Capping off an incredibly busy year with a singles compilation for 2008, Nashville native Jay Reatard has been relentlessly touring the globe and still hasn’t stopped to catch his breath. Recently blowing away audiences in Australia with his demented hair-shaking garage rock, Chris Berkley caught up with Jay in Sydney and spoke to him about his rebellious punk years in Memphis, his prolific recording habits and what to bring when you go on tour.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome back to Sydney Mr Jay Reatard. Good evening sir.
Hey how are ya?
I’m doing alright. You shaking off the jet lag there are you?
It hasn’t hit me yet, man.
Same shirt as yesterday, what’s going on?
Yeah, you got to do everything in twos on tour.
Do you? Is that how you save a wash cycle?
Yeah, you do everything in twos. Bring new socks, wear them twice, and throw them away. Wear jeans twice, t-shirts twice, usually in a cycle. It’s just comfortable, I didn’t feel like taking it off.
Do you pretty much live on the road these days? Have you been home lately or is there a home?
Yeah. I live in Memphis, Tennessee. I have a house there and a little studio. I got to spend quite a bit of time at home before this trip.
Is that because Memphis is central in a way and you have to pass by to go to east and west coasts. Is it better than living on one extreme of the country?
As far touring yeah, we can branch off from there and go in any direction we want and be in a major city six hours each way, it’s perfect for that. The economy’s… pretty crap so if you’re going somewhere else to make a living, the exchange rate of going to California and playing a show and coming home is quite nice.
Have you always lived in Memphis? Were you born there?
No, I was born in a farming community in the mid-west, population of about 700 people.
Far out, so Memphis was the big smoke for you?
Oh yeah, it was the big city.
Were you made aware of the city’s musical heritage as you were growing up? Was there much emphasis on it being the birth place of rock and roll or anything?
I suppose you learn about Elvis as soon as you learn about Jesus and Santa Claus. And as soon as I moved to Memphis, unlike like a lot of people that come from other places, the whole Elvis thing was lost on me. He just seemed like an image, not even a person. That’s been a big deal with a lot of Memphis music for me — the image has been blown so out of proportion it really covers up what’s really there — which is a very small music community which tends to have some really awesome things.
Is it almost like going to Hollywood and expecting to see stars on every corner is it? Is it an outdated image of Memphis music that gets portrayed?
People just think it’s this vast community and it’s never been that — it’s a few players — and I think that what makes it even greater. In the past 50 years there’s not really been that much music, it’s just the quality level versus quantity seems to be particularly high I think.
As a rebellious teen then Jay was there much of a punk scene in Memphis?
Yeah there was bit of one. It was more what punks do when they start to turn thirty which is get into garage music. And that is what is more what I was able to find through Goner records, which is a local label and this band the Oblivians had a bit of success outside of Memphis playing garage type stuff. I hooked up with those guys when I was fifteen and I was lucky enough for them to bring me to shows and pad my pockets with Whiskey.
Right, so a neat arrangement?
Yeah, it was alright. (laughs)
So being there were you forced to be self reliant, was there a bit of a punk rock ethos or whatever when you start making records?
No man… I always felt like I was doing everything my own. There were people but they were older. There’s no scene. There’s no camaraderie. There’s no help.
It turns you into a great outsider then does it?
Oh yeah. I’ve always thought that all great artwork is created by people on the outside, who really don’t care to look in. I’ve always been on the outside of whatever. That’s good, you know? That turned me into who I am creatively. It was like “I’m not even accepted by these Chuck Taylor wearing scumbags and their garage music? They don’t even accept me… well that’s cool.”
Did the Oblivians guys start going to your shows though?
Yeah the first show I ever played was with the Oblivians. I kind of lied to Eric, he was the guitar player. I got their address off the back of one of their records and sent them a cassette tape. He called me out in the suburbs at my Mom’s house. He said, “This is brilliant, does your band want to play with the Oblivians.” I was like “Oh man, I just got a show with my favourite band ever and I lied to them and told them I had a band.” It was really nerve-wracking. But it was good experience. I was able, somehow to just jump over that whole thing of having to go out and look for it. I felt spoiled, it just fell in my lap in a sense. I’ve worked hard in the meantime. But originally most people are sending out demos and go through the whole awkward high school band stage where you’re awful.
So we missed Jay Reatard the awkward years?
Yeah, I got to blast right past that. I didn’t even go to high school.
Was doing those demo cassettes then, did that turn into a natural extension when you decided you wanted to make your own records. Were you organising getting your own singles pressed and that type of thing?
Not immediately. I had no idea how a record was made. I started asking questions. Early on everything that there was a process of I asked a lot of questions like a four year old kid “what’s that, what does that do, how do you do that?” I’m sure a lot of people thought I was annoying but most of the people told me. Some of the labels were like “well if we tell this kid how to do that he’s going to do it himself, we’re not going to be able a few bucks.”
Well you found a few labels that were willing to not let you bypass them too quickly in terms of releasing things and even to this day you’ve carried on a pretty healthy tradition of releasing singles and there really seems to be quite an effort in terms of the amount of output of stuff that you do. Is that something that’s important to you?
Yeah man. Typically I think how most bands have worked is that you make a demo you get a record deal, then eighteen months or two years after that your record comes out. You tour for twelve months, you go in the studio, eighteen months later people get a little peek in what you’ve been working on and it’s drastically different. There’s no continuity between point A and point B. And I don’t feel, especially in a world that’s so wrapped in technology and things being so immediate, that’s the way things should be presented. It seems archaic at best.
It loses a lot of that spontaneity and room for roughness I guess.
For Sure. For me I’m trying to expose the warts and all. This is point A and in-between point A and B there’s all these other stops. That’s what the singles represent, kind of me thinking out loud and allowing people a glimpse into it. Personally I think it’s more interesting to me to be able to demystify the creative process of what it is to be a songwriter or make recordings.
It also is playing your cards one at a time, you release a single then you move on and look back and suddenly you’ve got an album rather than having to premeditate it. It’s almost like having instant greatest hits – like the last couple of albums which have been assembled of all your stuff.
Sure, but it’s also a super big risk too; you might run out of cards! You never do really know, that’s the risk when you’re writing singles. You’re like “Oh man this is great I love this song I almost don’t want to put in on single, maybe it should go on an album.” It just gets confusing .
So do you have a rule to release something then if you’ve written it and it’s done?
Very rarely. I attempt to but what ends up happening is there comes a period of downtime creatively, where I’m feeling that the material I’m recording’s not so great and I’m like “It’s been a while since I put a record so I’ll just go to the vault and pull this one out.”
Is that going to get harder to do – are you working on proper album? Because there were some tears shed over some of those Matador singles last year where people were missing out, their website had a meltdown and all sorts of things. As more people find about will you still be able to do that or will you be doing proper records?
I’m done with my next album. It’s just sitting at home waiting.
That’s in the vault as well?
Yeah, after I did the thirteen songs for the singles comp I immediately started work on the LP. I was kind of working on it at the same time. So I think I probably have twenty songs or so waiting at home. I just have to kind of do a little self editing. It jumps around a lot, right now I’m just deciding what sort of record I want. There’s definitely some punkier stuff on there and probably some of the most indie rockish, if you will, stuff that I’ve ever put out. So it could go in either direction.
We look forward to listening to that I guess maybe later this year. Is it slated for 2009?
August I suppose. Some way off.
You’ve also been no slouch covering other people’s songs. You did a Go-Betweens song a while ago which probably gets you extra props in Australia. You did a Deerhunter one as a flip of those singles last year and we might have a listen to something you did recently which is the Beck cover. You went on tour with him, and did he pose the question or did you offer to cover a song off the Beck album Modern Guilt?
He doesn’t do much talking, but he caught wind of some of the stuff I was doing and rather than doing remixes, which everyone thinks is boring by this point, the new thing is people ask people to cover their songs. He just asked if I would do it and four hours later I sent it in. And when I met him, we played a show with him a few months after that, he goes “I really like you cover. I like it a lot more than mine, it’s so much different.” I said “It’s interesting you say that because I literally recorded mine on top of yours”. He was like “what?” really confused. “Yeah see I just put your version down on my recorder and then I overdubbed an acoustic guitar on your version, then the vocals, then the drums, then bass and then I just took your version out from underneath it,” and he was kind of blown away.
So it’s in the same time?
Yeah, someone actually did a mash-up of them where both of them are on top of each other.
Well we might have a listen to the remnants of yours then, what came out on top. People can see you tonight — maybe you’ll be covering a No Age song after this tour who can say? Jay thank you so much for calling in, you’ll be back for the Laneway festival next weekend. I hope to see you in a different shirt by then.
(Laughs) Great man.
First broadcast on Static on 29/01/2009. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3FM) and via the internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).