Jeffrey Lewis is a modest man. While bold-face names like Jarvis Cocker and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard have sung his praises (Cocker calls him “the best lyricist working in the US today”), the indie-folk wordsmith and graphic artist isn’t letting it go to his head: “If somebody says that I’m one of their favorite songwriters, that probably means they haven’t heard that many songwriters,” he muses.
Preview Lewis’s latest album, A Turn In The Dream-Songs, out October 11 on Rough Trade, below.
Unlike many artists, you’ve never lost money on touring. How are you able to do that?
My entire business model, if you can call it that, essentially originated from the open mic days and doing everything on a small and cheap basis. I would sell my cassettes at the open mic and at my little shows. You could buy a blank tape for a dollar; record your songs onto it with a tape-dubbing machine. We’d always have these little black and white comic books that would be the artwork for the cassettes. It would be a little four-page comic folded into the cassette that was like ten cents for the album artwork.
That whole model of keeping your costs low is not so much about making a bunch of money as it is making any money. If you’re making a profit then that’s great and you have money to keep the whole thing going and survive. I remember doing the first west coast tour, which was just getting rides from people, playing house shows, and passing the hat. As long as you’re keeping the overhead low you’re still coming home with more money than you left with. The material has to be at a level that’s not just pretty good, but is to the extent of seeing it and hearing it and is actually going to be excited about it. To get them thinking “I have to have this album or I have to tell my friends about what I just heard.” That’s really the ingredient that makes anything possible. Once you have that it doesn’t really matter what else you do.
Do you still sleep on people’s floors from time to time?
Yeah! Absolutely. It’s much more interesting to have more of an interaction with your audience ,whether that means staying at their houses or keeping up with an e-mail list. We just did this tour in China and the guy who booked hotels for us every night organized it. About half way through I thought, “You know what, we’re not getting enough out of the experience.” It’s just a much richer experience and every night you really see how people live in that area, you see what their houses are like, you sort of see what their daily schedule is like. So just beyond money it is a deeper engagement in the world around you.
You’ve played China and various non-English speaking countries. What do you think it is that they get out of it?
That’s a good question. I’m not necessarily sure what people get out of my stuff wherever I am. It’s not like I have some magical key that everybody in the world is psyched about. I don’t even think the audiences in America or Europe have stuff in their music collection that is similar. There is a part of my repertoire that I don’t dive into as deeply, which are the really lengthy song stories, in non-English speaking countries. It is more of the melodic stuff.
You have people live Jarvis Cocker and Ben Gibbard saying that you are one of their favorite songwriters. How does that make you feel?
Most of the time I’m not that good at taking flattery. I just feel like if somebody says that I’m one of their favorite songwriters, that probably means they haven’t heard that many songwriters. I don’t know. I can think off of the top of my head multiple people that are a lot better than me. Whether they are that are more famous than I am and less famous than I am. I can go to The Sidewalk and see songwriters that totally kick ass. Certainly, no question, you can throw a rock and hit somebody that sings better than I do or hit somebody that plays guitar better than I do. When it comes to lyricism and songwriting I’m not a giant in that category either. I think there is something in the combination of different things that I do that, when it’s in the right connotation, it hits this magical opening and it all comes together. It’s this “thing” and I’m not really sure what this “thing” is. For somebody to say that I’m the best lyricist, have they heard Adam Green? Have they heard Eminem? Phoebe Kreutz? There’s a lot of people that I consider really top lyricists. There are people that are a lot less famous than I am that are much better songwriters.
How are you feeling about the new record?
I think the new record, in a lot of ways, is my best record, but in some other ways when I listen to it now there are certain things. This is the first record that has no involvement with my brother Jack. He always brings some of the more indie-rock elements. Jack’s really into bands like Pavement. I write a lot of garage rock stuff. The new album is certainly more contemplative as far as rock goes. So it might be a smoother listen top to bottom. Sort of a more cohesive album.
It was recorded and mixed completely analog, which sounded good at the time, but the mixing process is incredibly challenging because you have no way to improve a mix. You get a mix and if you don’t like it, if the guitar is too loud or the back vocal is too quiet, you can’t isolate that element and keep the rest of it the same. You can’t say,“I like the song the way it is, but I would like to hear the bass a little louder.” You end up with a lot of different mixes that are pretty darn good, but you have to let go of the idea of perfecting it.” The mixing is kind of a live performance in itself so you kind of get what you get. So I’m still wrapping my head around that.
So, in the war between analog and digital…
I think that digital is technically better, but there are not as many classic digital albums when compared to how many classic analog albums were made in analog. Technology is better, but you compare the last twenty years to the last twenty years of analog music and it hasn’t made music better. So it’s not like albums are really better than they used to be. It’s just a different way of thinking about it.
Tell us about some of the songs on the record.
They started out as these ideas and kind of changed over a period of time. The “Krongu Green Slime” song was originally just kind of a whole bunch of notes that were written over a 9 hour Greyhound bus trip. The summer before last, I took a Greyhound bus from Maine to New York City. I was sort of in a half asleep, half awake state and saw these lines of slime dropping down one after another on the back of a krongu boat. At first it had seemed to me like I had ended up with some sort of poem or some sort of spoken word thing. So I performed it a couple of times just as a sort of spoken word piece. It didn’t really have an ending it was just kind of describing the situation. It didn’t really have a beginning or an end. It was a while before it turned into a guitar song with chords.
What about “Mosquito Mass Murderist?”
There was a few songs that I recorded that were just kind of left over tracks that are on the album. I wanted to do “Mosquito Mass Murderists” as a vinyl single only thing and I wanted the B-side to be this rap song that I recorded with Jack Dishel. The song got very good feedback, but I felt like there was a reason that I didn’t want it on the album. It just changed the whole mood of the rest of the record. Same with a couple of the other songs that were recorded. The final decision was to just put it on as the kind of track that’s not going to be on the album artwork, it’s not going to be on the album tracklisting, but to get it mastered with the rest of the album. It’s basically a so-called “secret track” at the end of the record.
What’s a song that you’re really into on this record?
“Pine Trees” is a song that I’m really proud of. The music and the lyrics that’s behind it is definitely some of the best stuff that I’ve ever done. “Try It Again” and “Reaching” are songs that I’ve never really played live more than once or twice and hadn’t really thought of finishing them because they were different from the songs that I felt I was good at. They are almost like pop songs. They are short at two and half minutes each, and much more melodic than lyric based. They are short sweet pop songs with verse-chorus structure. That’s not really my thing, but I felt the recordings of those two ended up so good that I had to put them on the album. They are definitely, in my mind, in a new realm of songwriting that I may or may not be continuing.
What else do you have coming up?
I’m currently working on re-posting a big collection of all of my old comic book flyers when I was playing The Sidewalk [the New York City club that’s currently the home of Antifolk music] originally. Each show I would make a miniature print book of little four-page comics that would say “Jeffrey Lewis is playing Sidewalk on Thursday” or something and have a little comic story. They haven’t really been in print in a long time now, but I’ve been sort of cleaning up the artwork and getting the finals ready to send to the printer. I’ve been working on some new artwork for it and the cover. Plus, its 72 pages so there are a lot of pages that need to be worked on. Hopefully I’ll have that done by the end of the year.