“I’m not going to be one of those people who will try to sell it to you like, ‘I’m a realist.’ I’m fucking negative,” Jay Reatard says on the phone from his native Memphis. “I have fun like the next guy, and I do normal things, but I usually hate it.”
Audibly out-of-breath, Jay’s taking a walk to cool down after an impromptu band practice. Despite such blunt pessimism, he’s upbeat. Well-spoken. Even nice. This is a little surprising, given his 15-year reputation for confrontational live performances (including recently punching a heckling fan in the face in Toronto) and hopeless, death-obsessed punk anthems.
“There’s really nothing else in the world that conjures up any sort of ambition in me,” he explains. “If I wasn’t playing music, I think I’d probably be living with my mom and be 300 pounds, chugging Mountain Dew and eating fucking Taco Bell all day on the couch. I’d be like Daniel Johnston… minus the music.”
Memphis Is Dead
Reatard, born Jay Lindsey, was eight years old when his family first moved to Memphis. Their housing plans fell through, and they were cooped up in a shitty hotel for a few weeks. One night, Jay was playing in the bathroom and stabbed himself with a junkie’s needle he found under the sink. “My first Memphis memory is being rushed to the hospital for an AIDS test,” he offers.
A shaky relationship with his alcoholic father and evil stepmother (whom he describes affectionately as “that fucking beast of a woman”) led Jay to often lock himself in a walk-in closet, where he would sing melodies into a handheld tape recorder. One day, he found a nylon-string classical guitar and taught himself to play. At the age of 15, he ditched high school to pursue music full-time. Since then, he has released 19 full-length LPs and over 50 singles with his various projects, including the drunken, aggressive garage-punk band The Reatards, the haunted macabre-rock outfit The Lost Sounds, and the solo bedroom No Wave side-gig Terror Visions.
“My awkward high-school photographs are records, because I didn’t go to high school. [Making records is] what I did when I should have been [in class],” he explains, thus shedding light on enraged album titles like 1998’s Teenage Hate, 1999’s Grown Up, Fucked Up, and 2007’s World of Shit.
Death Is Forming
Though he’s been prolific since the late ’90s, it’s Reatard’s recent solo work that’s garnered the most attention. Beginning with the Hammer I Miss You 7”, he spent the whole of 2006 working on Blood Visions, his solo debut. The album documents intense life transitions: coming out of a six-year relationship, quitting The Lost Sounds, and moving into a friend’s spare bedroom. “I just sat in the bedroom of this girl’s apartment and wrote the entire album in a couple of sittings,” Jay explains. “I was in a really, really bad place in my life, and that’s where the inspiration was coming from.” This is echoed in Blood Visions’ nihilistic songs about friends and family, with repeated choruses like “All these places mean nothing to me” and “Death is forming.”
The results were unparalleled, and Blood Visions surpassed Reatard’s previous efforts. Filled with rusty guitar hooks and Reatard’s frantic, almost paranoid vocals, the record paired his signature garage punk with newfound songwriting maturity. Released in October of 2006, it nonetheless went relatively unnoticed for a while due to scant promotion and Reatard’s reluctance to pursue a solo career. “I still thought [the record] was crap when I turned it in [to L.A. label In the Red Records],” he admits. “I never had any thoughts about it except, ‘Oh my God, I made a solo record. Who the hell do I think I am?’”
Blood Visions quietly built momentum, and by mid-2007 Jay Reatard was touring internationally, selling out medium-sized venues, and becoming a shit-hot commodity with the major-label A&R sharks, some of whom were none too subtle in their intent to capitalize on Reatard’s fresh-meat status. “One guy was like, ‘Hey man, don’t be that girl. You know, you’re at the fuck party in college and it’s the girl you bring home and have sex with. Then she gets that look in her eye, and she calls you too much,’” Jay recalls with disbelief. “Right from the get-go, there it is: a major label making an analogy of fucking you.”
Always Wanting More
Eventually, Jay found kindred spirits at Matador Records and signed with them over a bottle of wine in their New York office. As always, the jump to a bigger label has brought its share of backlash from the DIY punk community. “I got death via MySpace from some serious creeps, but good riddance man,” he says. “I’ve worked so hard my entire life to the point where, if I release an album that’s going to get properly worked, it’s not a big deal.”
Jay’s distaste for indie rock’s needless elitism stems from his own musical upbringing. “Not everybody can be so cool as to read the hippest fuckin’ blog or whatever,” he rants. “Some people live in the middle of nowhere and still go to the grocery store to buy a magazine off of the rack. That’s where I learned about new music initially.”
Jay kicked off his contract by releasing six new 7” singles over the course of 2008. While they retain his old material’s snarling, bad-ass style, the new songs are slightly less vicious, built on acoustic guitars and thought-out melodies. “I can only imagine how Danny Bonaduce must feel. That guy’s got to be this cute little redheaded bass player in The Partridge Family for his whole life,” he explains. “It’s kind of the opposite effect with me: I’m not allowed to not be a creepy little shithead any more.”
Grown Up, Fucked Up
While Jay figures out how to navigate his way above ground, he’s also consumed with adding the right finishing touches to his upcoming full-length, due for an early 2009 release. “People say it’s contrived to over-think how a record sounds, but it’s just like picking fucking colors for a painting,” he explains. “Anyone that says it pours out and the song just ends up how it is… is either a fucking liar or not a songwriter to begin with.”
If Blood Visions’ unexpected success is any indicator, Jay’s new album could blow up in a heartbeat, but that’s the last of this Memphis punk’s concerns. “I’m only truly content with life when I’m singing about dead people,” he says, adding that music is his true love. “I’ve been through a lot of things–the last thing I’m afraid of is being in a popular band.”