Jeffrey Lewis Explains Music, Comics Fans' "Badge of Outsider Pride"

Comics Features Jeffrey Lewis
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Jeffrey Lewis really needed to go.

It was near the tail-end of our interview, which happened in the midst of—well, a lot. Someone knocked at a door at the New York City gallery Le Poisson Rouge—“I don’t work here, sorry,” he explained—and the break in our conversation reminded Lewis that—shit—there are finite hours in any given Monday. That was yesterday, when he was still finishing the framing and installation of his gallery titled Landfill Indie, which celebrates the alternative artist’s lifetime of cartoon work and the release of Manhattan, his seventh LP for Rough Trade. The gallery and record release show is set for this evening. Sometime between, he needed to rehearse with his band—which hadn’t practiced since they returned from tour a month ago.

Though many Paste readers will recognize Lewis as a songwriter through albums like 12 Crass Songs and The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, his first passion was sequential art—a fact proved if nothing else by his elaborate, self-illustrated CD packages. Over the past decade, he’s released his own tales through Fuff, a sizable alternative comic with tales that recall the same quick wit seen on Lewis’ recordings, and New York City residents will recognize Lewis’ art on countless concert fliers. Lewis’ comics, fliers and drawings alike are collected in Landfill Indie, which he describes as “sort of a smattering explosion of a bunch of stuff.”

Lewis took some time to answer a few of the Paste Comics Team’s questions.

Lewis’ Manhattan is out on October 30 via Rough Trade records. You can catch his installation this evening beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Le Poisson Rouge.

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Paste: Are you putting the finishing touches on your installation? How’s everything going?
Lewis: Well, the middle touches on everything. I wish we were further along, but it’s been a lot of stuff to handle in a short period of time considering how much I’m working on all at once. I just finished booking the U.S. tour dates, I finished booking the U.K. tour dates, and now I’m working to make sure we have a place to stay every night on the tour, doing various interviews about the new album coming out, and working on the art show at LPR, trying to organize volunteers to help me put up posters around the city. In addition to that, I haven’t even played with my band at all since we got home from tour a month ago, it’s been a month since we came back from tour. Today, we’re doing some rehearsal. There’s a lot to do, and framing all the artwork is a big job for me. I didn’t go to art school or anything—I don’t know much about framing or installing.

Paste: And you had to sort out this material from your entire career, right?
Lewis: Yeah, it’s not really a career. I just draw a lot. I tried not to reach too far from the past. It’s mostly stuff from within the last 10 years. I didn’t want to do anything too old, because that makes it look like you haven’t been doing any work lately.

Paste: What’s it been like looking at all of that at once? Have you noticed a progression?
Lewis: Yes and no. It’s interesting. Certain things I get better at, other things I look at and I say, “I don’t know how I did that.” You forget that you had certain skills or were interested in certain things. Maybe like, certain fonts that I used to be really good at hand-drawing. I see some of them on old posters or fliers that I’ve done, and I don’t know how I managed to accomplish that…But I didn’t want this to be a greatest hits thing. I didn’t curate this in pieces. It’s sort of a smattering explosion of a bunch of stuff.

Paste: In 2009, you said in an interview that the comics medium was a bit obsolete. As a reader and someone who still has an interest in creating them, what keeps drawing you in?
Lewis: Comics are kind of rock and roll before there was rock and roll. They were around maybe 15 years before rock and roll hit, so there almost was no comparable youth culture in the States. That’s why people were freaking out and burning comic books and going nuts about the degenerates reading comic books. Comics were also based on the fact that it was very cheap technology to create. Nowadays, there’s podcasts and YouTube and videogames—I mean, there weren’t even videogames during the first few decades of comic books. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around what comics meant for culture during that time.

There’s no place for comics in the general public, and comics were always in the margins. I liked that about it. It has a badge of outsider pride that never really goes away. Being involved with comic books, especially alternative comic books, but really any comic books, they can never really go mainstream the way television or movies or pop music is main stream. If you’re on a bus and you see someone on the bus reading a comic book, whether that’s Eight Ball or Archie or Spider-Man, you’re like, “woah, they’re down.” It’s like if you see someone on a train with a Misfits patch or a Grateful Dead patch—you’re part of a secret society that no one else is connected to. You’re automatically not going to gain acceptance with comics, and there’s a thrill to that.

RTRADLP814_Jeffrey_Lewis_Manhattan.jpg Paste: Listening to Manhattan, songs like “Support Tours” or “Have a Baby” feel like they could apply to the comics conversation. Do these two creative communities unconsciously mirror each other?
Lewis: I think between folk music and punk music and comic books, there’s an affinity in each of these forms. They’re the people’s art forms, and you don’t need much startup to get you started. You just have to want to do it, and you can just make folk music, you can pick up a pen and make a comic book, you can pick up a guitar and make punk music. It’s not like jazz or ballet or opera: you really need very little gear and skill—which is not to say there’s no such thing as highly-skilled punk music or comics or folk music—but there’s nothing intimidating about starting. Basically, within one week, you can walk into an open mic and have three punk songs, three folk songs, and a 10-page comic. You’ll be perfectly valid in those things, but if you walked into a jazz place to be a jazz musician, they’d be like “forget it, come back in 10 years.” There’s that affinity. For me, it’s a Venn diagram of those things.

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Paste: Could you exist as an artist without one or the other?
Lewis: Probably not. I can’t really see myself without either. They’re pretty inextricable right now, but if I had to stick with one thing it’d be comic books. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. That’s what I’m meant to do. With other things, I like what I can bring to those worlds, but it’s not like what I have to offer the world of indie music is more than what I have to offer the comic world, which is why I have more of a music career than a comic career. I think the music I make is more interesting because of my lack of a lifetime’s work of building skill in that area. There’s a certain freshness. Whereas my comic books, because I’ve been doing them my whole life, it doesn’t have that same fresh punk rock energy to it, so I feel like that’s why I’m more known as a performer or songwriter. But another part of that is, everybody listens to music and very few people read comic books. Somebody at my small level in music can make a living, but someone who at a small level in comics has to get a dayjob in music.

Fuff1-front-cover.png Paste: You host a comic night every week at your apartment. Can you tell me more about that?
Lewis: That just started a few years ago because I felt like I didn’t have a community of comic artists in New York City. I figured they must be here, but I didn’t know how to meet them. My whole life, I was doing comics and I didn’t know anybody who was doing them. I met Jon Lewis, no relation to myself, who does True Swamp comics. I happened to meet him very randomly at a Robyn Hitchcock show maybe around 2005 or 2006. I told him I was a fan of his stuff and we took the subway together. He hung out with these comic artists every week, and so I joined his gathering, which happened every Tuesday night. It was like, they do hang out, they do exist. When those Tuesday nights stopped happening, I started hosting basically the same thing so it could continue. I liked being able to have that as a part of my life.

Paste: Has having that changed the way you work, or is it more about having those people around you?
Lewis: I don’t think it changed the way I work, but some people really inspire you if they’re really good or pursuing their careers. I never went to any of the indie comic conventions before I started hanging out with these people. They were going to Stumptown, which is a convention out of Portland, Ore., or Mice, which is an indie comic convention out of Massachusetts. It seemed really cool to me, so I started participating in that too by sharing a table or renting a table with some of these other people. That’s been a really great way to meet people. If I’m going to go out to Chicago or Toronto and have a table at a comic convention, then I might as well play a gig while I’m there. It makes a lot of sense to double-up in that department. I try to double-book it so I have a table during the day, then I play a gig at night.

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Paste: Manhattan’s an album that was inspired by your life in New York City. When it comes to works that revolve around a region, in comics or music, what qualities excite you the most?
Lewis: I guess when I made this new album, I didn’t start out writing songs based on those topics. I had a pile of about 40 songs to pick from to make the album. I realized when I picked the songs for the record, if I played the songs in a certain way, it would revolve around this idea that I’m one of the only bands that is based in Manhattan currently but also has a life-long history. I’ve been here since I was born in 1975 in the East Village. I spent about seven years living in Brooklyn in my 20s, and now I’m back in the old neighborhood. I feel like if I get interviewed by somebody in Europe, they always assume that we’re Brooklyn-based. Like, “New York City: Jeffrey Lewis brings his Brooklyn-based indie rock…” or whatever. That’s the identity of the majority of New York city bands. They’ve moved from somewhere in America to Brooklyn and they’re a part of that culture.

I’ve always been an outsider to that culture. I’ve never been spoken of in the same breath as some of that stuff. I don’t share that sense of adventure, of that bohemian journey to New York City. That’s part of the culture, to move here and do something cool. Most artists moved to a big city and did something cool: that’s what Patti Smith did, that’s what Richard Hell did. But I’m just not part of that, and I’m glad that I can make that part of this album’s statement. This is the kind of band or the kind of songs that couldn’t come from that other adventure. The other part is, in general, there are certain geographic areas that are in public consciousness because of artists. You can’t go to Seattle without thinking of Nirvana. You can’t go to Detroit and not be like, “woah, I’m in the land of The Stooges and The MC5.” Lou Reed wrote “Walk on the Wild Side” and that became a worldwide hit. That defined New York City for the world. They don’t think of Donald Trump’s New York City, they think of Lou Reed’s New York City. You can point to a lot of artists, like NWA. Who had heard of Compton before NWA? Now everybody basically can say that it’s part of everybody’s mind. You know what that style is because of the art of NWA. This neighborhood in Manhattan doesn’t have an artistic voice in the current times. Lou Reed is dead, Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs passed about five years ago. So, what is left here? There’s nothing here. I’m stepping into that gap and letting people know I’m still here.

Paste: Is that disturbing to you, to see that gone?
Lewis: Not really. It feels kind of safe to be on the Lower East Side now that the wave has passed. It’s not like this area’s being gentrified: it’s done, it’s over. There’s no bohemian moving to this area, forget it. It’s not Bushwick. If I was there, or in some other neighborhood, maybe that’s something to complain about but that already happened here. The only neighborhood not in danger of being gentrified is this area, it’s totally stabilized. Whatever remains is still here, whatever’s gone is gone. The major change has happened.