Replay: Liz Phair's Ticket Out Of 'Guyville'
MIKE PESCA, host:
As we do on holidays, we thought we would dig back into the BPP archives to come up with a little material that highlights the best of what we're all about, and the guest in this interview is no stranger to having the words "best of" attached to her work. When Liz Phair released her debut album, "Exile in Guyville," in 1993, it was voted the number one album of the year in the Village Voice's critics' poll. The album became a touchtone in the indie rock scene.
"Exile in Guyville" garnered attention for its hooks, for Phair's constant use of profanity, and for the fact that she said it was modeled on the classic Rolling Stones record, "Exile on Main Street." For "Guyville's" 15th anniversary, Phair decided to reissue the record and to revisit the place and the guys that ignited her creative spark back in 1993. The BPP's Rachel Martin and I talked to her about it.
(Soundbite of reverse playback)
RACHEL MARTIN: Walk us back in time for people who didn't by the album in 1993, who weren't around in Chicago at that time. Describe what Guyville is.
Ms. LIZ PHAIR (Singer): Guyville is...
MARTIN: Was, rather.
Ms. PHAIR: Guyville, the concept?
Ms. PHAIR: What Guyville itself was?
Ms. PHAIR: Guyville was the sort of - I think it was coined - the phrase was coined by Blackey Onassis from the band Urge Overkill, to describe the kind of guys as he would put it...
Ms. PHAIR: Guys in Chicago at the time. Like, I could give you just a visual picture. They wore sort of pegged jeans and they often had their wallet attached to their jeans by a chain, and they tended to wear black leather jackets that fit tightly, motorcycle jackets that they zipped all the way up. But anyway, they felt to me like a mafia of music lovers who were supposedly representing sort of alternative, but at the same time, I found them to be sort of oppressive. Like, you couldn't like certain bands if they were too pop, and if you didn't know sort of which band had split up to re-form the band that they were discussing, like, then you didn't have an opinion. You couldn't even, you know, throw out an opinion because you just didn't have the background.
PESCA: Sorry. I like their music. I didn't know the whole tree and history.
Ms. PHAIR: Green River, Mudhoney, you know.
PESCA: I don't know, the song sounded good to me. My mistake.
Ms. PHAIR: So, Guyville was what I was sort of dating and laboring under while I lived in that little, small, artsy village of Wicker Park in Chicago, and rebelling against with the record.
MARTIN: What had to happen to you to get to the point where you said, you know what, I'm making this the thesis of my debut?
Ms. PHAIR: The big (beep) you. The big like fingers up in the air that Guyville was like (beep).
(Soundbite of song "Help Me Mary")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Take me home and take me now. They play me like a pit-bull in a basement and for that I lock my door at night. I keep my mouth shut tight.
Ms. PHAIR: It goes way beyond Wicker Park. It goes back in time to high school, that same sense of being a girl and not being listened to and not being considered serious about music opinions if you didn't do your scholarly research. I'm like if you hadn't been buying vinyl since seventh grade then you weren't really in the game.
MARTIN: In the club, yeah.
Ms. PHAIR: And I was like a diamond of pressurized anger at that point, you know, like by the time of Guyville, I was pissed, you know, I had been the girlfriend of the guy in the band plenty of times.
(Soundbite of song "Help Me Mary")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I'm asking, will you, Mary, please? Temper my hatred with peace. Weave my disgust into fame and I watch how fast they run to the flame.
MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about how that need to kind of bust through that clique jived with what you had defined as another counter thesis, which was the whole relationship of that album with the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." How did that album inspire you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PHAIR: You know, I can sum it up for you. I think I'd become something of a stalker, and like I had this huge crush on this guy in the scene, and he and I had like a couple interactions, but nothing really serious, and I invented in my crazy-ass mind the idea of, like, on the record "Exile on Main Street." Mick's character was this guy, and so, whenever I listened to "Exile on Main Street," I felt like I was listening to what...
MARTIN: This guy.
Ms. PHAIR: This guy.
MARTIN: Who shall remain nameless.
Ms. PHAIR: Except if you buy the DVD. And then like what he was saying, like, it was totally a picture of his life. It was a perfect portrait of this guy's life.
(Soundbite of song "Exile on Main Street")
Mr. MICK JAGGER: (Singing) Wasn't that I went for. He don't come around no more.
MARTIN: So, you superimposed the Stones kind of on your kind of - on your life.
Ms. PHAIR: On your crush, and then I sort of wrote back to him like either I was like, because you think about the first song on "Exile on Main Street," he's coming home from this one night stand, he runs into some girl he knows who's sort of like where have you been and he's like look man, I just can't deal with you now, and walks off, so I put myself in the shoes of that girl he meets on the street and that's how I write six-one.
(Soundbite of song "6ft 1in")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I bet you fall in bed too easily with those beautiful girls who are shyly brave and you sell yourself as a man to save, but all the money in the world is not enough.
Ms. PHAIR: And I kind of listen to the two songs and I put dynamic in there, so if that was an upbeat song I made it an upbeat rocker, and maybe I'd look where the solo was and I'd do it like that, but it was like my answer to this guy vis-a-vis the Stones.
PESCA: Was he like Mick Jagger in any way?
Ms. PHAIR: Yeah.
PESCA: Did he look like him?
Ms. PHAIR: He didn't look like him, but he sure as hell acted like him. Yes, 100 percent!
MARTIN: In that record there are - there's this whole range of emotions and characteristics, personal traits. It's ambition, a young woman's really kind of raw ambition. It's her disappointment. It's her lust. It's her joy.
Ms. PHAIR: Don't forget sadness, because when I go back and listen to that record there's some really moving telling songs, like "Canary" is a really good one.
(Soundbite of song "Canary")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I jump when you circle the cherry. I sing like a good canary. I come when called. I come. That's all. Send it up on fire, death before dawn.
Ms. PHAIR: As a female, I don't think you're supposed to say the kind of things I wanted to say, or at least I had gotten myself into a position where I didn't feel comfortable saying to people's faces a lot of stuff I said on that record.
MARTIN: Trying to figure out how to make this statement, how to break through this world, did you sit down and make a conscious decision that it had to be not just about gender, but it had to really be about sex, explicit talk about sex?
Ms. PHAIR: I think I felt like I had been listening for 10 years to records where guys talked explicitly about sex and then all the women that came out with music, barring a few like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde and other people - women were sort of shunted to the area of emotion. But I've always been pissed off, frankly, that that whole myth that women aren't interested in sex. If you had 30,000 years of really bad consequences for being interested in sex, you might hide it too, like you might, you know - so, women sort of sing like I was thinking of you, you know. And I wanted to be like I want to (beep) you (beep) hard, I want (beep) bad like now. You know what I mean? Like I wanted to take that back and say, I can do it too.
MARTIN: There is also though, a recognition in that album that sex is a tool, and you had figured out that, I don't have to be this, I don't have to be this, I can use it when I want to, to my advantage. And is that...
Ms. PHAIR: And detriment.
MARTIN: How so?
Ms. PHAIR: Well, I'll just get really honest with you right now, but I was pretty good in bed at that point from the point of view of what the guys wanted.
Ms. PHAIR: But pretty bad in bed, in terms of my own enjoyment, and yes, that made me angry. But it was my own fault in some sense, you know, it was culturally, there's the expectation that you have to kind of fulfill this thing, and guys will like you, and then it's great. But you know, my music mellowed out a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PHAIR: When I started to understand my own body and how to enjoy myself, and you know, I think that using sex as a tool was very much on my mind at that point because I felt that's what I was doing. I didn't know why I was doing that. I knew that it had - it conferred benefits, but it also it hurt me. I was like hurting myself by doing that.
(Soundbite of song "Mesmerizing")
Ms. LIZ Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Wild and unwise. I want to be mesmerizing, too.
MARTIN: We're talking to Liz Phair. We're talking about the re-release of her album, 1993 album, "Exile in Guyville." When you listen to this now, what do you hear?
Ms. PHAIR: I hear how, I got to say it, I kind of hear how unhappy I was. Like, I hear - it makes my heart go out to the person that I was, in a lot of ways. And as much as I'm taking a tough stance and acting tough, it's so clear to me now, in retrospect, how unsure I was and how vulnerable I really was. And as tough as I come across trying to be on the record, that's really the beauty of "Guyville," is that it's really such a portrait of a vulnerable young woman trying to establish some kind of power for herself.
PESCA: Did you find that exhausting?
Ms. PHAIR: Yeah, yeah. I did!
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PHAIR: You know, I really did. I sure as hell don't miss that, you know what I mean? And, you know - yeah, it was exhausting and all I could do really was take that hardstand, kind of lash out sometimes. And also, I think I'm honest on "Guyville." I think there are songs that show the deviating part of it, like "F(beep) and Run" is a great example of that. Like, having a one-night stand and walking away, and really wishing it had been something entirely different, but you're to blame as much as the guy.
(Soundbite of song "F(Beep) and Run")
Ms. LIZ PHAIR: (Singing) I didn't know where I was at first. Just that I woke up in your arms. And almost immediately I felt sorry. 'Cause I didn't think this would happen again. No matter what I could do or say. Just that I didn't think this would happen again. With or without my best intentions. And whatever happened to a boyfriend.
MARTIN: When this album came out, all of a sudden it jettisoned you into a totally different stratosphere. I imagine it would be a little bit freaky to think, wow, I really hit it big! Like, this, this was a success. I hit one out of the park. How in the world do I match other people's expectations for what I'm supposed to be?
Ms. PHAIR: I just wanted to make it through the day. I wanted to make it through the photo shoot, or whatever performance I had to do. And a lot of those performances really were bad, but I think people were there also to see the vulnerability, and I covered that up in the last couple of years. I became good at what I did, and I think I missed the boat on knowing that part of what they came to see was to see that vulnerability. Now, I'm starting to try to open that up again so that I can put that forth.
MARTIN: Last question. You have an album coming out this fall. Has it been weird to have these two things happening synonymously? Revisiting that seminal work, and at the same time, trying to look forward?
Ms. PHAIR: Actually, it's been profound for me, to go back, talking to everyone that I haven't spoken to in 15 years, and getting their, you know, - a lot of them didn't particularly like me. You know, I talked to people that had negative feelings about me too, and just going back into your past and revisiting a whole - I didn't just revisit the record. I went back to Guyville. I went back to Wicker Park.
Ms. PHAIR: I found these people, and I interviewed them, and I talked to them about that time and their feelings about it. And it was profound for me, because I rarely go back and put the past into my present. I've had the tendency to just escape into the next thing. And it has dramatically changed how I approach what I'm doing currently. Especially, I mean, I'm also on an indie label for the first time in 20 years, which is huge for me, and I'm making the absolute most of it. I'm on ATO, Dave Matthews' label, and I've gone back to my old run-and-gun methods, where I don't spend a lot of money, and I do it in a crazy fashion. Like the documentary was shot by me. There was no cameraman or soundman or anything like that. And the way I've been recording is the same way.
Like, I'll work with producers, and the first track we do will sound a little bit more like them. And then I'll be like, you know what? Can we just not make it perfect, and not do this and just have it faster and whatever? And that's when we get the real gem, because for me it's all about a process. It's connecting with a time when we didn't have a lot of money, and we just had a lot of passion to just get it done. We want to do it this way. I feel so much more connected to that now because of having gone back and exploring Guyville and who I was back then, and I'm really grateful.
MARTIN: Well, the album, in case you haven't figured out yet, it's called "Exile in Guyville." It was made in 1993. It's been 15 years. It's being re-released. Liz Phair, we're so happy you came by! Thank you.
Ms. PHAIR: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Fun conversation, and good luck with everything this year.
Ms. PHAIR: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song)
PESCA: See, it's great hearing a strong woman artist like Rachel Martin, and Liz Phair. So, Jacob, Jacob Ganz, BPP's self-described music snob, is here with us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JACOB GANZ: That's me, yeah.
PESCA: You love that album, right?
GANZ: I do, yeah. It was a big, big album for me. I got it, I think, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.
PESCA: Did it awaken you as a woman?
GANZ: It awakened me as a woman.
PESCA: So, she's been doing this live shows where she's playing the album straight through. You went to one. How was that?
GANZ: Yeah. She played four concerts across the country. One in L.A., one in Chicago, and two here in New York. I went to the second night in New York. I've got to say, it's kind of weird, knowing the album as well as I do, hearing applause in between every song. I just wanted to move - I just wanted to move along.
PESCA: Right. So, it's like listening to this beloved cassette, and all of a sudden, there are people clapping...
PESCA: In between songs. So, the question, if she plays the whole album, what does she do for an encore?
GANZ: She actually came back, and played a song from the second record, "Whip-Smart," and a song from the third record, "Polyester Bride" - "White Chocolate Space," weird, weird title. But then, got a guy up on stage to play - a fan up on stage to play guitar for an old cover of "Wild Thing" that she does, that she couldn't remember the chords to.
PESCA: Liz Phair covers The Troggs. Thanks, Jacob.
PESCA: Coming up, we'll cover John Adams, the second vice president. Or the first vice president, second president. For those of you playing along at home, yes, you knew that. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.