Jeffrey Lewis: Interview
“There’s still some paint-peeler guitar solos and no shortage of glorious mistakes.”
I’m really not sure what became of anti-folk. One moment it felt like I couldn’t watch a Honda Civic commercial without hearing a Kimya Dawson sound-alike strumming acoustic guitar furiously and mumbling about sunshine and gas mileage. These days, however, anti-folk has joined the likes of electroclash as a genre no one really wants to talk about (and artists really don’t want to be identified with).
There was a time when Jeffrey Lewis was named as one of the foremost examples of anti-folk, but he managed to survive its lifecycle. He’s done so mainly by simply being better than most other artists who shared the label. His second career as a cartoonist adds a unique depth to his artistic output, and his music has gotten more confident and polished over the years. His latest, A Turn in the Dream-Songs, has moments that sound absolutely lush while still maintaining his commitment to earnest, personal lyrics, and catchy hooks.
I recently had a chance to see Lewis and his band, which includes his brother Jack Lewis, perform on their current tour. They’re on the road until the end of the year, but Jeffrey Lewis found some time between stops to talk to Tiny Mix Tapes about what’s been going on in his head lately.
Can you tell me what the recording process for A Turn in the Dream-Songs? What’s changed in your songwriting since ‘Em Are I and Come On Board?
The recording process for A Turn in the Dream-Songs was quite different from what I’ve done in the past. In the past I either made quick lo-fi albums with minimal instrumentation and arrangements on cheap equipment or made fancier, long-term projects with fuller arrangements, more instruments, and the access to be able to do more editing and post-production. The new album was a combination of these elements because I wanted the added musical instruments and the high-quality recording studio but I also wanted the more live and rushed feel of the lo-fi recordings. So the new album was recorded quickly with minimal preparation and editing capability because of the limitations of recording and mixing analogue. On the other hand, it was recorded with a bunch of good musicians in a good studio with a good engineer. I was hoping for a combination of what I liked in both the lo-fi and hi-fi processes, trying to get the best of both worlds.
I notice that the sounds of your records have mostly gotten tighter and cleaner overall with each release. This is especially apparent on the opening of your new album; the first track, “To Go and Return,” begins with a flute and includes what sounds like brass or woodwinds throughout. Do you find yourself striving consciously for more polished sounds, or do unique circumstances present themselves at the time of the recording?
Partially it’s a matter of constantly meeting more and more musicians I can invite to play on the recordings. But it’s funny; some reviews say, “This is another very lo-fi album from Jeffrey Lewis,” so the question of this “tighter and cleaner” approach seems to be a matter of opinion. It’s true that there are no really raw, lo-fi, punky songs on this album. It’s generally a bit more on the sonically gentle side, but there’s still some paint-peeler guitar solos, no shortage of glorious mistakes, and many first takes. I do think the analogue recording studio has given it a warm and friendly sound.
Ironically, I also had recorded a collection of totally raw home-recorded songs during the past year, totally different songs, an album I had titled The Artist Alone Decides What You Will Hear On His E.S.P. I presented Rough Trade with both albums, the warm and friendly analogue studio Dream-Songs album and the rawer E.S.P. album, and Rough Trade decided to release Dream-Songs. Personally, I thought it would be more interesting to release the rough E.S.P. one first, then the nice Dream-Songs one a few months later or next year.
Do you find your songwriting process has to change when you’re working with increasingly complex studio arrangements?
I still just write with voice and guitar, but some songs do immediately suggest additional parts. For example: “Water Leaking, Water Moving.” From the earliest versions of me playing it on guitar I knew it was something that should be built up with increasing amounts of accompaniment. But this is no different from even my earliest albums [which had] songs with extended building arrangements like “Spring Time,” so it’s something I’ve always been into. I think I’ve probably just gotten better at it over the years.
Anyway, the writing process is separate from the arrangement. I just write in basic form. At most I have the idea that I might add stuff to it, but usually nothing more specific than that. And I still feel that the song has to feel like a strong song to me, regardless of what I might add to it later.
I loved you and Jack on the Judge John Hodgman Podcast! How did that come about?
Jack put that together, not sure how he did. I don’t know if the show has an open call for people to contact them and request to be on, but whatever the case I do have to give my brother Jack full credit for having that happen. For better or worse!
“I don’t think that either my illustration style or my guitar playing are flashy in a way that grants either of them an intrinsic value other than the content of the songs and the content of the comics.”
So, at the end John Hodgman ordered that Jack had to decide between going to the wedding and going on the rest of the tour. He also told you to stop, “Winding your brother up!” What’s the resolution been after the judgment?
It’s funny, Jack insists he won that case. I think it’s obvious that I won the case.
You and Jack have a history of collaborating and performing together. How early did this start? Did you work together on songs as children?
When I started playing guitar and writing songs I was fresh out of college. I was about 21, and Jack was about 16 and he had just started learning to play bass and he was making up songs, too. We started recording some songs together and that’s how Jack’s two songs “Another Girl” and “The Man With the Golden Arm” ended up on my first album. Neither of us were very involved with music as kids, certainly not to the extent that we were writing songs together.
Are the two of you still collaborating on writing songs?
Jack moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, a few years ago and he has his own band out there, so while he does still tour with me as my bass player we don’t collaborate on songwriting as much as we might have in the past. But we still glue some song parts together between the two of us that result in songs that sound different than what either of us might come up with on our own.
In your songs there’s often a strong narrative that’s propelled by the lyrics, whether that narrative is focused on physical events happening or just feelings you have and how they develop. Given your history drawing comics, do you think there’s a connection between the narrative (be it story, change, motion, etc.) that pushes images in a comic along and the narrative that pushes your songs along?
I think the connection might have to do with the fact that I’ve got a certain insecurity about the surface elements of what I do, which propels me to want to make sure the interior is strong. In other words, I don’t think that either my illustration style or my guitar playing are flashy in a way that grants either of them an intrinsic value other than the content of the songs and the content of the comics. So a strong sense of content, narrative or otherwise, is usually my priority when I’m making comics or making songs.
“I think the connection might have to do with the fact that I’ve got a certain insecurity about the surface elements of what I do, which propels me to want to make sure the interior is strong.”
You’ve said in the past that the main differences between working with comics and working with music is that music is based upon the premise of presenting what you’ve already created night after night to new people, while with drawing comics you’re creating new things every second, but you’re mainly alone. How have you kept the balance between these two pursuits as your career has progressed?
I haven’t kept the balance very well, but I do try to keep up with both the music and art stuff as best I can. The thing is, nobody’s paying me to stay home and draw comics, and nobody’s paying me to stay home and write songs. It’s only in the touring where I make money, which includes selling comic books and showing the illustrated songs. Being on the road is the least creative part of the whole process, but it’s the part that generates the majority of the funds to keep the whole machine going.
Do you find you sometimes have to take a break from one in favor of the other to keep your inspiration going?
I don’t find a difference in states of inspiration. I think the periods when I’m most creative with the comic books are also the periods when I’m writing the most songs.
I’ve loved all your “History of…” pieces, especially the series on the history of communism. This seems like the most complete melding of your musical, storytelling, and illustrative worlds. How do you decide on topics?
I was doing these illustrated song histories of stuff like the K Records label, or The Fall, and I figured if I could tell the histories of these various corners of the indie-rock world I could expand into telling topics of greater social and historical importance. I figured tackling the history of communism would be the best major project to approach; it’s a history that is largely absent from American culture and education, at least in my experience.
“I was hoping for a combination of what I liked in both the lo-fi and hi-fi processes, trying to get the best of both worlds.”
A lot of people remember your song, “The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane,” for the evocative imagery in the lyrics. A lot of people credit LSD with expanding the imagery within their own minds and, therefore, what they create. For example, Robert Crumb has often credited his experiences with LSD for opening his mind for more experimental cartooning techniques. Do you feel LSD added anything to your creative development in music or drawing, or was it just a memorable experience?
My experiences don’t seem to match most other people’s. I guess it’s different for everybody. For me there was one year in which I was discovering smoking pot, which was an incredible year of discovery, creativity, and expanded horizons. But when I upped the ante to include stronger hallucinogens it just didn’t work for me. I had much better, more hallucinatory, more visual, and mind-boggling experiences on pot then I ever had on anything else. In fact, when I realized that those supposedly stronger drugs were only making me miserable it was at the same time that even pot immediately [started doing] nothing for me but make me miserable. It was like I had this one great mind-expanding year just smoking pot a couple times a month but when I started doing more that door shut on me and I never got back into it.
It’s probably really lucky, because I know a lot of people who just followed that road to all sorts of boring ends. You can spend a lot of time and money in pursuit of drugs and it’s lucky that I got some great experience and got out before it just turned into a mediocre expenditure of time, like playing video games or watching TV. I don’t begrudge people their own different experiences though. Everybody has a different relationship to all this stuff.
Early on, you were classified as something of a “troubadour.” Over the years, after all these records, do you feel a connection to this classification any longer?
Depends what you mean by “troubadour,” though if it means somebody who travels around telling stories and playing music for people in exchange for money or food and shelter, then yes I’m still in the troubadour category. The problem is there’s a thin line there before you just become an entertainer, and for an entertainer the priority is the audience’s desires more than your own desires. I suppose the strict pursuit of one’s own creative desires is what designates a strict “Artist” in the capital-A sense of the word. An Artist who goes on tour has always got to be wary of becoming a mere entertainer. I think the way to tell the difference is if you go to see somebody’s show and you buy their album, do you actually listen to the album?
A troubadour might just be someone in a bar band, and there’s a certain exchange-ability or dispose-ability associated with that. You can evaporate from the face of the earth and there’s another bar band, another entertainer, another troubadour who can step in and fill that space and it doesn’t make much of a difference. But an “Artist” is unique and irreplaceable.
I do believe that regardless of my small position in the music industry there’s something about what I do, and something about what my band does, which is unique and more irreplaceable than what a lot of other musicians do. I think in the past 10 years we’ve been able to do stuff that nobody else has done and touch a nerve that hadn’t been touched before, even if it hasn’t been noticed by a vast amount of people. Regardless of whether we’re the best band of all time, or whether we’re for everybody, if we evaporated I like to think it would leave a gap in modern culture that wouldn’t be filled so easily. To some extent that’s what keeps me going.