Smile Politely

Red Herring Jeffrey Lewis horror

Tomorrow [Wednesday] night at Red Herring, Brooklyn-based Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard will be playing an 8 p.m. show with Morgan Orion, Bunny Zewt Suit, and Peninsula. It’s all ages, and cover is $7.

Lewis (right; photo by June Rovenger) is well-regarded as a musician in the national anti-folk scene, and he’s also an accomplished comic book artist. He and the Junkyard are currently on tour with Dr. Dog, but this is an off-day for Dr. Dog, so Lewis filled the gap in their tour calendar with a stop in C-U.

Lewis has a recent Daytrotter session on which Orion collaborated.

I reached Lewis by phone over the weekend, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about living on the road, writing for the New York Times, and the philosophical leanings of Will Oldham that can be gleaned by reading between the lines of his back catalog.


Smile Politely: Whereabouts are you today?

Jeffrey Lewis: We are on the road between Afton, Colo., and Denver, Colo. We’re on tour, been close to two weeks.

Smile Politely: What proportion would you say you spend on tour?

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s always different. This past year has been a lot of touring, and it’s always a bit random depending on circumstances. Right now on this tour, the band Dr. Dog invited us to do a couple of weeks around the States with them, and we never know when someone might invite us along on tour. After this, I’ll be back in New York for a bit working on some art stuff for most of the rest of October and November, and then we’re going to be in Spain and Italy for a week or two in December. So, it’s back and forth; sometimes, I’ll be home for a week or two a month, sometimes a month and a half. It’s definitely been over a year since I’ve been home for over two months in a row.

Smile Politely: Do you enjoy that way of life?

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s certainly a really fun way to make a living, as far as getting to run around and basically be on road trips with your friends and see all this beautiful scenery like out here in Colorado. It makes it hard to get any actual work done. It seems that I ought to be getting paid for being at home and actually writing songs or making recording or working on my comic books, but that’s all the stuff that I just do and the actual income comes from getting out and bringing what I’ve done to people around the world. So, it’s always a challenge to make sure there’s a proper balance between the creative time spent off the road and the time of the year spent sharing what I’ve created.

Smile Politely: We’re glad you’re coming. Morgan Orion gave me a head’s up and I’ve been listening to your stuff the last couple of days, and I really like it.

Jeffrey Lewis: Cool. We’re definitely a fan of Morgan’s stuff, and he’s a great guy and has helped us out with shows before. He makes really good music.

Smile Politely: I was just curious — your “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” song, I was wondering if you’d met Will Oldham and if that was an in-joke with him, or how that song came about?

Jeffrey Lewis: Well, I have met Will Oldham, but it had nothing to do with the song, and we didn’t discuss the song or anything. From what I’ve been told, he likes the song, but I’ve never talked to him about it.

Smile Politely: It’s a really funny song. Did that come to you all at once, that whole concept of seeing him on the train and having a conversation with him and having it lead to violence?

Jeffrey Lewis: Well, it was actually one of those songs that literally came all at once. I was on the train, and saw this guy, and when I got off the train, I was walking to my girlfriend’s house, and I just started thinking of the first line of the song. It’s strange that I even bothered to write it down, because the first two lines of the song don’t even rhyme; it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere: you know, “Remastered my old album, and seeing Will Oldham.” It’s just kind of like not even a rhyme, but I just stopped while I was walking down the street and jotted it down, and then I jotted down the next few lines, and it took me a while to walk the seven blocks because the whole thing was just falling right out of me right there. So when I got there, I just picked up a guitar and started playing it, and there it was.

Smile Politely: That’s cool. I was wondering if the concept of being famous in an indie-rock kind of way, because 95% of America has probably never heard of Will Oldham or Jeffrey Lewis, but he’s still got a level of fame that people aspire to, is that where it grew out of?

Jeffrey Lewis: Well, my opinion of Will Oldham and his position in culture is more to do with the fact that, especially in the ’90s, when I was in college and working at the college radio station, and just friends of mine or people I used to see at open mics when I started playing music in, like 1998, it just seemed that Will Oldham just exerted this tremendous, tremendous influence. Basically this whole genre grew up around him, and these bands were just basically trying to sound like him, and he just became the most important folk-music icon of my generation. And for people who pay attention to such things… [cell phone signal died somewhere in the mountains of Colorado….]

[… and, we’re back] My point being that Will Oldham was this tremendous cultural figure who inspired so many bands, but it was quite strange to me that this guy who is basically the biggest folk-music icon of that era had basically this fascist viewpoint, which is quite at odds with what you’d normally think of folk music that people would normally get into. He has a very ‘kill or be killed,’ Ayn Rand-type attitude that creeps out into his songs. Whether that’s who he is, or if that’s a role that he enjoys playing, I was always a little disturbed by that element of Will Oldham. He’s totally compelling, obviously; he’s a good songwriter and a very interesting figure, but there’s something really strange about [the fact that] our modern folk figure and the biggest innovator is not really the kind of guy — a well-meaning, socially-minded folk musician. He’s more of an every-man-for-himself, the kind of worldview you might expect from a hip-hop guy or something like that.

Smile Politely: OK, I guess I’m not familiar enough with his music to be able to draw that out from what I’ve listened to, but I understand what you’re saying.

Jeffrey Lewis: Well, it’s very subtle. It’s sort of woven throughout his career — well, I don’t want to talk about Will Oldham. I’m sure there’s probably essays about him online, that would go into that more than I would be able to.

Smile Politely: OK, sure. I don’t want to start a fight with anybody.

Jeffrey Lewis: I’m not talking shit about him. I’m definitely a fan of his stuff, and I’ve got a lot of his albums. I think he’s definitely been an influence on me as well.

Smile Politely: All right: comics. Is that something that you did before you made music, or vice versa?

Jeffrey Lewis: I was always into doing art, I always drew stuff, even as a kid. I spent a lot of time reading comic books and drawing comic books; that’s always been something that’s been a part of my life. In high school, and in college, I started making actual comic books that I would print and try to sell. When I started playing music, I realized that that was a good way to sell my comic books, also, like at my shows and things, and it’s just developed from that. I used to make these really elaborate fliers for my shows when I was starting out in ’98, ’99 and 2000. I used to say that the concert was advertising the flier more than the flier was advertising the concert, because it was just a really good way to get my art out there.

Smile Politely: How much time do you spend on music versus art in a given week?

Jeffrey Lewis: I would say, 24 hours a day, all week long, and zero hours a day spent on art in the average week on tour. Because I’m in a car all day, and we’re playing a show at night, and then we’re selling merchandise, and we’re trying to find a place to stay, and then we’re traveling the next day. So, it’s not really a conducive artistic environment, and it basically consumes 24 hours a day for days on end and weeks on end. However, when I’m not on tour, I do like to spend time if I have a place I can go where I can just have no electricity and no telephone and no computer, and I can just work on my art all day long. I go to Maine over the summer if I get time to go up there. Of course, touring isn’t exactly working on music either. It’s traveling a lot, and it’s performing, but it’s not like I’m sitting down all day and practicing scales. I’m certainly not a musician who’s ever actively practiced music. It’s just not something that I’ve done.

Smile Politely: I was reading some of your columns in the New York Times, and I was wondering how you got that gig and how that’s been for you?

Jeffrey Lewis: Oh, the New York Times thing was great. I just got an email from the Times blog editor there, Peter Catapano, and he just invited me to start writing these pieces and see how it went and then he asked me to write a few more, and it was great. You do something like that and you don’t know who’s going to see it and how far out there it’s going to get, but I’ve gotten responses from all over the place. It’s not like playing a concert and people are right in front of you and you can see who’s hearing you. Doing those pieces for the Times, you never know who was going to see it or what their reaction was going to be. That was interesting.

Smile Politely: What was the most out-there reaction that you got to something?

Jeffrey Lewis: It wasn’t so much any single response that stood out as much as who was responding. Just the other day, we were doing a show in Tucson, Arizona, and a woman came over to the merchandise table, and was looking through my comic books, and she was like, ‘Oh, I know your stuff, I saw it in the New York Times.’ It was just cool that she came to the show and had no idea who I was — I mean, she was there to see Dr. Dog. She knew me from the Times stuff rather than my music or my comics. The thing about the comments on the Times pieces is that these people aren’t friends of mine, which makes it so much better. These aren’t people who are friends of mine, and haven’t paid money to see me at a show, or paid for a comic book. These are people who have nothing invested in me or have any reason to like me or to agree or disagree with me. It’s just a clean slate to just bounce things off of people and see what their reactions are.

Smile Politely: That’s got to be a little different than the feedback you would get from a show or a record review.

Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, because even a record review was written by a music journalist, and there’s just this certain music journalist thing that a lot of that stuff has, which is totally different than just the average person reading the New York Times stuff.

Smile Politely: Is that an open-ended thing? Are you going to keep writing those as you’re able, or how does that work?

Jeffrey Lewis: Well, apparently, they run in seasons. I was contracted to write for that season, almost like I was writing for a TV show, like I was writing a certain number of episodes. That season wrapped up, and I think every season, they come up with a different concept, and that season was songwriters, and I don’t know what they’re going to come up with for the next cycle. I doubt it will be something that will involve me, but I’ll be happy to be involved if they look me up. I’m actually currently doing some stuff for the History Channel, which is my next project. I’m supposed to do all these short, illustrated history songs for the History Channel website. So that’s going to involve a lot of my time over the next six weeks. Hopefully if that goes well, it will see the light of day later this year.

Smile Politely: Are you enjoying that?

Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, I love doing historical stuff because I get to learn about a lot of topics that I know nothing about whatsoever. I’m supposed to do one on the Peloponnesian War, and it’s a lot like being back in school and being assigned a bunch of book reports, and I’ll have to a bunch of research. Which is great because if I get it done, for the rest of my life I’ll be able to walk around saying, ‘Yeah, I know all about the Peloponnesian War.’ I’ll be the life of the party.

Smile Politely: Have you played in Champaign-Urbana before?

Jeffrey Lewis: Morgan set up a show for me there a couple of years ago. I was touring with Super Furry Animals, and I was able to slot a show in there. That’s really great that he’s able to put the energy into putting together the shows.

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