Words by Jim Testa
Jeffrey Lewis began a decade-long relationship with England’s Rough Trade Records in 2001, and since then, this native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side has literally entertained the world. His witty, wordy, minimally-chorded folk-punk songs deal (often humorously) with everything from his own ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression to the travails of being a professional musician.
Even while touring the world, he has written more songs about New York City than Billy Joel and Cole Porter combined, and paid tribute to several of his musical legends: His discography includes tributes to NYC’s true godfather of punk, poet, activist, and musician Tuli Kupferbeg, and the seminal British Oi! band Crass. He’s also co-written and recorded several albums with one of his heroes and mentors, Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders.
Lewis first started getting noticed at NYC’s Sidewalk Café, which in the early 2000’s served as home base for the Anti-Folk movement, which included acts like Lach, the Moldy Peaches and Major Matt Mason USA. Jeffrey Lewis’ latest album, Bad Wiring, is available as a co-release between Don Giovanni Records and Moshi Moshi.
For someone who’s always been painfully confessional in his songs, there’s much about Jeffrey Lewis that isn’t generally known; for instance, that he started his career in Texas, and released nine impossible-to-find recordings before his first “official album,” The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, in 2001. He wrote a thesis and lectured about Watchmen, and has always held that his true vocation is as an illustrator and artist. He just sort of fell into music; yet the fact that he not only grew up on the Lower East Side but still lives there makes him a rarity among New York musicians. And it’s there we start with this interview.
Off Shelf: You’ve been a professional musician living in New York City for over two decades, which is a remarkable achievement in today’s music industry. You’re also one of the few musicians I know who actually grew up on the Lower East Side and watched its gentrification first hand. What keeps you in New York and what do you still love about the city?
Jeffrey Lewis: There was a time when I got priced out of NYC and moved to Austin, Texas briefly, and that’s where I’m gigging at the moment, on this tour! But now I feel very lucky that I’ve got an affordable apartment back in my old neighborhood in Manhattan so I’m quite happy to stay there indefinitely. New York is perfectly situated for a touring band, you have all of the USA right there to the west and all of Europe right there to the east. You can fly to anywhere pretty easily.
OS: The demise of the Sidewalk Café must have hit you particularly hard, it gave birth not just to the anti-folk scene but also your own career, and you literally grew up in that neighborhood. Can you share your thoughts about its importance and your feelings about its closing?
JL: If it hadn’t lasted so amazingly long it wouldn’t hit so hard to lose it, like, if it had shut down back in 2002 or something, it would have already had a pretty good long run. We would have noted its passing, like Brownies or Coney Island High or the Spiral or a hundred other music clubs that have come and gone. But for a place like Sidewalk to exist for decades really wove it into the fabric of daily and weekly life like a relative or a pet, just a part of life. And it’s a seemingly irreplaceable resource because where else is there interesting free-entry all-ages original music every night of the week? With a food menu, a bar that is in a separate room from the stage so loud drinkers don’t impose on the music, a quiet downstairs room where you could tune up before getting on stage, a real piano on stage to play if you want to, a sound engineer actually doing sound for you, and taking care of passing the tip jar for you, all these elements that were essentially ideal. And the most important element of all was the way the Monday open mic night fed into the gigs the rest of the week; like, you didn’t need a demo recording or a gigging history or a fan base or anything, if you just played the open mic and were impressive enough you could get offered a gig, without having to ask or beg for it or try to convince a club to book you.
I might never have played gigs ever if not for that. I just had some songs, and wanted to play them at open mic nights, I used to go to open mics all over the city, Gaslight and Baggot Inn and what have you. But Sidewalk was the only place where it wasn’t just an open mic night, it was an open door policy to playing actual gigs, at a place that had a built-in scene, an audience of creative likeminded people and weirdos of all ages and demographics.
Did you ever read the David Byrne book “How Music Works”? When he attempts to break down the ingredients that make a “scene” rather than just a random assortment of venues and performers, he’s talking about the ingredients that made the 1970’s CBGB’s environment into such a fertile scene, but most of the bullet points on his list match up perfectly with Sidewalk. There’s currently no place else in NYC that I know of that has that combination of elements that Byrne lists. But I’m sure something will arise. There’s probably already plenty going on that I just don’t know about.
OS: I like to think of you as the Penn & Teller of indie rock: You not only pull off the trick of writing amazing songs and having a career, but then you pull back the curtain and show us how the trick is done. I’m talking about songs like “Support Tours,” “Cult Boyfriend,” or “Painted Into A Corner.” The new album has “LP’s,” a fun song about being addicted to record collecting, and “Exactly What Nobody Wanted,” a homage to a brilliant artist who could never find an audience. Is this a case of “writing what you know?” Is “Exactly…” meant to be autobiographical, is it about a particular favorite of yours, or were you just thinking of the many unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll?
JL: There were a small handful of artists I was thinking about when I wrote that song, but I didn’t want to get too specific because the feeling I’m describing is more important than naming the specifics. I think if you can relate to that feeling, then it’s better if you can fill in the blanks with whomever or whatever evokes that feeling from your own experience. A place like Sidewalk was of course perfect for that sort of thing, where you sit there and you’re like “I just saw maybe the greatest performance I’ve ever seen, bar none, and it wasn’t to a stadium of people, it wasn’t to a packed thousand-capacity club, it was to eleven people and nobody will ever know or care that this ever happened.” You feel like you’re losing your mind, like you saw a flying saucer but you know nobody will ever believe you.
OS: You’ve described yourself in interviews as a struggling comic book artist who supported himself making music. Do you still see yourself as a graphic artist first and a singer/songwriter second? Are you still working on self-published comics? I fondly remember the oversized comics you’d create to illustrate songs in your live act; the books were always falling apart from heavy use and constant touring. Are they still part of your act?
JL: Yes I’m certainly more of a skilled illustrator and comic book writer/maker than a musician or singer. If you were looking to hire a musician or a singer, you’d never ever want to hire me, but if you needed a comic book or illustration job that’s my skill set. I’d like to get better and better at it, but that’s like how George Bush or Hitler would have liked to get better at painting but they both were busy with other stuff.
I do still travel with a few of the big illustrated books every time I tour, I have about 45 of those now in total, but at most gigs I use my projector to project the images large rather than standing on a chair and flipping through the books like I used to do. The books work well if you’re performing to about 50 people or less, but once the audience is any bigger than that you’re doing a disservice by showing art that most people won’t be able to see clearly. Also, with the projector method, the original books don’t get as banged up and shredded as they always did on tours, and with the projector I can pick from my entire history of illustrated songs, picking different ones each night of tour, rather than being stuck doing the same 2 or 3 or 4 books all tour long, because the books are too big and bulky to travel with more than just a few at a time on a tour. But the digital slideshows with the laptop and projector format, that gives me a lot of options. And they look great when I have a chance at certain gigs to really project them super-large.
OS: Over the last decade, you’ve had bands called the Jrams, Los Bolts, and now the Voltage. Who is in the current band, and why do you like always creating new names for your backup musicians?
JL: The current band is Brent Cole on drums and Mem Pahl on bass and keys. They’ve been touring with me since late 2015, so that’s four years now. If I ever ended up with a band name that I really liked then I’d probably stick with it, but as it is I keep trying out different stuff then when I have an opportunity to change it, like playing with new musicians or releasing a new album, I figure I might as well change it. Why not? It’s a good excuse to print up some new t-shirts every time. I guess Will Oldham really set the template in his early years, changing his band/brand name with every release for a while, I probably wouldn’t have thought you could do that without him setting that standard.
OS: In your early comic books, you wrote about touring with a backpack and sleeping on traffic islands along the road in Europe because you couldn’t afford hotels or even hostels. You also played to much larger audiences in Europe than in the U.S. Has touring become better, easier, and a little more profitable over time? What advice would you give young musicians who look to you as a role model in creating a sustainable career with their music?
JL: I got a lot of my touring ethos from the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which came out around 2002 at the exact time when I first started booking my own tours. Especially lot of the quotes from Mike Watt in that book, about keeping things cheap. I had already been starting to do that, and I was getting a lot of flack from the industry people, so when I read that book it was a big validation for my point of view, like, “Oh yeah, I’m not just crazy, it really is possible to do it the way I think it’s possible to do it, and not only is it possible but a lot of my favorite bands actually did do it this way.”
I was lucky in the sense that I was coming from a history of fairly rugged traveling, which I got from my dad really, doing everything super cheap, with the belief that freedom was more important than luxury. My dad basically never had a real job but traveled all the time just for adventure, taking motorcycle or car trips to visit friends in far off parts of the country, going through Mexico and South America and Canada, hippie travel stuff like that, and that’s how I was raised. There was no money, no electricity, no frills, no hotels or flights ever, and as a teenager I idolized that sort of Kerouac-Guthrie lifestyle. I’d be traveling around the USA with my friends going to Grateful Dead shows, sleeping in parking lots, eating cans of beans, just having tons of fun on almost zero money.
It almost became a competitive thing for me, to see how little I could spend, even when I had money. I once traveled around the USA for three weeks with about three hundred dollars that I’d saved up, and I was really proud that I only spent $80 of it when I’d gotten home. It was the same on that European trip in 1999 in my comic book, I had saved up about two thousand dollars to travel around Europe and I was really proud that came back home having spent almost none of it! Because I was just hitch hiking and sleeping in bushes and eating canned sardines and stuff like that. I didn’t know it at the time, because I was still basically just a comic book artist during those years, but this was all really perfect training for being a touring musician when I transitioned into that life in the early 2000’s.
So I had a lot of touring experiences in my early touring years that would have probably seemed like a total failure to most other acts, you know, rough sleeping conditions, bumming rides, spending next to zero money, I never even owned an amplifier or a car or things like that, but it never felt like desperation or failure or tough times, it was just a completely normal sort of reality, it was how I’d grown up, and the thing that started feeling weird was the transition to making all this money with touring. Because then you start to just feel like a mooch – like, how can I be getting a ride from somebody, and sleeping at people’s houses, when it’s obvious that the band is making enough money to pay for our own vehicle and pay for hotel rooms? I didn’t necessarily seek to change all that stuff, as a goal, but you just start looking like a cheapskate if you’re playing a show to 300 fans and then you’re asking around for a couch to sleep on.
Still, it’s not like we’re really such a huge band. We just played to 200 people in L.A., that felt like a big show, then we played to 75 people in Phoenix and 44 people in Tucson, if we’re lucky we might have 100 people in Austin tomorrow, it’s like that. Similar numbers in Europe and the USA actually. The biggest difference is in the UK where triple-digit audiences have been pretty standard for me going all the way back to around 2003 or so.
OS: Twenty years ago, indie artists still had the possibility of generating some kind of income with the sale of albums, whether on vinyl or CD. These days, with streaming becoming so predominant, that’s all but disappeared. Bad Wiring is your first album in four years. Do you look at albums as a way to generate merchandise to sell on tour or a way to expand your audience? Do you think releasing albums is still an important facet to your career?
JL: As a visual artist I do want to make an interesting package, I’ve been making these sort of concept-packaging projects for all my albums for about ten years. The record labels have been telling me for ten years that CDs are dead or dying, but in my last accounting statement I’m still making more than 50% of the income from physical rather than digital. Maybe it’s because my fans know that I’m going to be trying to provide something extra with the package, I try to create a CD package that makes a comprehensive whole with the album theme. LPs are good for having a nice large canvas to have an incredible detailed or psychedelic album cover, like, Santana’s Abraxis cover, so beautiful on LP and so terrible looking on CD or small digital screens. So when you think of a CD package as a lesser version of an LP cover it’s purely disappointing, but when you start thinking of the CD as a unique opportunity to design the whole package, not just a front cover image, then it opens up a lot of idea that would be impossible for an LP.
All of my official albums from 12 Crass Songs onwards have been designed to maximize what kind of art and packaging concepts I can come up with for the CD format, before the format theoretically vanishes forever. I was lucky to enter the music world in the early 2000s when the old model of album sales had already fallen aside mostly, and the new era of internet stuff had started to be the main thing. So I never experienced a significant loss of sales in that transition, I didn’t have to make a new business model because I never had a previous business model. I think streaming is overall better, in the long run. It’s better for the environment to not have all this physical stuff and plastic shrinkwrap etc, plus the streaming thing creates a sort of jukebox system where artists get paid in an ongoing way for repeat listens, so it rewards the artists whose work is actually getting listened to over and over, that’s a more fair system in the long run, over decades. Assuming that streaming lasts for a few years, before the next system takes over and things morph all over again and we start getting nostalgic for the days of streaming.
OS: Don Giovanni has already reissued some of your old albums so having them release your new album makes perfect sense. Please tell us about your long relationship with Rough Trade – the good and bad – and how you came to make the switch. I know Joe Steinhart has been a big fan of yours for a long time, did that personal relationship make a difference?
JL: Rough Trade didn’t want to put out the new album, they didn’t give me a reason but maybe they’re just wanting to put their resources into other stuff, we’ve never had a binding contract, I just send them albums once in a while to see if they’d want to put them out, and most of the time they’ve said yes, sometimes they’ve said no. So this is one of the times they’ve said no, but it doesn’t mean there’s some kind of animosity or burnt bridges. I could make an album next year and send it to Rough Trade and maybe they’d say yes, or no, who knows?
I did send the new album to a number of labels, and as you can imagine most folks didn’t bother to write back, I’m sure they all get a vast amount of random submissions. Of the options that I ended up with, it seemed like the best option to do this current split-territory thing, where I have one label dedicated to the North America/Australia releasing, and another label dedicated to releasing in the UK/Europe territories.
One big problem with Rough Trade was that my albums were basically only available in the USA as imports, with Rough Trade based in the UK, although this was never apparent to the consumer, or even to me as an artist. I just started to notice that my income from USA sales was a fraction of the income from overseas, even when my USA sales were outperforming my overseas sales. The reason that I figured out was that the albums being sold in the USA were from the same batch manufactured overseas, and the import/licensing costs were basically being paid by me, rather than by the consumer, but this system had never been explained or presented to me. I just started tallying up the accounting statements and realizing that it wasn’t making sense. Rather than actually releasing my albums in the USA, Rough Trade was sub-licensing the albums to Matador or something like that, I never really got the deal details on it, even though it had been going on for years.
So I’m hoping this new situation, with Don Giovanni servicing the USA and Moshi Moshi servicing Europe, will mean that the album is actually domestically released in each territory, rather than some kind of import or sub-license situation. It’s an experiment, if it works out for everybody then maybe I’ll repeat it with some future album. There’s no multi-album contracts involved, I do my best to keep each album as a unique entity rather than get tied down into a situation. I don’t know anything special about the music biz, I never studied any of this stuff, it’s just been 20 years of trial and error, learning how to read and haggle out contracts, all that stuff.
OS: I love the two albums you’ve done with Peter Stampfel. Is there a third in the works? How did you meet Peter, and could you discuss your relationship with him as a mentor, collaborator, and friend?
JL: I met Peter at an Ed Sanders birthday event at Bowery Poetry Club in 2004, I was already a fan of his. We’ve actually got two albums’ worth of material that’s been recorded and mixed and mastered, but still unreleased. Not sure if we’ll parcel it out as two separate album releases or maybe do it as a double-album at some point. Both of us are busy with other projects and releases so it’s hard to know when we’ll have time to slot in this new Stampfel/Lewis release as a specific project to focus on. It’s just been a pleasure and a privelidge to get to know and work with Peter, even though I still don’t know how to spell privelege.
OS: You’ve just returned from tour but what does 2020 look like? Are there any other projects in the works, anything you feel like you haven’t accomplished yet that’s still on the horizon?
JL: I just finished a three-week USA cross-county tour, for the USA album release. I’m pretty busy with booking a three-week European album release tour for the Feb-March time period. I usually try not to be on the road between Thanksgiving and Easter, if I can help it, because it takes so much work to set up gigs and tours, I don’t want to run the risk of snow ruining the gig turnout or endangering our travel schedule. So I’d prefer to do no touring during the winter. But the Feb-March 3-week Europe tour just seemed to make sense, because of a German festival offer at that time, plus I didn’t want to delay a European tour too long after the new album release. Then I’m thinking we ought to try to do a couple of short USA tours in 2020 to hit the regions that we’re missing on this current cross-country tour, so I’m planning to book a southeastern USA tour maybe for April or May, then a northeastern USA tour for July or something like that. I don’t have as busy a touring schedule as people seem to think. I mean, here we are doing a 3 week tour in November. Then we’ve got a 3 week tour in late February. Then probably a 2 week tour in May, and a 2 week tour in July. At that point it’ll probably be time to return to the UK/Ireland territories for another 3 week tour, maybe that could be a September 2020 thing. Is all of that really so heavy and intensive? Seems pretty mellow, really. A couple weeks here and there, spread out over many months. That’s the way most years are, other than the occasional support tour opportunities that might unexpectedly arise.