Jeffrey Lewis: a musician for music fans

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      First things first, in talking with Jeffrey Lewis: how is Peter Stampfel doing?

      Stampfel is the cofounder of the Holy Modal Rounders, best known for “If You Want to be a Bird” on the Easy Rider soundtrack; for a short time, early on, he was also a member of the Fugs. (He’s the guy going “fuckin’ A man” in the background of “CIA Man”.) Lewis not only knows and records with Stampfel, sometimes (like he did with Tuli Kupferberg, whom you can see in his video for “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror”); Lewis also first came to my attention as a direct result of my interviewing Stampfel for the out-of-print, out-of-publication music zine Bixobal, circa 2007.

      “Besides writing songs, he’s a brilliant cartoonist,” Stampfel explained, “and he does a whole bunch of songs that have full-page cartoons, and he’ll sing the songs while turning the page. Some are funny, some are just whacked.” (In this regard, we direct you to “Creeping Brain”.) “He’s amazing. I met Lewis at [the Fugs'] Ed Sanders’s birthday party, and there’s two kids on-stage, and one of them says, ‘We’re going to do a history of punk rock on the Lower East Side which is a history of punk rock, 1959 to 1975,’ and I thought (skeptically), ‘Yeah, kid—yeah, right. This is gonna be good.’ And he proceeded to do this 12-minute thing starting with Harry Smith, going to the Holy Modal Rounders, and then the Fugs, and basically namechecking every single punkish influence, and then in 1975 the Ramones get to England and people believe that punk rock is invented. And he would sing a little snippet of every single group he was going through, and he nailed it! I mean, he did a brilliant job of exposition—he remembers things that I’d forgotten, you know? And I went up to the guy—‘Man, that was fucking great, you nailed it!’ And subsequently he asked me to record on an album behind him called City and Eastern Songs [2005] that Kramer recorded.”

      Flash forward 12 years and there are now a few Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel albums, and the two have toured together. (Here they are in England, doing “Black Leather Swamp Nazi”.) Stampfel is not with Lewis for the latter’s upcoming Vancouver show, but the two remain tight.

      So how is Stampfel?

      “Peter’s showing his age a bit,” Lewis responds, reached on the road en route to Vancouver, where he’ll be playing—with his new band the Voltage—at Pub 340 on Sunday. “He’s 81, and it’s been one little medical hassle after another for a while, his eyes, his elbow, his hip, his throat, now his wrist, but that’s just old age, every part of his body is 81 years old—that’s a lot of old working parts to keep oiled up and running smoothly! But he’s still keeping very productive and creative with writing and recording and performing, as much as he’s able. We have two full unreleased albums together waiting to be released. I keep pondering whether we ought to just make it into a double album at this point to expedite the release of all this stuff.”

      If Stampfel’s testimonials (and the above clips) aren’t enough reason for you to pack into Pub 340 on Sunday, here’s another one. Jeffrey Lewis has only grown as a songwriter and performer since 2007, and his new album, Bad Wiring—put out by Don Giovanni Records, taking over duties from Lewis’s usual label, Rough Trade—is a stunner. “Bad Wiring is the greatest album of Jeffrey’s 18-year career,” the label asserts on the press release, which is kind of what you’d expect them to say, except check out, for example, the video for “LPs”,  Lewis’s deeply funny and true observations about the vinyl resurgence, as expressed through a sort of musical autobiography. Every single record collector worldwide will be able to find themselves in this song. It’s hilarious. It’s brilliant. And it’s a fun little movie, to boot.

      So who wrote and shot the video, and what were the locations? Are any of those shots of your actual record collection?

      “I wrote the video, it was shot by Jak Kerley of Shibby Pictures, from Greensboro, North Carolina. We met him on a tour in January 2018, and he offered his video-making services to me if I ever wanted to hire him. I liked the work that he’d done with Days N Daze and Matt Pless, so when I had my new album finally on its way I figured it was a good time to get in touch with Jak and try to make a couple videos, I had a couple video ideas I really wanted to make. So he came to NYC for a week in February and stayed at my place and we shot all the footage for two videos. The ‘LPs’ video then took months of back and forth emailing, with Jak back in N.C., him sending me updated edited versions, me sending him back instructions on changes to make and also sending him the animation/artwork stuff for him to include in certain scenes. I also had to do a tiny bit more filming with my phone in NYC to send to him, for a couple things. The other video we shot in February is still in this process of back-and-forth editing communication, but we’re almost finished.”

      As for the shops in the video, they “were all in New York City,” Lewis continues. “Most shops did not give us permission, but we did some quick guerrilla filming in places like Academy and the Thing, plus a couple other spots were very accommodating, especially Human Head Records in Bushwick. All the stuff in my apartment is my own collection, like the rapidly filling shelves.” 

      You’ll get the idea that besides being a terrific musician, Jeffrey is a fan of music—so much so that when he was last in Vancouver, playing the Toast Collective, I cajoled Chris Towers of Vancouver Christian garage rock band the New Creation to come to the show and say hi; Lewis was very familiar with the story of that band’s resurgence, and excited to talk to Towers. Are there any culty LP figures he’d like to meet this time? 

      Jeffrey Lewis and Chris Towers.
      Allan MacInnis

      “Hmm, an obscure and brilliant privately-pressed record creator from the ’60s or ’70s, currently living in Vancouver, I just have no idea who else I could think of! Were the Plastic Cloud from Vancouver?” (Nope, Ontario, but thanks for tryin’!) “That’s an all-time great lost ’60s garage-psych LP. The other Canadian records that come to mind are Reign Ghost or Perth County Conspiracy, but I think those were bands from Eastern Canada. But part of the magic of those weird lost records is the mystique. You don’t want to know too much about the people or the circumstances; often the mystery is a big part of the special sauce of the listening experience.”

      Some famed record collectors have done some pretty clever things to bolster their record collections, of course. Mats Gustafsson of Swedish jazz giants the Thing, along with Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke (both then in Sonic Youth), formed a band called Diskaholics Anonymous Trio and toured Japan, for instance, with a limited edition record called Trade Only that they would exchange for rarities brought to their shows, which, we gather, worked out pretty well for them. Lewis hadn’t heard of the concept, but he’s impressed. “I’ve never sold or traded records from my collection at home. Once something enters my house it tends not to leave, though I’m probably due for a large purge of books and records, a lot of stuff that I don’t really need or want to hold on to. I can’t imagine taking any of it on tour though, for trades—I’m usually struggling just to fit enough of my own comic books/CD/LPs merchandise into the tour car when on the road, not much room for anything extra. I don’t have a specific want list, but there are many albums I’d be excited to find, if I found them cheap!”

      Lewis’s usual rule, he explains, is not to spend more than 15 bucks on any one LP. “Like, I’d love to find original LP copies of the 4th and 5th West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band albums, and Silver Apples’ Contact album, and a thousand other things, but if I was willing to spend more than $15 on them I could go buy all of this stuff on eBay right this minute. They’re not hard to find, they’re just hard to find cheap. And nowadays it’s not very important to do this kind of search, because I can listen to those albums digitally any time I want. In the '90s I had a real agonizing thirst just to hear these records; finding a cheap copy was literally the only way I could hear them, and I was just dying to know what these things sounded like. The mystery and the challenge and the occasional success were all exhilarating. Now it’s so different, that conquest and satisfaction of finding and owning an incredible and unique lost album is basically gone. The big benefit nowadays is obviously the fact that I can hear countless great lost albums that would be essentially impossible to ever hear if I had to rely on finding originals.”

      Lewis’s output since Stampfel first pointed him out to me has included a couple of deeply ambitious projects, like creating folky adaptations of 12 Crass Songs . He’s also put out an album—which he may have a few of at Pub 340—of covers of the Fall, but that’s one that didn’t get huge distro. “I didn’t release it on a label or distribute it or put it online digitally, I just sell it at my gigs or off my website. It’s just a self-made bootleg of some live recordings of my band covering a bunch of Fall songs, over the course of a U.K. tour, right after Mark died. I only pressed 1,000 CD copies of it and I have a few left; I don’t plan to reprint it when these are gone. Just a little one-off project, for anybody who might care about that sort of thing—it doesn’t need to be in my ‘official catalogue’, or whatever.”

      Last time he played Vancouver, there were other totally delightful covers in Lewis’s set, some also illustrated. There was more than one song from Nirvana’s Bleach, if I recall, and at least one Pixies tune. But that doesn’t mean you can expect to hear either band included in his set this time out. “We’ve usually got some handful of cover songs in our repertoire at any given time, but they get boring once they become a standard thing. It’s only really fun if it’s an unexpected thing that we learn and then toss into a few sets once in a while, for a few months maybe, then we get excited about the idea of some other cover. There’s a lot of covers that we’ve done in the past, each one maybe played a few times, which we’ve now forgotten how to play. I like to do covers of '80s or '90s indie bands, so we’ve done a number of different songs by Sonic Youth, Television Personalities, Faith No More, Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, the Fall, and sometimes more modern bands like Dr. Dog or Parquet Courts. If it’s something surprising but fun and great, and recognizable to at least some portion of the audience, then it’s a good candidate. Especially if there’s some reason to do a certain cover. Like, we played a venue called Fun House in Madrid, so of course it was like, let’s start the gig with ‘Fun House’ by the Stooges. But there’s no reason to keep playing that song over and over forever. Sometimes there’s some regional reason to want to do a cover, like, we played a festival on the island of Elba, so I started the set with that Robyn Hitchcock song ‘Cynthia Mask’, where he talks about Napoleon and Elba in the lyrics. Or at a festival in England on a crummy rainy day we started with that Galaxie 500 song that’s like ‘I’m sorry about the weather.’ I’ve got a pretty good head for remembering lyrics if I set my mind to it, and most of this material is not complicated prog-rock, a few chords, steady beat. It’s often not hard to assemble a cover just in the car on the way to a show, or during a sound check if there’s an extra couple minutes. But other times, if there’s something a little more complex, we need to actually learn it and rehearse it a bit before trying it in public.”

      As for Bad Wiring, what’s the best song on the album, according to Jeffrey Lewis?

      “I think ‘Exactly What Nobody Wanted' is my best song on the album, it has the right mix of joy and tragedy and human experience that makes me feel like I’ve really done my job well.” The song is actually about just the kind of artists we’ve been discussing: “creative, intense, and obsessive” musicians (or other artists), who, completely ahead of their time, get neglected for decades: “You were practically completely beyond it/and you were exactly what nobody wanted.” You can hear a live early version of the song here, back when the band was called Los Bolts.

      “Also it has an actual bridge, which is unusual for me: in 20 years of songwriting I can probably count on one hand my songs that have a bridge. I always figured that my artistic path will have taken a definite downturn if I ever released an album that didn’t have at least one song deserving of being on a career-best compilation mix, so I think if the new album has a contribution to make to the all-time Jeffrey Lewis best-of song comp in my head, it would be that song. I hesitate to give this kind of weight to something though, because it skews a listeners’ ability to have their own feelings about the different songs and the value or experience of any particular song’s existence in the overall fabric of one’s life and thoughts. All the songs on the album are good songs to me, or they wouldn’t be on the album. There’s easily 50 or 60 other songs that I wrote during that time period that didn’t make the cut for me, and there’s even a few songs that we recorded in the studio when we were making the album that didn’t feel right to include in the end. So every album that I make is a ‘best-of’ compilation already, because it’s maybe 10 or 12 songs out of a pile of about 50 songs that I’ll have written since the previous album. I wish I had a higher batting average of writing more good songs, but I think from the very beginning in the late '90s up till now I maybe write a similar proportion of what I think are better songs to what I think are not as good songs. “

      Though the band name has changed since Lewis played the Toast Collective back in 2016—from Los Bolts to the Voltage—fans of that particular trio should note that it’s, in fact, the same trio, with bassist Mem Pahl and drummer Brent Cole. (Of course, Jeffrey’s brother Jack Lewis was also with them back then, but his participation in the West Coast leg of the current tour had yet to be determined at press time). “If I ever came up with a band name I really liked, then I’d stick with it longer. Each new album is a chance to reset the band name, whether I’m working with the same musicians or not. It’s like, oh, we have a new album coming out, if we stick with Los Bolts as the band name on the album cover that probably means we’ll be touring as Los Bolts for another couple years at least… why not take this convenient opportunity to have fun coming up with another name for a bit?” 

      Fans of Lewis’s comic art should also note that he’ll be selling his whole collection of Fuff comic books, which he writes and illustrates, as a complete set of 12 issues, sealed in one bag—something he’s never done before, he reports. “I would have assumed that folks coming to my gigs at this point would probably already have bought at least a couple comics from me in the past, if they were interested in that sort of thing, which would mean they wouldn’t want to buy a complete set since they already have some of it. But the complete set has been really outselling the individual issues! I’m also no longer carrying all the individual issues, it’s just too much. I’ve just got the most recent few issues on the merch table, plus the set. I’ve been working on my new issue for a long time, it’s an extra-long, 32-page story, but it’s also been such a busy couple years with tour booking and making the album and videos, I should have gotten my new issue finished and printed a long time ago, but I haven’t had time so it’s still not done.” People interested in Lewis’s comic art—every bit as delightful as his music—should go here for more.  

      Anything we’ve missed? “I guess that’s it! Oh, also, the other band we’re playing with, OkVancouverOk, are a band we’re really excited to play with and hear and cross paths with and hang out with. We’ve done scattered gigs with them in Europe when our tours have crossed paths in the past, but this is the first time we’ll be playing with them in their native land!”  

      Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage play Pub 340 on Sunday (November 10); more information here