INTERVIEW: Jeffrey Lewis | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Jacob Blickenstaff

Comic book writer and anti-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis is a person who encapsulates the DIY nature of music. Before we started chatting, he was in the middle of drawing his own flyers for his latest album release party, which he and some kind volunteers would post around the city later on that day.

“It’s the same thing with my album covers and everything else. It doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to hire someone else to do it, I’m always involved in illustration, I’ve been doing that longer than the music stuff, so it doesn’t really cross my mind that there’s going to be anyone else doing my album covers or making my posters and stuff like that.”

Despite being an accomplished and now established musician, Lewis admitted that in an ideal world comic books would be his career of choice, and he believes the animation books were the original rock stars.

“They are absolutely my first love, but the thing is, everybody listens to music but not that many people read comic books. It’s strange because comics pre-date rock ‘n’ roll by a good few years and for the first 10/15 years of their existence comic books were rock ‘n’ roll culture. It was unfettered, seat of your pants counter culture. It was cheap. Anyone could dive in and start making comics. They are just another vestige of an underground culture that probably should have gone obsolete decades ago, yet somehow still remains.”

Whilst searching for recognition as an animator, Lewis stumbled into the world of music without plan; he explained how he eventually settled into his life as a musician after time spent trying to find an audience. “I became a musician almost accidentally. I was playing at open mic nights whilst I was trying to get my comics seen and being a musician was actually a great way for me to sell my comics. People would come and see me sing and then buy my comics afterwards. There was a definite audience there, rather than just me dropping my comics off at stores. It was a great bridge between myself and an audience. Then the music just accidentally snowballed into this career that I had never anticipated.”

Following his emergence into the world of music, Lewis was branded as one of the darlings of the ‘anti-folk’ scene. “For me it’s irrelevant what genre an artist is tagged, they’re going to be asked about it. If I was a jazz guy playing cool bop or free jazz or something, I’d still be asked about it. You’re going to be tagged with something, there’s no getting around that and I’m pretty lucky in that sense because there are very few people described as anti-folk, so I almost completely missed the whole being pigeonholed with other artists and being asked about my work in terms of other people’s. Fortunately I was put in a box that no one really knows, so it maintains a certain degree of mystique, which is much better than people thinking they’ve heard you before they’ve listened to your stuff.”

They are absolutely my first love, but the thing is, everybody listens to music but not that many people read comic books. It’s strange because comics pre-date rock ‘n’ roll by a good few years

Jeffrey’s new album, Manhattan, tells tales of people who are from the largest borough of New York. It brings more of the simplistic, intimate folk style that fans will already be well accustomed to, particularly noticeable in opening track Scowling Crackhead Ian, which maintains his Lou Reed-esque honest flattened vocals telling sombre tales over minimalistic guitars, whilst creating a different look at a city which he believes is becoming a saturated source of inspiration for music and art. “I like the title because I felt it was a way of helping people recognise that New York is an over-saturated source. I was born here in 1975 and so I see the city very differently to many bands who write their music about the city. The culture of New York bands is that they moved here from elsewhere, probably to Brooklyn and that’s probably 99% of any New York band that you could name. So just the fact that I’m from Manhattan and not Brooklyn and that I’ve lived here my whole life stands out as something that’s completely outside of what everyone is a part of.”

One song on the new album, titled Support Tours, talks about the issue of musicians trying to gain recognition off the back of already successful artists by supporting them on tour. The song is once again true to Lewis’s rambling conversational singing style, with a ‘less is more’ approach to the musical accompaniment and highlights a different, grittier and often unnoticed side of the world of rock and roll. “There’s no movie or TV show that you could really point to that shows what it’s really like to be in a band. There’s a real contrast to that lack of knowledge compared to what people think they know about it. You could point to any random job, like an air conditioner mechanic or something and very few people could claim to know what that person actually does. But people always assume that my life is constantly partying like a rock star. People think they know what going on tour is because they’ve seen Spinal Tap, but the reality is really often quite different.”

Jeffrey Lewis plays The Cluny, Newcastle on Monday 14th December.

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