The Anti-Folk Leader Marks Akron the First Stop in His Upcoming U.S. Tour
by Brittany Nader
Since the late 1990s, Jeffrey Lewis has been a staple of the underground, lo-fi, “anti-folk” scene, with contemporaries like The Moldy Peaches, Schwervon! and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Lewis has opened for and toured with indie-music icons like Daniel Johnston, Devo, The Vaselines, Devendra Banhart, Thurston Moore and many others. His deadpan wit and intriguing blend of nihilism and hopefulness, in both his lyrics and original comics, has earned Lewis a dedicated fanbase and a record deal with Rough Trade in the early 2000s — a label touted for signing major bands like The Smiths and The Strokes. Lewis and his band debuted their latest album, “Manhattan,” last year, highly informed by his life growing up in New York City after many of its major heroes passed on. Joined by Los Bolts, Lewis will hit Akron on Nov. 12, sharing a bill with Emotional Support Pigs and Meteor Moves in true DIY fashion at Hive Mind.
Brittany Nader: You’re playing Hive Mind in Akron, which is one of our most active DIY venues. Can you talk a little about your experience in the DIY “scene”? How has playing in these types of spaces, and being part of that community as a whole, influenced your music?
Jeffrey Lewis: It’s amazing to be out on the road in the USA and encounter so many local DIY spaces, sometimes in very odd areas where you wouldn’t think there were cool underground music, art [or] culture scenes happening. This doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much outside of the USA, in all my touring in England, Europe and other parts of the world — it’s definitely a very American phenomenon, for the most part, although some other parts of the world have incredible squat scenes that you don’t see in the states.
I think in America a lot of these DIY spaces exist because so many of the music clubs and social hang-out spots are 21 and over only, because of the alcohol laws, and that 21+ rule creates a sort of “prohibition” atmosphere for the under-21 people in the states who still want to be able to have cool live music events in their lives, and places to hang out and get out of the house and be part of a community. The 21+ rule has created a “bootleg” concert underground in the USA, in a way, that could maybe be compared to the speakeasy scene of underground pubs during the Prohibition years. The laws of the land create an ecosystem in which the underground can thrive in a niche that the official legal culture isn’t catering to. Plus there’s definitely a thrill to be part of something that exists off the grid, under the official radar. However, the “underground” or “DIY” scene does have limitations because the spaces tend not to have as much money as an “official” club where you might have, for example, a much fancier sound system, fancier microphones, speakers, lighting rigs, all of that stuff that comes with the “official” music economy.
So the underground scene favors bands who can exist without those frills; in some ways this creates a better proving-ground for performers — you have to be good enough to be able to make your art without all of the “icing-on-the-cake” elements of fanciness that a “real” club can provide. There’s less gloss to hide behind. This suits me fine; I’ve always felt that the kind of music and art I wanted to make should be part of a culture of content, rather than a culture of slick surfaces — how you look and how you sound is less important to me than the raw creativity and raw heart of what you’re doing.
BN: You’re recruiting folks before each show on this tour to help hang up fliers — I think that’s an awesome way to get fans involved in what you’re doing and allow them to support you in a more personal way beyond just turning out for the performance. In what other ways can fans get involved with this tour or supporting you in general?
JL: I hate feeling like I have to ask so many favors from my fans, for help with promoting the gigs in addition to hoping to find free places for my band to sleep each night, in addition to just the standard necessity of asking fans to come to gigs in the first place. But I’m at a weird level in the music business, if you want to call it that —I’ve been making a living from this stuff for about 15 years, while still mostly existing in a very word-of-mouth way, without much advertising or promotion in the official music world.
If I play in a city, there’s probably not going to be a big front-page story about me in the local paper, so it takes more work in order for me to get the word out to people. So I basically do every possible thing I can do to get the word out, rather than just sit back and hope that it happens on its own. Sometimes it does happen on its own, but it works out better when I’m doing my part from my end of things too, which means I mail out posters to the club, I mail out posters to fans who might want to help put some up around town, I keep constantly editing my email lists of fans in different territories and I talk to other bands to ask them how they do things.
BN: You’ve played shows as Jeffrey Lewis & The Jitters, Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard and other incarnations. Now you’re with Los Bolts. How has this lineup of musicians shaped the sound of your newest album, “Manhattan,” and your live shows?
JL: We were touring as a four-piece over the summer, but we’ll be back down to my normal three-piece for most of this USA tour, though my brother Jack might join us for some of the West Coast dates. I’ve worked with a lot of musicians over the years, and each combination has provided a different sort of chemistry and added a different angle or personality to the sound of the band. It would be nice to stay with one lineup for longer periods of time, but even the people who recorded the album with me are off doing other projects now, teaching yoga, moving to other states… it’s impossible to keep people in the same place for very long. Right now I’ve got Mem Pahl on bass and keyboard, she’s been touring with me since about spring 2015, and I’ve got Brent Cole on drums since about November 2015. He was the drummer in the Moldy Peaches and Dufus, two bands that I was gigging with all the way back in the ‘90s, so I’ve known Brent a long time. Actually, with Brent in the band currently, it’s the first time I’ve had somebody my own age in the band in a while. I’ve had various people who were older or younger than me, [and] I was getting used to being the age in the middle. Now Mem’s the young one, and me and Brent are the old ones.
BN: Your song, “Support Tours,” explores the funny and less-than-glamorous realities of playing shows around the country for meager pay, often crashing on people’s couches for a night rather than paying to stay at a fancy hotel, jumping on the bill of a larger band so you aren’t stuck playing to an empty room. How much of this is still reflective of your current life as a touring musician?
JL: It’s still pretty relevant. I’m still always hoping to get more of those support tours. On my last two USA tours, I was playing most of the gigs as the support act for Fat White Family in 2014 and as the support act for Andrew Jackson Jihad in 2015. On both of those tours I was also doing my own headlining gigs, but the bulk of the tour dates were as a support act, and it’s always a great way to do a tour, mostly because it eliminates the time that it would take me to book my own tour. Regardless of whether I’m doing a headline gig or a support gig, the lesson is usually that I’ve always had to make things happen as best as I can given the circumstances, rather than waiting for things to be perfect. I think a lot of people in music feel like they need certain parameters in order to make anything happen, like they need to be guaranteed a certain amount of sound-check time in order to properly get their band’s gear all set up and checked, but I’ve always prided myself on this sort of “show-must-go-on” attitude, doing my best to have great shows regardless of how good or bad all of the surrounding factors are.
And even if I had various years of higher success and more money, there’s never a guarantee that any of that will last, and if you’re interested in being creative for as many years as possible you’ll probably have to face the fact that sometimes things are going your way, then they’re not, then they are again, and your creativity has to apply to making the best of the circumstances. The challenge keeps things fun, as long as you keep a good perspective on it. Once you start feeling like you’re “entitled” to a certain level of treatment, it’s going to stop feeling like a fun adventure and more like a source of disappointment, or even insult. People get like, “I’m an artist, and I’m not going to put up with this nonsense anymore!” Which is a valid viewpoint, really. But I like taking pride in my ability to try to be an artist and put up with nonsense, all at the same time.
BN: For many listeners, your witty, descriptive and self-reflective lyrics are an instant draw to your songs. Which writers have inspired or influenced your songwriting sensibilities?
JL: There’s a certain amount of influence from comic books, which ends up in my songwriting aesthetic — like from Joe Matt or Alan Moore — and there are a lot of songwriters and bands that have continually been good inspirations for me for a long time: Yo La Tengo, Daniel Johnston, Lou Reed, Stereolab, Jonathan Richman… I could make a long list of influences. A couple of influences that come from bands most people haven’t heard of would be Prewar Yardsale, a husband-and-wife duo from NYC. That stuff made a big impact on me in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and also my uncle who is a rapper under the name Professor Louie, I’ve been going to his performances since I was little in the ‘80s. He’s a great writer and performer that has always been an inspiration in my work.
BN: Your career as a comic book artist is prolific and impressive — 12 self-published books in your series Fuff — as well as your work as an illustrator for others’ publications. I read that you also released an album and series of zines that reimagine Sonic Youth songs as sonnets. Do you have plans to release more work that marries your physical comics, zines and other tangible forms of written and drawn media with your recorded music?
JL: I do like to try to combine my various interests, and I do usually show some illustrations in every live gig, these things I call “low-budget films,” where I’ll tell the story of the history of North Korea or something like that. I like including these unexpected topics that aren’t usually part of a rock show. I do think that alternative comic books and alternative music have a lot in common, and it’s always cool if you can find some indie record shop that also sells cool books and comix and zines. Sometimes you find the reverse: a comix or book shop that also sells cool music; that’s the kind of atmosphere I’d like my own merch table to be when I’m playing shows. I love comix and zines and records, so I make comix and zines and records, and I try to figure out ways that my live concerts are sort of like a mix of these things too. I guess if I was heavily into films, ballet and video games, those things would become part of what I do too, but I’m not, so they aren’t.
BN: The artwork and packaging designs for “Manhattan” feature intricate comics panels containing several little “Easter eggs” that reflect your perspective of life and culture in New York City. How long did it take you to create this artwork? And would you consider this a concept album?
JL: Yeah, it’s sort of a concept album, I had a pile of about 37 songs to pick from when I was choosing what to put on the album, so I tried to whittle it down to material that had some overall relationship to the geography. It was somewhat inspired by the fact that Lou Reed had recently died, and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs had also died a couple years prior, and those were two major voices of New York City that were now absent from the cultural landscape. Almost every band coming out of NYC these days is based in Brooklyn and has a shared experience of that, but I felt like I had a different aesthetic and some different artistic roots and interests, which could shine a little light on why I feel like my own music has never comfortably fit in with the modern rock scene.
As for the artwork, I’ve been trying to make elaborate packages for my CDs ever since about 2007, when I made the crazy die-cut fold-out CD packaging for the “12 Crass Songs” album. I think that album package was one of the best art projects I ever worked on. Every album I’ve done since then, I’ve been trying to come up with some different ideas about what to do for the packaging and artwork, and I do tend to put a lot of time into it, usually more time goes into the making of the art than goes into the recording process. My record label, Rough Trade, is probably not super happy about all of this because these packages cost a lot more money to manufacture than normal CD packages, and the label is always trying to remind me that CD sales are way down, and digital sales are the future, where nobody is going to know or care about these CD packaging ideas and designs. But I like fighting that losing battle, and I like providing my fans with something unique — a real reward for bothering to actually buy my album.
On the other hand, the albums that I make by myself, not through the label, tend to have very simple art and packages because I’m trying to provide those to my fans for cheap. I figure if I can make something cheap, that’s good, but if there’s also some “official” projects out there in record shops that are going to cost more money, I can at least provide some extra reason why it’s worth spending that extra money. So this way I can have it both ways — the cheap DIY self-produced projects, and the fancier record-label projects. In all cases I want to give people as much for their money as I can. There’s a lot of competition out there, and I like to feel that when somebody buys any of my stuff they are going to be really happy with what they just got, rather than wishing they’d bought the new U2 album instead.
BN: What’s in store for you after this U.S. tour? Writing and recording new music? How can readers stay up-to-date with your current and future projects?
JL: I keep updating my website and my webstore with new stuff, and there’s also this Jeffrey Lewis Message Board that someone in France launched about 10 years ago, which has sort of become the worldwide “fan club” page. I usually send out exclusive “fan club” packages of stuff to the people on that board. I’ve got a pile of about 25 new songs, but I don’t like to use every song that I write — only the ones that really stand out to me, so I feel like I need to keep writing until I can pick maybe the best stuff and let the rest go.
I’m really happy with the new Manhattan album, and I’m really happy with the recent Fuff # 11 issue. I think it’s my best album and my best comic book, so there’s some stress about what I can do next. But the main thing is to keep working and hoping that I can keep making stuff that I feel excited about. I’ve got some ideas in mind, but maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and think they’re stupid. Right now most of what I’m doing is just preparing for the USA tour, sending out posters, making sure all the support bands are booked, trying to find places for the band to sleep every night… there’s always stuff like that to do. Trying to do some work for Democratic campaigns prior to the election too. Haven’t had time to think about 2017 yet.
Find Jeffrey Lewis online at jeffreylewissite.com.