It’d be a tad conceited of a lowly Audio Antihero like me to think that you might need me to tell you who Jeffrey Lewis is but it’s still kind of my job (like how air hostesses keep explaining what to do in an emergency, even though you already know), so here it goes…New York musician/cartoonist Jeffrey Lewis kicked off his “antifolk” dubbed music career back in 1997 before signing with the UK’s Rough Trade label in 2001 and releasing the acclaimed and adored “The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and Other Favorites,” which was followed over time by an eye-opening Crass covers album, the big band spectacular “‘Em Are I” and not a whole lot of looking back. His songs have opened a lot of minds and spread a lot of smiles and you can’t ask for much more than that in songwriter.
His latest album, the excellent “A Turn In The Dream-Songs” in 2011 marked a fruitful ten years with Rough Trade and continued his roll of gorgeous albums for gorgeous people (present company excluded) but 2012 was a relatively quiet year for the fringe icon and I was darn pleased (okay, downright honoured) to get the chance to ask him a few questions about what he’s doing, what he’s thinking and to sneakily try and see if he’s into Pro Wrestling or not. He was a gentleman about it, way nicer than I deserve.
Happy New Year, Jeffrey! 2012 was a little quiet for the record collecting Jeffrey Lewis fan, your first year without a new record since you started releasing them. Have you got something brewing to follow up “A Turn In The Dream-Songs”?
Currently working on mixing some recordings made a little while back with the Junkyard band, Jack (bass) and Dave (drums). These are mostly rock songs that were mostly written by Jack that we have performed a lot in our live shows in recent years but they didn’t make sense to include on the “Dream-Songs” album so they are sort of left over tracks that I’m hoping to release in some form soon. Maybe an EP, maybe a full album, not sure yet. Also working on a new album of material with Peter Stampfel, the “Come On Board” record I made with him a couple years ago was one of the best album-making experiences I’ve had, and we have been getting together every week making up songs together so there’s a bunch of material we can pick from for that. Actually I recorded a whole bunch of other material with Peter and a gang of other people a year ago, January of 2012, in Portland Oregon, but none of it ever got mixed, it’s all sitting with the engineer, supposedly that’ll be knocked into shape and released at some point.
With sixteen years of releasing records behind you, have you managed to pick a favourite?
It seems like a lot of people say that “The Ones Who’ve Cracked” is their preferred album, but to me that one feels too in-between, it’s in-between being a lo-fi album and a nicer studio album. I think the first album is good for being totally raw and lo-fi and then “‘Em Are I” is probably the one I feel best about as a representation of a well thought-out studio album, where I had the time to get things a bit more how I wanted them instead of just ending up with what I got accidentally. I think the “Mini-Theme” track at the end of “‘Em Are I” is just about the best song recording I’ve managed to do, I’m very happy with how that came out.
Your songs over the last few years have made reference to things as varied as Hulk Hogan, Werewolves, The Misfits, “Meet the Feebles”, “Minnie the Moocher” and the cycle of life – do these things reflect your genuine interests or are they just a passing train of thought of pop culture and general knowledge?
Just passing thoughts, everything goes into the brain-blender! Everything comes out! I don’t like stuff that relies on references for its power, like if you like “Meet the Feebles” then it’s just cheating for me to think that you’ll like a song because it mentions a movie you like. That’s not culture, it’s parasite culture, and I’m scared of falling into that too much. Like, if your band has a t-shirt where the band name is written in the “Star Wars” logo lettering or something like that – somebody might like the shirt but they are liking the logo because of the creative artistic power that somebody else has imbued that image with, not your band. The real magic is when you take something meaningless, like a totally new logo lettering, or a new symbol, or a new idea or character, and you yourself infuse it with meaning/power for everybody. That other stuff is just being a power parasite! It’s not a good thing to rely on.
I never really got the big deal with Crass until I heard your 2007 re-workings, was that part of the plan, to strip away some of the cacophony and better reveal their content? Or maybe you just liked them…
I do love Crass, and I also wanted some of those songs to be enjoyable to people who don’t only want to listen to early 80s hardcore punk. At a certain period in history it might have been crucial for Crass to get those songs across by tying them to a certain attitude and style, but in a different period that attitude and style becomes a barrier to the songs, it holds the songs back instead of pushing the songs onwards. Not everything is like that – I mean, nobody needs to do an album of indie-rock versions of Led Zeppelin songs, but Crass has such an extreme case of extreme style AND extreme substance, I wanted to see what the substance could do if it was removed from the style. In Led Zeppelin the style and the substance sort of have to go hand in hand, and if you mess with that then you’re just creating a joke, like Dred Zeppelin, or those lounge covers of Stairway to Heaven, etc., etc. The original Crass recordings are totally great and impossible to make any better, but the substance is strong enough to outlive that. Songs of moral rebellion are great, people all over the world sing Bob Marley songs and Bob Dylan songs and Woody Guthrie songs and stuff like that, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t sing Crass songs too.
You’ve spoken a lot about New York’s many arts scenes, but from what I’ve heard, you’ve been well versed enough in UK music to handpick supports with relatively unknown artists like Superman Revenge Squad, Extradition Order and Runaround Kids, plus collaborations with Art Brut and Bearded Magazine – do you keep an ear to the ground over here?
It’s one of the great things about being in a touring band, you play a lot of shows with other bands, sometimes as the support act and sometimes as the headliner, it lets you hear a lot of music you might not ordinarily get to hear. Also, people give me a lot of their CDs at shows, just people coming up and giving me stuff at the merch table or mailing me CDs or zines and things, so I get a cool sampling of all kinds of small local culture stuff that I could never be exposed to just sitting at home in NYC. Actually I first got an Art Brut CD when one of them gave me an early CDR copy before they were famous, it was just another CD somebody at a show gave me, then not so long later I was opening up for them! Same as Dr. Dog, I met them when they were opening up for me in Philadelphia, just a little local rock band, it’s been amazing to see them grow and grow and get better and better, really impressive to see how hard they’ve worked. So it’s not just in the UK, it’s everywhere I tour, you meet bands and hear bands, and sometimes you see them again or become friends with them or sometimes you never see them again. One of the best CDRs I ever got was a weird thing called “An Early Bath for Gentleman’s Relish,” a guy gave it to me at a show many years ago, I absolutely love that album, no information on it, just a photocopied drawing for the sleeve. Brilliant beautiful dark strange album. The new Extradition Order album is great, they’re another band I’ve seen get better and better, also Let’s Wrestle, I first played with them when they were like 14 years old, they were called The Loners, and eventually turned into this great band. The album “In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s” is so good, overtime I hear it I just can’t believe it. These scrappy little kids grew up and made this incredible melodic rock album, it’s got so much heart and it rocks really hard and is totally catchy too. Great stuff.
I recently got that “Weird Tales of the Ramones” comic/boxset and it seems to me that they dropped the ball not getting you involved as a contributor…do you even like The Ramones? And is there anyone that you’d really like an invitation to draw?
Sure, I love the Ramones, but doesn’t everybody? Who doesn’t like the Ramones? But didn’t Charles Burns draw that “Weird Tales” thing? Totally out of my league! I just did a comic book about Woody Guthrie for a collection that’s coming out this year, but it’s very difficult doing stuff like that, trying to draw recognizable people over and over, panel after panel. Facial likenesses are very difficult to do even once.
Antifolk, whatever it may be, seems to have been born partly in response to a lack of opportunity for acoustic music that broke away from tradition. You’re still labelled as Antifolk but do you feel that you now get more of the opportunities you deserve?
I always thought of myself as making “indie rock” whatever that means, then people were saying that I was making “antifolk” whatever that means, so by accident I got connected to a genre that comes with a different meaning. But that’s cool, I think it probably makes more sense to call me “antifolk” whatever it means to you. “Indie rock” might give the wrong impression, so “antifolk” is better because it gives NO impression because nobody knows what it means. As far as opportunities that I deserve, I’ve probably already had more opportunities than I deserve. It’s not like I was frustrated because I wanted to play in folk clubs but wasn’t allowed. Usually it was the opposite, I remember being in Austin Texas in 2001 and I felt like people in rock clubs would understand my music more than people in cafes would, but I could only get shows in cafes.
Though a “Cult Boyfriend,” you’ve played with so many people, collaborated with great names and received a lot of acclaim…do you have a proudest moment so far?
There’s a few very proud moments, I can’t believe I got to open for the Fall one time, I also got to open for Roky Erickson one time. At the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival my band played on a stage right before M83 who were right before headliners Devo, so that’s basically like I got to open up for Devo, that was amazing to me. We got there in the afternoon for sound check and Devo was still on stage sound checking, just wearing normal clothes, it was awesome. I was giving a talk about music a few months ago at Bestival, and the guy on the schedule giving a lecture after me was Alan Moore so I thought I’d get to meet him! But when I got there it turned out it was a different Alan Moore!
Do you spend too much time answering e-mail interviews? We honestly do mean well…
Yeah… in fact I started doing this interview and then a Russian kid came over to my apartment to interview me for his blog, so now I finished that and I’m finishing this. I’m glad anybody still wants to interview me, I can very much imagine that at a certain point most artists just stop getting interview requests, there’s so many new artists every day that nobody has talked to at all yet, and how many interviews does anybody really want to read?
Any final words of advice? Some of us need help trading with time.
My advice: if you’ve seen the movie then you should read Jonathan Lethem’s book “They Live” analyzing the movie, it’s such a good book!!
Do I have to wear special sunglasses to read it?
It was a real thrill to get to ask the man some questions, so a huge thanks to him for finding the time answer. Especially as my questions were a bit silly looking back…Oh well. Right on, Jeff!
Jeffrey Lewis’ latest album “A Turn In The Dream-Songs” is available now on Rough Trade Records, while “The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane…” has been recently re-released on vinyl – both are available from his webshop along with his comic books and other titles (“‘Em Are I” is my personal favourite) – http://the-jeffrey-lightning-lewis-store.myshopify.com
Jeff also has numerous Out-Of-Print titles available for download on Bandcamp (and Bandcamp is awesome) – http://jeffreylewis.bandcamp.com
For more information visit: http://www.thejeffreylewissite.com
Words by Jamie Halliday (Audio Antihero Records: Specialists in Commercial Suicide) – www.audioantihero.bandcamp.com