With Crazy Hearts, Jad Fair’s longtime outfit continues to reign supreme as one of America’s most distinctive rock groups
The unabashed joy and feel-good-all-over vibes that exudes from the gnarly, girls, monsters, aliens, sun, sand and surf-obsessed ear candy Half Japanese has been banging out for decades is pure punk rock bliss.
Just about every revolutionary musical movement can be traced to the band that the ingeniously freaky Fair brothers—Jad and David—started in their Maryland home in the mid-1970’s. File Half Japanese under proto- everything: Punk, lo-fi, bedroom-pop, indie rock, grunge, garage-rock, no wave, noise—you name it, the Fair bros. have done it in their manic style.
The influence of their charming and ramshackle DIY tunes, full of the catchiest of Beatles-esque hooks, bathed in VU-like earsplitting noise and topped by Jad’s irresistibly snotty speak-sing, is incalculable. Nirvana, Yo La Tengo, Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth, Velvet Monkeys, Gumball, Beat Happening and more have all taken cues from Half Japanese’s primitive and outré skronky rock. In 1993, Nirvana famously handpicked Half Japanese to open a handful of dates on their In Utero tour (more on that below).
You’d be hard-pressed to pluck out favorites from their hefty catalog but tasty slabs like Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts (’80), Charmed Life (’88) and Sing No Evil (’85) are bona fide underground rock classics with tons of brain-sticking freak-outs and covers galore. There’s good reason why Half Japanese have a Greatest Hits album with a few dozen or so of their unforgettable should-have-been hits.
After a spectacular run that culminated with 2001’s Hello, Half Japanese went on hiatus. Despite the break in the action, Jad remained busy as ever with solo and collaborative records, including a few with his brother, David. But thanks in large part to Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jad and his longtime band were coaxed out of semi-retirement to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2012. Since then, Half Japanese have been on a take-no-prisoners roll, averaging about an album a year since ‘14’s comeback record, Overjoyed, for the Joyful Noise and Fire labels.
And what a joy it’s been. Records like the aforementioned Overjoyed, Perfect, Hear The Lions Roar, Why Not? and Invincible—all released over the last five years—rank up there as instant Half Japanese classics.
Tack on the just-dropped Crazy Hearts to that stellar list. On their umpteenth record, Jad, John Sluggett, Giles Vincent Rieder, Mick Hobbs and Jason Willett continue their hot streak of rattling off an epically catchy blast of hyper rock weirdness. They’ve traded in some of their lo-fi-grade wall of noise for a sharper, bigger sound but it’s still quintessentially Half Japanese. Songs like the power-poppy “Wondrous Wonder,” “Dark World,” and “The Beastmaster” shimmer and glow with arena-ready punch.
The Globe phoned up Jad Fair at home in Texas to talk how he’s faring during the pandemic, Crazy Hearts, Nirvana, Daniel Johnston and more.
I wanted to start by touching on the early-to-mid 90’s period when so many of your peers were scooped up in the signing splurge as a result of Nirvana’s success. Friends of yours like Gumball, Teenage Fanclub and Daniel Johnston all signed on with the majors. Was Half Japanese ever courted by or came close to signing with a major label?
Jad Fair: No, no. I don’t know why that is, but no, it never happened.
Wow. That’s very surprising considering the punk and DIY underground rock cred Half Japanese has and how you were championed by so many bands—including Nirvana.
Actually, for a month or two, we were on a major label in Japan (laughing). They had started this “lo-fi series” but as soon as the record was released, they got rid of that whole department and dropped it.
Half Japanese famously opened up some dates for Nirvana in 1993 when they toured for In Utero. I’d think a major would have come in and inked you to a deal right then and there.
Right. Right after Kurt’s death, I think Melody Maker ran an article saying that Nirvana was going to have me as the new lead singer for the band. I’m sure the person that wrote the thing was joking. After that came out, I got some offers from publishing companies, which were pretty lucrative. But I was a little bit too honest, I guess, because I’d tell them it just wasn’t true! Then they quickly lost interest (Laughing).
VIDEO: Nirvana at the Roseland Ballroom, NYC 7/23/93
Were you already a fan of Nirvana before you went on tour with them?
I became quite a fan. Their live shows were incredible. I like the records but as a live band, they were a lot better than what they are on record.
What stands out for you from that tour? Did you jump onstage with Nirvana and jam with them at any point?
Yeah, we did “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with them. That was at one of the New York shows. That was fun.
Obviously, the Stooges were a huge influence on you and your brother David.
Oh, yeah. We grew up in Michigan and so many of the Michigan bands, the Stooges, MC5, ? and the Mysterians, Alice Cooper was big.
Were you too young to have seen the Stooges live?
My brother David saw them. David is two years older than I am. I was a bit too young. I couldn’t go into bars at that time.
Did you and your brother eventually see concerts together? I imagine you and him saw some amazing shows.
We didn’t go to shows together so much in Michigan. We did see Mott the Hoople, which was fun. Later when we moved to Maryland we saw quite a few bands.
VIDEO: Mott The Hoople on The Golden Age of Rock & Roll 1974
Your brother David must have been a major influence on you. You and him have made tons of records together and you started Half Japanese.
David’s been a huge influence on me. We grew up in a tiny, tiny town called Coldwater in Michigan. It’s a very small town and growing up David had records by Sun Ra, and Captain Beefheart—a lot of different bands that most people were not listening it. They were certainly not popular bands at that time. But we had all the Stooges albums and MC5 so it’s kind of remarkable that living in a very small town, we had exposure to the music that we did.
Was there a local record store in town that you and your brother would buy records at?
No, we would travel to Ann Arbor which would be the closest city that would have that type of thing.
Let’s talk the new Half Japanese record. I’m really digging Crazy Hearts that just came out this past December.
It was a bit of a departure for us because usually we work in one recording studio but for this one, because of travel restrictions, we had to use several different recording studios to make it work.
Yes, I saw that Crazy Hearts was recorded here in the States plus in Spain and France.
Yeah, well, not all of the band could be there at the same time and part of it was done with overdubs. Basic tracks were done in the studio but quite a few overdubs were added.
So because of COVID, you guys weren’t able to be in the studio all together like you usually are?
Right, right. It just wasn’t workable for us.
Everyone in Half Japanese are all spread out, too. None of you actually live in close proximity to each other, right?
Oh, yeah. The drummer, Giles (Vincent Rieder), lives in Switzerland, Mick Hobbs lives in London, John Sluggett is in Asheville, Jason Willett is just out of Baltimore and I’m just outside of Austin.
Wow. How have you made it work for so many years with everyone all over the map? You’ve had this same lineup for decades.
Oh, yeah. John joined the band in ’86 and then Mick, Jason and Giles would have been about as of ’90 or ’91.
What do you chalk it up that the five of you click so well?
Well, we’re all friends and, perhaps, spending so much time away from each other buries any stress. For so many years together, we kind of can anticipate what the other person is going to do even when so much of it is ad-libbed because we’ve done so much work with each other.
Since 2014, you’ve been on a roll. Half Japanese have basically churned out an album a year.
Every year and, I guess there was about fourteen years time that Half Japanese was not releasing records but I was still working with members of Half Japanese. I recorded three albums with Mick Hobbs, two albums with Giles, and oh, another eight albums with Jason Willett and then three albums with my brother David.
Why did Half Japanese stop putting out records after 2001’s Hello? There wasn’t a Half Japanese studio album for fourteen years like you said, although you kept super-busy.
Part of that is I was kind of focusing on my artwork. It’s still tough for me to make a living just as a musician—not that it’s any walk in the park being an artist. But having both together does make a difference for me.
What made you revive Half Japanese in 2014 with Overjoyed?
The opportunity was there because Neutral Milk Hotel invited us (to play ATP in England in 2012) and they covered so much of the transportation cost, which is quite a bit with us all living in different cities. That was a huge help to us and that allowed us to get together and have time in a recording studio.
Neutral Milk Hotel is sort of responsible for bringing Half Japanese back together, huh?
Well, during that fourteen years time, Half Japanese did have some tours. We had a tour of Japan, one in Europe and two in the U.S. So, we were spending some time together. But it’s expensive to have time in a studio.
Sadly, you can’t tour behind the Half Japanese record. How has the pandemic affected your musical and art livelihoods?
I’ve been so focused on artwork during this time because I just can’t have shows. I had to cancel a tour of Japan, which I was so looking forward to it but it just wouldn’t work. I also had to cancel some work in France.
Crazy Hearts just came out and things are so uncertain, unfortunately. What do you think the future holds for you?
I’m hoping by this next summer we can have shows again. I kinda doubt that it’s going to be much before summertime. We’re now starting work on another Half Japanese album. I hope to stay on the same schedule of yearly that we’ve had. Fire Records will be releasing an album of songs that were done during the Charmed Life session that weren’t included on that album. I’m (also) wanting to do another album with Danielson because I was so pleased with how that album came out.
In lieu of touring to support Crazy Hearts, what else are you doing to promote the record? It must be a drag being unable to tour.
Oh, it is. Well, for this album, I did art video for all the songs and that took a good bit of time. One of the reasons for the videos was because touring wasn’t an option.
All of those videos are awesome. Did you do the animation as well as all the art?
My friend Claus (Frøhlich) did animation for two of those. The simple animation are the ones that I did. The fancier ones are by Claus (laughing).
How does your art inform your music and vice-versa? It seems like the two go hand in hand.
Well, I think it kind of comes from the same part of the brain. I know so many musicians that are also artists and it just all comes so natural.
Getting back to all the records Half Japanese have put out since 2014. I know you’re already a songwriting machine but the last half-decade you’ve been even more prolific. What do you attribute that to?
We had the opportunity of having studio time covered by recording advances for the records on Joyful Noise. They gave us enough advance to cover studio time and Fire has given us advance money, which makes such a difference. For so many years with Half Japanese, it was Half Japanese covering everything. I’m glad to have done it, but there’s a limit (laughs).
With that kind of support and more resources from Joyful Noise and Fire, were you able to spend more time in the studio and fine-tune the material more than you would have had normally? The more recent records definitely is trademark Half Japanese but not as lo-fi.
Most of the times we don’t have a lot of days in the studio. Usually you only have five, maybe six days time in a studio. When we’re at a studio, we’re very focused and we make a full day of it. I’ve been with other bands going into the studio and the focus is quite different.
How do you think your process has changed from the early lo-fi years versus the more recent studio albums?
I was doing so much of the home recordings and so as we were recording the songs, I was keeping my eye on recording throughout the whole thing, like mic placement and stuff. Now that someone else is doing that, I feel more free to just do what I do and not have to think about recording because that’s all taken care of by the studio.
VIDEO: My Dinner With Daniel (1988)
Your good friend and collaborator Daniel Johnston passed away in 2019 and your record with him, It’s Spooky, was reissued on vinyl by Joyful Noise a couple of years ago.
I’m so sorry that Daniel passed away before it was released. He was so looking forward to it coming out. When we first did the recordings, Daniel was wanting to have a double album, which I tried to make that happen, but I just couldn’t find a label that would do a two-album set.
How do you remember Daniel?
Daniel I thought was a genius on so many different levels. You just had such a quick mind and it’s just amazing what he was able to accomplish both musically and artistically. And his lyrics. I know so many musicians that are great musicians but as far as lyricists, that’s really something special.
VIDEO: Half Japanese Crazy Hearts video album