Arts interview: Jeffrey Lewis - '˜We have been able to go on tours that would be impossible for a lot of bigger bands'
It is often noted that, while it has never been easier to record and distribute music, it has never been harder to actually make any money as a musician. Step forward Manhattan’s lo-fi maestro Jeffrey Lewis, thrifty cult troubadour and comic book artist, to demonstrate that there is a modest living to be made doing what you love out there on the fringes of the mainstream. Since emerging from New York’s “anti-folk” open mic scene of the 1990s, Lewis has barely drawn breath, averaging an album a year of smart, eloquent, direct punky pop, plus numerous EPs and collaborations, including with one of his heroes, Peter Stampfel of 60s freak folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders, and touring extensively, either as a solo performer or with his ever-morphing band, who are currently monikered Los Bolts.
Lewis is not specifically a cheerleader for a lo-fi methodology – but it sure works for him. “I never expected to be much of a big money artist, so I figured that the best way for me to survive would be to cut out all the expenses,” he says. “And this has allowed a lot of freedom, because we have been able to go on tours that would be impossible for a lot of bigger bands that need more stuff. We never lose money, we can always make money, the secret is to be able to do it all as cheap as possible, and to be flexible.”
Lewis has toured China twice in this way, carting his own gear, using buses, playing for small fees. And he is about to embark on an extensive tour of Scotland with his friends Mathias Kom and Arial Sharratt of Canadian indie pop outfit The Burning Hell. The trio will reach the parts that many native bands don’t manage, kicking off in darkest Leith, winding their way northwards as far as Wick before trekking westwards to remote Knoydart and then back to the Central Belt over the course of two weeks. Days off are for lightweights so Lewis and co are hoping to fill in the last two slots in their schedule (at the time of writing) with a couple of house concerts.
When he is not guerrilla gigging around the Highlands, Lewis also makes a living as a graphic artist, illustrating his own sleeves and website and producing his own comic Fuff (originally Guff until he realised someone else had got in there first) at a rate of one new issue per year.
“I love making comics, it’s in my blood,” he says. “I can never remember a time when I wasn’t reading comic books and trying to make comic books. I’d spend hours at the local photocopy machines, mastering the best ways to use the collating machines and staplers and folding.”
Lewis’s style is detailed, colourful and packed with personality. He has written a thesis on Alan Moore’s alternative superhero series Watchmen and delivered lectures on the subject, but his own work is mostly inspired by Daniel Clowes’ Eightball series, which spawned the graphic novel Ghost World.
“Eightball is the Beatles of underground comic books,” says Lewis. “Within a few years the writing and art had gotten so sophisticated that it sort of snuck up on high-brow culture from an unexpected side angle. But that transition period, where there’s something that’s morphing from an entertaining ephemeral bit of trash culture to have much higher ambitions, that’s kind of like what happened to rock music in the 60s, and the middle period is so full of excitement and weirdness and amazing stuff, it’s like you can tell the creators were blowing their own minds every day.”
Lewis has also produced three illustrated instalments of Sonnet Youth (a name so good that it is also used by a Glasgow-based spoken word night) in which he re-interprets the back catalogue of New York giants Sonic Youth in sonnet form. His tributes to fellow New Yorkers don’t end there. He also organises annual tribute concerts to two fallen NY legends – Velvet Underground titan Lou Reed and poet, cartoonist and activist Tuli Kupferberg, of experimental rockers The Fugs. Their passing also inspired his most recent album, Manhattan, a sardonic homage to his hometown and how it might manage without who Lewis describes as its two “greatest urban songwriter chroniclers.”
“I just didn’t see anybody around who seemed ready, willing or able to even think about picking up the baton,” he says. “But by the early 2000s I had already gotten pretty tired of ranting about all the ways NYC had changed since my childhood. You can either turn into an old grump, always boring people with tales of how everything was better in the good old days, or you can try to keep your heart open to what is new and exciting.”
Lewis is unusual on the New York music scene in that he is a lifelong native of the Lower East Side. “New York City bands mostly moved to NYC from other places, and tried to act cool, and that includes all the greats, Dylan, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Sonic Youth and so on,” he says. “In rock, nobody really cares where you’re from, the important thing is what you’re trying to pretend to be, the imagination and spirit you put into creating your new fake cool image. In rap, you’re proud of your roots, even if your roots are someplace that nobody cared about, like Staten Island, or Compton. So in some ways I have more in common with rap than rock, because I never had the experience of moving to NYC.
“And anyway, there is currently actually nothing cool about Manhattan. As hip young rock culture, it’s been over for a long time. Only boring old men like me are based there!”
Jeffrey Lewis tours Scotland, starting at the Hibs Supporters Club, Leith on 4 September. Full tour dates on www.thejeffreylewissite.com; Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts play Saramago Café Bar, CCA, Glasgow, 9 October and The Burning Hell play the Hug & Pint, Glasgow, on 21 November