Perfect Sound Forever

Half Japanese

Mark Jickling, some guy from Nirvana, John Sluggett, Gilles Rieder
photo by Mike Galinski

John Sluggett interview

PSF: What kind of music were you doing before joining up with Half Japanese?

I'm from West Palm Beach Florida. You can probably surmise that there's not a lot of action down there except for a bunch of guys who'd get together and play in their garage. I played drums back then (early '80's). I was pretty young and my friends were in good cover bands. No one wrote anything, just bar bands. But my friends didn't want me in their bands. They said I was too wild. I was listening to Coltrane and Tony Williams, the Velvet Underground. I would play the songs like they were on the record back then.

I've played with some interesting characters when I was Florida, like Tiny Tim. That was REALLY amateurish. A friend of mine who'd always get weird calls asked if I wanted to play with Tiny Tim. I said 'Sure! Are you kidding!' (laughs) Tiny came in with a piano player who I saw on the People's Court. We went out there with him and he didn't have a song list or anything. He'd just start a song and then the piano player and bass player and me thinking 'what's he playing?' We were constantly behind a whole song. He would do these medleys with all these pre-war songs. By the time the band had any idea about how the song went, he was on to the next song. He did a thirty minute medley and I'm sure all of us in the band were completely polytonal, Charles Ives. It was really fun.

Being down there, it was more of a straight laced scene. Jaco Pastorius lived down there. He hung out in bars and I played with him at one show. Just weird little things here and there but there were no cool rock bands going on down there. Plus it was a time in music that was pretty boring- we were just coming out of new wave and people were listening to the Cars. I actually went off to live in the mountains. I just got sick of it all and spent a year there. After a while, I got pretty bored and I didn't think to move to New York until a couple of years later. I thought that maybe there'd be more music there.

PSF: So how did you meet up with Jad Fair?

I met up with a guitar player who was friends with the people who ran the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society. Their record company, 50 Skadillion Watts, was based in Florida. I found out through friends about this cool little record company that was putting out a Moe Tucker record and Half Japanese records with Kramer producing. I came on down to visit this record company and they introduced me to Jad, who was also visiting. He was just coming down to visit some relatives and somebody said they could get us an opening slot for the dB's in '88.

So we did some crazy shows together with a bunch of local, crazy musicians. There'd be five guitars, two drummers, two bass players. We rehearsed just once and it was such a barrage of noise that we really couldn't tell what was going on. We did wacked out versions of songs that we learned overnight with Jad. We booked another show a few weeks later in Miami. It was booked as 'Half Japanese' but it was really Jad and a bunch of us.

Jad asked me if I wanted to join right after that. There was a Half Japanese tour booked. I think Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore were going to do it with him. For some reason, they backed out a month before it was supposed to happen so he asked me to come. Basically, we've been together since '88 like that.

PSF: What did you know about Half Japanese before you met up with Jad?

I went to college in Tulane and a friend of mine at the radio station had Sing No Evil and Our Solar System. It was some wild stuff. I really loved it. "Ball and Chain" was probably my favorite track ever. I was pretty familar with Jad and Half Japanese. When I joined the band, we didn't try to sound like that. We didn't have saxophones and trumpets anymore. We were a guitar and drum band then.

PSF: Half Japanese has gone through a lot of line up changes over the years, from album to album. In the last five to ten years, it's been mostly the same group of people. How has that effected the band?

It's probably good 'cause we work together so fast now. It's kind of telepathy. We don't really talk things over. We just come up with whatever we feel like for each song, like a riff or something. It just helps things move. We get to know each other and it's kind of fun. Even though the songs are basically structured, no two nights do we ever play them the same. I like playing with people I know.

I think in the early days, Jad did have versions of the band that were together for a while (like the one with Don Fleming and Mark Jickling). That's best, believe it or not, when that matured a little bit. By the time of Charmed Life, they'd been together for quite a while.

I think it's good. I've been with Jad for almost ten years. Our drummer Gilles played his first time with us in 1990. We've been a pretty stable core.

PSF: How do you find Jad to work with?

He has very unique ideas about production. Jad'll sometimes suggest things that are technically... interesting ideas. Like clever ways to record something in stereo and have one channel of it distorted and do something odd to it, blend it into something strange that you can't quite put your finger on what it is. He's full of ideas like that.

As a performer, I think Jad's the best. Everything he says is sincere. I'm not sure how he does it but it comes out so real. I really like that. I think that's great. He's like Bob Marley- everything that he sang had a ton of feeling to it, every little utterance.

PSF: Do you ever worry that Half Japanese is seen just as Jad's group since he's been a constant and dominant part of it since it started?

I guess I can't fault anyone for seeing Jad as the center of it, which he really always has been. If we wrote a bunch of music and someone else started singing it, I wouldn't think of it without Jad. It doesn't really bother me because I know better. People like to associate the singer with the band. Think of Iggy Pop with the Stooges. If you're a fan of the Stooges, you know how amazing the band is. You realize that Scott Ashton's drumming is so important to that rocking feeling that's so great about those records. People still focus on Iggy and they don't focus on the Ashton's as much.

The way I see it is sort of like that to me. It be fun it if everyone said 'we really love your music.' But Jad is the focus and he's such a great performer. As a person who plays with him, you got to be ready to give up some attention. I'm just so glad that as a band, we've got a singer that puts out so much.

PSF: How do you see your own contribution to Half Japanese?

Songs, music, rhythm, sound. I like to always changed. We got slammed recently because Bonehead starts out with a song that's a little heavy, not like Helmet or Tool though. I guess that people except Half Japanese to be light or have love songs or some kind of blues or primitive stuff. Then we came out with this song that's heavy sounding, chromatic and dark with a progressive rock part in the middle. Some writer thought it sounded like Black Sabbath and that's ridiculous.

But I'm just reflecting my influences. When I was in high school, I heard all kinds of music and it comes out in our music. So we got a little bit slammed for breaking our mold. I do most of the music writing these days and I think it's always fresh. We don't have a formula. We just sort of mess things up naturally by working so fast. We go in and we rarely write things in advance. We just sort of make things up and they fall together spontaneously and strangely. I think that I get to do a lot and express myself with the way that I like music.

Some people just expect us to repeat things from the past. My musical vision is pretty broad and so is Jad's. If we tour together in a van, we'll listen to Buck Owens and Sun Ra and the Shaggs and Merle Haggard. We listen to EVERYTHING so it's gotta come out. So I think it's wrong when people think that we're contriving things. It's just really naturally eclectic.

I get it all the time where people want us to play the same thing again and again. 'You guys are playing much harder than Charmed Life. Why don't you get the saxophone player from that record?' I think that it's done and it's a great record. It would be so dumb for us to try to repeat it.

PSF: One thing that makes Half Japanese unique is its raw, amateurish sound. How does the band maintain that after all this time?

I would have to say that the whole amateur thing is a strange misconception. Early, early Half Japanese is very amateurish but by the time they put out Sing No Evil, Pippin Barnett was playing drums and he's no slouch. He's a technically adept drummer. If you listen to John Dreyfuss, technically it may sound amateurish but the way I hear it, he's doing some very in tune and very superb saxophone playing. The early records were really Jad and David screaming and really going at it. But over time, you get Don Fleming in the band and he can DEFINITELY play the guitar. So you're looking at Charmed Life where you have Don Flemming and Jay Speigel (a great drummer). The whole band is anything but amateurish. So by that time, they left the whole amateur thing in the dust.

By the time I came along, I could play. I was certainly no amateur. I think above all, we're trying to express ourselves honestly. That's why I don't think we could ever go back to being amateurs. If we could get some people in the band who couldn't play, then we could be more amateurish. (laughs) But I believe that even by middle-period Half Japanese, that ethic was long gone. He had superb musicians like Fred Frith and John Zorn and they played their brains out.

I'd say that the only thing amateurish about us (now) is that we wanna work quickly, for a number of reasons. It's expensive to go into a studio and record ten songs in a day. We might be considered amateurish because of the speed and the fact that we really blast through. It's kind of fun to write songs and record it at the same time. So your first take of it is the one you have on tape. It's spontaneous sounding. When you take days and just rework songs, you kill music that way. We just like to be brisk and not get bogged down into too many takes. If something doesn't work out in three or four takes, we'll just move on.

PSF: Is it kind of a burden to be in a band with a long history and notoriety to it?

No, it's been interesting. I don't think it's a burden to be in Half Japanese. It's actually real cool to step into a band that has a reputation. It's like Sammy Hagar. When you step into a band that has a monsterous kind of image, it's kinda fun. I didn't have to go out and start from scratch. The first thing I did (with Half Japanese) was go out and play a tour of Germany. Everybody was really excited about that.

It is sort of a burden though 'cause we're always getting compared to this record or that record or something else. People are big fans of our early stuff. You get really attached to what you liked 15 years ago and sometimes I'll run into a bit of that. I think we make a heck of a racket and if you think there was a racket going on in the early records, we can kick up a racket too. I think some people wish we could go back. But we can't do that. Never.

With Jad and his record with Kramer, Roll Out the Barrel, I think that's a technically pretty advanced record. There's nothing amateurish about it. That's Jad sounding current and forward and not trying to carry his history with him. I think with Jad, we're pretty willing to try anything. Heaven Scent was a 63-minute ballad we did. I just started with a simple riff and showed it to the band and we just went on and improvised the whole thing. It's something you could play late at night with your girlfriend. It's MELLOW. I don't think Half Japanese has done anything like that before. We're always trying to have fun and do things differently each time.

PSF: Any other favorite Half Japanese records?

I'm really fond of Hot. That was recorded under really miserable, ice-cold circumstances. We were in a warehouse in Baltimore in February. It was so cold. There was a little studio built into a large warehouse and it was really just open. There no way we could warm the place up- it was zero (degrees) in there a lot of the time. It was tortourous and painfully miserable, we could barely play. If we'd stand there for a minute and talk, your hands would turn blue so we would be rubbing our hands together between the takes.

On the other hand, the desperation that came out of it was really pretty fun. I look at that very fondly even though it was miserable at the time. We brought in this huge kerosine heater and even a foot away, you couldn't warm your hands up. It was all just kinda wacky. I know that some of my best guitar riffs came out of that session. I could barely keep my hands warm enough to play a whole take but I listen to that and you can sense some kind of weird desperation there and I like that.

The first couple of years with Jad, we would do a lot of little recording sessions. We'd have a day off from the tour in Germany or Florida, we'd go in just for an afternoon. So things came out kinda piece-meal during that period. He put out a solo record (I Like It When You Smile) and then we put out a Half Japanese record, We Are They Who Ache With Amourous Love, which was just a collection of odds and ends, like chop suey. There's actually a couple of things on there that's really fun. There's one called "How Did You Know" that has some of the most desperate sounding guitar going on with these hyper drums. Our drummer did one tour and recording session with us and then he decided that it was all too horrible and he went to college to get a CPA. On that song, I like Jad singing about this running theme where he's bringing girls flowers and chocolates but someone else is trying to get credit for it. I think it's one of Jad's high points conceptually.

PSF: Any plans for a new Half Japanese record?

For new material that might be coming out, we have some stuff left over from Hot and some other stuff that we've been recording from over the last year and a half. We're always recording piece-meal. We have some stuff from a few different studios and we're concerned about lumping it together and hoping that it doesn't sound too different. If we can find a common thread or good sequencing, we might put it out. Probably do some recording in the next few months- Jad and I were talking about that.

PSF: Otherwise, what do you hope to happen with the band in the future?

It'd be fun to get signed to a record label that would really push the record all over big time. Even a minor who's good at what they do. Someone who can help us go out and get the records advertised a little bit. There's a word of mouth thing about Half Japanese but I think we could use a bit of publicizing.

PSF: The band's had a shakey history with different record companies.

It has been very unstable and a lot of bad stuff has happened. Jad and I are really happy with Alternative Tentacles. They've been really great. Also Trance Syndicate, who put out Heaven Scent. They didn't have a lot of advertising power though. I would like to get more people to hear what we're doing.

When I first heard Half Japanese, I had no idea that I'd ever meet Jad. I didn't know what was up with that. The music really killed me. I don't really care about majors or indies anymore. I have seen more bad things happen with indie labels with people who were supposed cool but have done some terrible things. Then I know some people who are tied up with Geffen Records that are pretty decent people, like Sonic Youth. I think it's great that they have the carte blanche to do a record every year and feel secure that they can do that. With Half Japanese, we're always economically threatened because we're not famous enough to go out and play everywhere. If someone can book 30 shows for us in the U.S., they're doing a great job. It'd be very fun to be heard of where ever there's chain record stores. It'd be great to go out and be heard of. I'd like an alliance with some powerful management or record company. We work really hard when we do tour and do good shows and have something to offer.

The sad thing is that we lie fallow so much of the time because there just isn't a big enough market. What I would like is for more people to find out about Half Japanese so we could play more.

For the last three years we've been to England, we've done (John) Peel sessions. I don't know if we're ever going to release it or not. We did it in the studio where the Beatles did their BBC sessions. There was a guy there who worked on Bob Marley's stuff. It was just so cool to be there and to talk with these legends. The last time we went there, the year before, we were in the studio where Bing Crosby did his last recordings! There's so many great things that have happened with this band that I've joined, that has this history and can go play in England because there's at least some people that know about the band.


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