Quite a few people I’ve spoken to have remarked how strange it is that Jeffrey Lewis should choose now to release an album of covers of semi-obscure ‘70s punkers Crass, just after the critical success of his most accomplished record (2005’s City and Eastern Songs) and during a sustained period of successful touring that has taken in, amongst others, recent spots playing alongside Daniel Johnston and at Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown.
DiS caught up with him before an afternoon show at Brixton’s Windmill (a strange architectural cross between a boat and a scout hall) to talk about why he chose to release an album of Crass covers, as well as about Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, and what his next record will sound like.
The first thing I want to ask is why you chose to cover Crass specifically, and not another band from that era?
Well, partially because Crass were just lyrically so much more dense, and there’s so much going on in those songs; and the fact that they’re also so musically dense that, for the outsider who’s just hearing it, it’s hard to understand just how much is going on. It just seemed like they were wide open for interpretation. I’d seen a couple of bands cover Crass songs but they’d always stuck to the original forms, and it just seemed like a good thing to tackle, to see what kind of forms these songs could take.
I guess the first thing that people will think when they hear you’ve covered Crass is the politics; did you do so to get across any political sentiments of your own?
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily agree with 100 per cent of what Crass says, nor do I think that they would want me to, which is part of what’s great about them. I took them as great songs – songs of humanity, and the way people treat each other, and can treat each other, and frustration. Anybody who thinks about history, or thinks about what goes on in the world on a regular basis – there’s seemingly few of them who can put all that into words that are understandable and convincing, and Crass really have that talent. I suppose there’s no way to avoid it being taken as a political statement, but I would like to think that in the best forms of political statement, it just becomes one with your statement about people and life and day to day activities. That it all ties together – really great songs can make that clear, whether it’s Woody Guthrie, or Phil Ochs or Crass stuff.
I know that Bob Dylan said that all of his songs were protest songs, even if they weren’t directly about politics – is that how you feel? That you can get across the same kind of beliefs as Crass without having to write a stridently political song, which you haven’t?
I guess most of them are beliefs that most people would seem to share anyway, there’s just a general sense of justice, and right and wrong, and that the strong shouldn’t exploit the weak; to just apply those on a day to day level, and then up from there to a historical and a global level. I think various people have problems with the idea of anarchy and there’s a million different interpretations of it, so it’s silly to talk about that as a political belief ‘cause that gets into all kinds of debates that have been going on for, you know, over a hundred years as it is. It’s funny that you say that Dylan said that all his songs were protest songs, ‘cause Crass said that all their songs were love songs!
You’ve written political ‘documentaries’ like ‘The History of Communism In China’ [see below] but not a directly political song, in the same way…
Oh totally, if I could write songs as good as Crass then I wouldn’t have to cover them. In a certain way I suppose you see it as a way to sidestep a lot of them problems that people encounter with political songwriters – it’s very hard to stand up in front of people and say, “You should do this and you shouldn’t do that”, to feel like you have the authority to impose a moral standard on people. The first thing they’ll wanna do is attack your own life and say, “You’re being hypocritical because you’re doing this that and the other”. You know, obviously everybody is human and everybody has their faults so who among us can get up and direct other people and tell them what to do with their daily lives, although there is a general sense of right and wrong. Having not written the songs myself, maybe that is a roundabout way of taking the heat off myself. If somebody’s like, “How can you say such and such when meanwhile you’re wearing a leather belt”! And I can say, “Well, I didn’t write the song”.
I just finished reading Art Speigelman’s Maus, which deals with a difficult subject like the Holocaust in an indirect way.
Yeah, because on the one hand he could have just taken the tape recordings of his father talking and put out an album of that. But he made it into this form that’s much more accessible and speaks to more people than that other form would. Not that I would compare what I do to what Speigelman does, but there’s a certain sense of that kind of translation of, like, here’s this really powerful raw material and bring it to people who might not have interacted with it otherwise.
To move on from the politics and the lyrics, I was wondering how you approached the covers musically? Some of the songs on the record are pretty different to stuff you’ve done before – did covering someone else’s songs help you branch out musically? Was that part of the challenge of recording the record?
Definitely. I’d always, in my own recordings, been very resistant to production, I’d tried to keep things simple and almost fight against it. On the previous album [City & Eastern Songs] we actually had a producer, Kramer, and recorded in a studio – I found a lot of the things that he did very interesting, I really like the way City & Eastern Songs sounded. It was like, “Wow, I’d like to try some of that production”, but I suppose doing it with other people’s songs was a way to feel a lot more comfortable with really seeing how far I could go in that direction, like, what if I made the most produced album I could personally sit down and make? It was recorded pretty much in an apartment; it was just me and whatever friends I brought over to play on different things. It wasn’t like I had the Philharmonic in there, but it was a chance to not have the aesthetic of being really homemade, to try to make it as full colour and glossy as I could. It’s not something that I probably would have done with my own songs.
Has it affected the way you’ll approach your own material in the future?
It’s hard to say. I don’t really know what the next album will sound like. I have a bunch of songs recorded but I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do with them quite yet. I don’t think I’ll have another album that sounds like this one, ‘cause pushing each song’s musical interpretation was kinda my main creative output in this album. The songs weren’t written by me so it was a matter of how much I could produce them, and reinterpret them, and adjust them, and arrange them.
Do you reckon the next record will have the same vibe as City & Eastern Songs?
It’s hard to know. I always keep in mind this Lou Reed quote that I like, from some interview I saw with him, where he said that if you tell your audience early on that you’re into doing different stuff then you’re free for the rest of your life to do whatever you wanna do, and you’ve built an audience that appreciates you for that. Whereas if you build an audience that’s used to you doing a certain thing, if you wanna do something different later on your audience will reject it or be suspicious that you’re reaching creative desperation because you’re trying something different. I thought that was a really interesting way to look at it; I’m a big Lou Reed fan, I’ve got everything that he’s ever done, pretty much, and I always try to keep that in mind – that it’s more important to try out different things and not be afraid of losing whoever liked what you did before, because the people that you want to like you are the people that are hopefully gonna allow you to do different things. I’m just tossing around ideas with my brother about what we might do for our next album; it’s been two years since the last one came out, I don’t think it should be another two years ‘til the next one.
Are there any current artists that inspire you in the same way as Reed and Crass, in terms of flexibility and creativity?
I think it’s really about career longevity, I can’t say there’s a current artist who I’m as impressed with in terms of creative flexibility, ‘cause it really takes thirty years to see how creatively flexible someone could be. And then again there are people who are just great because they do the same thing. I mean, I love The Mountain Goats, and John Darnielle’s a pretty consistent songwriter – if you like some of his stuff, you’ll probably like the other stuff, and that’s a great thing. In one of the Jonathan Richman albums from the ‘90s the liner notes are really funny; it’s actually a really interesting counterpoint to the Lou Reed thing. Jonathan said: “Once in a while an artist puts out an album that is so different from the rest of his output it requires some explanation on the part of the artist. This is not one of those albums, it’s pretty much the same kind of thing I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years; if you like those, you’ll probably like this one, I hope you continue to like what I do”.
I think with Jonathan Richman it doesn’t even matter; if he released a thousand records that all kind of sound the same I’d still love each one equally.
Yeah, totally. I dunno! I mean, not that I’m anywhere near the artistic level of a Jonathan Richman or a Lou Reed; I’m just kinda scraping around, doing my little thing. But I’ve been able to do this for a number of years now, and, hopefully, I’d like to think I could do it into the future. But who knows.
During the Windmill show there are moments when the Crass covers take on a life of their own, notably during the songs that allow Jeff the most room to place his own stamp on them (‘Banned From The Roxy’, ‘End Result’). Yet in a set book-ended by his own songs, you kind of wish Lewis just played all original material; particularly when he runs through a comic book version of ‘I Saw A Hippie Girl On 8th Ave’, you’re reminded that Jeff has managed, better than Crass, better perhaps than he realises, to pull off the union of the ‘political’ and the personal in a particularly touching, and completely unique way.
12 Crass Songs is out now on Rough Trade.
18 Ashford Downtown Diner
19 Falmouth Miss Peapod’s
20 Birmingham Hare And Hound’s
21 Edinburgh Cabaret Voltaire
24 Brighton The Audio
25 Norwich Queen Charlotte
26 Oxford Exeter Hall