Around the release of Jeffrey Lewis' third record City and Eastern Songs - an album which, it would quickly become clear, was the high watermark of the burgeoning (hey, let’s just call it) ‘anti-folk’ genre - you might remember DiS running this feature, wherein the New York songwriter answered questions posed by DiS readers, via the medium of crayon hand-drawings. Let’s reveal our hand straight off and say there’s nowt in the canon of DiS - nay, music journalism - that entertains the possibility we’ll ever better it. A true one-off, that.
But regardless, you know the drill here; it’s Jeff ruddy Lewis - get happy. A Turn in the Dream-Songs will be the noble fellow’s sixth official LP (though 2010 alone saw Jeff release collaborative records with both former Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson and ex-Holy Modal Rounders man Peter Stampfel), and it’s a little more lush, a little more refined and a little more British than 2009’s ’Em Are I and predecessors, while naturally clinging onto those trinkets of wit and wordy woe he’s adored for. But no, he did not draw us pictures of scary green brilliant monsters or anything. That much, sadly, it is incumbent upon me to stress.
You said in an interview during the ’Em Are I promo that you’d gone to a friend’s house and done 22 demos with just your guitar. What happened there? Did any of that help form A Turn in the Dream-Songs?
I actually did have an album of home recordings put together, with some experimental stuff and some stuff with my band. Just rough live recordings of unreleased songs that I felt made a pretty cool album and also was a nice return to a rough and ready, just-hit-record style of working. And I had actually presented the option to Rough Trade. I was like, “I’ve got these 2 albums, either of which I could put out as my next record.” And they were like, “Oh, well, let’s do the nice analogue studio Turn in the Dream-Songs album.” And I was like, [reluctantly] “OK, I guess if you guys wanna do that one we’ll do that one...”
So d’you think you’ll be tempted to bring the lo-fi record out next?
It’s possible. Although, you know, I feel like - in my mind, anyway - my deluded version of the way things would’ve made sense to go - as my last couple of records were more fleshed out studio productions, it would’ve been a crazy turnaround to then go and make a really scrappy, punky homemade record again. And then turnaround once again and come out with A Turn in the Dream Songs, which is a much more lavish and beautiful sounding album. You know, Lou Reed was so much better off releasing Coney Island Baby after Metal Machine Music - it’s the zigzags that give each thing a little more power. But I dunno, by next year I might be more excited about the next project.
What I thought about this current album was that, where your career in general has been a tug of war - on one hand you pass on wisdom borne of your own insecurities, and there’s the other side which is you, personally, being quite cathartic and insecure - on the new album, you’re leaning more towards the former; trying to make the world a better place - and people better people - via your music.
Ironically I feel the opposite. I mean, I’ve always thought it’s too much of an easy way out to just project your misery. And one of the real reasons to do art or to go into politics or to become a teacher or to fix the cracks in the highway down the street, is to help each other through this period of time that we’re all alive together. I mean, if your top priority as a human being, in all your endeavours, isn’t lessening human suffering, what kind of priority do you have? Just being a misery monger was never my interest in making art. I felt like the whole point of throwing myself into this arena of creativity was like, ‘OK, here's the mess of the world and of human emotions and of whatever I - or anybody - might be going through. Where can we use our creativity and our brains and our power to think about things in a different way; to constantly find a way out of that maze?’ There’s always gotta be a key, there’s always gotta be a solution.
And in the new album, one of things I noticed was maybe I wasn’t finding the key as much. Although maybe that’s just my perspective. Maybe I shouldn’t impose The Artist’s Official Stamp of what this means. But thinking about it now I do feel like I’ve given up somewhat on finding the key. I don’t wanna say given up on hope, but... eerghhh... maybe letting go of the idea that I’m ever gonna be happier. Not even looking for another way to look at things. Weeell, that’s not really true. I came up with some interesting thoughts and perspectives that are recorded on there... You know what it also is? A lot of things I think about are based in the fact that I’m not a religious person, at all. And I forget that a lot of the world is religious in some way or other. And that seems totally bizarre and alien to me - that you would believe in the spiritual, fantastical, the mythological fantasy stories - whatever the religion happens to be that you subscribe to - and not having any mental foundation in that. My descriptions of the world around me and my thoughts are based in a very non-religious viewpoint. So it surprises me when people are like, “Oh, I can’t believe you think that way." I’m like, “Doesn’t everybody?!”
Have there been any seismic shifts in your life that might’ve potentially rounded some of the optimistic edge off your music?
In a funny way, I guess it might be that my life has been going pretty well over the last couple of years, by any objective standard. I have this thought about food, also. When you’re eating or when you’ve already finished eating, there’s a kind of existential gloom that can fall on the whole process. Because you realise, ‘Oh, this is what it’s all for. There’s nothing else other than this. I am happy right now because I’m eating.’ And it just seems so stupid and simple. And you know, it can seem horrible when you’re realising, ‘Oh, I have what I need. And that’s it? This is this thing that I need?’ It’s so stupid! You can look at it in horror and realise that what all the struggle is about is such a weird, grotesque thing. Or you can say, ‘I’ll just be happy and content, I’m glad I’ve got something to eat, whatever it is.’ But the thing is, the fancier the food, the more expensive - the more delightful - the greater the horror grows. That every human effort has been put into making this the most pleasurable, satisfying experience it can be. That’s it_. There’s nothing else that you can do, you’ve got it right there on the plate in front of you, and that’s it. It’s not like that’s really gonna make you so happy and yet, it’s all downhill from there. That’s like the pinnacle of what you can expect out of this life and this world. I guess that’s why people are religious. I dunno, “If this is all there is..._”
Um, reluctantly moving on, you’ve worked with members of The Wave Pictures and The Sussex Wit on this record. Is there something about British music that you find preferable to American at the moment?
Well... no, not necessarily. I mean, the record was made in England on the recommendation of The Vaselines. They recommended this all-analogue studio in Manchester. And they said, you know, “Julie the engineer’s really great and it’s on the outskirts of Manchester and the musicians can stay there and it’s kind of like this family run studio, and you guys should totally record there...” So because I was in England, the musicians that I knew I could call upon to play on the record were British musicians - of who I know a bunch at this point, having been touring England for about 10 years now. So it is interesting that this record is in some ways a bit more of a British album, if there is such a thing. Just because it was recorded in England, with an English engineer on English equipment in the English hills and with mostly English musicians.
How did you manage to organise everyone?
Grandmaster Gareth and Lucy Bains of Misty’s Big Adventure are old friends of ours from the Birmingham area and we’ve done lots of shows with them. So they offered to swing by and ended up staying for a couple of days and playing on a few things as well. So it just turned into a sort of an accidental party. There was a stone soup sort of thing, where you get together with a friend, and somebody else says, “Hey, why don’t I stop by,” and someone else says, “Hey why don’t you come by,” and then you call somebody else and it turns into a whole party going on for a few days with everybody recording on everything. So it became much more elaborate than I had originally pictured.
And this is around the time (last January) when you were touring the UK with Peter Stampfel. Let’s talk about him. I’ll ask first, was Peter more familiar to you as a member of the Fugs or Holy Modal Rounders?
Well he’s only on the very earliest Fugs recordings. The Holy Modal Rounders has been his band since the early sixties, and there have been Holy Modal Rounders recordings coming out sporadically throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties, pretty much up to modern times. Stampfel is his own musical entity and The Fugs, he was there at the inception of it. They did two recording sessions in 1965 and Peter plays on a chunk of those songs which are the foundation of The Fugs career - so in a lot of ways he’s crucial and pivotal to the Fugs - but only on the first Fugs album.
So taking the Holy Modal Rounders and Stampfel in general, what’s been the impact of that aesthetic - and even his personality - on you and your music?
Well he’s been incredibly inspirational, his approach to life, his approach to music, his approach to everything is so open and enthusiastic. He leaps into it with this openness and this joy which, first of all, is great to see in anybody, and secondly it’s great to see in somebody grown up. Somebody who’s in his seventies and has a family and has certainly not lost his love and his excitement about everything. You could never call the guy jaded. And also he was a drug crazed lunatic for decades. When they say the road of excess leads to wisdom, he seems to be a good example of that. He’s the most fun guy you could ever pick to hang out with.
Did that surprise you initially?
Yeah, I think it’s impossible not to be surprised by Peter. It’s like, ‘Oh my god. I’ve never met anybody like this guy, he’s amazing, I wanna just have him around me all the time.’ Enthusiasm is just infectious. It makes you realise how much of the day you spend not being enthusiastic. And how much more pleasurable life is when you’re excited about stuff. A lot of people are kind of shocked when they bring him in to play fiddle on something. They’re like, “Wait, I thought you were a professional fiddle player. What the hell are you doing?” He doesn’t really care about that. He’s been playing for decades and decades, all the time, every single day. And being technically precise about it has never been a concern of his, he just loves playing. In that respect working with Peter really inspired the making of the Turn in the Dream-Songs album.
You made a popular comic about Barack Obama in election year. Do you buy into the concern that Obama has failed in some way since the Democrats came into ‘power’?
With the American political process as it is - and realistically seems like it’s gonna be - you probably are not gonna get a better candidate. From a left-wing perspective - from a progressive, humanitarian, non profit-oriented perspective - Obama’s probably the best candidate you could hope for having a chance at the presidency. So the fact that he’s gotten so much resistance and that he seems so incapable of really making significant progress in humanising the country - providing healthcare, ending the wars, providing a fairer tax system that levels the gap between the rich and the poor a bit, providing better services - has been very frustrating and depressing. I mean, he’s done a lot of good things that certainly would not have happened without him, but his inability to make more stuff happen makes you wonder if any positive change really is gonna be possible. And of course, Obama’s dealing with a very right wing congressional body; he’s part of the machine of the government. He’s very much outumbered by people who are severely opposed to the things that he might otherwise want to do. So on one hand that’s just an issue that democracy has to deal with; that he’s not a dictator and you have to come to some kind of compromised solution, but it’s very frustrating to watch this unfold and see the compromises that he makes, to the extent that nothing has really happened. If nothing’s happening now, then surely it can only get worse.
That coincides with your personal doubts about the possibility for real change in your own life. Is that, perhaps, because you’re someone who feels society’s issues deeply on a personal level?
Well, you can’t do that and live an enjoyable life. If you’re gonna get emotionally attached to the goings-on on planet Earth, you’re gonna be pretty miserable, And there’s a lot of suffering out there and there’s a lot of injustice. It’s not difficult to break your heart and walk around with the weight of the horror of it, making it incapable for you to enjoy what pleasures are enjoyable to you. Surely that can’t be the way to go about living our decades on Earth! Just being overwhelmed by feeling bad about misery and injustice. The point should be that once it gets your emotions fired up, it puts you into some place where you can do something about it, even a little something about it, or at least severely not support the things you disagree with. So I guess I don’t wanna get too wrapped up in getting miserable about things, ’cause there’s always gonna be something to get miserable about. And if you look at history there’s an infinite number of things to get miserable about. So that’s not too hard to do. You can make yourself miserable pretty easily. Finding the hope is where the challenge is. And figuring out a way to help other people as well, if you can. And of course, being part of Western civilization and having all these privileges that we have, what are you gonna do? You’re just gonna sit around and be miserable all day? That just seems like such a waste.
I think with your records it’s the vivid awfulness of the tunnel that makes the hope or light at the end more tangible.
But the thing is, you can give hope out into the world, but people don’t need hope as much as they need money. So I’ve tried to give away money in the last couple of years, and I think that that’s been an interesting and effective way to feel like I can translate art into money, and then pass the money along to something more positive. And of course, it’s still a drop in the bucket, but I think that at least that’s a little more concrete than putting, you know, good vibes out into the world. Or praying for people. Or anything that basically doesn’t make any physical difference. But if there’s a homeless guy on the street that asks for some money or there’s a friend of yours that needs money, or there’s a public radio station that does good things that is having a fund drive, or if there’s a charity that is doing good things, they all need money and projecting goodwill into the world is more effective if you’re projecting money too. So I’ve been trying to do more of that. Like when I played in Israel last year, all the money went to the Seeds of Peace charity. And that’s been an interesting experience. It’s like telekinesis because you’re using the power of your mind to move resources from one part of the world to another, ’cause the power of your mind is what creates the art, and the art generates this flow of income and resources that come from some bank accounts, and you can be a channel for them to move into other bank accounts where hopefully good things can come of it. So I do think art has the power to make good in the world... through the magic of money.
A Turn In The Dream-Songs is released on 10th October on Rough Trade.