A Star Is Not Borin'
Jay Reatard's subversive, parallel-universe pop
Boredom has boosted Jay Reatard's career. The 28-year-old Memphis-based garage phenom, who has been banging out rough-hewn pop gems in his home studio for a decade in a dozen or so incarnations and ensembles, owes his ascent to his acute allergy to it.
Why did he pick up the guitar and start recording well before he turned 18? "I guess I was just bored," he says.
Why did he, after taking a thrilling detour into the ensemble synth punk of the Lost Sounds from his solo garage roots for four years, suddenly break up the band and abandon the keyboard? "When I started playing [synthesizers], I thought I'd have limitless possibilities, but I wound up feeling just as limited as I did on guitar," he says. "I got bored with it."
Why has he famously turned down a major-label deal with Universal? "It just doesn't seem spontaneous to say, 'Three months from now, we're gonna go in and make your record,'" he observes. "I have a really short attention span. I get bored easily."
Which may explain why, though the rave reviews and Jack White comparisons have increasingly swirled around him during the past five years, Reatard's an ornery sumbitch. "I don't get along well with too many people," he admits, but he's that much more firmly committed to his craft of making perfect pop music as he is to not being a—you guessed it—"boring" pop star. "It's not that I'm anti-commercial," Reatard maintains. "It's just boring to make music that's predictable."
And Lord knows people have tried. Reatard (born Jay Lindsay) currently has a dream contract with Matador; he can deliver six 7-inches over the course of the next year or so, then turn in an album whenever he pleases, which shouldn't take that long, considering Reatard works "10 to 12 hours in my studio the same way everybody else goes to a job."
That contract also means Universal lost the bidding war. "They wanted me to work with the guy who recorded Limp Bizkit," he says with a disgusted laugh. "They were like, 'How would you feel about . . . ?' 'Wait—so you're signing me based on what I've done, but now you want to change everything about me?' I figured if we didn't see eye-to-eye on an artistic level, we'd never see eye-to-eye on the business end."
Reatard's artistic level is a curious thing and explains the synth detours. His heroes are the accidental pop craftsmen of post-punk and new wave—the Greg Sage/Wipers-Colin Newman/Wire school of subversive, parallel-universe pop.
"Colin Newman wrote some of the best pop songs of the '70s, but he never had much commercial success. He could have, but he'd put an out-of-tune instrument or something over it," Reatard explains. "Pop radio is the same four chords and, a lot of times, the same melodies you hear on indie recordings, but that's all it is. It's just . . ." Boring.
Reatard is never boring; if anything, his love-hate with pop affability channeled through his own abrasiveness means that when he aims for the heart of perfect pop, he sometimes has to shoot through his own foot to get there. The cover of his 2006 Blood Visions disc, for instance, showed him blood-spattered head to love handles. At least the Dwarves used hot chicks.
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But as songs go, his gruff but lovable style pays off. On his Night of Broken Glass 7-inch, he pens "All Over Again" around a chiming but bruised acoustic guitar line. "By the look on your face, I can tell that you're fed up/And the look of guilt in my eyes lets you know that I fucked up," he sings, delivering "face" as "fice" in his best Pete Shelley impression, before warning us, "And don't you hold anything too close/Because one day you'll have to let it go/It's all over again . . ." Buddha couldn't have said it better.
These kinds of Kris Kristofferson-meets-GG Allin flourishes keep Reatard out of Ryan Adams/Jack White territory. But for as much as Reatard doesn't play the game, he actually does—just on his own terms. He stays in Memphis "because I'm in my own little bubble here"; he pondered moving to Australia to get even further away. That being said, Reatard just sold a song to a video-game company. He's not particularly proud of it, but he can put it in perspective.
"I know there are songs on there from records that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. I spent $2,000. You don't have to do things typically."
Jay Reatard performs with the Black Keys at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sun., 7 p.m. $20. All ages.