Dispatch From Chicago: Jay Reatard
We talk to the feisty garage rocker on the eve of his big New Year's Eve show
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, which will also put out Reatard’s new full-length album in early 2009. 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 crudely painted as a petulant would-be rock star that couldn’t stand the heat of the punk rock kitchen. The hard-touring Reatard has put his fighting ways behind him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t belt anyone who invades his personal space New Year’s Eve at The Empty Bottle in Chicago. (You’ve been warned.) The A.V. Club caught up with Reatard earlier this month to talk about music, fighting, and whether naming yourself after a politically incorrect term for the cognitively disabled is wrong.
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: 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 that 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 to 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 on stage?
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: 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 that, 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 a kid. 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 pay-off. 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 big 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 on fucking Brooklyn Vegan or some bullshit like that, it gets copied and pasted so many times it becomes truth. That’s what's 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 his records.
AVC: Do you read everything that 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 sort of drama at shows, or their friend fucking picked a fight with me and got fucking hurt 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 100 punk bands that wouldn’t take people breaking their gear. And if breaking your gear is punk rock, then how are 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 on to it. Especially in the U.K., 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 butthole. 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.
AVC: You're spending this New Year's Eve in Chicago. What’s a normal New Year’s Eve like for Jay Reatard?
JR: Last year, probably like every other year, I spent it just getting as intoxicated as possible. This is my first New Year’s not being a drunk, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll fill a champagne bottle full of Sprite so I don’t look like a square.