If you go by his music alone, Jad Fair is not a normal guy.
When he and his brother David started the experimental rock band Half Japanese
more than 20 years ago in Maryland,
neither of them knew how to play any instruments.
Their most recent musical efforts sound as atonal and primitive
as their earliest. But that untutored style hasn't stopped Fair,
now in his early 40s, from releasing more than 20 albums with
the experimental rock group Half Japanese -- and another 20-plus
with assorted friends and acquaintances, including
post-punker/Dinosaur Jr-leader J Mascis and NRBQ roots-rocker
For his latest album, Strange But True (Nov. 3),
guitarist/singer Fair teamed up with noise-pop pioneers Yo La Tengo
on a recording project that's as odd as everything else with
his name attached to it. With such song titles as "Retired Grocer
Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely Of Cheese" and "Ohio
Town Saved From Killer Bees by Hungry Vampire Bats," it's evident
the album is entirely comprised of songs inspired by supermarket-tabloid headlines.
"I like the idea of creating a supergroup," Fair said of the
impetus behind his collaboration with Hoboken, N.J.-based Yo La
Tengo. "I read a copy of Playboy once which had a readers' music poll. They put together a band which had Jimi Hendrix on guitar, Paul McCartney on bass, Buddy Rich on drums and Barbra Streisand for the singer.
"What we were attempting with these recordings was to create a supergroup for the '90s, in the same tradition as Cream, Bad Company, and when Sammy Hagar joined Van Halen."
College-radio stalwarts Yo La Tengo said they were equally enthusiastic about the idea of working with Fair. The members of the band had been fans of his and friends with him for years.
"We had actually played together a few times in New York at parties and things, and it was really fun," Yo La Tengo bassist/vocalist James McNew said of the band's association with Fair. "[So] Jad asked us if we wanted to do something a little more conventional in the way of recording."
The resulting album could be called many things, though conventional is not one of them. Recorded in two sessions two years apart, Strange But True took a different slant right from its conception.
Taking lyrics that were written by his brother David, Fair was sequestered in one room of the studio, singing the lyrics in either his trademark monotone or a more invigorated yell. In the studio's other room, McNew, Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley improvised backing music for the bizarre, tabloid-spurred lyrics.
"When David first started writing these songs, he meant to use them in a book he was working on," Fair said. "He showed it to me and I convinced him it would make a good rock opera."
Yo La Tengo's contributions to the album range from the spooky atmospherics of "Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home" to the atonal guitar squalls -- reminiscent of pop-noise band Sonic Youth -- in "Three Year Old Genius Graduates High School at the Top of Her Class" to all points in between.
"Principal Punishes Students With Bad Impressions and Tired Jokes" finds Kaplan laying down propulsive, punk-rock guitar lines while McNew and Kaplan ground the song with sturdy, steady rhythms.
On "Clever Chemist Makes Chewing Gum from Soap," Kaplan repeats a spare, folksy, acoustic-guitar riff while Hubley quietly taps the rim of her snare drum. It lends the song a surreal, country feel as Fair intones such slapstick-style lines as, "For years now, he's worked on its formula/ But all he's got for his troubles/ Is something that still tastes like soap/ But is great for blowing bubbles."
"It was all completely improvised," McNew said of the music on Strange But True. "Most of the time we could not hear what Jad was doing. We could sort of see him. We would agree on a mood for a song and then I would see him wave his hands, meaning he was ready for us to start, and then I would see him hunched over the microphone, but I couldn't see what he was doing.
"When he was done he would wave his hands and we would stop playing. That was pretty much it."
Yo La Tengo were new to the unusual recording process, but for Fair, it was the only way he likes to work. "I don't give process any thought when I do things," he said. "I just try to be as natural as possible. The bluebirds have no need to practice their songs and neither do I.
"I have nothing but contempt for bands that plan out their every move. I have no desire to be a robot."