By Brian Tucker
Jeffrey Novak is the only original member of Cheap Time, a brash and weird Nashville garage punk trio that grew out of his work as a one man band. The singer-guitarist likes to tour, keep the set list fresh, isn’t the best self promoter, gets anxious working with other people, and says finishing an album is the hardest part – getting the sound right but also done quickly.
Last November they released Exit Smiles the same time Novak also released a solo album (The Lemon Kid), proof of Novak’s heavy output as a musician. On the surface Novak might seem complex and restless.
“It’s just the way I am. I’ve always been very serious about working on my art from a very young age,” Novak said. “My parents thought I would mostly focus on drawing. To me recording isn’t much different than painting. It’s the same sort of discipline I follow to come out with an end product.”
Start to finish Exit Smiles moves with the aggression of a drill boring through thick cuts of wood, energy akin to that found on The Stooges Fun House. It also echoes The Kinks and British, musicians he enjoyed as an eight year old. Then came punk as a teenager and a few 60s American bands – The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“All the British musicians from the 60s just seemed to worship the music where I grew up in West Tennessee. I was born in Jackson where Carl Perkins is from. My dad used to see him at estate sales and talk to him. But I was never interested in local music that much as a kid.”
Exit Smiles is more battered concrete and steel than the world between Memphis and Nashville, sounding like something begat by The Velvet Underground and The Cramps. Gritty or trashy, songs retain a catchy veneer, whether the scorn and ripped-strings qualities of the spacey “Modern Taste” or “Kill the Light” whose dark alley atmosphere recalls early Alice Cooper.
That’s all Novak, a singer whose style is punching and railing vocally even as the cadence is a slower version of street swagger. His guitar work is fuzzy, ringing like slamming sheets of metal, playing that gets inside your head, leaving battered melodies in its wake.
“I’ve always liked really harsh guitar songs,” Novak said. “When I got my first wah-wah (at) sixteen, I liked to keep it pushed to the front because it sounded like Pussy Galore. I play a weird cheapo Peavey amp now that has a lot of odd compressors and a sick phaser, so I can kind of get that harsh sound without using any pedals.”
That vibe snakes throughout the album, namely on “Modern Taste,” solidifying Novak’s interest in hard rock/psych music. Growing up, he wanted to start a band as early as elementary school. But he thought that was too young and became serious by fourteen or fifteen.
“I don’t know why, that’s just what I thought. I stopped listening to music completely for a few years. Then I bought a cheap bass (at) fourteen with the plans of joining a band I was never able to find.”
That led to home recording and realizing he didn’t have to rely or wait on anyone to make music. For years, Novak played different instruments to write an album’s worth of music each week. He would find a mentor in Memphis garage rock/rockabilly musician Monsieur Jeffrey Evans (’68 Comeback, C.C. Riders) and later creative influence from Jay Reatard. Evans asked Novak to open for him and introduced the budding musician around in Memphis. But having fans in indie rock band Yo La Tengo led to Cheap Time’s longevity.
“(Evans) gave me the confidence that I was onto something,” Novak said. “(Yo La Tengo) wrote us on Myspace. If (they) hadn’t asked us to tour with them at that time, we might not have even made a second album.”
More with Jeffrey Novak
There aren’t many bands with a reputation for not playing their own material to death.
Jeffrey: We played the material from our first album for over three years. It became a real drag. I knew we had to retire most of that stuff and try to move on with our sound, but it was hard. The songs off our second album weren’t as immediate with audiences, but once we started playing the Wallpaper Music material, we finally got our legs again. So after that, we’ve always tried to keep the material revolving, and we’ve always played new songs for sometimes as long as a year before they come out, which to me is a big reason why you go to see a band live.
Why is it tough to keep a band together –the long haul or hard to find like-minded musicians?
Jeffrey: It’s hard to keep people interested. It’s hard to find reliable people who have more than a good year of hard touring in them. Several past members didn’t seem to be very big fans of our music. Any of the technically strong players who have been with us, have all complained to me about our songs being too simple, but both of those guys were heavy metal guitarists. I’ve never really liked heavy metal. I like more basic hard rock/psych and anything weird that qualifies under “proto-punk.”
This week’s show, how much is music you haven’t recorded yet versus from the last album?
Jeffrey: We’ve been playing a mix of everything lately. We’ve only been playing a few songs off Exit Smiles. We played most of that album live for a year, before it came out, so some of those songs started to drag the set. We brought back some old Wallpaper Music songs we hadn’t played for over a year. We’re also playing a few brand new songs we haven’t finished recording yet, along with our “International Harvester” cover that’s going to be on our next single on Nashville’s Dead Records. Plus we’ve been doing an encore of several songs from our first two albums that we hadn’t played for years, so it’s a good mix of around seven years of songs.
Where would you discover bands – through friends, soundtracks, TV?
Jeffrey: Oldies radio is the only thing my parents ever listen to in their van. My older sisters were very influential as well. In the early 90s MTV was still good for videos. And my sisters took me to my first concert in Nashville, The Smashing Pumpkins on the Mellon Collie tour with Garbage opening. As for soundtracks, the one I remember the most was The Basketball Diaries. I watched that movie with my whole family on a TV in our van on a trip to Florida, and just loved the song “People Who Died.” My oldest sister, April, had the soundtrack on CD in her car. She was driving me to school one day in the fourth grade and I stole the booklet out of her jewel case so I could read the lyrics in class that day. That’s my first memory of ever studying lyrics.
How does a young man get to leave West Tennessee and play bigger cities?
Jeffrey: Every young artist has to find a mentor that they have the upmost respect for. I feel like I was luckier than most in finding Jeffrey Evans. To me, he is a king of kings. He gave me so much support and encouragement early on, and he introduced me to so many people in Memphis. He made me feel respected when I wasn’t shit, and gave me the confidence that I was onto something.
Jeffrey asked me to open for him in Memphis. That was my first real show that I ever played in a bar. It was my debut. After that I wrote to at least fifty small labels and sent out CD-R’s and bragged about having opened for Jeff.
The guitar sound is dirty.
Jeffrey: I’ve always liked really harsh guitar songs. When I got my first wah-wah when I was sixteen, I liked to keep it pushed to the front because it sounded like Pussy Galore. I play a weird cheapo Peavey amp now that has a lot of odd compressors and a sick phaser, so I can kind of get that harsh sound without using any pedals.
With technology available to make recording easier, does Cheap Time or Jeffrey Novak need a label?
Jeffrey: Jessica brought this up to me recently. I don’t know. I’m not a great self-promoter. We’ve done all of our studio albums with the same label, In The Red Records. I self-released one of my solo albums and that was financially successful, but a lot of work too. I’m more concerned with just making music.
What do you prefer, recording on your own or in a studio?
Jeffrey: Both are good for different reasons. Recording at home takes too long most of the time, but you get the freedom to over think every detail. In a real studio, you’re just scramming the whole time and regretting so much after the fact.
Does a solo album allow for ideas you have no interest in doing with the band?
Jeffrey: Not necessarily. They’re just ideas I thought might go good together, and it’s nice not having to play those songs live, since a lot of them don’t really rock. I always miss the band anytime we’re not busy. I just love hanging out with Ryan and Jessica, and talking about music with them. I always want to know what their opinions are on everything we listen to together.
Does working with others make you anxious?