Jeffrey Lewis, antifolk hero, finds a way to please his fans and pay the rent
Like a lot of musicians that come out of the broad tradition of folk, Jeffrey Lewis' work is best evaluated in the flesh.
That's not to say he doesn't make good records. He's just put one out: A Turn in the Dream-Songs, his sixth album for Rough Trade. But in person, Lewis' scratchy voice and sardonic lyrics and deadpan charm amplify the effect of his voice in a way no studio mix can quite catch.
Live performances also give Lewis a showcase for his other talents. On Friday night, during his well-attended post-Thanksgiving show at the Mercury Lounge—the finale of a month on the road, with more to follow—Lewis sang "French Revolution" while a slideshow of his comics played, illustrating the lyrics, like "The rich were scared for real / When they stormed to the Bastille / And rebellions also broke out in the villages."
"I always saw myself as an illustrator and a comic-book artist," Lewis said over the phone on Wednesday, still in Baltimore and not yet arrived here. "From a very young age, I was always drawing. I certainly never identified much as a musician, but at some point in my early 20s, when I was making songs, I realized that I could think of myself, perhaps, as a songwriter."
Today, Lewis estimates his income as coming from "maybe, like, 65 percent music and 35 percent art."
"I guess the art of performance has become a pretty important part of all of it," he said. "I was playing shows in 2000 and 2001, but I wasn't playing shows every night the way you do on tour. I started going on these short tours around 2002. Really, my whole ability to take a stage and play in front of a roomful of people developed tremendously between 2002 and 2005."
The reason he amped up his touring?
"Uh, money," he said. "If you're at home writing songs and making comic books, nobody pays you to just sit at your desk and do that work. It's just bringing what you have created to people where—that's where the money comes from. And I don't feel like I have the ego to run around and think that everybody in the world needs to hear my songs. That's just the financial sort of hinge, that everything else grows from."
Lewis got some luck in 2002, when he went to England to promote his '01 debut, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane.
"At one of those shows was the guitarist for the band Cornershop, and they invited me to do a tour of America and England. That was like a very big leg up, except that it was a leg up into a world that was too big for me to run with at that point. I mean, Cornershop was playing to a thousand or two thousand people, somewhere in that category. It wasn't just like I returned to those venues on my own, after that tour, but it sort of showed me some of that world.
"Really the transition in 2002 was that Rough Trade set me up on a tour of Germany and Ireland and Holland, and I realized that there was no way for me to survive the official way. They had hired a driver, hired a tour manager, rented amplifiers, there were hotel rooms for everybody. There were just so many expenses, that at the end, there was not going to be any money left for me to go home and pay my rent with.
"But I realized that people wanted to come to these shows. There was money to be made if I could figure out a way to tour where I wasn't spending that money, without things that I didn't need. Like, I know how to drive a car. Everybody in my band knows how to drive. You know, we're totally happy staying at friends' houses, and we don't need amplifiers. We toured for years without amplifiers. We can play completely awesome plugged into whatever. The songs are great, that's the important thing."
Of course—Lewis is a singer-songwriter. Though he ideally performs with a backing trio—the configuration he played with on Friday night—he's gigged solo, duo, trio, you name it. "Each lineup owns a certain section of our song repertoire," he said.
Solo is the way I know him best, thanks to a memorable appearance on Nov. 4, 2010 at Housing Works, as part of the comedy zine The Lowbrow Reader's release party. (I've written for the zine.) It's the first place I encountered some of the material that wound up on Dream-Songs, including "Cult Boyfriend" and "Krongu Green Slime," about a brand-name primordial ooze.
"At the event, there were some music people and some comedy people in the crowd," said Lowbrow editor Jay Ruttenberg. "I had a couple people coming up to me asking whether he was a comedian or a musician. These were comedy people, saying that in a favorable way. I'm almost loath to say that because it sounds insulting, but to me that's a really high compliment."
Lewis isn't insulted by this, but doesn't feel quite the same way, himself.
"More of my stuff is depressing than funny a lot of the time. I'm always surprised to hear that people think so much of it is comedy, although there is stuff that is funny, certainly, but I think that [for] any writer who is really openly approaching writing while existing on planet Earth, there's love, there's sadness, there's philosophy, there's horror, there's wonder, and there's humor as well. I don't think I draw upon, necessarily, any one of those elements more than any other one. A lot of the greatest rock writers of all time will have you laughing as often as not: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman, Daniel Johnston, the Grateful Dead, or in certain instances the Rolling Stones. The Beatles were not averse to having elements of humor."
But what Lewis does more often than most songwriters it to turn over a single idea as many ways as possible. "Time Trades," from A Turn in the Dream-Songs, is a good example, as Lewis sings about the sustainment of hobbies:
It could be many things, it could be anything
It could be expertise in Middle Eastern traveling
Something to slowly sow to balance life's unraveling
You have no choice, you have to pay time's price
But you can use the price to buy you something nice
Something you can only buy with time
So when you're old you blow some whippersnapper's mind
"There is no objective reality," Lewis said of that song's gestation. "I feel like a lot of what I strive for, in the things that I create, is hopefully ways that are helpful or will help me out of a dark place, to see it in a different way. One of the weird things about 'Time Trades' is that I had actually somewhat attempted to write that song a few years ago. I found an old cassette that I had forgotten about—the same philosophical outlook but different lyrics, different melody, a completely different song."
On Dream-Songs, "Time Trades" makes a great 1-2 (albeit at tracks 5 and 6) with "Cult Boyfriend," the kind of throwaway that sticks, as Lewis compares his kind of courtship with love-or-don't-care-at-all cultural markers like the Misfits, the rental-favorite movie comedy Meet the Feebles, and the comic-book epic Cerebus: "A cult boyfriend's like a record in a bargain bin / No one knows what it's worth until a collector comes in."
"It wasn't something that I necessarily would have even thought of putting on an album," said Lewis, something borne out by the song's parting lines: "This song probably ain't gonna go very far beyond an open mike—I guarantee, though, that two or three people are really gonna like it."
"I've been surprised at how much that seems to resonate with people," Lewis said. "I really thought of that song as a fun thing that I would just play at an open mic one night and forget about it. It definitely was a surprise to me that that one seems to be one of people's favorites. Playing [a song] live a lot of times opens my eyes to what power it does or doesn't have. When you play [it] in front of a room full of people you get more of a sense of what is actually gripping and what is actually compelling and what isn't."
What isn't compelling are the subway irritations that got me to Lewis' Friday-night show at the Mercury Lounge a good 10 minutes into Lewis's set, an hour later than I'd intended. What was compelling is that when I got there, Lewis was in the midst of a song called "I Got Lost," and followed it with "Anxiety Attack," because apparently his set list can read my mind.
He had the audience well in hand, too, whether dedicating "French Revolution" to Occupy Wall Street or telling the story of his time working at Kim's Video, trying to convince owner Mr. Kim to get into videogame rentals in the early '90s. (There were hoots in the crowd at the mention of Mega Man 3.)
Still, as Ruttenberg points out, Lewis' word-heavy style couldn't be less fashionable in an indie world dominated by the easy-listening likes of Wilco. Maybe that's why two of the final songs in Lewis' set were not just covers, but overtly rockin' ones.
"There was a furniture store that hired us to play some covers," Lewis explained before starting a version of "2 + 2 = ?," the Bob Seger System's Vietnam-protest single from 1968. ("Don't laugh," Lewis admonished when Seger's name brought forth smug indie-kid giggles.) Lewis didn't talk-sing this the way he normally does—it seemed as if he was going to blow his voice out, though thankfully he didn't.
By comparison, Tom Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream," the finale, was a breeze. But even there, you could hear a clue to Lewis' own methodology. "Working on a mystery," he sang. "Going wherever it leads."