Q&A: Jeffrey Lewis talks about his 10/27 album release show and art opening at LPR, touring the world and more



Jeffrey Lewis - photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

On Tuesday, October 27 we’re thrilled to be hosting both the release show for Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts’ new album Manhattan and the opening for “Landfill Indie,” a career-ranging exhibition of Jeffrey’s illustrations and visual art in The Gallery at LPR. In anticipation of this exciting music-art double whammy, we asked him a few some questions about his amazing work as a musician and artist. Read on for Jeffrey’s take on Manhattan, “Landfill Indie” and more!
LPR: You were born and raised in NYC, but Manhattan, your first album to directly mention your hometown in its title, seems more focused on the city than previous ones. Why is that?
Jeffrey Lewis: I wrote about 37 songs in 2014, and when I was whittling the song-pile down to about 10 or 12 songs that I thought I might use for my next album I realized that I could curate the song-selection in such a way that it would leave me with an album that somewhat circled around thoughts and ideas related to my neighborhood. I suppose some of this comes from the fact that since my last official release in 2011 I’ve moved back to my old Manhattan neighborhood, so it’s been on my mind in the past few years since moving back—in a way that my Brooklyn surroundings were probably informing my writing during the 2003-2011 period when I was living in Brooklyn.
Also, with both Lou Reed and Tuli Kupferberg being dead and gone, I felt like there was a need to express some artistic voice from the downtown Manhattan scene—if there’s anything left of it—because it seems that 99% of the songwriting voices coming out of bohemian NYC in this century are of course from Brooklyn. No modern voices can really afford to exist in Manhattan, so there’s no idiosyncratic modern expression of what the view looks like from here. I’ve got a big interest in the history of that particular evolutionary strain of Lower East Side songwriting history—whether that’s David Peel or Silver Apples or Richard Hell or the Fugs or DNA or Talking Heads or Prewar Yardsale or Sonic Youth—and I’ve always figured my own output was one small part of the long shadow of that history, even if it’s going through a 21st Century phase of petering out, and even if there’s nobody to whom that is even particularly relevant anymore. My own life is not really a shared experience, at least not the way that a band can move from somewhere in the USA to somewhere in Brooklyn, and express that shared cultural experience with a large constituency. I don’t really have much constituency for my own output, in that sense, but that doesn’t stop me from being personally invested in it, and who knows, maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Listen to “Outta Town” from Manhattan

What are some of your favorite places in Manhattan?
See the album art…a picture tells a thousand words, and there’s a lot of pictures of Manhattan locations in there! I could rattle off a long list of favorite old record shops, music venues, comic book stores, but all of them are gone now, that’s how cities are…but I’m always glad each year that Sidewalk Cafe remains in business as a small music venue. That’s where I got my start playing the open mic nights in 1998, and I love always going back there any night of the week, whether to play myself or just to sit down and hear what people are doing. Often I’ll bring a sketchbook and try to draw the musicians. So Sidewalk remains a favorite Manhattan place. Of course I could also make mention of places like the Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite places on earth!
You recently got back from touring in Asia and Europe. What were some of the most interesting things you experienced in your travels
Playing in Vietnam for the first time was definitely a highlight. I was able to perform my illustrated song about the 20th Century history of Vietnam, which went over very well. It fulfilled my ongoing ambition of being able to perform my history pieces in the actual locations—I’ve been able to perform my pieces about Russia in Russia, my Korea thing in Korea, my French Revolution piece in France, my Fall of Rome thing in Rome, my China Communism history piece in China, and now I’ve unexpectedly been able to add Vietnam to that list! I think the only one that remains is for me to perform my Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated song in Cuba—maybe I’ll get to do that someday. Also, I love being in Chinese cities like Beijing and Guangzhou. When my band toured there in 2011 it was great to experience first hand a number of locations that I’d been reading about when I was trying to research my song/art, and it was a thrill to return and feel some tiny sense of familiarity.

Jeffrey LewisClick to view larger image in a new tab

“Landfill Indie,” the title of your exhibition in The Gallery at LPR, is a term that was thrown around a fair amount in the music press a few years back. What does it mean to you and what made you decide on it as the title for your exhibition?
I like “Landfill Indie” because it’s an insult in the UK…”Landfill Indie” is a funny phrase describing flash-in-the-pan bands (whose briefly-popular albums/CDs/LPs all end up in landfills in a couple months)…It’s a derided status which I’d like to think this art/music show is in some ways a refutation of—a confirmation of my non flash-in-the-pan status since I’ve been around for so long now, with this seventh album on Rough Trade coming out. Plus the abundance of the sketchbook pages that we’re planning on having in the art show is a sort of angle on the “landfill” title because we’ll be aiming for “quantity” as one of the qualities of the art event.
“Landfill Indie” will feature a career-ranging selection of your illustrations and artwork. How has your style and approach to visual art evolved over time?
I’m fairly workmanlike in my approach to art, and I really admire the storytelling functionality of old fashioned comic book artists and illustrators, so my own evolution isn’t so much an evolution of concepts as just an evolution of skill, or at least hopefully an evolution of skill—skill in draftsmanship and in storytelling and in general clarity and power of communication. Actually I’ve often tried to keep to the same subject matter over time, just so that I could hopefully watch my own development over a lifetime of drawing in sketchbooks. So there are certain images I keep coming back to in sketchbook after sketchbook, just to see if I’ve gotten any better at drawing them.

Click to view larger image in a new tab

You’ve built a successful career by doing things your own way and refusing to compromise your values and independence. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered along the way?
It’s a constant challenge, but there’s a certain creative art to the challenge of doing all of this stuff—it’s all just creative problem-solving, whether that problem-solving involves figuring out the best way to draw a certain scene in a comic book, the best way to book a West Coast tour, the best way to audition new drummers, the best way to pay my band-mates, the best way to assemble an order of songs for an album, the best way to end a song, the best way to haggle out a contract with a record label, or the best way to tell an audience about the Vietnam War or any other thing I might be trying to deal with on a daily basis. The biggest challenge usually just feels like remembering all the things I need to do each day—here I am doing this interview a few days late because I’ve spent the last few days too immersed in trying to book a gig in St. Louis, and twenty other tasks, to remember that I need to do this too. I guess I’ve been too busy lately to make a to-do list! I need help, actually. But who’s gonna do it? If I don’t book a tour, it doesn’t get booked—it’d be nice to have a team of people handling a lot of these chores for me, but over the past 15 years it’s been down to me doing it, most of the time, or else it doesn’t seem to quite get done.
Look, for perfect example, at this upcoming November tour. I had a booking agent contact me a couple months ago, offering to book stuff. So I said sure, yes, please, I need these dates in November, and I gladly handed over that chore. Then a month later I hear back from the guy that actually he’s too busy to put this together, so he’s pulling out of the project. So then it ends up with me doing it myself but with a full month less time to work on it than I should have had if I had just tackled it myself in the first place. Story of my life… I’ve had so many less-than-stellar experiences when I’ve tried to delegate, that it makes me unfortunately more of a tight-wad when it comes to keeping a full grip on overseeing everything. I’d rather just be concentrating on making songs and comic books, but that wouldn’t pay the rent!
What advice would you give you a songwriter or comic book artist who is just starting out?
The most important thing is to blow people’s minds, that’s your job as an artist. If you were building chairs, the chair would need to function as a chair, so it wouldn’t collapse if someone sat on it…that’s not going above and beyond the call of duty, that’s just doing your job. The job of art is to be completely mind-blowing, one way or another, whether in a quiet way or a loud way, a funny way or a sad way. Somebody has to walk away from the experience with something new in their brain, a new piece of mental architecture they can potentially drape their future thoughts across, and if you’re providing that as an artist then you can say you’re doing your job, and you’ll be able to do art as your job. Simply being okay, or being merely pretty good, is not actually doing the job, it’s like making a chair that can’t reliably function the way that it needs to.
Who are a few of your heroes?
Anybody who follows their own path, I guess. Although it certainly helps if that goes hand in hand with a moral idealism. Tuli Kupferberg, Lou Reed, Daniel Clowes, Professor Louie (my rapping uncle), these are some of the artistic heroes that have been a constant influence and inspiration, for my songs and my comic books and everything else.

Jeffrey Lewis - SubwayClick to view larger image in a new tab

Join us on Tuesday, October 27th for Jeffrey Lewis’ “Landfill Indie” Gallery Opening (free with RSVP—see link) followed by Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts w/ Hammel on Trial & Crazy & The Brains live at LPR!
posted by John