Q&A: Liz Phair on Funstyle, Letting Go of Guyville, and Her Experience on Capitol


Over July 4th weekend, Liz Phair released Funstyle, her first full length in five years. For just five dollars for a full album download, the 11 tracks came with a message: the music within cost her relationships with her management company and ATO Records, who’d just enthusiastically reissued her 1993 classic album, Exile in Guyville. As par for Liz Phair’s last 10 years, Funstyle sent the Phair faithful into a tizzy, with its notable nods to Bollywood, humorous scatting about her recent career troubles, and ethereal electronic arrangements.

Through a distribution company called Rocket Science Ventures, Funstyle received an official release on October 19 and along with it comes 10 songs from the much bootlegged Girlysound tapes, four-track recordings that served as precursors to Guyville. Phair is headlining the Bowery Ballroom on Monday, December 13–tickets go on sale today at noon. Sound of the City recently caught up with Phair, who spoke candidly about her experience with Capitol Records in the early 2000s, letting go of Guyville, and her work as a composer for televisions shows such as 90210 and In Plain Sight.

It sounds like you’ve had a frustrating few years.

Yes and no. It’s sort of par for the course at this point, whether art and commerce will ever come together. I would think my worst days were back at Capitol [who released 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, 2003’s Liz Phair and 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle]. ATO and I just didn’t see eye to eye on the music but it wasn’t anything as traumatic as having good old [then Capitol Records CEO] Andy Slater breathing down your neck.

Those [ATO] guys are still cool, I still see them. Even my management, who I split with [over] all this stuff, we still see each other when they’re in town. What’s frustrating for me, is that for any artist, you want to make stuff, put it out, and go play. But there’s often many things, especially in a recession, where no one is feeling very risk-takey.

I can see a new act being risky, but I’d never consider you as a risk.

Have you heard the record?

Of course.

It is odd. It’s not risky… I get it. I don’t freak out about it. To me, this is a longer game. I really did sit for 13 months on the Funstyle sound. I did listen when they were like, “Don’t do this.” I listened! I sat there for a year and waited to feel the way they did and I never did. I actually thought the more the economy tanked, the more Funstyle is needed. I don’t get the fear people have of creativity.

For me, I was always working on a budget. For me, that’s fine, you don’t have to do as much of the dog-and-pony show. I obviously feel passionately about it, and gave myself the amount of time to see if I feel passionately about it, and I do.

Did the way things play out make you feel depressed?

That was good ol’ Capitol. That was extraordinarily depressing. The stuff with ATO was like, “Oh, yeah?” They didn’t have power over me, it was just a business proposition. Capitol really had power over me. That sucked. I don’t ever, ever want to be in that position as long as I live, knock on wood. There’s nothing worse. It’s your entire life, your livelihood, your passion–it’s everything to you, and it’s nothing to this other person. It’s just like a little bead that he moves from one place to another. And the idea that someone would retain me against my will and also not have any plans to do anything. Like “I don’t want you to have her.” It’d be like an abusive boyfriend: “I don’t want you, but he can’t have you.” That’s what it felt like and it was a shocking, profound experience to go through.

The way I remember it, it always seemed like they were much more concerned with “Liz Phair: Sex Symbol” over “Liz Phair: Musician.”

You better believe it. There was a photo shoot that ended up being the photo shoot for a cover, where I had refused the photographer. This guy does super provocative, super sexy stuff. All the girls were looking all passive, their limbs were dangling and their boobs were hanging out sort of thing. And I said, “No, this is not the packaging and imaging I want.” And I sent him back. Sir Nameless was furious. FURIOUS. Literally, pulled the guy back from London and said, “This is who you’re working with, this is who it is, if you don’t do this, you’re going to be on the fucking street and I don’t know what to do with you.” Yelling at me. I can remember distinctly, totally having a breakdown and crying in the closet. Being so frustrated that I was being forced to do this.

But this is what I do sometimes with that sexuality: If it isn’t my choice, then I just throw it in your face, really, really hard. Because I don’t know where to find my power. I don’t know where else to find it. It’s like, “Oh you want some sex, well here’s some fucking sex.” That’s sort of where I go. And that was a real shocker. He scrapped a whole video. It was just frustrating to have someone take you down certain avenues. And I’m sure if he was listening to this phone call, he’d be like, “You were so fucking lucky at that chance.” I can see both sides of it, but to me, consensual matters. It just fucking does.

It seemed weird and forced. And when I heard Funstyle, I noticed that it was addressing issues like bad business relationships and being dropped from labels; I think a lot of artists would skirt the issue. They skirt the issue still.

They do and I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I’m not a skirter of issues. I’m more confrontational. And hopefully the humor translates as well. No one wants to hear someone whining about all this stuff.

A few years ago, you revisited Exile in Guyville with the reissue and tour. That album has been unfairly used as a comparison–almost like Weezer’s Pinkerton–to everything else you’ve ever done. Where you can’t take a record and see it exist as just that. And especially with you, for some reason.

I’d actually throw that question back at you, to help me understand. I don’t really get it either. I think doing that re-release of Guyville was very therapeutic. If I hadn’t done the [Guyville Redux] documentary, I wouldn’t feel that way. But literally speaking to everyone that I was working with or impacted by or around at the time, the whole cast of characters came out for it. It was hugely settling. I realized I wasn’t alone… it had become a symbol, a thing, an entity that I had to grapple with every time I wanted to put something out. It had become something that people would use against me, that they were holding on to. I made it: you guys weren’t around when I was putting it together. This came from inside of me. How it ended up being owned by them and used against me–almost like a weapon–was very bizarre and sad.

When I went back and did that documentary, I realized how anyone who had anything to do with that record, ended up getting impacted. Not in the same way, but they all had big issues around it. I began to see that this is just the nature of what happens when something like that springs from the blue. But it came home to me, because I was sharing it with the 20-plus people that had had a pretty intense experience with it, it became what it should have all along.

I don’t think anyone is going to be able to use that record against me ever again. I think that’s part of why I put Girlysound on Funstyle. [Guyville] was specifically to sound stonezy. Girlysound didn’t sound like that at all, and that’s what I did before Guyville. For me, there was a frustration in [the realization that] people couldn’t imagine I could be conscious. I came from art school and I wasn’t even a great player. I’m still not a great musician, I’m more of a creator. Guyville is singular because I was trying to do a response to the Rolling Stones. I’m sorry to say this, but I sat around and got stoned all the time when I was making it, there was nothing else to do. Nothing. I had no responsibilities, no job, nothing else to do.

Sometimes, I think fans have a tough time growing up with their favorite artists. They’d rather live around the time they discovered Guyville, and they too were getting high and this was cool, but hey you’ve gone on and are doing new things, playing with new sounds and they get mad because of that. I think it’s something within; they can’t grow for some reason.

It’s an interesting theory. Is it that they can’t, or they won’t?

Both. Probably more won’t. Albums have significance for people at certain times in their lives and I think they want that feeling to be consistently replicated.

That’s funny. I love moments and records that I had formative experiences with, too. I just never felt the need to cling to that. That can always be there for you. You can always put Guyville on and go back and feel that way again. I went to Matador 21 a few weeks ago, and seeing Pavement, seeing Sonic Youth, took me back so completely and happily. I was soaking it up. It’s there for you. It’s not going anywhere.

So you put the record out as a five-dollar download and there’s a lot of computer imagery on your web site. What are your thoughts on Internet culture? Do you embrace it?

I do and I don’t. I’m not super-literate, but to me, my laptop is my teddy bear. I drag that thing everywhere. I live on there and I think a huge creative part of me lives on my computer and that’s why it’s showing up. [Computers have] become totemic in a way. You fall asleep next to it, you drag it around, it really is like a teddy bear. It’s such a personal tool, and yet it’s so public, and I find that fascinating. It’s a very public thing that you experience in private.

You’ve been scoring for television over the last few years. Has that been a godsend in a way? TV is the new Tower Records.

That’s funny, that’s so true. It has been. It’s allowed me to survive financially, but it’s invigorated me musically, because I’m in a music studio. For long hours, making many songs, by definition is emotional. They say put the emotion that’s supposed to be there. Make my viewer feel. I’m all about that. Sure, client stuff, the speed of delivery, there’s all sorts of jobby job aspects to it, but I’m so happy being able to go into the studio and create. It’s had a huge impact on the music I’m making now. I think that’s a reason Funstyle is important to me. It’s a direct by-product of having access to new technology. I have access to sound design, click orchestrations, and I became very creative in that way.

The first track “Smoke” would indicate that you have trouble getting into clubs. Do you really?

Not really…but I’ve experienced the ups and downs of my buzz factor. I’ve fallen off the radar and felt vulnerable in that sense. Does anyone care? My career trajectory, I’ve said–I’ve already been dead three times. I keep having to resurrect myself. It’s a funny thing. Even if you don’t let it go to your head, it’s weird to have your status soar and down, so often, you have to find a different place to put your identity. You have to find a place that isn’t dependent on everyone else’s excitement about you. It speaks to all these insecurities that I have: no one’s gonna like this music, am I still cool, and also, listening to the blather of the business people when they’re half paying attention.

It’s an odd life you’ve found yourself in. You probably didn’t think this is how it’d be, back in 1992.

Yeah, but whoever does. [Singing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”] Same as it ever was.