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Liz Phair: Exclusive Interview

Phair Game

Liz Phair wants recognition for being cute and deep

Dark Light
Given the opportunity to interview Liz Phair, I wasn’t quite sure I should accept.

By Adam Swiderski, September 2003

Given the opportunity to interview Liz Phair, I wasn’t quite sure I should accept. After all, I’ve had a huge crush – both musical and, well, other – on the indie rock queen since her first record, Exile in Guyville, rocked my socks on my ass back in the early ’90s. Now, with her latest effort, the self-titled Liz Phair, engendering something of a war of words in the indie rock community, would she even be in the mood to talk turkey? And would I even be able to get a question out through my nervousness? Luckily, Phair turned out to be rather engaging over the phone, and perfectly willing to answer questions ranging from her reaction to the reaction to Liz Phair, to what part she would play in a movie based on her life.

UGO: Five years is kind of a long time to go between records. What was it about this most recent one that require that kind of time for you to process?

Liz Phair: It was just circumstances. I was getting divorced early on in that, and I moved from Chicago to L.A… and I was recording in L.A., but it was for a different label president, and then after the next president came in, which is now, currently, Andy Slater, then we had to rethink what we were doing, sort of start again. It was really just circumstantial. At that time, I don’t think they saw me as an artist that was really going to sell records, so no one was pushing me. And I was just kind of chilling out, being a mom to my son. We recorded the whole time – there was just no frantic urge to put it out until, once Andy came on board, and I saw it was going to be a pretty good label to work for, then I started pushing.

UGO: Is there anything that came out differently on the finished end of the album than you would have expected, or new things that came up as you were going along that really changed something?

LP: “Jeremy Engle,” which is on the EP, that one really transformed. That started out a very small song with just my guitar. Then, we recorded it, and it became kind of a band jam, and then Walt Vincent did it, and it was kind of indie sounding, and then it went to Michael Penn and became kind of a beat-driven track.

UGO: Is that something you generally like to do, taking a song through several evolutions like that?

LP: I think, yeah, I think I’m open to that. I wouldn’t say it’s something I actively pursue, but I’ve seen enough songs go through enough changes… like, “Red Light Fever”, that song was recorded five or six times. Different people take a crack at it, and you kind of stick with the one that you think has the most elements working.

UGO: So, do you find that you have trouble cutting the cord sometimes?

LP: Sometimes, but I’ll know it. I have trouble articulating what I want to hear, but once I hear something, I’m pretty decisive. It’s like, “OK, maybe it’s not what I had in mind, but you captured something worth putting out.” So I’m pretty good that way.

UGO: You’ve talked, both before and after the album came out, about wanting a “big radio” sound, about wanting something that people were going to be blasting from their car stereos. You had to know that statements like that were going to be jarring for your more “indie rock” fans. Was that something you were comfortable with?

LP: Yeah, pretty much. If they don’t like that kind of music, then… [laughs, quite charmingly]. I’ve always loved that kind of music. That’s what music is to me. Like, stuff that I really like to play loud. And I’ve got my quiet CDs, too, that I listen to around the house, but if you can’t go there, then… Everyone gets so upset with me, I can’t win. Because if I say that I don’t care, then “I DON’T CARE.” But, honestly, I should be making music I really like, shouldn’t I?

UGO: Why do you think people get so alienated when an artist either reaches for mainstream success or just achieves it?

LP: I don’t know. It’s probably the same reason why I hated indie rockers when I made [Exile inGuyville, when I was so pissed off about that. It’s a very… for a supposedly liberal place, there’s a lot of rules. There’s a lot of conservatism within it. Like, “This is OK, and that is not, and we are the people that are going to tell you.” And that’s, sort of, Guyville, that I was writing about long ago. And I think as I grew up, I found a lot of other people that weren’t this music mafia that were in the indie group. They’re just people who sincerely like quirky music, and I think those people are really valuable. And I think the mafia’s pretty valuable, too, because I think they’ll champion something that would never get heard any other place, and if they weren’t so fighting tooth and nail, a lot of great music wouldn’t happen. You know, I wouldn’t have heard half the music that I’ve heard. But I think they just… I don’t know what’s up their butts, I really don’t. But I know something is. And I think it’s probably tied to identity. I mean, I kind of remember… I’m 36 now, so it’s kind of hard for me to relate to what it was like when I was 25, or 24, but I do remember a period in time when that’s how I defined who I was, by the music I listened to and the movies I went to. That’s all I had as a young adult. You haven’t had a career yet, you don’t have a family, you don’t have kids, you don’t have actual trappings of a real life, you know? You’re out of school, and that’s all you’ve got, is your taste. So I think, if they’re that age, that’s part of what it is.

UGO: What was the motivation behind releasing the Comeandgetit tracks? I know all the material says it’s more “stripped-down.” Was that kind of a way of showing people, “Hey, I’m still the Liz Phair you know and love”?

LP: Honestly, not really. A lot of people have read into that, “Well, this is a way of appeasing your fans.” It was really just, you know, expressing my diverse musical tastes. There’s even more stuff that I’d like to release, but I’m scared to, that’s really, um, nerdy… not nerdy in a good way. Like, silly. Like, this one song, called “Working Man,” which is a phenomenal song, but I know the lyrics would be laughed out of any room. But it’s a great song! So Comeandgetit was just a way for me to do that kind of dark, quirky, like, this-girl-kind-of-scares-me kind of vibe, which is part of what I like, too. I’m someone that does not believe in having to say, “Either/or.” You know, I’m a both-er. I knew I could get away with that. I’m still trying to figure out how to get away with my dorky stuff.

UGO: I found it particularly interesting that it was an online release, too. Is that something you’re looking to do more of?

LP: Yes, absolutely.

UGO: Are you pretty active on the Internet?

LP: When I use the Internet, it’s pretty much strictly for music. Checking out other people’s web sites, what’s going on, listening to music. It’s pretty much a musical thing for me. And I really do… I can feel, just because of the way I shop, that this would be a good way for me to reach people. But, I mean, I’m like everybody else, kind of standing around wondering, “What’s going to happen?”

UGO: I was going to ask what your opinion was of how it’s changing the relationship between artist and fan, or artist and label…

LP: But it’s already happened. It’s already… the thing that everyone’s in an uproar about, like, “Oh, will this happen?” Well, it seems to me, it’s already happened. The big news already broke. The file-sharing and all that stuff, it’s a done deal. And I think figuring out how to make that a fair exchange for the people that make music is still an issue. But I see one of the best things about this new format is that you don’t have to be [in her best “artist” voice], “OK, I’m an artist, and I’m going to put out one record of fourteen songs for the next year and a half.” You know what I mean? Like, there’s this, live-or-die-by-this-one-statement mentality that’s been in music forever. It seems to me like the Internet allows you to break that structure a little bit. You know, here’s your CD that’s going into stores, here’s your EP that you offer online, here’s a subscription for songs you recorded on the road, here’s your live stuff streaming. You know what I mean? There’s all different ways. It’s just a matter of, how do you make that profitable so that you’re not just kind of throwing stuff out into the wind.

UGO: We have a bet going on in the UGO office over whether, in 25 years, the concept of the “album” will still exist. What do you think about that?

LP: Ooh, good call. I bet maybe not, except in sort of a retro-cool fashion. It seems to me that’s exactly what I’m saying, that we’re breaking the mold of what it means to be a recording artist. And… I don’t know. You think about, like, Eminem’s CDs. Everyone gets so excited, myself included, about what he’s going to put on there. So maybe it won’t totally disintegrate. But I think a lot of people will be able to be recording artists in a completely non-traditional sense, and I think that’s exciting.

UGO: What do you think about the whole situation with the RIAA suing consumers?

LP: Well, explain it to me, because I’m not quite sure I’m aware of it.

[Insert brief synopsis of the RIAA’s strategy of suing individuals who make music available for download on popular file-sharing services.]

LP: We had a conversation about this at dinner, and someone said it’s kind of like the drug war, you know? It’s pointless to go get the supply. It’s more effective to get the demand. And I guess that’s what they’re doing, going after the demand… they’re making examples of people. But, I mean, I wouldn’t want to be one of those people. And I honestly had to sit there… I mean, I’ve got my friends trying to impress upon me how wrong it is to download [laughs]. Because it’s just human nature. It’s right there, you know? And it’s kind of abstract for my pea brain to see how this is hurtful to our “ecosystem”. But, I mean, that’s what it’s always about. I think they’re just going to pound our heads in until we understand the big system, and how this is hurting EVERYONE. And once that happens, I’m sure I’ll be, like, “Of course.”

UGO: Have you ever been approached to do the advertising campaign? I know they’re putting artists on TV now talking about how bad it is.

LP: Well, I’m still trying, like I said, to feel the badness. And I know it’s bad. It’s been laid out to me how bad it is, and I now agree it is bad. It needs to stop. But it’s hard for me to get up on a platform, when I’m kind of wishy-washy. I’m probably… I’d be one of the offenders.

UGO: No comment there. In the song “Rock Me,” you sing about playing Xbox. Why did you pick that console over the Playstation 2 or Gamecube?

LP: I don’t know; it just seemed like the cooler guys are playing Xbox. At least the ones I know.

UGO: Do you have personal preference in terms of games. Are you much of a gamer?

LP: [Laughs] There’s one I just started playing, but I can’t figure it out at all. I keep calling it Mutterwind, but it’s Morrowind. I just think they’re cool. I started looking at stuff like that when my ex-husband was, like, obsessed with this stuff. And he had this one that people all over the world could log-on and play at the same time, with each other. And it would go through all these beautiful lands… and it’s just very exciting stuff.

UGO: You haven’t been approached by Microsoft since the record came out for an endorsement?

LP: [Laughs] No! And, you know, I still haven’t been contacted by Mick Jagger, either!

UGO: There seems to be, right now, a groundswell of… you know, I don’t want to say “sexual liberation” for women, but that it’s more acceptable for women to talk about things like that. Do you think you sort of pioneered that for modern pop culture?

LP: I think I helped. I definitely think I helped out the sisters. I’m always trying to do that. Some woman came up to me after a show, and was, like, “I’m going to make sure my daughter listens to your music,” and at first, you’re like, “Really?” [Laughs]. But she said, “I want her to be proud of being a woman, and not afraid.” And it really hit me hard, because… I know that sounds like, “Aw, what a cute thing to say,” but that’s it. I mean, that’s it. And when I think about my adolescent period, I was SO afraid. I mean, I stayed a virgin forever because I was so afraid. I don’t want girls to feel that way. I want them to feel like it’s totally within their control, they should expect to like it, they should expect to have a good time, and demand it, and take care of themselves, and not have those perpetual fears of pregnancy, perpetual fears of, “Oh, my God, did I catch something, are they going to talk about me?” All that crap should be gone. That’s so medieval, I don’t even want to think about it. So yeah, I think my first record did push that ball along. This record’s going to push it along, too.

UGO: At the same time, there seems to be a fine line in pop culture between addressing those issues and exploiting it. I’m just thinking in particular about the Madonna/Britney/Christina thing that went down at the Video Music Awards.

LP: You know what it is, to me? Madonna and Christina and Britney sharing a kiss on stage can’t possibly – honestly, think about it – be in any way worse than what we see in any given movie any day of the week. The stuff we take for granted as normal, that washes over us, it’s not even comparable. The fact that they just kissed each other, you know, whoop-dee-doo! Oh, they garnered all this press, is that really helping the cause? Well, it sure as hell isn’t fucking hurting it. Honestly, you just walk down the street, and a woman is smacked with more offensive material just shopping. And, so, if they kind of used some provocative tactics, I think it’s honestly better to get people talking about stuff, so they have to decide how they feel about it. In a way, provocative tactics do just that. It’s not preaching about stuff, it’s not saying, “Think my way.” It’s kind of just to get the dialogue going. And you’d be surprised how much ground you can gain just by getting people to take one side or another. It just forces them to figure out what they really think, or how they feel about some stuff that they don’t normally explore.

UGO: But you don’t see something very calculated about that?

LP: Well, of course it’s calculated. Is anyone thinking that it’s not? [Laughs] Wake up! I mean, whose idea was it? Madonna’s. She knows what the hell she’s doing. Really, she does. She’s done a lot for women, even as she’s made ridiculous choices, because she had the ability to make choices, and that, in and of itself, is fifty years new for women. Like, the fact that she exercises bad taste is already power. Men have been doing that forever, and women have only recently been able to do that. So I’m all about that kind of feminism. You don’t have to be a poster child for what I think is great. You just have to…you know, I think it’s a feminist world if women are making just as many mistakes as men, but they’re making them on their own terms.

UGO: Do you find it hard to be a parent and a rock star at the same time, having your son exposed to that culture?

LP: He’s hardly exposed to that culture. I live this schizophrenic life, kind of, so that he’s not, really. I mean, he knows it a little bit, but in a kind of nice, manageable bites kind of way.

UGO: So far, you’ve been able to shield him from the really nasty part of the industry?

LP: Pretty much. You know, I always live in conservative areas, where people are, like, “Oh, that’s so nice, you have a song on the radio? What is it?” You know? They don’t really know. And I think that’s much better, even for me – forget my son. I don’t want to be LIZ PHAIR 24-7. I have, like, an identity that’s just kind of Elizabeth Phair. So he deserves the same thing, to kind of live places where nobody… I mean, it’s so funny to me, when we go back home… I guess this is turning into a question about me, but my good friends, even though I’m there and I’m doing three nights at the Metro, and they’re coming down to see me and stuff, when we’re all hanging out, I still have the exact same social status, which is relatively low on the totem pole in the friend circle. It’s so funny to go from, during the day, doing stuff where you’re the center of attention, then you go back to your friends, and they’re, like, “Uh-huh. Just a second, Liz.”

UGO: They’re ragging you for how you looked on Good Morning America or something like that.

LP: Exactly. They’re sitting there arguing about Greg [something-or-other. This one went right over our heads], and they’re not even including you in the conversation. It’s healthy. That’s the best part about being a mom and a rock star. I felt like going on tour this summer was like adult Outward Bound. How many people do that kind of crazy stuff… and the crazy memories, like the blackout in New York.

UGO: Were you here?

LP: Oh, yeah. It was intense.

UGO: What did you do?

LP: We were putting together the VH1 show for their heavily rotated video artists. We had just sound checked, and I’d gone into the bus to take a nap, because we’d done Regis that morning. And, it was so funny, because I was talking to my tour manager, because I didn’t want to follow Jason Mraz, because he’s better than me live, so I’d been all day kind of like, “Oh, God! Oh, God!” And I just said to Brett, “Don’t you ever wish for a snow day?” And I go to take a nap, and I wake up and I come out, and everyone’s sitting on the bus. I’m, like, “What’s going on?” And they’re, like, “Show’s cancelled. Power outage all over the East Coast.” And I’m, like, “Shut up!” And it was just weird. We were the best-equipped people in the city. We had a generator on the bus, air conditioning… and my band and I just walked around and checked out the sounds. It was so intense. Just looking out as the sun was setting, thinking about how normally you think of the city visually, and now all you could get was pockets of people, and sound in distant places. You know, cheering when bike riders would ride by. It was so cool. Oh, my God, the hotel walk! Do you live in a high apartment?

UGO: Um, no.

LP: The hotel walks were intense. You’d hear people coming from a couple flights above you, shuffling down, and it was as black as Mammoth Cave.

UGO: Someone told me they were using their cell phone as a flashlight in that situation. I thought that was pretty ingenious.

LP: Yeah! The blue ones. We had miner’s hats. Outside the restaurant, they were selling them.

UGO: Cool. OK, we’ve digressed… What music do you try to expose your son to? Is that something that concerns you?

LP: He’s always had music around him. His dad is a big music-head, so he’s always got stuff. Like, Nick (her son) was singing, “I’m sorry Ms. Jackson…” when he was four and a half. Because we’re separated now, I don’t get to bitch about that. I just trust him. Nick and I, we do Shrek, the soundtrack. We do Harry Potter soundtrack, which is really interesting to me, because Nick loves it, and it’s classical. But he sits back there in the car, and it’s all about the titles. This says, “Professor Lockhart’s Kaboodle,” or whatever, and Nick’ll be like, “This is Professor Lockhart’s blah blah blah.” And he’s completely listening. And he has an attention span for that, which just blows my mind. He also liked System of a Down, which is dangerous.

UGO: Would it bother you if he grew up to like some music that you would find terrible?

LP: Oh, I know he will. I know he will. I mean, we did. How can you avoid that? But I trust him. I have this sort of big pictures philosophy about him. I think if he feels secure, if he feels confident that, even if he’s not good at something, he can get through it, you know what I mean? If he has a solid foundation, he’s going to be OK even if he goes through a heinous phase. I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve seen myself go through it, my friends go through it. Between 13 and 18 or 21, they check out. I think what’s going to happen is that I really regret…like, senior year, I didn’t keep my grades up. Like, I sort of went through a rebellious period. And I regret not going to the best possible school I could have gone to. And I think I will be tackling him. I can foresee that being a big issue. He’ll be, like, “I don’t care,” and I’ll be, like, “You damn well should care!”

UGO: “Because I say so?”

LP: Right, right. You know how parents have their own issue that they pawn off on the kid? That’s going to be mine.

UGO: Well, at least you’ve come to grips with that.

LP: [Laughs]

UGO: Pop quiz time. If you could collaborate or duet with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

LP: Hmmm… [long pause] I don’t know. Give me a leading idea, or something.

UGO: I don’t know. Like… jamming with Hendrix, or something.

LP: No, I couldn’t provide anything. I’d just stand back and go, like, “Whoa.”

UGO: So you have to find the right balance between being able to contribute and someone who would really wow you.

LP: I think it would be really fun to sing a harmony on “September Gurls” with Big Star. [She proceeds to do so]. I’m so bad at that. My brain doesn’t file into lists at all. It’s like one big ocean. So it’s, like, “OK, I’ll bet there’s a lot of good stuff over by that island, but it’ll take me a while to swim.” Umm… I don’t know. It’d be fun to be at that Dylan show where they were booing him for being electric. That’d be kind of fun. Blondie would be kind of fun. I’d really like to write a song with the New Radicals guy.

UGO: Out of these three movie franchises – Lord of the RingsStar Wars or The Matrix – which is your favorite, and why?

LP: Star Wars. It’s just – and I love The Matrix, don’t get me wrong. Star Wars is the battle between good and evil, and I have a feeling humankind is going to evolve out of that paradigm. And Star Wars just epitomizes, to me, the last couple centuries’ mentality. It’s a distillation of all of our fighting knowledge, and our large scope of who we are in the universe. And I think, eventually…or, I hope, eventually, it’s going to be more dated, and indicative of, “Oh, we used to think like that.” It’s classic; it’ll last. The Matrix, believe me, I loved that movie. But something about Star Wars is just classic.

UGO: Sure is. OK, if you could have super powers, what would they be, and why?

LP: Ooh, super powers? God… I mean, it’d be great to be completely telepathic, but I think it might also cause you a great deal of pain and angst to be so isolated from the rest of the world, so I think I’m going to pick flying. I think that’s kind of like a dumbed-down, very useful…Like, you wouldn’t be, like [in a weepy voice], “Oh, I can fly and no one else can. I’m so misunderstood!” You’d be, like, “I can fly!” OR, breathing underwater – being able to go to any depth. One of the two. I’d like to be able to be in the sky, and I’d also like to be able to be under the ocean. So either one of those…flying. I’ll stick with flying. But a close second is aqua-lung.

UGO: I looked you up on the IMDB, and I saw there’s a movie in post-production that you’re in.

LP: [Laughs] I have one line! And I’m still scared they’re going to cut it. I don’t think they will, because I did my very best. Believe me, I made the most of that one line.

UGO: There are a lot of musicians doing the acting thing now – Jack White in Cold Mountain, for example. Is that something you want to do?

LP: That’s exactly what I want to do. I have no desire to be a movie star. I have every desire to show up in movies in small parts. Like, cool movies, small parts, orgasm. It’s a Lyle Lovett philosophy. Quirky role, not many lines, excellent movie.

UGO: Is there any particular genre you’d like to be involved in?

LP: I like comedy, mostly, but honestly, that Cold Mountain production over there… Transylvania, Romania, wherever they were…I would have killed to be there. Killed.

>UGO: Living in L.A., you must be around that a lot, the movie scene.

LP: Yeah, the movie scene, there’s a certain social aspect to just having connections in that world. You’re going to miss out on half the fun of the town if you don’t. But once I had to go to acting coaches and really stretch that part of my brain… it was very, very right for me right then, because of singing and the transformation I made with my voice, and what kind of a different position that put me in on stage. And acting, which, you know, the art of acting, it’s so easy to be, like, “Yeah, whatever.” And when you actually do it, it’s like doing yoga for the first time, using all these muscles you don’t normally use. And it reminds me of college, where you go to one class, and it kind of exercises your brain one way, then you go to the other one, and you realize, toward senior year, that you can kind of synthesize some of the knowledge from one to the other. They play off each other. That’s what I like about acting. It plays off my musical creativity in an interesting way, and vice versa.

UGO: Through living out there and getting into that, have you had the opportunity to rub elbows with anybody out there that’s kind of wowed you?

LP: A lot. I’ve had a lot of people. I’ve done that. My personal fave is John Cusack, but there’s a lot of them around, and they’re people. And it’s impressive. I remember seeing… some of them are really larger than life. J-Lo and Ben? Really larger than life. And, uh, um…come on… he’s very tall, and thin… he won an Oscar for Traffic?

UGO: Benicio del Toro?

LP: Thank you! Very large. Very impressive. I was out with my parents, and I was telling them they needed to match-make me, to find me a husband, that it was their job… that I had tried and failed, and it was now their job. I was trying to put the pressure on them because, classically, you know, parents are supposed to do that for you. And my mom’s, like, “Oh, yeah, great, but you’d probably like somebody like THAT!” And she had no idea who the hell he was, but he was kind of wearing jeans and a hockey jersey… and I looked over, and it was Benicio del Toro. [Laughs] EXACTLY, Mom! Exactly! He had to duck to get into the men’s room.

UGO: Really?

LP: No, I’m exaggerating. But he is tall.

UGO: So in the Liz Phair movie, who plays you?

LP: Hm… Alicia Silverstone, possibly? You could get Meg Ryan up there. Ideally, Michelle Pfeiffer.

UGO: Would you have a cameo in the movie about your life?

LP: Well, yeah. If it’s a movie about me, damn straight I’m getting my foot in the door.

UGO: Who would your character be?

LP: One of the bitchy moms that made me feel bad at school for being late with stuff, or not sure what’s going on.

UGO: Sounds fun. And I’m out of questions. Thanks very much for your time, and good luck.

LP: Thank you.

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