Since the late 1990s, JEFFREY LEWIS has been singing outsider folk tales and punk anthems about everything from booking a room in Leonard Cohen’s favourite hotel to ruminations on ageing and the life of an artist, accompanying them with on-stage drawings and frequent comic book releases. Throughout his career he has stuck unerringly to a DIY ethos which has gained him fans throughout the world despite his unmistakable New York stylings. Graduating out of the Sidewalk Cafe anti-folk scene of the early noughties with the likes of The Moldy Peaches, Lewis has been heralded as a genius and held up against songwriting giants Lou Reed and the aforementioned Cohen
He comes to Liverpool this month in support of his album Manhattan, a collection of songs exploring relationships, metaphysics and his home city with new band Los Bolts. Sam Turner caught up with the troubadour in the middle of his recent tour to talk creative processes, the DIY lifestyle and personal politics.
Bido Lito!: Hi Jeffrey, thanks for taking the time out while you’re on the road. Is touring a productive time for you creatively or do you save the drawing and songwriting until you’re back home in New York?
Jeffrey Lewis: I used to try to keep up with drawing and making comic books while on tour, but then I eventually gave up on it. It’s very frustrating to get involved in work when you’re liable to be called away at any second to have to do something else; it’s annoying to have to find and lose and re-find that focus over and over. Most of my comic book stuff for the past 17 years has been done while I’m at a little place in Maine in North East USA. I can stay for free, there’s no running water, no electricity, no phone service, no internet. I’ve just got a little work desk and an outhouse toilet, and a wood stove for warmth, and I work by daylight hours and wake up early and go to sleep early. I can get some work done at home in NYC also, but then there’s the internet and other humans, so it’s harder.
BL!: On the new album, Manhattan, there are the familiar Jeffrey Lewis themes of growing older, obviously odes to your home town as well as some more absurdist abstract pieces. How do you think your songs reflect how your world view has changed over the last 15 years?
JL: Hard to say. It’s true that when I started out I was in a very different life circumstance. As a 22-year-old I had basically nothing: I had no money, my living situation was desperate, I had basically zero social skills, I didn’t even have a driver’s licence, and I certainly had no prospects of making a living at any of this music and art stuff. So a lot of the earlier material was coming from a really “outside of society” sort of place. I was just this desperate fringe character, and I didn’t even know how to barely sing or play guitar or make recordings or anything. So it’s kind of crazy for me to see how much more of a normal person I’ve become over the years; now, I’ve got a girlfriend, an apartment, a car, I’m on a record label, I can book tours, all this stuff. It’s still relatively precarious, compared to an artist with a “real” career – like some band with more fans and more money who don’t have to do so much of the work themselves – but in general it’s insane for me to think about how much nicer my life is now than what it was during the early years of all this. I don’t know if that means I’m creating from a more shallow place, or if I have less of a status as a total outsider loser.
BL!: Are you surprised how tales of New York transfer and resonate to audiences all around the world?
JL: Sort of, but then again look at a TV show like Seinfeld, or even look at so much rap music from New York: a lot of that is very NYC-specific, but is some of the most popular, worldwide entertainment that there is. In fact, as a native New Yorker, I feel like my stuff relates to people outside of NYC more than it does to people in NYC, because most people in New York have moved here from other places, so most bands and artists in NYC are not creating from the perspective of having spent their whole life there. And their audiences in NYC, also, are of the same culture – people who have moved to NYC to ‘make it’, to establish themselves, or create themselves, or escape their families, etc. So the city has a different relationship to family and to history for most people.
BL!: You sprang from the fertile New York anti-folk scene of the early noughties with the likes of Moldy Peaches, Dufus and Major Matt Mason – how does that scene compare in 2016 to what it was like back then?
JL: It’s great that the Sidewalk open mic scene is still going on, and if I have new songs I always like to go there and try them out, and hear whoever happens to be playing. Sometimes it’s great and weird or inspiring, other times it’s boring, but it was always like that. The great thing about the years in 1999 and 2000 and 2001 was a little photocopied thing, called Antimatters, published by this poet, Jon Berger. Antimatters was a major focus: you could write a review of somebody’s new album, interview somebody, have your recent little gig in front of 11 people, get an interesting review by some other person… it was an exciting little self-contained bubble world. Nobody in the ‘real’ music world cared about us at all, but there was a whole sort of fun, self-important sense of being part of a connected scene, where what we all did mattered to each other, and even if you’re brand new in town, if you were good there was a forum where you could be recognised and sort of get a foothold in this isolated little corner, safe from the bigger music world. Once the Moldy Peaches got out there and paved the way for other people, there was less of a focus on the little at-home scene at the Sidewalk, people were away on tour, or they were getting reviewed in ‘real’ magazines, stuff like that.
BL!: ‘Cult artist’ is a tag applied to you more than to most musicians. How does that sit with you? Are you happy with the selective super-fan world in which you inhabit or would you rather be more widely known?
JL: Sometimes it’s frustrating when I feel like I’m cut off from the larger music realm, like when I’m trying to book a gig and the club doesn’t even bother to write me back, like I’m just a total unknown nothing, while meanwhile there are all these bands that get so much attention and respect and I just don’t hear much that’s very interesting or powerful or creative or caring about them at all… But, on the other hand, it’s nicer to feel underrated than it is to feel overrated. You’re more free to take chances, to be more creative and intuitive. I don’t know if this level of small success is sustainable once your body starts to not be able to handle the extra workload it requires! But here I am at 40 and I’m still doing fine, I think. Again, the only important thing is if I can write or draw more stuff that feels powerful to me, in one way or another.
BL!: What do you make of developments in America, and latterly the UK, with the seeming resurgence in popularity of more right-wing politicians?
JL: I don’t do very much political art; sometimes I feel like I should do more, but there’s still probably more politics and more general humanism in a lot of my stuff than in most dance music, for example, but so what? I can’t really push an agenda, other than maybe help give a sense of what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, which tends to be more of a left-wing stance, giving other people the benefit of the doubt and extending a helping hand, rather than taking a tough-line “kill or be killed” attitude. And then there’s just a general sense of human injustice, when it comes to racism, or the banking system, or the environment, things like that, which makes some of those nastier politicians seem especially unappealing. Not that anybody wants to hear me mouth off about my random opinion.
BL!: The upcoming gig at Buyers Club won’t be your first show in Liverpool: what memories have you got from visiting this city?
JL: That crazy abandoned hotel where my band used to spend many nights when seeking housing in Liverpool! Geez, that place was crazy, sort of like a squat, but sort of like a dormitory; various students and artists and weirdoes and drug people or drunkards hanging around. I guess it’s not there anymore. Lots of late nights there, ending up in various rooms, sometimes saying to each other, ‘Next time in Liverpool we are definitely NOT staying here again!’ But then staying there again anyway. And sometimes it was really cool! I love finding weird places like that. You don’t find them very often, so that was a defining characteristic of Liverpool for us for a while.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts plays Buyers Club on 19th August. Manhattan is out now on Rough Trade Records.