Jay Reatard is something of a polarizing figure. To some, he’s the new god of garage-punk. To others, he’s a serial misanthrope with a stage name as abrasive as his right hook. Paste recently caught up with the man born Jay Lindsey, and he talked about his new LP Watch Me Fall, his abiding appreciation for Devo, and his fear of turning into the next Brian Wilson.
Paste: One of the things that stands out about Watch Me Fall is that the melody is much more to the forefront, even if it’s not necessarily cleaner-sounding, instead of the grungy lo-fi sound of your earlier music. What was the reason for that?
Jay Reatard: That sound on my earlier albums, a lot of that was just sound artifacts from recording techniques.I record in a home studio, so signing to Matador allowed me to invest in a lot of things I’d been lusting after for a while, as far as gear goes. I was able to get a clearer sound, one of the main things people keep touching on is that the vocals aren’t distorted. I wanted to put the vocals a little bit louder, strip away some of the distortion from the guitars. The main reason was that I felt I had already done that with Blood Visions, my whole goal with that record was to make a big wall of sound that maybe wasn’t musically dynamic, but was emotionally dynamic. So on this record I was trying to create peaks and valleys, so to speak.
Paste: Do you think you’re ever going to go back to that garage sound you had with The Reatards and the Lost Sounds?
Jay: When I try to be analytical about my body of work, I don’t see it as always moving forward or evolving. I’m a big fan of Devo, and their whole thing about de-evolution. Things can only evolve so far before they have to devolve. Everything rots.
Jay: Exactly, I can only go so clean before I’ll want to do something different. I know I won’t be making another record like Watch Me Fall again, this was a record I wanted to make and I needed to make, something I felt artistically driven to do. Now that I’ve made it, I’m on to the next idea.
Paste: You’ve got a little bit of a British accent for a lot of your songs; is that an homage to the punk acts that came before you?
Jay: When I listen to certain music, I identify those melodies as very distinctly British melodies. I feel like the melodies and the chords lend themselves to being sung that way. I read an interview with Bob Pollard where he was talking about people giving him a hard time for singing with a fake British accent, and he said, “Well, that’s because I grew up listening to the fucking Who.” The chord progressions we’re playing are stripped straight from those songs, and so are the melodies. So it’s hard to sing like I’m from Memphis, Tennessee when I’m singing a melody from a British song. Somebody once told me I sound less like a guy from the South trying to sound British and more like a British guy trying to sound like a hillbilly. I’ll go for the latter [laughs].
Paste: Your new album has a much darker tone to it, a much deeper sense of hopelessness, which is saying something. Is that reflective of something personal for you, or is that just an emotion you use for your songwriting?
Jay: It’s the part of me I feel comfortable sharing with other people. Take the Beach Boys; the majority of people think their cheery songs about surfing and the sun are their best stuff. But I think once they got a little older and they realized that the ’60s were over, and that the utopia isn’t going to happen, and the reality of 1970-1971 set in, that’s when that band starting making their best music.
Paste: So it’s a reaction to getting older, in a way?
Jay: Yeah, I feel like that’s where I’m at in my life right now. That youthful idea that everything’s going to be alright, that I’m going to be someone’s Prince Charming and ride off into the sunset. It’s just apparent to me how things aren’t that easy; they don’t work that way. I think I’m disillusioned a bit, with the world. Hopefully I don’t follow in their footsteps and go into that odd, 1981 “I did too much coke, can’t make a decent song to save my life” phase, but I’ve still got a decent amount of time to figure that one out too [laughs].
Paste: In the video for “See/Saw,” you’re being wheeled around in a shopping cart, and in the video for “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me,” you’re being wheeled around in a wheelchair. Is there a thematic connection there, or was that an accident?
Jay: For “See/Saw,” I jumped in the shopping cart because the people we were making that video with were totally uncreative. They had no ideas. It was a bunch of drunk kids that Dell Computers gave a bunch money to go waste, traveling around and making videos for people for free. They showed up with no ideas and a huge bottle of Grey Goose. Eventually, I said I was done making this video. I was really drunk, so I said, “I’m gonna sit in the fucking shopping cart. If you guys need me to do anything for the rest of the day you’re gonna have to push me around.”
Paste: And they did.
Jay: With the director of “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me,” that actually played into one of his ideas. Didn’t end up in the video, [but] there’s a very quick section where it cuts to an old man, he’s supposed to be a war vet grandpa type-character that was at the party. The kids were supposed to push him in the pool, and then I steal his wheelchair. Yeah, I thought people were going to tie those things together; I like when things connect like that. It doesn’t make much sense, but similarities among things are always good.
Paste: Your mini-documentary debuted on MySpace recently. How did that come about?
Jay: These people just approached me and said they wanted to make a documentary that captures life for you at home. So they came down on a Thursday and left that Sunday night. Nothing really radical happens when I’m at home; those moments tend to save themselves for when I least expect them. So they came down, I showed them some of the houses where I recorded my first seven-inches, some of my earliest friends. I think there’s a lot of footage of me eating, so people are gonna think I’m a fatass, but that’s fine [laughs].
Paste: In the documentary you said you don’t like to record when you’re happy, because you use that energy for other stuff. What do you do when you’re not in a recording mood?
Jay: I end up with a lot of nervous energy. I spend a lot of time just walking around outside, trying to get inspired to have something to record about. It’s a weird balance. If I’m too bummed, I just can’t get out of bed. I get in these weeklong periods where I’m afraid I’m gonna turn into Brian Wilson, and I’m gonna have to get a fucking sandbox built in my bedroom or something. I’m the most inspired when something completely destroys me to the point where I’m bedridden, depressed and feeling completely self-loathing and hating myself. The moment when I can finally get enough energy to get up, that’s when I find that songs really start coming. And after I finish writing the songs, that’s such a feeling of release, that I’ve accomplished something, that I get happy and want to leave.
Paste: So it’s kind of a love-hate relationship for you?
Jay: Yeah, the songwriting and recording process is this weird middle ground between complete depression and happiness, and soon as I’m done I just wanna get the fuck out. It’s a cyclical thing. I always end up circling back around, and wasting a bunch of time being a self-loathing drunk. Then I wake up, record a song, get stoked, and go back out again. It’s a cycle. I don’t know if it’s a healthy one, but it works.