Jeffrey Lewis has been touring the world and crafting infectious indie rock songs for over 20 years. The New York City native first gained notoriety as a part of the anti-folk movement in the late 90s, and has amassed a lengthy and impressive body of work with both his music and his comic book series, Fuff.
His latest album, Bad Wiring, was recorded in Nashville, with Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney), and released on November 1st via Don Giovanni Records
American Songwriter caught up with Lewis during his latest tour to talk about the project, the ups and downs of DIY touring, famous fans, and more.
AS: The last interview I read with you, you were finishing up writing the most recent issue of your comic book, Fuff, and you were mastering an album of covers, and mixing a different album in collaboration, while also writing what I assume became your most recent LP, Bad Wiring. How do you manage to keep so consistent with your output? It seems like you’re always doing something.
Lewis: I think people have this perception that I am more productive than I am. There’s always projects that I’m working on, unfinished projects and unreleased stuff, but the amount of time I have to work on that stuff is extremely limited. Because most of what I do, 90% of what I do, is just the organizing: booking the gigs, organizing the travel, organizing the housing, sending out the posters for the gigs.
That is kind of really my full time job, running the website, running the mail orders. And the amount of hours I spend on a daily and weekly basis completely dwarfs the amount of time I spend writing songs and drawing comics. And that’s why this album is coming out now and it has been four years since the last official album I put out. And my new comic book is still seven pages away from being finished, it’s a giant 32-page issue. I’ve got it all drawn, but I have a few pages left to ink, then I have to edit it and format it. By the time that comes out, it will have been almost four years since the last comic book issue I put out. And that’s like a really pathetic, horribly slow output. I mean one single issue of a comic book should not take four years! You want one every month. And a new album should come out once every year, not every four years!
I’m actually horribly, glacially slow. I think I’ve just given people the impression of putting out a lot of stuff, because I think a lot of people coming to my shows now have probably not spent the last 20 years coming to my shows. We’re getting discovered by new people all the time, which is fantastic, but then they show up and they’re like “Oh my God, you have all these comics and all these albums! You’re so productive!” And I’m like “Yeah, that’s twenty years of work right there on that one table.” So it’s not like twenty years of work by Jack Kirby or twenty years of work by The Fall or someone like that.
AS: True, but Jack Kirby had a team to help handle a lot of those side duties you assume, so he could spend more time drawing. Though that kind of brings me to my next question : you often sing about the joys and the despair that can come along with being a DIY musician. How have you been able to navigate that so successfully for the past 20 years?
Lewis: Well you know this idea of being DIY, people kind of attribute a certain moral or ethical thing to it. As if there is some moral high ground other than just desperation. DIY just means you gotta do it yourself because no one else is clamoring for it to get done.
It’s not like anyone in Nashville is like “Please come to Nashville, we’ve got a gig for you, blah blah blah.” It’s kind of just me making it happen because if I don’t make it happen, it’s not gonna happen. It’s not like anyone is demanding I make a new comic book, or demanding I put out an album by a certain date, or demanding that I play a gig in Los Angeles, etcetera. And a lot of that just comes from Daniel Johnston, my whole music career is inspired by discovering his stuff, which was just this mind blowing introduction to: you just do it! You don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. You don’t wait for somebody to set it up. You don’t wait until you learn how to play or sing properly, or have a proper recording situation, or have a nice amplifier, or have anything. You just do it. You make a song. You record the song. You make copies of that recording. You play at open mics. You play anywhere you can play. And you make your comics. You photocopy your comics. You sell your comics. I used to sell my comics in Washington Square Park and at Grateful Dead shows and stuff, I would always be in the parking lots trying to sell books I’d made and photocopied.
So yeah, the difficulties, and the adventures, and the ups and downs, and the successes and failures that go along with that, sometimes makes for good stories.
AS: Does that lack of demand ever affect your confidence? And if so how do you contend with that?
Lewis: I guess in some ways you could say that I am my own biggest fan. Because the work that I do that I feel really proud of, really knocks me out. There’s certain songs that I’ve made or comics that I’ve done, or ideas that I’ve had where from my initial excitement about the concept through to the execution and presentation of it, I just can’t believe that I actually got it done. And I can’t believe that it came out as good as it came out. And that sense of personal success, of bringing something into the world, and the idea that if I think this is good, other people out there are gonna think it’s good too. When you write a song and you just can’t wait to get on a stage and play it for people because you just know it really works; it’s really gonna do it. I feel that way about my new comic book issue. I can’t wait for it to come out, because I think it is completely unprecedented and fantastic and amazing. Maybe I’m just a crazy, but I think it’s great. And I feel like my new album’s great. I have new songs that I think are great. And I have new ideas for other projects that aren’t out yet that I’m also very excited about. So the same way that somebody might look forward to the next work of one of their favorite artists, I look forward to my own next work. But I do create quite a lot of work that I’m not happy about. I write a lot of songs that I don’t think are up to the standard that I want them to be up to. So there’s a lot of failure in that, and there’s a lot of periods where I just feel like “Oh now for sure I’m definitely washed up. I’m never ever going to make anything good again. The last ten things, the last twenty things that I made were all lame and this is incontrovertible evidence that I’m completely washed up and I’m never going to make anything good again.” And I just remember having that exact feeling over and over again for decades now. I remember feeling that way in 2002, that there was no way I was ever going to write another good song. I’d just spent the last ten months writing nothing but bad songs that I didn’t want anybody to hear. I’m obviously finished I should just give up. And somehow even though that feeling seems totally convincing everytime, if you just keep on working, you get to the other side of it. And that keeps me going. The idea that like “I know I’ve felt this way before and somehow it wasn’t true then so it’s probably not true now.”
AS: The opening song on Bad Wiring, “Exactly What Nobody Wanted,” is the story of an underappreciated genius. Is the song about anyone in particular?
Lewis: No. There’s probably a few people that fed into that feeling. But just the feeling itself is a very specific feeling. And I can’t pin all of that on one particular artist. But I think many people have had that experience where you see a show by a band and there’s like ten people in the room. Or whatever, maybe it’s a poetry reading or maybe it’s a zine you picked up somewhere and you don’t even know who made it but it’s the best thing that you’ve ever encountered. And it’s a shame that people don’t know that this exists because it’s 1,000 times better than whatever — I don’t know, whatever movies everybody’s watching. You’ve had those experiences. That and the kind of triumph and tragedy that go hand-in-hand with that is something that I feel very strongly.
AS: “Except For The Fact That It Isn’t” is playful in tone but the lyrics are fairly dark. How do you feel about injecting humor into otherwise tragic songs?
Lewis: That’s something that strikes me very powerfully in Daniel Johnston’s work. And when I talk about Daniel Johnston’s stuff, I really just mean his stuff from the first tape which is around the early 80s up through the album Fun which is 1994. That body of work, the cassettes from the 80s, before he really lost his voice and sort of started to not be as sharp and clever with the lyrics. The way that he was able to approach really sad feelings with such positivity or a sense of fun or playfulness, a sense of humor; it’s just so powerful and devastating to me. When I hear some of those early tapes, I have a hard time even listening to them. It’s such a powerful emotional blast. I’ve come up with this baseball metaphor for the kind of songs that I want to write. Some of the songs that I write I feel like I hit the ball hard but it just goes off: foul ball on the left side of the field. The song ends up too silly. It’s too humorous and lightweight and goofy, I’m not really gonna hold on to that song. And then there’s other songs where I hit the ball and I’m like “okay maybe this is going to be a good song.” But then it just ends up on the other side, where it’s just too tragic and gloomy and mopey and depressed and self pitying. Or it’s just too dark and there’s nothing redeeming about it. So that’s another foul ball on the other side. And the songs that I tend to hold on to, that I feel like are my most successful works, are when I really smack a line drive or even a homerun right out of the park. It has some comedy to it, it has some tragedy to it, it has this powerful mix of emotions that encompasses the human experience. I once read a review of Lou Reed where they said he’s the only American artist still capable of hitting a spiritual homerun, and that’s probably where I got that baseball metaphor from. Maybe it was grand slam actually. But yeah that mix of comedy and tragedy is something I find very compelling. And that’s kind of what says quality to me when I’m looking for quality.
AS: How was recording in Nashville? Any favorite Nashville haunts?
Lewis: It was a completely arbitrary thing, recording in Nashville. It was because I wanted to record with Roger Moutenot. It had been a dream of mine and I’d been kicking around this idea for a number of years, cause I loved the Yo La Tengo records that he made, and I really love that sound. The Yo La Tengo sound is my template for what an indie rock band should sound like. I always saw his name on the producer credits for all those records so I always wondered “who is this guy?” I figured he was probably based in New Jersey because that’s where Yo La Tengo was living for those years. So one day I figured I would track him down on the internet and see if he was still active. I contacted him through his website, and it turns out he’s based in Nashville at the moment, and he has a studio. So I just worked it out with him, that our band would go to Nashville to record. But the fact that it was Nashville — it could have been anywhere. I just wanted to record with Roger. If he had said he was living in Mexico City or Los Angeles or something, we probably would have gone wherever he was, if it was affordable. But as for Nashville, we were pretty much just in the studio every day. We made the record over the course of six days. We didn’t really explore the city. But we’ve played gigs in Nashville and driven around a little bit before. We had some great hot chicken in places, and checked out some record stores. Grimey’s! I remember doing an in-store at Grimey’s. We’ve never spent a lot of time there but it seems like a really cool city.
AS: You guys played with The Minnows last time I saw you in Nashville, and you also played with The Minnows a few nights ago in Chicago. Nick Minnow is a mutual friend of ours and I know he did one of your music videos.
Lewis: Yeah, the music video for “Sad, Screaming Old Man.” Nick had been doing these claymation projects and he wanted to do something. So he got in touch with me and asked if he could make a claymation video for me, and of course I jumped at the idea. It sounded like an amazing idea. So we started talking about a video for the “Sad, Screaming Old Man” song, and my band was playing a show in Nashville at some point around that time when we were discussing making the video, this is like maybe late 2015 when that album was coming out. So we spent the night at Nick’s house and he was able to film us playing the song live at our gig and he was able to use some of that footage and then he also filmed me singing the song in his house. It was kind of ad hoc. He just caught whatever footage that he could of us that evening while we were there, and then he mixed that in with his claymation stuff and made the video a little bit after that. It was really cool to make the connection with him. He actually came to the recording sessions in Nashville and filmed a bunch of that process while we were in the studio. There’s somebody in Belgium who is theoretically making a documentary about us and wanted to see what our album making process was like. So Nick was present for a lot of the making of the record.
AS: He’s a great dude. I introduced him to David Berman earlier this year and they were working on a claymation video for “Margaritas at the Mall” but it fell through, and then of course Berman passed away.
Lewis: Yeah that would’ve been phenomenal. He said he had been talking to Berman about making a claymation thing. David Berman said that he had first heard my music from the “Sad Screaming Old Man” video, so I don’t know how he stumbled on to that but that was sort of what started the whole interaction. So it makes sense that he would work with Nick Clark to try to get a claymation video for one of the Purple Mountains songs. It’s really a drag that that never came about. But maybe Nick can just make the video anyways. I mean, Drag City is not super responsive when it comes to stuff like that. When I was doing the Silver Jews poster Berman was very enthusiastic and supportive, and I worked it all out with him. But any interactions with Drag City, his record label, they were never very hands on or enthused about it. They were kind of like “alright, I guess we could use that.” I can see where they wouldn’t necessarily be encouraging of Nick to do that project, but I think he should totally do it.
AS: Speaking of David Berman, he told me he thought you were the greatest songwriter from the generation after his, and his personal favorite.
Lewis: That’s high praise. I wish he had said that to the New York Times or Pitchfork or something (laughs). That’s the best praise of all: praise from a great artist.
AS: What does hearing something like that mean to you at this point in your career?
Lewis: It really just justifies everything. Those are the most exciting things to happen, things you just can’t believe that they actually happened. Because a lot of times obviously we are all self critical and you can find all these reasons why anybody who has given you positive encouragement is just somehow misguided or something. Like “Okay, these people in my audience, they think what I’m doing is good.” But I don’t know if these people have ever heard the Silver Jews or Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston. Maybe these are the best songs they’ve ever heard because they haven’t really heard that many good songs before. Or maybe people like my comic books because they’ve never read Eightball or Peepshow or Alan Moore’s stuff, so I’m dealing with low expectations. So that’s why when you actually get encouragement and praise from the great artists themselves, then it’s more exciting and… Well I don’t know that’s a stupid way to say it. It’s obviously exciting when anybody cares about one’s work at all. But you can get people saying your stuff is great and that’s nice, but it doesn’t really stick with you the way a bad review does. When you get a bad review you’re like “oh that person really knows what they’re talking about. That person has actually seen through the hoax of my work.” So good reviews from people whose opinions you hold in really high regard, that’s the stuff you want to just put in your little memory pouch and carry around with you.
AS: It’s hard for that cynicism to stand up to your heroes.
Lewis: My assessment realistically is: I know I’m not as good as xyz. Obviously I’m not as good as Lou Reed, David Berman, Daniel Johnston. But I feel like what I have created has a certain level of quality, and some of it is really good. And I’m glad somebody out there appreciates what I have done.
AS: I think you’ve created an incredibly unique body of work. I for one would kill for your career…
Lewis: So you’re saying I could give you my career and I could have you kill? If there’s somebody I want killed I can pay for that by giving you my career. Hmm. That could be a fair exchange because that’s a big favor to ask you to do…..