Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #21 by Stephen McClurg
An Interview with Jad Fair
Jad Fair has had anything but a conventional music career. Known for collaborations with everyone from Daniel Johnston to Moe Tucker to John Zorn, he made a recent album with songwriter and puppeteer David Liebe Hart. Also a visual artist, Fair is probably most well-known for Half Japanese, a band featured in many books and documentaries about outsider music.
He is currently releasing at least two albums every week this year. I was lucky enough for Fair to spare some time to talk about this series of albums. Since New Year’s Eve, he has (as of the time of this writing) released thirty-six albums using his own art as the covers.
After the interview, I offer some listening suggestions.
TDO: When we first chatted, you said you were trying to get a new album out every two weeks. You seemed to have made that goal and then some.
Jad Fair: It’s not an album every two weeks. What I’m trying to do is add two new albums every week. I have twenty-four albums so far. I think I should be able to easily have 100 new albums this year.
TDO: Wow! I misunderstood that! Even though you mentioned these were about 50% archive and 50% new material, I can’t imagine getting that many albums together. The covers, gorgeous on their own, also seem to visually unite the work as a singular project, though that may not be in mind at all, given the range of song and music material.
Jad Fair: I’m glad that you like my art. Thanks.
TDO: I’ve seen mention of your influences being some of the great bands that were around Detroit as you were coming up: The Stooges, MC5, and Destroy All Monsters. Some of the current songs have a vocal cadence and structure that reminds me of poetry readings, almost like the Beats collaborating with DEVO or the Residents. I hear Martin Denny in certain musical elements. I was curious about your influences beyond those great Detroit rock bands.
Jad Fair: I grew up in Michigan and some of my favorite bands were from Michigan. I was also a big fan of The Velvet Underground, T Rex, The Shaggs, NRBQ, Captain Beefheart, and The Modern Lovers.
TDO: You mention movies and many characters, particularly monsters, in your lyrics. I grew up in Michigan and my grandparents lived in Coldwater, where you were born. Did you ever watch Channel 50 out of Detroit? Channel 50 was the first station where I saw monster and horror movies.
Jad Fair: I’m a huge fan of the early monster movies. I remember watching Sargent Sacto on Channel 50.
TDO: “An Evil Wind” mentions the movie Demon Wind, which is a wonderful mess of a film. A couple of the lyrics I particularly liked could be referencing the movie as well as relating to daily life.
I like that these films—and by extension your songs—could have grains of deeper truths in them. I particularly liked, “Teens don’t think about eternity, not on a Saturday night” and “Fool following fool following fool.” Were you just riffing on the film or mixing ideas about it with lyrical concepts you already had?
Jad Fair: A lot of the songs I write are written very quickly. A lot of it is just off the top of my head.
TDO: Some songs reuse lyrics or references (Nosferatu, zombies), some reuse musical settings, and a few seem like the same tracks. Cultural phrases also appear: for whom the bell tolls, all fall down, time waits for no man, etc. How much of that intentional and how much is your process open to the moment? For example, most writers I know would have edited those phrases out. Maybe they would mention Nosferatu in only one song. Is it in any way related to the repetition that goes into making the visual art? The recurring figures of monsters, stars, and hearts?
Jad Fair: I’ve written hundreds of songs. Repetition is fine with me. It’s not something I aim for, but I’m not bothered if it happens.
TDO: I’ve read that you don’t tune your guitar and never really have. Do you try to pitch the strings at all to something you like?
Jad Fair: I sometimes will tune up, but usually not. The guitar sounds more like a percussion instrument to me if it’s untuned.
TDO: I saw a video of you playing a very interesting guitar. I assume it was built for you, but at one moment there was a slow-motion clip and you were rocking like a classic guitar god, but then the neck starting bending forward at a strange angle off the guitar and was almost folding up–the clip didn’t have audio, but it struck me how it bordered on punk rock or those Detroit bands you grew up listening to and something like The Muppets. Then it showed you later folding the guitar up in order to get ready for another gig. I just think of the anger and catharsis of most footage of destroying instruments and how whimsical this was in comparison though so many elements were similar. Ultimately, it appeared that it wasn’t destruction at all. It was an image that reminded me of the phrase on your website: “Enjoy Your Life.”
Jad Fair: While touring I grew tired of having to carry around a suitcase and also a guitar case. I wanted to have a way to fit my guitar into my suitcase. I shortened the neck and have the neck attachable with rubber bands. The rubber bands make it easier to bend notes.
TDO: Is that a particular guitar that was made for you?
Jad Fair: The body of the guitar is one I bought in Glasgow in 1987. I’ve replaced the neck with a shorter one so it’ll fit better in my suitcase.
Here are ten songs to check out from the ever-increasing Bandcamp collection currently being released by Jad Fair.
It’s Go Time: “234-B”
The most recent record (as I’m typing this) is loop-based. The robot on the cover may allude to this. The whispered syllables and almost constant looping had me envisioning the consciousness of a dying robot. Strange and beautiful.
One of Fair’s cut-out art pieces representing the White Rabbit and Alice graces the cover. He has similar art available at his website. I picked this one because I like it as an album opener setting the mood for the record. There’s a whistled almost-melody that comes in and out, like the whistler is getting your attention and disappearing like a ghost. Echoey, dub-like drum sounds, and keyboard strings fill out the rest of the track that feels like entering a sound world and descending with it.
We Win: “Invaders from Mars”
This one mixes several strains of Fair’s music that I like. One, it’s one of his sci-fi/monster songs. He writes more songs featuring movie monsters than maybe Danzig has seen, much less wrote about in the Misfits. The other strain I like is that the aliens are invading in order to get things like peppermint twists, Daisy Dukes, and strawberry cake.
Nature: “You Know What They Say”
I thought I should include a more traditional song in this group, at least as traditional as Fair gets. You get gongs, four-on-the-floor-beats, and some guitar strums to go along with some understated vocals. “My love’s a tiger, Tiger. My love’s a darling, Darling.”
There is a certain streak of Fair’s output that seems influenced by exotica. “Three” is a mix of Yma Sumac and Martin Denny in a dark carnival ride. “Four” is an anthemic, reverby acoustic jaunt.
Midnight Eyes: “Vampire Doll”
Swinging drums, barking dogs, and rumbling thunder weave throughout a story of a vampire/devil/voodoo doll in New Orleans.
Entertainment: “Come On”
A track built on various vocal effects and beat boxing. “I want more romance. / I want to see eye-to-eye. / I want to be belly-to-belly / Just you and I.”
Sunshine: “You’ve Got Me In A Spin”
A Fair love song featuring an array of unexpected dub and panning effects, the latter possibly representing the spin of the title.
Monster: “One Way Ticket”
A strummed drone of an acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Velvet Underground forms the basis of this track that lyrically becomes a celebration of shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, fears, and small-town life. “Oh, we can’t have the barbecue without you.”
Oh No: “Bad Seed”
I love Fair’s spoken word songs. This one has one of my favorite lyrics: “Shrunken head in a cigar box listening to Steely Dan.”
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24 and Episode 374) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.