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.