BETTER THAN SOMETHING: JAY REATARD
Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz are two very driven, passionate people, prone to finishing each other’s sentences and to finding closure in the stories that may otherwise never fully be told, most recently the story of Jay Reatard, the magic Memphis musical Matador madman who in 2009 commissioned these documentarians to film a short about his own life. After Jay died tragically in January 2010, Hammond and Markiewicz returned to Memphis and picked up where they left off: their labor of love, the full-length documentary Better than Something, finally premiers tonight in Los Angeles at Cinefamily as part of the Don’t Knock the Rock film festival. Don’t Knock the Rock curator Allison Anders had these two call me from Mexico, just days before they returned to L.A.— they must have found an insanely cheap international calling card, because they let me ask about a million questions. This interview by Dan Collins.
Why a movie, and why about Jay Reatard? With all the musicians who have played garage rock since basically the 80s garage rock revival, what was it about this story that captivated you, especially considering that you started this before his death?
Alexandria Hammond: The project started as a short. We met with Jay. He was looking to have a short made, and so he was looking around at filmmakers, and interviewing them, and our names came up through friends of friends. We met with his manager, Adam, and with Matador, and with Jay, and shared our work with him. He was looking for someone from the outside to come in and sort of document him, and make a portrait, kind of to make a piece to go along with the new release of Watch Me Fall in 2009. So we made the short, and he saw it and loved it. And a lot of the people in the feature are people who were in the short.
Ian Markiewicz: A lot of these people were people Jay led us to—the people he was close to and who he thought would have the most insight.
Alexandria Hammond: But why Jay? I guess he picked us! And then we became very obsessed after meeting him, and really fell in love with his story, where he’d been, and also got into his music and became big fans.
Ian Markiewicz: I also think it’s because Jay came from somewhat extreme circumstances. He had to fight hard for it. And he was a pretty eccentric guy. Some people are punk musicians, they rock hard or whatever, but they’re not that eccentric and don’t have incredible back stories, they’re just good musicians. Jay also had a great philosophy and a great back story and it was like—he was somebody you could connect with. I suppose he rubbed some people the wrong way, but if you were into it, he had a lot to say. He had a lot to offer.
Alexandria Hammond: As a character, he’s such a persona! Having spent the time with him, and seeing how honest he was, and how candid. He was a philosophical guy! We didn’t know that about him until we’d spent time with him, as filmmakers observers. It was amazing to be around that persona. That’s part of the inspiration, too, to just keep going with him.
He’s talented, but also incredibly prolific! What made him so driven?
Ian Markiewicz: Anxiety! He could not stop. He was just like…
Alexandria Hammond: He was a ball of energy. He would pace around: he could not sit still. We just observed that. He had to keep going. Silence and doing nothing was scary to him.
Ian Markiewicz: Like, he was trying to be on his own, but he didn’t want to be… he wanted to be productive. He was definitely a loner half the time, but he was constantly active and engaging himself. The productive thing seems like a byproduct of the crazy energy that he had. And also the fact that he had a million great song ideas. Every day was like a challenge he set to him. “I’m going to sit down and I’m going to come up with something.” And he could.
Alexandria Hammond: He really didn’t have any other outlets. Like he said, he would have been a petty criminal if he hadn’t found music. It’s very true. And he was very much into music. He listened to lots of music, lots of things that most punk rockers and garage rockers wouldn’t listen to, and you would be shocked to see his record collection. He was like an encyclopedia of music.
Ian Markiewicz: when we were looking through his record collection, there were some odd things in there!
Ian Markiewicz: You can look on line and see videos of him at Amoeba, where he’s buying records, and his reasons for buying them would be pretty random, too. One of the things that has come up a couple times is DEVO. You’re like, Jay Reatard likes DEVO? [Hey, this makes total sense! Are we not men? – ed.]
Alexandria Hammond: I heard he was listening to Neil Young at the end. Things that were more mellow. He was going to do a country rock record.
Ian Markiewicz: He wanted to do a whole acoustic record!
That sounds amazing! Were you able to get your hands on any of those recordings?
Alexandria Hammond: That’s the thing. He didn’t get to it.
Ian Markiewicz: Jay did say something about really getting into getting the acoustic stuff together because it really pissed off all the people who came to see him. He was looking into other things, and he didn’t really care if people wanted to hear it or not.
In the last years of his life, he complained that his old friends had turned on him because of the new directions his music was taking. But from what you’re describing, it sounds like he relished their distaste.
Alexandria Hammond: That would be more his fans. All his friends who we talked to really admired him because of that, actually.
Ian Markiewicz: I remember somebody, one of his friends, being like “Oh my god, what’s he doing? There’s harmonies on his new record!” Jay was going to Australia and listening to the music there and coming back and wanting to do stuff that sounded like that.
Alexandria Hammond: …and Kiwi Pop.
Ian Markiewicz: It interested him, so, well, “screw you guys if you don’t like harmonies!”
In 2009, Jay sent a terse communiqué that, in mid-tour, his backing band of bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes had quit. During the making of your film, did you uncover the reasons why they left so soon?
Alexandria Hammond: We spoke with Stephen Pope about it, who’s now in Wavves …
Ian Markiewicz: He kind of insinuated that it ran its natural course, and that’s just where it landed. No one’s given us “oh, there’s this brutal breakup story! Horrible! Horrible!” kind of thing. A lot of his bands had broken up. That’s the way things happened with Jay.
But in this case, things didn’t just “run their course,” Jay actually went on Twitter and announced the breakup by saying “They are boring rich kids who can’t play for ahit [sic].”
Ian Markiewicz: We knew that he felt that way a little. But it was a bit of a shock to us, to be honest.
Alexandria Hammond: We were shocked because they were just so good! They really worked together.
Ian Markiewicz: We knew that he and Stephen had a really good rapport. They really “gelled”—that’s how Jay put it. And he loved having Billy come in because he had a tremendous respect for his talent. So we were a little surprised.
It’s hard when someone dies in the way Jay did not to assign a narrative to it: you know, like how Jim Morrison’s death is always portrayed as the culmination a downward spiral, when the specific facts of his death might also suggest a one-off accident. Jay’s death feels like a fluke, an aberration; but then again, his last album is called Watch Me Fall, and it has song titles like “Nothing Now,” “Can’t Do It Anymore,” and “There Is No Sun,” titles which sound very much like the words of someone who is losing the will to live. Does this last album paint the picture of a man whose demons were getting the worst of him? Did you predict that he was in trouble?
Alexandria Hammond: We were completely shocked. That’s the thing: everyone talks about that album, as it seems almost very fitting in some ways.
Ian Markiewicz: Jay talked about it with us, like “Oh god, people are going to think that this is just another nihilistic Jay Reatard album record.” He had this idea that everybody would think he’s really obsessed with death after the record came out, but at the same time, when we met him, he was really up, really clean and sober.
Alexandria Hammond: People say he was at his happiest. He was sober making that record. Yeah!
Ian Markiewicz: That’s what he said to us, and there were indications from a lot of people that over that last year, he was as sober as he’d been in a while. He was known to have these extreme ups and downs, and he would just come out of it and stop for a while, and he was in a period like that.
Alexandria Hammond: The title of that album is dark, but it doesn’t sound very dark. It’s actually very poppy, you know?
Are there any revelations about Jay that come out in your film—things we might not have expected to see?
Alexandria Hammond: Just how insightful, and thoughtful he was. He could be a genuine and sort of soft guy too. He understood himself so well.
Ian Markiewicz: He was able to carve a place out for himself in the world. He wasn’t as angry on stage as people thought he was. He actually had something to say!
I know our readers love Jay, but did the world at large want to hear what he had to say? Was it difficult to get financing for this film?
Ian Markiewicz: It’s a self-financed film. We did the film as cheap as a film really can be made, probably!
Alexandria Hammond: It would be nice if it got picked up and someone put some money into some of it, ha ha!
BETTER THAN SOMETHING: JAY REATARD L.A. PREMIER WITH FILMMAKERS ALEX HAMMOND AND IAN MARKIEWICZ AS PART OF DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK ON THUR., AUG. 11, AT CINEFAMILY, 611 N. FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 7:30 PM / $12 / ALL AGES. CINEFAMILY.ORG.