Jeffrey Lewis’s biography describes him as leading a double (or even triple) life as a both a comic book writer and artist as well as a musician and performer (writes Andy Wood). But it seems to me that all these facets are intimately interlinked and, to an extent, complementary.
Jeffrey Lewis writes wonderfully about the personal and the wider world in ways that are subtle, sharp and often funny. Over the years his recorded output has been varied but always identifiably Jeffrey Lewis. From full albums released on Rough Trade to collaborations and limited, self-released recordings, he has amassed an impressive body of work that always intrigues, entertains, thrills and moves me. His songs are beautifully observational and often deeply personal, often but not exclusively drawing on his life-long residency in New York.
It is New York, or more particularly Manhattan, which he draws deeply upon for his gorgeous new album, Manhattan, a deeply intricate and joyous set of songs, released on Rough Trade in late 2015. The nine songs are rich in detail, wry and sometimes darkly funny and the words are wrapped in lush melodies and memorable tunes.
One influence would be Lou Reed, particularly his fine album New York, an album that resurrected Reed’s critical career, and the title track of Manhattan is probably the song most influenced by Reed with its gentle rhythmic playing and evocative lead guitar. It stretches over almost nine minutes, a journey across the Big Apple, meandering and atmospheric. The song is a series of images and thoughts, following the narrator as he travels home of an evening. It’s not always clear what the journey will lead to, with conflicting emotions, ‘You loved me this morning / By midnight you’ll hate me’ making you wonder if Lewis is singing about the city, a lover or a friend. Physically, it seems to recount Lewis’s move from Brooklyn back to Manhattan but the joy is in the journey, the drifting and movement replicated in the song structure.
Manhattan mixes the gentler vignettes of city life such as the title track, the sparse ‘It Only Takes A Moment’ and ‘Thunderstorm’ with eruptive moments such as ‘She’s Outta Town’, ‘Sad Screaming Old Man’ and ‘Let’s Have A Baby’.
The latter track is a brilliant, explosion of sound and ideas, the vocals split between Lewis and a female vocalist. It has the most primal of rhythms and a garage-punk feel. Over the song it expounds on the existence of an underground artist with a passion for the dialectics of the culture and the expectations of everyday life and culminates in a fantastic breakdown.
‘Sad Screaming Old Man’ is a scarily, fun song about the fear of growing old like the elderly neighbour whose nocturnal shrieks and wails drive Lewis to the terrifying thoughts that this may be his fate.
‘Scowling Crackhead Ian’ is my favourite song on Manhattan. It sets the mood for the entire record, with the sounds of traffic and city streets, a lilting, dreamy performance with a lyric that is set off by the existence of a former childhood tormentor, the last face of Lewis’s youth still haunting the East Village years after everyone else has moved on. The singer and the wannabe hoodlum are very different people but as times and faces change there is a sense that much as Lewis dislikes Ian’s inability to escape his initially self-created image as a hard man he also feels a degree of empathy and even a vague wish for some kind of recognition as a rare member of a lost tribe of working-class New Yorkers.
Manhattan ends on a curious but fine note. ‘The Pigeon’ is a spoken-word tale of a lone person and a lone pigeon which roots in his apartment. It’s a re-write of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ but retold in a mixture of English and Yiddish, a modern day reading of a tale of incomprehension and alienation with the instrumentation tipping a nod to The Velvet Underground’s epic ‘The Gift’.
Manhattan is a varied album, with gentle, stylistic shifts and a wide-ranging set of perspectives contained within a coherent whole. It is fast becoming my favourite Jeffrey Lewis album over a huge number of repeated listens. It intrigues, moves, excites and thrills me. Jeffrey Lewis may be, as he states in the wry, biting but equally self-critical ‘Support Tour’ ‘A working class musician with no funding in my country’, struggling to make a living and far from a household name but this brilliant record comes wholeheartedly recommended.
Jeffrey Lewis is also a fantastic live performer and I had the pleasure of seeing him play with the J-Rams a few years ago. So I am really, really excited that he will play at The Cool Cat Club with Los Bolts as part of a fairly extensive U.K. tour. Ahead of this tour Jeffrey kindly answered some questions for Manic Pop Thrills.
Hi, how are things with you? Are you looking forward to your forthcoming U.K. tour?
“It’s always hectic when getting ready for a tour, I have so much to do, in terms of applying for the work visas, booking the flights, sorting out where we’re staying each night, figuring out how many comic books I’ll need to bring, there’s basically no time to think about what it will be like to be on the tour itself until it’s actually happening! But I do always love touring in the UK, and it’s an extra thrill when there’s a chance to run around Scotland a bit.”
How do you prepare for a tour? What strategies do you adopt to stay reasonably sane on an extensive run of dates?
“I’m a big fan of educational audiobooks while on the road, I figure if you’re going to be driving in a car all day long you might as well be learning something interesting. Sometimes it’s hard to find an audiobook that all four people in the band can agree on listening to; in any case this is more of a necessity when doing a tour in the USA when the daily drives are regularly 7, 8, 9 hours in the car.
“A UK tour is a lot less driving time, you can do a whole UK tour with each day’s drive being only two or three hours, so it’s really a treat, compared to being on the road across the US!
“Another strategy is that I’ve discovered that a three-week tour seems to be the optimum length. Back in 2003 we did stuff like six or seven week tours, but it’s too long – everybody keeps much more sane if you can keep the tour length to three weeks.
“Sometimes it’s not feasible though – depending on how much it costs to fly the whole band to a certain part of the world, you might have to do a lot of gigs to cover all the flight costs and end up with a profit. So the short tour is really a luxury; but I think it’s easier on the band-sanity, in the long-term.”
“I could never settle on a name that felt quite right as a permanent thing. Also it’s nice to keep having different sorts of shirt designs! But really it would be much cooler to just have a cool name and stick with it.
“If we had a name as good as the Violent Femmes, or the Modern Lovers, or the Velvet Underground, I’d stick with it. I think having a “v” in your band name seems to be a good element, for having a good name. Someday I’ll find one!”
Manhattan is a beautiful album. Lyrically, it seems to me to be very much about the effect living in New York has had on you over the years. It seems to be very much about a changing mental landscape as much as a physical landscape. How do you feel about the changes in your city over the years?
“It seems to me that anybody you talk to anywhere in the world will say similar things about things changing… I don’t know if New York City has necessarily changed more in the past ten or twenty years than Berlin has, or London, or San Francisco, or Tel Aviv, or anyplace you can think of.
“My personal experience of it is perhaps more visceral because a few years ago I moved back to the neighborhood where I first grew up, so I think there’s something about the inherent familiarity that’s meshed with the constant flow of changes, that’s a different experience informing the way I feel about it – and a big part of that is that I’ve actually lived in NYC for almost my entire life, and I’m 40 now, so that’s quite a lot of years of history, of walking the same streets, the longer you stay in a place the deeper and stranger all the roots feel.
“Maybe it’s a rare experience in the modern world, to spend your whole life in one city, decade after decade, from birth. Rather than moving around, you just stand still and let the city completely shift and mutate under you.”
Do you feel this has had an important influence on your writing?
“Yes, but it’s maddening to realize that you’re always trapped in your own subjective bubble, there’s no amount of older and wiser thinking that doesn’t equally alienate you from people rather than learning how to communicate better. How does it help you to be old and wise, if it makes it harder to communicate with people who are young and dumb? And equally, I’m a lot younger and dumber than people who are much older and wiser than me.
“You drift through life trapped in yourself, then you die. Nobody understands. And why should they? It’s an insane miracle to be able to communicate anything with your art, at any time, at any age, at all. That’s part of the challenge that never ends. You can’t even communicate with yourself – you look back at a song you wrote ten years ago and you don’t agree with it any more.
“So, now that I’ve gotten totally off topic, I guess that’s the same for New York City… I could talk about “the good old days” but that alienates more people than it reaches.. and the good old days probably sucked too.. There’s only the daily human challenge, that’s all there is today, it was there yesterday, and it’ll be there tomorrow. ”
Is ‘Crackhead Ian’ about an actual person or a composite of different people? Lyrically, it almost seems as though you both fear and long for recognition by him in the song. Could you tell me a bit more about this song?
“It’s a real person, I do see him pretty frequently. I think the song explains itself more than I could explain it, but it’s an idea for a song that I had a few years ago and never wrote it.
“I had just written down on a scrap of paper “Crackhead Ian, I can’t forget your face, still haunting St. Mark’s Place” or something like that, then I found the scrap of paper again a couple years later and decided to finally write the song.
“This happens a lot. I think I wrote it better now than I could have back then, so I’m glad I waited, to let the idea stew a bit more.”
I visited New York for the first time last year. It seems to me both a beautiful and scary place to live in. Is it a difficult place to survive as an artist? Could you ever imagine living anywhere else?
“It’s too hard to survive as an artist there, for most people. I’m in a lucky situation because I have a relatively cheap place to live, but I’d probably live somewhere else if my situation was different.
“I don’t know, the city does still have a powerful magnetism for me, and I feel very connected to it. Hard to imagine living elsewhere.
“But on the other hand it seems a bit pathetic to live your whole life in one place. Like staying in your mom’s basement.
“I’m jealous of people who get to have the experience of leaving home and moving to New York City, that sounds like a very exciting and scary thing to do, I’ve never had to do that.”
You have had a long term relationship with Rough Trade Records since 2001. How important is that relationship to you and has it changed over the years?
“I love the label, the list of bands that they’ve worked with is incredible and it’s a lot of my favorites – The Fall, Jonathan Richman, Camper Van Beethoven, TV Personalities, on and on.
“And they have a pretty fair deal, we just split the profits 50/50, mostly it’s simple and straightforward, and I’ve gotten used to dealing with reading their style of contract.
“I guess it’s an odd relationship, I don’t think any artist in the long history of the label has stuck with Rough Trade as long as I have, or put out as many albums as I’ve done on one label.
“In some ways, sticking with Rough Trade is like a metaphor for my “career”. I’m not exactly on an upward rocket to stardom, but I’ve been able to maintain a steady level of challenging and pushing the boundaries that I’m interested in, in some weird way that has continually kept new fans getting interested.
“I don’t have any binding agreement with Rough Trade, I could release stuff in other ways when I want, and similarly they’re not obliged to keep working with me. It’s changed a lot over the years just because the changeover in personnel at the label is always a bit intense, there are only maybe a couple people at the label who remain the same over the years.”
Occasionally in songs you seem to suggest you may give it all up or talk honestly of the difficulties of being a working musician. Have you ever seriously contemplated giving up music?
“I think I could be happy just making my comic books, but I’d probably miss the traveling and gigging.
“The music thing is very questionable for me, I really never know when I might run out of songs, sometimes I write ten or twenty bad songs in a row and then I think, oh well, I guess that’s it, it’s the end.
“But then I might write some other stuff that I start to feel excited about, and it keeps going. The major thing is to have new material that feels great or worthwhile in some way.
“It’s not enough to have new material, if it’s not at a certain level, and it’s not enough to have strong material if it’s not new. If I have material that’s both new and strong, then I can go on.”
What are your current influences, musical and otherwise?
“Same old stuff, really… Daniel Johnston, Yo La Tengo, Lou Reed, The Fall, 60s garage rock, Donovan, I haven’t really “updated” my influences in a long time!”
You have recorded a number of collaborations including two albums with Peter Stampfel. How do you approach these collaborative works? Is there plans for any more and who would you most like to work with?
“The collaboration stuff can be rewarding, also frustrating, it’s not the same as having full control over how things are going to go, of course.
“For a long time there’s been plans for a third album with Stampfel, but we haven’t gotten it off the ground. At the moment I feel like I want to be writing a bunch more of my own new stuff before having time to work with somebody else, but who knows. It’s always great to be able to work with anybody that you can learn from.
“The other night I dreamed I was having a talk with Dr. Dre. I wonder what it would be like to work with a serious creative producer like that, some kind of Brian Eno or Tony Visconti sort of person. I recently read Tony Visconti’s autobiography.”
If someone made a film about your life who would you like to play the part of Jeffrey Lewis?
“There’s no such thing as movie actors who look like me, you’d have to just cast some unknown geek.”
If you could organise your own festival, with budget, mortality and location being no limit, who would you invite to play and where would you hold it?
“Geez, well, can you imagine some kind of intimate acoustic gig with Syd Barrett? He would play all the quirky little songs he’d secretly been writing in private all those year. You’d laugh, you’d cry, your head would spin.”
What question would you most like to be asked?
“Mr. Lewis, can I please be your USA booking agent and save you the hassle of booking the November tour you’re currently embroiled in up to your ears? It would be a real honor.”
Anything else that you would like to add?
“Sorry for talking so much, I always do this when I’m procrastinating on doing other stuff.”
Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts play the following Scottish dates:
Saturday August 20th – A secret location in the Highlands
Sunday August 21st – Doune The Rabbit Hole Festival
Monday August 22rd – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
Tuesday August 23rd – The Cool Cat Club, Beat Generator Live!, Dundee – more details here.
After that they head off on tour in England and Europe. For full tour dates and links for tickets check out http://www.thejeffreylewissite.com/
Here’s the video for one of the songs Andy mentioned: