She’s controversial. She’s cocky. Newly crowned alternative queen Liz Phair sings dirty and influences people on her new album, Whip-Smart.
“OKAY, I KNOW what it is now!” Liz Phair has been taking multiple, highly articulate passes at explaining the core idea behind the title track of her much-anticipated sophomore album, Whip-Smart (Matador). “Men feel they have to direct their emotions, and what they need to learn is that they should let themselves be directed by them. They need to say, ‘Now I’m feeling this, what does that mean?’ rather than constantly saying, ‘Wait, I’ve got to control and channel this.'”
As usual, she has a point. Her first album, Exile In Guyville, caused a revolution in women’s alternative music, and landed her at the top of the [New York] Village Voice‘s prestigious critics’ poll last year. Before Guyville, women in rock had two models to follow: the chaste folkie princess, or the leather-clad “Warrior-bitch”, as Phair would say, imitating male ideas of sexuality and rock attitude. Phair broke through the stereotype by being real, in both her music and lyrics. She sang about sex, relationships and life from a brutally honest perspective, intriguing and titillating listeners with tales of being “your blow job queen” and “fucking you ’til your dick turns blue”. But Phair wasn’t a tease; she was trying to mirror both how women really think and talk, and how men stereotype them.
Rather than coming across as strident or angry at the opposite sex, Phair is perceptive, verbose — and very funny. She’s amazed that people miss the self-parody in her work. Her new album is an even more evolved serving of the melodic noise pop of Guyville, with a heavier texture and riff guitar presence, which is somewhat related to the alternative guitar pop of her fellow Chicagoans Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins.
Though Phair’s frank treatment of sexuality on her debut record earned her credentials in the insular and snobbish “indie” world (tagged “Guyville” by her friends in Urge), Liz has shocked her supporters by turning her back on those aspects of “Guyville” she considers artistically insular, limiting and immature. She’s not afraid to bite the artsy hands that pat her on the back for not being a “nice” girl. She’s more interested in staying true to her music and retaining her sense of humor. She talks of how any musician has to balance the male and female aspects of his or her nature. If you don’t recognize yourself or people you’ve gone out with in her songs, please call NASA immediately — you’ve probably been dating aliens.
GUITAR WORLD: Rather than being salacious or intentionally obscene, your lyrics reflect exactly how we all think about sex. But you reveal how women actually talk about it among themselves — much more graphically and directly than men. Actually, men would be terrified to discuss their sex lives in detail. They grow out of touch with their emotions and embarrassed about revealing their sexuality.
LIZ PHAIR: You hit it right on the nose. That’s way more what I’m doing than any of the other postulates that have been put forth about my motivation and where I’m coming from. I’ve always been someone who was at the center of those closed-off conversations where people really got down. The “harem pit”, as we called it. Men don’t do that, it’s true. For one thing, they would never reveal the sexuality of a woman they were seeing for fear that other men would immediately want to go out and get her. And furthermore, they’d never reveal their sexuality in a circle like that because it would be considered somehow homoerotic, whereas women all learned to give hand jobs and blow jobs by sitting around and discussing it. “How do you do that? How long do you do this?” We’d use anything as a prop to fill in and would sit around going, “What do you do when he’s going to come? I don’t know; do you spit it out?” We dissected it like doctors. We knew exactly what was going on.
GW: But underneath, you’re really talking about how men often avoid intimacy in relationships while women seek it.
PHAIR: Yeah, I think women see intimacy as something that benefits them, whereas men see intimacy as something that jeopardizes them. Women come away from a deep conversation feeling replenished — we’ve made a connection, we’ve bridged a gap. Men often come away from an intimate conversation feeling exhausted, like they need rest time. They sure don’t want to talk about it for another two weeks! If anything, women can get addicted to that; they can err on the opposite end by demanding that too often.
GW: In your songs, women seem to understand that you become more yourself when you can be intimate with someone else. It’s difficult for men to understand that.
PHAIR: Exactly. They think, “If I got it, then somebody else can’t have it.” Women, on the other hand, tend to see it as “You got some of that, great, let’s all get some and share.” Time to distribute it to the rest of the class. It’s about connection rather than competition. Of course, women compete just as fiercely as men, but not about intimacy.
GW: A lot of indie alternative bands get stuck in that stiff 4/4 beat and the same chords over and over again — impacted anger that gets repeated over and over again — impacted anger that gets repeated and never reaches any insight or resolution…
PHAIR: Yeah, it’s like a marching beat; you could go to war with that shit.
GW: And there’s no space for humor.
PHAIR: People in pain can’t afford to be funny much of the time. That’s where you get the true comic genius, someone who’s actually in pain and still maintains their sense of humor. When I get fed up with the alternative/indie world, it’s for exactly that reason. They’re so somber, they have no time for humor. They can’t get above themselves — they’re so clearly trapped in themselves that nothing is funny. They’re in pain, and that’s their universe, and that’s what they want the world to pay for.
GW: Some of them think that pain alone is what makes them artists, that they have to stay stuck there, that music isn’t supposed to help you transcend or resolve anything.
PHAIR: And I caught a lot of shit from those people when I just didn’t leave my last album as it was and say, “This is a pure statement.” When I did interviews, when I became someone who could get up on stage and perform, when I did that video where I was actually cheerful in the greenhouse. To them, every bit of that was somehow taking away from my creation. While I thought of it as a learning and growing process. They objected to my arrogant idea that I could both use the indie world, “guyville”, as part of my creative expression, and at the same time move beyond it and still retain my sense of self. Because that’s the big fear — if you leave the small town, you’ll be eaten alive.
GW: Your new album has better production, more hooks, grooves and guitar effects. That defies the indie law that you have to prove yourself by making your second album crappier and more raw than your first. Did that put pressure on you?
PHAIR: So many people won’t go after what they want for fear of what people will think of them. I find the guys in Urge Overkill so inspiring because they have an expansive point of view about what they’re doing, so I still find myself asking them for career advice. I was talking to Blackie Onassis [Urge Overkill drummer] about the second album thing recently, and he said that you make your first album for “your” people, and that’s who you get. The second album is for “the” people, and all “your” people hate it because it’s not just for them. But you can’t get to the third album until you make that second album for “the” people. Like you said, the Guyville thinking is that I should have gone back to my roots and established my credibility on this album, and made something that certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio because “my” people need to know they’re “my” people.
GW: There’s probably an assumption that you only came up with the chords on songs like “Supernova” and “X-Ray [Man]”, and that it was the guys in your band who worked out the riffs.
PHAIR: The drum rhythm and that bass figure in “Supernova” both came out of the way I was attacking the guitar. I walked in and asked Brad [Wood, drummer and co-producer] for a click track, which I pretty much always do ’cause I waver all over the place. Then I do my guitar track and you can hear the tune emerge from my guitar groove. Brad plays the drums off that, and then he throws in percussive elements that add emphasis in certain places.
GW: There’s some great use of textural distortion on “Chopsticks”. Were you influenced by bands like My Bloody Valentine.
PHAIR: I heard the Jesus and Mary Chain my freshman year at Oberlin as part of my “alternative awakening”, and lived for their Pyschocandy (Reprise) album. They were creating this fuzzy, blissful noise pop with guitars, all marijuana-slow and unique. I’d grown up trying to harmonize with household appliances like the refrigerator, trying to reach just the right note to get the dog’s ears to perk up. The Replacements’ Let It Be (Twin/Tone) was another major influence, as were the Pixies. I always liked the Stones, but I don’t think I imitated them much.
GW: Your first album has been interpreted as a song-by-song refutation of Exile On Main St., done from a woman’s perspective. Seems more like a dialogue…
PHAIR: Well exactly. It was a song by song discussion of the issues that the Stones brought up. Actually, all my songs were written before I did that construct. I listened to Exile constantly for a month or so on my Walkman until I heard all the words, knew what Mick Jagger was singing about and what emotion he was putting behind the words. Then I matched each Exile track with one of my songs, either in terms of, “I’m agreeing with you and this is the female perspective on the same idea” or, if it was a refutation, it would be like, “Fuck you, you loser, this is what’s really going on with you and your ego!” So I just had a conversation with that album with my songs.
GW: As a relatively inexperienced performer, do you find live performance a challenge, or did it come naturally to you?
PHAIR: I was actually afraid to go in and lay the tracks down in front of Brad and Casey [Rice] the first time around. That was performing to me, and that’s not something I do naturally, but something I’ve had to learn. I’m a natural guitarist songwriter and artists, but performance I avoided at all costs; that was my deadliest fear. I’m very much the kind of artist who would really love to be self-contained and be able to control it, to do it all myself and make sure it came out just how I wanted, which would have kept me in that whole isolated indie thing.
GW: With no room for creative accidents or unexpected input…
PHAIR: Right. The only way to move on in life and change and grow is to let go of that control and do the stuff you’re a little scared to do. So I became a performer — and we became a band after the fact.
GW: Were there any moments when you had second thoughts about the whole idea?
PHAIR: There was a show at Maxwell’s [a watering hole for New York City expatriates in Hoboken, New Jersey — GW Ed.] where it was “industry” night. I was hyper, intensely aware of the crowd, and shaking so badly I could barely stand. I can cover it up now, but there are still times when I’m on stage with my leg visibly spasming from nerves. But that was a really awkward show just to get through, because I was so nervous that I couldn’t carry the band. I’m getting decent at it now, but I’m no natural and it’s not something I look forward to. But I’m proud of myself for doing it, considering where I came from.
GW: My roommate and I listened to your first album sitting down. But this one had us dancing around in the kitchen. Your riffs on Whip-smart are more groove-oriented. How does that affect the story lines?
PHAIR: Yeah, I was ripping off Cypress Hill and various other hip-hop groups that repeat a groove. I kept bringing my tail hook in at the end of songs so that there’d be space-out time. With the last album, you had to be crammed into my world to get anything out of it, really. You had to pay attention so hard, you couldn’t just put it on and let it sort of sink in. I wanted this one to be a little more subtle, to seep in a little at a time.
GW: You wanted it to be subliminal rather than linear.
PHAIR: Yeah, so that people would hear it on the radio and a few years later they’d remember those songs as part of their lives. Then they would listen to the words and think, “Jesus is this what she was saying?” And they’d freak because they’d begin to hear those things that I was actually saying that had worked their way into their subconscious.
GW: Speaking of which, was the riff in “X-Ray Man” an update of “Satisfaction”?
PHAIR: Does it sound like that? No, I was actually trying to rip off the Velvet Underground. Like “I’m Waiting For My Man”, dah dah DAH dah… So, ironically, no. [laughs]
GW: Do you feel a kinship with bands like L7 and the Riot Grrrl bands? Or would you say they’re trying to overprove a point, still copying the masculine image a little too much?
PHAIR: L7 talk about menstrual cramps and funny stuff, but they do draw on that whole male rock tradition, the same male beats and solos. I see Hole, though, as a really good example of a tough feminine band. Those kinds of bands are springing up more and more. They’re still screaming, but they’re not screaming like men anymore. They’re screaming within a female tradition, like those women who were trying to freak out Ulysses [the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey — GW Ed.].
GW: As a former visual artist whose image has been manipulated, how important to you consider videos?
PHAIR: They’re massively important, which is why I’m directing the video for “Supernova”. I’m going to direct the next one, too, which kind of makes my label squirm because they haven’t seen this one yet. But I really cannot emphasize how important it is to be able to project my version of Liz Phair out there alongside all these other projected versions — and get something back in terms of what I feel was taken from me image-wise. For “Supernova”, instead of doing something about the sun, it’s all based on electricity and lightning — electromagnetism as a metaphor for how you feel about someone who just turns you on. To me, there are such things as vibes and electromagnetic fields and kinetic energy going back and forth between people who really connect, and that’s what I’m trying to convey here.
GW: Producer Steve Albini seems to be conducting an inquisition, dissing first Nirvana, and Courtney Love, then your friends in Urge, and now he calls you a “slut”. Any comments?
PHAIR: Oh, what does it matter? Supposedly he has some kind of metal plate in his shin, and one of these days…
GW: The electromagnetic principle?
PHAIR: Yeah, I keep waiting for him to attract lightning or something.
By Vic Garbarini
Guitar World, November 1994