Q&A: Liz Phair, Part 3
By Scott Deckman on November 12, 2010
As a close to a three-part interview, Phair discusses her newest album, Funstyle (including the surprise of Girlysound), the differences between working with a variety of labels, and where her legacy stands today and in the future.
I heard that prior to this record you were set to record a stripped-down version of Guyville. What happened?
Yeah, I’m still about to maybe do something like that. There are so many things that I would like to do, and what actually reaches the public is only a fraction of what I’m doing musically. What I was getting from labels as I was looking around… Everybody wanted Guyville number two. I just felt so cold in the veins about that. It’s not that I was unhappy to do a stripped-down album—I love doing that kinda stuff. It was that kind of branding: “Just give us another one of the ones that everybody likes.” That always pisses me off and so I just couldn’t do it. I was like, “You know what? Later, I’ll do it later.”
Let’s talk about Girlysound. How many tapes were there originally?
There were three, one of them is sorta lost and I don’t know where it is. I wouldn’t have been able to put these out without the fans keeping copies of them.
Why didn’t you include “Dead Shark,” “Easy” or “Batmobile”? Was it because they were previously on the Juvenilia EP?
No… I asked my fans. I consult with my fans—it has to do with what works together. That’s the job of picking out of all the music that you make. I know every artist records at least twice as much as what actually makes the record. Sometimes more. It’s a totally different part of your brain that you use to edit. You have to be the director, the actor and the editor.
“Dead Shark” in particular seems to be one of those rare songs that transports the listener to another place and it’s mostly due to your guitar playing. What type of guitar were you playing to get that sound? Was it an electric without distortion, or is it an ancient Liz Phair Chinese secret?
Certainly not an ancient Liz Phair Chinese secret. I think I probably was using my [Fender] Duo-Sonic, and I think I went through this tiny little Peavey amp—it was literally the cheapest amp I could buy. I probably tried to put some distortion on it, but there was no pedal involved.
Has anybody ever told you they like your guitar playing?
I feel a little bit like my guitar playing or my musicianship doesn’t get enough attention, although it is distinct, it’s original. But I think that’s partially because the production, of late, has sort of overtaken it; you can’t even hear it anymore. It’s really in the live shows that I think you can see my guitar playing. Also, I’m not technically very good and I never have been interested in becoming, you know… I’m not a technician. Even when I go skiing, I have my own way of doing it; I don’t wanna learn how to be better, I just wanna learn how it feels best to get down the hill for me. I’ve always been like that and I think my guitar playing reflects that. So thank you very much for that compliment.
So tell me a bit about Funstyle.
It was [recorded] over a two-year period and what sort of inspired me to do the songs that way was both what was going on in my life and also the kind of musical environment I was in at the time: The production sound reflects the musical environment I was in, and the lyrics and the songwriting represents what I was going through emotionally. I use my emotions—it’s like venting.
I didn’t know you were friends with Dave Matthews until I saw that film about Exile in Guyville [Guyville Redux]. Then I read he was founder/co-owner of ATO Records, the same company you parted ways with after this record and allude to obliquely on it. What happened there exactly?
Well, what really happened was the guy who signed me, Michael McDonald, left. He was the president of ATO. When he left, there was sort of an internal shakeup and, you know, Will Botwin came on. But he was sorta there, he sorta wasn’t. I couldn’t get the same connection; they weren’t as enthusiastic about what I was doing and I couldn’t find the leadership that I was looking for… There was no hard feelings. It wasn’t anything like leaving Capitol. It had nothing even remotely to do with that. I would sit down and break bread with any of those people happily, and I hope they would with me.
How did Capitol treat you?
Did they treat you bad because of the sales or what?
Frickin’ Andy Slater is just a crazy man, a lot of people had trouble with him. He’s a very… He’s got his issues, you know? He’s talented, but he is difficult, and he really pushed a lot of people into a corner. I don’t know if you recall, but there was sort of an anonymous mutiny where a lot of the executives anonymously wrote to “Page Six.”
When was that?
That was like three years ago? It was just very difficult. Disagreeing with him was very difficult, [he] was very convinced that his way was the right way. And, you know, underneath it all he’s got great ideas, he’s got great taste, so you try to work with him. But it’s one of those things where I was very bitter about how that ended up being.
Funstyle seems to be you having fun with your image, being slighted by the industry and maybe a statement about how the industry treats a woman in her forties, whereas on Somebody’s Miracle, you sang more about the young eager chicks coming to take your turf. Which is the tougher place to be in: the established woman in her thirties and forties considered a bit past it or the young nubile just trying to break in?
Just tryin’ to break in because, joke as I might, I have a lot of…
You have cachet now.
Yeah, I can get in places. I can talk to talented people. I have the luxury of working with people I actually like. And I think in your early days you’re much more susceptible to being manipulated. You don’t know what you can and can’t get away with. You don’t know. I found my early part of my career very bewildering and frightening.
You released the record on your website back in July. Why the proper release now on Rocket Science Ventures?
We always intended to do that. I have this new sort of formulation since the record business is so dismantled; I feel like now is the opportunity for people to try out a different template of their own, you know? I’ve always wanted to have one that reflects the way I feel creativity moves, which is a growing thing. So the idea was: you don’t spend more than you have and you just keep growing
Ideally, I’d like to be working [on] this record next August if I could. That would be really lucky for me ’cause I just want it to keep getting bigger, in a growth way, rather than it being like, “Let’s put all our money into the first week and get everything all ready for this big blast to go out to everybody, and it’s Funstyle!” To me, that just doesn’t feel natural. What feels natural to me is to keep incrementally adding as you gain. I’m trying to do it differently than music has been done a little bit before. Business-wise, I’m tryin’ to do it differently and see if there can be a closer connection between the listeners and me. This is just my way of doing it, I’m sure it seems strange, but it is different.
Ever since they had the big merger back in ’98 and with the advent of online music, it is different now. Anybody can get on the Internet and put out an album. It’s kind of neat, but it’s harder to make money now.
It’s very hard to make money, but it is cool that everybody can do it. I think it gives you a totally different freedom. It becomes what music probably once was. Before we had TV and telephones and movie theaters, everyone played music. That’s what you would do after dinner; you would all get together and play music. You know, everybody did it. I think there’s a little bit of that popping up again and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s positive. Now you just gotta figure out how to make a living. F
Funstyle is out now on Rocket Science Records.