Jeffrey Lewis: “Every night is a challenge”

UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France, Jeffrey Lewis is back on the European roads. The opportunity to talk with him about music, of course, but not only…

Scribouille: A marathon tour in Europe is coming. After so many years, what still motivates you to come on stage?

Jeffrey Lewis (J.L.): It’s not really a “marathon” tour. It’s just about three weeks. Usually all of my tours are only two or three weeks long, sometimes there’s a four weeks tour but that’s unusual. In 15 years of touring I have only once or twice done tours of 6 weeks or longer. I think keeping the tours short is part of what keeps them exciting, there’s no time to get tired of it. Also, one of the things that keeps touring exciting and fun and artistically challenging is that I always have new songs to work on, and I always try to write a different set list for every single night of a tour. Right now there is a very long list of songs to pick from. Before every gig, I look at the list of songs – old songs, new songs, illustrated songs, cover songs – and it is really a fun challenge to try to create an interesting set every night. Every night is a challenge, to try to make the greatest gig possible, and to try to do it in a new way. I really don’t understand how bands can tour with the same set every night. That would become boring, I think. I don’t know.

Scribouille: Would you say that it is a privilege to live such a life or you sometimes said to yourself that you would feel better behind a desk?

J.L.: Sometimes people say to me “you’re really living the dream!” But it’s not MY dream… MY dream, since I was very little, was to grow up to make comic books! It was never my dream to make music, making music has become my living, and I do love making music and writing songs and playing gigs, but my dream is still to make comic books. So, yes, maybe my life would be better behind a desk, if it was a desk for making comic books! Really, I love making songs and also doing comics. It would be hard to stop making songs.

Scribouille: Border wall, travel ban, Charlottesville… Are you one of those for whom the word « Resist » took a quite particular meaning since a few months?

J.L.: It’s difficult when the most important resistance would be at the polls. Resistance in the street is important, but if 100 people march in the street, or if 10,000 people march in the street, or if 1,000,000 people march in the street, it doesn’t change the fact that 60,000,000 Americans actually voted for Trump. I will always go to street demonstrations, and I go to Washington DC for the important street demonstrations, but I still hold opinion that in this current system the real change comes when you vote. Some people don’t like this opinion, but it seems to me to have some truth. The next coming elections will be very important. People who support Trump are probably not affected by marches in the street, but people need to bring their emotions to the voting process to get different representatives in office. Trump himself is not the most scary part, he’s just an obnoxious asshole and there are a lot of obnoxious assholes in the world, the thing that is so scary is that so many people would actually vote for him to represent us! How can this person be picked to represent us? What does he represent? It’s horrible to think about! It’s really a sad thing.

Scribouille: In a way, Donald Trump could be a perfect cartoon character, right?

J.L.: I suppose. But I’m sick of looking at him and thinking about him. I would rather see cartoons of something else.

Scribouille: We know the formula affixed by Woody Guthrie on his guitar, « This machine kills fascists », do you think that music can have this kind of power on the crowds?

J.L.: I think culture has a powerful effect on how people think and feel. Music and movies and TV shows, anything that is entertaining, the entertainment always carries with it a philosophy, a way of thinking, a sense of what is okay and what is not okay. People react to what moves them emotionally, and the morals that are within the art become part of their brain, almost subliminally. For example, you really almost never see a union in a movie or on TV. When you watch a movie with police, like, say, Die Hard, they don’t talk about the policeman’s union; when you watch a movie with airplane pilots, they don’t talk about being in a union. When you watch a TV show, like The Simpsons, or any basic sit-com, they never talk about having a union at their job. It is not part of culture. It is made invisible. So the idea doesn’t become part of people’s minds. That’s just an example.

Another example – think about Compton, in California, it is now known all around the world, because of the great recordings of NWA and Dr Dre and other hip-hop albums that have permeated culture. Nobody in the world would ever think about Compton, if not for the power of those recordings. But those artists could talk about anything; if they talked about Wyoming instead everybody would be thinking about Wyoming. The art is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar; he could write anything on his guitar, and it means nothing, unless the artist is great. Just today I bought an old beat-up vinyl copy of the Woody Guthrie album about Sacco and Vanzetti. The story of what happened to Sacco and Vanzetti, who died all the way back in 1927, that story remains in some people’s minds only because a great artist like Woody included that story in his art. But it doesn’t even have to be a specific story; it can also just be a way of thinking about life. We get a lot of messages from culture.

Scribouille: Half a century ago, the youth vibrated for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez… Today, the stars are Justin Timberlake, Aryanah Grande or Taylor Swift. How did we get into this mess and what it reveals for you ?

J.L.: I think in the 1960s there were millions of records sold by artists that nobody thinks about now, records that have been forgotten because they are dull or unchallenging. If you look at the sales charts from the 1960s, there is a lot of bad, bad stuff on there. I think it is just because good material remains interesting to people, it always seems like an era was great when you look back on it. It’s probably the same today; I think in 50 years, if people are still interested in music the way they are now, people will probably say this was a great time for music, because only the great stuff will be remembered! Maybe you and I don’t even know what the great stuff is, right now! It’s always possible. Actually, it’s pretty likely. I bet that right now, in the past five or ten years, the greatest albums and songs are probably STILL not known, by you or me or by almost anybody. There is too much material being made. Some of it MUST be incredible, fantastic, eternal, but it will take a lot of time for erosion, for all the dirt to naturally blow away and only leave the diamonds. It’s a slow process of nature, like water dripping on a stone.

Scribouille: A last word on the current projects? Maybe a new album is coming?

J.L.: Yes, I’ve got three albums that have been recorded in the recent months, but I don’t know what will happen with any of them. One album is all covers of songs written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, he died a few years ago and I have been planning to make an album of new versions of his writing for a while, some songs and poems that are known and other material that was never released, and now I am finished with the record, it just is waiting for some method of release. Another album I have been working on is a collaboration album with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, this is the third album we have made together, we made an album together in 2011 and another on in 2013 and now we have our new album but it is not finished, I need to do some more work on it. Then there is also a new album with my own band, my follow-up album to the “Manhattan” album that was released by Rough Trade over a year ago, but this follow-up album also needs more work. I recorded all the songs a couple months ago but I think I want to record some other songs for it, or write more songs for it, and also the songs that were recorded haven’t been mixed yet, so I need to take some time to work on all of this. And I need to start working on a new comic book too! I have been spending a lot of time working on a finished version of the book that I wrote about Watchmen, it is a big 200-page critical analysis of the Watchmen comic book, it’s a project I have been working on for many years, and now it is finally ready to be published, but I am not sure of my next move. So right now I have the album of Tuli Kupferberg cover songs finished and ready to release, and I have my Watchmen book finished and ready to release, but I need to work more to finish the new Jeffrey Lewis/Peter Stampfel album, and I need to work more to finish the new Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts album.  Maybe some of this stuff will come out in late 2017 or early 2018.

Hervé Pugi

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