TROUBLED YET TALENTED: “I’m not one for trying to engage the audience. I’m there to play songs.”
Rock and roll is a 15-year-old. Its makers may succumb to prudence and time — they “grow up” or “die” or whatever — but the music remains hormonal, idealistic, kinetic, and furious at anything you can think of to be pissed off about.
Jay Reatard (who comes to Harpers Ferry with his band this Sunday) is 27 years old and records songs in his spare bedroom, much the way he did at 15. “I finished the eighth grade with an incomplete for attendance, and the principal basically told me, ‘Look, you’ve caused so many problems, if you don’t want to come back, we’re not going to call the authorities.’ ”
Reatard is in the bathroom of Denver’s Ogden Theatre, shielding himself from the Black Keys’ soundcheck, as he tells me this. Saving himself the trouble of dropping out of high school has proved both a shrewd and punk-as-fuck stratagem (freed up his schedule for writing and touring), but it’s nothing special in and of itself. Everyone remembers a troubled yet talented kid from school, and depending on how one defines “troubled yet talented,” Reatard himself knew one growing up in Memphis. “I went to junior high school with Justin Timberlake.” They never got the chance to bond. “It was the kind of thing where you would pass someone in the hallway. Dude was basically in and out of regular school, anyway.”
Odds are, neither the hypothetical brat you knew nor Justin Timberlake has played in as many bands as Jay Reatard (the Reatards, the Lost Sounds, the Final Solutions, the Bad Times, and the Angry Angles, to name a few) or recorded (by Reatard’s estimate) some 60 EPs and 20 LPs. He started his first band, the Reatards, playing every instrument himself, as he does on 2006’s Blood Visions and his in-progress series of six monthly EPs. But that’s not the only reason his newer stuff feels like a natural progression from his earliest. He’s managed to retain the nail-biting abandon, no-lollygagging delivery and the gleeful nihilism it takes to sing phrases like “Time may heal wounds, but I will kill you.” Jay Reatard has channeled his inner child, and it’s telling us to fuck off and die.
He’s also kept things essentially DIY, turning down a deal with Universal Records and forgoing fancy-shamcy studio time. “I started making records on my four-track. After a couple of records, it was an eight-track. A couple records later, a 16-track. Then a 24-track. Studios feel like hospitals to me. I can’t really say, ‘Hey, two months from now I’m going to feel like recording.’ I just, y’know, wake up, have lunch, hang out, drink some coffee, and if I decide I want to record a song, then I’ll record a song. There’s no clock ticking.”
The Jay Reatard live experience is a similarly cut-the-bullshit affair. The band look as if they’d just rolled out of bed. (Sometimes that’s the case.) Reatard’s spoken interaction with the audience consists of shouting out song titles and possibly following up with a “Let’s go!” Even the slower numbers are cranked out with unbending haste. It’s like getting kicked in the junk, except awesome.