At the time, there was a buzz around the city about Liz, but she was not widely known yet — partly because Exile was repeatedly delayed (some said because of the cover photo). The previous winter, I had read a review of a Liz solo show and decided this was someone I had to meet, or at least talk to. She sounded so cool. So when I got the assignment, I tracked down Liz through Matador Records. They gave me a number and I called at the appointed time, recorder running.
I wish I could go back to 1993 knowing what I know now. Up until that point, I hadn’t heard a note of her music, though I think she assumed I had heard some of it, judging by her “Flower”-related comments.
Now I think: If I had just talked to her a couple of months later, I would’ve asked so much more about certain songs and how she came to write them. I also regret that much of the interview dwells on generational issues. That whole topic seems completely boring to me, though Liz handled every question with her trademark intelligence, wit and aplomb. (The finished story had only one quote from Liz. I gave her more space in my draft, but the Sun-Times editor was not very hip, and cut most of her comments. Fucking editors.)
In retrospect, some things worked out okay, though. For instance, as far as I know, this is the first lengthy interview that Liz gave to a reporter before Exile came out. Also, when I saw her at Lounge Ax on March 14 of this year (1999), she recalled how nervous she was in her first performance there. That was weird for me, because near the end of this interview she makes a reference to that show, which was still a couple of months away.
Also weird: My younger sister, Colleen, was friends with Liz in sixth grade. Colleen even told me that Liz played at our house on occasion, right around the time Liz was meeting Julia Roberts at summer camp! Unfortunately, I have no recollection of her from that era.
But enough about me. Let’s go to the audiotape (or the transcript thereof).
Terry McManus: I’m a freelance writer working on a story about Generation X. Maybe you’ve heard about that whole phenomenon.
Liz Phair: Yeah, I read the book.
T.M.: Oh, ok; good. I wanted to get some of your insights into people in their twenties and what they’re up to.
Liz: Our sad mental state (laughs) … as a generation. I think we’re doing fine, to be honest. I would have a lot of trouble categorizing us. I used to be able to. About three years ago I could tell very clearly what my generation was. This is what I have to say about this kind of thing, Generation X: It seems to me that at a certain point if you get busy with something you’re doing, you just blend into other generations in a weird way. You become someone who’s doing something, instead of someone who is “this age.”
T.M.: So then you don’t necessarily identify yourself with …
Liz: No. I have all aged friends. I relate better and better to people my parents’ age all the time.
T.M.: Oh yeah?
Liz: Yeah. I went down to Florida to visit my parents this winter — they had rented a house there. And I could’ve stayed (laughs). All these old people tooling around on bikes and I fit right in. Ready to play bridge, ready to go canoeing.
T.M.: A few years ago, how would you have …
Liz: I would’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether this was deviant enough. I should’ve gone out and found some punk club and walked in and made a stand for my generation, definitely.
T.M.: Does any of that come out, do you think, in your music? How much is your music based on personal experience?
Liz: It must. I mean, a lot of the songs that were on the album were old songs, were written years ago. And I can’t think but that it does. I couldn’t exactly tell you how, but I feel sure that … I mean, if you’re asking if “Flower” is a reaction against anything, it’s really not. “Flower” just kind of appeared. I remember exactly when I wrote it. I was at Oberlin senior year. I don’t put freaky sex songs on my album as a reaction to anything or to prove that I’m any one way. I happen to have a lot of freaky sex songs, which I didn’t put on the album. I just think I write lots of — I get bored with one type of song, so I’m always trying to write different kinds of songs. And so that’s probably why.
T.M.: You don’t seem to want to address the songs to any particular generation. In other words, you’re looking to cross over into a large audience, it sounds like.
Liz: Well, I always lived in a larger audience. You’re unfortunately speaking to someone who very honestly always got along with people of many different ages. I’ve always had friends that were a great deal older than I was, as well as significantly younger. I think my most generational period, when I would fixate myself in a group and feel different from other ages, by virtue of my experience, was really around college. And unfortunately in retrospect, I see that as because I’ve never been — I mean, it was an isolated college. It was in the middle of Ohio, and it was a small, private institution. And I was around people all my own age, so those differences were very clear to me: who we were as opposed to — because you would be reading the writings of people from other generations and you’d very clearly know that that’s not the zeitgeist of what you were experiencing then.
It’s much less clear the older I get. Lines are greatly blurred, and individuals take on greater weight than groups. And I’m not trying to be cute and cliched. I really believe that.
T.M.: What kind of writers were you influenced by?
Liz: Song writers or writer writers?
T.M.: Both, let’s say.
Liz: Influenced by? I never look at it that way. The ones I like — I just read The English Patient, which I thought was really cool. But I loved that because … I love writing that is brief and yet packed with imagery.
Liz: Dense. Like so, you say it briefly, but what you have just said, like you could mull over the sentence and it could sort of blossom on you in your mind. It wouldn’t just be an informative or descriptive thing. It would be sort of a whole thought contained in a few words. I like writing that has the ability also to move between sort of lengthy conversational styles to more poetic or just abbreviated metaphoric phrases.
T.M.: I heard you were influenced pretty heavily by the Stones in your music.
Liz: (Laughs.) No, I just wanted to do Exile [on Main Street]”! I honestly wasn’t influenced by … I just picked that as a really good double album. I love the Stones, and it was the only double album I could think of that I could listen to happily [unintelligible] the millions of times I had to listen to it.
T.M.: That is a great one, I think.
Liz: Oh, it’s so good, isn’t it?
T.M.: I think that’s one of the best albums of all time; it’s certainly their best.
Liz: I think so, too.
T.M.: Can you tell me if you have any particular insights into the whole question of Gen Xers not doing as well as the previous generation, especially economically? Do you think that’s true?
Liz: I very much imagine that that could be. I’m not one of those people that’s, like, “No, no, no, that can’t be true. Everyone’s always had it tough; it’s just different each time.” I think circumstances are such in America today, if that’s who you’re speaking to — a national group, rather than international?
Liz: I think communication plays into this all the time. We’ve got TV stations that are for a generation. We have media vehicles that categorize age groups. We have marketers who are sort of scripting generations. I think it’s completely a pertinent topic you’re writing about. But I think it’s also in the individual’s domain to counterbalance that, counteract it. Let me say this better. I’m not really phrasing this correctly.
You can definitely rise above this. You can certainly divorce yourself from a generation or you can play into it. I think if my music hadn’t taken off, and I wasn’t recording, and I was just fritzing around in San Francisco, which was certainly a possibility … I would be far more interested in seeing myself reflected through the eyes of the media as a generation. Because that would be my identity. I would look to something outside of myself to try and tell me who I was and what I was doing. Whereas if you are busy and involved with something that you are generating from yourself, you start to define yourself as an individual — more, probably, than you are accepting definitions of yourself as part of a group. And that’s just a perspective shift. Which I think is healthy; I think more people should try it, especially this generation.
T.M.: And an example might be people sitting around watching MTV all day?
Liz: Exactly. And here, oddly enough, I’m in the business of making those videos. (Laughs.) Do you know what I mean? It’s not about blame. Please, I’m not trying to take a higher stand or anything. I slacked off for three years out of college.
T.M.: What were you doing?
Liz: Putzing around. I went straight out of school to San Francisco. I lived in Chicago for a summer doing nothing. Then I went to San Francisco and did largely nothing.
T.M.: When did you graduate?
Liz: (Laughs.) 1990.
T.M.: So then you were …
Liz: I was out in San Francisco — this is great Generation X-dom. I was with all these intellectuals who were all doing nothing. Like we would get up in the morning, get high, drink coffee, get dressed, go cafe-ing. Sit and have really deep, intricate conversations about ideas and theory. I mean, my day was very verbally stimulating, and I really was having the best time of my life, and doing absolutely nothing. You know, we were plotting a million thousand theater productions, we were considering film. We were training to be an actor; we were really just whiling away the hours — exactly like that book [Generation X], only a different set of people.
But it was in a way horrifying and satisfying all at once. I just recalled myself to Chicago ’cause I realized if I didn’t move back home and sort of suck off the structure of my parents, I could’ve done that indefinitely. And so I did and then I got my shit together. And I’m quite happy that I made that choice. I mean, I loved doing nothing.
T.M.: Were you working a part-time job to support yourself?
Liz: No, I just chewed up all my savings. (Pauses.) I did nothing of any value whatsoever.
T.M.: Sounds like fun, though, at least.
Liz: My God, it was a blast! We had, like, a 7,000-square-foot loft. It was beautiful. I had so much fun. There were a thousand Oberlin students out there.
T.M.: Like a little community.
Liz: It was a little community of people; very few of them had jobs. They were all intelligent, attractive, like, interesting people. We all had a ton of free time, and a lot of clothes to wear. It was a quintessential slacker experience, but from a different point of view. In fact, all of my friends who were out there have now gone on and are doing amazing things. Like my friend Nora, who was my roommate there and my chief partner in crime, is now directing films. She just shot one for $100,000 and she’s moving on into the millions now. So these people do get right back on their feet and start doing something. I think it’s largely a pride thing. But we all slacked off.
T.M.: Do you find Chicago has grounded you more?
Liz: Completely. They don’t take that bullshit here.
T.M.: What part of Chicago are you living in, by the way?
Liz: Right now I’m in Wicker Park.
T.M.: So they don’t take that kind of crap there?
Liz: (Laughs.) No way! It’s like a really working-class town. There’s a lot of slackers here; there’s certainly people doing it, but they’re younger. You get away with it for a couple of years out of school, but probably no further than that. There’s really this sense that you need to get your shit together. It’s not a town that caters to the privileged, um, leisure time.
T.M.: I kind of like that about Chicago myself.
Liz: Yeah. It keeps me in line.
T.M.: So the CD is coming out this week, is that right?
T.M.: I was looking for it earlier and then I found out it wasn’t out …
Liz: (Laughs.) Aren’t we all, man? I feel like I’m gonna be dead before it comes out!
T.M.: Are you gonna be playing around here?
Liz: Hmm. (Pauses as she seems to look at a schedule.) Let’s see. I’m gonna play June 4th at Lounge Ax, I think. It’s still tentative. Whether or not I get my band together and whether Brad and I — correction — whether or not my drummer and I are in sync enough. We’ll probably do it anyway, even if it’s a freak show, just to get up there and give it a whack! No telling what it’ll be like.
T.M.: Well, I’m gonna try and stop by.
Liz: Oh, please do.
T.M.: I read a review in the Tribune — I think it was last winter — of one of your shows, and I wanted to hear your music. [Liz giggles at this. She probably thought I had an ulterior motive.] Well, great. You know, my sister Colleen knew you from Winnetka.
Liz: What’s your last name?
Liz: Colleen McManus! No way! I knew Colleen when I was in sixth grade. Yeah, totally. That’s wild. Small world. Check that out. Well, tell her hello.
T.M.: She says hello to you, too.
Liz: Thanks for the interview.
T.M.: Thank you. I appreciate your time. The article should be coming out fairly soon; I’m not sure exactly when. Sooner or later.
T.M.: Good luck with your CD. I can’t wait to hear it.
Liz: Thanks. Bye-bye.
By Terry McManus
Terry McManus Interview, May 1993