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Liz Phair: Fifteen Years in "Guyville"

The indie rock icon talks about her complicated relationship with her debut and its reissue

May 5, 2008 9:54 AM ET
Fifteen years ago, Liz Phair turned the indie rock world inside out with Exile in Guyville, her abrasive, aggressive and accomplished debut. Having survived many bumps along the road, including major label woes and harsh critical backlashes, she will reissue Guyville (complete with a DVD documentary on the album's creation) next month via her new home, ATO Records. We caught up with Phair as she was on her way to therapy, and she talked about feminism, Dean Wareham and her difficult relationship with Guyville.

You recently reviewed former Luna and Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham's autobiography for The New York Times. How did that come about?
I had a really good time writing that. They approached me, and I have no idea how I got the gig. But I wasn't going to pass it up. I think because I mention Galaxie 500 in [Exile in Guyville's] "Stratford-on-Guy."

Did you approach that book differently, considering you had your indie rock coming of age at about the same time?
I was very interested in how Dean looked at it and how I looked at it. He remembered exactly where he was, what he was eating, what bands were passing through town. He was highly aware of being in the middle of an indie scene. Sometimes he didn't like it, or he didn't like the people, but he was definitely conscious of it all. Whereas I was always so overwhelmed by what was going on that I didn't pick up on the same things that he did. He was always aware of his place in history.

Did you ever consider yourself a part of any scene?
Going back and doing the documentary [on Exile in Guyville] reminded me of how much I was a part of that Chicago scene at the time. That's when it ended for me, because after that I was busy working and got caught up in business, and I got married and got pregnant. So I was sort of a mom and sort of a rock star, and I couldn't really figure the two out. But I think that's the only time I ever felt like I was part of a scene. But I've always been like that. Even when I was younger, I always had one or two good friends in every social circle but I've never been a part of any one thing. I'm just an outsider.

It seems like the music you've made in the past few years doesn't have much of a relationship to the music on Exile in Guyville. What's your relationship to that record now?
It's coming back around again, and I don't think it's an accident. For the first time in 15 years, I'm not on a major, and the forces around you are different. If you asked me to do this reissue five years ago, I don't think I could have. For a while, Exile in Guyville was something that I was running away from. When I got bashed for my pop period, it was almost like that album belonged to critics and not me anymore. They used it against me, in a weird way. I couldn't figure out how I felt about it or how I should feel about it. Now because I feel a tremendous sense of freedom for the first time in a long time, I said, "I'm going to find these people and bring that moment back." If you told me five years ago that I was going to hunt down [Feel Good All Over label head] John Henderson, I would have laughed in your face. No fucking way! But I did. I found Steve Albini and all these people I had issues with in the past. It was so good for me. I was able to remember who I am — not just who I was. If you don't ever deal with your past, you don't even know half of who you are, and that's what I was suffering under.
You've been critically attacked for most everything you've done since Exile in Guyville. How have you dealt with it?
It did bother me. I stopped reading press because I couldn't write. I couldn't deal with reading about what people thought about me all the time. But how could I escape it? Everyone was like, "You suck! You don't just suck, you really suck!" They were so angry, and I couldn't understand what made them so angry. I reserve fits of anger for people that I know who might have done something mean to me personally. I got into it with one writer who was like, "Do you know how personal that record was to everyone?" And I was like, "Do you know how personal it was to me?"

Do you consider yourself a feminist icon?
I don't think of myself as an icon, but I think of myself as interested and can get ruffled at gender inequality. I still get touchy when people say that guys are interested in sex and girls are interested in love. It's bullshit.

Do you think you were treated differently as a woman in the business?
I think the inequality extends everywhere. I think it's also a drag to be a guy in a lot of situations. We have trouble with differences, and I think we're approaching it the wrong way. But I think we can evolve as a species.

Did you gain anything from your major label period, or was it all a disaster?
I enjoyed a lot of it. I enjoyed having a Rolling Stone cover. I enjoyed having a radio hit. I think people who loved Guyville didn't understand this, but I'm a lifelong radio listener. My experience with music my whole life has been finding music I like on the radio. I loved making expensive videos and going on fashion shoots, and there was a lot of stuff about business that fascinated me too. I felt good about a lot of the major label experience, but it's not where I really shine. I'm so much more passionately involved when I get to do it my way. But I still love singing those pop songs.

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