Half Japanese have just released a triumphant album of lo-fi but loud punk called “Overjoyed” and I’m super happy about it. Formed by Jad and David Fair before I wore shorts for school, before punk as we know it was invented, Half Japanese were the blueprint, nay the blue touch paper for many Gen X slacker bands. They resolutely refused to learn to play chords, their stage set up was primitive and detuned, primal and yet deranged.
By legend, once a soundman watched Jad tune up without plugging in, and when he questioned him was sent off with a flea in his ear, as Jad went onto play the whole gig with an air gap between his electric guitar and the amp. More recently as documented in the 1993 doc Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King the Fairs played an unorthodox cover of Wilson Pickett’s ‘In The Midnight Hour’ at a nursing home and were accompanied unannounced by residents with harmonicas, which seemed perfectly normal for a band whose songs were generally either about love or monsters.
When you’re resolutely anti-convention and true to your own voice anything can happen, and nobody could deny that the band have followed their own wonky course and attracted a hardcore, cult fanbase. Some of these more musically renowned fans became players in the band including Gumball’s Don Fleming, Shimmy Disc’s Mark Kramer, and Moe Tucker of the Velvets no less. Half Japanese have also attracted other more even more left-field patrons like magician Penn Jillette (one half of Penn & Teller) who released some of their prolific output on his label.
But perhaps the moment that brought Half Japanese’s lopsided lyrics and discordant blur snap into focus for many music fans was the patronage of one Kurt Cobain, who got them to open on Nirvana’s ill-fated “In Utero” tour in 1993. The legend was assured when it transpired that Kurt was wearing a Half Japanese shirt when he took his own life.
The band went onto release their noisiest album to date “Hot” in 1995, followed by “Heaven Sent” in 1997 whose title track was over sixty minutes long. The Half Japanese output became less frequent, but Jad was still painting, paper cutting and releasing records hand over fist, including collaborations with other fans and acolytes The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo and R. Stevie Moore. The old band had gone but was not forgotten as another collaborator Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel curated them back together for his All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2012.
“Overjoyed” is the first Half Japanese album in 13 years, and although they feel like they’ve been around forever, the album couldn’t feel any fresher. It’s buoyed by exuberance, a joie-de-vivre not just backed with a jingle jangle but with jet pack assistance, particularly on the opening salvo of tracks ‘In Its Pull’ and ‘Meant To Be That Way’. Produced by John Dieterich of Deerhoof, the album packs plenty of punch, and far from being tinny like some previous work, it’s full of dextrous texture including on spaghetti westerly ‘Brave Enough’. The absolute piece de resistance though is the pure carpe diem of “The Time Is Now”, Jad’s love letter to an unspecified raven haired woman, but also to the World itself.
I’ve known him from my old days producing MTV’s Alternative Nation, and since Crossfire had included ‘In Its Pull’ in the October Buzzbombs it seemed like a great time to get in touch for an exclusive interview with half of Half Japanese’s original line up and its one constant compass, Mr. Jad Fair…
Why the big delay between albums (since 2001’s “Hello”) what have you been up to?
The main reason it took so long to record again with Half Japanese is that we all live in different cities and two band members live in Europe. It’s expensive to get us all together and expensive to record at a studio. It fell into place this time because we had shows with Neutral Milk Hotel, and Joyful Noise covered the cost of recording.
My main focus for the last 15 years has been art. I’ve had several exhibitions, and have had quite a few art books published.
How does it feel playing alongside David again?
David doesn’t play on the new album. We do shows once a year with the original line-up at the ShakeMore festival and occasionally will have a show together, but it’s not very often. David and I recorded in a studio a year ago. We have enough songs for an album.
The album is called “Overjoyed” and you seem genuinely happy in it, especially from genuinely joyous love song ‘The Time Is Now’ onwards, what’s happened?
I have a good life, and I usually am happy. All of the members of Half Japanese get along well together, and it’s always great to have some time with them.
Ph: Brian Birzer
How do you go about spreading your happiness?
I’m releasing a lot of albums. It will be six this year, and I’ll have 3 or 4 new ones next year. I’m also very busy with my art. I try to do 4 paper-cuttings each day. I have a very full schedule.
How important is it to be the best you can possibly be? “Overjoyed” feels like the Half Japanese self-help album…
It is a positive album. I like that. I read an interview of George Burns. He was talking about Jack Benny and said that he was always positive. Everything was always the best. If Jack Benny had a cup of coffee it would be the best cup coffee he ever had. I can’t say that I’m as positive as that, but it’s something I aim for.
Chocolate seems to be a recurring trope, why’s that?
Chocolate is important. I love it.
How familiar do you make yourself with mainstream culture? Do you absorb it and regurgitate it, or avoid it and work in a hermetically sealed bubble?
I can’t say that I pay much attention to mainstream culture. I am around it, and probably absorb some of it, but not enough to hurt me.
Your music has always seemed so clever, are there any dumb-ass party songs or bands you like to listen to?
I wouldn’t call them dumb-ass, but I think of Brave Combo as being a party band. I like them a lot. They are a real fine live band.
Peter Buck called your early 7”s over-worldly, yet this feels more like an out and out rock record, with some other-worldly lyrics, what’s your assessment of it?
My brother and I just did what came natural. To me it doesn’t seem other-worldly, because it was my world. It just seems normal.
It was produced by John Dieterich from Deerhoof and he’s certainly added some higher-fi heft than normal, how much input did you allow him, was it always part of the plan to give this record added oomph?!
John was great to work with. He also mixed and mastered the album I did with Strobe Talbot, and he plays on the album with R Stevie Moore. Half Japanese has started work on another album. John has agreed to produce that one too.
You’ve always resolutely not learned chords or traditional playing techniques as a matter of choice, have you ever been tempted?
I know a few chords and will tune my guitar every now and then, but I usually don’t. I like the sound I’m able to get with an untuned guitar. There is no way that I could get the same sound or feel if I felt I had to play chords.
On your website you say you will write tunes for any occasion for money, what’s been the strangest request you’ve had?
I’ve done a lot of songs for people. I’m working on two this week. The strangest request was for a song which was also a marriage proposal. I felt some pressure doing that one. I’m glad to say that she said yes, and they are now married.
How fulfilling is making your art?
I enjoy doing it, and it’s great that people appreciate what I’m doing.
How do you differentiate between the art you make and the musical art you make?
It all comes so natural to me. I can’t say I give it much thought. I just do it.
You have a patron in magician Penn Jillette, what tricks has he taught you?
Penn and Teller are great. I started writing to Penn right after the first single came out. Teller taught me how to make a coin vanish. Half Japanese had a show in Los Angeles in 1985 and Penn and Teller were on stage with us during part of our set.
The infamous Nirvana ‘In Utero’ tour was 21 years ago now, how do you remember it?
I was at the airport in Toronto and picked up a copy of Spin magazine which had an interview with Kurt. In the interview he said that Half Japanese would be the opening band. That was the first I heard about it. I called my booking agent and she told me that she had just been contacted about it. I was surprised at how young the audience was. It was mostly kids in their teens. On the first night we played some fast songs and some slow ones. Every fast song went over well and every slow one bombed. For the rest of the shows we only played fast songs.
Did you realise at the time how significant Kurt’s legacy would be, or how significant his patronage would be?
Nirvana was a great live band. I like the records, but I think they were much better live. I’m glad we were able to do the tour.
What did you learn about Kurt on tour?
Kurt kept to himself. I was around him a bit, but I spent more time with Dave and Krist.
He was wearing your t-shirt at the end, how did that make you feel?
It’s good to know that Kurt liked what we did. I doubt that he gave much thought to what t-shirt to wear on that day. It’s just sad.
You’ve played with so many amazing musicians but what would be his dream line up looking back. The Jad Fair super group if you will?
I once did a show in New York with Don Fleming, Ira Kaplan, John Zorn, Steve Shelly and Thurston Moore. That was a pretty wild show.
When you pass on (hopefully a long long time from now) will your spirit be a love song or a monster?
It will definitely be a love song.
Overjoyed by Half Japanese is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings. Enjoy this footage with Jad and the band.