SXSW Snapshot: Jay Reatard

AUSTIN -- Here's a tip: Do not be late for a Jay Reatard show. If you take your time and get there 20 minutes after it starts, you might just miss most of it.

A performance by the outlandishly prolific 27-year-old from Memphis is sort of like being in a boxing match. Except the rounds seem to never end and there's no retreating to your corner to catch your breath after a few minutes. Just constant pummeling for about a half-hour. Not even that long, in some cases. The punk-rock onslaught is similar to what the Ramones did 30 years ago and just as timeless. There's nothing very complicated to his approach: loud, fast, catchy, repeat.

I caught up with Jay after his 15-minute set at Thursday afternoon's Other Music day party.

So how's SXSW treating you so far?
Hungover as hell, probably be that way for days. You're hungover all day and drunk at night. It's alright, we just played probably the most technical-difficulty-filled set we've ever had. So it can only go up from there.

Yeah, both bass amp and kick drum giving you problems.
Yeah, basically all the low end. So I was just kind of up there with two Twin Reverbs by myself. It felt acoustic to me, I felt like we were playing an acoustic show. (Note: Even with the lack of low end, it did not sound anything like an acoustic show.)

You're doing a headlining tour soon. How long are you going to plan on playing? It doesn't seem like 20 minutes will really work.
We had a 40-minute set to play today. Everybody was like, "Why did you stop?" It sucks because you can't go to each person in the audience and explain that the gear broke.

How many songs can you get into a 40-minute set?
We did 20 in Australia.

How many songs have you written?
I've written or co-written 18 full-length records and, like, 50 singles. So the singles average three songs, so that's 150 songs singles and another 250 or 300 on albums.

How can you possibly keep up that output?
I don't know. I think if I stopped and thought about it, I might psych myself out.

Is it a constant barrage? Are you always writing? Because you tour a lot, too.
Yeah, I don't write on tour. And I don't even play guitar off stage on tour. So even if I get an idea, I just save it up in my head so when I get home, I'm really excited to play it. So when I get home, I have all these ideas in my head and I record one or two songs every day when I'm not on tour. There's a process of weeding out the bad ones. I probably do like seven songs a week and keep one.

You have two Flying Vs in your band...
We used to have three!

Yeah you did. You're making a statement up there when you do that.
I like how stupid they look, they're so ridiculous. I mean they feel great. It looks kind of futuristic. I don't know. I like them, they play better than any other guitar I've played.

Is it hard to be punk rock in this day an age? It doesn't seem like there's really any underground anymore.
No, there's no community to it anymore, obviously. But that aspect never really appealed to me anyways. I thought punk rock people were loners. I never just think about it. I always thought I was writing pop songs and I guess I wasn't so good at it so people call that punk.

Well, if you slowed it down and took some distortion off, they'd be something close to three-minute pop songs.
I guess that's kind of how they are on some of the records. Some people get bummed on how amped up they are live but I can't do it any other way. It's just that nervous energy.

Do you have any favorites out of your 18 albums and 50 singles?
One of my favorite records is by this band the Bad Times. It was me and two of my friends, we all lived in different cities, we met in New Orleans, we wrote all the songs on the spot, recorded it in one day and put out an album. When you plan things out so much, some of the accidental (stuff) that comes out I think becomes your favorite thing.

Do you think music has become too calculated? Or is that just the way that things work best for you?
Oh, popular music is missing any sort of sense of spontaneity. It's so contrived, it's manufacturing a product. That's why I've never recorded in a studio. I mean, how do you book creativity three months, four months ahead of time? How do you pre-pay for the moment you're supposed to create something? Yeah, there's no spontaneity to it, it's boring.

How old were you when you started with all this stuff?
I played my first show out when I was ... 15? It was pretty nerve-racking. My favorite band was the Oblivions and I sent a tape. I didn't have a band really, and I sent a four-track tape to one of the guys in the band, thinking he would never listen to it. And he tells me he wants to put out my single and he needs to find me a band. The only people to play with me were the dudes from the Oblivions. So within a week, we rehearsed a set and I was being backed by my favorite band.

And this was when you were 15, like, before you could even drive?
Yeah! They had to pick me up. I don't know why they did it -- maybe they just really saw something in it. At that moment it was like I joined the Ramones. In hindsight, I don't know if I realized how totally awesome it was.

The Ramones, also the Wipers, seem like obvious influences -- are those two of the biggest ones?
You know, man, I'm not really a big record collector. I don't really have time for it. I've always been more interested in trying to record my own records. Like, I collect my own records.

Do you actually have a copy of everything you've put out?
No, absolutely not. Especially in different color variations and different artwork. There are so many holes in it. I try to buy them on eBay and people bid against me and they go up to a hundred, two hundred bucks and I can't pay that much.

Is it weird to see something that you recorded when you were 16 years old selling for hundreds of bucks on eBay? That's gotta be kind of surreal.
Yeah, it really is because I think about a single I recorded when I was 16 going for $200 on eBay and I'm like, "Wow, $200!" When I was 16 that would have been huge. It would have been like I was a millionaire. I was scraping together money to get a cheeseburger. It's really weird. I don't understand the phenomenon of people collecting via eBay. It takes all the fun out of it. It's about the hunt, man! Not clicking on a button.

So, the name. Let's discuss. Where did it come from? Do you wish you had picked something different so you wouldn't have to deal with this question all the time?
Oh, absolutely. Something that's juvenile and obvious, when you're 15 years old it's great; but 13 years later, it sucks because now I get to be called retarded for my entire life. It really was just something I stuck on a tape. I had no name, I wanted to give something to a dude, I made two copies, put it on there and now I'm stuck with it forever. It was just a split-second decision, like, "What should I call this?" And then for the rest of your life that's what you're called.

-- DAVID MALITZ

By David Malitz |  March 14, 2008; 2:13 PM ET SXSW
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That name has been a HUGE turnoff for me, but I might have to listen. Also, isn't it ObliviAns?

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | March 14, 2008 4:48 PM

cool insights, but does he really only collect his own records?

Posted by: Jim | March 14, 2008 9:58 PM

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