Since 1997, Jeffrey Lewis has been writing and performing clever songs that cater to an honest and droll look at his surroundings and himself. Now nearly 20 years later, Lewis is still at it with his band Los Bolts, bringing his open lyricism to his seventh release on Rough Trade Records, Manhattan. Lewis took time out of his current busy schedule while touring with Andrew Jackson Jihad to answer a few questions.
In a video that was posted on YouTube, I saw you discussing that your apartment in Manhattan is five blocks from where you grew up and only a block from your parents. What sort of impact do you think growing up and living in Manhattan has had on your art?
I think anywhere that I live would have an inevitable impact on what goes on in my brain, and would come out in the songs and in the comic books. Manhattan happens to be where I grew up and where I currently live, so the aesthetic is tied to that, just unconsciously. If I draw a building in the background in a comic book, it’s a New York City building, I don’t even have to think about it. If I’m drawing a comic book that takes place in Paris it’s a lot harder, I have to research how the garbage cans look, how the doors look, how the busses look, you know, all of that stuff. It’s the same in songs, there are things I take for granted as part of reality but it’s a New York City reality, the attitudes, the words, the situations, it would probably all be different if I lived in California or in Alaska or China or whatever.
You have always been lumped in with artists like Kimya Dawson and Adam Green in the “antifolk” genre. What is it that you think defines that genre or would you say it is more of a movement than a genre?
It’s neither a movement nor a genre really. It’s only inclusive of anybody who has ever played at the little Sidewalk Cafe in New York City. If you have played there you are considered part of the antifolk thing, no matter what kind of music you play.
I’ve always felt you had a very unique song writing style. Often times, you phrase things in a way that seems very natural but at the same time would not have been thought of by anyone else. Were there any artists that influenced this style of songwriting?
Of course I’m very influenced and inspired by other artists, I don’t know how similar I end up sounding to them, but to me the influences are things like the Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven, Daniel Johnston, Lou Reed, the Grateful Dead, Yo La Tengo, and a lot of other things. I can look at certain songs of mine and see that “oh, this one was I guess influenced by Sebadoh” or “this one was probably influenced by Stereolab”, but it’s probably different influences surfacing in different ways.
When I first heard The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, I wore that album out. I always enjoyed how personal and relatable the songs (“Seattle”, “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song”, etc.) seemed. How much do you pull from your real life when writing songs like that? Also, my wife would kill me if I didn’t ask… Is “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” a true story?
Of course – everything that sounds true is true, generally.
After so many albums that were recorded in a more lo-fi fashion, it was around ‘Em Are I that your songs started to have a more polished feel to them. What was it that brought about that change and how did the creative process differ?
Well, the first really “produced” album that I had was the third album City & Eastern Songs, which was produced by Kramer. I learned a lot working with him. So my fourth album was 12 Crass Songs, which was sort of my own attempt to learn how to produce recordings, taking these very raw and basic Crass songs and figuring out different ways to arrange them, trying to make each track a different experience. That was another big learning experience.
Then the fifth album, Em Are I, was like taking the stuff that I had learned from recording the Crass songs and trying to apply that experience to recording my own songs, trying to make an album where each song sounded different. Then after that I sort of got back into the habit of making very quick albums, without thinking too much about it. A Turn in the Dream Songs was made pretty fast, then Jeffrey Lewis & The Jrams was made super-fast, and the two albums I made with Peter Stampfel were also made super-fast, just one weekend each.
For Manhattan I wanted to return to the idea of taking the time to think about each track, and to be patient and record a lot of songs and try it a lot of different ways before deciding what I thought was the best. So I’ve gone back and forth, making quick albums and making careful albums. Both things can be great, but either way it needs to be perfect. An album can be perfectly off-the-cuff and quick, like White Light/White Heat, or it can be perfectly thought-out and produced, like the first Mr. Bungle album. It doesn’t matter what you do, but it’s better if it’s 100% one way or the other, I think.
You have done a lot of collaborations with artists such as Kimya Dawson, Diane Cluck, and Peter Stampfel. How do these collaborations usually come about? Do you have one artist you would love to work with that you haven’t had a chance to?
It’s always interesting to work with different people, in some ways it is never my best material but it’s always unexpected results, songs that could not have existed in any other way. Even the Manhattan album has a bit of this, for example the keyboard melody on Thunderstorm is from a Peter Stampfel fiddle melody.
I was playing Thunderstorm with Peter, just showing him the song and seeing if he had any ideas for it, because I thought maybe it would be a song that might be part of a new Jeffrey Lewis/Peter Stampfel album. We recorded a couple of home-demos of me playing and singing the song, with Peter singing along and improvising on fiddle, just basically soloing on top of the whole thing. There was one particular snippet of his fiddle improvisation that I thought was a really great counter-melody to the vocal and the guitar chords, so when I listened back to our improvised recording, I listened to that one 10-second snippet over and over ‘til I figured out the exact notes on a piano and then I just used that as the keyboard part when I recorded the song with my own band.
So you can’t really say where the idea came from. I just keep trying different things and trying to keep the little bits that seem to feel good to me.
Your new album with Los Bolts, Manhattan, came out in October. It seems like the album covers a lot more musical territory than your previous albums. What would you say is the main theme of the album?
The main theme? Manhattan!
How did Los Bolts get together? Is this going to be a one-off thing or do you plan on recording more with the guys?
I just play with whoever can do it, basically. I’ve had to go through four bands in 2015. I started the year as Jeffrey-Heather-Caitlin, then in spring it was Jen-Jeffrey-Heather, then in the summer it was Mem-Jeffrey-Heather, now in the autumn it’s Mem-Brent-Jeffrey. It’s very hard to find musicians who can go on tour, that’s the main thing. People have husbands, wives, jobs, kids, dogs, cats, college classes, all this stuff. So what can I do? I need to find somebody who can play the drums and sing and do the recording with me and go on tour with me. If one person can’t do it I have to find somebody else.
In addition to music, you’re known by many for your comics and art. Do you find drawing or music more fulfilling or do they both satisfy a different artistic desire?
Comics [are] more fulfilling because it’s harder, but music is more fulfilling because it reaches more people, it’s more immediate.
Do you have plans to do more issues of Fuff? Any other sort of plans for comics?
Yeah, I always want to keep making more issues, whenever I have time.
Right now you’re on the road with Andrew Jackson Jihad, then you’re headed out to the UK. What’s on the horizon after this tour ends?
I have a two -week UK tour, from Dec 4 – Dec 20, then not sure what I’ll be doing in 2016, haven’t have much time to start planning anything. I was sort of starting to try to organize a return tour to Australia but then I got too busy with the current USA and UK tour planning.
If I had people doing the organizational work for me I could probably just say “oh, make me a two-week UK tour in February, make me a 3-week Europe tour in April, a 4-week USA tour in June, a 3-week Australia tour in September” etc. But in reality each tour takes a huge amount of work for me to put together, booking the gigs, organizing the travel, getting the work visas, I sort of get home from one tour then start working on planning another one, each one has to be planned at least three months in advance or more, so it’s just hopping from touring to organizing to touring to organizing, with the occasional unpredictable offer coming my way out of nowhere, like this current tour with Andrew Jackson Jihad. It’s great when I get an offer like that, because I don’t have to book it – they just say “come do these 12 tour dates with us” and all I have to do is say yes. But then I still have to book some gigs to get my band out from NYC to the first support show, then book some more gigs to get my band back home to NYC from the final support gig.
Make sure to check out Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts Manhattan featuring “Back to Manhattan.”