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Fire to Burn

Seven Reasons to Give a Fuck About a 33-Year-Old Garage Band

Brian Birzer
HOT DOG AND HOT DAMN: The reformed Half Japanese lights up SXSW this past March.

By Mike McGonigal | Posted 7/9/2008

Half Japanese with the Tinklers, Coo Coo Rockin' Time, the Jaunties, Baby Aspirin, SpiderCake, Leprechaun Catering, Needlegun, and Aliens

Shake More Au Go Go Fest at Floristree July 12

Twenty-five years ago, during its classic "big band" phase, Half Japanese was clearly the best rock 'n' and roll band on Earth. This idea is played for laughs in Jeff Feuerzeig's breezy 1993 documentary The Band That Would Be King, but there is a raw truth in it. I saw them play an in-store in North Miami, Fla., in 1983; I was 15 years old and had no idea that such a cacophonous swirl of sexuality, fun, naiveté, and menace was a possibility, in any art form. Thankfully--and yet to remarkably little fanfare--the big band reformed earlier this year at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and it is about to party this town down. The last few years, there has been a glut of indie-rock reunions, ranging from once-marginal acts such as Slint, the Vaselines, and Pylon to the weird phenomenon where bands are asked to play the entirety of an album they made 20 years ago. And even though Kevin Shields didn't ask Half Jap to perform Charmed Life at September's All Tomorrow's Parties fest in upstate New York, you should still care about this. So in case you don't, I'll list a few reasons why, and then I will number these reasons to make it easier to remember them forever.

  1. The Brothers Connected From the Carter Family and the Shaggs to the Osmonds and Redd Kross, there really is something to families who make music together. Jad and David Fair grew up in Coldwater, Mich.; the MC5 and Stooges played high school dances in their area. And with Motown on the radio almost nonstop, they had a pretty great musical upbringing. The brothers started making music together in 1974. In '77, after moving to Uniontown, in Carroll County, they self-released their first 7-inch records, "Half Alive" and "Calling All Girls." These records were loud, atonal, and delightful. David is about 10 times bigger than Jad; initially he played drums and sang. His voice is deeper and often compared to David Thomas from Pere Ubu. Mailing tapes and records out to the world, the Fair brothers accessed the nascent punk underground and convinced the British label Armageddon to release an elaborate triple LP box set as their debut, 1980's Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts. That such excess was lavished on a record that cost almost nothing to record was beautiful. You used to see the thing in cutout bins, but nowadays it fetches the big eBay bucks.
  2. His Master's Voice To judge by his quavery singing style, Jad has been going through puberty for 40 years now. When the Silver Jews' David Berman sang that "all my favorite singers couldn't sing," you know he was talking about Neil Young and Leonard Cohen and maybe Bob Dylan. And those guys are pretty great, but do you want to hear some dudes sing who really cannot sing, whose voices are an atonal caterwauling of very belated puberty warbling? Care to experience any voice coach in the world's worst nightmare, an affront to common decency? Of course you do.
  3. What Is This? Half Japanese's music has always been tough to pin down. What's hard to convey, especially given its roots in the most basic rhythm and blues chord progressions, is how distinctive it is. It never really shared any of the thematic concerns of punk, but was too primitive and self-taught to qualify as postpunk. The music was too in love with good, old-time rock pleasures and structure to please many noise or art freaks, yet it's way too fucked up to please most fans of good, old-time rock music. What brings you back to Half Jap's music all the time is that even in its most menacing-sounding songs--say, "Walk Through Walls" or "No Direct Line"--it displays the total joy in acting like a kid that is really hard to carry on into adulthood. To make music that always sounds like it's falling apart yet is fully infectious is a lot harder than it looks.
  4. The Philosophy of David Fair David Fair was way more an important part of the band, which I never realized until I saw them play. Jad's artwork is on the cover of most of the records, and he writes and sings most of the songs, but David is as much the heart and soul of the band as Jad, even though he had to leave in the late '80s to raise a family. In his DIY manifesto "How to Play Guitar," David writes that playing guitar is "incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds. . . . If you want to play fast move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. . . . Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that's absurd. How could it be wrong? It's your guitar and you're the one playing it."
  5. Emo Without Eyeliner David has notoriously stated that Half Jap makes two types of songs: songs about monsters and songs about girls. Jad's songs about girls are among the most poignant love songs I know of, and they range from the ridiculous to the absurd. Most of his paeans are like the wishing-on-true-love tune "Penny in the Fountain," where he sings, "I threw a penny in the fountain, and it paid off five hundred thousand million percent." The rest of the love songs are the unrequited type; there were more of these early on, when it sounded like he'd never left his bedroom. Every once in a while Jad comes off super tough, like at the end of the swaggering "Big Mistake" when he half-growls, "I took too much for granted and that was my big mistake." Jad has always been able to be nakedly emotional without sounding like a sap, which is also very tough to pull off.
  6. The Greatest Band Ever Once the double-brother version of the band got started around 1980, with Jad and David plus John Dreyfuss on sax and his brother Ricky on drums, the sound cohered into more recognizable sounds and songs. Once the great Mark Jickling joined on guitar and bass, and John Moreman also on guitar, Half Japanese was often brilliant. Take "Double Trouble" off of 1985's Sing No Evil: Over a bubbling, doubled-up Bo Diddley beat, a circular squall of stinging guitar and horns floats around a noir recitation by Jad. It's badass. Or "Fire to Burn," off of 1985's Our Solar System, which sounds like the members of the E Street Band fighting with their instruments after they've come alive and tried to strangle them. The song is the best song about the evils of rock, as Jad and bandmates yell in unison: "Throw your bad records/ That make you act like a sex animal/ Throw `em on the fire/ On the fire to burn." The song's guitar part sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a pool; it's so awesome.
  7. Gone to Hell You have to see Half Japanese in Hell, a live performance recorded in a small studio in 1985. The band plays in front of a chroma-key screen showing a blown-up miniature diorama of hell, flames licking the little red devil puppets and skeletons. A crazed Half Jap in a later big-band incarnation--when the Velvet Monkeys' Don Fleming joined on vocals and guitar shredding--cavorts along with female dancers dressed as skeletons. The dancers are all made up with face paint and are jumping all over the place. A friend calls this the greatest moment in the history of cable-access television. He must be right. You can see it yourself in the bonus-materials section of the The Band That Would Be King DVD.

This week's Floristree show is every bit as capital-I important as the more-publicized comeback shows from the likes of Mission of Burma, the Feelies, the Pixies, or even My Bloody Valentine. Of course, Half Jap never disbanded, but it rarely plays with Jad and David both in the band--and it's been many years since the original sextet all got onstage. I was lucky enough to catch this lineup at SXSW. Everyone was dancing so hard all around me, including members of Yo La Tengo and the broad from Times New Viking and that fake British guy from Psychedelic Horseshit. If you can hear Half Japanese play "Snake Line" and not jump around and smile with your entire body, you might as well just go ask to be cremated. You're good as dead already, bub.

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