Congé Annulés Interview

Jeffrey Lewis on the comic book aspects of making music

Photo: Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams

By Sam Steen

Your music has been described as AntiFolk. Is this a description you are happy with? What does Antifolk mean? 

It's kind of just anybody who ever played at this one tiny little club called Sidewalk, if you played there everybody says you play antifolk, no matter what kind of music you make.  Sidewalk has an open mic on Monday nights, it's been going for more than 20 years, and anybody can just walk off the street and sign up and play. 

It's how I started playing music in New York, and it's where other people like Regina Spektor and Adam Green also started in New York, and we all get called antifolk because we played at Sidewalk even though I think we play quite different styles of music.  Ironically, I remember meeting Devendra Banhart when he was just starting out playing in New York, in the early 2000s, but he never played the open mic at Sidewalk, so nobody ever called him antifolk. If he played at Sidewalk even one time he probably would have been called antifolk instead of "freak folk" or whatever.   

Would you say that your approach to writing music has changed over the years?

Yes, I think it was different when I was writing things at home, with no thought about what it would sound to sing the songs in front of audiences, you sing differently when you are trying to make sure people can hear what you're saying, and you learn quickly which songs are not very good.

Your musical output has been fairly prolific since your first EP release in 1997, have you ever considered taking a break? 

I'm not really that prolific, I put my first album out on Rough Trade in 2001 and it's only been six official albums out on Rough Trade total, between 2001 and now 2014… so six official albums in 13 years is really not so much.  There are also a few un-official albums, but I am really not prolific compared to artists like The Mountain Goats or Stanley Brinks.

With such an extensive back catalogue, you have obviously had the chance to experiment with your sound and style. Who were you originally influenced by? Have you heard anything in the last few years that has influenced the music you make?

My influences have mostly been the ones you might expect from listening to the music that I make - Lou Reed, '60s garage rock, Yo La Tengo, Violent Femmes, The Fall, Donovan, Pearls Before Swine, all of these things seem apparent in my music when I listen to it.  

How did you first get into music? What was the first song you learned to play on an instrument?

I don't really remember the first songs I learned… I think it was when I was taking some piano lessons when I was about 17, I learned some Beatles stuff like Lady Madonna and some Led Zeppelin stuff like No Quarter, and Empty Pages by Traffic, really I tried to learn any classic rock song that had a piano part in it.  

Do you remember the first time you performed in front of a crowd?

No, I don't really remember.  It was always sort of in my life because I was in little kid theater groups in my school, stuff like that. 

What was the name of your first band (if you had one)?

I never had one, I did play piano with my friends in high school when we were like 16, 17, playing classic rock songs, but it wasn't a real band, I don't think we ever played a gig, we just got together to play sometimes.

As a comic book artist and writer and as you both studied and lectured on Watchmen, what did you think of the film?

Could have been a lot worse for sure...  obviously Watchmen is one of the greatest comic books of all time and the film is far from being one of the greatest films of all time.  But it was the best anybody's done so far in attempting to adapt any of Alan Moore's books to the screen, which is a questionable activity in the first place.

Photo: Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams

Would you have done anything differently?

If I was making the Watchmen film?  Of course I would have done a lot differently!  The movie made the characters all seem like ninjas, not normal people.  People that I watched the film with were confused, they thought everybody had super powers because of the way they were all spinning and jumping around.  Which was supposed to be against the point!  

What do you think about comic book based films? Is it good for the comic book industry?

I guess it makes the public more interested in comic books?  But maybe not.  Most comic book movies are not very good, anyway.  I think film makers often think that they can improve a comic book if they add motion and sound and music and all of the things that movies can add, but they forget that you lose something very important, which is the feeling of the lines and the artwork. 

There's so much emotion and atmosphere and unspeakable qualities and aspects to the experience of absorbing visual art, lines and shapes and other aspects of illustration, there's so much character and personality that comes from the artist's style, that when you lose that you really have a hard time replacing it just with sound and motion and music.  Film makers exist in a world that is completely different from illustration, and I think they might not realise what an illustration or even a line or a pool of ink can mean emotionally, they are thinking about totally different things, so they don't understand what they are losing and how hard they will have to work to replace it.  

I think American Splendor was a very good way to try to turn a comic into a movie, an interesting mix of story and documentary, that is one of the best adaptations I have seen.  

Does being a musician influence the way you write comics? Or vice versa?

I think for both my comic books and my songs there's a very literal approach, in the sense that I am usually not very inclined towards being abstract.  The songs and the comic stories and the art are all usually about something, and it seems to me that a lot of the art and music that I encounter is about nothing, or not about anything very specific.  Also, I think there are a lot of comic book aspects to the music I make, some of the feelings of underground comic books or autobiographical comic books or strange fictional comic books have definitely inspired different songs. 

And finally, could you please tell me about any Spinal Tap-style moments you have experienced while touring?

That movie doesn't really show the aspect of what touring is like as an independent band doing things ourselves, renting a rental car myself, doing the driving, finding a place to sleep, running the merchandise table, I think it's a very different life in music than the big '70s rock band style that probably no longer exists.  Somebody needs to make a modern film about what touring life is like for a band like mine, it could be a funny movie…

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