Words by Art Jipson
Half Japanese continues to create some of the most interesting punk-influenced angular, distorted and optimistic music in rock and roll. Led by Jad Fair, Half Japanese embraced the idea of a willfully happy record. To call 2020 a difficult year full of challenges is to write in terms of superb understatement. Half Japanese have always possessed a streak of cheerful confidence. The band’s 2020 album, ‘Crazy Hearts’ is the sixth record since the return of Half Japanese in 2014. To say that Fair and the band have been busy is putting it mildly. Fair spoke about the recording process and the sheer joy in creating unconventional music that explores noise, horror films, obsession and doing one’s best under the most trying of circumstances.
Off Shelf: Crazy Hearts feels reflectively optimistic in a way that is so refreshing right now. Do you see the record in that way?
Jad Fair: Yeah, we kind of try to be optimistic even given the challenges of life right now. To say that the pandemic has changed life is an understatement. The record has an open and accessibility to it that we meant to do. It is a record that is open.
OS: It feels different from some of your other recent records.
JF: It does. In the mixing process, we focused more on one thing at a time. Then we turned our attention to another part. And so on. Songs can change in mixing. We put so much work into the process. Over and over we work on the mix until it becomes a good thing. We need to feel it. It needs to work for us.
OS: How did the ‘Crazy Heart’ project come together?
JF: We had some shows in that year and we thought it would be a good time to record in the studio. To come together for recording around touring when the band had a lot of energy. There is so much energy when the band plays live that influenced the sound of the record [‘Crazy Hearts’]. It was an easy, organic process for us. We are already playing out, we thought “let’s go into the studio and record”. It was not an effort to capture the same sound as when we play live. It was an idea around being in the flow of working and making music together.
OS: ‘Wondrous World’ calls upon people to see the real wonder that is in the world, was that what you sought to do with that song, this record?
JF: Yes. We wanted to capture something interesting. Songs like ‘Wondrous World’ and ‘Dark World’ feel like a yin-yang balance. I try to see it that way. There are so many messed up things. But we forget there are some pretty great things too. It may sound obvious but we come back to that. Most of the lyrics have a comical feel to them. That takes some of the darkness out of it. If you hear something funny, that brings a smile to a face that is magic. Whatever comes natural, whatever is the simplest natural feel is what we were seeking. And with Half Japanese you get it.
OS: How has making music changed for you? Over time? Today?
JF: Quite a lot. Our early recordings were so different. I was in charge. We followed a simple recording method. One microphone for vocal and one for instruments. Bear in mind we did this with a cassette recorder and we did it the best we could. We tried to capture a real sound that we had at that time. Every record is an effort to capture the band in a moment in time.
Today, recording has changed with so many things that can be manipulated. Pitch correction control. For some musicians, there is an effort to make everything perfect. Everything in perfect place feels fake to me. What you hear on the radio does not appeal to me. More often than not, we are trying to record something real. Something simple. And that means that we can record basic tracks quickly and capture an authentic feel. We can record in four to five days and record most of the basic tracks because of that focus.
OS: You have been very productive in the past several years – 2020 with Crazy Hearts, 2019 – Invincible, 2018 – Why Not? – 2017 Heart the Lions Roar, 2015 – Boo! And 2014 — Overjoyed, how do you see these recent projects?
JF: We aim to be productive. We aim for a record a year. It is much easier to record at home now. You have access to many different sounds, which is a big help. The other guys have the freedom to create. Each band member has control over what to do. For example, the drummer controls the drums. The guitarist is in charge of the guitars. The band members each have total control over what they do. They control their parts. They add to the songs.
OS: That democratic approach must be very freeing.
JF: Oh yes. This approach makes the process organic. The ideas going into the music flow freely. Everyone contributes.
OS: How do you compose? Where do you start?
JF: It varies. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes the music comes first. Anything I do solo it is always the lyrics that are down first. I write lyrics quickly. What comes through my head at the time. It is organic, not forced. Organic on the spot. Often in the recording studio is when some of the lyrics are written down and adlibbed on the spot. In the end, it becomes what fits better. It is best not to force it.
OS: ‘My Celebrity’ is a fascinating statement on celebrity culture. I kept thinking about the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek while listening to that song.
JF: ‘My Celebrity’ is a song about people that I admire and people who are removed from my life. I did not write it about any one person. I love Schitt’s Creek but I did not write that song about Moira Rose. The song is not simply ironic. But celebrity culture is all around us and some of it is good and some of it is not good. Sometimes we admire people who are close to us and sometimes we admire people who are not. There is not a right answer with celebrity. It means what we want it to mean for each of us.
OS: What are your thoughts about the recent Daniel Johnston tribute and cover projects?
JF: Daniel was amazing. His mind was so collected. As a lyricist, he was just amazing. Some are great musicians, some are great lyricists – the great lyricists are always special and Daniel was one of the most special. It is incredible how his recordings often made with a cassette recorder could feel so powerful. Having more of a hi-fi recordings reveal the beauty of his songs. He would have loved the tribute projects. When I first met Daniel, he talked about how famous he would be one day. So, I think he would enjoy the attention his music is getting.
OS: Do you believe in destiny? I am especially thinking about how your lyrics express destiny in ‘A Job Well Done’ from the new record.
JF: I believe in going deeper. Going bigger. Destiny is not some simple thing because what it means to one person is not the same thing that someone else feels. We are all connected and feeling that can be so hard for us when so much is happening around us. So, how do we go bigger? How do we go deeper? That is something that we have to think about without being overly serious about it. It is not about passing judgement – that you don’t understand destiny because you see things differently than me. I could be wrong. You could be wrong – and that is ok. It is not about being right; it is about going bigger and going deeper.
OS: You have been making music for several decades, what is it about making music that still excites you?
JF: I have been recording since the early 1970s. 1974. I am just happy to be doing it. I grew up in Michigan listening to the radio. So many great radio stations in the early 1960s. What stuck with me is a love of music. I enjoy making music today. Very much so. Once or twice a week I am thinking about new music, new songs. I am also involved in artwork. I like to keep busy all the time. And people still reach out. The music still reaches people. You have to appreciate the interest. Music making is so focused. There is a lot of great music being made today. I am fortunate to be a part of that.