- Half Japanese: The band who would be king, if only it had a hit.
The latest Half Japanese tour is simply one more notch on an impossibly carved belt that stretches back to the band's beginnings in the mid-'70s, when teenage brothers Jad and David Fair conceived the band in their parents' basement. From that almost purposefully impermanent birth has sprung one of the longest lived and most archly weird musical art projects of the 20th century. The current Half Jap lineup is fairly familiar to fans -- it consists of drummer Gilles V. Rieder and guitarists Jason Willett, Dallas Good (Phono-comb/the Sadies), and Rob Erickson (Adult Rodeo). Guitarist John Sluggett, a Half Jap fixture, is bowing out of this circuit due to the mundane reason that he's buying a house and his closing coincides with distant tour dates.
Most bands would be thrown into a panic with the loss of a longtime member on the eve of a major tour, but Half Japanese has been an amorphous entity with a sliding roll call for so long that its departures and arrivals rival those of any major airport. Fair's demeanor on the eve of the latest live incarnation of Half Japanese is professionally cool, as if the tour were the least of his concerns -- which, as it turns out, may well be the case.
"We're planning to first do the tour, and then, after that, we're going up to Toronto for about 10 days to record the new album," says Fair from his brother David's Baltimore home. "I know that Alternative Tentacles is the label that's going to be releasing it, and my guess is that they'll wait until after the summer [to release it]."
Following the band's standard modus operandi, very little in the way of actual material for the new album exists as such. Fair and his current bandmates will be writing new songs and simultaneously road testing them on this tour. "So far we don't have anything written," Fair says. "Everyone is scattered in different locations. Gilles is in Switzerland, Dallas lives in Canada, Rob is down in Texas, so we're all getting together just for this thing, and once we meet up, we'll start trying to put some songs together."
With a 25-year history and literally thousands of songs to choose from, the other obvious tour problem is a set list. "Right now, I've got a list of about an hour and a half worth of songs that I sent to everyone," says Fair. "When we get together, we'll see which ones go smoothly and which ones don't. I feel the need for 50 minutes or an hour's worth of songs -- we don't need to do everything."
For most bands, an album and tour would make for a full and eventful year and would be the sole focus for the majority of the current calendar. For Half Japanese, a tour and new album are barely scratching the surface of the year's activities. Fair is also overseeing the reissuing of a pair of Half Japanese classics on Drag City Records -- Our Solar System and Sing No Evil, both from 1984. Although both are straight reissues with no added bonus cuts, this will mark their first appearance on CD. In addition, next month will see the first U.S. video release of Jeff Feuerzeig's 1994 documentary The Band Who Would Be King, which chronicled Half Japanese's sphere of influence and collected interviews from erstwhile Half Japanese members and fans, including the Velvets' Moe Tucker, Don Fleming, and Byron Colley.
As for Fair himself, he will be increasingly busy for the remainder of the year. After the Half Japanese three-week tour and the recording of the new album, Fair will head to Texas with guitarist Rob Erickson to do some recording with Adult Rodeo. In March, Fair's latest book of illustrations, song lyrics, and paper cuttings, titled Attack of Everything, will be published. Included with the book will be a CD-ROM featuring films by Martha Colburn as well as music by Fair and Jason Willett. Following all of that and some time off for South by Southwest, Fair and Half Japanese head to Europe for a brief tour beginning in May. Fair reunites with brothers David and Peter for an album of music and narrative, sessions for which they are at nearly the halfway point, and which should come out this year -- provided one of the eight or nine labels with which they regularly deal chooses to release it. And Fair is currently finishing up work on an album with Teenage Fanclub, a result of meeting half of the band while they all worked on a project with the Pastels.
Amazingly, Fair's roadwork this year may conspire to keep him away from the studio and off last year's grueling pace. In addition to The Sound of Music, a collaborative album with famed New York producer/art rock pioneer Kramer, Fair had a couple of his own things out in 1999. Between the U.S. and European tours, and the Drag City reissues, this year may turn out to be the lightest year in terms of new material for Fair and Half Japanese in quite some time.
Perhaps the most astounding fact about the Half Japanese panorama is the band's longevity and consistency. Even with a rotating cast of musical personalities, including the loss and occasional reappearance of founding member David Fair, the art damage collective has generally maintained its reference points of early Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers, Captain Beefheart, and the Stooges.
In a career that has defined the musical fringe, one of the band's oddest gigs would have to have been its opening spot on Nirvana's In Utero tour. "I was in a hotel in Toronto, flipping through a copy of Spin magazine, and there was an interview with Kurt, and he was talking about the tour he was going to be doing, and that he'd chosen the Breeders and Half Japanese to open for him," recalls Fair. "It was the first I'd heard about it. It was just amazing, because they were so famous by that time. I called my booking agent, and she told me that she had just found out about it. The first night we did fast songs and slow songs. The slow songs just bombed. After that, we did all fast songs, and it went much better."
Through it all, Jad Fair's artistic vision, such as it is, has kept Half Japanese on track despite the revolving door of friends, family, and session players, the potential distraction of outside projects, and the inherent influences of youth. "There's been a number of changes, but then again, I've really stuck with a lot of the players for quite a long time," Fair says. "Over the course of 25 years, certainly there are going to be some changes."