Strange but True
Human dynamo Jad Fair
On a slate-colored Sunday afternoon in January, a dead dog lies in the tall grass under a street sign. Upon closer examination, its mottled orange and black fur makes it resemble something less, well, canine. Further examination reveals that it's indeed a dead dog and not some sort of errant chupacabra or mythical Texas dog-beast. A gang of vultures lingers, some flapping their wings as if shrugging, "Eh, we'll get to it."
Of course, this is the street that leads to Jad Fair's house.
A spherical silver roof is the only thing visible from where the vultures sit and gossip. It looks like a UFO straight out of Plan 9 From Outer Space has landed in the middle of farm country. Which is wildly appropriate if you know Jad Fair's work. Many don't. Jad Fair isn't exactly a household name.
Here on the outskirts of Manor, where he's lived for a year and a half, Fair isn't recognized at the Exxon station, nor maybe even in Austin. The 53-year-old musician and artist lives here with his wife, Patty, their dogs, and a stable of horses. His trademark round, black glasses are gone thanks to LASIK surgery, and his chin-length hair is gray and wavy, making him look a little like Robert Plant.
Several of his folk art paper cuts, a new batch of which is now on display at Yard Dog on South Congress, line the walls and shelves of his house. A large wooden cabinet holds miniature tin robots as well as assorted alien and monster figurines, and a framed print of Daniel Johnston's famous "Hi, How Are You?" frog-lien greets us at the front door.
Living in the sticks hasn't diminished Fair's flair for the odd; really, it only makes his "outsider artist" tag more literal. His careerlong fascination with monsters, aliens, and other outsiders fuels his music and art and carries over to the custom-built cylindrical house he lives in, which overlooks miles of pasture and a slightly dilapidated mansion to the east. "Someone bought it on eBay," Fair explains.
As co-founder of the rock group Half Japanese with his brother, David, Fair's music hasn't been either conventional or immensely profitable. Their shambolic noise arose from Michigan in the mid-1970s and then slouched toward Maryland, blending free jazz and loose improv with songs largely about love and monsters, spewed from a soft spot for the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground. The group launched Fair's career into constant project, whether art, music, or a dizzying array of collaborations.
His most recent endeavor is with Japanese noise artist Naofumi Ishimaru, whom Fair met in the 1990s while touring Japan. Their musical coupling yielded mutant albums Half Robot and Half Alien. The third arm of the collaboration, a 45-song beast fittingly titled Half Monster, is finally issued on local experimental label Misc. Music this month.
Austin Chronicle: Did you move out here to focus on art or music or both?
Jad Fair: I do enjoy staying at home, so the art became more my focus. The only way to make money is to play live, which I still do, but I've cut way back.
AC: So the album that's coming out now, how did you meet Nao –
JF: What I'm doing now?
AC: Yeah, no ... with Nao, the stuff you did with Nao ...
JF: Oh! Naofumi. Well, he started using my artwork on his CDs and tapes, and we eventually started corresponding, and when I toured Japan, I asked if he would do those shows with me. Then he came to America and to my house, and we recorded an album. Then I went to Japan to his house, and we recorded two albums. We were working 10-hour days, and one day, towards the end when we were mixing, I told him I was kind of tired and was probably going to go to bed, and he called me a lazy American!
Certainly not. So far, Fair's teamed up with a who's who of underground and indie artists: R. Stevie Moore, Teenage Fanclub, Maureen Tucker, the Pastels, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, Kramer, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo. Last summer at Emo's, Jad Fair opened for the Danielson Famile, a young band whose quirky pop – and especially singer Daniel Smith's squeaky voice – seems a half-breed of Half Japanese. Fair's currently working on an album with Smith, he and brother David have another album coming out soon, and he's recording with Norman Blake of Scots Teenage Fanclub and Isobel Sollenberger of Philly drone rockers Bardo Pond.
It's Fair's recordings with fellow singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston that appeared especially predestined. Jagjaguwar reissued 1989 lo-fi pairing It's Spooky in 2001, and it's truly a meeting of the minds. Monsters and love songs, subjects dear to both artists, get equal treatment, along with "I Did Acid With Caroline," "McDonald's on the Brain," and "I Met Roky Erickson." Johnston and Fair later worked together as the Lucky Sperms, whose Somewhat Humorous also received the reissue treatment from Jagjaguwar.
AC: You're a big fan of collaboration.
JF: Artistically, yes, and I'm friends with so many of the people I've collaborated with. Yo La Tengo – they were my neighbors when I was living in Hoboken. I've been very lucky to collaborate with people I really admire.
AC: Who's someone you'd like to collaborate with?
JF: I'm a big fan of Steve Earle.
AC: What do you like about him?
JF: Steve's a great musician, and I like that he stands up for what he feels is right, and he's willing to take risks. He could easily stick to one style of music and be successful, [but] I think it's great that he shows as much range as he does. Steve's a smart guy. He knows full well that some of his choices musically and politically are not in the direction of the dollar sign, but he still does it.
AC: Do you still talk to Daniel Johnston?
JF: You know, not as much as I used to. I see him every once in a while. I think we're going to do a split single that'll be on [Misc. Music], with Danny & the Nightmares.
AC: What's recording with him like?
JF: The first time around, we did so much in, I think it was something like seven days, mixing and everything, so we kept really busy, and Daniel had very decided mood swings. When things would start going south, I would suggest that we would go out and get a pizza, and that would be fine.
AC: Everything would go back to normal?
JF: [Laughs.] Well, he'd go back to being Daniel. He's so talented, I left it up to him to choose the direction of the album, but when that direction was one I didn't feel comfortable with, it was pizza time.
AC: Did you and Daniel both meet Roky Erickson?
JF: Daniel wrote the lyrics of that song; he used to go to Roky's home to watch monster movies. I've met Roky a few times. It's great that he's playing music again. He's in fine form.
AC: The same director who did the Half Japanese documentary, Jeff Feuerzeig, also did Daniel's. What did you think of it?
JF: I thought it was very well done, and such an undertaking. I was surprised there was so much video and audio to go along with pretty much any story there was.
AC: And there's a story about you and Daniel.
JF: Yeah, they had just done a bunch of renovations on the Statue of Liberty, so everything was nice and new, and when we were walking up the spiral staircase to the top, Daniel was behind me, so I couldn't see what he was doing. He had a marker and was drawing fish on the wall all the way up and down. Quite a bit of graffiti by Daniel, which would now be worth quite a bit of money. The police didn't see it that way.
New Brides of Frankenstein
Fair was born and raised in the small town of Coldwater, Mich., where he says his childhood had "good parts." He and his brother, David, two years older, got along well enough to form Half Japanese in 1974 while in college, with Jad on drums and David on guitar, neither particularly skilled. Their approach to playing is outlined in David's widely circulated essay, "How to Play Guitar," reiterating that yes, anyone can. To wit: "If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day."
Jeff Feuerzeig's great 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, is a snapshot not just of the band but of the underground cassette and record culture they inhabited. It's filled with deadpan hyperbole and ringing testimonials, so much so that it often comes off like a Christopher Guest film.
The Fair brothers' humor has always been subtle, as illustrated in one of Feuerzeig's interviews: David, hulking and bespectacled, stands slightly to the left of Jad, wiry and also bespectacled, like a family photo. He explains that 1980's ½ Gentlemen/Not Beasts was originally titled Half Gentlemen/Half Beast, but they changed it because "We're nice guys." They were like a male version of the Shaggs, impervious to technical skills or knowledge of chords and quite self-possessed.
AC: Growing up, did you and David have similar tastes in music?
JF: David had a good record collection, so I was listening to the Stooges, Captain Beefheart, MC5, the Velvet Underground, a lot of bands that weren't popular in the town I lived. I was very lucky I had my brother to buy records.
AC: What was it like growing up in Michigan?
JF: I ... I'm glad to be away from it. You don't realize how bad a place is until you're gone, though.
AC: In a small town like that, did you feel the urge to do something to stand out?
JF: I was very aware that I stood out. Everyone around me made me aware that I stood out.
Jad and David moved to Uniontown, Md., in 1975, and that's where Half Japanese began playing out and eventually solidified their classic lineup – one that will play South by Southwest this year – including guitarist Mark Jickling and brothers Ricky and John Dreyfuss, on drums and sax respectively. 1977 saw the release of their Calling All Girls 7-inch on friend and fan (and magician) Penn Jillette's 50 Skidillion Watts label, which he started solely to release Half Japanese records.
In 1980, the UK-based Armageddon Records offered them an unprecedented three-record box-set deal. By 1981's Loud LP and 1982's monster-themed Horrible EP, they had channeled their noise into an atonal, primal smack of fractured feedback and free-jazz sax, helmed by Fair's desperate yelps.
On "I Know How It Feels ... Bad," one of Half Jap's classic love songs, Fair pines with the self-assured half-smirk of his colleague Jonathan Richman: "I think about you. You're already in love, I know ... I wouldn't want you to break up because of me." Fair airs his revenge fantasies on the ambling "Dumb Animals," where he takes several of his high school teachers to task, and "High School Tonight," where he dreams of trashing the principal's office. On "Thing With a Hook," Fair squeals, "There's a thing with a hook, pulling heads off girlfriends! Down on lover's lane!" over a Stooges-inspired squall. Drag City reissued the 29-song collection Loud and Horrible in 2004, an excellent overview of this nascent, gnarly era of Half Japanese.
Live, they must have looked like they were from another planet. The Band That Would Be King includes footage of the group playing "Live in Hell" on a cable access show in 1985. Fair stumbles, twists, and roughs up his guitar, the total opposite of his reserved nature. Guitarist and longtime collaborator Don Fleming adds the appropriate noise to the white-hot set, filmed in front of a green screen with images of hellish things floating around and featuring an inspired cover of "You're Gonna Miss Me," alternately titled "You're Going to Regret My Departure." Through it all, Jad Fair smiles like this is the most fun he's ever had.
AC: Did you feel Half Japanese was doing something different?
JF: Yes, but that seemed normal to me. That's when it dawned on me that my definition of normal is not everybody's.
AC: What's the monster connection?
JF: Well, as a kid I always enjoyed monster movies. On weekends I would go to sleep very early because I knew I would want to wake up a few hours later, around midnight, when all the monster flicks would come on.
AC: What was the allure? Your monsters don't seem too scary.
JF: No, they just seemed cool to me.
AC: I noticed your collection of robots and aliens over there. I guess the robots are aliens?
JF: Right, I doubt any of them are from this planet.
Destroy All Monsters
This message can be found on his website: "I Jad Fair pledge to uphold the highest quality standards in my work, and never waver in my quest to push the envelope in both art and music, and to raise the bar of musical excellence to new heights. On that you have my word. Should I fall short of that goal I promise to shave my head and wear my clothes inside out for at least five years time."
His recent work has shifted more toward his artwork and paper cuts, something at which he's quite prolific and something he began doing to alleviate the boredom and headaches related to reading in the van on tour. Latest book Blue Skies and Monsters is filled with eyeball-twitching, scissor-cut creatures slightly menacing and oddly mesmerizing. It's been 14 years since he worked a day job, Fair's able to sustain himself through a combination of art and music. He takes a workhorse approach to his craft.
AC: What's this mission statement about? Have you had to shave your head?
JF: No, I haven't. Webster's Dictionary defines a human dynamo as a highly energetic and indefatigable person. That pretty much sums me up. There have been times when I've felt like taking a break, but I know if I did, I would let my fans down, and there's no way in hell I'd ever do that.
AC: Do you feel you've matured as you've gotten older?
JF: Very little about me has matured.
AC: How so?
JF: Well, I go the straightest, simplest direction, and there's not that much thought process. It's a very childlike approach.
AC: Does songwriting feel like a compulsion for you?
JF: Compulsion is the exact word for it. At times I feel a bit like Horatio Caine on the show CSI Miami. He has a compulsion for fighting crime. I, too, have a compulsion. I feel compelled to do my part in making the world a better place in which to live.
AC: For $300, you'll write a personalized song for anybody.
JF: I've done quite a few birthday songs, songs for weddings. I did one marriage proposal, which was kind of odd, but she said yes. And I've done several songs about baby births. I tell them, please mention anything you want in the song, so I go into it knowing they want me to say something about Uncle Joe or whatever.
AC: What's the strangest you've had to do?
JF: I did a birthday song for a guy, and the girlfriend wanted me to mention that he enjoys smoking meat.
AC: Smoked meats?
JF: Yeah. Not normally something I would put in a song.
AC: Do you feel like you know how to play guitar now?
JF: When I was first picking up guitar, I paid more attention to what it looked like than what it sounded like. I would see Pete Townshend do the windmill arm thing, and I thought that's cool, that's how you play guitar. That stuck with me more than learning chords.
Peel Slowly and See
"What is that?" a companion asked one night late last May as we stood outside of Mohawk. A familiar voice – well, more like a midrange screech – wafted from the inside stage. Investigating, we realized it was Jad Fair, playing his heart out solo, gray hair obscuring his face. We both squinted to make sure it was him. It was the voice that gave him away – having cleared the room – but remember that you've got to pay more attention to what it looks like than what it sounds like.
"Half Japanese played a show in Germany, and this guy comes over and says he wants an album," Fair relates. "I say, 'Well, we have these Jad Fair albums, then we also have these Half Japanese albums.' He says he wants Half Japanese, that he hates Jad Fair. So he buys the Half Japanese album, then asks me to sign it."
"Was he embarrassed?"
Half Japanese Selected Discography
1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts (Armageddon, 1980)
Loud (Armageddon, 1981)
Horrible (Press, 1982)
Charmed Life (50 Skidillion Watts, 1988)
The Band That Would Be King (50 Skidillion Watts, 1989)
Fire in the Sky (Safe House, 1993)
Loud and Horrible (Drag City, 2004)
Jad Fair Selected Discography
Jad Fair & Kramer, Roll Out the Barrel (Shimmy-Disc, 1988)
Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston (50 Skidillion Watts, 1989)
Jad & Nao, Half Robot (Paperhouse/Sakura Wrechord, 1993)
Jad & Nao, Half Alien (Sakura Wrechord, 1997)
Jad Fair & Yo La Tengo, Strange but True (Matador, 1998)
26 Monster Songs for Children (Kill Rock Stars, 1998)
Jad Fair & R. Stevie Moore, FairMoore (Old Gold, 2002)
Jad Fair & Teenage Fanclub, Words of Wisdom & Hope (Alternative Tentacles, 2002)
The Attack of Everything (Slab-o-Concrete, 2000)
Blue Skies and Monsters (Map, 2006)