Tennessee punk/glam/garage (and you could probably add a few more slashes and adjectives) group Cheap Time are currently on tour with Social Distortion, but on Wednesday – an “off day” – the group will perform at The Crimson Lion Hookah Lounge in Wilkes-Barre.
It’s a band that prefers to keep moving, filling in its schedule with tour dates rather than taking much-needed breaks, and delving into new material rather than squeezing mileage out of previous tunes. In fact, Cheap Time main man Jeffrey Novak tells us the songs on last year’s “Wallpaper Music” already “have run their course for us,” so expect a healthy dose of yet-to-be-released tunes at Wednesday’s show.
Like “Wallpaper Music,” the upcoming album, “Exit Smiles,” is set for a September release on In The Red Records, which has released records by Jay Reatard, Vivian Girls, King Khan & BBQ Show, Sparks, Cheater Slicks and more. Last year, Cheap Time also put out a live 7-inch on Jack White’s Third Man Records. And on the solo front, Novak has another record in the hopper which will follow “Baron In The Trees,” which he released earlier this year.
Before Cheap Time, which in addition to Novak (guitar, vocals) features Ryan Sweeney (drums) and Jessica McFarland (bass, vocals), embarked on the current tour, we checked in with Novak to learn about the band’s writing and recording process, what he inherited from his friend Jay Reatard and how he feels about playing with artists like Social D and Mudhoney, whom the band will open for during a run of dates this fall.
H81R: Tell us a little bit about the writing and recording process for “Wallpaper Music.”
JN: Most of it was written around three years ago or more. Two of the songs on it, “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Take It If You Want It” were written almost four years ago, and they’re the only songs I did demos of for that album. I recorded them on my cassette 8-track, that’s the same machine that “After The Ball” and the “Baron In The Trees” demos were done on. The “Paperhead” LP was also done of the same 8-track.
H81R: Did you make a concerted effort to approach anything differently than on the previous albums?
JN: “Wallpaper Music” was recorded on a 16-track 1/2-inch machine that I inherited from Jay Reatard. The machine had a lot of problems when I got it, and Jay had never really showed me how to use it, since he was into doing everything digital, including the album we did together, “Baron In The Trees.” He had bought the 16-track to record The Strange Boys’ first album, which he never ended up finishing. I found a reel from those sessions, and it didn’t seem like they got very far with that record. Anyway, to answer your question, we recorded our first two albums in a real studio in Southern California, and “Wallpaper Music” is the first self-recorded full-length that we recorded ourselves.
H81R: What impact did using your own studio have on making the record?
JN: It gave me a lot more time to think about the songs and random overdubs, but mostly it just gave us a really crappy drum sound, mostly because I was figuring everything out as we were going along. I’m not putting down Ryan’s drumming, which I think is great! We only used three tracks for the drums and tracked the bass at the same time, so the leakover was bad and the snare really gets lost. I gave a copy of the LP to our original drummer Nathan (Vasquez) recently, and that was pretty much his critique of the album. Like I said though, it was a learning experience. In The Red didn’t seem to mind the poor drum sound, (label head) Larry (Hardy) just wanted the guitar extremely loud like the first Saint LP. That was the only suggestion he ever made about it, so we remixed it for him accordingly.
H81R: Cheap Time has been compared to a lot of different bands, but what comparisons do you think are most accurate?
JN: Probably all of them to some degree. It’s mostly people saying we’re ripping off one thing or another. We cover a John Cale song on this live 7-inch we did for Third Man Records, but Third Man didn’t give John Cale writing credit on the label. That annoyed me because our version of “Macbeth” is sort of a re-arrangement, and I don’t think a lot of people that have heard it realize it’s a cover. To be compared with John Cale at all, would probably be the best comparison I could ask for, even though we don’t sound that much like him, even when we cover his songs. I just think he’s the best on so many levels with writing, performance and producing! I even love his ’80’s records. And unlike many of his current contemporaries, his voice still sounds great!
H81R: What type of music did you grow up with?
JN: In my teen years, I was very much grouped with the Memphis garage scene. That was the best music going on anywhere at the time as far as I was concerned. I regretted not being a few years older back then, so I could have caught more of my favorite band in their prime, but I was still lucky enough to get to see The Oblivians, The Reatards and The Persuaders. Plus I got to see Jeff Evans play with several great bands, including the last CC Riders show. But now that music scene doesn’t really exist anymore. Memphis is kind of dead except for Ex-Cult and a few other younger bands. I’m not even sure if Magic Kids are still going or not. Most of them have gotten heavily involved in the socialist party.
H81R: How would you describe the music scene in your part of Tennessee? What type of impact did it have on your music, especially early on?
JN: Nashville, where I currently live, is a completely different thing. It’s Music City USA! Everyone here is a musician that’s trying to make it, so I don’t really fit in in Nashville that well. At least I don’t seem to be trying to make it like everyone else, or my idea of making it if just something completely different. Success is usually just a fluke. There’s a thriving young local scene in Nashville these days, but nothing has ever blown my mind like the bands I saw in Memphis when I was younger. Like the Bad Times or the Cheater Slicks shows I saw that completely made me rethink everything I thought I knew about music. But it’s cool that Nashville has a scene these days, and it’s mostly due to Ben Todd, who died earlier this year. If Ben hadn’t been around doing what he did, Nashville would be a different place.
H81R: How did the tour with Social Distortion come about, and how do you feel about getting to open for them?
JN: The Social Distortion tour came about from our fabulous booking agent Todd Cote with Leafy Green Booking. I mainly know Social Distortion from the “Hell Comes To Your House” compilation from 1981 or ’82. I think it has the earliest Social D recordings on it. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it, but it’s one of the best L.A. comps from the early ’80s. Redd Kross does a killer cover of “Puss and Boots” on it, plus it has the earliest 45 Grave recordings, that I prefer over the album versions. I’m a huge fan of that whole scene and all of those great comps, so it’s a real honor to get to tour a band that’s kept it going for that long. We got to tour with Yo La Tengo a few years back, and it was one of the defining experiences of playing music for us. Getting to do opening slots with veteran bands is such a great learning experience. We’re all really excited about what the whole Social D experience will hold in store for us.
H81R: You’re doing some shows on the off nights of the Social Distortion tour, like the show here at the Crimson Lion. How will those sets be different? I assume they will be longer, for starters.
JN: We hate having any days off on tour. Last year we toured for almost four months straight and only had a handful of days off that were usually filled up with long drives. “If you ain’t playin’ you’re payin’,” is the old Mike Watt saying, and we live by that! I’m not sure how different our sets will be. We’re mostly playing songs off our upcoming album, “Exit Smiles,” that is slated to come out in October. We haven’t played anything off our first two LPs in years now, and most of the “Wallpaper Music” songs have run their course for us. We like to always stay one step ahead of ourselves. If we didn’t do that, I would probably be too bored to keep touring like we do. I put everything I have into our songs, and I really have to believe in the material to perform it. All the old songs don’t mean anything to me anymore. Most of them are like stepchildren I wasn’t able to raise properly.
H81R: And how did the dates with Mudhoney come about? And how do you feel about getting to play with them?
JN: The Mudhoney tour was also Todd’s doing. We’re all extremely excited about getting to tour with them! It’s a real teenage dream come true! I’ve always thought Mudhoney were the coolest! I read “Our Band Could Be Your Life” when I was 15, and Mark Arm and Steve Turner just seemed like the kind of guys I wanted to hang out with. They even covered the Cheater Slicks on one of their major label albums and took them on tour! Mudhoney are in a league of their own as far, as I’m concerned.
H81R: Are there any other projects or anything else we didn’t ask about that you’d like to mention?
JN: As I mentioned earlier, we have a new album out in the fall on In The Red Records called “Exit Smiles.” It was recorded at my home studio again, but it has a better drum sound and better songs than “Wallpaper Music.” I also have a solo LP coming out on Sept. 10 on Trouble In Mind Records called “Lemon Kid” that was also recorded at my home studio almost two years ago. Later this summer I’m going to work on an album by a new band called The Volunteers that features members of The Paperhead and D. Watusi.