Interview: Jad Fair
Published on December 6th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Michigan, 1975: brothers Jad and David Fair decide to start a band, retire to a bedroom and pick words out of hats in order to formulate a name. From one hat is drawn the word ‘half’; from the other is drawn ‘Japan’. Thusly did Half Japanese come into existence, and so inspiring was their playfully shambolic brand of lyrical punk that it triggered a chain reaction of band formation comparable to one of those Bible passages that features the word ‘begat’ about a dozen times.
Half Japanese went on to record fourteen studio albums, each of which are scheduled to be reissued by Fire Records between February 2012 and sometime in 2013. On top of this, Jad has a double-figures amount of solo records under his belt, as well as a series of collaboration albums with such cast-iron luminaries as Daniel Johnston, Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo and The Pastels. There are five further albums, two of which were intended for children, that he made with his brother and were issued under their real names. And twelve albums with erstwhile Half Japanese bandmate Jason Willett. And even more besides. Truly, any late-arriving Jad Fair completists will have their work cut out for them.
Speaking of ‘work’ and ‘cut out’, the lion’s share of Jad’s income is generated by his papercutting business, while he has also of late been trying his hand at comedy writing with the delightfully expletive-ridden, YouTube-dwelling show The Fuck-Ups. Last Thursday, he came to London to play a warmly received headline show at The Lexington with support from The Lovely Eggs and he shall return to these shores in March to take his place on the mind-bogglingly astonishing bill of the All Tomorrow’s Parties curated by Neutral Milk Hotel legend Jeff Mangum.
All of which fails to mention that Jad is currently touring around Europe (dates at the bottom of the page) in support of both Beautiful Songs (The Best of Jad Fair), a triple CD package featuring over one hundred songs from his myriad projects, as well as his most recent solo album His Name Itself Is Music. Rocksucker was privileged enough to get to sit down with Jad during a seemingly rare moment of ‘not creating something’, in the trendy environs of Dalston hangout Café Oto; but first, do enjoy this choice cut from Beautiful Songs…
How are you? Which Elvis are you feeling like today?
I’m feeling like at least the Elvis comeback, maybe even the early Elvis. I’m real good.
Are you pleased with how last night’s show went?
Yeah, it went real well. I was real pleased with the audience response. I’d had two or three days of very little sleep so I was very sleepy going out on stage, but it still went very well.
When did you get to London?
Yesterday morning at 7 o’clock.
Are you still quite jetlagged?
I’m fine today. I was feeling it yesterday though.
Did you enjoy The Lovely Eggs?
Yeah, they’re a very nice band.
Is there any new recording activity on the horizon? If so, in what form?
I’m in a band with Mick Hobbs and Strobe Talbot and we’re working on a new album together. In March, Half Japanese will be in the UK for All Tomorrow’s Parties and we’re hoping that we’ll have a day or two of studio time. I’m also working on a new album with my brother David.
With regards the ATP show, did Jeff Mangum invite you himself?
No. I’ve got a booking agent and they contacted her.
Are you a fan of his?
I am a fan of his but I can’t say I know him at all. I’ve never met him.
Will the reissued albums be coming with much in the way of bonus material?
We did plan some bonus things. I don’t know for sure just what else we’ll be able to put on because most of the albums are already very long and there’s a limit to how much time you can have on a CD, but I’m sure that we’re gonna have some surprises.
Original artwork or new stuff?
It’ll be a combination of both.
Half Japanese – “Put Some Sugar on It”
Half Japanese seems to be one of those bands that not many people heard, but those that did went out and formed a band. Have you had many fellow musicians tell you in person that you were an inspiration to them?
Yeah, Yamantaka Eye from The Boredoms said that had there not been Half Japanese then there wouldn’t have been The Boredoms, which I was very flattered by. Charles Brohawn from The Tinklers also said to me that had he not heard Half Japanese then he wouldn’t have started The Tinklers. That’s very nice.
Have you had many encounters with devoted fans who know everything about you?
Yeah, sometimes it surprises me. I was in Tokyo a couple of years ago and someone came up to me and said, “I’ve got all your albums.” I said, “Well, I’ve released about fifty-six albums.” And she said, “Yes, I know. I have all of them.” (Laughs) “Oh, okay!”
Do things like that unnerve you?
It’s a little bit odd at times because they know more about me than I know about me! They’ll mention things that happened twenty years ago that I’d long since forgotten.
Jad and David Fair – “Nosferatu”
Have you had much feedback from actual kids for stuff like 26 Monster Songs for Children?
My brother and I released a couple of albums which had monster songs, and it was very well received by children.
They can be harsh critics.
Well, they can be, but so far it’s been fine.
Jad Fair and Daniel Johnson – “I Met Roky Erickson”
I’d imagine that you get asked this a lot, but what’s Daniel Johnston like to work with?
Daniel has very wild mood swings, so he’ll either be very, very easy to work with, or the opposite of that. Daniel doesn’t like doing more than two takes of a song, which can be kind of frustrating. He’s a very nice guy but because of his mood swings he could be difficult to work with. At those times, you say, “Let’s go get some pizza,” – you know, you do something different – then it’s fine.
Jad Fair and Teenage Fanclub – “Near to You”
I love the album you did with Teenage Fanclub [Words of Wisdom and Hope]. Can you see yourself working with them again in the future?
Oh, thank you. In May, I’m going to be doing some shows in Spain with Norman Blake. Also, Norman and I are going to be recording with Kim Fowley. We’re looking forward to doing that together. I don’t know if we’ll be doing more recordings with Teenage Fanclub but I’d like to if they’re interested in doing that, because they’re great people.
Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo – “Texas Man Abducted By Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride”
Whose idea was it to base your Yo La Tengo collaboration around ‘strange but true’ stories from a newspaper?
Well, those were all things that my brother David wrote that could go well with music. So that’s what we did, we gave it a try.
Have you seen any more UFOs?
No, just the one. I don’t know that it was a flying saucer but it was something very different. I saw a very, very bright light, which was round, slowly going down into a wooded area. I called the police and I thought they’d ridicule me about this, but they said that other people had seen the same thing. I still have no idea what it was.
What in your opinion makes Superman the best superhero?
Well, I don’t know that he is the best superhero.
I ask because of the following line from “Cupid” off Words of Wisdom and Hope: “I want to be your Superman. I would not be satisfied being your Batman or your Aquaman. No. I want the very best.”
Oh yeah, that’s true. (Laughs) See, I don’t pay that much attention to what I say.
Apart from the obvious answer of “being bored on tour”, what instigated your love of papercutting?
Before going into music, I thought I would be an artist. That’s what I was going to school to do, to go into commercial art. Then my brother and I did some recordings which were well received and then music took up more and more of my time. But now most of my time is focused on papercutting.
I once saw an interview with Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips, who also likes to paint and construct things, in which he said that he’d like to be known not just as a musician but as a guy who “does stuff”. How would you like to be remembered?
I wanna be remembered as a musician, and as an artist, and as a nice guy! (Laughs) Also, I’ve started getting into comedy writing. My brother David and I have started writing for a show called The Fuck-Ups. You can find it on YouTube. It’s a pretty funny show.
The Fuck-Ups – “Big Baby, the Photographer”
Have you had many people take you up on your offer of writing them a song about anything for $300?
I’ve done quite a few of those. I’ve done a number of birthdays, several wedding anniversaries, a couple of births of babies, and one that was a marriage proposal. That’s one I was kind of nervous about. It went over well and she said yes, and I was a bit nervous about that ‘cause I thought, if she says no, I won’t get paid! But no, it was fine.
Are there any journalistic clichés or buzzwords that you’re sick of reading in conjunction with your music? I’ll start the ball rolling with “lo-fi”.
Yeah, “lo-fi” is kind of an odd one. Some things I do, I go for a distorted sound, but there are other recordings we’ve done where that wasn’t our goal. I don’t wanna be painted into a corner; I wanna do whatever I wanna do whenever I wanna do it, and if it’s noisy, it’s noisy, and if it’s not, it’s not. It’s whatever you feel like doing at the time.
What is your favourite love song and favourite monster song of yours?
Um…”This Could Be the Night” and “Frankenstein Must Die”, which is also probably my favourite guitar playing that I’ve done.
Jad Fair – “Frankenstein Must Die”, “Dead Men Walk”, “The Thing With the Atomic Brain”, “Angela”
Are there any other exponents of monster songs that you’d like to recommend?
Roky Erickson [previously of 13th Floor Elevators] has done many, many monster songs. He’s actually in very good form now. He’s sounding great.
What’s he up to?
He’s living in Austin, Texas. I’ve seen him performing a couple of times over this last year and he’s sounding much better than I would have thought he could. He’s in good shape now.
Jad, thank you.
Jad Fair’s upcoming tour dates with Gilles Rieder:
07 Dec 2011 FR Paris Petit Bain
08 Dec 2011 FR Metz Les Trinitaires (+ exhibition)
09 Dec 2011 CH Zurich Kilbi Festival / Exil
10 Dec 2011 NL Den Haag State-X New Form Festival w/ Glenn Branca