As a prolific lo-fi indie-rocker and comic book artist, Jeffrey Lewis has been brightening our lives with his imaginative narratives for a little over a decade. Following recent collaborations with Peter Stampfel and Kimya Dawson, New York’s finest is now preparing to unveil his latest studio album, A Turn in the Dream-Songs.
We caught up with Jeffrey in Ireland at the beginning of his European tour to discuss Johnny Marr’s tweets, his ambitions to join The Fall and why he doesn’t really consider himself a musician at all…
Hey Jeffrey, how’s the tour going?
Well we’re only about three shows in so it’s early days yet. Another couple of weeks on and we’ll really know what we’re doing. We try to have some surprises planned for every show, whether they’re surprises for us too – that’s usually the case. We basically just change the set up every night to challenge ourselves and keep it fresh in that way. And [because of that] audiences tend to pick up on the excitement among the band.
So, can you tell us about what we can expect from A Turn in the Dream-Songs?
Well I was trying to do something that would have the, kinda, first take-style, loose immediacy of some of the earlier, lo-fi recordings, mixed with the extra musicians and arranging ideas of the later albums. I just wanted to get a bunch of good musicians together in a nice recording studio and let the tape fly.
And you recorded with different musicians this time instead of your usual backing band, The Junkyard: how did you choose them?
Well, it was partially due to the fact that when we toured America with The Vaselines last year, they recommended this all-analogue recording studio in Manchester, called Analogue Catalogue. So, at the end of the UK tour last January, myself, Franic of The Wave Pictures and my drummer Dave stayed in England five or six extra days and booked in at this studio. And, because the album’s recorded in Manchester, it ended up involving a bunch of British musicians that we know, rather than the American musicians that might ordinarily be involved in the recordings.
And do you have a favourite track on the album?
Well there are a couple of tracks that I think came out particularly well and came together in surprising ways. Usually, for me, the best parts of recording are the, sorta, happy accidents and the surprises of things that, y’know, were just like, “What if I play this song on piano and see what that sounds like?” I think that ‘I Got Lost’ is a particularly great recording; the cello and the piano mixed together really well. And ‘Time Trades’ came out really well, also; Lucy Baines of Misty’s Big Adventure came in and played recorder and she came up with some really beautiful licks on the spot.
I find that it often works out best to not really tell people too much what to do or, sometimes, even tell them what the chord changes are on the guitar. I think you come up with much more interesting ideas when a bunch of different people contribute: you arrive at a place that none of you could have gotten to individually.
Your music’s been tagged as “anti-folk” – would you agree with that description? How would you define your sound?
I never set out to make anything other than indie-rock, but I suppose we’re in a weird position because we’re kinda a 90s band but we didn’t really get known until the 2000s [when] there was such a shift in the music landscape. So, being sorta musical misfits, I think that “anti-folk” makes sense as a term that describes stuff that doesn’t fit into other categories that easily.
And a lot of the bands that were inspirational to us were not the same bands that have been important to a lot of people in the following decade. After mostly listening to a lot of 60s folk and acid-rock stuff, there was probably a period of time in the mid-90s when it felt like people like Daniel Johnston, Yo La Tengo and Sebadoh were not so much creating something, but opening a window and letting in the wind of their own personalities, or the sounds that the instruments would make on their own. And I think that was very inspirational: the idea that a solo could just be what interesting noises you could make with a guitar and lyrics could be something very personal, something where you just kinda open yourself up.
It seems surprising you hold those values, as someone who writes lyrics that don’t seem personal – more the product of a vivid imagination...
Well, there’s certainly a mix between the fictional stuff and the non-fictional stuff. And maybe there’s a tendency to call something autobiographical just if it’s done in a conversational tone. I feel as if some singers have their “special singing voice” which is separate from their natural communicative voice. With people like Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Skip Spence, Daniel Johnston or Mark E Smith, you feel like there’s no barrier of “entertainer” or “singer”: it’s just them up there, communicating and creating straight out of themselves, in a way that beams straight to the listener. And that’s definitely been an inspiration from day one.
Yeah, tons of people. I think it’s a really interesting thing to open yourself up to what can come out of collaboration: the more far-flung the musical inspirations, the more interesting the result. There’s a rapper named MC Barman – we were gonna do some collaborations at some point and that might happen. There was also an idea that I might collaborate with Diplo. I’d like to do something where somebody would be showing me a whole new world of techniques or aesthetics that would open up my own possibilities.
So, which do you enjoy more: making music or illustrating?
Well, I’ve never considered myself a musician: I still have a hard time trying to tell people what it is that I do because, I guess, essentially, I make my living as a musician. But you could really throw a rock and hit somebody who knows how to play music better than I do, knows how to sing better than I do in a technical sense. So I definitely know a lot more about the craft of making comic books than I do about the craft of making music. But I think that has allowed my music to maybe be a bit more interesting than someone who really knows what they’re doing. If I had to pick one, though, I would stick with comic books because that’s what I’ve done my whole life – it’s been the path my life’s always been on.
You recently illustrated some “low budget documentaries” for the History Channel website. Do you have any more fun projects in the pipeline?
I just did a bunch of performances for a kids' TV show in Philadelphia. And there’s an idea, that may or may not come to fruition, of me illustrating a bunch of Johnny Marr’s tweets. Apparently, he tweets odd, poetic descriptions of strange events that he finds himself a part of. We had been collaborating a bit about turning these tweets into some kind of illustrated form – whether for a weekly "Best Of" thing or maybe a book at the end of the year. I also did a comic book interpretation of a song from Art Brut’s most recent album. So there’s always these interesting art projects that come through the music end of things.
Speaking of comics, then, if you were a superhero what would be your special power?
I often feel like I’m not particularly that good at anything but I end up doing a lot of different stuff... Maybe I’d be more like a Batman superhero, who doesn’t actually have any powers and constantly has to figure ways out of different situations using his ingenuity. But somehow he manages to hang out in the same places as Superman and The Flash, even though he can’t actually do anything – he’s managed to weasel his way in out of sheer, um, weasel-iness.
Finally, what’s been the highlight of your career so far and what would you still like to achieve?
I think a lot of the highlights would be the fact that I’ve gotten to play tours and do shows, and sometimes make music, with some of my favourite musicians and songwriters. Getting to do shows with Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, and Daniel Johnston and The Fall and Devo, and making a record with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders... [They're] just amazing things that seemed very far-fetched to imagine when it was just me at home making comics and writing songs, recording them onto tapes. So there are a lot of people that I would love to cross paths with. It would be great to tour with Yo La Tengo; that would be incredible. It would be great to be a member of The Fall…
That could probably happen…
I don’t know… Mark doesn’t like hiring people who like The Fall. That would be a pretty thrilling experience, at least briefly because usually people seem to be driven crazy by being in the band. I’d just like to cross paths with more of the people that I love.