Seattle Weekly's COMPLETE Q&A with Jeffrey Lewis"/>
A Jeffrey Lewis cartoon snagged from his MySpace page
Jeffrey Lewis, as many of you know, is a comic book artist and musician. He's one>"/>
A Jeffrey Lewis cartoon snagged from his MySpace page
Jeffrey Lewis, as many of you know, is a comic book artist and musician. He's one of the folks out of New York City's "anti-folk" scene. He is signed to Rough Trade Records, has worked with the Moldy Peaches and other members of that "anti-folk" scene, including Herman Dune, a favorite French band of mine that I've been gushing about for the past week. He recently self-released the original, lo-fi versions of his critically-acclaimed 2005 record, City and Eastern Songs (the new version is called City and Eastern Tapes), as well as a covers album of songs written originally by seminal punk band Crass. This interview ran in a shorter incarnation in this week's SW, but had to be cut for space reasons, obviously, so I'm posting the whole thing, in its entirety, here. He plays the Comet Tavern this Friday night with his band (bassist, brother and contributing songwriter Jack Lewis and drummer Dave Beauchamp) as Jeffrey Lewis and the Jackals.
You can expect some discussion of Lewis' brand-new, as-yet-unnamed record, what subjects he'll be covering in his new "low-budget" videos, sibling rivalry, the untruths that have been spread about him, why he likes the term "anti-folk," and who he's REALLY influenced by (I'll give you a hint: it's not Leonard Cohen). My friend Stephen told me, before going into this interview, that talking to Jeffrey Lewis is like talking to an apple. You don't know what he's gonna say. I did not understand what he meant by this. I still don't. Jeffrey Lewis is nothing like an apple. If apples could talk. And if you want to know more about him, he also writes for the New York Times music blog, "Measure For Measure."
So you’re in the recording studio?
It’s pretty much finished, this new album that I’ve been doing for....uh, basically any chance I get to work on it. But there’s been a lot of touring and a lot of art projects and things over the past year, so some of it is songs that we recorded over a year ago and have just been kind of sitting here at my friend's place in Brooklyn, and some of it is new stuff that we just recorded that was written recently, so I’ve kind of got a big pile of recordings to choose from now, and I'm trying to just go through it and pick which songs will be on the album and what might need work. It’s like, well, I could sort of pick a few things and put them together and do some artwork and have that be the album, but it’s just that decision making process.
How many songs do you have to choose from by now?
How many songs do you have to choose from by now?
Quite a lot. Although I guess the answer would be different if you asked me how many good songs I had to choose from, that narrows it down significantly.
How many good songs, then?
Hopefully at least 10 good songs and another 20 decent songs and a bunch of mediocre crap.
So what have you been writing about lately? What’s on your mind?
I’ve actually been working on a thing about Barack Obama. Because I’ve been doing these history pieces in part of my performances, like the history of punk rock, and the history of Communism, and the history of the K Records label, and things like that…and uh..history of the Rough Trade label...I don't know, I really like incorporating all these histories and biographies and things. And I thought since I’m doing a US 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. If I get it done. It’s just in the preliminary stage…writing down ideas for it and doing some research. It may not turn into anything if I don’t think that it’s workable.
Why did you decide to redo City and Eastern Songs?
Well, the redoing of it was the official version, because...I’ve always sort of made recordings by hook or by crook, whether home tape recordings or various friends who have different recording setups, whether it’s just a four track or a digital eight track in somebody’s basement, or you know, somebody who’s actually got protools in their apartment…just kinda catch as catch can, we’re all here, there’s some kind of recording device, let’s just get the songs down.
So all of the songs that ended up on the City and Eastern Songs album had been recorded in kind of 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 Kramer as producer, it was like, 'Well, let’s really experiment, and try to use a nice recording studio, and use an actual producer, and 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. It’s got a lot of great interesting production stuff that Kramer added to it, [and] when we were working together, had a lot of ideas I never would’ve thought of without working with him. Our collaboration led to some great stuff. But at the same time, I still had all of these old recordings sitting around, and lot of the people that are into the music that 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.
As an artist, you feel like you have to have some kind of filtering process and not feel like everything is great just because you’ve done it, and not just toss all this stuff out there. I try to pick out what I think are the better things. Of course my opinion of what the better things are might not be everybody’s, so that’s tricky too.
Which copy do you prefer? Do you prefer the more fuzzy stuff or are you going to keep making studio albums?
Yeah, although it's a much more homemade sort of studio because it’s just at my friend’s place that he built here in Brooklyn. It's being recorded analog, and maybe it’s sort of a happy medium. But then I also have a whole bunch of new tape recordings, songs that were written and recorded on a tape recorders that are sort of homemade and crappy. I was originally thinking that it would be kind of a mixed bag between the studio recordings and the tape recordings, and then I was like, 'Well, maybe I’ll just separate them out into different albums.' I guess it's good to have these different options to choose from. My arrangement with Rough Trade is pretty loose and it’s not like I’m locked into a contract with the label, where I have to present them with an album, on a certain date, of a certain quality. It’s more like, I can put together an album and send it to them, and see if they want to put it out, and they keep saying yes. And I can also continue to put out albums on my own, like the City and Eastern Tapes thing.
What are you gonna call the album? Do you know yet?
It’s tough. It’s the same as trying to come up with a band name. We never quite settle on that, either. I’m really trying to come up with art and artwork concepts for the album. I really went so overboard for the art on the Crass album, just put a huge amount of effort into designing that whole album package, the diecut and the foldout, I kinda feel like, I don’t know if I’m gonna attempt to top myself and make an even more elaborate expensive crazy design package, but at the same time I don’t want it to just be a normal CD package, because there’s kinda no reason for people to buy CDs anymore unless the packaging is pretty neat. And because I do a lot of artwork and comics anyway, I should put a lot of thought into what the CD packaging is.
Speaking of which…You said you’d choose comics if you had to pick between art and music. Why is that?
Well, music involves a lot of repetition, because the actual job of making a living at making music is being on tour. No matter how loose [you are], whether you don’t have set lists or do various improvisatory stuff, it’s not like its free jazz. I mean, you’re still playing the songs over and over over the course of the year, which is not a bad thing, but three weeks of my life spent on the road is not the same as three weeks of my life spent at a drawing desk, and the amount of productivity and the amount of creative juices that go into making art and making comics books for that period of time is just very different than what its like being on the road for that chunk of time. I’m really lucky to be able to do both, but if I HAD to make the choice between one or the other…I think I would just get more out of having the focused, creative productive art time.
Why do you pick different band names?
We just keep doing Jeffrey Lewis and the something or others. I guess we were the Jitters, and now we’re gonna do Jeffrey Lewis and the Jackals, because my brother Jack will be on bass and we’re doing a bunch of his songs too, so I thought that was a nice way of getting Jack's name into the band title. We make different tee shirts for the different tours, [too]. It’s kind of a fun thing to come up with Jeffrey Lewis and the- something or others.
Did he write any of the songs on the new album?
That’s sort of been a point of contention, because we always have this tug of war being brothers because it's basically my band, but I love Jack's songs, and I love including them, and I love him being on bass, but there’s always this like, "Well, how many of Jack’s songs should go on the album?" Because he has his own band, too, and a lot of the songs he writes, he’s got his own versions in his band and then I kind of tweak them when they’re in my band and that, of course, leads to a lot of creative disputes. As far as the songs that are gonna end up on the album, we do have a whole bunch of songs that are songs with Jack and myself together. It’s kinda looking like this album is gonna be mostly just my stuff and then we’ll do something else with more of the Jack stuff. There’s still one or two of Jack’s songs that might be on the album. It’s undecided yet.
I read in one of your interviews that you have made 18 albums to date. Is that true?
I don’t know who came up with that figure. That is totally untrue. If people think of me as being that productive, then farbeit from me to dispel the illusion, but I guess they’re maybe basing that on a complete discography of every tape and every vinyl 7" and every little thing, you know, whether it was a full length CD or a collaboration with somebody else, or you know, just these various home tape recordings. I really only have four officially-released albums, and then there’s just a bunch of other projects of varying lengths and qualities that are floating around
That was on NPR.
Every time I have any press about me, there’s always so many inaccurate things it really makes me wonder how much of the news is totally inaccurate in general when its about important things....what do I care? It’s not really that important if they say I have ten albums or twenty. It’s not like it’s earth shattering either way.
Like to dispel any of those inaccuracies?
I was never a member of the Moldy Peaches. People keep saying that. I didn’t do the Moldy Peaches album cover, either. I get tons of articles that are like, "Jeffrey Lewis’ art adorns the cover of the Moldy Peaches album." It’s just, like, a stick figure on the cover of that album. It has nothing to do with me. I did do an illustration on the inside liner of the Moldy Peaches album that didn’t get credited to me, but it's an actual illustration of mine. But somehow that translated into "I did the stick figure on the cover." People think that’s what I do, or something. That’s a pretty widely spread inaccuracy.
There’s stuff like “Leonard Cohen-obsessive Jeffrey Lewis does blah blah blah” or "Jeffrey Lewis, who is most influenced by Leonard Cohen..." Which is 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 like, he’s my guiding beacon of what I want to sound like. I kinda feel like I have nothing to do with Leonard Cohen, really. I’m certainly a fan of his, but he’s not in, like, my top 20.
Who are your biggest influences, then, while we’re on the subject?
I’m a really big Lou Reed fan. I’ve got like, uh, 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 vinyls, and they’re kind of adorning my wall in my apartment. I really love Daniel Johnson. That was a big part of my influence back in the mid-90s, I guess. When I first heard him, that 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 from hearing all those Daniel Johnson tapes.
And uh, Jonathan Richman was definitely a big inspiration. 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.
You’ve been making music now for ten years. In those ten years, when you started out, even a couple years ago, did you ever expect this anti-folk thing to turn into this big movement that it is?
Well, I don’t know. People have been saying that for so long. Anti-folk, whatever people think of it as, is not uh…I’d never heard of it when I started playing, and people started saying, "Oh you’re part of that anti-folk thing," and I was like, "Okay, I guess if you say so." There have been various times, starting in the mid-80s where it was like, ‘Anti-folk! It’s the new thing!” and various artists that came out of that, and then again in the late '80s and again in the early '90s, there was another anti folk thing with Tailface and Deck and Roger Manning. All these artists sorta got signed and it was like, ‘Anti-folk! It’s the next big thing!” and then nothing ever happened.
And then a few years later it’s like, "The Moldy Peaches!” It’s sort of always been there, because New York City always just has this amount of people making-- whatever you want to call it--homemade or punky folk music, or weird different approaches to folk music, and it’s kind of always been there going all the way back to the '60s and earlier, and its gonna probably always be there. And uh, you know, I don’t think it’s ever gonna be something that’s gonna ever coalesce into some mainstream, bursting movement. There are just some people who are really awesome and go really far with it. Kimya Dawson is really doing fantastic, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make anti-folk music be on pop radio or anything.
Yeah, but that whole Juno thing…you never know!
Stranger things have happened.
So what's this Friday's set list gonna look like?
I guess we’ll be trying out some new stuff, and mixing in some old stuff..maybe a couple of Crass covers mixed in on various nights…and then a bunch of my illustrated songs, I’ve got some new ones…At this point I have about 30 of these illustrated songs that I call low-budget videos. On any given night I’ll probably throw one or two or three of those In to the set. I’ve got my new one that I’m working on, "History of Communism in North Korea," that I’m not finished yet.
We sort of try to keep on our toes and change game plan as necessary.
So it doesn’t get too boring?
Right. And also….if we’re playing some, like, loud punk dance party basement house show, then I’m not gonna be doing quiet, weepy solo acoustic songs in that environment. But I really like the fact that this band, we’ve got such a range of material to pick from in any given situation. What I like best is being able to mix it all in together and have people leave the show saying, "I don’t really know what kind of band that was, but I really liked it."
That whole genre classification thing is sort of troublesome to me as a music journalist. Obviously, you need to describe the music, but over-labeling is problematic.
Which is why I like the phrase anti-folk. At least its, compared to what my other options out there are, I would rather be called that than whatever else. Other than that, it’s just in a general indie rock description, which I’m fine with. But I’d rather be called anti-folk than singer-songwriter or something like that.