(A Couple More Than) Six Questions for ... Half Japanese
One of the many great scenes in the Half Japanese documentary "The Band That Would Be King" finds brothers David and Jad Fair talking about playing guitar, and it perfectly captures the essence of the definitive do-it-yourself band.
"Some people worry about chords and stuff, and that's all right, too," David says. "There's all kinds of music in the world. You might want to learn some other stuff if you're doing that kind of music. For what I was doing, that was the beauty of it, you could learn it that first day."
"Well, you do need cords in order to plug the guitar in," Jad adds. "But that's pretty much it."
And so it goes with Half Japanese. For almost 35 years the band has served as inspiration for every rock-and-roller who isn't blessed with the ability to effortlessly play a C# blues scale. In the world of Half Japanese, if you're holding a guitar, you're a guitarist. If you're sitting behind a drum kit, you're a drummer. And if you strum a bit, bang a bit and put some words on top, you're a songwriter. David's classic essay, "How to Play Guitar," concludes with a perfect mission statement: "The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world."
And there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about that statement. Another great scene from the documentary features Jad stating that his goal is "to write the most popular song in the history of the world," and he's absolutely serious when he says it. Yes, there's an intrinsic ridiculousness in someone completely lacking in the classic definition of "talent" wanting to write the most popular song ever; but that's the quality that makes Half Japanese so unique and so great. There's a certain fearlessness to the band's music, whether it's making sax-fueled, art-damaged skronk ronk or excited, vulnerable indie-pop.
Half Japanese has gone through one of its most inactive stretches ever during this decade. The band members are spread out around the country, so gigs are rare. Besides a pair of shows at SXSW back in March, tomorrow's show at the Rock and Roll Hotel and Saturday's at Floristree in Baltimore are the only Half Japanese appearances scheduled for this year. As someone who saw one of those shows down in Austin, my advice is simple: Go. Simply put, it'll be a party.
I recently talked with Jad Fair about prepping for these shows, the band's inception, his unique choice of guitar and why he maintains almost 50 MySpace pages.
How do you prepare for the Half Japanese shows, as infrequent as they are?
Most everyone in the band lives in the Washington area so they're going to get together and do some practicing. I'm down in Austin and John Moreman is in San Francisco so we'll just go in on the day of the show and hopefully we know the songs well enough that we can just jump into it.
You've written hundreds and hundreds of songs. Do you still know how to play most of them?
I can't say I really knew how to play them in the first place. So I guess I'm as on top of it as I ever was.
When I saw you down in Austin (at SXSW) you were playing ... is there an official term for it besides mini-guitar?
Well it's just a mini-guitar, like a toy one. I started playing that because a lot of the shows I do are in countries outside the U.S. and more often than not I don't have work papers for doing the shows. I found that customs and immigration don't give me a hard time if they see a toy, but they do give me a hard time if I am carrying a full-size guitar.
The sound is fine? You don't feel the need to have a Stratocaster or anything?
Well I figure that's the audience's problem. As long as I've got Fritos and beer backstage, I'm fine. I'm a professional.
You've collaborated with so many people over the years. Any favorites?
It was real fun recording with Teenage Fanclub. They're so quick in the studio and that's something I really enjoy. And also with Jason Willett, he's very fast. Pretty much every day we'd do 12 songs when I was staying at his place. It was a real kick to play with Moe Tucker because I'm such a huge fan of the Velvet Underground.
(From an interview I did with Fair last year, this anecdote: "It was a real kick playing with Moe. We had a tour of Europe in 1989 and were at the border crossing going into West Germany. The border guards had machine guns and attack dogs. It was pretty spooky. They told us to show our passports. When they came to Moe's they suddenly had big smiles. It turned out they were fans of The Velvet Underground.")
What other creative things are you up to these days?
My main thing I'm working on now is artwork. I do a lot of paper cuttings and drawings and most of my time is spent working on art for different galleries and for my Web sites. I've got about 50 different Web sites that I'm managing.
Yeah, what is up with all the Web sites?
(Laughs) I had the one MySpace site and sold some stuff through that. And I thought, well, if I had 50 sites, even if I just sell one thing a week from each of them, I'd be doing OK. So far I'm not selling quite that much, but I should be fine.
What was it like at the very beginning of Half Japanese? There wasn't really anything that sounded like what you guys ended up doing back then.
It was in 1974 in Michigan. Allendale, Mich., where my brother David and I were going to college at Grand Valley State University. We had rented a house together close to the campus and I had just bought a drum set and our other roommate, David Stansky, had a guitar and amp. It all kind of fell together. It's just such a natural thing. It came together because I always choose the path of least resistance. Just try to do what's the easiest and that always seems to work for me. I think my main goal in life is to get a La-Z-Boy recliner and I'm happy to say that I'm very close to that goal.
By David Malitz |
July 11, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
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