Jeffrey Lewis is a native New Yorker pursuing the twin loves of comic art and songwriting. Coming out of New York's anti-folk scene (The Moldy Peaches, Regina Spektor, Diane Cluck), Lewis has made his name via narrative songs loaded with both comedy and tragedy, matching his wordiness to punk-ish acoustic strums. In 2007, he released 12 Crass Songs, an LP of Crass covers, before following it with 2009's 'Em Are I.
Interview: 2 April 2009
You've delivered lectures and even written your literary thesis on Watchmen, the comic-book. How've you felt seeing something you've studied in such depth turned into popcorn fodder?
“It's a bit weird when something you hold as personally important finds its way to everybody else in the world. You had to do all this investigative work, journeying away from the mainstream into the underground to stumble on it in the first place, but now the world just has it handed to them, minus the legwork. You can get defensive. With the movie, I thought the emotional punches of it were much weaker than in the comic. Alan Moore, as a writer, is so brilliant at setting up the pins and knocking them down, whereas the movie just wanted the pay-off, not the set-up, and that weakens the impact. But, overall, I thought it was actually good. I’m at risk in saying that, since I know that Alan Moore has famously put a curse on the movie and everything having to do with it. I don’t want to fall under his curse!”
Do you still feel like a comic artist turned songwriter?
“I think I always will. Making comic books was what I was into my whole life, and music is relatively recent. It’s been an unexpected twist, and interesting combining it with the comic stuff. Music is so social, so interactive, in terms of having an audience and playing to them. Whereas, making art is such an individual pursuit, being alone in a room for hours and hours on end.”
Is there a relationship between what you write on the guitar and what you write on the page?
“My stuff is pretty narrative-based, because I don’t feel like either my art or my musicianship is particularly flashy —nobody's going to be particularly dazzled by my vocalizations or musicianship— so anything I write has to have a strong story. I have recently learned to play and sing a bit more, but when I started out, I really liked the approach of being really stripped down, just a couple of chords and some words, hoping to make something that was good because of the simplicity, not in spite of it.”
You’ve sung about the frustrations of trying to ply one’s trade as musician. Has your career in music been filled with such?
“I think it’s been misinterpreted. The "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" song, specifically, expressed dismay at certain aspects of a life in music. It wasn’t that I was complaining, but that i'd found myself making a living from my music, surviving by these songs, and it was a weird position for me. I was wondering whether that was the right thing to do with my life, and whether that life was, in and of itself, satisfactory. And there’re things I still question. I do believe that what I’m doing has worth, has value, but I’m not on some big quest to have my voice heard by millions.”
But surely you need to feel a sense of forward progression?
“Well, luckily enough, each time, each album, there’s a few more people who get into what I do. With the album of Crass covers, that reached a much wider audience; maybe just because of the quirkiness of the project, or Crass fans who were curious to hear it.”
Lots of aging punks got mad at the Dirty Projectors with their Black Flag album [Rise Above]. Did you find similar resentment?
“Mine was a very different record to the Dirty Projectors’. Black Flag songs are not so big on the content removed from the context, so putting them into this modern, art-rock, hipster context takes away whatever it is that makes those songs meaningful. With the Crass stuff, it wasn’t a case of obscuring the message, but focusing it, by giving their lyrics a straight-forward presentation. In that way, it was like the opposite to the Dirty Projectors' project, so there was total irony in the fact that those records came out around the same time, and were always compared to each other. I do get some flack from the most devoted of Crass fans, but Crass themselves were really nice about it. I was talking to Dave [Longstreth] of the Dirty Projectors and he was saying that they just never heard any word from Black Flag at all. They tried getting in contact and met with no response. So it was pretty cool that Crass were so welcoming and supportive of me.”
Were Crass an Important band for you as a kid?
“I wasn’t introduced to Crass until college, and they didn’t become important to me until a few years after that. Slowly I came to realize that each one of their albums had something special to offer. It’s such dense music: the more you listen to each album, the more stuff you pick up on. I’m really attracted to things like that.”
Who were your initial songwriting influences?
“I was really into Pearls Before Swine, these simple, eerie, psychedelic folksongs. I was a really big fan of Donovan's mid-’60s albums, too. I think Donovan gets the short end of the stick, he’s seen as this foolish hippy-dippy flower-power guy, but his acoustic stuff has this beautiful simplicity, this poetry to it. If Dylan and Donovan are the embodiment of ’60s folk-music, they’re at either end of the spectrum. Dylan’s stuff is just so complex that, to me, it was daunting to think of writing something like that. Donovan was an inspiration because he showed me you can make something really amazing yet really simple.”
What about Daniel Johnston?
“Oh, absolutely! I wouldn’t be making music if I hadn’t discovered him. When I heard those tapes he made in the early-’80s, they were such a revelation. You didn’t need to have a proper recording studio or adept musicianship; you could throw all that stuff out the window, and still make recordings that were so powerful, and so great, just alone in a room with a tape-recorder. That idea is now so widespread —making a lo-fi album is almost mundane now— that it was hard to remember just how much of a revelation it once was. It was mindblowing.”