Q&A: Jeffrey Lewis
By Frances Michelle Lopez
It takes a brave person to release an album of covers. Sure, Rod Stewart's "Great American Songbook" had some sweet old school jams, not to mention the nostalgic tracks off of the infamous Pop Goes Punk compilations, and the growing number of indie artists covering hip-hop and Top 40 in their attempt to be ironic and/or relevant. However, in 2007 singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis raised the bar with his album "12 Crass Songs," a beautifully arranged homage to one of his favorite bands.
A native New Yorker, Lewis has been continuously leaving his mark in the indie world for the past decade with his involvement in the anti-folk community; being closely associated with bands like the Moldy Peaches, as well as with his ever-so-clever comic books and "low budget films." Most recently, Lewis has released a new album on Rough Trade Records entitled "Em Are I," and has been touring relentlessly the past couple of years with the likes of the Mountain Goats, Stephen Malkmus, and Akron/Family. I caught up with Jeffrey this past week about shows, comics, our new President, and the Watchmen, as he and his band the Junkyard get geared up for their current tour with psych-pop sweethearts Dr. Dog, who play Tucson tonight.
UP: Every time I see you it seems as though your band name is in constant flux. I have seen you as the Jackals, the Jicks, and most recently as the Junkyard. Where did this tradition come from and why do you do it?
JL: Mostly the band name changes are because I started out essentially as a solo performer but as it's evolved into more of a band project, it's made more sense to differentiate it from my solo work to call it "Jeffrey Lewis and the..." something. But I've never felt like any one particular band name was really a perfect one, so we just come up with new ones all the time for fun. The band lineup itself if pretty fluid too, sometimes it's a duo with myself and somebody else, sometimes I'm with two musicians, or three or four or more, so since I'm the only constant and the rest isn't, it make sense for the name to reflect that.
UP: One of the band I was in was fortunate enough to play with you guys last fall in Phoenix and I remember you mentioning to me that you were going to be opening up for the Presidents of the United States of America. I looked at your calendar and it looks like you've been on tour for most of the time since then. How long have you been on the road this year?
JL: This year I've done a solo tour of Australia opening up for Darren Hanlon's band. I've done a headlining tour of the UK and Europe with Jack, Dave, and Fletcher as my band and I have done shows in the US and Canada opening up for Au Revoir Simone...Now we're about to start our US tour dates opening for Dr. Dog and I'll have Jack and Dave in the band. We've toured with them a couple of times in the past and they're a very inspiring live rock band, it'll be really great to see them play every night.
UP: The touring life can be tough. Sometimes you end up in cities that have never heard of you before, and then you'll have a really amazing night somewhere close by. What is your advice for the young band or musician? What are some of your best/worst memories from being on the road?
JL: There's too many touring stories to get into at the moment (though you can see a comic book I did about touring and a DVD documentary about one of our tours, both included in the recently released book "The Art of Touring)! My advice for anyone starting out is that it IS possible to do, and you can do it with very little money. Keep your expenses low and your operation simple...great music shouldn't need a bunch of extra stuff anyway. Nowadays we're [JLB] making more money than when we started, but I was never not making any money with it. I always had great things to sell for cheap, great songs to share with people, and no problem about sleeping on floors or on Greyhound buses or in cars with strangers.
UP: Your younger brother Jack is also in your band most of the time. How is it like being in a band with your brother at this point in your life? Most people would be sick of being around siblings all the time, yet you two seem to have a great relationship.
JL: It's very lucky to have a life where I can spend all this time with my brother. Most people grow up, leave home, and only see their families on holidays or rare occasions. Jack and I always shared a room growing up, so we're used to spending a lot of time together.
UP: I remember David mentioning that he lives in Europe most of the year. Jack lives in Portland, OR, and you are on the east coast. How does that work with the dynamic of the band?
JL: We tour enough so that we still see each other more often than we see our other friends and relatives, and we never used to rehearse anyway so it's not too different. It's a great thing to have headquarters in three places like that--I can leave a box of comics in Oregon, an amplifier in London, my CDs in New York, stuff like that. It makes it easier than always having to travel with everything. And each tour involves whoever is able to make it, so sometimes Jack and Dave or both of them are not involved. Mostly the core band lineup if myself plus Jack and Dave, so it's ironic that we're all living spread evenly across 6,000 miles.
UP: You guys have always been beloved in the anti-folk community for your great records on Rough Trade such as "The Last Time I did Acid I Went Insane," but got a whole bunch of internet love when you released "12 Crass Songs." Politics and social commentary seem to resonate very strongly in your lyrics with a backdrop of very catchy tunes. Tell me about your latest record "Em Are I" and why you think people should buy it. Were you trying to accomplish something in particular with the theme of the record?
JL: Personally, I was trying to do a fully realized record that would be a summation of everything we've accomplished in music over our weird career. The early records were collections of emotionally raw recordings recorded very haphazardly. The "City & Eastern" record was an attempt to do a "studio" album that would mix the full-band stuff with the solo stuff, and the Crass album was my attempt at making the most beautifully musical album I could muster; lots of musical styles with very strong content; although other peoples' content of course. "Em Are I" as a record, has been a way to put it all together. Everything I've learned about writing and recording, all the kinds of music that I love, and about doing it together cohesively as a band rather than a mixed-bag collection of solo songs and band songs. I think it's my best record overall, but it wouldn't feel right to do that same thing again for the next record. It might be time to return to raw home recordings and start the learning process again? I don't know...I don't want to repeat myself but then on the other hand I don't want to do something new and different for the contrived sense of doing something different. It's too early to think about it really.
UP: I'm sure whichever direction you go will be an awesome and adventurous one. I'd like to mention now that you are also an established comic book artist and you have a series of comics called "Guff" of "Fuff?" It's changed since I last saw you, I think. In any case, how did that series come to be and how often are you able to publish new issues?
JL: I've been trying to do at least one new issue a year but it's been slow lately with all this touring and other comic and illustration work. Issue #8 is still less than half-finished. Right now I'm working with a friend in New York to digitally re-issue a lot of my earlier out-of-print pre-Fuff/Guff comics, and also been working on a series of short comic projects for the band the Cribs.
UP: I saw the press kit that you made the Mountain Goats for "Heretic Pride" and it looks amazing. I know that you design your album covers too. Do you do anything else with your art that you would like our readers to know about?
JL: Well, there are the illustrated songs that I call "low budget films" or low budget music videos, there's a bunch of them on Youtube now I've got an ongoing project with this to do a multi-part illustrated/sung History of Communism but I haven't done a new chapter yet this year. Last year I did chapter 5, Communism in North Korea. I'm now working on an illustrated/sung "low budget film" about the Mayflower boat and the Pilgrims, which may or may not appear on the History Channel website sometime this year (before Thanksgiving, I would hope!)
UP: That's awesome. Dude, out of curiosity I just looked you up on Google and I just read that you did your Senior Thesis on Alan Moore's "Watchmen," one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. While I sit here and geek out a moment, can you tell us a little about that? I know that you did a Watchmen event in Portland last year- what was that all about? Do you see yourself getting more involved in that sort of thing (perhaps teaching)?
JL: I'd been meaning to dust off and re-edit my old Watchmen thesis for years, I wrote it in 1997, and I'd lectured on it in Belgium in 2000. I did in fact used to do some teaching before the music thing took off, so I've done a fair amount of "lecturing", which is sort of like being a performing musician anyway, the feeling of being in front of a room of people. So with the new interest in Watchmen this year surrounding the movie hype, there was a new demand for me to give my lectures about the Watchmen comic book, and I've now given the lectures in a lot of locations around the UK, US and Australia. It's hard work, talking and being engaging for 90 minutes, but it can be quite rewarding and fun, and I do feel like I've got some good insights into Watchmen that nobody else has brought to the public. There was talk of Top Shelf (Alan Moore's current publishing company) putting out my lecture in printed form, but I've been too busy the past few months to do the kind of text re-editing that I'd feel confident about presenting them with, it's one thing to read my lecture notes out loud but I'd really need to knock it all into better readable shape to consider it as publishable.
UP: Another art-related question if I may, last year you posted a YouTube video of a song you wrote to accompany your illustrated biography of then-Senator Barack Obama. Are you planning on ever publishing that? Do you know whether he ever saw it?
JL: I'm sure Barack has better things to do than trawl the internet looking for art and music about him, but it was good to be able to use my style of project to toss my two cents into the election process. I was on tour around the US in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, so I had to cease the door-to-door campaigning I'd been doing in Pennsylvania but I wanted to feel like I was still doing my part to "go door to door", so performing that short piece at each concert was my way to do that in a touring context. Part of it was published in the British newspaper The Guardian, but mostly my illustrated/sung songs are not really meant to be seen without the accompanying song.
UP: That's pretty great. However, you know what's not great? Phoenix missing you on this tour! When are you coming back to us?
JL: I'd come back any chance I get! I guess we're only going to be in Tucson on this current tour with Dr. Dog, but usually it's great to be able to do both cities if the travel schedule allows for it while we're in the area.