Of all the dark, disturbing characters that dwelled in Lou Reed’s sleazy downtown tales, none seemed more innocent then Jenny, the cool New York chick whose “life was saved by rock & roll” on the 1970 Velvet Underground classic “Rock & Roll.” Grime and grit aside, Jeffrey Novak, singer and guitarist for Cheap Time (as well as solo artist), could easily be Jenny’s wide-eyed clone, a self-professed freak of rock & roll’s rough-hewn beauty and soul-destroying appeal who, like Reed, has never been one to paint himself into a corner when unleashing his inner demons in the studio.
Over the span of four albums and a grab bag of singles, Novak’s three-piece has crisscrossed rock & roll’s astral beltway time and again, channeling the brash, unfettered power-pop of The Quick, the sing-sing, paisley psychedelia of post-Brit Invasion Kinks, and the fuzz and fury of the ’77 movement and beyond. Exit Smiles (In The Red Records) is the band’s latest slab of rock & roll flotsam to get twisted and tangled in our rudders, and what a doozy it is. With drummer Ryan Sweeney and new bassist Jessica McFarland in tow, the outfit sounds more focused than ever, rolled tightly in a batter of kinetic energy that builds off the group’s 2012 effort, Wallpaper Music, with wiry guitars, amphetamine rhythms, and snarling, seething vocals that recall post-punk’s art-swirled dissonance and rock & roll’s sonic adrenaline.
I recently got in touch with Novak at his home in Nashville, where he is in the process of recording a follow-up to Exit Smiles and prepping for a six-week US tour that kicks off next month in Birmingham.
I hear you are already working on material for a new Cheap Time album even though Exit Smiles is just now being released. Do you consider yourself to be a prolific songwriter?
Jeffrey Novak: I think of myself as lazy more than prolific. I feel if I were more prolific, I’d be putting out more records. It’s pretty hard for me to get an album out in a year, and in this year, three albums came out, but that was just a total fluke in that two were old records. It started when I was in high school and I would want to write a new album every week. I didn’t have as much a screen or a hierarchy of value to judge things in that way. Now it’s all about keeping the train going. If I can figure out how to tour six months out of the year, and I’m working on an album the other six months, to me that sounds like success.
What other albums besides Exit Smiles came out this year?
JN: Two solo records also came out. Lemon Kid came out the exact same day as Exit Smiles on Trouble in Mind Records. It was recorded two years ago and Baron in the Trees came out closer to the beginning of this year on In the Red as well. That’s the solo album I did four years ago that Jay Reatard produced, and it was recorded before the second Cheap Time album (Fantastic Explanations). That’s how old it is.
How do you differentiate between the Cheap Time sound and a song you would release on a solo album?
JN: With the solo albums, a lot of the songs are piano-based. There’s a lot of songs that do kind of rock on those records that I wouldn’t mind playing live, but I’m not really interested in being a solo artist because I like being in a band. I like the equality that comes with a band and the sense of family. Lemon Kid accomplishes everything I’d want to do with a solo record. It was the record I wanted to make when I was 16, and I made it when I was 26, so it was like ten years of work to make my fantasy solo record.
I noticed that with Exit Smiles and Wallpaper Music, there’s more of a similarity in terms of the sound and intensity, whereas your first album (2008’s Cheap Time), was more cathartic and explosive.
JN: The first album sounds bigger because it was done in a real studio on bigger tape, whereas Exit Smiles and Wallpaper Music were done on a half-inch machine. To me, Wallpaper Music just sounds like me figuring out the machine because I’d never recorded anything on it before. The technical problems I had making Wallpaper were astronomical. It took me a year to make that record, and I immediately started working on a follow-up. Including all of the writing, it took at least two years to make Exit Smiles.
Was shortening the song length on each album a deliberate attempt to flesh out the songs more?
JN: I wanted to make an album that only had eight songs for the longest time. That’s been a dream of mine for like five or six years because to me that seemed like a really hard thing to do. I’d like to do a six-song record. I can do a progressive rock record, but I guess I want to write more of a classic album and I’m not as concerned with keeping that up now. To make a record that will have any sort of lasting value takes a lot of work and listening to it over and over and over thinking about everything. That’s the trick. Anything I’ve read about any of my favorite producers, that’s what they had to do.
Exit Smiles is the second album that you self-recorded.
JN: For Cheap Time, yeah. I also did Lemon Kid and some other stuff on an eight-track machine. I produced The Paperhead’s first album, but that was not really building on the same techniques for recording.
You do this in your house?
JN: I don’t have a very big house and I have two roommates, so they just put up with all the gear I have. I’m standing in my living room right now where we practice with a drum set. My tape machine is in my bedroom and that’s where my mixing board is. Usually I do the vocals in the bathroom.
Given the amount of line-up changes Cheap Time has gone through over the years, do you find it frustrating to acclimate new band members to your material?
JN: Sometimes it’s kind of cool because we don’t have to play any of those old songs anymore. We can automatically think about a lot of new material and push forward into a new phase. I’m not a spiritual person, but to me, this is like having a weird faith in rock & roll. It is my religion, and I take it so seriously, and whoever is in my band, I feel like a preacher to them. I just really want to sell them on the material and how much I believe in rock & roll. I know that’s why Ryan stuck it out in the band because he believes in the music and he’s been in the band longer than anybody else. It’s the same way with Jessica.
There was an interview awhile back where you admitted to being a bit of a control freak during the songwriting process. Do you still feel that way?
JN: The guys who played on Cheap Time thought they could take over the band and they were constantly trying to pitch their own songs. The deal I had with In The Red was whatever band I put together. So although we were a band, it was almost like a solo deal. Larry (Hardy) from In the Red always told me to be a dictator, that “this is your band and don’t let anyone else write songs or contribute in that way.” His comparison was always the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. When Spencer was a dictator, his stuff was the best. But once he let other people contribute, it took a dive in quality. I want people to believe in the vision and contribute, but the truth is that no one’s going to be as invested as me and lose sleep over the things I lose sleep over. If I tried to be nice and let someone have their one song on the album, I probably couldn’t listen to that side of the record anymore.
How did you educate yourself music-wise prior to the advent of the web?
JN: I had two older sisters and that definitely gave me an advantage over a lot of kids my age. Everything was word of mouth or on MTV or in Spin or Rolling Stone. That’s why my family started shopping at thrift stores, because my sister April read an interview with Beck in 1994, where he said he got all his clothes there.
What about “People Talk” from Cheap Time? How did you find out about that band?
JN: It was right when Goner Records had opened, and they had gotten a stack of copies of this single of Jack Oblivion’s high school band from Corinth, Mississippi, The End. I grew up just north of there, but I had never heard of them. But I knew who Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves were because they had a single on Goner. Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves were like the joke band compared to the real one (The End) with most of the same members. The End released some recordings that came out later in the ’90s, but had one single that came out in the ’80s, where the A-side kind of sounds like Van Halen and the B-side (“People Talk”) is sort of like a Devo rip-off.
That was my first exposure to your band. I think if you’re going to do a cover, you might as well cover someone obscure like The End.
JN: Yeah, you need to either cover something obscure or you have to completely rearrange a somewhat well-known song to make it your own. That’s what we did with John Cale’s “MacBeth.” Nobody ever knows that we are playing a John Cale cover. We toured with Mudhoney, who are all big John Cale fans, and I was like, “Oh yeah, we do this John Cale cover,” and they were like, “What?! We didn’t hear you doing any John Cale.” That’s a sign that you’re doing a good cover.
“People Talk” is easily the song that people are most aware of with the band, especially when we tour Europe. Every night, people would hound us about that song and would want to talk about it after the show. We didn’t play it for over a year because people were just driving me crazy asking about it all the time. Sometimes we’d have to play it twice in one night.
JN: It was like the same thing when we did our second album. Anytime we tried to play new songs live, people would get so pissed off. We didn’t try to replicate the sound of the first album and people wanted this big-time party record, while I wanted to make some concept album about deteriorating relationships and was tired of singing in a high-pitch because I was losing my voice on tour. They want to associate you with that forever, especially for a song you didn’t even write. Then you do a second album that you feel way stronger about and occasionally two or three people in a given year of touring will tell me that they like that record.
You’re talking about Fantastic Explanations?
JN: Yeah. It was the worst experience I ever had making an album. The engineer, who actually just got out of prison, pulled a shotgun on us while we were recording the album and kicked us out of the studio, so that’s why we mixed it with Earle Mankey (from Sparks).
Sounds like a Phil Spector kind of thing.
JN: Exactly. It was like two months before Jay (Reatard) died, and then we got the tapes back a week or two after he died because he was holding the tapes ransom for a while. When that whole thing happened, we didn’t get to finish the record in a reasonable amount of time because it was like months of not knowing if we were even going to get the tapes back.
What’s living in Nashville like these days?
JN: Nashville is one of the most comfortable cities to live in. I get to not have a real job and have a home studio and I don’t have to pay for a practice space because I practice in my living room. My overhead is super low and I tour just enough to get by. To me I’m living the dream, and as poor as I am, I’m touring consistently enough and somehow getting records done. The 16 year-old me would be like, “Wow, these are the things I dreamed of.”