Jad Fair: Man Of Action

By Christian J Petersen

Jad Fair embodies the word alternative. In 1974 He formed the avant-garde pop/punk band Half Japanese with his brother David. Since then he has worked with a dizzying assortment of musical legends including Nirvana, who Half Japanese supported on their 1993 tour. He started paper cutting to help alleviate the boredom of touring and has become well known for his iconic and beguiling work. Fair is a unique character and true artist whose drive and vision remain inspirational. He recently opened the Jad Fair Fun Store where everyone can own a little piece of his ecstatic mind. Jad was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions for us.

When you were a kid who were your music heroes and who were your art heroes?
Jad Fair: When I was a kid I my music heroes were The MC5, The Stooges, T Rex, Howling Wolf and Sun Ra. My favorite artists were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, David Hockney and James Thurber. I like art and music with a lot of energy and creativeness.

Were you parents artistic?
Yes, my father was an architect and my mother did a lot of small drawings. She kept a pen and paper next to the phone and would draw faces whenever she had a call. I wish I would have saved some of them.

Did you watch a lot of cartoons as a kid? what were you favorites?
I watched a ton of cartoons. Rocky and Bullwinkle and Underdog were my favorites.

Your artwork and your music sometimes have ‘horror’ themes. Who is you favorite horror icon?
Dracula is my favorite. Nosferatu is such a great film. When I was a kid I would always go to sleep early on Friday and Saturday nights and try to wake up to watch the late night monster movies on television. I like that he’s a count and lives in a spooky mansion. It’s also cool that he can change into a bat.

I read that your paper cutting was inspired by something your grandmother had ? What was that one of ?
My grandparents had a paper-cutting of a tree which I liked a lot. It wasn’t one my grandmother cut. My grandparents collected antiques. I think the cutting was over 100 years old. Paper-cutting was very popular in the US in the 1800s.

Do you remember the first successful paper cut you did? What was it of?
I started out cutting paper hearts. I took to it pretty fast. Most of my cuttings have been successful.

Do you plan out a paper cut beyond the basic idea. How much are are they improvised?
If it’s a simple cutting I can just fold the paper and start cutting. For complicated cuttings I do draw it first. When I cut I’ll usually do what I think are the trickiest parts of the cutting first.

You have been described as an outsider artist? Do you agree with that or does it annoy you?
A lot of what I do is outside of the mainstream and in that sense I can see why the word ‘outsider’ could be used, but I’m also able to do things which are very conventional. The problem I have with being called an outsider artist is it comes with an expectation of what the art should look like and how I should act.

You saw a U.F.O once.  Can you tell us what happened?
My brother and I saw something in the sky which was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was an extremely bright sphere High in the sky coming down in a wooden area. I called the police to report it. I thought they might make fun of me, but I was told they had received other calls about it. I have no idea what it was.

Tell us about your web show The Fuck Ups.
The Fuck Ups is a sitcom which pushes the limits of comedy and decency to the breaking point and beyond. My brother David has written most of the episodes, and Chad Mellindick, and I have also done some writing. The Fuck Ups is filmed and edited by Chad. You can watch it on YouTube. I think it’s real funny.

As a musician you have worked several times with the filmmaker/animator Martha Colburn. What do you like about her work?
Martha is a major talent as an artist and as an film maker. I love her work. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to work with her. I think it matches well because Martha has a good sense of what will work and what won’t. I’ve played music at a couple of Martha’s film exhibitions. I hope to work with her more. She’s a great artist and a good friend.

You live in Austin, Texas. Is there anything there that particularly inspires you?
Austin has a strong art and music scene. There’s always something going on. It’s hard to beat Austin for live music. I also like the influence of art and music from Mexico.

You have collaborated musically with the legendary Daniel Johnston. Have you ever considered collaboration on an visual art project?
I’ve done paper-cuttings of two of Daniel’s album covers. I did drawings on them in a style similar to his. Last May Norman Blake and I performed songs by Daniel at an exhibition he had in Madrid. I’ve had art in a few exhibitions with Dan. I’m glad I bought his art when I did. It’s much more expensive now.

You have recently started producing mixed media versions of famous album covers. How did this project come about?
I did a couple cuttings of album covers and posted them on Facebook. The cuttings were well received and sold quickly, so I’ve done quite a few more. I plan to do a whole book of them. I have 20 or so new ones cut which I’ll be drawing on later this week.

Are there any of your specific designs that are particularly popular?
The most popular cuttings I’ve done are music related, and ones of cats, and trees.

At some point  did  it become obvious it was going to be much easier to support yourself as a visual artistthan as a musician?
CD and LP sales are much lower now than it used to be. It’s difficult to make a living as a musician. I can do alright with tours, but there’s a limit to how much time I want to be away from home. The great thing about art is I can work at home.

On your website you offer a service of recording a personal song on any subject for $300. What is the most bizarre requestyou have received? Have you ever refused a request?
I had a request for a song to be used as a marriage proposal. I felt more pressure doing that one. I was so glad that she liked the song and said yes to the proposal. I haven’t had to refuse to do one. I’ve done around 20 so far.

You said “often the best ones (artists) are not given the attention they deserve.” Can you give some examples?
There are very few popular music acts that I like. Most of it is so predictable. Deerhoof is a great band. I would much rather hear them on the radio than 99.99% of what gets played. (visual artist) Timothy Winkler is great, and I love Nikki McClure’s paper-cuttings.

You also said that you “get treated with more respect in the art world ” than the music world. why do you think that is?
Modern art has been widely accepted since the early ’60s. Music outside the norm is still treated in a disrespectful way. Most music critics are far more conservative than ones in the art world. I’ve have insulted time time and again by music journalists. That’s never been the case with my art. I don’t tune my guitar or play chords. I don’t see it as being any big thing. It’s just what comes natural to me. It’s my guitar. I’ll play it any way I want. There’s nothing wrong with being in tune, but there’s so many other options. If it’s your music, why not do whatever you want?

What are your memories of Kurt Cobain? What effect did Nirvana’s success have on your own career?
It was funny how I first heard about opening for Nirvana. I was reading an interview Kurt did in Spin magazine and in it he said Half Japanese was going to be the opening band for his tour. I called my booking agent and was told she just heard of it. We played at a lot of colleges and I assumed the audience would mostly be of college age, but the majority of the audience were young teens. At the first show we did some slow songs and fast ones. Every fast song was well received and every slow one bombed. For all of the other shows we only played fast ones. Kurt was always friendly to me, but kept to himself. I spent a lot more time with Krist and Dave. Nirvana was such a great live band. I enjoyed every show. I’m sure the shows with Nirvana helped to gain some fans. We played to some huge audiences. It was fun.

When i was at college, my friend Will was always desperate to get his hands on a Jad Fair doll. It became almost a mythical thing. Do you still have any?
I sold Jad Fair dolls on a tour of Europe I did in 1991. The dolls were called Jad Fair – Man Of Action. They sold well. I think I still have one.