‘Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)’ from Cheap Time's Jeffrey Novak, Saturday in L.A.
At the tender age of 25, Cheap Time frontman Jeffrey Novak is already a jaded pro with a musical output rivaling that of some musicians twice his age. Since 2004, the Nashville rocker has recorded six solo efforts and three albums with his band Cheap Time. And that’s not counting the four singles he released with his first band, Rat Traps. Then there’s the solo album and Cheap Time long-players currently in the can, which are awaiting release by homegrown indie label In the Red Records later this year.
"I started doing four-track recordings and writing songs when I was 15," he said last week, speaking from Kalamazoo, Mich., the start of his current U.S. tour, which will land him at the Five Stars Bar on Saturday night. "This is the 18th or 19th tour I've done -- all these records have come out, records that haven't come out. I can't keep track of it."
Novak's earliest efforts -- many of which were recorded as a one-man band -- were brash, strident and at times discordant, but since Cheap Time formed in 2007 he's refined and tightened his approach. The band's sophomore platter, "Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)," which was released by In the Red in October, is an ambitious and mature blend of glam, punk and even blues. It's a bold step forward from the more straightforward Red Kross-influenced pop-punk approach of the act's 2008 self-titled debut album.
Both records were recorded at Mike McHugh's all-analog Distillery studio in Costa Mesa, which has given birth to discs by the Black Lips, the Specials, the Aquabats and many others. The "Fantastic" sessions proved to be particularly grueling, with events taking a turn for the worse when relations with the studio owner soured.
"We didn't know what was going to happen to the record for a couple of months," said Novak. "It was like, 'Wow, we spent a lot of money and this record's never going to get done.' But then we got the tapes back and mixed it with [Sparks guitarist and Runaways and Concrete Blonde producer] Earle Mankey and that was a cool experience unto itself. It was an upbeat way to end a record that was kind of tragic."
The album received critical accolades, including kudos from Yo La Tengo, although 2010 was a tragic year in general for Novak. In addition to the uncertainty about the "Fantastic" master tapes, his close friend and mentor Jay Reatard died of a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol that January. Novak was a teenager when he met the influential Memphis, Tenn., garage rocker, who took him under his wing and encouraged his musical efforts. "It was like immediately meeting a brother," said Novak. "He was four or five years older than me. He'd figured some things out, and he gave me so many tips" -- including the best way to cook sweet potato fries.
"I miss his cooking and his obsession with food," said Novak. "A lot of things. That's something I'll have to carry around with me for the rest of my life. He was a big influence, whether he died young or not."
It was Reatard who encouraged the budding talent to branch out and help younger bands, which led to Novak's current production work with two up-and-coming garage acts, the Paperhead and Heavy Cream. "Jay was always on my case, like ‘You gotta be working with younger bands,' " said Novak. " 'It’s as important to help people out as it is to look up to people.' That's how it is with Heavy Cream. It's cool to hang out with people that are more excited and less jaded than I am. I’m two or three years older than them, so I’ve already been around the block."
He's particularly pleased with the psychedelic-leaning Paperhead album, which will be released by Trouble in Mind Records later this month. "It’s exciting, expansive and amazing," he said. "I can’t imagine making a record like that when I was 18. I’m really proud of those guys... Making a record with them, hanging out at their parent’s house, being a weird older guy loaning them gear all the time. It reminded me a lot of my friendship with Jay: older guy that loans me gear, yelling at me, like ‘Why’d you do this? Always do this, or always do that.’ Passing on the history of yelling at younger people... I learned things because Jay yelled at me. Other people would get ... off, but I was like, ‘No, man, I learned lessons.’ I live my life by a lot of ... he yelled at me about."
In the meantime, Novak is glad to be back on tour, which gives him an excuse to quell his urge to record and release music that might glut the market. "I’m just trying to stockpile songs for the rest of the year and not put out any more records, because there’s just so much stuff coming out," he said.
His career in rock 'n' roll has left him feeling old beyond his years, but his enthusiasm for creating music is undiminished, even if his ideas are constantly three steps ahead of him. "I'm always looking for a new challenge," he said. "If I’m able to do something different with a bridge or a drum sound or a splice tape on something, that’s what I get excited about. But then it takes a year for a record to come out and by then you’ve done a million things better than that."
Listen to "I'd Rather Be Alone," from "Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)" here:
-- Jason Gelt
Cheap Time with Francis Harold & the Holograms, Idle Times and Dead Meat at Five Stars Bar, 267 S. Main St., Downtown, Saturday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Photo: Cheap Time (from left: Ryan Sweeney, Stephen Braren, Jeffrey Novak). Credit: Canderson, courtesy of In the Red Records