Interview: Jeffrey Lewis
JEFFREY LEWIS has an uncle who’s “probably the best Jewish socialist rapper in Brooklyn over the age of 60, and probably the best rapper in some other categories too”, and other stories.
Jeffrey Lewis is difficult to consign to genre. With a guitar barely held together by duct tape, a song (‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’) about country star Will Oldham horrifically assaulting him- even the man himself has difficulty in defining his own music: “Oh well…lo-fi, sci-fi, and low budget films I guess.”
Born and raised in New York City, Lewis’s beatnik parents were originally going to call him ‘Lightning’ (they changed their minds at the last minute. It’s his middle name). And then there’s his uncle: “he goes by the name of Professor Louie, he’s a political rapper who’s probably the best Jewish socialist rapper in Brooklyn over the age of 60, and probably the best rapper in some other categories too.”
Fresh out of college, Jeffrey Lewis performed at open mic nights around East Village. He was quickly signed to Rough Trade Records, releasing his first album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, in 2001. But it’s his indie reworking of songs by Crass, a late 70s anarchist punk band, that really stand out. So, will he be covering any other bands? “I do a lot of covers. I like to throw some surprise covers in once in a while and learn how to play other people’s songs; although when you learn how to play a song you tend to ruin it for yourself, because you get a little too intimate with it once you know it inside and out – you don’t have the same thrill when hearing it.”
As for his music heroes, he mentioned “people who have constantly forged their own creative paths over a lifetime and I find that a lot of people that I like tend to have long careers. Like Lou Reed, The Fall, The Grateful Dead or Peter Stampfel. I love hearing how somebody’s life develops through their musical work and that they’re not afraid to try new things… they sort of maintain their creative energies through decades, which I find very inspiring.”
At university, Lewis wrote his thesis on Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, so cue my infantile (but appropriate, I felt) superhero questions: “Well, I suppose the basic ones are probably the best ones, flying or turning invisible. I think flying is probably better…I would no longer have to take aeroplanes, which I’m really not a big fan of…but then I can’t catch up on my sleep on the plane and I wouldn’t have the food and the movies. So, I would go for super hearing or something”. I asked who would be his nemesis. “Ear-plug man.” Obviously.
He’s also a comic book artist, so I wanted to know his views on comic books adapted into film. There was passion in his reply: “They usually do a terrible job with it, and I think the reason is that they don’t seem to understand that you lose so much of a character of the story when you lose the artwork. There is so much feeling and atmosphere in the art… Whatever the style of art is, there is so much that you’re getting aesthetically and emotionally from your experience of those lines and that artwork. Even if you were to totally recreate the story on screen, the very fact that you’re not looking at those drawings subtracts so much from your experience. Filmmakers would have to work extra hard to replace what you lose with what film can bring to an experience”.
On his UK tour Jeffrey Lewis teamed up with Peter Stampfel of The Holy Modal Rounders, an American 1960s psychedelic band. “Its tremendous fun. He’s a tremendous body of knowledge on so many different topics so anything you talk about, especially on music when we listen to it in the car – he’s just got great stories (probably including many about Stampfel’s 12,000 bottle cap collection).
His plans for the future seem just as quirky: “I’m going to record an album at the end of this tour, I’ve got some studio time booked – very little studio time – and I’m not really sure whether it’s going to turn into a full album; I’ll just record some stuff and see what I get. I would like to do a DVD collection of all of my illustrated songs, because I’ve got about 30 of those and none of them have ever been released in any form.”
Wow. I leave feeling I have been talking to a real-life creative soul.