Cult singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis has a lot of strings to his guitar. The Manhattan-based artist has been performing as a singer-songwriter for 20 years – coming up through New York’s antifolk scene in the late 90s – while his comic book art and essay-writing has seen pieces published in the Guardian and the New York Times. Now, ahead of a string of dates in the north of Scotland - alongside long-time pals Mathias Kom and Ariel Sharratt of Canadian band The Burning Hell - he spoke to Kyle Walker about all things Jeffrey Lewis - from his songwriting process and how he views his own art, to winning over sound engineers and keeping slugs off with a plastic tarp...
Hey Jeffrey, thanks so much for taking the time out to answer this! If I’m correct, the last time you were up in the Highlands was last August for the Insider Festival (with Los Bolts). This time you’ve got dates in Elgin, Wick, Strathcarron, Inverness and Aviemore – bit more chance to explore this time! Are you looking forward to coming back to the Highlands? Is there anywhere you’re particularly looking forward to exploring? How were your previous visits?
The first time I was in Scotland was 1996, visiting a friend who was in art school, we did some hiking around Glencoe, slept outdoors in our clothes with just a plastic tarp folded over us. I remember waking up in the rain with slugs all over the tarp, it wasn’t a very effective camping technique!
I started playing gigs in Scotland in 2002, and it was at a gig in Glasgow where I first met a very young Dave Tattersall of the Wave Pictures, maybe he was even still a teenager, I became a fan of his band and the Wave Pictures have been good friends ever since.
I’ve always loved gigging in the usual spots, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but I’ve also sometimes been able to find gigs in other areas, like Aberdeen or Dundee. I’ve heard legends about other artists doing extensive tours that pass through small towns and all kinds of corners of the Highlands, from what I’ve been told there are folks like Calvin Johnson, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Alaisdair Roberts, that have done that sort of touring.
When my friends in the band The Burning Hell told me they were working to assemble a string of tour dates in Scotland I jumped at the chance to join them, it took some work to find booking contacts in some of these areas, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing the new territory and being part of the adventure.
Maybe I’ll reunite with those slugs too.
This time in the Highlands, you’ll be performing solo – is there anything about performing by yourself that you prefer? Is there anything about a band performance that you miss?
With the band I have the option of playing a wider range of material, usually every time I play a set whether it’s solo or with my band there’s a bit of a ritual of looking over my list of songs and picking out what I think would make a good batch to play that night. At this point in my career it’s quite a long list of song possibilities to pick from.
When I play solo there are a bunch of songs that are no longer options on the list, because I think they work a lot better with the full band arrangements, drums, extra vocals, all of that stuff. But there are a number of songs that work just as well either way, and there’s a real different feeling playing a solo set, there’s nothing to hide behind. On the one hand you’re much more flexible and relaxed, but on the other hand it’s more frightening and high-pressure, because all attention is only on you and what you are able to do, with a limited tool-kit at your disposal.
Every artist should have to do this once in a while! I would love to have seen Lou Reed play a solo set, alone on stage with a guitar. How great would it be to see Bob Dylan do a solo set, has he even done that in the past 50 years? I suppose Neil Young might do some solo songs live sometimes. It might get boring and predictable if that’s all they ever did, but it gets equally repetitive to see people do the usual sorts of sets with their bands. I prefer mixing it up.
So for folk around the north of Scotland who’ll be hearing you for the first time, what are your live shows like? What can people expect? And what do you hope they take away from the evening?
I think in some ways I’m a good example of how much can be done with limited resources. Sometimes when setting up, whether solo or with my band, the sound engineer will assume a sort of snide attitude, seeing how crummy my decrepit guitar looks, or some dinky little cheap pedals I might have taped down to a board, or they might look askance at the visual elements I might try to set up, but then after the set the same sound engineer invariably comes up and says “That was the best show I’ve seen in years,” and we in the band just might give each other a little quiet wink, like, “yep, we won the heart of yet another grumpy sound-tech!”
Of course on this upcoming tour some of the places are so far off the beaten path there might not even be a sound engineer, or a sound system at all, I don’t know! My guiding principle, since I first started getting involved in music in the late 90s, is that the song is the primary, indivisible element. If the song is great, then anything else becomes possible. If the song is not great, then it doesn’t matter how much money you put into the light-show or the microphone cables or whatever. Everything else is gloss.
I guess that’s what I want people to walk away from my gigs with; I hope it readjusts their perspective on where exactly artistic quality resides. It’s not in the artist’s haircut. I have a terrible haircut. I barely even have hair. In fact I’ll probably just be wearing a hat. So yeah, expect a hat and a life-changing readjustment of aesthetic principles.
You’re touring with The Burning Hell’s Mathias Kom and Ariel Sharratt – how did the tour come about? How would you describe their music?
I have a funny story about those guys. I met them in Berlin, and I had known them for years before I ever heard their music. I basically assumed that I had heard their music, tons of people hand me CDs and LPs and email me links, and of course the majority of it isn’t very memorable, so I just figured I had heard their band at some point and it hadn’t made a big impression on me, but they were great people and I really enjoyed bumping into them, in Europe or in Canada or elsewhere.
But then a couple years back I was onstage setting up gear for a gig in Wakefield, England, and whatever album was being played at the sound-desk was really knocking me out, it sounded sort of like Silver Jews, sort of like Smog, sort of like the Mountain Goats, but different, like, really good songs and smart funny lyrics and I just couldn’t figure out which famous indie-rock band it was. I was actually kind of annoyed, because I thought to myself “oh damn, I’m going to find out this is some hipster band that I don’t want to like, just because they’re some new popular band that I’d rather not like...maybe it’s one of these new hip bands I’ve never heard, like Foxygen or Fleet Foxes or something...”
But the sound-tech didn’t even know what it was! He told me it was a CD that had been stuck, jammed in the machine, for weeks. So it remained a mystery, but I was determined to find out what this great album was. Then I was playing a gig in a different city, and the same album was playing! When I asked who it was, I was told it was The Burning Hell!
I couldn’t believe it, I felt silly that I’d been friends with these folks for years but hadn’t actually ever heard their music. So I became a big fan! Accidentally! So anyway, a couple months ago Mathias mentioned the idea of this Scotland tour, he was going to do all the booking, all I’d have to do would be to show up, so how could I say no? A tour through cool new areas, with friends, and I don’t even have to book it myself!
You played a part of New York’s antifolk scene in the 90s (with the likes of Regina Spektor, Gregg Weiss, Quankmeyer Faergoalzia/DUFUS, etc), and it’s a label that’s continued to stick. It’s a very malleable term though (not even Wikipedia has the answer, it seems) so I’d like to ask you how you would define your own music – particularly to those in the north of Scotland who might not have heard you yet?
I always thought of my own music as indie-rock, specifically 90s indie-rock, like Sebadoh, Daniel Johnston, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, Sonic Youth, but with a bit more of an interest in lyrics and storytelling than some of those folks seemed to have.
When people starting saying I was antifolk, I was like, okay, cool, whatever. It’s a cool, weird word. Nobody knows what it means, even me, so that’s not bad. If somebody says an artist is “hardcore punk” or “free jazz” or any other recognizable tag, then you already don’t feel like you need to go see the show or hear the album, you can just be like “ehh, I guess I know what this artist sounds like before I even hear it.”
But if you hear the word “antifolk” you might still wonder, what the heck does that mean? What does this artist actually sound like? And, since I think what I do is pretty unique, that’s as good a box to be put in as any, since you can’t avoid being put in some kind of box.
What sound/lyricism do you look to achieve when you’re making music? And how do you feel you’ve evolved as a musical artist since you first started making music?
I kind of felt like some art is about building an elaborate bridge that allows communication to flow and reach somebody, but other art doesn’t bother building a bridge with architectural plans and soil-tests, it just reaches out and touches you, or punches you in the face, or kisses you. It’s a blunt instrument, perhaps. When I first started out, that’s all I had in my artistic kit, just a big stumpy stick, I’d swing it around in the dark and hope to hit something, really hard. Nowadays I’ve got a lot more options, more dynamics and knowledge, but there’s still nothing better than just hitting something hard.
I don’t know if people play much baseball in Scotland, but it’s like baseball, you can just put all your heart and muscle into it and really whack a homerun right over the far fence. Then you can also learn all sort of other skills, like how to hit a little bunt, and scamper your way onto a base, or how to aim a line-drive right past the short-stop and hustle like heck to slide into second base, but even though all that other stuff is good and valuable there’s still nothing like the feeling of just whacking one out over the fence. There’s no subtlety or strategy. Then you can take your time running around the bases, you’ve already got it made.
Sorry about the sports metaphors, I know very little about sports so I shouldn’t even be talking about it.
As a visual artist, you had your debut artshow – Landfill Indie – towards the tailend of 2015. How do you feel it went? What were people’s responses to 15 years of your art? And what have you been working on recently?
I loved doing that art show, I’ve always been very nervous about having any of my original art on display anywhere because it seems dangerous to me, what if somebody just grabs a marker and draws a moustache on some page that took me days to draw? What if there’s a fire? What if I have to mail art to a gallery and the art gets lost or damaged in the mail? The art takes me so long to make, and is irreplaceable, so it doesn’t usually appeal to me to let it out of my control.
The art show I did in NYC was different, because it was mostly comprised of hundreds of pages of my sketchbooks, just photocopies of hundreds of sketchbook pages, pasted up on the walls all over this place, like from floor to ceiling.It was great to walk around submerged in all of that illustration work, more of an installation than a normal art show, plus usually people don’t get to look in my sketchbooks. It was a chance to show people all these drawings, without having to be afraid of any harm coming to the originals.
Not that the originals are valuable in a money sense, it’s just my own personal sense. My art is probably not “worth” much in a money sense, it’s just fun to make and fun to look at. I’d love to do another show like that somewhere. There were some original art pages on display there too, but the majority of the thing was the photocopies blanketing the walls.
Recently I’ve been working on a project for a cultural center in Germany, this rock club is celebrating their 50th anniversary next year so I’ve been hired to do an illustrated history of the place. Also working on trying to start my next comic book issue, but that’s still just in the writing phase.
After you finish up this current tour, what is next on the horizon for you? Do you have any plans for your music or visual art going forward?
I finally finished writing and editing and formatting my book-length analysis of the 1986 comic book Watchmen, I’m hoping to get that published shortly. I’ve got three albums that have been recorded in the recent months, but I don’t know what will happen with any of them.
One album is all covers of songs written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, he died a few years ago and I have been planning to make an album of new versions of his writing for a while, some songs and poems that are known and other material that was never released, and now I am finished with the record, it just is waiting for some method of release.
Another album I have been working on is a collaboration album with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, this is the third album we have made together, we made an album together in 2011 and another on in 2013 and now we have our new album but it is not finished, I need to do some more work on it.
Then there is also a new album with my own band, my follow-up album to the “Manhattan” album that was released by Rough Trade over a year ago, but this follow-up album also needs more work.
I recorded all the songs a couple months ago but I think I want to record some other songs for it, or write more songs for it, and also the songs that were recorded haven’t been mixed yet, so I need to take some time to work on all of this. Maybe some of this stuff will come out in late 2017 or early 2018.
Jeffrey Lewis comes to the north of Scotland from this week for the following dates: The Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin on Thursday; The Blackstairs Lounge, Wick on Friday; The Treehouse, Lochcarron on Saturday; The Tooth and Claw, Inverness on Sunday; and The Old Bridge Inn on Friday, September 15. For more information, go to www.thejeffreylewissite.com