Crass Course

Punk is not a four-letter word: a Q&A with Jeffrey Lewis.

Jeffrey Lewis is a comic-book illustrator and musician from New York City. While he's been dubbed "anti-folk," Lewis actually writes rambling, acoustic-based story-songs very much rooted in the folk tradition, often projecting illustrated versions of them at his shows. Since releasing his critically adored 2005 album City and Eastern Songs, Lewis has gone on to record an album of Crass covers (12 Crass Songs) and become a regular blogger for The New York Times' music blog, Measure for Measure. Currently finishing an as-yet-untitled album, Lewis took time out to discuss what's he's been writing lately, and why it's easy to find Lou Reed records cheap in New York City.There are some inaccuracies about you floating around; would you like to dispel some of them?I was never a member of the Moldy Peaches. People keep saying that. I didn't do the Moldy Peaches' album cover, either. I (read) tons of articles that are, like, "Jeffrey Lewis' art adorns the cover of the Moldy Peaches album."There's also stuff like "Leonard Cohen–obsessive Jeffrey Lewis does blah blah blah" or "Jeffrey Lewis, who is most influenced by Leonard Cohen..." (It's) totally untrue. Certainly I appreciate Leonard Cohen, but there's no way I consider him an influence or even one of my favorite artists. I like him, but just because I mentioned him in a song six years ago ["The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song"] doesn't mean that he's my guiding beacon of what I want to sound like.Since it was so critically acclaimed already, why did you recently decide to re-record and re-release your 2006 album City and Eastern Songs?Well, the re-release was the official version, because I've always sort of made recordings by hook or by crook, whether [from] home tape recordings or various friends who have different recording setups. [The process was always] just kinda catch-as-catch-can: We're all here, there's some kind of recording device, let's just get the songs down. All of the songs that ended up on the City and Eastern Songs album had been recorded in earlier, more raw homemade versions, and all of my albums up until that point were just made of lo-fi homemade recordings. So when we decided to make City and Eastern Songs in the studio with [Bongwater and Galaxie 500 producer Mark] Kramer, it was like, "Well, let's really experiment and try to use a nice recording studio, and use, like, an actual producer, somebody that we're a big fan of, and try to make a studio album"...which we'd never done before. And I really like the way it came out. Our collaboration [with Kramer] led to some great stuff. But at the same time, a lot of people that are into the music I make are into the kind of homemade, lo-fi aspect of it. So I figured this is sort of a way to have my cake and eat it too.Who are your biggest influences, then, if not Leonard Cohen?I'm a really big Lou Reed fan. I've got, like, pretty much everything Lou Reed has done. And you can get all the Lou Reed albums really cheap on vinyl in New York, so over the years I've accumulated just piles of Lou Reed vinyl and they're kind of adorning my wall in my apartment. I really love Daniel Johnston. [He] really inspired me to start making recordings, and to realize that you didn't need to have fancy expensive studios or equipment or be able to play or sing particularly well. As long as you were really just expressing something you really felt, that was what made a song great. And that was such a life-changing lesson. And uh, Jonathan Richman was definitely a big inspiration. And my uncle, Professor Louie, who's sort of a political rapper in Brooklyn. He was doing political-theater stuff in the '60s and then decided to go solo with the rap spoken-word career in the late '70s. He's really one of my biggest inspirations and influences, even though he's basically unknown to the music world at large.So what have you been writing about lately? What's on your mind?I've actually been working on a thing about Barack Obama...I thought since I'm doing a U.S. tour in the week leading right up to the election, I should do something election-oriented for the tour, and the idea struck me that maybe I'll just do a very quick biography of Barack Obama as one of my illustrated songs. It's just in the preliminary stage right now...I'm just writing down ideas for it and doing some research. It may not turn into anything if I don't think it's workable.sbrickner@seattleweekly.com

 
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