The Giraffes’ Aaron Lazar: When Rock and Roll’s Novelty Wears Off | Q&A

Aaron Lazar doesn’t have time to mince words. The lead singer of New York-based band The Giraffes, Lazar has a treasure trove of stories, including being pelted with beer cans at sold-out shows and being defibrillated three times onstage at a sold-out show in Chicago.

“If I’m gonna have a heart attack, I’m gonna have a heart attack. I’ve had heart attacks watching television,” Lazar said.  

A discussion with The Giraffes’ lead singer is reminiscent of the group’s music: direct, unapologetic and in-your-face. Although Lazar quit playing with The Giraffes in 2011, he recently rejoined his bandmates for a reunion tour and a trio of new albums. The first of which, Oct. 2 release Usury, hits hard with quick beating drums, screeching guitar work, held together with Lazar’s gravelly voice.

Although The Giraffes have existed since 1996, Lazar didn’t join the band until after they had released their debut album, Franksquilt, in 1999. Originally classified as a mixture of indie-rock and surf rock, the band eventually shifted its focus and came into its own, according to Lazar, with the release of Prime Motivator in 2008.

The Giraffes continued to perform until 2011 until a series of personal and health-related setbacks left Lazar tired and unhappy. After announcing his departure (albeit jokingly at the time), he turned to starting a family, but his musical ambitions were not entirely put to rest.

The Giraffes play at The Slowdown on October 16 at 9 PM. In advance, we talked to Lazar about the band’s reunion, the idea of success and his experiences as a musician in New York City.

(Editor’s note: the following interview transcript has been edited for clarity).

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Hear Nebraska: What made now the right time to get back together after your four-year hiatus?

Aaron Lazar: The last show was in 2011. I was burned out. I was tired of it. There’s only so many shows you can do where you’re getting pelted with beer and fighting people and going crazy and partying too much and being away from home for too long and coming back home with no fucking money. There’s only so many times you can do that before the novelty starts to wear off and you start hating yourself and start hating your life. I was like, “I’m not getting paid for this enough to make it worthwhile.” So I said, ‘Fuck this. I’m done.’” That lasted ‘til a certain point, until Tim, who is managing the band now, said, “What would it take for you to do a reunion show?” I told him, “I want everyone to get paid for a change,” and he told me he could make it happen. I didn’t believe him, but he actually made it happen. That made me feel like maybe we didn’t waste ten years of our lives. So we made an honest attempt to make a new record and we put out Usury.  

HN: I read in your biography that you started out as a mix of indie-rock and surf music and listening to Franksquilt from 1999, it sounds like a mix of Guided by Voices, 311, and Blind Melon. On Usury, your music sounds more direct and in-your-face. Can you discuss what triggered that change?

AL: (laughing) I hate both of those fucking bands [Blind Melon and 311]. I’m going to put that down in my own personal rolodex. I’m from Ohio so [Guided by Voices] gets love with the Ohio connection. But that’s weird. I’ve never heard that combination before. Franksquilt was made before I joined the band. I don’t know how old they were when they made it, probably like nineteen or something like that. So they were still just figuring out what they wanted to do. The guys in the band are not the kind of guys that go, “This is what I’d like to accomplish.” They don’t do that. They just kind of show up and say, “This feels good.” They don’t think about the big picture that much. That’s good and bad, but that’s Franksquilt. That’s a bunch of nineteen-year-old kids figuring out how to play and what sounds right and good and fun to them. I kind of did the same thing through the earlier albums. My younger, immature stuff is kind of forced and based on some weird, artistic idea that I had at the time. It didn’t quite work. As I got older and started to realize that sort of shit doesn’t work, I let go and the album that we found the balance on was Prime Motivator. That one was about stuff that actually happened to me and it was real stuff and I got to actually be me instead of being a character. This latest record, I tried to do that even more. As I’ve gotten older, I’m trying to strip away the artist and cut the bullshit, say what I think and not worry about it as much.

HN: Would you classify the earlier record as dishonest then?

AL: Well, every piece of art is dishonest. That’s why it’s called art. It’s artificial. It’s telling a lie to tell a greater truth and that’s what everyone does. Every writer, every artist, every poet, every songwriter does it. Everywhere, anyone who uses anything recognizable, maybe there’s a couple abstract painters who don’t do that, but then who knows what the fuck they’re on about anyway? That’s what it’s all about. The idea behind it is what you’re trying to express. With a lot of bands, they call it “finding your voice.” I started finding my voice, and the band as well, on, I think, Prime Motivator. We put a lot into that and at the end of that, we didn’t have a lot to show for it. So then we did another record, Ruled, and after that, I was done. That was the end of a ten-year period. I had a lot of health problems and a lot of personal things going on and I was done so I left.

HN: I read about your health problems. Can you talk about how it affects your touring? Was touring a concern for you with your health problems?

AL: No, listen. If I’m gonna have a heart attack, I’m gonna have a heart attack. I’ve had heart attacks watching television. Weirdly, my health problems have actually helped me to put my life into perspective and enjoy my life a little bit more. So we did a show in Chicago at Local H. This was right after I got the defibrillator in my chest. It was March or April of 2005 and we were on the road. It was one of the first shows with it in. My heart rate got a little too high and when my heart rate gets too high, it can’t tell the difference between a high heart rate and a heart attack so it defibbed me. I got defibbed onstage three times in thirty seconds so that’s seven hundred volts each times right at the end of a song. At first, I was on the floor and then I jumped up really high and the band was like, “Play the next song” and I said that I was getting defibbed. They started to catch what was going on. It was a sold-out show. We only had one song left so we finished the show and then I walked offstage, through the crowd, got into a cab, and went to the nearest hospital to get checked out. It wasn’t like I was thinking about it at the time, but I’m glad it worked out that way. I didn’t know that I could do that, but now I know I can do that. It’s fine. I got nothing to be afraid of.

HN: Has it affected your live shows at all?

AL: Well aside from trying to stay as far away from things like tasers and random electrical events. Those are no good for me. Microwaves are no good. And if I happen to pass out on top of a speaker cabinet, someone needs to move me. Other than that, not really.

HN: You were quoted at a 2011 show at the Mercury Lounge as saying, “If we don’t make it big by the end of the show, I’m fucking quitting,” which led to you actually quitting. Tell me what it means for you to “make it big”.

AL: That didn’t lead to me actually quitting. I was more just cracking wise. I was already pretty sure I was done at that point. But I said that and everyone was just like, “What the hell?” I don’t think we really told anyone that I was thinking of leaving the band before that. We put out a lot of hyperbolic bullshit back then, but then it actually turned out to be the last show I was playing with them at the time. People took it more seriously than I intended it. That’s one of the things that sucks about being in a band in New York. New York is a market town. It still has the aura of being a great creative mecca. It is not a great creative mecca. Great creative meccas are in the middle of butt fuck nowhere where you come to create cheaply. New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world and you come here to sell your wares, not to perfect anything. That bummed me out because I moved here to find something cool and saying statements like that is kind of a middle finger to that way of thinking.

HN: What do you imagine would’ve happened if you had formed your band in Ohio?

AL: (laughs) Oh fuck. I didn’t play music when I lived in Ohio that much, but I was going to school to be a sculptor. But a lot of guys that I knew went to shows all the time. All of these guys had some level of success and continuing on to do much weirder things than any of the bands I ran into in New York. It seemed like all of the bands that I saw in New York were a part of this big disillusionment. I went out to every show I could find and what I saw was just a shittier imitation of something that I had already seen one of my friends do. When I saw the shittier New York version, it was always led by someone who was more attractive and had better clothes, but no new ideas. That was a bummer and one of the reasons I was attracted to the Giraffes in the first place was that they were exactly who they wanted to be. They were not trying to be popular. They were not trying to be cool. They were completely raw and honest and it wasn’t ideal rock, but it was heartfelt and honest and dangerous and crazy. I like that.

HN: Going back to that quote. I’m not trying to put any weight on it. I just want to know what you meant by “making it big”.

AL: Paying my rent. That’s it. Not having to hold down a day job. That’s all it meant. If I’m going to invest into something where I get defibbed and I keep doing my job, then I want to be able to pay my rent or else I hated it. We did alright enough to tour indefinitely, but no one can continue touring indefinitely. So by the end of the tour, we’d all have a couple hundred dollars in our pocket that would towards paying back rent and we’d all have to get jobs again. That gets old after a while. And I thought if I ever wanted a family and a place to live, I better do it now because I’m running out of time. At the end of that, we were able to play some shows where it wasn’t too much of a hassle, although my wife would probably argue. I’m leaving to play a bunch of shows in October, but it’s fun again.

HN: What do you see happening for the band now that you’re back together?

AL: I don’t know. We’ve got a three-record deal. I’m only focused on these three records, of which Usury is the first. I really only give a shit about making these three records as good as they can be and making them one sort of unified, overarching idea. I want them to hold together. I’m not really sure what that idea is yet, but I want to tie them all together. At the end of that, I can say, “There it is. That’s the magnum opus of The Giraffes. That’s the big tome, the big novel. Fuck you. This is a great-ass band and I never have to do anything else with that if I don’t want to.” I don’t care if anyone else likes it. I don’t care if it’s popular or if it’s cool. I just care what I think about it and what my friends think about it and the people I respect and the guys in the band. That’s pretty much it. I’ve played enough shows to know that I could go out onstage and shit in my hand and throw it against a wall and people are like, “Whoa.” It’s not hard to make a memory. It is hard to make art and I’m trying to make art.