Exposure: Jeffrey Lewis
Jeffrey Lewis: Roll Bus Roll
Jeffrey Lewis is not your average 'singer-songwriter'. Though he may, to an extent, echo the sentiments and sounds of some folk artists and influences, he also channels an eccentric talent in both storytelling and oddball comic book art, and appears to be just as influenced by old school punk and acid trips as he is by Americana. To prove the point further, it's worth investigating the curious yet rather self-explanatory salute to his heroes, entitled '12 Crass songs', which serves to enhance the reputation of a man whose music is often considered and referred to as Anti-folk. Currently on the road in support of his latest album, 'Em are I', Lewis took time out from smelling Koalas (true story) to give us some insight into his story so far.
What is it that first inspired you to pick up a guitar and start making music?
Just having too much lonely time to kill, of course! I was about 22 and out of college and teaching classes a few days a week, I had basically no money at all and not many people to hang out with in NYC so I was mostly sitting around my apartment drawing comic books all the time and listening to records and to procrastinate from the work of drawing comics, I started messing with an old guitar that happened to be in the apartment.
What artists/acts or perhaps even specific songs would you say have had the biggest influence on you musically?
A lot of the records I was listening to at the time I started writing songs formed a real springboard starting point for me, mostly because they were very simple and often easy to learn and copy. Stuff like Donovan's early albums, Pearls Before Swine, Palace Brothers, Woody Guthrie, the early Bob Dylan out takes on the Bootleg Series box set tape one, and the Anthology of American Folk Music, particularly the Ballads volume. Also Pebbles Volume 3, that was a big album for me at the time. And of course Daniel Johnston records and tapes, like Continued Story and Artistic Vice, all of which were harder to find in those days. All of this was about 1997 and 1998 when I first started making songs and playing the Sidewalk Cafe open mic in Manhattan. For the punkier songs I was making with my little brother Jack on bass (now not so little) we were both very inspired by Camper Van Beethoven, Velvet Underground, the Violent Femmes and Yo La Tengo. Going to live shows in the 90s by Yo La Tengo and the Grateful Dead really gave us a template of how a live show should be, the ideal that every show should try to be different and loose and surprising for all involved.
You often accompany your live shows with video backdrops and comic art. Being such a fan of comics as well as a comic book artist, was this combination of music and images always something you had in mind to do from the get-go or has it just happened to evolve over the years?
It was originally just one of many gimmicks and fun things we were always trying to throw into our shows. I'd recite all of the dialogue from Evil Dead 2 (my favourite movie), or I had a Korean friend that I'd perform with and we'd write these punk rock songs in Korean; another time I'd have tape players positioned all around the room playing recordings from our previous gigs that year so it was like a multi-dimensional representation of time - well that was the idea, it ended up just sounding like noise. Anyway, there were a lot of ideas going into the shows for the first few years, many of which were failures but that's how experiments go. One of the more successful ideas was doing illustrated songs, which has stuck and expanded into a sort of integral part of what my band does.
Over the years you've spent touring and making music, have there been any particularly great moments that have stood out?
I had a great moment just the other day here in Australia when I got to get a close-up smell of a koala bear! This guy at this weird private zoo insisted we won't really have experienced what koala bears are all about unless we stick our noses into one's back and give its fur a good sniff - all they do all their lives is eat eucalyptus, so they smell quite good. And then there's all the amazing, inspiring people that we've looked up to in the music world that we've actually gotten to meet and work with, like having Eve Libertine and Joy DeVivre from Crass get on stage with us (in London and New York, respectively), that was amazing. Getting to become friends with personal musical heroes like Tuli (Fugs) Kupferberg and Peter (Holy Modal Rounders) Stampfel, that's been amazing. Those guys are in their 80s and 70s and still doing awesome stuff.
For those who don't already know you by now, how would you describe your music?
City and Eastern! Lo-fi folk, sci-fi punk, and low-budget videos.
Can you tell us a bit about the new album Em are I? How it came about, what inspired you this time around?
It was recorded slowly over the past couple years, I started it before I started the Crass album actually. But it was very rare to have opportunities in New York to record, considering all the time I was on the road in 2008 added to the fact that my brother/bassist Jack was living 3,000 miles away and my friend Mark who built the home-studio we recorded in had to move and rebuild a whole new space from scratch halfway through. So it was a long process of having a day or two here or there in which everybody was around and available to get some recording done. Despite all of that we ended up with a big pile of songs recorded. It was a bit of work to decide which songs to pick to finish off and include in the final album - there was talk of doing it as a double album at one point.
Is there a song/piece of work that you're particularly proud of?
Some of the best songs I've come up with have been so easy to write that it's hard to feel proud of them, like 'Life'. Then on the other hand there's ones that went through a bunch of changes and ended up much better than they originally were, like 'Moving'. So maybe I'm proudest of the first album The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane because it was so easy, and the 12 Crass Songs album because it was so work-intensive in the recording and the packaging design.
What do you enjoy most about playing live?
Taking chances that pay off, then on the other hand it always feels awful to try something that doesn't work at all.