“It’s A Fucking Debut Album…”
On Monday morning, October 25, I called Idful Music on Damen Avenue in Chicago, where Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was recorded. Brad Wood answered the phone.
I said, “I’m doing a story on Liz Phair. Do you have time to talk?”
“We’re leaving for a tour in twenty minutes.”
Wood was the sound engineer on Exile in Guyville, and plays drums and bass on the album. He plays drums in Phair’s band on the road. He told me the schedule of the tour, which included two Friday night shows at CBGB in New York.
Friday morning I was walking up Broadway in Manhattan, looking for the office of Matador Records, the label that released Phair’s record. 676 Broadway was written on a black door with a broken glass panel. Matador was one of the names on the box of buzzers on the side of the door. No one was there. It was 10:30. I pressed the buzzer for another office. I was invited up to a fabric design office down the hall from Matador. Dance music was playing on a stereo and I sat on a couch by the doorway. I was given a cup of hot chocolate and later, a bowl of corn flakes without milk. At 11:45, I thanked them and went back down to the street in search of more food.
Upon my return, I pressed the Matador button and was buzzed in. A man in black horn-rim glasses stepped into the elevator with me. He put a key in the fourth floor slot and turned it. The elevator lurched upwards.
“Are you going to Matador Records?”
“Me too. I want to talk to Gerard Cosloy.”
Cosloy is co-partner in Matador Records.
“Have you got a minute?”
I followed him into the office where the office manager stopped me.
“Who are you here to see?”
“Did you set something up?”
“In the elevator.”
She shrugged and I walked past. I sat at the round table next to Cosloy’s desk.
“When did you first get a tape from Liz Phair?”
“I think it was sometime late last spring or early last summer.”
Cosloy had been in his office, reading a review in a fanzine of “Girlysound”, a homemade collection of songs by Liz Phair.
“It was just weird because Liz called that very day and wanted to know if we would put out a single and that was a little presumptuous ’cause we had never even heard anything of hers before.”
Cosloy suggested that she send Matador a tape.
“The songs were amazing. It was a fairly primitive recording, especially compared to the resulting album. The songs were really smart, really funny, and really harrowing, sometimes all at the same time.”
Matador signed Phair and she asked if she could make a double record. “In the end it was a very audacious thing to do, I mean your debut a double album. Not everybody could get away with that.”
I asked Cosloy where Liz Phair stood in the industry six months after Exile in Guyville’s release. He told me to ask somebody in the industry.
“What’s going to last is her art. That’s what’s going to have a real impact.”
I left the Matador office and walked uptown toward the 18th Street office of Spin Magazine. It was 60 degrees out and sunny, and on the way I decided to move to New York.
I was on my way to talk to Craig Marks, the music editor at Spin. He had decided to name Exile in Guyville 1993’s album of the year. And it was only October.
I walked into the lobby of the office building at 6 W. 18th Street and went to the eleventh floor. I stepped out and passed through the glass doors to a large reception desk. The woman at the desk looked eighteen years old. Craig Marks was out of town. He was in Chicago.
One young assistant editor working at a computer had strong opinions on Phair. She felt that Phair had betrayed her original fans. I wondered at that — it had only been six months since her debut album, and she only had one record out. Had that record somehow gotten worse in the course of the summer?
And besides that, “She sucks live.”
There were two vans parked on Bowery Street in front of door numbered 315. A dirty silver awning above the door said “CBGB” and “OMFUG”. Equipment was being moved into the club. On the sidewalk near one of the vans stood a young woman in a button down sweater. It was a sunny day in New York and she was taking in the October air.
Brad Wood was talking on the phone at th pizza place next door. When he came out I introduced myself and told him we had talked on the phone a few days before. He didn’t remember me. I asked him if I could go in to the soundcheck.
CBGB is a narrow tunnel of a club with a space of open floor at the back. It would be filled to the doorway when Phair came onstage four hours later.
Wood began setting up his drums. He introduced me to guitar player Casey Rice, and bass player LeRoy Bach. They were carrying in guitars, tuning, getting the settings they wanted on the amps. Phair walked by the table where I was sitting and I introduced myself. She sat down across the table. I couldn’t think of a damn thing to ask her.
Had she been in a band before the record?
“I was playing on my own. I wasn’t playing out — I was just sitting around playing in my room.”
“Did you have the desire to be in a band and make a record?”
“Really? You were just playing because you enjoyed to play?”
“I like to write songs.”
She said she had always switched from one artistic discipline to another, and that right now she was making a choice to focus on music.
“That’s not easy. I’m nowhere near perfect at it. The machine is not well oiled (laughs). But fuck, I know 26-year-olds who are still walking around in the woods.”
Phair seemed as though she lived a block away and had dropped in to play songs for her friends. I asked her if it was weird to be written about from coast to coast.
“You lose your balance. I mean, first and foremost you’re a human being… So I made a record. Big deal. I’m a 26-year-old person, who had a whole life and is going to have a whole life. And this music thing, even if it went as well as it could, probably is only going to be a part of my life for a finite amount of years. Five or six tops.”
Phair said she had recently seen herself in a cartoon, portrayed grotesquely as a batgirl: “…And I could naturally and easily laugh about it. Whereas a year ago, it would have been like, ‘What do they mean by that!? Is this supposed to be funny or are they totally making fun of me!?”
A voice from onstage called out, “It looked more like Ed Rosen than you.”
“Well, that’s also disturbing,” said Phair.
The rest of the band was tuned and playing parts of songs through the sound system.
“It’s a fucking debut album. It’s a good debut album, but it isn’t the best thing ever and it isn’t going to change the face of the globe. It’s just a good debut album.”
Phair went onstage and struck a chord on her guitar.
“Hey, it’s tuned.”
They played through three songs, sounding loud and driving. Phair said that her mike smelled bad. She wanted another one for the show.
After the soundcheck, she was standing outside of CBGB trying to remove a splinter from her finger with a pair of tweezers.
“I’m afraid it’s going to break off,” she said.
Three teenage girls came up and asked to take a picture with her. Phair took the picture and then walked off with a woman holding a video camera.
The three girls pressed to the front of the stage and waved to Phair as she adjusted the guitar strap on her shoulder.
“I haven’t been here since I saw Galaxy 500. While they still were,” Phair said.
It was quiet in the club. Someone in the audience cleared their throat.
“Just thought I’d share that.”
An easy laugh went through the crowd. Before the first song was through, Phair and her band had moved into the ether of an intense live performance. Phair’s music had space for each of the players to live inside the songs. The band’s enjoyment in playing together was clear.
After the show, the sold-out crowd spread into Bowery Street passing the thick line waiting to get in for the second show. I went to look for a payphone in Manhattan that worked.
Photos by Bobby Talamine and Paul Sherman
Stylist: Leslie Cakora
Make Up Artist: Marcus Geeter
Clothing: Bloomingdale’s and Flashy Trash
Synthetic Fur: Flashy Trash
By Tom Herman
Chicago’s Subnation, Vol. 1 Issue 6, December 1993