Since signing with Matador Records, underground hero Jay Reatard has been keeping company with icons
It’s 11:30 a.m. in Buenos Aires and Jay Reatard is reminiscing about a nocturnal sightseeing adventure in São Paulo two nights before.
“My only chance was between midnight and 6 a.m. to see the city, so I just walked around,” says the Memphis-based rocker on the line from his hotel room. “It was really dark outside, though, so I didn’t get to experience much.”
The middle of the night might seem like an odd choice to play tourist but when you’re Reatard, and find yourself playing on three continents in 10 days, you learn to take advantage of free time—even if it is at 3 a.m.
While the whirlwind pace is obviously exhausting—even more so now that Reatard’s schedule has been amped up to promote his forthcoming album, Watch Me Fall—the 29-year-old swears he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m very aware of my mortality,” Reatard says. “I’m just trying to do as much as I can while I’m still young and have the energy.”
Coming from anyone else this would sound painfully clichéd, like something you’d find on a faded bumper sticker, but Reatard manages to make it sound compelling—no doubt because his extensive musical résumé puts musicians three times his age to shame.
A major force in the American underground punk scene since the tender age of 15, the well-spoken musician has played in countless underrated bands, including the Reatards (the origin of his unique name—his real last name is Lindsey), the Lost Sounds, Digital Leather, and the Final Solutions.
It took the release of 2006’s Blood Visions, however, to finally catapult the relatively unknown garage rocker into the limelight, prompting punk aficionados and even electro-loving hipsters to embrace the southern renegade as their own. A multi-album agreement with indie heavyweight Matador Records soon followed, and then the “hard part” began.
If you’ve seen the notorious YouTube clip of Reatard punching a belligerent fan in the noggin during a 2007 Toronto concert, you know that the fiery rocker likes to deal with challenges, uh, head-on. It’s this straightforward mentality that helped him successfully navigate the making of Watch Me Fall—the first record he’s done as part of a formal label agreement.
“You have a label that’s already paid you to make a record, so you know you have to create something that’s going to do two things: sell enough copies to pay for itself and artistically excite the people that are going to put it out,” he explains. “I know I can make records that are going to excite people; I’ve just never really concerned myself with trying to sell records”¦until now.”
Reatard can relax. Watch Me Fall should sell faster than two-for-one coupons for a Katy Perry peepshow. Drawing upon the quirky sing-along pleasures of first-wave Kiwi punkers the Clean, the album offers listeners 11 premium tracks that bustle with the same infectious charm as his compilation discs Singles 06-07 and Matador Singles ’08. Reatard lets his melodic—albeit a little off-kilter—voice take centre stage with catchy pure-pop standouts like “Rotten Minds” and “Hang Them All”.
For anyone who still thinks of the singer as the snarly young punker who accosted listeners on the Reatards’ 1998 debut, Teenage Hate, the playful material on Watch Me Fall will put an end to all that.
Reatard will likely always be the poster boy for angst, but he’s discovered that sometimes it’s more fun to wrap up blinding rage in a hook-filled little pop song.
Reatard looked to his personal record collection for inspiration on the new disc. “As far as music goes, the sounds I was trying to get are based on early-’80s New Zealand indie-pop stuff and punk rock,” Reatard explains. “I wanted to do my own version of that, though. I didn’t want to just rip on that stuff—I’m pretty capable of being a musical monkey, but that’s kind of not my goal here.”
And thank goodness for that. Had Reatard remained a cookie-cutter garage disciple like so many useless artists Pitchfork has pushed on the masses over the years, he certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of some major alternative icons. Most musicians can only dream of being asked to do a split seven-inch with Sonic Youth or cover Beck’s hit single “Gamma Ray” on a split seven-inch, but Reatard has managed to do both. You’d expect the guy would be dropping these achievements into conversation, but, surprisingly, he doesn’t feel the need to brag about such milestones. In fact, he reveals, as time goes on it’s actually a bit hard to keep track of them all, especially when you’re sleep-deprived from wandering around foreign cities in the middle of the night.
“It’s like noticing small wrinkles in your face,” he explains. “Most people don’t do that, and then the next thing you know you look in the mirror and you’re old. That’s kind of how all this stuff goes.”
Jay Reatard plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (June 16).