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Back From Exile

Liz Phair’s Sexually Explicit lyrics Create a Stir

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Pandering media slut Charles Anderson hangs out with Liz Phair all day and makes her label mad at him for keeping her away from her other pressing interviews

The call comes into the CAKE office at around 2 p.m. I’ve been waiting for it since 10 a.m., and I answer the phone in the same spritely manner I’ve been doing for the last four hours.

“Liz Phair Fan Club!”

“Ha ha. Very funny,” she says dryly. “This is Liz.”

She just finished a late breakfast at a little cafe on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, the one, she tells me “where all the hipsters go.” Phair asks the person she’s with where they are. “The Gem Cafe,” she says.

Good choice, I think. That’s the place the hipsters enjoy so much because there are still some of the old regulars there, as opposed to the Uptown Bar a few blocks away which is now overrun with nothing but hipsters. The Gem is one of the few places in Minneapolis where you can get biscuits with sausage gravy. That makes the place cool in my book.

She offers to take a cab to meet me at the museum where the “interview” is going to take place. Naive city girl. Being from a big town like Chicago she knows nothing about Minneapolis’ taxi service… or lack thereof. I offer to pick her up a the restaurant and drive her to the museum. It takes me 20 minutes, but I’m sure I beat any cab she could’ve called.

The day before her show I read an article about Phair in the local daily newspaper, the Star Tribune. In it were mentioned her most recent major critical accolades in mags like Rolling StoneSpin and the Village Voice. You know: Artist of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Female Vocalist-type stuff. Basically, it was just another Liz Phair article. But then at the tail end something caught my eye. “I only see myself doing this for another five years max,” she was reported as saying. After that she would be interested in “maybe drawing”. My gimmicky interview idea came fast and powerful. I’m an art school dropout; she studied art in college at Oberlin. Perfect. Who better to do the interview than myself? We’ll talk about art! Fun!

I call Phair’s publicist at Matador Records and ask if it’s possible to take her to a museum, or maybe put her in front of a computer at Minneapolis’ College of Art and Design (MCAD, which is physically connected to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, if not financially). She could doodle around with some nifty painting software. The publicist is dubious, but she passes CAKE‘s request on to Ms. Phair and promises to call me back with details about the time and place of the interview.

I never got a call back from Phair’s publicist, so I went down to catch the last part of her all ages show, hoping I could somehow talk to her afterwards. Phair’s drummer at this show is also Exile in Guyville producer, Brad Wood. He’s played with Shrimp Boat, recorded Trenchmouth, Bob Evans, Freakwater, Red Red Meat, and numerous other acts, and basically runs Chicago’s Idful Music recording studio all by himself. Brad and I have a mutual friend, so he’s the one I track down at this show so I won’t look like some retarted groupieguy. Brad’s a tall geeky looking dude who’s easy to spot. He tells me Phair’s schedule for four interviews and two photo shoots tomorrow. “Newsweek or somethin’,” he says. I don’t think he’s joking.

I tell him I want to take Liz to a museum. He says she mentioned the museum thing that the publicist told her about, and she’s looking forward to it. I ask if he’ll be going with her.

“Nah,” he says. “Nobody wants to take pictures (of us) or talk to us. We’re gonna go to thrift shops with Red Red Meat (the opening band for Phair’s two shows in Minneapolis). Why should we stand around and waste out time when all people really care about is her?”

Brad sends my message back to Phair and tells me she’ll call between 10 and 10:30 tomorrow morning. The next day I got up at 8 a.m. What a fool. I should know by now that bands are never on time.

At 2 p.m. I’m driving to the cafe with a preconceived image of Liz Phair in my head. Her name is a constant fixture on magazine covers everywhere, and Exile in Guyville came up in almost every critic’s top “Year End” list. I’ve never seen her videos on MTV and today’s modern music magazines rarely feature nice focused pictures of the artists they cover. After reading all the critical praise citing Phair’s “lyrical punch” and “deep insights into interpersonal relationships and the curious bonds between men and women”, I’ve created my own picture of Liz Phair. Tall, dark, standoffish, wary of men; clad in thrift store garb and Doc Martens, as is so popular with many of these indie musicians.

I meet her at The Gem around 2:15 p.m. Even after seeing her on stage the previous night, I’m still shocked by her appearance in person. I guess I knew she wasn’t in her 30s, but that was what I imagined of someone with so much insight into relationships. In reality, yes, she’s young (mid-20s I’d say). She’s not short, but definitely not as statuesque as the critics have made her out to be in their praise of her music. She dressed in a very comfortable-looking, 100% cotton outfit that could have come straight from the Gap, aside from faded blue jeans that look like they’ve worn naturally over the years. She’s not wearing the Docs, either; instead she has nice clean, new, petite hiking boots. She’s not really beautiful, but rather really, really cute. And she’s way nice. Phair jumps up from her seat to shake my hand as I greet her.

“You don’t have any aspirin, do you?” she asks.

I respond negatively. Phair tells about the intrusion of Murphy’s Law into her life. As soon as she started this mini-tour she got her monthly visit along with the accompanying cramps. So did her soundwoman and hotel roommate, “so we’re quite the pair today,” Phair says apologetically. She asks me if I’m offended. No, that’s fine, I understand. I tell her we can stop at a convenience store on the way to the museum and pick up some Motrin 800s, which I assume is a medicinal staple of all women. “Aspirin is fine,” she tells me.

Her eyes are very beautiful almost unnatural blue for her light brown hair. I accuse her of having colored contacts. She sticks her face real close to mine and looks to the side and yes, blue is her natural eye color. Her close proximity makes me a little uneasy — Liz is definitely not the standoffish type.

While we wait for the photographer to show up, I mumble that I’m in need of a vacation. I haven’t been able to relax and the only thing that’s made me happy lately is doing my artwork. At this point Phair excitedly grabs my hand and says, “Yes! Your art!” She understands that a creative outlet is important to counteract the emotional burdens of one’s cluttered life, and I see I’ve stumbled on some common ground with someone so far removed from my petty little problems.

The photographer’s running late, probably driving around the block not seeing this little hole-in-the-wall of a diner. I suggest that we abandon him so we can quickly finish up this little interview thing and she can get back to the frenzied daily regimen of a pop-diva-in-the-making. She tells me not to worry. Every day she has to call in to her publicist (she has no tour manager) and every day it’s something new and totally urgent. There comes a point, she says, when nothing is that totally urgent. Phair seems very focused on where she’s going and she’s not going to let all the little distract her. You can’t please everyone, she says. I’m impressed. The magazines that she blows off (normally CAKE would be one) may find her aloof and introverted, but the the journalists that actually do get the privilege of meeting her are treated to an artist who gives them all of her attention and is really quite nice, outgoing and friendly.

I go on a short rant about my tenuous relationship with her label, including the fact that they’ve never sent me a copy of Exile in Guyville. I ask how she settled on Matador. It seems the major labels were never really an option (Although one could question the independence of Matador, which has a manufacturing and distribution deal with Atlantic).

“I wasn’t interested in the indie label possibilities in town at the time,” Phair says. “I worked with John at Feel Good All Over records (whose most notable release to date is Scrawl’s Bloodsucker) and didn’t want to go that way. Plus I was living with him at the time and, well… there were other things. I just left it up to Brad (Wood, Phair’s producer/drummer). I asked him, ‘Who’s the hottest indie-label-of-the-moment?’ and he said Matador and that’s where I decided to go.”

Liz Phair doesn’t seem overtly arrogant, but there is a certain confidence that leads you to believe that she felt she could sign with any independent label she wanted to. One would think she stumbled across the ultimate formula for writing the best songs ever. And after seeing the critics response to her debut album, it’s possible she has. Ironically, it turns out that she’s the hippest, most critically praised, best-selling thing on Matador’s roster now. (The label also features indie superstars Pavement, as well as Yo La Tengo, Railroad Jerk, and Bettie Serveert.)

We’re still waiting for the photographer. I tell Liz that he wants to pose her on the sidewalk as a street musician — he’s even got an accordian for her to play. Whaddaya think Liz? Neat idea?

“That would mean we would have to go outside,” she says. “If forced you could probably get me out there, but…”

Hey fine, I tell her. CAKE doesn’t want to make Liz Phair do anything she doesn’t want to do.

Part of her reluctance to go out into Minnesota briskness may have to do with Phair just getting back from the Bahamas where she was recording her next album. The album is done, she says, but elaborates: “I sense there is one too few emotional songs, and one too many fun songs. But I can’t seem to get rid of any of them so I have to figure out what I’m going to do. It needs one more personalized touch. There’s something wrong with this album. It needs just one…” (she twists her wrist and makes the sound of a fastener snapping into place). Of course, she can’t let people think she’s having fun. “I get crucified either way, it doesn’t matter. Anyone who’s gotten this much press… you know what I mean?”

Yes. If she puts out a fun pop album, people will criticize her for not being able to maintain the intensity of the first record. Likewise, she runs the risk of being called one-dimensional for releasing another chapter of her personal diary. Yet at the same time, she can probably do no wrong with her fans. After all, she is Liz Phair, whatever that means.

The photographer finally shows up. We head off to MCAD, where Liz says she’d be interested in drawing on the computer for some goofy CAKE feature.

MCAD’s Public Relations person, Anastasia, greets us at the school. She gives Liz a free t-shirt and a brochure. As we’re walking to the computer room Liz explains that she’s scoping out grad schools for art, and is “looking for a place where I can do both theory and studio work.” Phair takes off her coat and another sweater, revealing an orange turtleneck. Not a thrift store type like I would expect. In the computer lab Phair wastes no time asking questions about the painting program she’s been set up with. She selects a black charcoal icon on the screen and instantly starts drawing with her right hand. She’s focussed on the screen, but not overtly drawn into it. She holds the mouse firmly, and sits upright in her chair as she works, keeping the broad picture in view, and not leaning in to examine the details of her stroke.

She talks while she works on the computer, choosing her words carefully, but keeping her eyes on her drawing. I know she’s supposed to be very busy and I’m constantly asking if she has someplace she needs to go. She shrugs and says, “I’ve got to go shower before the show.” For someone who has built such a reputation on her abilities as a songwriter, I’m surprised at her need for cleanliness and looking good onstage. (Aren’t good songwriting and good hygiene supposed to be mutually incompatible?) Maybe that’s just a leftover of her up-bringing in ritzy Winnetka outside of Chicago.

After Phair finishes her work on the computer (see it on the previous page), we saunter over to the school’s painting studio for the photo shoot. She complains that many New York and California photographers have tried to dress her up in revealing little garments. When she says no, they seem genuinely surprised that their subject does not want to reveal her body. Phair goes on to state that these photographers are generally fancy-schmancy fashion photogs who are used to having assistants running all over the studio, and working with highly paid models who put on skimpy clothes for a living. For her, it’s just something she chooses not to do. But they don’t understand.

Liz eagerly grabs some props for the photo shoot. Just like onstage. She complains that no review has ever been written on her live performances that mentions her ability to play guitar and sing at the same time. Maybe she could hire an extra guitarist for shows so she doesn’t have to play constantly. But then people might not have anything to marvel at.

A review of last night’s show has her a little concerned. The reviewer said her voice was flat. “I thought my voice sounded fine,” she counters.

Phair’s not boring live (like I’ve already said, I think she’s real nice to look at), but I don’t think her music has the right dynamics to make for a great live show. She asks me what I think she should do to please everyone. Instead of saying that there’s nothing she can do, I goofily suggest she do a Sabbath cover for an encore. But she’s honestly concerned with putting on a good show and she pushes further. I foul off the question again, saying she should do a Wings cover for an encore. But she wants me to tell her seriously. “I’m just an old fart,” I tell her. “There’s nothing you can do to impress me.” I don’t tell her that I can still be impressed live bands like The Reverend Horton Heat, Flop or the Supersuckers. That music was made for live stage. Hers is made for headphone use when you break up with someone. Or maybe when you’re on a long road trip, alone, sorting things out. Either way, Phair’s music does not say “rock out with your cock out,” and that’s what live music should do.

I mention my fondness for the crankiness of Chicago’s punk pundit, Nirvana producer Steve Albini. Phair doesn’t much care for the guy. It’s not until later that night I realizes why; Steve Albini recently wrote a letter to the Chicago Reader, denouncing Liz Phair (along with Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins) as being nothing but a ’90s version of Ricki Lee Jones. He also attacked the Reader‘s Bill Wyman as being a pandering media slut, bowing down to whoever the publicists say is the next big thing. This here big old story on Ricki Lee Phair would probably piss off Albini, which many would say is a good thing to do.

I finally drop Phair off at her hotel downtown. As she gets out of my car she takes quite an assortment of booty: her free t-shirt and brochure from MCAD, some Trenchmouth posters I designed, the two most recent issues of CAKE, and half a box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies.

At the show that night, Phair introduces a song with a faint German accent: “Und now vee vould like to play another song. Und that song ees ‘Fuck and Run’.” The accent may not have been apparent to anybody who didn’t talk to her this afternoon. Drummer Brad Wood offered her $100 for every song she’d introduce in a loud Fascist German accent. While her accent was impressive, it was definitely lacking the fascist bite necessary to whip up the Proletariat crowd into a revolutionary frenzy. Judge Wapner sides with the defendant.

Steve Knowlton caters most events backstage at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub, and he is regarded very highly by most every band who samples his culinary wonders. Steve rules. Sometimes after he’s done cooking for the bands, he hangs out at the shows and gets drunk and starts talking about men in uniform. I love that. Anyways, here’s what he had to say about Ms. Phair:

“First of all, everyone said, ‘She’s a bitch, she’s a bitch, she’s a bitch. Watch out. And then when I called these people up, I said, ‘Well, these are my plans, blahblahblah, we’ll take care of her,’ and they didn’t have any money to spend on her and they were like, “Why’s everybody paying so much attention to her? Red Red Meat (the opening act that night) is just as good.’ And I was like, ‘Yep,’ — and they are. One thing that was really cool about Liz Phair was that her band shared the dressing room with Red Red Meat, which is very unusual. And they shared all their food.”

“Anyway we get around to dinner time, and I’ve got my electric stoves and frying pans, and I just took down a bunch of groceries, and I said, ‘What do you want to eat? I’ll make you anything you want.’ So I had all these things there, and she just pointed to what she wanted, and I sauteed ’em up, and served ’em. She was really happy about that, and then they went on and everything. And then the next day I did the same thing, I cooked up stuff to order, and that was fun. She’s just a cool woman. She had spent the day with (CAKE, doing the interview), and she came in and Conrad (the club manager) says, ‘Liz is here, she’s looking for you.’ So I ran down there, and she was like, just like she was my best friend or something. She was not a bitch, is my point. And I said, ‘Well, we’re having a little curry today, but you don’t have to have curry. I’ve got coconut milk…’ and she was like, ‘Coconut milk! Yesss!’ So I just made her a little stir fry with curry and coconut milk.”

“And then afterwards I was in back washing dishes, and she brought Conrad back there by the hand, and she said, ‘Well I just had to say bye, and thank you,’ and she gave me a big hug, and then she left. And then she signed my dessert platter for me. You’ll see it in my art show on the 29th of April. It’s my one year anniversary (of having my own catering business). I’ll have an open house. I’ll put up my band art, everything I’ve had signed.”

“I guess I don’t have a whole lot to say about Liz, except that she loves to eat. She eats well. She’s not picky. But she is so small…”

“Oh — she did say ‘You know, I never ever clean my plate, doesn’t matter where I am, not even at home, blahblahblah,’ and then she puts her plate in my face, and said, ‘Look. I cleaned my plate.’ That was kinda funny. But [apologetically] I don’t have any bad stuff to say. PJ Harvey, now that’s a different story…”

By Charles Anderson
Cake #23, April 1994

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