A night like this

With a shared, stubborn shuffle and a familiar — if diffident — roar, monsters in various forms move en masse through the punk-tinted dreamworld of Half Japanese’s 1997 album Bone Head (suitably released on San Francisco label Alternative Tentacles).

“Frankenstein made a monster/Frankenstein made a man/The good Dr. made a bad mistake/And now it’s gotten out of hand/Sometimes bad people do good things/But don’t count on it/Sometimes good people do good things/But not this time, not this time,” band founder, leader and sole original member Jad Fair asserts on “Sometimes.” In the preceding song, he sympathizes with the monster’s female creator: “Little did I know when I was/digging his grave/I was also digging my own/ … I knew it would come to this/And now it has and I’m so sad/Life before was heaven and bliss/Mary Shelley had a night like this.”

Just as Half Japanese is more a vision than a band, Fair’s own creations are better termed events than songs: Feverish bursts of melody die in a squall of happy cacophony; a simple love song completes its mission without a whiff of irony. The unifying force is Fair’s singing style. At once hesitant, headstrong and plaintive, it’s the voice of childhood, forsaking nuance for the unadulterated experience.

Since Half Japanese’s inception more than 20 years ago, Fair and his ever-evolving group have contributed an enduring — if not flashy — stroke to the American indie-rock landscape. In a recent phone interview, the disarmingly gracious frontman explained, “I do most of my touring over in Europe, [because] I make more money over there and the shows are much closer to each other, so it’s quite a bit easier to travel.”

Fair, interestingly enough, names the band’s nascent period as a healthier time for independent music in general. “There are a ton of great bands around right now, but they’re not getting as much exposure as the bands in the late ’70s, and I think [it’s because] of the media coverage,” he relates. “There was more of a focus back then [on new bands]; so many of the magazines that used to cover independent music are now paying more attention to the mainstream bands, which I don’t think is really the better music.”

Some will remember Fair’s band as one of the opening acts on Nirvana’s massive 1993 In Utero tour. Excerpts from the tour diary of then-Half Japanese member Mark Jickling, found online, recall moments like this: “The crowd was roiling and churning and there was just this solid noise. It was impossible to tell how favorable or unfavorable their reaction might be … at least until we did a real quiet song, ‘This Could Be the Night.’ Jad asked: ‘Do you want to know how an angel kisses?’ Two thousand voices screamed, ‘NO!’ A lesser man might have cut the song short, but Jad asked again.”

Real fans, however, would have you know about Fair’s lengthy and impressive list of solo projects, which include forays with Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and, perhaps most fittingly, Austin-based musician/visual artist/recluse/cult hero Daniel Johnston (when pressed, Fair named Johnston and his own artist brother, David, as his favorite collaborators).

If Half Japanese’s stateside fanbase has never been as voluminous as its European holdings, Fair can still depend on ardent knots of American devotees — including many (such as political punk veteran Jello Biafra) who’ve followed the band since the beginning.

One surmises that Fair — who says he does most of his songwriting in the morning because, “I just have a clearer head when I first wake up” — always has a project in the works. What fuels him, however, is anybody’s guess.

“I’m working on an album right now with [Scottish pop band] Teenage Fanclub, and I’m very pleased with how that’s coming along,” he states pleasantly, saying no more about that particular creation — which will undoubtedly rise in its own sweet time and speak for itself.


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