JAY REATARD BIO FOR MATADOR RECORDS’ PROMOTION AND RELEASE OF WATCH ME FALL
By Andrew Earles
“I operate on an animalistic level of fear that I’m constantly running out of time. And I’m afraid that I’m going to run out of ideas. So every one of them, no matter how good or bad, I have to get them down. What if there comes a time when no one wants to put out my records? What if I wake up tomorrow and my hands don’t work? My music and output is kind of like this byproduct of this great anxiety…I’ve got to do something.”
- Jay Reatard, February 23, 2009
Most contemporary rock and roll careers of interest, worth, integrity and decade-plus vintage tend to generate a degree of public misinformation and envy, especially the ones riding a mercurial increase in profile and success after years in the trenches. While it’s unlikely that anyone thinks the surname blank on Jay’s passport reads “Reatard” (it reads “Lindsay”), an undetermined number of folks content with the notion that Blood Visions (2006, In the Red Records) introduces the Jay Reatard story. It’s a harmless ignorance; comes with the territory and can be remedied with the dual antidotes of engrossing back-story and quality product, both of which Jay Reatard has in spades. Conversely, a slightly more malevolent mindset stalks those with a knack for prolific creativity, attracting critical praise, caustic outspokenness, a colorful personality, or all of the above. Jay’s not exactly lacking in either of these departments, either, and the previously-mentioned “malevolent mindset” goes by another term, too: Jealousy.
Absent a few fleeting “heydays” (crusty hardcore; mid/late 90’s, garage rock; early/mid 90’s, indie rock; mid 90’s, psych-garage whimsy; you’re soaking in it), the smallish underground music scene in Memphis, TN has hovered around the same size since the export axis of The Grifters, The Oblivians, and Easley/McCain Studios was in high gear fifteen years ago. And the size in question is an unfortunate one for the restlessly creative. A small town with big physical dimensions, everyone is pretty much up in everyone else’s business, and when a creative type catches any modicum of fame outside the city limits, as Jay Reatard has done, they must be prepared for the reactionary triad of resentment, confusion, and jealousy from the provincial locals. Not to imply that the ass-kissers and brand new “friends” with dubious motives won’t materialize out of nowhere, but there’s no need to explain those types. Outside of the “scene” but impacting it nonetheless, Memphis nurtures a sense of socioeconomic despair and a tangible wasteland of urban decay that would be the focus of more magazine features and CNN spots had Detroit not filched the fire. When interviewed by this writer for a profile in The Memphis Flyer last April, Retard described his home town thusly:
“More than the music of Memphis, the city itself has inspired me. I’ve always felt like Memphis has this weird, ominous cloud hanging over it. To me, that’s inspiring. I’m never bored. I always feel like I’m in danger. But to me, that’s exciting.”
When Jay Lindsay was around fifteen years old, his pivotal “I can do that!” moment came when he witnessed The Oblivians open for Rocket From the Crypt. “They even had less primal rhythm than I had, and they couldn’t play, they were drunk, and they’d managed to take it somewhere,” says Lindsay. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do that…in fact, I can do that better.’ …so that was really inspiring.”
The challenge was on. At that time, Lindsey lived in a trailer park in Millington, TN, a glorified Navel base about ten miles north of Memphis. Millington’s claim to (mainstream) fame is as the hometown of Justin Timberlake, which has overshadowed any notoriety the town garnered from multiple UFO sightings in the 70’s and 80’s, or as the location of the annual International Goat Days Festival.
“I went through a lot of phases. I would record Rancid covers before I ever had a four-track…on a Karaoke machine and a couple of jam boxes. It moved pretty fast, though, it went from liking Offspring and Rancid to Smashing Pumpkins and other stuff that was successful on the radio, and within a whole week I’d thrown all that shit in the garbage and was trying my best to sound like the Oblivians. After seeing them live, I went into Shangri La Records and said, “I saw this band open for Rocket From the Crypt, they were old, they didn’t have a bass player, they were terrible, and they were really drunk…” And Andria [Lisle, now a noted freelance writer] said, “The Oblivians” and she sold me their record.”
Some decade and a half before John Norris blushed and gushed about “a new musical revolution called Lo-Fi” on MTVNEWS.com, the first “Lo-Fi” movement came full circle in the music press and the world of recording technology sent the first of many Trojan Horses into living rooms and bedrooms around the nation. Jay remembers:
“Right around the time I got that Oblivians record, I read an article in Spin about ‘The Lo-Fi Revolution’…it was in the mid-90s….so this was the real one that happened, fifteen years ago, and I kept seeing ‘Four-Track’ ‘Four-Track’ ‘Four-Track’….and I didn’t know what one was, but I figured out that it was what all of those bands, Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, used to record their records. Before the internet, it was really hard trying to figure out what one cost, or how to find one in the first place. I don’t remember which year it was, but I finally got one for Christmas. Before that, I recorded by using a karaoke machine with two tape decks hooked up to it. Essentially, those earlier recordings sounded like total dogshit, like recording through a telephone with the wind blowing. I didn’t realize that some of the records by other people that I would end up liking…those records were supposed to sound like shit. And nowadays, you have things like Ariel Pink, who try really hard to sound like shit. No matter how many songs you write, you’re not going to get motivated to do it right unless the songs are redone until you’re totally happy with them. A lot of people think it’s less pure to redo your songs, like you need to release everything you record. I only release a fraction of what I record.”
Jay Lindsey inaugurated the performing surname of “Reatard” with a demo tape sent to the Oblivians’ Eric Friedl, who reacted in a favorable manner by releasing Jay’s first 7” in early 1998 on his then-fledging Goner Records imprint. The record, presented as “The Reatards” and titled “Get Real Stupid”, has no doubt shocked unprepared listeners that are only familiar with Jay’s output of the past two or three years. The newly-minted Reatard played every instrument, including a plastic bucket thwacked for percussion. It’s not just raw; it’s an alternate universe of raw. Greg Cartwright, newly unburdened of the Oblivians, provided the drumming for Jay’s very first gig in early 1998 at Barrister’s, Memphis’ sadly forgotten venue for all things great in the 90’s.
A breakneck pace was then initiated (it continues to this day): Friedl released Teenage Hate, Jay’s first full-length album just months after “Get Real Stupid” debuted. Lindsey assembled a backing band for the needed purposes (primarily live performance) and did a short tour of the Midwest with the likeminded Persuaders, a NOLA band led by King Louie Bankston, the notorious drummer for New Orleans’ uber-revivalists, The Royal Pendletons. “Probably not the best idea in the world to let your teenager go on tour with The Persuaders. It was an eye-opener, and a lot of fun,” says Lindsey, “I remember this show in Illinois got canceled because this big scenester there, his brother died, and I got really pissed off. It was something like ‘Who gives a shit, we’re the Reatards and we’re going to fucking play!’ I was such a disrespectful asshole back then.”
During these very early days, the live incarnation of The Reatards was an absurd proposition, in manners both overt and subtle. Rock and roll history has dictated that a notably-young front person of attention-getting talent or hubris is often backed by musicians of the older, more “experienced” (a.k.a. “unemployed”) variety. For instance, the bassist/guitarist went by the performing name of “Steve Albundy Reatard” and was, for all intents and purposes, a mute obsessed with Kurt Cobain, hence the wildly out-of-place Fender Jaguar (or was it a Jazzmaster?) dwarfing his tiny, eighteen-year-old frame. Not exactly the first guitar that comes to mind when one thinks of an incredibly scuzzed-out garage punk outfit led by a kid that didn’t have a pot to piss in, but “Steve Albundy Reatard” is not exactly a garden variety pseudonym for someone fresh out of high school. The drummer’s handle was “Elvis Wong Reatard” and this young man rounded out a band that inadvertently created the perfect amalgam of awkward teenage unfriendliness, crushing in-between-song insults, and sonic explosions that erased any Memphis bands (past or contemporary) affiliated with either garage or punk. Yep, that includes the Oblivians.
A core of garage rockers and enlightened record-nerd/record-merchant/zine-writing scenester losers verbalized and penned much appreciation, fascination, and support for The Reatards. Otherwise, The Reatards were ignored or despised by the show-going indie-hipsters, scattered art-school yawn-inducers, crusty punks, and aimless retro-robots that made up the Memphis scene of 1998/99. “Yeah right, let’s see how long that’s going to last” – a common sentiment on the lips of former “tastemakers” that if located today, would be found handcuffed to a shrill, pilates-instructing wife with Iggy Pop’s body and a deep hatred for her husband’s record collection. Yeah, let’s see how long it’s going to last, pal.
Memphis was, and still is, a city dominated by an apathetic, terminally-provincial “underground” audience enamored with mediocrity-peddlers (bands that featured their friends). Making a name for one’s self outside of the city limits, rather than worrying about building a local following, has always been the way to go. If the locals want to wake up and suddenly become fans once the rest of the country has beat them to the punch, so be it. Jay Reatard not only understood the value of getting out there: He’d already taken The Reatards to Europe by the end of 1998. “I think the first time it really hit me was right before my first tour of Europe. I was 18, and paying a thousand dollars to get on a plane to cross a giant body of water so I could do some shows in Europe, playing music in front of people who didn’t know who the fuck I was. At that point I knew that I was INVOLVED in this, that I was no longer simply making recordings for Andria at Shangri-La Records to hear, or for Eric [Friedl] to hear and possibly release.”
In 1999, The Reatards made the move to Pacific Northest staple Empty Records for the release of the next full-length album. Titled Grown Up, Fucked Up, the record is arguably Lindsey’s first masterpiece; a blazing message of blunt-force disillusionment that flattened 99% of the punk, garage, noise-rock, and whatever else piggybacked some idea “anger” or “antagonism” throughout the 90’s. That said, the album also hinted at something else that would serve Jay Retard’s future far better than brazen negativity: Catchy songwriting.
As the next century approached, Jay Reatard had amassed a respectable following within the garage rock/punk scene, by then a movement of vexing boundaries. Along with this following came a reputation for incendiary behavior in a live setting. A good deal of it was merited. When getting banned from various venues wasn’t enough, the band went and got banned from entire countries. It’s nothing short of a miracle that The Reatards ended their second European tour walking with unbroken legs. There are just some things that one doesn’t say from a stage located in a strange, faraway country. Naturally, Jay’s reputation preceded him. In those days leading up to and following Y2K’s failed attempt at blacking out civilization, Jay Reatard rarely passed up a chance to hate-it-forward. His frequently brutal and blue commentary coupled with a propensity for “making it count” when it came to alcohol intake worked effortlessly to overshadow the leaps and bounds he making with song-craft and career-building. Thankfully, his next band would effectively silence a few of the naysayers and gawkers, thus decreasing his partially-undeserved status as a garage rock spectator-sport by a few degrees.
The Lost Sounds were a direct reaction to the cookie-cutter mindset that prevailed in the garage rock scene he was associated with. Jay founded The Lost Sounds with Alijcia Trout, no slouch on the productivity tip herself and his girlfriend at the time. The band started life in 1999 as a Reatards side-project, though that wouldn’t last long. Sharing songwriting duties, Trout and Lindsey drove the affair by alternating between guitar and keyboard, or just doubling up on the keyboards…a garage-rock “no-no” unless the words “Fender Rhodes” can be found on the instrument. They incorporated influences that wouldn’t be found anywhere near a Reatards song: Chrome, 80’s dark-wave, black metal, and especially late-70’s/early-80’s synth-punk pioneers The Screamers were all prominently heard flowing in and out of the Lost Sounds’ propulsive (and very loud) delivery. The band promptly established itself as Lindsey’s main priority, relegating The Reatards to sporadic touring and eventually, a temporary hiatus. Jay recalls:
“I think that I started listening to music differently when the Oblivians released that fake gospel record [The Oblivians Play 9 Gospel Favorites, 1999]. I thought that the entire sound had played itself out at that point and I was really, really disappointed. It was like the Ramones recording End of the Century or something…such a big departure and it kind of turned me off from that whole sound. Then the Persuaders broke up and I felt pretty detached and wanted to do something different, so I started doing the Lost Sounds. It wasn’t drastically different, but in a world of uncreative people, it was. I mean, garage is pretty fucking uncreative genre. It’s even more depressing than whatever punk has become, because punk can mean anything from Pennywise or baggy-pants Warped Tour garbage to the bands that are actually great. At least there’s some variety. Garage is where punk rockers go to be even more close-minded and die, or play dress-up and comb their wigs. Pretty quickly, I had more contempt for garage people than I did the rest of the world, I thought they were the most boring, predictable people I’d ever been around, so I wanted to get out of that. Somehow, it’s so easy to get stuck in that rut. I go back and listen to my records from the 90s, trying to find some insight, and I guess I was influenced by that stuff [garage rock], but at some point, I wasn’t, though I still get lumped in with all of it. That’s how it is. It takes ten times longer to get rid of your reputation than it does to make it.”
In just over five short years as a band (1999 – 2004), the absurdly prolific Lost Sounds scattered four proper albums (one the double-length crowning achievement, Black Wave on Empty), four 7” singles and EP’s, a 12” EP, and a whopping FIVE album-length outtakes and rarities collections over ten different labels (Empty, In The Red, On/On Switch, Solid Sex Lovie Doll, Hate, and Trout and Lindsey’s own Contaminated imprint, to name a few). In 2001 alone, the band released their full-length debut (Memphis is Dead, Big Neck Records), the sophomore double album (see above), the 1 + 1 = Nothing 7”, and the first outtakes/demos album. On top of this, the band was a touring machine and decent local draw that attracted people outside of the garage rock scene.
A testament to the dangers of inter-band relationships, Lindsey and Trout’s breakup in early 2005 signaled an end to a project which Lindsey is immensely proud and defensive of. Sadly, the band’s legacy remains underrated and overlooked, yet they predicted the visceral synth-heavy post-punk that bands, like Brooklyn’s Liars, would take to the bank. Today, the growing popularity of a band such as Blank Dogs only makes the continued dismissal of The Lost Sounds all the more aggravating. Jay explains:
“Recently I realized that all of these people that were championing the band five years ago, are now saying that Lost Sounds aged really badly, and then you look at all the bands they’re into now, all of this “weird punk”…it’s always some kid with a synthesizer and a drum machine in his bedroom ripping off Blank Dogs. None of that would have existed to all of these boring garage rock people had not a couple of bands incorporated, or not even incorporated, but somehow found a way to penetrate their tastes. Now synthesizers are an acceptable instrument. They’ve gone so crazy with it right now that it’s the new garage. The new Oblivians, Persuaders, Reatards genre, the new version of no bass, kick drum bands with a shitty guitar sound is now the synthesizers, drum machine, and lots of effects on the vocals sound.”
Not only did Jay reform The Reatards for a spell (releasing a slew of new and archival material in 2004 and 2005), The Lost Sounds seemed to mark a profound increase in Lindsey’s confidence as an artist. It was during this second phase that he exhibited a profound interest in forming or collaborating on side projects. He joined Eric Friedl and King Louie Bankston in the Bad Times, resulting in one-album allegedly committed to four-track during one daylong marathon session in 1999. The album is a forum for all three members to get some issues off of their respective chests, and the band played live once. The self-titled full-length was co-released by Goner and Therapeutic Records in 2001 (rereleased in 2003 by Sympathy for the Record Industry).
Back in the mid-to-late-90’s, a teenage Jay Reatard excused himself from a tumultuous family situation and lived temporarily with a mercifully-forgotten local band called The Jackmonkeys. Made up of close friends or roommates (all attended Memphis’ Rhodes College), The Jackmonkeys’ surreptitiously splintered into several fake bands for one of the college’s annual “battle of the bands” competitions. Jay manned the drums for an incarnation that played an entire set of Oblivians covers, earning the disdain of every fratboy and party girl within earshot. The Jackmonkeys were fronted by none other than Zac Ives, now known as co-owner of Goner Records, all-around great guy, and vocalist for Final Solutions. A faithful amalgam of the punk rock and post-punk that appeared on the Bloodstains and Killed By Death compilations of the late-70’s and early-80’s, the Final Solutions popped up on the Memphis scene a few years after that fateful “battle of the bands” with Jay playing drums, singing, and contributing to some of the songwriting. A weird mishmash of personalities, the band’s de facto leader is Zac Ives, now part-owner of Goner Records, and the bass player is a high school English teacher. Final Solutions shows exhumed the volatility of The Reatards, as sets might end after one song, erupt into public character assassinations ricocheting from member to member (but usually encouraged by Jay), or end before they even start. When the band is on, it can be amazing in a Black Flag-meets-Gary Numan kind of way. For a band with such a tenuous grasp on organization and reliability, Final Solutions have somehow managed to have two full-length albums and five 7” singles/EP’s released since 2002.
Also in the early part of this decade, Jay began to offer recording services to friends on a local and national level. Jay recorded The Oscars and Viva L’ American Death Ray (among others) before the demise of the Lost Sounds. In 2005, with new girlfriend Alix Brown (then of Atlanta’s The Lids), Jay launched the still-active Shattered Records, an imprint exclusively reserved for super-limited 7”s with different colors of vinyl denoting a section (ex: #’s 1 thru 100 are green) of the pressing run. In its first couple of years, Shattered Records was a prolific (relative to its purpose), carefully-managed little label that released 7”s by Jack Oblivian, Rat Traps (Jeffrey Novak’s pre-Cheap Time band), Angry Angles (Lindsey and Brown’s post-punk…pop collaboration w/ rotating drummers), Kajun SS (one of King Louie’s post- Persuaders projects), Final Solutions, (Knaughty Knights (also w/ former Persuaders members), Tokyo Electron (band of former Reatard drummer Elvis Wong), Terror Visions (solo, electronic-focused Jay) and Atlanta’s garage-pop faves, Carbonas.
Similar to the reactionary and by extension, developmental, transition from The Reatards’ blown-out punk rock to the more refined, thematically-dark synth-punk of the Lost Sounds, Lindsey gravitated away from the songwriting style associated with the latter when he wrote a batch of songs shortly before that band splintered. Much has been penned about some calculated shift towards pop songs, with music writers and bloggers that think they’re music writers all desperately trying to ferret out Jay’s predetermined pop agenda. It’s the benevolent journalistic hook needed to offset the inordinate amount of wordage pre-reserved for the white elephant in the room: Misbehavior that Lindsey has long grown out of. Catchiness can be found in earlier works: The Lost Sounds’ discography maps a natural arc towards more obvious pop hooks, and even The Reatards’ Grown Up, Fucked Up and 2005’s comeback album, Not Fucked Enough (also Empty), are not without the occasional hook.
“After I was sick of the synthesizer thing, I opened up my mind to something that I’d written off. Up until the early 00’s, I sort of avoided listening to any old U.K. punk that wasn’t Gang of Four or Wire because the garage rockers sort of led me to believe U.S. punk was better,” says Jay. “So I got into the other U.K. stuff pretty late, and I think the Adverts’ Crossing the Red Sea album was an important thing for me…hearing how good that record is.” While this record was definitely one that had an impact on Jay Reatard at or near the time of writing the songs that would become Blood Visions, Lindsey himself offers a succinct response to widespread misinterpretation of his album’s pop elements by music writers:
“I just think it’s just noisy pop music.” (1)
He’s right. Blood Visions works best if the listener ignores the avalanche of comparisons thrown at the album by the music press. It injects life into a dead adage: The music really does speak for itself. It speaks for itself through fifteen songs, many with at least two or three separate hooks staggered and fired off before the last note is struck. Lindsey’s first title under the solo “Jay Reatard” moniker, Blood Visions was released in early 2006 on In the Red Records, then politely sat on the shelves for over six months as a well-received, though overlooked, post-Lost Sounds Jay Reatard document.
What happened next can’t be narrowed to one responsible variable, though Jay Reatard as a live act is the probable facilitator. After some fits and starts, Jay eventually settled on Stephen Pope (bass) and Billy Hayes (drums) as a backing band (after starting as a four piece) The two younger musicians were in the excellent Boston Chinks (released one 7” on Goner before splitting up) when Jay came calling, and now they are members of Memphis’ theatrical twee-pop ensemble, The Barbaras, who have a Jay Reatard-produced album slated for future release on In The Red.
Hands-down one of the best live acts in the country, the Jay Reatard band fueled a phenomenon by sheer force of the performance. The live show is something akin to the infectiousness of the top-shelf Buzzcocks pushed by the power of five-piece era Black Flag or Husker Du at their ’83 – ’85 peak…thirty times over. Word spread, and the accessory to the live show, Blood Visions, held up its end of the deal as a brain-sticking view of the band parting audience members’ hair down the middle from town to town. Throw in a couple of multi-set, workhorse visits to SXSW in 2006 and 2007, where the band played an average of six times during each conference (2008’s SXSW was no naptime, either), relentless touring, and innumerable other factors (a handful of excellent singles, for starters), and Jay’s profile increased exponentially each month.
Before 2007 came to a close, Jay Reatard had been at the center of that old music biz chestnut that seems so rare these days: An old-school bidding war! Columbia played the Rick Rubin card, and another unnamed label allegedly stalked Lindsey through MySpace. Sure, there are scores of other surreal happenings, but in the end, Matador Records was the label and Vice Enterprises the management. Before we get ahead of ourselves however, there was a wise little trial marriage between Matador and Reatard…
Conceived by Reatard and ironed out with the help of Matador, the now-infamous series of six 7” records, released monthly (April to September), was as much a trust-building exercise between artist and label as it was an attention-getting alternative to the normal “debut album for a prominent label” honeymoon. Going one step further, the series was presented in descending order of availability, with the “See-Saw” b/w “Screaming Hand” single in an edition of 2000 [is this right?], and the final “No Time” b/w “You Were Sleeping” single released in the sell-your-first-born edition of 400 copies with different cover art for each 100. Catering to the vast number of Jay Reatard fans that didn’t feel like missing consecutive evenings of sleep or donating plasma in order to fetch all six titles, Matador and Jay released a single-album compilation of all six titles (Matador Singles 08) in the fall of 2008. In the Red had released its own collection, spanning the ’06 to ’07 slew of singles leading up the Matador series, a few months before.
As the singles series commenced in April of 2008, everything was made official when Jay inked a two-album/one-option deal with Matador, insuring that the long-awaited successor to Blood Visions, the little album at the onset of this three-year whirlwind of activity, would carry an OLE catalog number. In keeping with Jay’s ongoing decade-plus campaign to guarantee each year is busier and crazier than the last, 2008 found Jay, Stephen, and Billy trying to tame an inhuman touring schedule punctuated with shows of increased size and unpredictability.
Jay is no stranger to a small but ruinous audience factions (or single individuals) that base attendance on the hope that “something crazy will happen.” An especially stressful run in spring of 2008 was the byproduct of certain individuals’ frustration at the fact that this untouchable live band is going to (gasp!) throw its collective energy into high-impact greatness, that this Jay Reatard has a drastically different agenda than what was expected, that tireless and wildly prolific artists progress and mature, or that whatever convoluted reputation Jay may unwittingly have with some people…it’s most likely based on gossip-laden misadventures that may or may not have occurred years in the past.
Touring aside, Jay crammed writing and recording of the new album into 2008, along with an unexpected collaboration with, of all people, Beck. Jay had been asked to record a cover of Beck’s single, “Gamma Ray”, to appear on the B-side of the original. “I got an email from his management; they had a list of possible collaborators,” says Jay. “But one thing that I think made me attractive was that I tend to work really fast. I e-mailed a track to them four hours later. A lot of times, the first thing I do has the most impact. Then I went out there and played a show with him.” After the Jay Reatard band opened the show, Jay was asked to join in singing the song onstage with Beck. Not remembering the lyrics and very much caught off guard by this request, Jay can be seen reading from the printed lyrics in the YouTube clip.
As of early 2009, the finishing touches are being put on Jay’s as-yet-untitled new album. With all parties understandably hush-hush about the affair, Jay did offer some insight into just how different of an experience it’s been when compared to, well, any release from his past.
“This new album has been challenging. It’s the first time I’ve written and recorded an album specifically because a label wants to release it. I’ve never made a record for a record label. I’ve always finished my recordings and then a label is decided on. When I made Blood Visions, I had no idea that it was going to see the light of day. And I’ve never made a record in which the label heard the songs, or anyone heard the songs, before the album was finished, so that’s kind of intense. That’s what singles are for; I always considered my singles as a glimpse between the albums. Labels always had the previous single as an example of where I was going at the time, or of what the next album might sound like. In this situation, people at the label are hearing the songs before the album has been finished, but I try not to let it distract me, I’m trying to go about this process in a way that’s the closest to how I would have done an album in the past. A lot of bands these days, they approach the making of an album like it’s collecting songs, they don’t think about how all of the songs are going to work together. They sequence their albums on iTunes, wondering what songs sound best next to each other rather than putting them together as they were written. That’s not an album.”
- Andrew Earles, March 15th, 2009.