A Few Minutes With Liz Phair

Liz Phair knows she, ahem, “suffers” from the same complex as Lucinda Williams. Williams constantly writes stellar music but is forever associated with “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Phair is associated with her acclaimed 1993 studio debut “Exile In Guyville” but life moves on.

Phair has not only been writing for television shows but has won ASCAP’s 2009 Top Television Composer award. Earlier this year she released an album of music heavy on sampling that is a departure from her previous work. Funstyle was offered free via her website for a while and now for $5.99. Word has it the album was a touchstone to Phair leaving ATO Records after the not-so-uncommon “we-don’t-know-how-to-market-this” discussions.

We asked how this all is going to play out and, especially …

Because we’re a live performance magazine, one question comes quickly: How do you perform these new songs live?

Wow. It’s funny because that’s obviously something we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around. A lot of this stuff is heavy on the synthesizer and it’s not really easy to create live unless there’s some kind of major operation. You’d have to have multiple loops and more than one person working them. And I’m not even sure even then if you’re going to be able to do justice to them.

So what we really try to do is find songs like “Oh Bangladesh” or “And He Slayed Her” that can be broken down into a rock song and performed that way. It’s amazing how well they translate. Surprising, in fact. “Bangladesh” is a great song on the record but it’s not the most powerful one. But live it is.

It’s always fascinating to me how something translates live. It can be less than it is on the record or more. So that’s what we’re going to do. Until someone dumps hundreds of thousands of dollars in our lap, we’re just going to break the songs down to their essence.

But still, some of these songs, it’s hard to imagine how they could even be reinterpreted.

You mean like “Smoke”? You could do “Bollywood” more easily. I’d probably have to do the guy parts, which I wrote, so it’s not like I don’t know them. I’m just not sure if it would have the same impact.

But you’ve performed the songs already, right? In Vegas?

Yeah, a couple, but we didn’t attempt “Bollywood” or “Smoke” or “Beat Is Up.” Nothing like that. We did “Andy Slater” and “Oh, Bangladesh” in San Diego, which came off great, and I keep threatening to do “Bollywood” in between songs, if something goes wrong with the equipment or if the guys are busy behind me. Then I’d be, like, “I was trippin’ lookin’ at my port-foh-lee-ah …” Half because it would make people laugh and half because for people who can’t handle that sound, they’ll be like, “(Gasp), She isn’t!”

And then it would be back to far more canonical Guyville songs. It’s sort of fun for me to threaten to pollute the hallowed ground of Guyville.

I’m assuming the new album is physically there at the merch table?

No. Because I put it out very rogue – I literally put the record out four days after I compiled a collection of songs – we’re playing catch-up. We’re putting the cart before the horse a little bit. But in today’s modern marketplace you can do things like that.

There isn’t this enormous outlay of expenditure in the beginning the way a major label would do things. Now it’s more like somebody putting up something on YouTube and getting discovered. It’s more of that train of thought.

The traditional reason why everything had to be front-loaded is because all the big record companies had to have their first-week sales. They had to wedge themselves into the lineup to have a Top 10. And we don’t have to do that. There are obviously some sensible minds behind the operation but to some extent I don’t have my merch ready yet. I haven’t confirmed my Midwest and East Coast dates and we’re just starting to reach out to radio. We’re just winging it and spending a lot less money.

And that’s pretty much what everybody in this country has to do right now. And it’s fine with me.

Ever give any consideration to selling the album on thumb drives?

I would love to do that. It’s a great idea I had almost a year ago. I wanted to do these little Liz Phair thumb drives, and now that you’ve reminded me, I will bring that back up because I love that idea. I’m not a fan of the physical – and here it goes, now retail will be upset with me. I am a fan – I was devastated when Tower Records closed. I am a fan of a place to go, to be central in the music in the world. I think it’s a real sadness to be at home downloading, that there’s no meeting place. But it doesn’t have to be a CD, you know? We have plenty of polluting artifacts as it is. But then again, there’s only so far our culture has moved. I like that idea though. I had that one too.

Photo: Darren Ankenmann
“I was devastated when Tower Records closed. I am a fan of a place to go, to be central in the music in the world.”

Barenaked Ladies, for example, will record their songs and put them on thumb drives, to be sold afterward.

Oh, so you can buy what you just heard immediately? Brilliant! We’re going to be doing something like that in San Francisco. It won’t be an immediate turnaround. This is the first I’ve heard of that fast of a turnaround, but I think that’s a great idea. I’m all for that stuff. I love the bootleg idea. I just haven’t wrapped my head around it. You’re just having a little marketing meeting with me tonight, aren’t you?

Tonight? It’s 9 in the morning. How long you’ve been up?

Since 6. I’ve already lived half a day. I’ve got a 13-year-old. Oh, the pain.

We don’t have any management for you in our system.

Well, I’ve got offers but I really don’t want management right now.

Want it or need it?

It depends on how it’s going to go. There may very well be a time soon that I really need it, and then I’ll just get one. But I feel like I’ve just got a comet trail behind me of people who take cuts of everything I do and it gets hard to earn any actual money. And it’s not like everybody has the best ideas either. Everyone has their own ideas. Their ideas, your ideas – whose are better?

When The White Stripes started out, we asked Jack White who they picked for their manager. He said they picked their lawyer because a manager is just going to do what you tell them to do anyway.

It just matters how busy you are. When you get too busy you need a manager because you just need someone to deal with it. Right now it’s in control, more or less. It gets quickly out of control, doesn’t it?

When will the next batch of dates show up?

I don’t know. We’re working on it right, right now. November, December, January – it’s all going to happen. We’re just coordinating it wisely with other things, to make sure when we go into a marketplace that we can accomplish other things as well. Just stop in at little mom & pop record stores or visit radio stations. Back in the old days you just had more money. There’s no way of getting around the recession in all of this and what’s happening to the record business. You have to be smarter. You have to kill two, three birds with one stone any time you do anything. So that’s what we’re doing here.

You know how you said you’re winging the interview? We’re winging the campaign to some extent. We’re reacting to what comes along, which I think is an incredibly smart way to go.

Just like winging interviews! So what is coming down the pike?

Well, the hard release is on the 19th, and more touring, and the website will continue to be built. We’re doing everything transparently. Stuff goes up and then we develop it.

I have this fascination with something growing before your very eyes – the tour growing, the website growing, the products going. So when you say, “Do a thumb drive of your show,” I very well may! I think this is a very female perspective. I might be really reaching for a metaphor but the whole guy model is, “Here is my sword! Front load it! Here comes the next record! It’s going to be everywhere on the week of blah blah blah!”

I prefer the model of start small. You notice something blipping in the culture. It gets a little bigger, and it’s interesting. You keep watching it and it kind of grows and moves and changes. That’s what I’m interested in.

As you say, there may have been some issues with your record company but your career keeps going.

(Laughs. A lot) It does, doesn’t it.

Well, like you say, even when you front-load it, it doesn’t always happen.

And it’s bullshit, because it’s fake. It’s like, “Let’s make this look like a big splash.” It may or may not happen. It’s not in touch with reality. Sometimes it is because the record really does take off but how many times does somebody really have an explosive debut? It happens all the time in movies, and then it fizzles. And I don’t like walking through that. I can’t stand that kind of fake front. It makes me physically sick to participate in that. None of that, please.

Photo: Darren Ankenmann
“I prefer the model of start small. You notice something blipping in the culture. It gets a little bigger, and it’s interesting.”

Phair is wrapping up the West Coast of her tour – but expect more dates to be announced soon.  Click here for the artist’s website.