Beethoven Should Have Tried Harder: An Interview With Jeffrey Lewis
Jeffrey Lewis has been putting out playfully gut-wrenching, highly intelligent anti-folk music for just over 20 years and, at 42, he's showing no signs of slowing down. Lewis recently finished tracking his latest record with producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, Lou Reed, Nico, John Prine); he's currently working on the 12th installment of his comic book series, Fuff; he's toured the world with the likes of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Kimya Dawson, Daniel Johnston, The Mountain Goats, and Roky Erickson; he's contributed illustrations to The History Channel and he's written for the New York Times. Have you really never heard of him?
Who are you?
Jeffrey Lightning Lewis.
Where are you from?
What my parents used to call the Lower East Side, in Manhattan.
Do you have a favorite thing (band or food or book or...) that has remained your favorite thing for as long as you can remember?
The Rolling Stones as a favorite rock & roll band, and Evil Dead 2 as a favorite movie; those are things I decided on around age 13 and, even though I’m now 42, I’ve never felt a strong enough need to revoke their status!
Will you tell us a little bit about the upcoming comic book?
It’s issue #12 of my series Fuff. It’s the first issue in the series that tells one continuous, fictional story. It involves a lot of characters from previous issues, but I don’t want to say too much about it. Ideas get deflated when you talk about them, rather than just getting them done.
Is it very different from Fuff's previous installments?
It’s definitely pretty different from the others. I don’t know what readers will make of it, but one of the great things about comic books is that there’s very little commercial pressure to conform to any expectations. There’s no editor, no investors, no deadlines, and practically no audience, ha ha! I feel wonderfully free to do things that are probably too weird or outrageous or unconventional or just too stupid for much more than a niche curiosity market. This kind of true alternative culture is what I miss about the comics I loved in the 90s: they were at a high level of skill and passion, with almost zero pretensions towards acceptance.
Do you have any plans for the future of the series?
I was thinking this would be the last issue of the series, that I’d start a new series with the next issue being issue #1 . Essentially more of the same—a “one person anthology” as they call it in the biz—but it would also be a convenient way for me to get rid of this current title Fuff, which I’ve gotten tired of. It’s too shy of a title somehow.
You’re getting ready to put out an album. What’s the process like as a touring musician who’s been around for 20+ years?
Every time I make an album I feel like I’ll never be able to make another one, and then somehow a couple years later there’s another album in the works. Most bands or songwriters seem to get worse over time—the threat of that kind of creeping rot is horrible. Each album feels like, “Well, somehow I just managed to make my best-ever album… so there’s no point in ever making another one, why put out stuff that’s worse than what I put out before?” I could be deceiving myself, but I think this new album is even better than the previous one, and at the time I thought that previous one would be my all-time masterpiece. Now when I listen back to it I hear all these flaws, and I think the new one is a lot better. Simpler, cleaner, more enjoyable as a whole. A big difference is that this new album is comprised of songs I’ve been playing live with my band for a year or more, songs that have had more time to develop and improve, so by the time we got into the studio we were in a great spot to just bang out a great album. Also, I got in touch with producer Roger Moutenot to record it; he produced all my favorite Yo La Tengo albums and also worked on some other personal favorites like Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss. It was a real treat to get to work with somebody like that.
Are you still enjoying yourself?
It’s hard to enjoy oneself, I find. I don’t understand vacations or parties—maybe I just don’t get drunk often enough. The biggest thrill, the best feeling, the enjoyment that I strive for is, for me, the feeling of being excited about what I’m doing artistically. Playing what feels like the best set of a tour, or coming up with a great idea for the artwork for my next album. Or writing a song that feels really powerful in some way to me or, currently, working on a comic book that feels personally groundbreaking. It’s just as challenging as it ever was, just as depressing and heartbreaking when I feel like I'm failing over and over, and just as life-affirming and exciting as ever when I feel like I’m doing something good.
In an interview in 2013, you mentioned you prefer “keeping things homemade” to “going hi-fi.” Would you say the same today?
Around that time I was really into the idea of doing albums in a single day, or weekend; I made about four albums like that, from 2011-2014. Cheap, effective, direct. But then around 2014 I started feeling like I wanted to make an album where I gave myself no constraints on time or budget, where I could see what level of quality I was capable of if the album had no built-in excuses, regarding how fast or cheap it was recorded. Now that I’ve done a few projects like that, I’m kind of going back a bit in the other direction with the new album, working relatively quickly and not overthinking things. But doing it in a great studio with a great producer, and using songs that have had time to evolve on the road already. There’s no guaranteed way to find magic in making an album, each time it’s like trying a new method and hoping you end up with something that exceeds your own expectations. Trying to surprise myself, that’s the main thing. I think if you can capture that surprise in a recording, it’s there forever for whoever listens.
Language and ideas are like a wooden scaffolding in your head that you can drape your thoughts on, like towels.
It’s evident in your songwriting that you think deeply about language; I’m wondering if being labeled a “musician” might feel frustrating at times, in light of your other creative ventures. Do you have a preferred label?
Yeah I don’t really know what to call it. When I enter the UK I have to present a work visa, and it lists my occupation as “musician.” If somebody asks me what I “do for a living” I guess “musician” is the easiest thing to say, but I think it gives the wrong impression. Sometimes I’ll encounter somebody before I play a gig, somebody who’s never heard my stuff and is asking me if they should buy a ticket, like “what kind of music is it? Would I like it? Are you any good?” and I say stuff like, “Well, I’m not a very good singer. And I’m not a very good guitar player. But I promise it’ll be one of the best concerts you’ve ever seen.” And they get confused. A woman came up to me after a show and said “I loved that, but what do you call what you do? It isn’t music!” People get confused, because what I do is not ticking the boxes they assume an artist would need to tick in order to be great. They like it, but they can’t figure out why! I think that’s great. That’s probably why I loved Evil Dead 2 so much as a teenager and have forever after thought of it as my favorite movie, because is it a horror movie? An action movie? A comedy? A bad movie? It doesn’t do what you thought a great movie is supposed to do, but it’s great.
Do labels manipulate perception?
Does language construct reality?
To a scary degree, probably. Language and ideas are like a wooden scaffolding in your head that you can drape your thoughts on, like towels. The scaffolding determines where the thoughts hang, how they relate to each other, and whether they have a place to hang at all. If there’s no scaffolding for it, the thought just falls right through and vanishes.
I read a review of ‘em Are I (which I only yesterday realized is homonymous with MRI) that critiqued the record for favoring lyricism over musicality. Do you have anything to say on this?
Ha, yeah, and I don’t listen to much Miles Davis or Beethoven because they favor musicality over lyricism. They should have tried harder. What a funny statement. I’m sure somebody could say the Velvet Underground suck because they favor rock and roll over zydeco. Can’t please everybody. And some people seem to prefer content, other people seem to prefer form, what can I say.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
20 years ago I was making comic books and making up songs, maybe I’ll still be doing it 20 years from now. I’m amazed I’ve been able to keep going for so long as it is, hopefully I won’t be stopped by arthritis or creative boredom or a zillion other things, but nothing lasts forever one way or another. I don’t know how many Jeffrey Lewis albums the world really needs, but actually some of my all-time favorite artists like The Fall or Lou Reed made dozens of great albums, so anything’s possible. And comic books don’t usually get worse and worse as the creator ages, the way bands usually get worse at a certain point. Comic books are like novels: if you make them, you’re supposed to just go on and on like Philip Roth, crank them out, one great one after another, some better than others, great periods, lesser periods, why not. Although Richard Hell, in his autobiography, said that when he was in his 20s he thought there’d be no reason why he wouldn’t go on making albums every year or two for the rest of his life; as it turned out, he only made two albums then gave up on it. It’s easy to say you’re gonna keep on doing it, but life does have a way of getting in your way.
Neither the record nor the comic book will be coming out for some time—he guesses February of next year—so for now here's an old song/comic Jeffrey made about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And here's a song that never fails to make me feel nostalgic for a life I haven't lived.