Since the late '70s, Jad Fair has spun out over 70 deeply idiosyncratic albums. He's worked as a solo artist, in collaboration with the likes of Daniel Johnston, Moe Tucker, The Pastels and most famously, with his band Half Japanese.
From Half Japanese's earliest days on their debut Half Gentleman/Not Beasts as skronky, no-wave-inflected garage pop, Fair's songwriting voice has been irrepressible. Though his work has grown less chaotic over the years, all the way up onto this year's Overjoyed – the first Half Japanese album in over 13 years, out on Indianapolis' own Joyful Noise Recordings – there's still Fair's singularity pulsing at the center.
Though for the most part he only sings with Half Japanese these days, part of what makes so many of his recordings sound so unique is his signature guitar style.
"I play like a caveman. I just hit it more like a percussion instrument," he said when NUVO reached him via phone before Half Japanese's date at WARMfest this weekend.
Earlier in the year, he played a solo set at Joyful Noise's space in Fountain Square. Accompanying himself on a custom guitar, he choked the strings and bent the instrument's neck through different pitches. At the climax of the show, the neck popped off (and he was nonchalant).
Fair explains, "I was doing a good bit of traveling. Many of the airlines will charge for extra luggage, so I wanted to have a guitar I could just break apart and fit in my suitcase."
He went through a few iterations before he got the design right. In the end, office supplies did the trick.
"I tried putting [the neck] on with Velcro, and I could keep it on that way, but I had no real movement with it," he says. "Then I had the idea that I'd put rubber bands on it so I could kind of a whammy sound with it."
Fair's actual songs are often built from traditional elements, but they're hardly derivative. Fair's brother David, an early member of Half Japanese, has said Jad sings mostly about two things: love and monsters. Jad thinks that's about right.
"For the most part it usually is about either love songs or monster songs."
Love songs make sense, everyone's got love songs. But monster songs?
"Probably the monster thing comes because when I was a young kid, monster movies were just my favorite type of movie."
It's as simple as that. That simplicity runs like electrical current through all of Fair's music. He does what he likes, sings about how he feels. Overjoyed, which leans a bit more heavily on the love songs, presents with a propulsive optimism.
"Well I think part of that is that I'm very happily married and I love my wife, and so you know, I think of love as being a very positive thing."
It's easy to read the album's title and content as a sort of gleeful response to the end of a 13 year dry spell for the band; their last album together was 2001's Hello. Fair says the break came about because of logistics.
"It's mainly because everyone is in different cities, and actually different countries."
Drummer Gilles Reider is in France, guitarist Mick Hobbs is in the United Kingdom and the rest of the band is scattered around the United States.
Now, however, the band seems to be back. In fact, after playing WARMFest this weekend in Broad Ripple Park, Half Japanese will head down to Bloomington to begin work on another full-length at Russian Recording. They'll be writing the album in the studio, but don't expect them to burn through months and months of time. Regarding their writing and rehearsal process, Fair says, "we're pretty fast."
Of course, Fair's work with Half Japanese makes up not even half of his planned recorded output this year. With Joyful Noise, he's also in the midst of an artist-in-residence series that will see him release four collaborative full-length albums with R. Stevie Moore, Norman Blake, Danielson and Strobe Talbot over the course of the year. The collaborations on these albums, as with most of Fair's work with other musicians, grows first out of his personal relationships.
"It usually starts as a friendship. All the people I've recorded with, I'm friends with them, so it has a very natural feel to me because these are just the people I do enjoy being around," he says.
Many of these friendships began quite simply as correspondence. For example, as a "huge fan of The Velvet Underground," getting the chance to work with Moe Tucker on such albums as 1989's Life In Exile After Abdication grew simply out of "sending letters back and forth." Later, he found himself in Arizona near where Tucker was living.
"I went to see Moe and we just hit it off real well."
That's pretty much how the artist-in-residence series and the Half Japanese full-length on Joyful Noise came about, too. There were conversations between himself and Joyful Noise label head Karl Hofstetter that lead to the two feeling they could work well together.
"Karl made the offer to me of doing several records with his label during the year, and that just sounded great to me."
Overall, Fair says he's just glad he's been able to make all these connections and keep on making music in all these different directions.
"I've had so many great opportunities being able to record. I've just been very lucky."