for a while and, when Dann Gallucci left the band in 2005, I wound up playing the very last show that they did for the Good News for People Who Like Bad News record. Johnny was kind of around then and that was a trippy thing, to be sort of in the running for the same job as Johnny Marr, so to speak! Johnny ended up making the We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank record with them and then doing those tours. Then when Johnny was doing The Cribs stuff, Isaac was the one who called me in and I toured with them some more, which has been really fun and rewarding.
They’re a lot like Grandaddy in the sense that they’re all about the original three guys. That’s what Modest Mouse is: Eric, Jeremiah and Isaac, and they all play in such unique ways. It’s such a fucking weird band but they’ve persevered out of determination and what they’ve created musically is so badass. You really have to respect the thing that exists between the three of them when you’re doing stuff with them. It’s a fun thing to be involved in and it’s something that I learn a lot from.
Congratulations on a splendid third album as All Smiles.
Thank you very much, I appreciate that.
Is that you under the ghost sheet on its cover?
It is, yeah.
Just wondering. So, was there much difficulty involved in getting Joe, Danny and Gary time off from their respective ‘day job’ bands to work on it with you?
Over the last three years, Joe, Gary and I have got together on a few occasions when we’ve all been in Portland at the same time and banged around on stuff, so it’s a pretty easy thing for us to do. It wasn’t that difficult because it wound up being a downtime for the three of us but if it was going to turn into any sort of regular thing then the amount of travelling that would have to take place would be pretty fucking hard to negotiate, because Gary’s always doing stuff with The Cribs – right now they’re writing and they were playing shows all summer – and Joe’s in Mister Heavenly, The Shins and Modest Mouse.
Danny’s another dude who I’ve done a lot of stuff with over the years – he’s toured as the drummer in All Smiles, opening up for Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band a few years ago. He’s another dude who I would really like to do something with on a wider scale at some point. Gary, Joe and I were in the same place to record things but, as everyone knows, it’s really easy to send stuff back and forth by email now and that’s how Danny and I did it. I don’t know what it would be, if it would be a Lackthereof thing, which is Danny’s solo thing, or whatever, but I would really like to do more with Danny. He’s one of the creative people in the world that I respect most.
Have there been any plans to take Staylow and Mighty on tour or are you all simply too busy?
You know what, I don’t get that ambitious about doing All Smiles live. I’ve been playing solo shows lately and I’ve been loving the shit out of that. I feel like I’ve kind of learned how to do that. But then I get done with Modest Mouse tours and I just want to start writing and recording again, and I get so wrapped up in that. Then a few months will go by, someone will invite me to do a show and I’ll be like, “Oh shit, that was fun, I need to do that – I need to reach out to people and play shows.” But I guess I don’t think about it enough. I need to. Thanks, that reminds me I need to make some phone calls or emails today and do that!This might sound like an incredibly arrogant thing to say but I’m actually pretty good at playing solo now. I used to be fucking petrified of singing and playing my songs in front of people – I was just really bashful and diffident – but I don’t feel that way anymore. I really like doing it now.
How far back do you go as a songwriter? Were you writing stuff during your Grandaddy days, for example?
Yeah, I was, but I was fucking petrified of people hearing my songs and my voice. I was truly scared of that as a notion. Being in a band with Jason and having friends like Conor, Matt Ward, Howe Gelb and whoever – you know, we had a lot of good buddies at home who were great songwriters and I could never imagine that my shit would measure up to that. But, as I got older and more confident, I started to think, “Well, who gives a shit?” You do what you do and that’s where things wind up being good, hopefully.The prospect of people liking or disliking my songs doesn’t matter much to me anymore. I want people to like them – if you put a lot of effort into it then you want it to travel across a wider platform than just your own fucking head – but eventually you just have to do it and then people let you know what they think of it.
I hope it’s not a lazy comparison to say that there are shades of Elliott Smith about your stuff. Was he a big influence? I know that Grandaddy went on tour with him around the turn of the century…
Yeah, his music is a huge influence on me and he was a big influence as a friend – and as a singer, I guess. I love Elliott a lot and it was a pretty big blow to all of us when he passed away. But yeah, he is truly a tremendous inspiration.
The tour you went on with him – was that the tour when you issued [rare Grandaddy album that was only available at live shows] The Windfall Varietal?
Yeah, that might be right. I can’t totally remember but it was around that time, certainly. It could have been another tour we did before that where Bright Eyes was supporting us. We were always broke and Jason had the idea of making something that we could sell on our own without having to pay anybody back for it. The covers were literally white slip covers that we would manually apply about fifty stickers to a day. Fortunately, people dug it!The thing is, Jason had written so many songs – he was really on a hot streak there, for a number of years. There were even all of the b-sides that were always demanded for the UK market, and I guess somewhat the European market. But even outside of all that shit, there was still a lot of leftover material and some of it was pretty fun to listen to as it represented a side of the band, and of Jason’s songwriting, that you could maybe take a little less seriously than the Grandaddy albums proper. I mean, there was always humour in the albums but I don’t think people would naturally grab onto that as one of the primary touchstones of what exists on those albums. So it was fun to have that stuff out there and it was cool to make a little bit of extra bread because we desperately needed it at that point.
If you don’t mind me asking, what were the issues surrounding the song “Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland” that led to the removal from sale of The Windfall Varietal?
It’s hard for me to remember. I feel like we were always in trouble over something. Maybe someone somewhere – whether it was the copyright owner of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” or someone from the Alan Parsons camp – either objected to it outright or said that the only way it could be released was on the Xfm Christmas compilation, or the one that V2 made. Maybe those were the agreed upon parameters under which that song could be marketed, or something like that. I don’t totally remember. There were objections to that so eventually V2 didn’t want us to sell The Windfall Varietal at all because they owned our masters and that song was on there. Maybe they had gotten a ‘cease and desist’. We made these t-shirts that were fucking outright rip-offs of the John Deere tractor logo – I think we got a ‘cease and desist’ about that. There was always some sort of trouble brewing, or we were fucking pissed off at somebody.A good example of us being hot under the collar about something was when someone from the radio department at V2 decided that it would be a fucking great idea to edit “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” down from nearly nine minutes into a three-minute radio version. I don’t even know how the fuck you would do that – that song is a nine-minute song, that’s what it is. You could take a song like “The Crystal Lake” and abbreviate the guitar melody on the outro and it’s still basically the same song, but that’s a nine-minute song so we got really pissed off with them about that. There was always some bullshit happening. (Laughs)
As it happens, one of the questions I’ve got written down here is to do with whether your label had any qualms about putting out a record with a nine-minute opening track!
I don’t think they had any qualms about it, really, but occasionally it gets to a weird point. I don’t think it would be the same now given the current pop landscape, although it would probably be harder for a band like Grandaddy to get on the radio anyway. “Hewlett’s Daughter” and “The Crystal Lake” were mildly successful singles on the radio and I think at that point the label is like, “Fuck, what else can we do?” “Chartsengrafs” was a little too rough-sounding to be on the radio, “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” is a beautiful song but there’s no insistent rhythm to it, so they’re kind of running out of material to mine.As with many things, growth is the most important thing so whatever “The Crystal Lake” reached on the charts – I can’t remember but let’s say number twenty – then it’s like, “Shit, we need something else to reach the top ten – how the fuck are we going to do that? Well, maybe if we took the middle of ‘He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot’ back – that’s got an insistent rhythm.”
Who knows what sort of weird alchemy is occurring in people’s heads that they think they’ll be able to get a little extra juice out of? That need to always be making shit bigger can paralyse bands and businesses.
I first got into you guys through Xfm playing “The Crystal Lake”, “Hewlett’s Daughter”, “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb…” and “AM 180″ to death back in the day…
They were huge supporters. It was a pretty great time for music – Pavement were still around, Sebadoh were still around, The Flaming Lips. When we first went to the UK, it would have been the fall of ’97 and I think Xfm had just started, and it was just an auspicious time for the type of music that we were playing.Whether they knew it or not, people were wondering what the American perspective might be with regards some of the conceptual ideologies that existed in albums like OK Computer, so we were seen as one of the bands that was kind of in answer to that. It was a good time for us to exist, albeit unwittingly on our part.
At the time, lot of critics compared The Sophtware Slump to OK Computer in terms of its themes. How did that sit with you guys? It’s not a bad album to be mentioned alongside, I guess…
To this day, I don’t often think about OK Computer but, when I do put it on and listen to it, I’m like, “Fuck, that was a crazy, crazy record.” It’s a beacon on the recording landscape of pop music over the last…whatever, however long it’s existed. It’s a massively influential record, one of those records that seemed to catalyse a lot of movement but also encapsulated a lot of previous movement. It’s like the perfect summary, in a way.So, given all that, to be compared to something that monumental on the music landscape…sure, I’m happy to take that! I don’t know how accurate it is – I’m too close to the one thing to be any sort of judge of that – but I’m sure that initially we were like, “That’s a little fucking crazy but that’s a tremendous compliment.”
You mentioned Pavement earlier. It says on Wikipedia that their second drummer Gary Young mixed The Sophtware Slump…
No, he didn’t mix the record. Jason mixed The Sophtware Slump but me, Jason, Aaron and Joe hung out with Gary a few times while we were making b-sides for “The Crystal Lake”, I think – that was what a song called “Street Bunny” was on. We wanted to do it quick and kind of live so drove up to Gary’s house from Modesto one afternoon, and Gary recorded and mixed it. He was just involved with that one song, “Street Bunny”.
How did you decide upon the track list for the second CD of the new Deluxe Edition of The Sophtware Slump?
I mostly deferred to Jason. Our management company sent us a list of all the shit that’s now owned by different entities in different parts of the world. I just knew that I didn’t want there to be live stuff that was out there, mainly because there’s such a wealth of studio-recorded material, so I thought that that should be what the scope of that CD was.
I think there were a couple of songs that I didn’t want on there, and then Jason just presented this list of nineteen songs and said, “What about this?” I listened to that and thought it was a good listen. Down the road, it might be cool to think about doing stuff with some of the live shows. There are no imminent plans to do that but I feel like they should be kind of separate, you know?
Why was there nothing from the Signal to Snow Ratio EP on it? “Jeddy 3’s Poem” in particular would have been appropriate, surely?
Well, that was a proper release on its own, was meant to exist as it exists. I could see it being released on 10″ at some point. On Signal to Snow Ratio, we were trying out gear that we’d bought to bolster the recording setup for Sophtware Slump, so it was designed to be those four songs and exist like that. I wouldn’t want to start parting that one out, you know?
Fair enough. What was the mood like in the band around the time of recording The Sophtware Slump? From what I’ve read, it seems like Jason was quite fraught at the time (he described here how he made the recordings “in my boxer shorts, bent over keyboards with sweat dripping off my forehead, frustrated, hungover, and trying to call my coke dealer”) and that some of you had to get part time jobs while he assumed the lion’s share of control over it…
Yeah. I never did because I was busy helping him. I’d ride my bike out there a few times a week.
Was there any resentment from anyone in the band about how much control Jason took over it?
Fuck yeah, there was.
So was it quite a tense time?
Yeah. I mean, bands are such fucking weird things. Now that I’ve played with Modest Mouse for as long as I have and been able to look at a different chemistry, I’d say that chemistry is the most important thing you can have as a band. Grandaddy had that – those five people, myself included obviously, worked and functioned together as a musical entity, or just five dudes sitting around drinking beer. It’s totally remarkable and you should never try to fuck with it. When you start fucking with its balance, whether it’s the way people earn dough or the amount of responsibility that they have – that’s when shit starts getting bad.So there definitely was resentment. I think Tim and Kevin were both working part time jobs, while I was managing the band at that time and helping Jason with the recording as much as he would invite me up to do it, and yeah I can totally remember being bummed about it personally because I’d put a lot of effort into thinking about the band. I mean, I was the most involved out of anyone besides Jason and I was bummed about my involvement, so definitely the other dudes would have been real bummed out as well.
Had Under the Western Freeway been a more collaborative project, or was that the same deal?
I think it was slightly more collaborative. I guess I was kind of living up at the place we rented to record that record, this spot like sixty miles east of Modesto mountains. We paid like six hundred bucks a month for a three-bedroom house with fifty acres of land! I guess it was more collaborative in the sense that often the whole band would be out there, which isn’t to say that everyone was always recording. The band never worked that way and the reason why there was resentment at times would be that there was always this implied promise that it was going to be more collaborative as time went on – when that payoff wouldn’t come, I think it bummed people out.
It’s a really tricky thing because the three records that just got reissued on vinyl – Under the Western Freeway, The Sophtware Slump and Sumday – those are really fucking badass records. I don’t know if it would have sounded better or worse had it been more collaborative. I don’t know how much of a focused vision Jason has when he starts making a record, but there’s that inkling of something out there on the horizon that he needs to get to. It’s real hard for him because he’s not a good communicator. I’m not talking shit about the guy, it’s just that the thing he’s not adept at is getting across what that objective is. He’s one of those people who it’s easier for to just go through the process himself and make all the mistakes.
Even with a record as good as The Sophtware Slump or Under the Western Freeway, there are like five hundred unused attempts at a keyboard part before you go, “Yeah, that’s what it should be” – he’s the type of dude who needs to go through that process himself to realise it. When you have five people who are really close…I guess it’s like emotional expectations of each other and, when you’re not as involved as you want to be, it can be a bummer and I think there was a constant ebb and flow of people being bummed out about to whatever varying degrees about not being involved.
I’m led to believe that, in a recent interview, you said that you wouldn’t rule out a Grandaddy reunion and that ATP would be the ideal place to perform The Sophtware Slump…
It’s been discussed as a sort of spectral analysis, like “could that happen?” and maybe that’s because enough time has passed now for…I mean, Jason and I didn’t really talk for six years. It’s weird to go from being occasionally in your fucking boxer shorts together because there’s no air conditioning, or because the air conditioning is too loud to record, to not talking. I guess the answer is not “no” at the moment but nothing definitive exists right now.
Eventually we’re going to need to decide and, although there are no firm offers right now, we might actually go out and do that at some point. I wouldn’t want to go out on tour a lot again because we’d need to keep it fun. We’ll see if any of that happens. Jason’s working on a record, I do tons of shit on my own and play with Modest Mouse, and Aaron’s in a band called The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit who are starting to tour a bit. Also, people have families, so there are all those factors to contend with before we could even get in the same room and practise together.But just the fact that Jason and I are actually talking again…I mean, I’m in no way saying that it’s down to the two of us deciding to do it, but we would definitely be the two that needed to have the conversation and get the ball rolling. And we’re having conversations! (Laughs)
A lot of people will be glad to hear that. By the way, have you ever come across a more precise, metronomic drummer than Aaron? He’s something else.
I know, it’s fucking crazy, man. The guy is insanely dead-on at all times.
I remember reading an interview with Super Furry Animals in which they mentioned how inspired they were by his drumming when they went on tour with you guys for the first time: “We’d just been on tour with Grandaddy, and Aaron from Grandaddy is the steadiest drummer in the world, he’s incredible. He can keep this really slow groove, very simple groove going, song after song, in a metronomical fashion. He’s really amazing. We sort of ripped off his drumming style [on Guerrilla tracks “Wherever I Lay My Phone is My Home” and “Some Things Come From Nothing”], but we couldn’t keep it up, so we had to sample it.”
Super Furry Animals are my favourite functioning band in the world. I really love that band and I still stay in contact with those dudes. I’ve played solo shows with Gruff.
As fellow SFA junkies, Rocksucker would like to thoroughly endorse this. Finally, if I asked you right this moment to name your top three favourite albums of all time, off the top of your head, which would you pick?
It could change in ten minutes but Ma Jeunesse Fout Le Camp by Francoise Hardy comes to mind. Maybe Radiator or Rings Around the World by Super Furry Animals.
I reckon I’d go for Guerrilla by Super Furry Animals, just ahead of Phantom Power.
Yeah, that’s a great one too. And I do know that my favourite song ever made is “Happiness” by Elliott Smith.
We’ll accept that in lieu of a third album. Jim, thank you.
Thanks for, you know, being interested in our band after all this time!
The Sophtware Slump Deluxe Edition is out now on Universal/V2.
Staylow and Mighty, the third album by Jim’s All Smiles project, is out now on Small Aisles. For more information about All Smiles, please visit allsmilesmusic.com