FRANCISCO trangeCARAMANGA INTERVIEW WITH JEFFREY LEWIS.
Jeffrey Lewis (born November 20, 1975 in New York City) is an American anti-folk singer/songwriter and comic book artist. Jarvis Cocker has called him “the best lyricist working in US today”. He’s the product of loving beatnik parents who raised him in the Lower East Side in a tenement apartment with no television. This interview done over a six year period covers topics as diverse as Ireland, Crass, The Fall, Geoff Travis, Communism, Watchmen, Robert Crumb, Peter Stampfel, Pavement, Daniel Johnson, Scritti Politti and a lot more besides.
F.S.:You’re wearing an Aran jumper/cardigan.
J.L.:Yeah my brother Jack bought it for me a while back but it’s full of holes.
F.S.:I think it’s funny that Bob Dylan brought the Clancy Brothers over to New York. They’d perform in their Aran jumpers and change back into their snazzy suits once the show was over. And now here you are a New Yorker of jewish descent wearing an Aran jumper and selling anti-folk to the Irish.
J.L.:I didn’t realise this jumper was an Irish thing.
F.S. You’ve toured Ireland a few times. What strikes you about this country when you visit?
J.L. Well if you were driving between two cities in America you’d be on a motorway and you would see very little scenery. The journey up from Dublin was really nice.
F.S. Do you like Irish music?
J.L. I like Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones. I like Dr. Strangely Strange…are they Irish? I’m not a musicologist…I must confess I don’t know that much about Irish folk music.
(Kind of wanted to be a bit more Joe Mc Carthy with this next question).
F.S.:What did you think of the Watchmen movie?
J.L.:I think they did as good a job as was possible in the time permitted. However because it’s so plot heavy you don’t really emote as much as you should. What did you think?
F.S.:I liked it but I never read the comic.
J.L.:Yeah I’m really interested in how someone who never read the comic would experience it.
F.S.:My friend was rather taken with the female super hero.
J.L.:I was amazed how much the characters on screen resembled their graphic representations.
F.S.: So the first thing I heard by you was ‘The Legend Of The Fall’ on Youtube. I’m a big Fall fan and so that’s how I got into your stuff.
J.L.We should have a full Fall conversation. Best album. Best shows. Favorite line up. In fact you have to help me because tomorrow I’m interviewing Mark E. Smith at the Hinterland festival. I’ve no idea what I’m going to talk to him about. I’ve been racking my brain for a topic that won’t be met with disdain. I was going to ask him what he’s been reading lately.
F.S.He talks a lot about Wyndham Lewis…artist…writer…bit of a fascist.
J.L. He certainly likes to be controversial. I think he (Mark) just likes to wind people up. Because it’s such a rare thing to find a literate intelligent counter culture figure who espouses right wing views. I think he just does it to be interesting and controversial. He does it to poke a little at the general consensus.
F.S. So you’ve toured with The Fall?
J.L. We did one show together in London in February 2004. Which was a tremendous thrill for me.
F.S. You were asked to become a member of The Fall?
J.L. He doesn’t let Fall fans in the band.I think I’d bring a lot of interesting musical stuff to the band. I’m not much of a musician either which might be a good thing. I feel like I have a lot of the same influences musically as Mark…The Groundhogs for example. There’s a guy called Nervous Norvous that I always suspected Mark was a fan of and I just found confirmation of it in the book The Fallen. There’s a bit in the book where a journalist visits his house and he’s forced to listen to a Nervous Norvous record. The Pebbles compilations in particular Volume 3…which was a life changing album for me. I just found an NME article from the 1980’s in which Mark lists his favourite album as Pebbles Volume 3.
F.S. There’s a perception you might have got into The Fall through Pavement.
J.L. Oh no not at all. I never liked Pavement. Now I do. I used to hate that stuff but it took me years. All through college I could not understand why people liked that band. I had to try REALLY hard. I used to listen to those albums really hard. I used to think – I don’t get it. The lyrics mean nothing and the songs don’t go anywhere. All I could think was the songs don’t mean anything. But now I’ll put it them on and I love it. I love the recent stuff. I love the Stephen Malkmus solo album. I love ‘Real Emotional Trash’. But it took me years. And I don’t actually see any Fall connection at all. Which is ironic because the only Pavement song that I liked when I listened to them years ago was ‘Two States’. And I didn’t realise that was the Fall rip-off song. It was only years later that I discovered where it came from. And when I returned to Pavement I thought’no wonder I liked that song it sounds just like The Fall’. But really to this day I don’t really see the connection between the two bands.
F.S. I suppose it was ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ and ‘Westing By Musket…’ albums and the artwork.
J.L. But I mean with Pavement the songs don’t mean anything with The Fall the songs actually mean something even if it takes you a while to work out what they might mean.
F.S. I’ve never been able to work many of them out.
J.L. Malkmus is just gibberish. I’ve learned to love it. Because I’ve learned to love the joy that he brings to that nonsense. But The Fall to me is not nonsense. It’s bizarre and it’s esoteric and it’s dense and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out. But I LOVE puzzling it out. I love it when five years later when I’m reading a book and I come across a passage. And suddenly I understand what he was talking about in a particular song.
F.S. I used to write for the Fall fanzine ‘The Biggest library Yet’ and the only contact the editor Graham Coleman had with the band was a one off postcard with the words ‘Don’t go round explaining yourself’ written on the back. Now I didn’t understand what it meant at the time but now it’s become a kind of personal philosophy.
J.L. It makes everything better. It’s a terrible mistake everytime I explain what a particular song means. Everytime I read a songwriter or author explaining what they’ve done…it’s alost always a mistake. It’s so much better to let art just be art. But of course everyone has an ego and everyone has a burning desire to talk about themselves. Here I am being interviewed. I just finished an interview. I got five interviews tomorrow. It’s a tremendous ego boost. You want to go on and on proving how clever you are. But it’s almost always to detriment of the art.
F.S. But I used to get so much fun reading an interview with Mark E. Smith in the eighties and nineties. It got to a point where I worried that I liked the interviews better than the music.
J.L. When I got into them I didn’t know anything about them or him apart from the music. I didn’t know his persona. I had no preconceived notions at all. And in fact I liked them a bit less when I discovered they were just this one guy and they had all these different line-ups.
F.S. So what is your favorite Fall album?
F.S. And the first Fall album you heard?
F.S. That’s quite common for someone to say-that the first Fall album they heard was the one they liked the best. I heard Seminal Live first but Extricate and Shiftwork are still my favourites and I heard them before most of the other records.
J.L. Extricate is another of my favourites. My favourite three are Dragnet, Extricate and Perverted By Language.
F.S. How many times have you seen the band?
J.L. Not that many times…maybe six.
F.S. Have you performed with Daniel Johnston?
J.L. Three times.
F.S. How is he these days?
J.L. I think he’s doped up on a lot medication. He’s been on a lot of medication for the past fifteen years. He’s really a shadow of the Daniel Johnston of the 1980’s. His creative output has disappeared and his voice is shot from cigarettes. His last good album was entitled Fun from around 1994. His thinking is clouded by the drugs…his songs used to have so many little jokes.
F.S. Critics have been saying recently that when you go to see him nowadays Jad Fair is the talent. They’ve also questioned whether it’s ethically right to use someone who is now so mentally disadvantaged to sell concert tickets.
J.L. Jad Fair is a genius in his own right. The album they did together from around 1989 is amongst the best work either of them have recorded. That album is life changing…amazing.
F.S. All this stuff is quite lo-fi but you’re wearing a Scritti Politti T-shirt. I’m surprised you’re a fan…they’re pretty polished.
J.L. I went on tour with them and got the shirt for free. I’m not that immersed in their stuff. I got to like them whilst touring with them.
F.S. He is a fellow communist…
J.L. I didn’t have any political discussions with him. He’s (Simon Gartside) just a really nice guy. Really friendly…down to earth. He comes to see us when we play in London. I feel like I’ve had a priveleged experience with him because I know he’s a legendary character but I got to know him as a person before I heard any of his stuff. I wasn’t revering him and now I’m very much in awe of some of the work that he’s done. It was nice to get to know him before there was any fear or fame.
F.S. Have you seen the Rough Trade BBC4 documentary?
J.L. No but I’d love to. I gather it’s up on Youtube.
F.S. Your songs refer to Belfast twice.
J.L. Probably through the Crass songs.
F.S. And you sing Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ in the ‘Brief History Of Punk Rock’.
J.L. I hadn’t thought of that.
F.S. So you write a lot of political songs. You’re in Belfast – a political place – do you have any opinion on the situation here.
J.L. In a certain way I feel it’s not my place to voice a strong opinion on a place that I personally don’t have a stake in. But I feel…everybody feels…the implications of imperialism in one way or another. I felt it growing up in the Lower East Side of New York. In that nobody that I grew up with…and it was a real neighbourhood…everybody was pushed out by the huge influx of money. People with money decided..WE like this area. We’re going to build university dorms here. We’re going to build chain stores here. We’re going to live here. We want your homes we find your buildings charming. We’re going to pay more money than you can afford to pay. So everyone I grew up with has moved out of New York or to the boondocks of Brooklyn. And that’s just a continuation of what happened to the native Americans who lived in Manhattan who were pushed out by the Dutch. Who were in turn pushed out by the English. Whoever has more money, more guns and more power pushes out the weaker. And that’s imperialism. Whether it’s a neighbourhood getting gentrified and the original residents not being able to live there. Or whether it’s England deciding to colonize India. It’s basically being a bully and the justifications that are brought to bear on it. Whether they be religious ior scientific. That’s part of the brilliance of Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’.
(There follows a long discussion about Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement wherein the interviewer makes a bit of a foo of himself).
F.S. I read that you have a nemesis on the internet who spread rumours that you were married.
J.L. It’s no big deal but we have multiple nemesis’s now.
F.S. Did you ever meet John Peel?
J.L. We met him briefly in 2002 when we did a Peel session.
F.S. Still missed.
J.L. I’ve only ever encountered people who love John Peel. Just recently was the first time I ever saw a dissenting opinion. In he book ‘The Story Of Crass’ the guy who originally put Crass’s albums out on the Small Wonder record label said something interesting. He reckons that the first interest in punk was dampened down because Peel was given such prominence. For a brief time it was such a creative free for all but somehow it turned into one guys opinion of what was cool. Because what happened was whatever Peel thought was cool got exposure and what Peel thought was uncool didn’t. And power became so centralized that this happened. Bands thought it was better to have one album than none at all.
F.S. John Peel was always aware of his priveleged position but it was in a sense a poisoned chalice. When Mark E. Smith refused to be aligned be to John Peel because it meant they were ghettoised he felt their pain..and acknowledged it. Peel realised that he was in affect a tool in a media war…he wasn’t just playing a Bhundu Boys record…he was making sure that no one at the BBC ever had to feel uncomfortable when asked why the didn’t play african/reggae/hip-hop… music. In effect he was the BBC’s get out clause regarding public service broadcasting and the licence fee for what was essentially a commercial station. He didn’t ask to be put in the position of being the only person playing this stuff. I remember him speaking warmly and excitedly about Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley doing the Breakfast show for two weeks whilst Chris Evans was on holiday. When Andy Kershaw bemoans the fact that the BBC hastened an ill though diabetes old man to his death by forcing him to drive long distances in the middle of the night to record his show…he’s right.
(Interview cut short because of sound check. Interview continued by email).
F.S. People you get compared to…Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, Woody Allen amongst others…do any of these comparisons irk?
J.L.Usually just shows the frame of reference of the person making the comparison, more than it shows anything about me…
(He has witten a song about art/fame entitled ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Disaster’ that has a very ending in which he is sexually attacked by the indie rock icon).
F.S.Has Will Oldham heard your song?
J.L.Yes, from what i’m told.
F.S.Is it difficult touring with your brother? Do your parents expect you to shield him things as you’re the older sibling. Any fisticuffs?
J.L.We disagree a lot but he adds a lot of good ideas to things.
F.S.Mark E. Smith is friends with Irvine Welsh but he has said that his financial situation would be totally different if he had been included on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Do you wish you’d been on the Juno OST?
J.L.I guess the money would be nice but wishing i’d been on the soundtrack is not something that’s ever crossed my mind.
F.S. Donovan has T.M. Beck has scientology. What helps Jeffrey Lewis?
F.S. I interviewed Martin Bramah (Blue Orchids/The Fall) once and he said that both himself and Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) really resented the fact that Geoff Travis/Rough Trade promoted The Smiths much more than them. Do you ever worry about being sidelined by RT’s higher profile artists.
J.L.It’s not a worry. It’s been a basic fact since the get go but that’s been fine. Multiple times there’s been Rough Trade festivals with every band on the label invited to play except us! But I kind of like being the black sheep. We’ve traditionally been pretty independent of them and have never signed a multi-album deal or anything binding like that…and Rough Trade have been very kind.
F.S. I gather you didn’t have a television for much of your youth. When did you first get one? What was it like when you did get one? Do you feel like you missed out on anything?
J.L. First got one in the house when I was about twelve and i caught up as much as possible by watching T.V. all day and all night for a while. Now I never watch at all for years. Seems like a total waste of time. Though i do take too much of my time up in catching up on email stuff all the time, so it probably amounts to the same thing.
F.S. Why are The Fall like The Grateful Dead?
J.L. Incredibly long productive careers, unpredictable musical directions, unpredictable covers included in sets, dedicated cult fan base, lyrically similar in a certain way with one foot firmly in the flavor of their homeland (USA for the Dead, Manchester for the Fall) and the other foot in the mystical/philosophical, and the mix of that specificity with the other dimensional is powerful for both bands.
Email interview (2013).
F.S. What are you reading / listening to at the moment?
J.L. Listening to Ted Lucas and other not-very-well-known 70s songwriters, reading “Love Rock Revolution” about the history of K Records.
F.S. Presumably the song Anxiety Attack is autobiographical? Does performing make you nervous? Does ‘Dutch courage’ (alcohol) help?
J.L. Drinking certainly doesn’t help song performance, I have a hard enough time playing guitar and singing and remembering lyrics as it is, I don’t want to impair that focus. We play different sets every night of tour, so there’s no real “auto-pilot,” I need to be on my toes on stage. In my late 20s I had a lot of anxiety, and it came out in a lot of the songs I was writing at that time. After hitting 30 I’ve learned to accept and live with a lot of those questions, although there are other issues that remain perennial sources of horror. Alcohol doesn’t “help” but I’m not against drinking, I think it’s a good idea to get drunk at least once or twice on each tour just for fun, but certainly not every night and certainly not before getting on stage. The thing is, we have a lot of responsibility as a band, we are loading our own gear, doing our own tech, doing our own driving, navigating, finding housing, dealing with mathematics with promoters after concerts each night, so the opportunity to just get irresponsible does not arise every night. We’re working pretty hard while on tour, most of the time.
F.S. Are you hoping to catch any other acts that are playing the Electric Picnic on Friday? Christy Moore, Grandaddy, Azealia Banks or Alabama Shakes for example.
J.L. Didn’t get to see much at Electric Picnic because it was such a rough travel day getting in and out of Ireland, but at End of the Road festival the next day I got to see bits of Tindersticks, Robyn Hitchcock, Deer Tick, and bits of some other stuff.
Face to face 2013.
In 2013 I bumped into Jeffrey at the Electric Picnic in front of the main stage during Gavin Friday’s set. He’d just finished playing with his own band.
F.S. Hi Jeffrey. You’re here watching Gavin Friday – are you a fan?
J.L. No I’ve never heard any of his stuff apart from the two songs on the Wonderful and Frightening LP. Which is also my least favourite Fall album. I hate that record.
F.S. What do you think he sounds like? I think he’s aiming for Brecht or Scott Walker?
J.L. It sounds like Nick Cave to me. I really don’t know anything about him.
F.S. Friday had his fiftieth birthday in Carnegie Hall last year-Courtney Love, Scarlett Johansson & Bono attended. You do know he’s Bono’s best friend?
J.L. No I had no idea he was so well connected?
F.S. Can we expect any new Jeffrey Lewis records in the near future?
J.L. No I don’t think so. We’re just going to finish this tour and I’m doing a lecture on self funded records from the sixties and seventies in a week’s time.
F.S. Then you can go back to your family’s cabin in Maine and draw more comics?
J.L. Yeah I’ll do something like that.
F.S. I reckon the best place for the James Joyce/Watchmen lecture that you do would be in the James Joyce Centre in Dublin-it requires the Georgian surrounds to give it added gravitas. The centre is run by Senator David Norris – he ran for President of Ireland and was at one point the favourite but failed to win – he got embroiled in controversy during the campaign.
J.L. I would love to do that. That would be so great.
F.S. You tend to have a female keyboard player in the band. Is that meant as an oblique tribute to The Fall? The discordant keys are similar. Some people think having a girl in the band makes everyone more civilised.
J.L. I just think it really improves the way vocals sound.
Email interview (2015).
F.S. Is Jeffrey Lewis more popular in Europe or the USA?
J.L. At this point I’m more popular in the USA, but I started off more popular in Europe. When my first official album came out on Rough Trade in 2001, Rough Trade didn’t even have a USA office, there was only the Rough Trade office in London, and at that point Rough Trade was business partners with the Sanctuary label who had offices in Germany, they also had connections with the Konkurrent distributors in Holland, and the Pias people in France, and my records were licensed to a label in Spain called Sinnamon. So the early years of my career were essentially all overseas, as far as the store distribution and the promotion and the press/review stuff. However I was touring in the USA too, in addition to UK and Europe tours. I always toured everywhere in any possible way that I could, even if it was just taking a bus by myself with a guitar and a few comic books in a bag, or asking people to give me rides, sleeping on floors, all of that stuff. So the USA was a very long slow word-of-mouth thing for me, and the overseas stuff had a big head-start from the more official business end of things. But as of about 2008 Rough Trade split from Sanctuary, and now they are partnered with the Beggars Group, and they have a great office in New York City, and they actually have no connection now to some of those European outlets that they used to work with.
It’s very hard for me to know how much this behind-the-scenes stuff affects my own connection to my audience, but I do know that the people who order my comics and music from me on my website used to be mostly overseas, then it was half and half, and now it’s overwhelmingly all people from the USA who are ordering my stuff, and the overseas orders have shrunk. Also, I get some inkling from my email lists – everytime I play a gig I put out a little book for people to write their emails in, if they want to hear about future tours. I keep a UK email list, a Europe email list, a USA email list, an Australia email list, etc. So I can really see how many emails I have from fans in these different areas, and at this point I’ve got more from the USA than from overseas. But America is much harder to tour, because the drives are so much longer. On a Europe tour you might drive 2 hours a day, or 3, or on a very long driving day you might have a 6 hour drive. On a USA tour, that 6 hour drive might be the shortest drive of the tour, and every day of the tour might have an 8 hour drive. That’s a brutal difference, for the cost of gasoline and the challenge to keep the band on the road and all of that stuff. So in that sense it’s easier to build and maintain a touring fan-base overseas, where the touring is a bit easier. I continue to try to do all of it though.
F.S. When will we see a new solo album?
J.L. Depends what you mean by a solo album… I’ve never even really done an official completely solo album, even from my first CD there were a couple songs by my brother, and a few songs with my band. There were one or two of my self-released cassettes in the late 90s that were indeed 100% just me playing and writing and singing on everything. But every album that I’ve done in the “official” music world has always involved other people, bandmates, songs from my brother or other people, stuff like that. However, if by “solo album” you mean a Jeffrey Lewis band album, instead of a Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel band album, then yes, I’ve got a new album coming out in October 2015 on Rough Trade, it’ll be attributed to “Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts” and the album title is “Manhattan”.
F.S. Why do you feel the need to pay such homage to artists from the past? In mean in particular Tuli Kupferberg and Peter Stampfel. Do you not think you’re more talented than these guys? Do you prefer the company of older people than younger people? Do you feel out of step in the modern world?
J.L. I’m just a big fan of music, and some of my favorite records are The Fugs, The Holy Modal Rounders, Lou Reed, David Peel, Crass, all of the sort of stuff that crops up in my own music. I always love covering songs by artists whom I love, especially if it’s a chance to introduce an audience to stuff that I think is really great that perhaps the audiences might not have had a chance to stumble on for themselves yet. And if I get the chance to collaborate with any of these people, or even to tour with them, so much the better!
F.S. Are you still sleeping on peoples floors whilst on tour?
J.L. Yes, of course, but there’s quite a wide range of situations. In Europe a club will often be able to provide hotel rooms for the band, and some clubs even have sleeping rooms built in to the club, while in America this is rare so we often end up staying at people’s houses. England is sort of half and half. Even when staying at people’s homes there’s quite a range, from the really rough sleeping-on-a-hard-cold-floor with zero bedding other than your own overcoat for a blanket and your own shoes as a pillow, to homes that are actually much nicer than any hotel would be, plus at somebody’s home you’re not going to get kicked out in the morning at an early check-out time, and perhaps you’ll discover a great book on a shelf, or be exposed to a record you’d never have heard otherwise, so even the roughest homes can sometimes offer a nicer experience than a hotel, plus there are some hotels that are rougher than some homes! Luckily, the actual literal sleeping-on-a-floor doesn’t happen too often, maybe just a couple times a year nowadays. Most times at somebody’s house there’s a bed or a couch, or at least a mattress on the floor.
F.S. Is it inevitable that people become more right wing as they get older?
J.L. It’s because the older you get the more time you’ve had to accumulate wealth and resources. When you’re young you usually don’t have very much, so there’s an element of self-interest to say “all wealth should be distributed equally” or other such statements of morality. When you’re older you perhaps feel less inclined to make these liberal statements because you find out that YOU are the one who will be losing if society becomes more equal, rather than gaining. So it takes a higher level of moral consciousness to keep those ideals, once the self-serving element transforms into a self-sacrificing element. That’s a big part of it, I think. It doesn’t change the morality aspect of it, but it changes the self-interest aspect of it, and that will inevitably be a deal-breaker for some people.
F.S. Is your career at a junction right now?
J.L. My career is at a junction every single day, and it has always been like that. Every day is a chance to either write a great new song or not, or a chance to work on booking the next tour or not. You’re either growing forward each day, or starting to rot each day. It might take a little time for the audience to realize that you’re rotting, but if a couple years go by and you’re still playing the same old songs, you’re on a downward path to career-death. And rightfully so – if you want to get paid to be an artist, you have to actually be an artist, which means creating great new material, as far as I’m concerned. If all you are is a cover band, playing covers of the great songs that you wrote ten years ago, you can’t expect to make a living as an artist, you’re not being an artist. If I can write a truly great new song today, that’s just as good or better than anything I’ve ever done before, then today I have been an artist and I can keep on living as an artist. Anything less is just rotting away. But you must also be an artist of curating your own material – if all you are performing is brand-new material, that is not a very creative way to present yourself, not a very creative way to think about what to play at your gig tonight. The idea, to me, is to keep on expanding the pallet while refusing to ignore the possibilities that are already on the pallet. The constant process of creativity means that you’re at a junction at every single gig and in every single day.
F.S. Your comic FUFF just keeps getting more sexually graphic. Are you turning into Robert Crumb?
J.L. The weird thing about Crumb is that he has never been a writer – Nobody can ever really point to a sustained narrative in the work of Crumb, it’s all just these wonderful weird episodic creative spasms, at least that’s how it seems. Even a giant opus like his book of Genesis, that’s just an illustrated comic of the bible, it’s not a narrative that he wrote. I’m much more interested in narrative; whether that means a story that unfolds in a single issue or a story that takes a few issues to tell. As far as I can tell that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with Robert Crumb, whether or not there’s any full frontal nudity involved. Really, it’s all a matter of the frame of reference of the audience. If the only black and white comic books people have ever seen are by Robert Crumb, then anybody who draws a comic is going to fall into a Crumb context in their mind. Same as Bob Dylan – oh, you write songs and you play guitar? You’re turning into Bob Dylan!
Well, if you have a more nuanced awareness of music and songwriters you could say “your new album shows songwriting influences from, oh, I don’t know, Lou Barlow and Calvin Johnson and middle-period Patti Smith” or whatever. Same as the comic book stuff – to a person who reads comic books, they might pick up an issue of Fuff and say “you’re really moving in a Joe Sacco direction with the artwork, while the story is getting a bit like those early Julie Doucet issues, isn’t it?” So whenever I hear somebody comparing me to Bob Dylan or to Robert Crumb, it says a lot more about the context of the person making the comparison than it does about my own context, as far as I’m concerned!
F.S. How is you’re The Fall artwork getting on…..is it finished?
J.L. The artwork is finished but I still have a lot of coloring work to do, it’s maybe about 50% colored now.
F.S. Who do you get compared to that you think?….”I’m nothing like that”…..Do comparisons ever irk?
J.L. See above! Plus the whole aspect of “comparisons” is very bizarre nowadays because it is often done by computer programs using meta-tags. Somebody might be listening to music on Pandora or something like that, and they tell the computer “I want to hear artists who sound like The Dead Milkmen or Sebadoh or Half-Japanese”, and the computer might spit a Jeffrey Lewis recording back at them, whether or not me or the listener would personally have ever made any such comparison. Sometimes it does irk, because the computer might think that I sound like some artist whom I totally despise or don’t relate to! “Oh, you’re interested in John Meyer, well here’s this Jeffrey Lewis guy who is also a white male who writes songs in the English language”, etc etc.
F.S. Your show in Dublin seemed to attract a 50/50 mix of Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel fans. Has that been your experience on this tour?
J.L. Usually it’s more my own fans, because I’ve toured a lot more than Peter has and built up a touring fan base in that way, plus all the shows are booked through me with the promoters and clubs that I’ve worked with before, so the entire touring circuit is a Jeffrey Lewis touring circuit, in indie-rock clubs and stuff like that, rather than perhaps some other promoters who might possibly be interested in promoting a Peter Stampfel gig, there’s probably a whole other audience for folk music, or for 60s music, or for psychedelic obscure music, and perhaps there could be some way to book a tour through those contacts, play those clubs and those festivals, and reach those audiences, audiences who would probably be like 90% Peter Stampfel fans, and might never have heard of Jeffrey Lewis. But I don’t have those other contacts – I just book through the contacts I DO have, which puts the whole sports-event in my own stadium, if that metaphor makes sense. Just by accident of circumstance. It could probably just as well go the other way around.
F.S. You tour a lot. Does this affect your health? I mean none of us are getting any younger. Are you ever conscious of drinking too much? On the other hand you seem pretty healthy. What’s your exercise regime?
J.L. I have too much work to do to get too unhealthy! I can’t just hang out drinking after gigs, I’ve got to pack the merch table and go over the sales figures with the promoters and drive the car to where ever we’re sleeping, stuff like that. Plus I might have to wake up early and do a long drive the next day. Not to mention carrying all our own gear, often up more stairs than you would choose to, it’s a pretty healthy regime, no need for much work-out beyond all that, I suppose.
F.S. Do you ever get stage fright?
J.L. Yeah, every night! I’m always trying to do stuff that isn’t necessarily going to work, that keeps the shows more exciting and keeps the band on our toes. If I ever stopped getting stage fright it would mean that the whole process has become too safe, and it would lack a certain spark of creativity that I prefer to feel while on stage.
F.S. Did you encounter any negative feedback from fans by playing Israel?
J.L. I did have one activist friend try to convince me not to do that tour, but another friend insisting that I should do it and that I should try to tell other artists to do it too. It’s a contentious thing, people feel strongly on all sides of that issue. Personally I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to do the tour, and donate the money I made to the Seeds of Peace program, which is one of those hopefully peace-building things where kids on all sides of the conflict can go to summer camp together. I’m very glad I did the tour, it was eye-opening and interesting in a lot of ways, and overall much better than not doing the tour would have been, I thought.
F.S. What did Crass think of the covers album? Have you ever met any members of the band?
J.L. At this point I’ve crossed paths with most of them – when my band was touring right after the 12 Crass Songs album came out, various members of Crass were coming to shows of ours in different locations, which was very friendly of them. Phil Free and Joy DeVivre came to a gig in New York City, Steve Ignorant came to a gig in Cambridge, and Eve Libertine actually got on stage and did a poem with us at a gig in London. I didn’t meet Gee or Penny till years later, they were doing an art gallery event in New York and I stopped in and checked it out and said hello to them. The impression that I got from most of them was that they thought the project was interesting, I guess different folks liked some of the interpretations more than others, I don’t know. Steve Ignorant invited me to be an opening act at his big Gathering of the 5,000 gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London but it never did come about, it would have been hard to justify squeezing it into my schedule at that point. They were all very friendly and positive and generally encouraging, and so were the folks at Southern Records when I initially asked for permission to release my album. It was right around the same time that The Dirty Projectors did their album of covers of Black Flag songs, and I bumped into Dave from Dirty Projectors at a gig and he said that he’d had the opposite response from the Black Flag folks, they never gave him any response at all to his covers project. But that’s no surprise, you’d expect Crass to be friendlier than Black Flag I guess.
F.S. What are you going to do with The Fall artwork? Do you sell any original artwork?
J.L. I very rarely sell original artwork, I’m not really an Artist with a capital A, most of what i draw is intended to be turned into a comic book, or in the case of that 100 Fall Songs illustration I’ll probably print it as a poster. So i usually sell my stuff in some kind of printed form, rather than parting with originals. It’s cheaper that way for everybody. I’m actually going to do some kind of art gallery show here in NYC at my new album-release show in October, so the album-release gig will be in a venue that has a gallery space in front, where a bunch of my original art will be hanging. i don’t know if anybody will buy any, but it’ll be cool to have a chance to show the public some original art, that doesn’t usually happen for me, that sort of thing is not part of my life.