Memphis garage-rocker Jay Reatard was one of the big breakout artists of 2008, releasing two fantastic singles collections on two different labels—Singles '06-'07 collected songs from various 7-inches released by In The Red, and Matador Singles '08 packaged together a special series of monthly vinyl-only releases from his new label. Along with earning critical praise for his music—which is a lot more sophisticated and clever than its dumb, Ramones-inspired artifice might suggest—Reatard also got the wrong kind of publicity when he punched out an unruly fan during a disastrous show in Toronto last spring. Inevitably, video of the incident was widely circulated on the Internet, and Reatard was painted as a petulant would-be rock star who couldn't stand the heat of the punk-rock kitchen. Reatard maintains that he's merely a musician and songwriter and not a badass tough guy, and he continues to be a prolific record-maker who's currently prepping his first full-length album for Matador, set for an early 2009 release. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Reatard to talk about music, fighting, and whether it was wrong to name himself after a politically incorrect term for the cognitively disabled.
The A.V. Club: How are you?
Jay Reatard: I'm in fucking panic mode, trying to finish up my record before next week when I have to deliver it. I need to take a little break. I've been frying my brain on recording this morning. I had 15 songs done, and then I had to get shipped away to London for two weeks. Then I came home for three days to work on the record, and then I flew back to Paris. And now I'm back home this morning to work on the record again. It's pretty hectic.
AVC: Are you recording by yourself?
JR: Yeah. I'm just doing it in what would be my dining room if I was eating, rather than creating music there. I'm doing it at my house, like I always have. It's simply for convenience's sake. If I have a song idea at 9 in the morning, it's pretty difficult to say, "Hey dude, get the fuck over here in the next five minutes before I lose inspiration." I have a couple of drum kits at my house, and I keep them miked up, so it's easier just to sit down and do it myself. On this record, I recorded with the drummer I've been playing with for the past year and a half. He played on about a third of the record, which is a pretty big step for me. I haven't recorded with other people for four years, I guess.
AVC: Do you record songs as you're writing them?
JR: Yeah. I really don't think records should be made in the manner where you sit and write, and when you're finished writing, you start recording. That just seems conventional and old-fashioned to me. I think that stemmed from the fact that you really had to do that before, because obviously in 1965 it would cost you an arm and a leg to write a record in the studio. But now it seems archaic to say we have to write everything and then schedule this two-week period where everything we've worked on this year will be recorded, and that will be the definitive versions of those songs. I just don't know if that's how things should be made.
AVC: Do you still write a song a day?
JR: I was doing that pretty much up until I started on the Matador record. And then I just concentrated on picking the songs I wanted to record for this record, and get the best versions of those that I could. It got a little old after a while, trying to make sure I was writing a song a day.
AVC: What inspires you to write a song?
JR: I tend to be one of those negative people that thinks you're defined more by what you dislike than what you like. I tend to write about things that irritate me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an elitist, but I can't find anywhere that I can go in the world where at least one person is not going to fucking tick me off. I fly a lot, and I can come home after taking a long flight fucking amped up to write two or three songs about what fucking scumbags people are, after having to sit on a plane with them and watch them eat their boogers. If I'm not feeling very inspired, I can just take a walk through Memphis for a couple of hours. Pretty easy to look around here and be inspired to write something.
AVC: Do you listen to a lot of music when you're writing songs?
JR: I try to listen to a lot of music when I'm in the mixing process of a record, when I'm in post-production and trying to get everything to sound a certain way. During the writing process, I tend not to listen to too much music. I obviously wear a lot of influences on my sleeve, but if I was listening to too many records, I would turn into too much of a monkey. Songs just seem to manifest themselves in some other way in your music, and you get really bummed when later you think you have a rad song and you figure out, "Well, that's just a Wire riff." I don't know, I have a stack of 50 records I need to listen to right now. I have more time to buy records than listen to them.
AVC: You've described your upcoming album as "wimpy." What's wimpy about it?
JR: Well, at first I thought it was going to be wimpy, sound-wise, which I don't think is much of a departure from the last two singles collections I've done. But the mood of the record might be a little more wimpy. I'm not turning into a singer-songwriter or anything, but I guess the songs have changed from being about other people to being a bit more, dare I say, introspective. It's a more vulnerable record. The community I come from, guys really aren't showing you their weaknesses. It's all about being tough, or drinking, or chicks or whatever. And there's a lot more acoustic guitars and stuff like that, and a little bit of piano, and maybe some cello and crap like that. I don't necessarily think those are wimpy instruments, it's all how you use them.
AVC: It seems like punk bands generally become more melodic and polished as they go along in their career. Why do you think that is?
JR: I went back the other day and listened to the first record I made, for the first time in years, just trying to get some perspective on my new record. It's been 10 years since I put out my first LP—what's different about this one? I went back and listened to it, and I heard the same kind of rough melodies in the early shit, but it just didn't come through as strongly. I think it's been a long process of figuring out how to put together songs. It's not like I'm the most talented guy in the world. It's just been trial and error to get to a point where I feel comfortable releasing those kinds of songs. Early on, I recorded tons of super-melodic shit on my four-track, I just never put it out. It's less about evolving musically than evolving as far as comfortability goes, not being self-conscious about it. It's a lot easier to scream, and when people say they don't like it, to say, "Fuck you, I didn't care anyway." I think you take a bit more of a risk when you try to play something that's a little quieter, and maybe actually singing as opposed to shouting at the top of your lungs.
AVC: Live, you play everything really fast and hard. Will you try to represent your quieter, more melodic side onstage?
JR: I think that in the past six months, the live show has gotten a lot more dynamic, and the melodies are coming through a lot more. But I don't see at any point the live show ever being a mirror image of what the records sound like. That's boring, man. I've had people complain to me at shows, like, "That didn't sound anything like your record." Well, then go see the fucking Foo Fighters. Go see Metallica. It has to be interesting for the band as much as the audience, so we switch arrangements around, or switch the lyrics. If you're trying to emulate your record, it's like you're selling Xerox copies of a painting.
AVC: Is writing songs for albums different than writing songs you know have to stand alone as singles?
JR: Not necessarily. Except for this Matador record, I never recorded a song and said, "This is going to be a single." I would just record stuff and it would find its way to whatever it was going to be on. For the Matador thing, I knew I was recording individual singles, but I never approached it thinking, "Boy, this A-side better just slay, or else people will be really bummed." I just think of it as another little idea to put out until a month later, when I have another one.
AVC: You seem to value immediacy in your music. Does that mean you prefer the singles format to albums?
JR: I prefer it in the instant-gratification way, in the same way that smoking crack will make you feel fucking amazing instantly, but probably working out and eating Spirulina for fucking two years in the long run will be more fulfilling for you. That's what LPs and singles are to me. A single is really quick, man. You can get it out, and in two months have it on your merch table. And albums can take a really long time. But when you get done with an album, it's a lot more fulfilling.
AVC: You've played in lots of different kinds of bands. Now that you're becoming better-known, are you worried about getting locked into a "Jay Reatard sound"?
JR: I think there's a lot more freedom in doing the solo thing. It's almost like switching bands every time I do an album. Once this fourth one is out, I think it's going to be apparent that every record is not going to be the same. I've always wanted to do something really big, maybe something more orchestral, with lots of strings and real instruments. [In my side project] The Lost Sounds, we touched on that, but we used synthesizers. I think it would be really fun to someday write a record on synthesizers, and then have it be reproduced by real instruments. But that costs a fortune.
AVC: Do you feel more confident or validated in your music now that more people know about you?
JR: Not at all. I feel the same. I have a reputation for being kind of abrasive, or an asshole, but I think people are used to musicians looking outside of themselves for validation, and needing people to like them, because they're trying to fill some fucking void because Mommy didn't give them enough attention when they were kids. People can't get over somebody making music because they enjoy it, and not having some ulterior motive, like trying to get laid or trying to get the entire world to adore them. If I ever get to the point where I can get the entire world to adore me, I'm done, because my whole game is me against the world. If too many people are into it, fuck, it just might kill it.
AVC: Has there been any upside to selling more records?
JR: In a live environment, the more bodies you put in a room, the more energy there will be. That's a real big payoff. That's really important, the live show, it's a big cycle of energy. If the audience is boring, it's tough to get excited about it.
AVC: You've complained about how most of the stuff that's written about you is inaccurate. What does the media get wrong?
JR: I guess the real big thing is that I got this reputation a while back for being this huge drug addict. You can go online and there's people on message boards trying to dismiss my music by saying, "This guy is a huge fucking cokehead, man!" I don't even drink alcohol. I haven't for quite a while. I haven't touched drugs or drank alcohol in months. People also seem to think I'm overly violent. They're like, "Fuck that music, he's violent!" and they'll have a Black Flag tattoo on their arm. People are walking contradictions, man. With the Internet, people love their cut-and-paste tools. If something gets posted at fucking BrooklynVegan.com or some bullshit like that, it gets copied and pasted so many times, it becomes truth. That's what so funny about the world now, people don't really research things. I'd rather people just judge my music on the music, and if they don't like it, they can feel free to say, "Man, this fucking record sucks." But everybody is an opinionated asshole on the Internet now. That's just the way it is. Unfortunately, people try to break people's personalities down as a reason not to like the music. It's like, Chuck Berry, I would never want to be in a room with that guy, but I love this records.
AVC: Do you read everything people write about you?
JR: I get it forwarded to me. There was a moment when I was getting death threats and bullshit via the Internet, so I was being a little more conscious and reading local message boards before going to certain towns, just to see if people were making bullshit idle threats on the Internet.
AVC: Why were you getting death threats?
JR: Just stuff stemming from some drama at shows, or their friend fucking picked a fight with me and got fucking hurt, so they wanted to fucking retaliate on a big level. Just childish bullshit. People just turn into 12-year-olds when they get on the Internet.
AVC: When you punched out that fan during a show in Toronto earlier this year, did the publicity stemming from the incident help or hurt the level of violence at your shows?
JR: It made people realize that there's a line with some people. People were saying, "Man, get out of a punk-rock band if you can't take it." I'm like, I know a hundred punk bands that wouldn't take people breaking their gear. And if breaking your gear is punk rock, then how you going to fucking play music? Are you going to play a cappella? When we went back to Toronto, we played one free show during the day and one show at night, and they were our best shows in Toronto ever. The audience still had a great fucking time, they just didn't break stuff. It's like, shit happens, man. You're on tour, somebody gets in your space, and shit happens. I've probably gotten into confrontations with the audience four or five times out of 250 shows that we've played with this band. If I was this crazy, violent animal running around, I think there would be a lot more of that on video than two or three clips that people have. I'm not a fucking boxer. I'm not a tough guy. That's not my deal. I'm trying to write songs, and play them with a ton of energy, and make it through them without something happening. It's been a long process since that happened to get past it, but people tend to still latch onto it. Especially in the UK, all the interviews are about fighting. Those fuckers love that shit.
AVC: Do you get any grief over calling yourself Jay Reatard?
JR: Oh absolutely, man. People say it's irresponsible and blah blah blah. And I'm like, who cares? Your average 6-year-old uses it as an adjective. Like, "Man, that's totally retarded, dude!" It's in fucking rap songs, people saying shit like "Let's get retarded in here." It doesn't mean anything. There's been articles about bands with socially irresponsible names, like AIDS Wolf and Jay Reatard. I don't think AIDS Wolf are making fun of AIDS. I don't think they're fucking going, "Ha ha, you little African baby, you're going to die." It's a name. When I was a child, my grandmother raised retarded people for a living. I spent my youth, when I was 4 or 5 years old, playing with 46-year-old women shoving brushes up their buttholes. I played with retards, I lived amongst them. I don't want people to just laugh at them. It just stems from how I do really dumb shit sometimes.