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Friday, April 21, 2006
Keeping rock simple
Special to The Japan Times
Jad Fair is the most unlikely of rock heroes. In his 40s, yet with the tall and gangly body of an adolescent and the naive blue eyes of a child, he looks like a preternaturally wide-eyed manga character.
But over the last 30 years, Fair has, as a solo artist and in the group Half Japanese (with his brother David), championed a pure and primitive rock 'n' roll that has garnered passionate fans around the world.
Fair's take on rock -- lo-fi, spontaneous and deeply grounded in a community of like-minded musicians -- has its roots as much in the American folk tradition as in punk rock.
"Usually with bands, the more they develop the less I enjoy them," says Fair in a phone interview from his home outside of Austin, Texas, before his upcoming music and art tour of Japan. "I think at the very start is when they are most focused, but with time they try to make it too fancy. What I try to do is just keep it simple."
With a long list of collaborators, raw production values and lyrics drawn from the tabloids, Fair's albums often resemble an electrified hootenanny, and his ethos, if not always his style, has had a significant influence on independent, lo-fi music scenes from Olympia, Washington, to Glasgow, Scotland. Earnest and lacking in pretension, he is at odds not just with the mainstream, but also with the trendiness of contemporary "independent" music. Better-known rock primitives such as Iggy Pop and Jack White date models or party with film stars. Others succumb to the mythology of the doomed rock star. But not Fair.
Buffeted for 30 years by the instability of indie labels and nearly constant touring, you wouldn't blame him for being a little jaded. Yet he is almost surrealistically sunny.
"If my main focus was to be famous and make a good bit of money I could very well be bitter," says Fair. "But my focus is more on the music and the art and the friendships I've had with the musicians I've played with."
Among others, Fair has collaborated with fellow lo-fi pioneers Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Mo Tucker of The Velvet Underground -- both of whom have even toured as members of Fair's backing group.
"I listen to a wide range of music, and a lot of the bands and performers that I've played with, we did it because I've gone to see their concerts several times . . . and it seemed real natural to do some recording," says Fair. "I've been lucky because the bands I've played with are my favorite bands: Yo La Tengo, Teenage Fanclub, Daniel Johnston, The Pastels."
But it's not just other musicians that enjoy working with him. Fair and Half Japanese have inspired a dedication from celebrity fans that borders on the fanatical.
Penn Jillette, one half of the magic duo Penn and Teller, invested a good portion of his savings to found an indie label, 50 Skadillion Watts, just to release Half Japanese's records. Jeff Feuerzig -- who recently made the film "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" about outsider artist Daniel Johnston, a long-time Fair collaborator -- made a documentary called "The Band That Would Be King" out of frustration with the band's lack of acclaim. And Kurt Cobain was known to favor a particularly grubby Half Japanese T-shirt.
If Fair has a limited audience beyond music's cognescente, it isn't because his music is grating or harsh. Although his albums have been described as experimental or, like Johnston's, as "outsider" art, there is more of a child-like innocence in the distinctly rough, raw production style he adheres to. Appropriately, his latest album, "Six Dozen Cookies" (2006) -- made with his brother but not released under the Half Japanese name -- is a collection of children's songs.
Though his first Half Japanese album, "1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts" (1980), reveled in an exuberant, sonic chaos, since then Fair has edged toward greater accessibility. Think of a less ironic version of Jonathan Richman, mixed with The Velvet Underground and a dash of rockabilly. A knack for writing memorable, anthemic hooks and quirky, gushy love songs make it tempting to even label his music pop.
And, surprisingly, he agrees.
"In fact, one CD was called 'Twenty Pop Songs' and another was 'Enjoyable Music,' because I really can see that [my music] is in that vein," he says.
Though these albums do edge toward pop, they are still anything but slick. Fair is famous for barely being able to play his guitar, an inspiration for every bedroom musician.
"I don't know that many chords," he says of his musical skills, adding, "I usually don't tune my guitar. It is more of a rhythm or percussion instrument for me. I prefer banging on stuff."
Fair's upcoming Japan tour, backed by members of Austin group Adult Rodeo, will be as simple as it gets. Together they will be doing a cappella versions of his songs that they run through various effects pedals.
Fair actually hasn't played many live shows of late. Tired of touring and wanting to spend more time at home, he has focused more on visual art and has had several well-received shows in Europe. A book of his visual art with an accompanying DVD featuring three different live performances is being released to coincide with the Japan tour and the four exhibitions that will run concurrently.
His medium, paper-cutting, is a rather unusual one.
"I was spending a good bit of time in a van while touring and I wanted to have something to do on the trip. I always got headaches when I tried to read, but I found I could cut paper," says Fair.
His art is similarly offbeat and charming: phantasmagoric monsters and dense, almost lush, primitive figures and flora that are part Matisse, part Maurice Sendak, part Mexican Day of the Dead.
"I think it is like my music," he explains. "Good-natured and humorous."
Jad Fair plays April 22, 8 p.m. at Osaka Bridge; April 23, 8 p.m. at Nagoya Tokuzo; April 25 at Matsumoto Alecx at 6:30; and April 26-27, 7 p.m. at O-Nest in Tokyo. All shows 3,500 yen/3,800 yen, except at Nagoya Tokuzo which is 3,200 yen/3,500 yen. For more information about Fair's shows and exhibitions, call (03) 5712-3628 or visit www.mapup.net