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A Genius' Words of Wisdom and Hope: Interview with Jad Fair

by Anna Battista

His drawings are mad sketches, sometimes minimal, sometimes excessively complicated, but always sweet; his paper cuttings are elaborate embroideries, done with the a childish spirit that most human beings loose when they start growing up; his collection of heart drawings is melting, funny and surely better than the best Valentine you ever received. And his music is amazing, weird and totally crazy, described by him as "Natural, direct, heartfelt, spontaneous, simple." You crave to know the name of such a complete, complex and multi-faceted artist? Well, you obviously have already heard of him, he's name is Jad Fair.

Better known as part of the band Half Japanese, up to now Jad has devoted his life to his band, his solo career and to the collaboration with well-known artists such as Daniel Johnston, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub to mention but a few. Jad is by now an acclaimed artist, who still manages to remember the first record he ever got: "I bought my first record when I was 6 years old. It was an album by Marty Robbins called Gunfighter Ballads. I was a big fan of cowboy movies, and the record had songs about cowboys on it. When Half Japanese first started recording we did a lot of cover songs. Two of the songs we recorded in 1973 were released on an album called We Are They That Ache With Amorous Love. The songs were 'Gloria' and 'Going Home'. One of my favorite Half Japanese songs is 'Heaven Sent'. It's over an hour long and was recorded with very little rehearsal. Very few bands could pull off something like that. We've received a lot of great press and a lot of bad. It means the most to me if the person saying it is someone I admire. Kurt Cobain said if people would hear the music of Half Japanese they would melt. That meant a lot to me because Nirvana were such a great band."

If few bands could actually penetrate the imaginary universe Jad and Half Japanese built in their songs, it is true that some artists and bands influenced the creation of Jad and his band's music. "I'm a huge fan of Jonathan Richman. The Modern Lovers were a big influence. Other influences would be: Howling Wolf, Captain Beefheart, The Stooges, MC5, The Tinklers, Daniel Johnston, 13th Floor Elevators, and The Velvet Underground," Jad concludes, adding to the list another inspiration and hero, "I've always had great respect for the art and music of my brother David. My brother is two years older than me, and I learned a lot from him."

Jad also learned a lot from his experiences with the various record companies that released his records. "A couple of labels I've been on have told me that I'm releasing too many albums a year," he reveals, "There's a limit to how many Jad Fair albums someone will buy. I've been told that I'd make more money if I release less. I think that's probably true, but it's not the path I want to take. I enjoy recording, and I want to do as much as possible. I like a song to sound natural, simple, and direct. One of the reasons I like recording fast is that the songs sound more natural to me that way. Rock and roll should be about the feeling. If it feels right when you do it it's also going to sound right. When writing a song, I usually come up with the words first, and then we go into the studio and the rest of the band comes up with music to fit the lyrics. Although for the last album (Hello) the band came up with the music and I later added vocals. We always record fast. Most of the album are recorded in less than two weeks. I record on my iMac using Peak and Protools. It's a very small studio space," he explains, reminding us of his favourite piece of equipment: "I have a guitar that I painted sailboats on. I bought it while I was in Glasgow. It's the one I get the most use out of."

"Tenderness in your gentle kiss, gentleness in your tenderness, I have a desire, a want, and a need to be near to you. I'd let Godzilla step on my head, and I'd let a mummy chase me around, and throw me in a dungeon, I'd let space aliens perform an autopsy on me, If I could just be near to you. I'd let Dracula drink my blood, I'd let a zombie eat my arm, I'd let Frankenstein punch me in the stomach, just if I could be near." Jad Fair & Teenage Fanclub, "Near To You" (taken from the album Words Of Wisdom And Hope)

My personal best memory of Jad Fair playing live is a night lost somewhere in 1998 when Jad was playing in Glasgow, at the School of Art, accompanied by the sonic guitars of National Park and by The Pastels' Aggi, while among the audience you could see random members of Belle & Sebastian. People, mostly devoted fans, were sitting on the floor contemplating their hero singing in the small space offered and partially cluttered by the amps and the microphones. "I like to be as close to the audience as I can," Jad states, "We often will go off stage and do some songs without amplification. We also try to keep the lighting simple. I don't like it when it gets flashy. I'm sometimes surprised that we seldom get a negative response by the audience because a lot of what we do is outside of the norm. There are many different ways of measuring success. Often the bands that are the most famous are the ones taking the least chances. The charts are very important for commercial success, but have no bearing to artistic success. Journalism for music is years behind what it is for art. A lot of reviews of music have criteria that would seem totally unhip if it were used in reference to art. There are very few music magazines that I have any respect for."

There is something else Jad seems to have respect for, Scotland: his connection with Scottish bands was renewed this year, when the album featuring Teenage Fanclub, Words Of Wisdom and Hope, was released on Stephen Pastel's label, Geographic. "Stephen started corresponding with me in 1989," Jad explains, "The first time I met The Pastels was at a Half Japanese show in Amsterdam. They travelled all the way from Glasgow just to see the show. We became very good friends and Words of Wisdom and Hope came out on Geographic. I'd be real keen on doing more with them, but we don't have anything planned yet. I would be happy to record with them again. It was fun having Katrina Mitchell play on the album with Teenage Fanclub. Besides being a fine band, Teenage Fanclub are some of the nicest people I've met. I had a real fun time. I really enjoyed recording with Teenage Fanclub. They usually spend a long time recording an album. I was surprised that they worked at a very fast pace. We recorded Words Of Wisdom and Hope in less than a week."

Another connection with Scotland is the compilation Caroline Now! The songs of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (Marina) on which you can find the most disparate Scottish bands covering Beach Boys songs. Jad sings "Do Ya" on the compilation in a funny maniac voice. "Duglas Stewart (from BMX Bandits) suggested that song to me," Jad remembers, "I hadn't heard the song prior to going into the studio. Duglas played it for me once and then we recorded it." It looks like Jad will soon be back in Scotland: "I'm to have an art exhibition in Glasgow later this year. Depending on my schedule I may go over for it and do a show or two."

"No, no! Ladies and gentlemen! Do not surrender to the void! Darkness surrounds you! Don't relax! You'll never get out of that pit!"-- Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston's Beatles' cover "Tomorrow Never Knows" (taken from the album It's Spooky)

One of Jad's most recent releases is actually a re-release of Jad and Daniel Johnston's album It's Spooky (JagJaguar). Daniel, who has always claimed to be an artist more than a musician, was born in Sacramento, and his musical career started in Austin, where he went to live and where he had the weird habit of giving out his tapes to complete strangers. From then on, Daniel Johnston started playing with major bands such as The Butthole Surfers and Yo La Tengo, was appraised by Sonic Youth and counted among his fans Kurt Cobain (who used to wear the famous "Hi, how are you?" designed by Daniel), while The Pastels and Moe Tucker covered his songs. "I talk to Daniel a couple of times a month. We might be recording again," Jad reveals, "Daniel's a great song writer and performer. He's one of the most talented people I've ever met. He's got great pop sense, and a straight forward approach that works so well. It's great to have It's Spooky out again. They've added a film clip of Daniel playing 'Don't Play Cards With Satan' which is one of the most moving performances I've ever seen."

Though Jad and Daniel's songs are often love songs, there are also what might be considered "monster songs," with proper monsters such as Frankenstein as the main subject. Words Of Wisdom And Hope even includes a song entitled "Vampire's Claw" (featuring The Pastels' Katrina), whereas the single "Near To You" is studded here and there with monsters. "I like both love songs and monster songs. My preference all depends on what kind of mood I'm in," Jad claims, "Dracula is my favourite monster. Nosferatu was one of the first monster films I saw. It's a great film." Talking about scary, but funny and weird experiences, Jad has got one to tell: "I was on tour with Moe Tucker in 1988 and we had a show in Berlin," he recollects. "At the border crossing we were met by a guard who had a machine gun and dogs. He was as stern as he could be. He asked to see our passports, and when he got to Moe's passport he suddenly had a big smile. He was a fan of the Velvet Underground. It was such a transformation from stern to happy. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen."

Having Jad mention Moe Tucker, it is impossible not to ask him about how he feels about having collaborated with so many bands and artists. "The bands I've played with are also my favourite bands," he says. "So I feel very privileged. It's flattering that they have agreed to work with me. Some new collaborations that will be coming out soon are albums with: R. Stevie Moore, Jason Willett, The Tinklers, David Fair, Monster Party, the Danielson Famile, and Rob Erickson. I don't know if this will ever happen, but some people I'd like to work with are: NRBQ, Beck, Daniel Smith, and Adult Rodeo. I live way out in the country now, and I'm not as on top of things as I used to be. Out of the bands that I have heard my favourites are Adult Rodeo, The Sadies, and the Danielson Famile. When I'm at home I also listen to calypso and jug band music. I've been listening a lot to Jim Kweskin's jug band, and the Holy Model Rounders and my favourite fanzines are Mojo and Crimewave." Sonic Youth, another band who appreciate Jad Fair, have just released a new album: "I haven't heard it yet. I'll need to get it," Jad admits, before encouraging them for their next tour with the mantra "Rock on! Bang a gong!"

Up to now Jad has got an intense life, who knows if he's got something he regrets. "I regret that my touring was as difficult as it was for my ex-wife. Being a musician can be very hard on a family. I tried to keep the travelling down to a couple months out of a year, but even that can be a strain."

Jad Fair's site features further info about his music and Half Japanese, apart from his art. Also the drawings used for the cover and the booklet of the album Words Of Wisdom and Hope and the cover of the single "Near To You" can be downloaded from Jad's site: all the pics feature a funny dog and his master walking, playing and so on. The site will be soon updated. "I'll be adding a lot more art. I've just finished scanning some drawings, and paper cuttings. They'll go up soon. It takes a lot more memory to add Mp3s. I have a lot that I'd like to post, but it might take more space than I now have. If it's not too expensive for me to do, I will. I'm concentrating more on art than music now. I'm trying to spend as much time at home as I can. I still travel some, but not near as much as I used to. I keep busy now with art shows. I've got exhibitions coming up in Berlin, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Glasgow, and Christ Church. I'm also starting to sell art through my web site. I'm spending most of my time working on art. I have a lot of exhibitions coming up. I'd like to do some more books. I've got a couple started. It's hard to find time to do all I want to. I've also had five books published. They've all been small editions. One came with a record, and one with a CD. I don't have any other books scheduled. I don't have any records for children planned as well, but I certainly would like to release more."

Those of you who want to see Jad playing live will have to wait. "I just did a short tour of the UK with Teenage Fanclub. I don't have plans for any other festival shows. In September I'll be going to Brazil for the first time. I'm really looking forward to it. I hope to get back to Italy, but I need to first finish work on some art exhibitions, and spend some time at home. I don't see too much difference in audiences, but touring is tougher in the U.S. The shows go on later at night and the driving times are often much longer during the day."

When we grow up we usually lose the magic we had when we were children. Yet, some rare human beings still preserve the magic of those days and are blessed with undivided talents and inspirations, flooding their minds and transmitting the pure impulses of a genuine inspiration to their hearts. Jad Fair is one of these rare people who has not surrendered his heart to the darkness, to the void and has risen for his fans from ordinary human being to genius. Bless him.


All pics and drawings are taken from the site (many thanks to Jad for letting us use them!) except Jad Fair's pic in Glasgow (1998) taken by Anna Battista.

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