HE GREW up in a counterculture atmosphere in New York’s Lower East Side, surrounded by music, comic books, and alternative ways of looking at the world. He is Jeffrey Lewis - singer, songwriter, lyricist, artist, storyteller, and comic book creator.
In short, he is indie-rock’s Renaissance Man. “I like that title,” Jeffrey tells me, “but maybe it’s not so unusual in this day and age, I think a lot of people do a lot of different things nowadays.”
Jeffrey Lewis & The Rain (bassist Isabel Martin and drummer Heather Wagner) play the Róisín Dubh on Tuesday July 16 at 8pm as part of the Galway Arts Festival.
“I love Galway but I’ve never spent more than a day or two maximum,” Jeffrey tells me. “In 1996 I hitch-hiked around Ireland and Galway was a special part of that trip.”
The boy from
New York City
Jeffrey was born in 1975 in New York’s Lower East Side, then a centre for bohemian life and activity.
“It was like Sesame Street,” he says. “You could lean out the window and say hello to the neighbourhood drug dealers, everybody was very friendly and neighbourly. It was dangerous but you knew everybody in the building and knew everybody on the block, a real community. Now it’s not like that.”
Jeffrey and his brother Jack, who is also a musician, and with whom he has recorded a number of albums, eg, 2005’s City and Eastern Songs, were suffused in that counterculture, bohemian atmosphere from the start. On the walls of their apartment, their parents had hung pictures of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and trade union activist Joe Hill.
“I’ve always taken ‘counter-culture’ as a given, that just was the culture of my parents and of the whole neighbourhood, and even my extended family, grandparents, uncle, etc. Everybody was a civil rights lawyer, a communist, a drug dealer, or a world-traveller, nobody had a normal job, nobody got married, this was all just my normal reality. It still is, to some degree, but now I have an understanding of how much of a cultural bubble this is when compared to 99.9 per cent of the rest of America.”
As well as influencing his socio-political outlook, Jeffrey’s parents also informed his musical tastes.
“My dad plays pretty good country-blues guitar, Mississippi John Hurt style,” says Jeffrey. “He also plays boogie-woogie piano. My mother is more of a folkie. She plays some acoustic guitar and piano, more like Joan Baez style. There were always blues and jazz and folk records around, and a couple Rolling Stones, Beatles and Dylan LPs. They also had a copy of the first Fugs LP, which was a great thing for me to discover in their record shelf when I was a teen.”
Although a stimulating environment for a young person to grow up in, Jeffrey admits it was “boredom and loneliness” which finally persuaded him to take up a guitar. “I was drawing a lot of comic books but that still wasn’t enough to fill up all my empty time,” he says, “so I started procrastinating by messing with a guitar that was sitting around.”
Jeffrey began recording and releasing his own music in the late 1990s via cassette, before signing with Rough Trade and in 2001 he released his debut proper - The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, the start of a run of excellent albums (2009’s ‘Em Are I in particular) which have embraced folk, country, indie-rock, psychedelia, and punk, with a quirky, infectious, melodic sense. What is the attraction of exploring so many diverse genres?
“I can’t reject any songs that come along for me - it’s not like I say ‘Oh, I just wrote a folk song, I need to play that one in my folk project...’” he says. “It’s all one ‘project’ so everything just goes into it, whatever I write and draw and whatever I’m interested in just ends up in there.
“Obviously some genres are more approachable than others; no matter how interested I might get in African jazz or something like that I’m not probably going to be able to play it. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to try - even if I totally mangle it, at least nobody notices what I’m ripping off.”
Hey Hey It’s...
Jeffrey is an also extremely gifted lyricist, whose narrative style encompasses absurdist humour, social commentary, personal reifications, and witticisms. This is heard in one his greatest songs ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’. Has Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) heard the song?
“Somebody sent me a link to a radio interview with Will Oldham where he’s asked about my song, and he is very kind and flattering in his appreciation of it,” says Jeffrey. “He humorously said being mentioned in a good song is like having your company logo on the hood of a winning race car, it was very sweet of him to say.”
Jeffrey’s most recent album is the country-folk tour de force Hey Hey It’s...The Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band, recorded with the violinist of 1960s freak-folk band The Holy Modal Rounders, and which came out in May.
“I love the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs, great strange New York City folk-punk-drug bands that Peter was in. Making records with him is really a dream come true,” says Jeffrey. “He is an incredibly energetic and inspirational person. He’s 75 this year, with a family and everything. He really puts so much enthusiasm into everything he does, it shows you a great way to live, he’s like a guru of joyfulness. And he collects bottle caps, he has 13,000 of them.”
Jeffery is also at work on his next solo project. “I am very excited to be working on new material with this current band,” he says. “Having the double female backing vocals is a great sonic element I’ve never had before.”
Comic book artist
As well as his musical endeavours, Jeffrey is also a fine comic book artist - he cites Daniel Clowes, Rick Veitch, Chester Brown, and Alan Moore as inspirations. He produces his own comic Fuff as well as illustrating works for other writers.
His most recent collaboration is illustrating Jaimee Garbacik’s Gender and Sexuality For Beginners, a history of the evolution of society’s basic tenets surrounding gender and sexuality - an experience he says he learned much from.
“It made me think a lot about the shifting of public perception of sexuality over decades or over centuries, always an interesting subject,” he says.
The New Yorker has also contributed to a book project Let’s Start A Pussy Riot in support of the controversial Russian feminist punk band.
“Pussy Riot exemplifies a philosophy that Alan Moore expresses when he talks about the magic and power of art,” he says. “Pussy Riot has raised awareness and changed the public perception and the public dialogue just through their own creativity and passion. They struck fear into an extremely wealthy and powerful hierarchy just by speaking out in a very creative and colourful and powerful and fearless way, which is a stark contrast to how most bands utilise their powers.”
In conclusion, would the artist call himself a ‘Feminist’ or (as some men prefer) a ‘Pro-Feminist Male’? “Feminist is fine with me,” he says. “It just rolls off the tongue more easily.”