Liz Phair Was ‘Heartbroken’ Over Missing Exile In Guyville Master Tapes
With the “Matador at 21” extravaganza set to start later today, here’s another archival interview with one of the featured performers: Liz Phair. Conducted April 30, 2003, she talked about her then-upcoming self-titled release with Capitol; her Matador-issued debut, Exile in Guyville (“obviously my most important work”); and being “heartbroken” after the master tapes for that record were misplaced by Matador, Capitol – or someone else.
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After weathering the four-year drought between Whip-Smart (1994) and whitechocolatespaceegg, it’s safe to say that ardent Liz Phair fans have developed a tolerance for album delays. Still, few may have guessed that an even longer gap would separate her ’98 release from its successor, Liz Phair (Capitol), which arrives at long last June 24.
Certainly, personal matters factored into the holdup: She changed managers, experienced significant label difficulties and went through a divorce to top it off. But the recording process alone speaks for itself: upward of 50 songs with four different producers over the course of five years.
“I was sweating every last decision,” Phair tells ICE, “and there was lots of tinkering afoot. We needled the mixes to death … I had piles of notes by the end. We recorded all the way through the mixing stage, redoing vocals. Now, there’s not an element of [the album] that I’m not aware of.”
Only 14 songs made the final cut: “Extraordinary,” “Red Light Fever,” “What Can’t I?” (first single), “It’s Sweet,” “Rock Me,” “Take a Look,” “Little Digger,” “Firewalker,” “Favorite,” “Love/Hate Transmission,” “H.W.C.,” “My Bionic Eyes,” “Friend of Mine” and “Good Love Never Dies.”
The first pair of sessions was held in Los Angeles after Phair wrapped up touring behind whitechocolatespaceegg. Roughly half the album consists of these demos Phair recorded with her backing band and for which she is credited as producer.
“I did them for Roy Lott, who was president of Capitol back then [and is now president of Virgin],” Phair says. “After those two sessions, my manager and I were trying to get off the major label and get onto an independent – better payback ratio to effort, that kind of idea.”
Around that time, another Capitol shakeup transpired: Matador Records – the primary label behind the first three Phair albums – dissolved the distribution partnership it had established with the major in 1994. Capitol absorbed Phair’s remaining contract while Matador won the rights to every other release that had been issued under the multi-year partnership.
After Phair’s plan to leave Capitol fell through, she opted to record with R. Walt Vincent, who works closely alongside Pete Yorn. Phair was introduced to Vincent through Brad Wood, the touted producer who worked on every prior Phair release and also Yorn’s debut, musicforthemorningafter. Those sessions rendered “H.W.C.,” on which Yorn plays guitar and drums. Phair then recorded two sessions with Wood himself, though none of those recordings surface on Liz Phair.
Phair wound up reworking a great deal of the Wood sessions material with Michael Penn at the L.A. Capitol Records building after new President Andy Slater took office. She put a great deal of material to tape with Penn, including “Red Light Fever” (co-written by singer/songwriter Gary Clark), “It’s Sweet,” “Take a Look,” “Little Digger” and “Friend of Mine.”
Afterward, Phair found that “we were still missing radio tracks. So we went to the Matrix and did four songs with them. After that, [Capitol] was so happy they got radio tracks that they said, ‘Put whatever you want on the album.’ So I did.”
“Extraordinary,” “Why Can’t I?,” “Rock Me” and “Favorite” were culled from the sessions Phair held with the Matrix, the red-hot team of Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards responsible for Avril Lavinge’s “Complicated.” They share writing credits with Phair on all four tunes.
“I couldn’t have given up that kind of autonomy earlier in my career,” she says of the Matrix collaborations. “I would’ve been scared that the songs wouldn’t be mine. Now I felt like I was in command of my own abilities to share with someone else and not feel like I was being drowned out. I know how to stand up for what I want, and generally speaking, the people I work with respect that. It’s been a learning process, really exhilarating.”
Phair split with her previous management firm after the Matrix sessions. She notes that, “It wasn’t until the very end that I could grab all the songs from the different recording sessions, polish them up a little bit and put whatever I wanted onto the record.”
She exercised her artistic license with one song in particular: “Hot White Come,” abbreviated “H.W.C.,” which follows in the Phair tradition of pitting stark profanity against a chipper melody: “My skin’s getting clear and my hair’s so bright / All you do is fuck me every day and night / … / Give me your hot, white come.”
Song selection was a monumental task, given the wealth of material Phair had to choose from. She says that she “picked the ones where, within this context of big production value, I still felt like it was conveying what I feel. I like to make albums that have a song that represents each side of me, but when I finished, I had a lot of depressing songs. Over five years, I went through a divorce and some other harsh stuff, so if I put it out at any given time, that would have made sense. But a whole depressing record isn’t how I feel right now.
“I had a very clear vision of how I wanted everything to end up, and for the most part I got it. It’s funny, because what I wanted to make five years ago was almost what I made, even though I’d forgot about it along the way. I gravitated toward the songs that have a band feel or a lot of instrumentation.”
The trove of leftover material will surface in various forms, beginning with online exclusives. The CD-enhanced Liz Phair provides access to a to-be-determined Internet-only EP featuring unreleased songs including “Jeremy Engle.” (Other enhancements include behind-the-scenes video footage and the “Why Can’t I?” video.)
Lastly, there has been some chatter about reissuing the critically hailed Exile in Guyville, which Phair addresses: “Can I tell you what’s holding it up? We’ve lost the tapes and we don’t know who has them, Capitol or Matador. I’m heartbroken. It’s obviously my most important work, plus I own it now, so it’s just horrible. But believe me, I’ll be digging through some nasty, dusty things with Brad on my arm. Or maybe I should reward whoever finds them with profits from the reissue.”
Originally published in ICE magazine in June 2003.
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