To call Cheap Time mastermind Jeffrey Novak obsessive is an understatement. It's also a compliment. The Nashville-based Cheap Time's new album, Exit Smiles (In the Red), in its abrasion, fearlessness, and perfect collision of inspiration and craft, cuts through the chatter of a thousand garage-revival bands by leaving it behind. The ambitions of Cheap Time just don't fit into the confines of a garage or a revival.
Novak, during a particularly stressful mid-January week that has seen him undergo an emergency appendix removal and have no plumbing due to the Polar Vortex weather phenomenon that has frozen the unsuspecting American South, says the band gets "lumped in with garage because it's so basic. But rock 'n' roll is basic—once you've studied it you see its limits and to fuck with those limits is to beat rock 'n' roll. That's where our sound comes from."
For Exit Smiles, Novak, bassist Jessica McFarland, and drummer Ryan Sweeney embarked on a labor-intensive writing and recording regimen that proves the album's casual explosiveness is one born of restraint and preparation. "I wrote a lot of songs to get to the final eight," says Novak. "I always got a lot of little pieces and riffs. Sometimes I'll have a riff for a few years before I can figure out how to use it in a song.
"Usually if a song is written in one sitting, that will stand on its own. If you can finish the lyrics at the same time as the melody and chord structure, it's usually a safe bet. But that's a hard thing to push yourself to do, to immediately finish it. You get distracted. I'm always working on different songs at the same time. I'll take the bridge from one song and put it in another one later," he says.
"Trying to finish a record is never easy. No matter how much you think you've learned before, it's always worse next time. This record was almost two years in the making. And you just get so tired and so drained. (The process of) demoing, then songs evolving, demoing again—when I listen to (the finished product) I see all these different things that could make it a tighter record. I'm working on the next record now, so I can't really think about it. Just trying to learn from the mistakes of the last one, and make a better one next time."
Having grown up in a somewhat rural area two hours away from Nashville, the 28-year old Novak says he doesn't understand the local-fame aspirations that much of his current city's music scene harbors. He talks highly about driving to Memphis as a teenager and being inspired by shows by "The Final Solutions, The Lost Sounds—Jay Reatard's bands. Jack Oblivian. When I was 18, these were the shows that blew my mind. And there was never anyone there. I've never thought you're supposed to play to a lot of people. I thought there's supposed to be a dozen people, but there's magic happening."
Novak says he still feels "closely connected to those shows" and the long-term impact they've had on him.
"For me, longevity is the issue," he explains, regarding Cheap Time. "It can take a long time to get into something. I'm that way, I can respect that. We played in the UK for the first time in November (with Mudhoney). People said they had driven down from Scotland to see us. They kept talking about our second album. No one's ever said anything about that to me. It was really refreshing. But you want people to hear your stuff so badly, when you finish it and then you wait for it to come out and there's no sense of instant gratification there. The gratification comes years later."
But before the gratification, the band has to spread the gospel of Exit Smiles, and Novak says he is looking forward to Cheap Time's current U.S. tour. "We're playing cities we've never played before." He adds, "I always feel tired before a tour, but by the third show, you just never want to come home."
Self-redemption can also come before gratification, and Novak muses that, "If I'm finishing up a record and have a tour coming up, that's the closest I feel to being content." And for this extraordinary artist, who seems driven against his will to create, that might just be the best he's gonna get.