In Praise of Half Japanese: The importance of intention
“Other people, some people worry about chords and stuff…and y’know, that’s alright too! You know, there’s all kind of music in the world. You might wanna learn some other stuff if you do that type of music…”
“…You do need cords in order to plug the guitar in, but you don’t need chords to play guitar.”
This witty response from Half Japanese (brothers David and Jad Fair) from an interview on how to play guitar is striking, but doesn’t seem out of place in the context of their music. The band started a wave in the underground US rock scene in the late 1970s, slowly gaining traction before releasing their first album, 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts. To say this music is raw is not giving it enough credit—Half Japanese’s penchant for casuality is frequently misinterpreted as amateurity. Even though their type of guitar playing appears to be uninformed, the Fair brothers have always been smart musicians, but simply chose what is important and discarded the rest.
That is what makes something like David Fair’s manifesto on “How to Play Guitar” so interesting. “Amateurity” in underground music is nothing new—cult-classics such as The Shaggs (and their biggest fan Frank Zappa) clearly opened the discussion about irregular technique being a building block of compositional ability.
The aforementioned artists were not amateurs, though—they just knew how to play their instruments in a different way than the established norm. Searching to be unusual is not practical: deviation from the norm has rarely worked as a premise because it is always a byproduct of doing something new. That is why groups like Half Japanese are different. They knew what was possible, but also knew that the type of music they wanted to create had to be done a different way.
You could argue that there is a lot of art that has little direction/form and still works out (chance operations and incidental music are another example in 20th century music), but even in those cases a lot of what makes the art work is completely defined by fate. This is why many composers and songwriters can be “one hit wonders” and accidentally create a hit, only to take themselves more seriously after and find that they had lost what made them great.
Technique and methods do not make music. Technique is the result of many people writing music within the same style to the point where we have it down to a near-science. If you want to play guitar traditionally, then you should take classical guitar lessons. If you don’t, then you don’t have to, but if you want to do traditional gestures the established methods have been created to make that easier (and not cause injury, in many cases).
I think to be successful at what you do, all you need to do is find what you want to do and do it well. Too many artists meet halfway, compromising what they want to do for what is acceptable, watering themselves down until their intention is incoherent. Too many artists also know what they want but reject all criticism on the basis of artistic integrity, and that is equally impractical.
The reason I am writing this article is because I have found myself bouncing from one of these points to the other on a regular basis. But it seems that with every project I undertake, I rapidly bounce back and forth until I slow down on a spot in the middle, one where I can know my options, accept criticism, and choose what’s best for my music. In the end, I think that’s where the roads meet. Like David Fair so wonderfully says in “How to play Guitar”,
“A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I’ve never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you’d feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing.
The idea isn’t to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.”
And isn’t that something we should be keeping in mind, especially in a new music world that is constantly redefining itself?