Jeffrey Novak has been perpetually recording, creating, and producing music since the tender age of 14 when he bought his first 4-track. It’s over a decade later and he shows no signs of slowing down. With Cheap Time in it’s 8th year and it’s 4th LP, the group is still going strong. Despite being on tour for Exit Smiles, Cheap Time’s next album has already been written and sequenced proving again that just how little time Novak wastes.
I got to chat with Jeffrey and Jessica of Cheap Time before their electrifying and impressive no pause set here at the Empty Bottle. Read on and find out the best kind of friend to have, the most unifying bonds between the trio, and what he loves most about being in Cheap Time. Proving yet again that Jeffrey’s passion for analogue is only surpassed by his wild amount of musical energy.
ASHLEIGH DYE: Jeff, you’ve been doing analogue recordings since you were 14, what inspired you to do recording this way?
JEFFREY NOVAK: Well at that age stuff like garage band didn’t exist yet, that I can remember. It was the same problem I had when I was younger and I wanted to be a filmmaker. Video had already started to phase out but digital hadn’t really come in. I grow up in this inopportune time where I was jealous of the generation younger than me and the generation older than me because ‘my first video’ editor was a really easy thing to get for the generation before me, but I could never find one. Cassettes and 4-tracks were still very much being made. There were tons of models available when I got mine; I got the cheapest one on the market. It was $100, it was a fostex, I don’t even have it any more, but a lot of people had them. It wasn’t really something I got into on my own. I borrowed someone’s to see if I would like it, I was recording basic guitar in to my parent’s stereo because I wanted to hear it played back, so getting a 4-track was the next step. Everything has just been a step since then.
AD: How did all this analogue recording experience play into you starting Cheap Time?
JN: Well our first two albums were done in a real studio, but on 2-inch tape. The idea of recording digitally never even crossed our minds; it was never something that was an option. I don’t feel like I’m one of those people who’s like “I’m an analogue man” the way Joe Walsh says that, the only digital record I’ve ever made is the one I made with Jay Reatard and I feel that it sounds the worst out of any record I’ve made. That’s the gear I have, that’s the way I record. I don’t know how to use ProTools or GarageBand or any of those things.
AD: You mentioned that your first two albums were recorded in a real studio with Mike McHugh in Costa Mesa. How did that experience differ from recording in your home studio?
JN: Majorly because we had such a limited time, the first album was done in 4 or 5 days. The second album was done in 9 or 10 days, we didn’t even finish it in those 10 days, it didn’t get mixed. I was pretty disappointed with how they sounded. I was used to how small the heads are on a 4-track and there was a lot less compression. When we finished the records and I played them for my friends they all said they weren’t as good as the demos I had done, so that was always in the back of my head.
AD: How did you get in touch with Mike McHugh?
JN: He was the In the Red dude. He had done The Black Lip’s Let it Bloom. He’d done the first two Hunches records; he did the Necessary Evils record. He was the in-house producer. We wanted to be on In The Red and when they suggested we go out there and they’d pay for these recordings, and well, that was the dream.
AD: How does recording at home work with being on In The Red?
JN: Well after the second album a lot of bad things happened one after the other. We didn’t finish the second album because Mike kind of freaked out on us, and then we didn’t get the tapes back for months. We decided as a band that if we didn’t get those tapes back that we wouldn’t re-record any of that and just soldier on. We got the tapes back sometime around Jay’s death. I remember at the funeral we were talking to Larry (our press contact for In The Red) and Poison Ivy, from The Cramps, suggested we record at home, and we had already decided we wanted to do some home recordings, so I think that kind of sealed the deal for Larry. While that was happening I was already starting work on what became Wallpaper Music. And I had told Larry then, “hey I want to home record this next album.” I don’t know how much faith he had in me, but I had gotten this tape machine that Jay had bought but never really used. It was my plan to set up this home studio in Nashville and Larry said “yes I’ll give you money to do that.” Between everything that went down with Mike McHugh and Jay’s death I think anything I would have suggested he would have said yes to.
Wallpaper Music took a really long time to make, lots of technical problems. The board we used had a lot of problems and completely fried out after we were done. It was an exciting time, I was really excited about the material, I still really like that record. I didn’t know what I was doing, just what I knew from 4-track recording, what I learned from Mike McHugh, and what I learned from Jay saying what he didn’t like about Mike McHugh. Jay had always said he hated how the first two Cheap Time albums sounded, but also said he felt he taught me enough that if I went in and produced the next album and was more pushy about things it’d be a better record. He died before I mixed the record so I could never show him, but he probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway. When you have someone who’s always ready to critique you and put you down and tell you what you did wrong, Jay was one of those friends.
AD: Jay was obviously a pretty important friend and mentor for you, so what would you say one of the more valuable things you took away from your relationship with Jay was? How does your friendship live on through Cheap Time?
JN; Hm, that’s a hard question. The biggest thing was we went on tour with them a couple times. We played Princeton University and I remember him just screaming at me. I broke a string on the first song, I was stoned, I didn’t have a tuning pedal, I didn’t have a back-up pedal, and he just berated me in front of everyone. “You can never do this ever again. You disrespected me. I brought you on tour. You don’t even bring a back up guitar or tuner. You use my tuner for the rest of the tour, any of my guitars are your back-up guitars until you get your own.” He treated me very much like this firm older brother. You did wrong. You’re not going to do wrong again, because I won’t let you. That’s the shit that hammered home to me. That’s what I wanted, those are the people I like to have around. The people who are pointing out my flaws so I’m learning from what I’m doing. The first time he ever called me I was cooking sweet potato fries and he was telling me how to cook my sweet potato fries, and what I was doing wrong with my 4-track recording, and why it sounded bad, and how he was going to help me figure out those problems. It was like, this is the phone conversation I’ve been looking for! I’m so glad you got my number! It’s those things. I don’t have another friend who’s always got the tough love opinion that I crave.
AD: Jessica, you joined Cheap Time right as Exit Smiles was finishing up recording, how was it coming into a band that was already so far into their third album?
Jessica McFarland: I did some vocals on Exit Smiles, its definitely different than anything else I’ve done because I’m not involved creatively. I enjoy playing the songs, and that’s satisfying in a totally different way than I’ve had in other bands. As far as coming in during the album being recorded, it was fun. It was like; oh I get to do this new thing.
JN: I remember it being really hectic; there were tons of people there. The whole atmosphere was great. I got the vibes, like ‘yea this was the way everything was supposed to happen, she’s making these songs sound so much better.‘ My biggest regret is that she’s not seen on more songs in the album.
AD: It seems lately, especially with the trio that Cheap Time is now, that you’re moving from more of a one-man band set up to a more collaborative entity. Would you say that’s true?
JN: It’s a slow process, because I am very protective of the songs I write. I love and trust Jessica, and I want her to get involved more, and I respect her so much more than other band mates I’ve had so I definitely value her opinion. Doing a song is a long process from me. I always start out recording a demo tape, then those demos evolve and a lot of times the finished song is a fraction of what the demo was. It’s a hard thing to describe, I always want people to be more involved, but the truth is, it’s very hard that anyone can care more than the sole creator. I really like how or vocals sound together. That’s what I’m excited about most with the band right now. It has these wider possibilities with melodies with both of our voices in ways that it hasn’t had with other members. Jessica has her own distinctive voice, she’s not writing the lyrics but she knows how to make it her own.
AD: You guys have both been very involved with solo projects and other bands, how do you think that tied into playing in Cheap Time?
JM: I’m definitely seasoned, you know, I’ve been around the block. Heavy Cream toured for 4 years pretty constantly. I feel pretty professional.
JN: That’s the big appeal of how I knew Jessica was the right person for it. We’ve had people in the band who have not toured enough and when you deal with people who aren’t on your same level it can be very annoying. Jessica knows the same annoyance. We had already bonded over this annoyance of other people, even though Jessica didn’t believe me when I asked her to play in the band…
JM: He had told me some many times he would never play with a girl!
JN: Well I had played in a band with my sister and ex-girl friend so it was a worst-case scenario, but with Jessica it is a best-case scenario.
JM: I had also never played bass in a band before, I had jammed with Jeffrey a couple times before that and it was on drums. I never imagined being in a band with Jeffrey.
AD: Is it all that you imagined?
JN: It is, our relationship is like no other. The three of us, its almost like we know how to get along and not get on each others nerves. I think all of us have so much hate for other people we’ve played with and we build on those experiences, like “we don’t want to be like them”
AD: Do you guys have any dates or anything set up for this next album?
JN: No specific dates, the label isn’t looking for it to be done anytime soon. I already have it sequenced and the drums down. Right now, though, I’m working on this idea of re-arranging these songs that I loved as a teen for a cover album. I mentioned it to our label when we were out in LA and they thought it was a fantastic idea. So depending on our schedule this summer that may be the last thing we record in the home studio.
AD: Do you have any plans for after the home studio? Why are you looking to move away from that?
JN: We made so many records there, and they’re recorded so piece by piece, and we’re a better live band now. You get to this point, where it’s like, how much better can this sound? It would be nice if someone who wanted to produce us, who wanted to work with us in an outside environment, who wanted to bring something out of us. So much of the pressure is just on me to figure out the sonics of everything. With all the mixing and everything by the time we get a test pressing I can maybe listen to it once, I always hope Jessica and Ryan can enjoy the albums more than I can because they haven’t had to listen to them a thousand times.
AD: So since it’s the government chosen day of love, tell me: What do you love most about being in Cheap Time?
JN: To me it’s always about those magical moments where it is transcending and it seems to be hitting us all at the same time. The truth of being in a band and touring is all about that moment. The drug, sexual moment of it, you can only get to that moment when you’ve stopped thinking about trying to reach that moment. You end up having it at some of the most awkward shows, where there might not even be a great crowd, but you just hit it. Like man we are just there, it’s undeniable. That is the one thing that makes everything worth it, because you think of all those shitty shows, all the horrible weather, all the shitty relationships I’ve had to deal with, that’s what its really all about. Its all about this second where you’re just clicking and the notes are just hitting perfectly and the moment builds up through the set, and you come out of it and you’ve won. It’s as if you are on a sports team and you’ve just demolished the other team. None of us are very jockey people, but you get in this mind set before you play where its like you got to get pumped and were going to destroy the other bands on stage and you got to get worked up like that. Like “We’re going to get out there and we’re going to kill! We’re going to kill everything here!” And its like, if you don’t have that in mind what are you even doing there. That’s why I have no interest in touring for those soul records, like yeah, maybe they were fun to record, but that’s not going to transcend live. That’s going to put me asleep. The volume and power and moment, those are the key. Albums are fun to make, and they are what set up being able to tour, and touring is what sets up these power moments.