Welcome (back) to Guyville

By Brett Marlow

Nearly 15 years after its release, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album often touted by music buffs, critics and ranked as one of the top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine—is back.

Chicago native, Liz Phair, the ingenue behind the classic lo-fi album, is re-issuing the record for its 15th anniversary on indie label ATO Records on June 24.

Big Hassle

Exile In Guyville will be re-issued 15 years after its debut The album portrays Liz Phair’s point of view in a sea of guys in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in the early ’90s.

The album will include three never-before-released tracks and an 80-minute DVD titled Guyville Redux, where Phair explores the past with the guys who were involved in the album. The interviews discuss the “Guyville” scene in the early ’90s in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood that inspired the songs that voiced what it felt like to be a chick in a sea of dudes.

John Henderson, former head of local Feel Good All Over Records and Phair’s former roommate and recording mate for what ultimately became Exile In Guyville, spoke to The Chronicle about his experiences with Liz Phair and how the music and his life have changed since the record was first released in 1993.

The Chronicle: For the DVD, what was it like going back and revisiting the scene in Wicker Park and talking about something that happened more than 15 years ago?

John Henderson: That was strange because Wicker Park has changed a lot. When Liz and I lived there, it wasn’t a particularly romanticized place. I think Guyville had a lot to do with the public acknowledgment about it. Wicker Park was still a place where taxis didn’t want to go at night. Honestly, that would happen quite frequently. We’d be at some show somewhere, and it was hard to get a ride back. We walked around and talked, and it was funny to see [the neighborhood now]. Most of the people we knew who lived there are gone now. In 1991, you could sit at the corners of Division Street, Milwaukee Avenue and Ashland Boulevard for five hours and not see a cab, and I’m really not exaggerating. There were plenty of times I would get in a cab at Lounge Ax in Lincoln Park because it was too late for the buses, and they would flat out refuse to go [to Wicker Park]. There was no where to eat even.

By the time Liz and I were both gone from that neighborhood, in the mid-’90s, you could start to see a change. But to come back 12 years after that, it’s funny. Liz and I lived in this two-flat building in the Ukrainian Village, and it wasn’t the most modern kind of apartment. It was really big, in a beautifully kept neighborhood and our total rent was $275. The funny thing was we used to sit there and freak out [about] where we were going to come up with our $137.50 a month. The record was made in those circumstances. When we started working on Exile In Guyville, we were probably each living on $400 a month.

How did you met Phair back in the ’90s and how did you got involved in what would become Guyville?

Liz and I recorded a lot of the Girly Sound demos. I actually met her through this guy named Tae, who was kind of infamous for spreading those [tapes] around. She had been writing them for a while, but most of them where recorded at home at her parents place. I had met Tae in New York and he was passing through Chicago, and that’s how I met Liz in the Ukrainian Village.

How did the term ‘Guyville’ come about, and who coined it? What did it mean?

The guy who actually coined that term was this guy named Chris Holmes. Chris was a University of Chicago student, and he would come up from Hyde Park to Wicker Park to hang out at Rainbo Club [1150 N. Damen Ave.] It was a half-block from where Liz and I lived. The guys from [local band] Urge Overkill lived almost across the street from the Rainbo, so Chris would come up to visit and hang out. He always referred to coming up there as visiting “Guyville.”

Why?

At the time, especially around the Rainbo and the neighborhood, there were just lots of dudes. Liz describes these guys as having their wallets on the chain and wear these particular leather jackets and stuff. It was a little bit of a stereotype. He sort of referred to it as “Guyville” because it was coming up to all these people in touch-and-go bands, and Urge Overkill picked up on that and started using it. That’s ultimately how Liz heard it.

You were involved in some songs on the project that didn’t work out. What happened?

We recorded “Glory” and “Chopsticks,” which is actually the first song on [Liz’s] second album, Whip Smart. But that was actually the first thing she did for Guyville, “Glory,” and “Ant In Alaska”—that’s a bonus track on the re-issue—and bits and pieces of things.. It’s hard to say what I was involved in. Some stuff got re-recorded, but half of Exile In Guyville, I had something to do with, at least the beginnings of anyway.

What was your role in the process?

There wasn’t a moment where somebody said, “You are the producer,” or anything like that, but the idea was that Liz had all these songs. Her attitude to some extent was [to] write a song and move on to the next. I would dwell on them more. My goal was to get her to go into the studio and record them, and she wasn’t that interested in doing it because she wanted to be a visual artist. We didn’t have any money, so we were doing a lot of this stuff on spec. I wouldn’t say [I was] the producer, because I don’t have that credit, but I was kind of an arranger/producer.

What made you leave the project before it was finished?

Liz and I had creative differences. I thought the record wasn’t going well, at least not the way I wanted to. We had a lot of arguments about it. One night in the studio, I was just like :”OK, have it. I don’t care anymore,” and walked out.

Since the album came out, Liz has always explained it as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main St. However, in the documentary released with the re-issue, you sit down with Liz and seem a bit skeptical. Why so? Was it always planned out like that?

No, it hadn’t been. There’s a bunch of reasons I was skeptical, the first of which is it’s not like Exile on Main St. is some sort of concept album that anyone could form any type of meaningful complete response to. It didn’t make a lot of sense to begin with. The second thing i, at least half or 50 to 60 percent of the songs on the album were written or recorded before she ever came up with that. I didn’t buy it. It’s just something you say, and it’s a nice little soundbite and it works in interviews. People went to town talking about it, but the funny thing is you never saw someone sit there and try to figure it out

Would Guyville have been a different record if you had stuck around?

I read something online about how people were speculating how Guyville would have sounded if I had finished it with her. It was the most ludicrously insane thing I have ever read in my life because the people who wrote it don’t know me. They don’t know Liz. They didn’t hear a lot of the stuff we did that didn’t come out, and they were just speculating on tiny, tiny fragments of things somebody said. For instance, in an interview somebody said that she’d never had a producer aside from Brad Wood that was forcing her to use studio musicians. This got sort of portrayed as that’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t have twelve cents, studio musicians? I was playing stuff on the record and I can’t even play anything! Things like that get so distorted and unrealistic. I think the Exile on Main St. thing got blown up. I still don’t buy it, I guess.

What do you think the re-issue means or says about the music industry and the album itself since it’s still receiving so much hype from when it was first released?

It’s tough when you’re involved in something to have that objectivity. For instance, after Liz and I had a falling out and she moved out of the apartment we were in, and I was still there. Kids would come by to see where she lived. Something you’re that involved in doesn’t have this romantic allure to it. I never really got that. The music that I listened to prior to even knowing Liz lead up to a lot of what Liz got attention for. To be honest, I think the record sounds a little bit better [now] than it did to me then because I distanced myself from what I would have done with it from what it is. I think the sad thing is that when the album came out and was surprisingly successful for this very low-budget indie label release, there was a feeling with a lot of critics and music fans that music could get more personal, more interesting and more diverse but still become very popular. People who were around then have a lot of nostalgia for this record because it was more interesting than what surrounded [it] would sell a half a million copies. She seems to have a lot of different tact about making music for her next record. To me, it’s like somebody being really obsessive about what you had for dinner two months ago. For people to pick apart something that happened 15 years ago seems really odd to me.

What are your thoughts on the progression of Liz’s music from Guyville, to a more polished pop sound in 2003 with her self-titled release? Did you ever think she abandoned her indie roots or sold out?

I never felt that. The reason I never felt that was because she never cared about that. Liz and I have had our ups and downs, but this is where I get very defensive about her. Part of the reason I left Guyville was because she wanted it to be this very polished, pop record. I wanted it to be this very weirdly allusive, mystic-sounding un-pop sort of thing. That impulse was in her before she ever walked into the studio.

A lot of press people and even her fans give her flack for that still.

Her impulse is always, if I’m going to do this, I want to sell lots of records. I think on some level she did what she thought she had to do to sell records. She got better at honing in on whatever those qualities are or what she perceived them to be. To some extent, on the Liz Phair album, she kind of did it. It was like a giant hit, but she had a song you’d hear places that you wouldn’t hear off the first three records. The problem she had from where I was watching it was that she clearly was going to alienate a lot of her fans.. Essentially, what happened was that the number of fans she lost and the number of fans she replaced them were kind of exactly the same. But, Guyville was done for a few thousand dollars. The fourth record was done for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you can do it for $3,000, why spend a half million? I think it put her in a really unusual place because those pop records usually sell like three million copies or 5,000 and nobody buys them. Liz did a really unique thing in the music industry which is not do any of those things. I think it was very confusing because the record company didn’t know they could get it that far but not any further. The next record didn’t do nearly as well and I don’t think she was nearly as invested in it. I think the whole process got to be a lot less fun. She’s not on Capitol, and I think she understood it’s better to do exactly what she wants with an indie where you’ll make fives times as much money per record as it is tell self half a million doing less what you want. It’s a better decision for her. She’s 41, and she kind of recover.

What about the next record Phair is working on?

She’s got a better idea of what kind of record she wants to make. It certainly doesn’t sound to me like she’s doing anything like she did for Guyville, nor Liz Phair or Somebody’s Miracle. I think it may be an entirely different thing from that. People like to think it’s a return to form because well, she just re-issued Guyville, she’s doing this mini-tour playing all the early songs. Liz is only going to do what works for her. We both talked about Guyville and listening to it now and its kind of funny. I know for me, it’s excruciating to listen to parts of it because oh my God, being in your mid-20s! For her, I’m sure it’s even more so because they’re her songs. It will be different. It’s going to be a little more musically down home in some way. I don’t think she’s expecting to have a top 40 hit but do believe it will be her best record in a long time.

How would you describe Liz Phair’s personality?

Liz has, and I’ve always said this about her, incredible natural charm. She’s very charming. She’s definitely got the artist sensibility where sometimes logic doesn’t play a big role in things. But, I think she’s also an incredibly intelligent person. Very strong-willed and stubborn. And that’s one of the reasons we had problems because we’re really both stubborn. When we would have a screaming match about something, it would get heated and intense.

What are you working on these days?

I’m making a record with some people that’s taking a very long time but will kind of be a big thing. I spend a lot of my time in Hungary and Romania. I’ve always learned lots of language. So I’m learning Hungarian and Romanian, and I’m also working on a couple of book projects over there.

What happened with Feel Good All Over Records?

I never got paid from distributors so it ran down because I couldn’t afford to keep it going. It’s the indie label problem. It got to the point where when I started doing it, there were good things no one was releasing, but later on there were seven indie labels for every band. So, what was the point?

Liz Phair will perform Exile In Guyville acoustically at the Vic Theater, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave., on June 24. The show is sold out.

Phair is currently working on a new album slated for a fall release on the Dave Matthews indie label, ATO Records.

For more information, visit LizPhair.com.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.