Jeffrey Lewis interview
Esta noche, Jeffrey Lewis toca en el Neu! Club. A continuación, la transcripción completa en inglés de la entrevista que le hice para la pieza publicada ayer en La Luna de Metrópoli.
Which musicians are coming with you in this tour? Is it gonna be very different from the other shows you’ve done before?
It will be myself plus my usual band of Dave on drums and my brother Jack on bass, but we'll also have Nan Turner of the band Schwervon on keyboards. We have had women in the band before, my ex-girlfriend Helen in 2007, Dave's ex-girlfriend Fletcher in 2008, but now I want a 4th person in the band who won't get broken up with! I really like having the extra sounds and extra voices involved with the songs.
What do you remember of your previous Spanish shows?
We've had a lot of great shows in Spain, doing the Primavera festival a few times in the winter and in the spring, and also some other shows in Spain, like a tour we did in Spain with Adam Green a few years ago. But usually our tours in Spain are only in three or four cities, so this new trip in October will be visiting a lot of areas that are new to me. I mostly have fond memories of Barcelona because I was there in 1999 before I was playing music, I was just living on the street and doing drawings for people... I did a drawing of a restaurant called Las Palmas or something like that and they gave me amazing dinner for a couple of nights, and when I was playing a concert in Barcelona a couple years ago I actually found the restaurant again and they still had my drawing on the wall, ten years later! That was really great to see. But nobody there remembered me.
Do you consider your lyrics, your way of talking about life in your songs, is more lucid now, or not necessarily so?
I think when I was first starting to make songs, the lyrics were more about me because I didn't know what else I could write about. Now I feel like I've expanded a certain amount, there are so many topics in the world other than oneself, the only limit is your imagination and how much you are willing to push your emotions. So now I have a lot of songs about other subjects, like the history of Communism, or about killing mosquitos, or about outer space, and so on. I do still write about my own experiences a lot, but not as much as I used to.
Most of your songs are very narrative. Do you conceive them as if you were writing a comic script? I mean, do you visualize the situation? Or is it a very different process?
I think you can get taken along in a story, if the flow is compelling, whether you are writing a movie, a song, a comic book, a novel... If a situation grabs you, sometimes you have to follow the thread of your own thoughts and see how much you can surprise yourself and delight yourself with this thing that is flowing out of you. It is the same for me with making a song or making a comic book, even though not all of my songs are narratives with a beginning, middle and end, there's still the feeling that you need to follow the inspiration to its end. The thing that is very different with a song is the flow of the words and rhythms and rhymes can have a power that is more than the story you are telling, so sometimes you can be very excited just about the form of your writing instead of the content. I think this is what happens to a lot of rappers, they get very into the ways they can be impressive with their words and leave out the notion that there should also be something impressive about the content, a new perspective, a new philosophy, a new story, a new kind of character.
You introduce a rap track (although it’s a hidden track) in your new album? You do it really well. Why haven’t you done it before? Do you see the possibility of doing more rap in the future?
Ah, I was just talking about rap, so now we're in a rap conversation! I've always had rap in my brain from being a young child in New York City in the 80's, when you really had rap filling the streets from people's giant street radios, and to my young ears it was definitely the best music I ever heard, there were stories and jokes and surprises, it was a million times better than the 80's pop songs that were also on the radio at that time. In fact it was almost like music made for children, so it was perfect, the beats were so simple, and the stories at that time were simple too. In fact my uncle, my father's brother, has been a rapper since the 80's, he lives in Brooklyn and he's called Professor Louie (his real name is Victor Lewis). He's always been a hero of mine, and he continues to be a fantastic writer and performer, he's got about four albums of his rap material and it's all very political, very powerful. He has no interest in being part of the music business, he usually only performs if it is for a cause, like a union rally or a benefit for a food co-op or to help people to have better housing, or something like that. So he has always been an inspiration, and I have always dabbled with rap a little bit through my life. It's hard to be a white jewish rapper and not be taken as a joke, as a parody of rap, and it's even hard to find your own style in rap that is your true personal style and not a parody or a copy of an existing rap style. But it's an amazing form, and I've always listened to a lot of rap albums old and new, the magic of words is incredible, and the music is incredible too. The history of it in New York is an interesting part of our city's heritage as well.
You still make reference to the open mic nights in one song. How is the Antifolk scene nowadays? Is it still vivid or is it in decadence?
The open mic scene is still going, I try to go maybe once or twice a year just to stay in touch with seeing who the new people are and seeing some old friends. Also it's always a challenge, there are few other situations where you can perform to a room of 80 people and every person there is a performer too, that's a lot of pressure, so an open mic can sometimes make you concentrate more on your work than other performance situations. I think the Antifolk scene has changed in some of the ways that the general indie-rock scene has changed, because in the 80's and 90's if you were an independent artist the cheapest way you could record and distribute your music was on cassettes and 4-track tape recordings, so there was a pride in the home-made sound quality, it was part of your identity as being outside of the mainstream culture. Now the cheapest way to record and distribute is digitally, so every independent artist at home can have the same digital quality as the mainstream productions, and there's no more sense of pride in sounding rough. In the 80's and 90's you had rough-sounding artists like Sebadoh, Daniel Johnston, early Pavement, early Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, early Mountain Goats, early Will Oldham, early Smog, these were heroes of a rough sound. The young bands these days all have modern clean-sounding indie bands like Vampire Weekend or Beirut as their heroes, so the new Antifolk and the new indie-rock in general has a very different sound. Not better or worse, just different; I think music culture always changes with changes in technology.
I love some of your low-budget videos or some of the songs you make like “The History of Punk In NY” or The Fall. Do you like to transmit that sort of music pedagogy to the people or is it simply a tribute to the music you like?
I went through a small phase when I was making these music history songs, I also did ones about the history of the Rough Trade Records label and the history of the K Records label, but then I changed my mind and I thought it was too much "music about music." I started doing songs to teach topics that have a wider importance to the world and to social history, so now I have pieces on Sitting Bull, Marco Polo, the Soviet Union, North Korea, things like that. I do think that music and art have a tremendous power to change reality, people get their notions of reality from the culture that is around them, but most culture has very little real information, very little real emotions, and real explanations of situations and consequences. In America you will see a big movie about aliens attacking the earth and the American military being the heroes who fight the aliens, but you will never see a big movie about the real life heroes who fought to make the 8-hour work day instead of the 12-hour work day. Culture is entertainment, but culture reenforces an idea of reality, so the people who make culture have a responsibility to be entertaining AND to help people to understand their world, to give some tools to hopefully lessen human suffering. If our top priority here on earth is not to help ease the burden of suffering, then what is our top priority? It's difficult being a human, we can all help each other through it, and culture can be a big help.
Do you know if Will Oldham has listened your song "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror"? If so, what was his reaction?
I never talked to him about it, but people have told me that he likes it.
What moved you to make a complete album of Crass covers, ("12 Crass Songs")? Do you think their message is still valid?
I think Crass is a great band, and a band with a powerful message, but they spoke in the language of hardcore punk. I wanted to be a translator, to take their songs from the language of hardcore punk and translate them into other musical languages to allow other ears to have more access to them.
Jarvis Cocker said you were the best American lyricist of today. How did you feel about that?
It was very nice of him to say but I don't think it's true, Kimya Dawson writes better lyrics than me, Eminem writes better lyrics than me, Lou Reed writes better lyrics than me, lots of Americans write better lyrics than I do! But I don't want to tell Jarvis about those people!