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Interview: Jeffrey Lewis

24th August 2009

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To those in the know Jeffrey Lewis is considered one of the finest artists of our generation; a purveyor of brilliant lo-fi folk and creator of cult comic-books.

Ollie Millington caught up with the anti-folk hero for a little chat.....

Jeffrey LewisDescribe what you do?

Low-fi folk, sci-fi punk and low budget videos! 

Do you see yourself as a musician or a cartoonist first?

Comic book maker first I suppose, songwriter/performer second. Not really a “musician,” I’d say. 

How important is music in your life?

Extremely important, I listen to music all the time! 

How important is music in general?

To the world at large? I guess it’s pretty important or it wouldn’t be part of all human cultures. 

What inspires you?

People that show how amazing you can be when you are just yourself, also people that show how amazing you can be when you push yourself to be better! 

Musically do you have any heroes or people you would like to collaborate with? 

Most of my musical heroes are not very musical themselves, which is why they inspire me to create; people like Daniel Johnston, Mark E. Smith, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, they all show that you can make incredible art without a lot of the tools and skills that many people assume are needed to make the highest art. Not that they are not highly skilled, but not in conventional senses.  

What happened to the album you were rumoured to be working on with Grandmaster Gareth of Misty’s Big Adventure? 

Gareth can take a really long time to get to things, those recordings have been sitting with him for years! Some of that stuff has just surfaced on my new CD of demos and out-takes, “City & Eastern Tapes,” most of the songs recorded with Gareth were re-recorded with Kramer for the City & Eastern Songs album in 2005. 

What made you cover [80s anarcho-punk legends] Crass - their music seems fairly far removed from what you do? 

In a certain way it’s not THAT removed because it is very lyric-oriented, I’m always drawn to things with strong lyrical content. As far as the full story of my discovering and eventually covering Crass, it’s all told better in the comic book I did that comes in the CD sleeve. 

What the hell is ‘anti-folk’ - and do you see yourself as being part of it? 

Anti-folk usually refers to performers who have gotten their start at the open mic at the Sidewalk in New York City, especially performers who mix folk and punk in some kind of indefinable way. Because of those things I certainly AM part of it, though I never set out to be, I’d never heard of it before I’d already been performing and recording.

Which of your albums are you most proud of and why?

I like the new one that hasn’t been finished yet... it’s a great mix of all the elements of the previous albums but I’ve gotten better at everything. 

How does a typical song or comic strip come to fruition, do you have an approach that works for you? 

Comics come about only when I devote lots and lots of time to them, like 8 hours a day for days and weeks on end. Songs come about more randomly, but certainly more often if I try more. Less predictable though. 

Are there any particular gigs that stick in your mind, for good or bad reasons? 

Sure, the Grateful Dead at Shoreline Ampitheater in 1995 in California was a great show, with a surprise appearance by the Gyoto Monks to boot, My first time seeing Yo La Tengo, at Tramps in 1996 in NYC was a life-changing experience, actually Tramps was also the scene of one of the worst shows I ever saw, Eric Burdon. I love the Animals and I love his work with War, but he was lame. Oh, do you mean a particular gig of MINE? Sorry. 

Do you have a favourite place to play when your over here in the UK?

I do love the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds... the Adelphi in Hull... independent local places like that, great atmospheres. 

You’ve played a lot of festivals in the UK this year - how did they go and what do you think of British festivals? 

I’d always much rather play club shows, they’re more intimate, the sound is generally better, I can show my artwork more easily, even when I use my projector at larger shows I need the room to be dark which doesn’t happen at outdoor shows, also so many of these festivals are so rainy and muddy and uncomfortable for the audience - AND it’s hard enough to run around on tour and get to clubs at 5 or 6 pm to load in gear and sound check but because a lot of festival slots are in the afternoon it requires arriving at noon or 1 pm, which usually means doing a chunk of the driving the night before. Also most festivals are not okay with artists selling their own merchandise after a set, you usually have to give stuff to an official merch seller who takes a cut of the money and doesn’t know how to explain to customers what each comic book is about, etc! In fact the only really preferable thing about the festivals is that they pay so much, compared to most club shows. And sometimes it’s really nice to play on the same day as other bands that we’re friends with, nice to see folks we know.  

Have you seen any bands this summer that you would recommend?

I just saw a band in Portland, Oregon, called Inside Voices that were the best thing I’ve seen in a long time, I’d really like to check out more of their stuff but I don’t think they have an album out yet. Being on tour with Steven Malkmus & the Jicks was great, I loved seeing them play every night. 

Do you have any plans to release the comics in stores?

I have a distributor for the US but no store distribution in the UK at this point. If someone were to pop up and take on the task I’d certainly be into it! 

Are there any particular differences you have noticed playing here and playing in the USA?

I think the fact that people are allowed to go to shows at a younger age (UK usually allows 16 and up, in the US it’s often 21 and up), plus the existence of those great nationally-read magazines like Mojo and Uncut, and the weekly churned-out youthful enthusiasm of NME, all add up to make a more widespread and knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience in the UK. Also it’s easier to tour the UK because you don’t have to drive 8 or 9 hours each day just to get to the next city. 

Do you have a favourite character from your comics?

I don’t use too many “characters” other than the sometimes-reappearing Babyshoes, who is sort of a well-meaning guy who always gets into trouble and is addicted to shooting up truth serum. He has mysterious legs growing out of his head, with little shoes on them, though for the truth about what’s under the shoes you’ll have to wait till I reprint a shocking 2002 story. Also I often return to the character of the Sitar-Playing Clam, he doesn’t really have a name but he tells rhyming stories with sitar accompaniment, he’s sort of a troubadour.

Do you have any advice for young musicians or artists? Perhaps something you would have liked to know early on.

Don’t second-guess yourself too much, just keep cranking it out.  

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Sing more clearly so people can hear the words. You can add things to songs to make them more musically colourful but songs should be good enough to be good songs even without any extra instrumentation, or no amount of extra trickery will save them. 

What’s the best advice you’ve never received?

Don’t spend too much time doing email interviews! 

What next for Jeffery Lewis?

I’m about to leave the house to play a show in New Jersey at Maxwell’s, a venerable Hoboken club... one of my favourite bands, Dufus, is playing before me so I don’t want to be late!

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