introduction by trevor elkin
Over the past 40 years, the way fans discover, access and consume music has markedly evolved. While technology has democraticized the music-making and distribution process and allowed almost anyone to follow an artistic dream, it’s still damn hard earning a decent living as a musician. On top of all that, those people who are in the margins or forgotten fringes of the music industry still struggle the most to be heard. On that count maybe nothing has changed at all.
The idea for this piece was a simple one: a conversation across the generations. In this case, an exchange between two men who began their careers decades apart but who, we felt, shared some of the same artistic DNA – Jad Fair, a veteran, prolific underground songwriter (who, along with brother David founded the proto-DIY band, Half Japanese back in 1974) and Charles Griffin Gibson aka CHUCK a younger, solo bedroom-musician (responsible for some of the best, but criminally under-rated pop songs we’ve heard). The Fair brothers’ lo-fi bedroom recordings of the mid-70’s were the vehicle for their off-kilter world view, inventing popular outsider rock in the process. Leading the lo-fi movement in the ’90s, Half Japanese experimented with alternate tunings, chords and melody. Though more conventional, CHUCK’s appreciation of music resonates with Jad Fair’s, as do his underdog tales of love and loneliness, getting by in a senseless world.
In January this year, Half Japanese released ‘Hear The Lions Roar’, their second album in 12 months following a 10-year gap. By contrast CHUCK’s compilation album on Audio Anti Hero ‘My Band Is A Computer’ had a low key release, but nevertheless was throwing some modest light on his music. It seemed this was as good a time as any to set up an interview, ostensibly to discuss Jad’s new album, but also to understand more about how the industry has changed for ‘DIY’ musicians. What happened next was both insightful and, as you will see, surprising. Take some time to read CHUCK’s introduction, then dive in to explore the transcript, alongside both Jad and CHUCK’s music, below.
words by Charles Griffin Gibson
It was really inspiring to speak with someone who has been making music on his own terms for 40 years. Jad is a humble, positive and hard working artist who seems to be super happy with where he’s at in his life and career. He’s definitely someone to look up to. He didn’t speak with any pretentiousness on any subject. He didn’t have anything snarky to say. He just struck me as someone who loves making records. When I asked him if he had any advice for up and coming musicians, he simply said “be yourself”. I definitely take that advice to heart, because I’ve always been neurotically obsessed with what people think of me, which has made me guarded with my own work up until this point. I’ve definitely imitated ideas and people in an effort to be ‘cool’ throughout my career. I think fans, not just of music, but of all the arts, are super tuned in to authenticity right now more than ever. When the public smells you ripping off someone else’s bit or editing yourself to appear in a certain light, it’s game over. With the current state of technology almost anyone can make something proficiently, but if it doesn’t have that unique spark of your personality, it’s kinda worthless. You can put a picture of Iggy Azalea somewhere around here.
I’m in the middle of wrapping up my new LP, tentatively titled Frankenstein Songs for the Grocery Store. It should be out in a few months, and it’s actually going to be my retirement record. It’s a collection of songs I’ve been working on for about 4 years or so. I think it’s gonna be great! I know it seems ironic that I’m talking about quitting after saying I was inspired by Jad, but I think his advice applies to this decision. Like most of the world, I’ve been entranced by the magic of music from the moment I started hearing it. In an effort to get even closer to that magic, I’ve spent the last 10 years making my own with whatever I had around. When you get the hang of it, there really is nothing like making music. It’s so fun to transform a song that only exists in your head into a recording. We’re all lucky to live in this day and age where anyone can do that. But I know deep down that my place is in the world of film and television. I can feel myself fighting my physical and artistic limitations when I work on music. I don’t get that feeling when I’m editing or writing or directing. Things pour out of me in a way that they just don’t when I make music. Film and television feel right. They feel me. And that’s what Jad said I should be, so that’s why I’m retiring from the music biz.
I was especially curious about Jad’s financial situation, because I’ve been around long enough to watch most of my friends abandon their bands to go on to pursue a career or grad school or something. Making a living off of art that, while celebrated, is left of center, is quite an accomplishment. That takes a really strong work ethic. I gotta tip my cap to him for that!
There’s not many Jad Fairs out there.
CHUCK: Hey Jad, how’s things? I listened to your album a couple of times this week it’s really fun.
JAD FAIR: Oh, I’m glad you like it Chuck, it’s so good to be playing again with Half Japanese – we’ve been together so many years, but have taken a little bit of time away from each other. Mostly because we live in different places, it takes some doing getting together. I live in Austin, Jason is in Baltimore, John in Asheville, Mick in London and Gilles spends a lot of time in Geneva.
C: So how do you get everyone together?
J: We’ll do a festival show which pays for the flights and that’s a huge help to us. It’s very expensive for us to all be in the same city. Luckily we have been able to do a lot of festival shows over in Europe.
C: When you get together to write, what’s the process? Do you have a few songs already on acoustic guitar that you flesh out in the studio?
J: Usually I have some lyrics written out, other times it’s very skeletal – different band members will have a guitar or keyboard piece in their mind to start off from.
C: Where do you guys record?
J: The last couple of albums we have recorded in a studio in France.
C: That’s so cool!
J: Also recording in Baltimore and Bloomington. It depends on where the Festival is…
C: Is that why you recorded in France – an annual Festival you play or something?
J: We have played in festivals in Paris several times, that is a big help, and we have played a number of festivals in Spain. We’ll also have club shows in France.
C: Ok, and what kind of studio do you record in France?
J: It’s a very basic studio, multitrack with pro tools and it’s very nice as they give us special rates. They’re fans of the band and so it’s a huge help.
C: That’s cool, Studio Time is so expensive. I’ve like only spent a day in studio, it’s such a luxury you know, and as a person without a band or label paying for that studio time it’s really hard to make happen.
J: Oh yeah, it’s so expensive. But we’ve been really lucky that studios have given us very good rates and we have home studios for overdubs – and when I say home studio I mean Laptops!
C: Yeah of course – That’s one of the things I wanted to ask – as you’ve been making music for so long, I wonder going from where you started in recording? Now everything is technologically proficient and you can make stuff at home (which I guess you could before) but maybe the sonic possibilities/opportunities are bigger now – is that something you’ve thought about?
J: When I first started out I had very little money, so we recorded on a cassette recorder with a couple of mics we bought at Radio Shack for like $15 or something, so it was very different. You know though, there’s something to be said about doing it that way. I’m not sure things were overdriven much then, but there’s a certain power you get from over driving this stuff with that equipment.
C: Yeah, with an array of plugins etc you can tune stuff now, but maybe with just a couple of mics from Radio Shack all you got was what was in the room at the time?
J: Very much so. Occasionally I’d run the mics through guitar pedals, for different effects, but for the most part you just stick a mic in the room and you just do it.
C:And so you’ve seen such drastic changes, right? I wonder if you had a particular period you enjoyed most making music in?
J: No, I always enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed one time period over another – it’s all been very enjoyable to me.
C: Ok cool – so I notice you do a lot of visual art too?
J: I do. Growing up I always thought I would be a visual artist – high school those were the courses I was taking. But after my brother & I released the first record things changed because we saw there was a fanbase there around what we were doing and we kinda ran with that.
C: I wondered if there was a moment when you had to kinda pick between one or the other, or felt that one had more weight?
J: I think it’s very good to have both. It would be difficult to make any kind of living out of music or make any kind of living out of art, with the 2 combined it does make a difference.
C: Financially speaking, I was wondering when you started Half Japanese in the 70s what the culture was like – as opposed to now for younger musicians there’s the bleak reality of the possibility of making no money off your music at all.
J: It’s so different now – people are used to getting their music for free. I mean, you can’t do any better than FREE.
C: Haha. No you can’t!
J: You just can’t compete with that. So I make very little money from selling records, but I can make money from live shows.
C: Of course.
J: So that’s a good thing. I also think that having fans of my music helps me with my art, in getting gallery shows and just having more opportunities.
C: It seems like you have a nice balance – your name’s known for both those things.
J: It’s good, because it’s hard to make a name for yourself in just one thing, but I’m doing well with both.
C: Do you think it’s easier to make your name for multiple things right now?
J: Well with the internet it’s easier to get things out there. Also putting stuff through print on demand companies – being able to make T shirts and books and plates and clocks or whatever, and not having to put a lot of money up front – the printing quality is really quite good.
C: I watched the Jeff Feuerzeig documentary and it says when you started out you sent out tapes to zines and people before anyone really knew your music?
J: We first started out sending tapes to radio stations and magazines, I’m a fan of music so I sent it to different musicians I liked. With the first 7″ was pressed I sent that to a lot of people – one person who was very helpful was John Peel, he started playing us on BBC…
C: …yeah that’s huge.
J: That had quite a bit to do with the record label Armageddon releasing our first triple album set ‘Half Gentlemen/not Beasts’.
C: And it seems like an early ‘internet move’ to do that – where did you get the idea?
J: I don’t know – it just struck me that would be the thing to do, so I did it. Back then there were some people doing it [mailing out cassettes], but very few – maybe the Residents, R Stevie Moore and Destroy All Monsters and that was pretty much it. It made sense to me, so I did it! Most of the recordings with Half Japanese have been with labels, and there’s a team for doing publicity which makes a huge difference – its not just a matter of sending it out – knowing who to send it out makes a difference.
C: It’s difficult to do that now – as someone who has no connections it seems like there’s a big gate or door you can’t get over sometimes.
J: I think so, cos most of these magazines must get 100s of different things and unless they know something about the band or about the PR its less likely they’ll play it.
C: What do you think about the cassette making a come-back? It’s a nostalgia piece of merch for a lot of bands…
J: Oh I really don’t have much interest in nostalgia. There’s so much new stuff going on and that’s pretty much where my focus is. This year, we released a HJ album, we are working on another HJ album and Kramer and I will have an album out this year we recorded with Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers, and there’s going to be a double album with Tenniscoats, and another album with my brother David. So a lot coming out this year.
C: I think having a good live set is one of the only ways of sticking out to people, when everyone’s on social media, Twitter, streaming services and so on.
J: Right, right. I think Half Japanese really does well as a live band. We’ve played some pretty big shows and it almost always comes over well.
C: It seems like you have a really great, energetic live show?
J: Yeah, it’s different each night too which keeps things, umm interesting!
C: I wondered if you had any people you looked up to or emulated as a front man – your presence is a bit like Jonathan Richman or something where you’re the band leader do you know what I mean?
J: I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Richman and NRBQ. I’ve seen NRBQ dozens of times and Jonathan too many times. Before I even heard of Modern Lovers I read an interview with Jonathan in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in ’74. And what he was saying about music really struck a chord with me, it made sense.
C: Do you remember what he said?
J: Pretty much ‘being natural’ made a huge difference to him, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do is stay as natural as I can.
C: I think that’s the vibe I had – like I was in the room with you guys playing and it wasn’t as mathematical as some other things, there were moments when you broke the script, and where you said certain things. There was a real live energy to it that I really appreciated.
J: I think that we don’t try to be bigger than ourselves – that a lot of front men or musicians will try to do, like the Rock N Roll star kinda thing, which I just don’t have any interest in at all.
C: I feel like you’re doing your own version of it – you’re you, you’re not pretending to be anyone else. It reminds me of a fifties front man, in a good way – know what I mean?
J: Oh yeah, yeah I’m me and that’s pretty much what it is. I don’t try to be anything other than myself. You’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world, but a lot of bands do that.
C: Yeah you can smell it when someone’s not being themselves… I was struck by the fact that so many songs on ‘Hear The Lions Roar’ were so… positive, I want to say. All the songs were very upbeat – you had lines like, you know “don’t give up” and “keep on going”. When I listen to other music now, there’s a lot of nostalgia or sombreness to it, but yours is a lot more positive.
J: Right, well I’m a happy person you know! I have a good life and I’m very aware that I have a good life. Why try to be anything different from that. I find that I’m happiest when I am happy – haha, interestingly enough!
C: Haha. So with all that, when you sit down and write a song, where do you feel like the inspiration is coming from or where the visuals in your lyrics are coming from?
J: Oh boy, it just flows out, and so quickly that I don’t give very much thought to it. I’m sure that, maybe there’s somehow some thoughts or such behind it, but it comes so fast that I’m just not aware of it.
C: So you feel like you write pretty fast?
J: Oh yeah, very fast. Quite often the lyrics will be quite skeletal. I’ll have like the title of the song and maybe know what I want for the chorus, but then a lot of the verses are just made up in the doing of it…
C: So, when you do the collaborations with different artists, how do you go about writing/recording with them?
J: It’s different depending on who it is. With my brother David we went into a studio together and it was mostly live, we did a few over dubs but most of it was live. The albums with R Stevie Moore we did through the um, we sent tapes back and forth. With Kramer, he’d work on music at his home studio and then flew to Austin to record my vocal. So it varies with different projects.
C: That’s like a benefit of the technical revolution that’s happened, you can work in separate spaces or keep building on projects. I wondered if that was harder to do before everything was all digital?
J: Oh yeah, yeah. Before it was digital, I could still bring people in but it usually meant bringing them in to my home studio to work on my 8 track, so it wasn’t sending tracks back and forth – if I wanted someone on the recording they’d have to come back to my place to do that.
C: Is it hard to work with such a diverse range of artists?
J: I’ve been very lucky that so many of the people I recorded with are some of my favourite bands; like Yo La Tengo. I did an album with Teenage Fanclub and Norman Blake, so many others that I really admire – like Kramer and R Stevie Moore.
C: Yeah, R. Stevie Moore is one of my favourites.
J: Yeah – he was great. I first started corresponding with him in ’78. I’ve known him for years and years, it was good to be able to record together.
C: It’s still a surprise every time I hear he’s got a new album out. He’s still very cutting, always really funny and feels very much like it’s current.
J: Well I was surprised he started touring as much as he did, it seemed like for years and years he stayed at his home and didn’t go out.
C: I feel like YouTube really helped him out. That’s at least where I heard of him, he’d uploaded all the content he ever made to YouTube and so from the mid-2000s, for anyone who liked Ariel Pink, like I did it, was like a treasure trove of new, exciting stuff.
J: Oh was it?
C: I wonder if that gave him a new lease for his career?
J: I bet that it did. I think it did. I don’t know how many albums he’s released – certainly over a hundred, he’s just so quick. I really enjoyed working with him cos I really like playing with people who can work fast like that.
C: So how do you feel, in general, about the whole role of technology in terms of access to music, via streaming services, Bandcamp and so on?
J: I do like YouTube. I’ve been doing different videos and I like to be able to release them direct. The streaming thing though makes it difficult to make any kind of money. I get royalty statements from the label and for one song I did with Daniel Johnston that got like 24,000 plays in a quarter, I got 7 cents!
C: Haha, that’s so crazy!
J: You know, it’s just insane.
C: Yeah. So, do you boycott the streaming services or use them?
J: I use them sometimes – but for things I just can’t find anywhere else. More often it’s for things from the ’20’s & ’30’s – years ago – I don’t feel I’m taking anything away from that musician, you know because they’re not there.
C: Right. How do you mainly listen to music? Do you have a record collection?
J: Oh yeah. Tonnes and tonnes! So much of it is from the 30s, 40s and 50s. I am a big fan of Calypso music and junk bands and very early blues.
C: Do you have any recommendations? Who should I check out?
C: Any newer bands that you really respond to?
J: I’d say, well Deerhoof has been around a while, but they’re still putting out new music. And Tenniscoats a band from Tokyo are absolutely great. I also love the music that Anna and Elizabeth are doing. Certainly there are a lot of people doing new music that are just doing an incredible job.
C: Deerhoof has such a good vibe – their stuff has such an amazing energy that you never know where it’s gonna go – or their songs are on fire or something.
J: Well, John Dieterich [of Deerhoof] did the mixing of two Half Japanese albums.
C: Oh cool…
J: …yeah, he mixed ‘Overjoyed’ and ‘Perfect’. It was such a pleasure to work with John.
C: If you started making music today, do you think you’d start with a different instrument other than the guitar – is there something more exciting in the digital/virtual space?
J: Well with Half Japanese, when I started out I was playing saxophone – and playing drums in the first songs, or half playing guitar. It’s been years since I played the saxophone. I was pleased that I was able to play sax on an album by Richard Hell – the Dimstars, that he did with members of Sonic Youth. They brought me in to play on one song – that was a thrill.
C: So did you start out playing saxophone as a kid?
J: It was something I picked up in the first year of college. My brother and I lived in a house in a really remote area and so I was able to make whatever noise any time I wanted to. Of course the first year with a sax, that’s pretty much what it is – noise. I really enjoyed it. It’s been years though since I played, or even held one.
C: So it sounds like pretty much, when you guys started you were sharing that house and all the instruments were there at the house to record?
J: Yeah, I mean we didn’t have a lot of instruments at the time – one guitar, a drum set and sax – that was pretty much it.
C: That was it. So when you first started making recordings and sending them out, and started to get responses back – was it a surprise you got positive feedback?
J: Personally, I thought what we were doing was very good – but I really didn’t know how other people would take it. To me it all sounded normal, people said it had an odd sound to it, but to me it seemed normal enough and I was really pleased when people took a liking to it.
C: It’s great, I wondered if back in the day you felt you had the same exposure to a variety of music as today, with like all the streaming services? Was it harder to find a variety of music that wasn’t what was on the radio or available at your local record store?
J: I grew up in a really small town in Michigan, but luckily my brother had albums by Sun Ra, MC 5 and the Stooges, Velvet Underground – so much new music that was coming out at the time, I was exposed to when it first came out and looking back I don’t why that was because those bands were not widely popular in the tiny little town I lived in.
C: Is there any political influence to your new album – any influence from the overwhelming election cycle we’ve just been through?
J: Oh man – nothing in there political for me, but man it’s crazy times.
C: It’s been hard to stay positive, and at least for a couple of weeks after the results I found it was really hard to focus on projects of that nature.
J: It just seems like one insane thing after another. Not just the President, but who he’s bringing in. Just everything feels the opposite of what it should be.
C: That’s literally what it seems like- everything is the opposite. The person in charge of EPA doesn’t believe in global warming, the person in charge of finance is like a Wall St billionaire.
J: And this is referred to as conservative? Just insane.
C: Do you think that the negativity from the politics will bleed into your writing eventually?
J: I don’t know. I don’t if it will or not. One thing with political songs, to release an album or make statement, it will be 10 months even a year after you record the record, so to do anything that is topical is gonna sound dated a year from now. It’ part of it I guess.
C: Of course, you’d have to record it real quick and release it if you wanted to make something topical…
C: Is there anything you do want people to know about the album going into it, or anything fun or interesting with the recording of it?
J: One thing that’s good to know is that it was recorded live in the studio – there were some overdubs, not many. That makes a big difference.
C: For me personally, as a band by myself – it’s all overdubbing by necessity! Which is, you know, not ideal, but trying to make it work without feeling too boxed in or mathematical is part of the fun of it. Do you take that approach with your solo stuff?
J: Oh yeah, my first solo record I played all the instruments. It was called ‘Everyone Knew…. But Me’ and I hope that’s going to be re-issued sometime soon.
C: How was that experience for you, playing everything?
J: Oh it was good – I really enjoyed it. At the time I only had a 4-track tape recorder but it was a lot of bouncing stuff back and forward. I kinda took to it thought, and really enjoyed it.
C: Do young musicians ever ask for advice?
J: They do at times. But I feel kinda odd giving advice, because pretty much it’s just ‘be yourself’ which I mean sounds simple enough, but a lot of people find that difficult to do.
C: That’s very good advice. For me its hard not to , in today’s day and age where we have all different personalities we are trying out on social media and internet, it’s hard not to be morphed into something else sometimes, especially when you’re a musicians…
J: Oh, yeah I think so…
C: Personality is a big chunk of what separates you from someone else.
C: Do you have a tour coming up?
J: Well, I hope so. Possibly – it’s still in the planning stage. We are hoping to have shows in Europe.
C: Do you have favourite city to play in?
J: I love Barcelona. And I have spent so much time in Glasgow and have so many friends there that its always a pleasure to go back. Tokyo I just love too, and Osaka. Toronto I think is a great city.
C: Man that’s so fun to get to tour around and see all these places.
J: Yeah, and I have friends in so many different cities so it’s not just a matter of seeing the cities, I can see friends I wouldn’t otherwise see. That’s a big plus for me.
C: So just a couple of fun ones to finish – What’s the last best movie you saw?
J: Hidden Figures for sure. I’ve seen so many bad movies, actually. I liked about half of La La Land, and then about half I didn’t care for.
C: I had the same opinion of La La Land. I felt it finished very strong, but the middle was a little boring. I didn’t go into it with high expectations – it seemed like it would be an annoying movie. I think it could have been really bad – it was at least kind of smart in some ways.
J: I agree. For me I would have preferred it to start out positive and then keep going more positive all the way through without any melancholy stuff thrown in.
C: Well that was quite a big hook of the ending (no spoilers) it was very melancholy.
J: Is there anything else you’d recommend, Chuck?
C: I saw Manchester By The Sea, it’s worth watching. The trailer doesn’t do it justice.
J: I’ll have to check it out.
C: Things like movies, TV show, books give me certain images and ideas and certainly play into song writing – does that stuff inspire you?
J: I’m sure it does. But it comes so quickly and easily to me I’m just not aware of it. It’s like breathing, you don’t think about it and that’s the same way with me and lyrics. It’s just there.
C: Have you ever had writers block?
J: At times but very seldom…
C: You’re lucky!
J: Haha, I guess!
‘Hear The Lions Roar’ is out now, order it here
Photo credits (from top): Charlie Rubin/Martin Waters, Charlie Rubin, Press.