DiS’s Sam Lewis met Jeffrey Lewis about two months ago, in a strange, almost school hall-like theatre in Sale for the Twisted Folk tour; playing alongside him was Nina Nastasia (read a review of the tour here). Here Jeff talks about anti-folk, his latest album City & Eastern Songs (recorded with his brother Jack, who he’s pictured with here), and his place in the 'pantheon' of musical greats…
From listening to Jeffrey Lewis’ records I’d imagined a nervous, funny, neurotic guy with a strong artistic sensibility; he is, of course, both a folk-punk musician and a comic book artist/writer. Of course, he turned out to be all of those things, answering each question with a touching blend of intense sincerity and wry humour regardless of the topic.
Lewis’ latest LP, the aforementioned City & Eastern Songs, was released in 2005 through Rough Trade. It’s great, and is reviewed here.
How have you found this epic tour of Europe, the Twisted Folk tour?
We’ve got so much different material that it ends up being flexible to the environment. [Twisted Folk] were actually concerned that we might not be folk enough for it, because of the louder end of the stuff that we do.
Do you get nervous before the shows?
It has less to do with the size of the audience and more to do with who’s in the audience. Like, you know, if there’s maybe an old friend who hasn’t seen us play, or Jeff Travis, the head of Rough Trade. I feel like those are always the worst shows that I play. At show that we played in Baltimore a bunch of members of Fugazi were in the audience, but luckily we didn’t know about it ‘til afterwards – we were talking to them after the show. I feel like if we had known that they were there we would have been a lot more nervous playing the show. So it has less to do with the quantity of the audience than the quality of the audience, I guess!
On your last album there are a lot of songs that deal with a certain disillusionment about being an artist. Has that feeling eased at all?
I don’t think it’s so much a matter of feeling disillusioned as an artist as this panic of feeling time go by, but I guess I shouldn’t explain things too much. I always hate when there’s a movie or a song or a comic book or something that I enjoy, and then I read the artist explaining it and it’s actually different to how I thought it was. So people should just take it however they take it, and if they enjoy it then that’s good. Disillusionment means that you had some kind of illusion that is being disproved to you, but a lot of the music thing I had no expectations of at all. I never intended to have a musical career in any way; I just always wanted to make comic books. So it’s not really about being disillusioned with the music industry, as I feel like I didn’t have any illusions in the first place.
So do you see yourself as a comic book artist that makes music, or is the music an extension of what you do as a comic book artist?
Well, it’s become something quite different. I’ve got the illustrated songs which we’ve now switched to projections for these tours where we’re playing to bigger places, so in a certain way you could say it’s taken one more step removed from the comic books. Whereas I actually used to show the books, it’s now turned into this projection thing. I find it very hard to make comics while on tour, so now I let it fall by the wayside and I do comics when I get back home.
Do you feel like you’re maturing as a songwriter, or if there’s any change as to how you write songs?
I guess you can’t help being more self-conscious; when you start out and you’re at home, you don’t have the thought that your songs are going to be heard by people or performed in front of people. Also, my whole approach to writing was all about saying something straight-forwardly rather than crafting a song, so the first bunch of songs that I made up basically said everything I really have to say. I feel like I said all the big things in the first few songs, and then it’s just been going through whatever random things come through my head since then, you know: time machine stuff. I feel as though all the big statements that I have to make about my experience on Earth and the meagre amount of time that I’ve been on Earth, my biggest experiences with drugs and love and philosophy, came out very straight-forwardly in the first few songs. Like, you look at Lou Reed’s early stuff, and he’ll probably always be most well-known for the stuff with The Velvet Underground, but he continues to make great albums. But, probably, his biggest statements are in the first few records he made – it just develops more in the way that he puts things forward rather than the hugeness of the content. You figure that the more you go through life the more you experience things, and the more material you’ll have.
A lot of your songs are confessional; do you feel like you’ll always be writing those kind of songs?
There’s probably only so much you can talk about yourself. I’ve been doing this history of communism piece, a history of different record labels, and a lot of the stuff I do is fictional, also. Although it seems like the autobiographical things are the ones that most people think of first when they think of this musical project, and for the comics as well, I feel like there’s a mix of all the stuff in all the things that I do, from the comics to the music. But it’s the autobiographical ones that are considered to be the core of it.
I guess maybe those are the most immediate…
Yeah. Maybe anyone can write a song about zombies, whereas who’s going to write a more thorough song about Jeffrey Lewis than Jeff himself?
What was it like working with Kramer [producer of City & Eastern Songs, formerly of the Butthole Surfers]?
Oh man, we’ve got tonnes of Kramer stories! He’s a real nut. Yeah, we’d never worked in that way before – it was really an experiment to try and get a producer and I wanted to find a producer whose records I really loved. I was really happy to get Kramer on board because of all the Galaxie 500 records and Daniel Johnston stuff that he did, and a bunch of other records that he’s made that I really loved. But, it was just so tense. he’s very, uh… like, he would just fly into these fits of, “Okay, you wanna do it your way? Well, this record’s gonna sound like garbage, but fine! I mean, I’ve made thousands of records, but no, you wanna do it your way – fine!” You’d think a producer’s job is to make you feel more relaxed to get the best performance out of you, but it was almost like the whole time it was us trying to make him feel more relaxed and not freak out. But there were certainly a lot of great things that came out of working with him; he just has such a weird style of working. And it’s true that for the fact that he’d made all these albums in the past I don’t think I would’ve necessarily trusted his input as such, because there were things that seemed to me to make no sense, and it’s only ‘cause I had to be like, “He’s made all these albums, he must know what he’s doing, even though he seems to have no idea what he’s doing”.
But you’re happy with how it came out in the end?
Yeah, definitely. I think the first few days we were sort of despairing ‘cause we only had a week to put the whole thing together pretty much, and it seemed like it was going to be a tremendous mess. After a couple of days of feeling like it was just not gonna work out, we were all pretty surprised at how much we liked the end result. Although I did have to go back and pay for more studio time on my own after Kramer left town to fix up a bunch of the songs, because when Kramer finished and left a lot of it was sort of in disarray and he really hadn’t put much work into the rock songs on the album, which is what we wanted to do a studio album for: to get these songs that are harder to record at home. So it was sort of ironic that most of the work that we did with Kramer was messing around with the more psychedelic, acoustic stuff, and the rock songs were kind of just left hanging.
Do you reckon in the future you’ll go back to doing studio stuff or do you reckon it’ll be more DIY again?
It’s hard to know. You really get stuck as a creator when you suddenly have the option of doing either, because there’s something really great when somebody hands you an album or a ‘zine or something that they’ve made themselves, and it’s like, “Wow, this person had very little resources but they were able to make something great”. But then all of a sudden when somebody has the option of, like, doing nicer printing, or having a digital recording, then it seems almost a pretentious move, like: “Oh, they’re making it sound bad on purpose”. Once you have these options it’s very paralyzing, because there’s suddenly a lot of decisions you never had to think about before when you were just doing it with whatever was available to you, you know. Now we’ve done both things, I’m not sure what direction to take things in. But I’d like to keep moving forward, and not go back to either realm of how we’ve done things before; I want to try something new again.
So what does it mean for ‘anti-folk’ as a genre, if there is such a thing, now that artists like yourself, Diane Cluck, Herman Düne and Adam Green are moving towards a more polished sound?
Well, part of it for me is that when I started out making music it was a revelation that you could make something on your own and just have it be homemade, because all the music that I’d ever listened to as a teenager… I’d never been aware of such a thing as lo-fi. It felt like it was really powerful and unique. When I first heard the Syd Barrett album Opal, and Daniel Johnston’s stuff, it just opened this whole door of, like, “Wow! I can just do this, and make songs, and make recordings”. Once I began it felt more special and more intimate, but at the same time, as I got more involved in performing and playing music, after every show people were coming up and giving me their home recordings. You just realise that it’s not a unique way of going about things – there’s millions and millions and millions of lo-fi, homemade records. It doesn’t feel as special in the same way because now there’s so much of that as well. I can really see the pros and cons of going either way. Herman Düne still make a lot of homemade recordings in addition to their new albums. We actually just listened to their new album (Giant, DiS review imminent) on the drive over here.
What do you think of it?
It’s great. I think it’s a really great collection of songs. I don’t even really think the high studio production makes that much of a difference. I basically think all their albums sound great, from the most homemade ones to this new one that’s their biggest real studio thing. It’s nice to hear the slightly luscious sound, but they’re so good at just arranging and playing anyway that it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
With relation to your songs about feeling inferior to artists like Leonard Cohen and Will Oldham: being on Rough Trade and touring with the likes of Nina Nastasia, do you feel more credible as a songwriter? Are you starting to think, “I’m as good as them”?
That I’m part of the pantheon of the greats?! Well certainly not. That’s one of the hard things about music, or if you’re a novelist or a filmmaker – you’re really up against everybody who has ever created an album. It’s not like there’s a second record store for, like, “these are the greats, and then here are the regular people who make some decent music; you might like it, but they’re not, like, gods”. And that’s partially why comic books are so cool, because it’s such a wide-open field. There are some amazing people who have made comics, but there’s not quite the same heavy back-catalogue. If you’re a playwright your play’s gonna be sitting on the shelf next to Beckett and Shakespeare and everybody who’s ever written a play in history – it’s how to live up to that. With comic books being a relatively new medium, at least in their current form, you don’t have that, like, shadow of history towering over you. I think that’s part of the benefit of the personal approach, because you might not be the best lyricist ever, or the best singer. I’m certainly not much of a singer, and while my musicianship has got better the last few years I’m still not any kind of world-class musician. But when you can kind of make sense to yourself that you have a perspective on things that nobody else has ever had and nobody else will have, and if you can figure out what it is that you have to say that’s not what other people might have to say – a position that you have an authority on, whatever it is – in that way each person does have great stuff to give to the world.
Do you have a favourite song of your own?
Like I said before, the first batch of songs that I wrote are, to me, the most special. I didn’t even feel like I was writing songs; I don’t even remember writing most of them. ‘Heavy Heart’ is one of my favourites of my own; I feel almost a little weird that I’ve now become a ‘songwriter’, because at that point it didn’t even feel like writing songs. It’s hard to be unconscious about it; although I’m probably unconscious about a lot of things now that I’m not aware I’m unconscious of, because I’m unconscious of them. So we have to all keep this in mind, that we’re all naïve artists in our lives, unaware of things that we may be aware of in later life.
That last spiralling burst of neurosis will be familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to Jeff’s music or read his comics; an infinite regression that takes you to the heart of the things that concern him the most: art and time, and how to best fit the one into the other. Newcomers, check out Jeffrey Lewis via his official website, here.