Jeffrey Lewis has become known as one of the world's foremost exponents of that indefinable genre (as much as any genre is definable. What is pop? Don't even start...) known as antifolk. His lo-fi charms have wooed the geeky kids out of their bedrooms and out to his shows, while his lyrics speak of zombies, visits to the aquarium and, most famously of all, being raped by Will Oldham.
Now giddying up to release his fifth album proper, 'Em Are I, we caught up with Jeff while he was out on tour in the wilds of Australia. Unfortunately DiS's pots of gold couldn't stretch to a face to face interview. Instead, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, emails crossed continents in a flurry of digital bits. The results are below.
DiS: How's the tour Down Under been going?
JL: Great! I've got to see some lovely sights and wild kangaroos and wallabies. I got to smell a koala bear too. They smell great because all they eat all their lives is eucalyptus. I've learned a lot about Australian country music too; great songwriters like Chad Morgan, who's from the 1950s but is still performing. He's got these grotesque buck teeth that he's famous for. Apparently he was in a motorcycle accident that knocked all his teeth out. When he awoke from the coma to find that the dental work had made him look normal, he demanded they all be pulled back out and put back in the wonky way.
You're just about to release 'Em Are I. It seems to have a much slicker feel than your previous work. What do you think of the album?
I think it's a good representation of the fact that all the touring of the past few years has developed us tremendously as a band. We're musically a lot more confident, and almost in danger of becoming a "proper" band compared to our sloppy bedroom beginnings.
The lyrical themes speak of a much more positive outlook than some of your other songs, like 'Don't Be Upset.' Is this a reflection of changes in your life, or how you think about things?
Funny, I just had an interviewer ask me why the album was all about death and if I'd been particularly depressed lately! I thought it was mostly positive myself... but maybe I've "been down so long, it looks like up to me!" Or as it was brilliantly put, by Randy Newman (I believe) "I've been up so long, it looks like down to me..." I can never figure out if I'm an optimist or a pessimist... I tend to see the worst in things then look for the one little ray of hope that makes it all okay.
We're now entering what I have optimistically decided to call 'The Quotes Section.' This should be both erotic, and educational. Oh yes. Cervantes says “He who sings scares away his woes.” Do you think this is part of why your lyrics are so open and personal?
People do tend to focus on the personal stuff, which indeed can be quite therapeutic. But it can also be therapeutic to sing about giant glowing pigs and moochers from the future so I do a fair amount of that too.
Your song 'Broken Broken Broken Heart' seems to be your most explicit song yet about heartbreak. (Last year, Jeff was playing it in a band that also included the ex girlfriend the song was about). Leigh Hunt said “Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Did you use the song to give you a release from that traumatic period?
Everything is therapeutic in artistic form. 'The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane' and other songs take rough experiences for me and turn them into some kind of art or music. Once it becomes art at least you got something good out of it... I always figure in the worst case scenario I'd at least hopefully get a song or a comic story out of things. and then it does give you a little relief sometimes, because it was hopefully a fair trade. Not that it quite equals out... In novels like Kerouac's The Subterraneans or Bukowski's Post Office, the authors go through lousy experiences that are seemingly justified to themselves because they get a book out of it. I read an interesting criticism of The Subterraneans that said the author doesn't realize he'd rather have had the love, than the book about the heartbreak.
Walter Pater once said that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” As someone who both draws and plays, would you say that comic books are inferior to music?
They're quite different, but music is a much bigger part of people's lives than comic books are. Perhaps all art aspires to SELL as many copies as music! A small hip indie record label probably sells a thousand times more product than the equivalent hip indie comic company.
Video: Jeffrey Lewis: 'To Be Objectified'
The composer Sergei Rachmaninov said “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” Do you see your craft as a musician constantly progressing and are there any aims in music that you haven't yet achieved?
I achieved all my musical aims with my first few songs, 'Heavy Heart', 'Life', 'Chelsea Hotel', etc. It didn't leave me much left to do, I already said very clearly everything that I have to say about life, death, love, drugs, and so on. I do believe everybody has something to say. But who has an infinite number of things to say? I suppose that's more of a lyrical concern. As far as music itself goes, sure, it'd be nice to learn how to play a guitar solo like Lou Reed or Ira Kaplan.
Congratulations on surviving 'The Quotes Section.' Do you see yourself as a comic book artist that makes music, or is the music an extension of what you do as a comic book artist?
I never quite see myself as "making music", just as making songs. I'd say I'm a comic book artist that makes songs too. Though in actuality I guess my "job" is being a performer, since that's what I primarily get paid to do. No one pays me to sit at home and write songs, or draw comics.
A lot of your songs seem to contain references to comic book style themes- zombies, ghouls, monsters etc. Are comic books a large influence on your songwriting, or vice versa?
Everything I like tends to go into all the stuff I do, so there's comic books and horror movies and history stuff and music in all of it.
What do you think of antifolk as a genre? Would you count yourself part of that scene, and what does it take to be antifolk, if it takes anything at all?
Not that the phrase really means anything, but if it DOES mean anything it takes two things to be antifolk - a connection or a start at the Sidewalk Cafe open mic in NYC, and a mixture of punk and folk in some way, at least aesthetically. If you've got both of those elements, I guess you're antifolk, whether you like it or not! When you start including people with only one or the other element then you get too inclusive to make any sense, like calling Nellie McKay antifolk because she started at Sidewalk Cafe, or calling the Violent Femmes antifolk because they mix folk and punk.
Where do you think the influences/aesthetic of antifolk comes from?
Everyone's pretty different, that's part of the reason the tag doesn't make much sense. But I do think NYC has a tradition of making weird punky folky or otherwise weird music that doesn't fit in to any particular movement or genre.
Is there any new material in the pipeline? I read an interview where you said you were planning to do an album of Lou Reed covers, like your Crass covers last year?
That was just the thought that Lou Reed's album Mistrial is pretty underrated in my opinion, I thought it might be a good project to strip off the 80s production and do the songs in more basic form. But it was just a fun thought. As far as new material, there's always new songs and things. It always takes me a while to play things live for a bit and figure out which ones are better, or how to make them better, or abandon them. I usually think it at least worth trying most of them out, playing stuff live really helps me know how to go with things a lot of the time.
In the future will you carry on doing more slick studio work, or do you think you’ll move back to being more DIY and lo-fi, doing more home recordings?
Right after I finished the long process of recording and mixing and mastering the 'Em Are I album I went over to my friend's apartment and sat in front of a mic and recorded 22 solo songs just first takes, mistakes and all, and figured “hmmm, maybe this just ought to be the next album.” I don't know yet, it's too early to think about a next album, this recent one hasn't even come out yet.