Leave it to artist Jeffrey Lewis to open a set at NYC’s quietly classy Joe’s Pub with this amusing tale: “I was on my way to the show tonight and I overheard one girl say to another, ‘Don’t fuckin’ bump into my yoga mat!’” Only in New York City, kids. We’re always on the edge, it seems, even when it comes to mixing zen and fitness.
Much of Lewis’s work comments on the dichotomies and weaknesses of society, so it’s no wonder he was amused by the yoga mat tale. He’s an urban iconoclast, perhaps a much humbler, DIY-version of Lou Reed or Richard Hell for this generation. Like the city’s punks and fringe artists from the late seventies on, Lewis continually shakes up the system, commenting through tragi-comic book art and music, delivering it to the underground and anyone else who happens to come across it. For those casually flipping through his hand-illustrated books or hearing his witty, acerbic anti-folk songs for the first time, his art may come across as sweet and subdued, but look beyond the surface to find the clever grit. His latest album (on the Rough Trade label), illustrating and covering songs first penned by the legendary British anarchist punk band Crass, is aptly called 12 Crass Songs. It’s one of Lewis’s finest quietly loud, mixed-media releases to date.
You’ve played in all sorts of situations, from “solo to duo.” What kind of band are you touring with for this album?
We’ve boiled down to a trio, it’s me with my brother Jack on bass and our friend Dave on drums, and another friend on bass (though Jack’s now out of town on tour with another band). For the Crass album, playing overseas, we’ve had my girlfriend Helen, who sings on the album. I don’t know any other way we could pull those songs off without her. It also makes being out of town on tour a whole lot easier.”
In a certain way, it seems Crass has a more modern audience here in the U.S.
Yeah, all the people I know here are much younger than the Crass fans in England, who are mostly the original Crass fans. Here, every squatter punk across the country is not only under 30, but they’ve got a Crass patch on them somewhere. That kind of culture is bigger here, to an extent, than in the UK. In the UK, maybe Crass fans have more of a sense of nostalgia about it. [The album] would have a different effect on them than on a fifteen-year-old kid in Portland, Maine, for whom Crass is newer and fresher in general, so that kid probably gives even less of a fuck about my album [laughs]. I don’t know. Crass is a worldwide phenomenon… it’s pretty amazing how ubiquitous it is among that culture.
We all seem to have a Crass story. When I was a teenager, I hung out with some older kids who were the cool punk rockers of my town. They were huge Crass fans back in the day so I remember listening to the band a lot. It’s funny how it all comes back. It’s great to hear those songs again on your album.
They’re one of the greatest bands of all time. Part of it might have been that they gave themselves a self-imposed deadline to quit while they were ahead. It seems to be really important for the legendary status of most bands, although some bands benefit by going on forever. Would The Fall be as legendary if they stopped playing in 1992? I don’t know.
Your artwork for the album is on a par with the songs themselves.
It’s kind of a shame because whatever promo copies are going out, probably don’t have the proper artwork. I probably spent more time on the artwork than the album itself. I did this super-elaborate fold out comic book thing that explains the whole story of it.How long have you been aware or a fan of the band?I’d kind of been aware of Crass since around 1993, but I guess it was in the spring of 2005 that I had the idea to do this project. I’d already been covering a couple of Crass songs live, and then I thought maybe I should just record a bunch of them. It was originally done as sort of a bedroom recording, acoustic and straight to cassette, lo-fi tape of a bunch of Crass songs. I was surprised at how well they worked in these folk arrangements, that literally, I just did overnight. I just sat down with the lyric sheets and acoustic guitar and tape recorder and just laid down song after song. Then I listened to the tape the next day and thought, ‘Wow, this actually has potential.’ Then I went over to a friend’s recording studio and then went in with the idea of re-recording the songs with more of a mind to seeing how much further I could actually go with the project.
Although, I took so long to work on it, and had I known that this Dirty Projectors Black Flag cover album was also in the works, I may have felt more of a sense of pressure. I might have thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to get mine out before theirs, otherwise it will look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon.’ Unfortunately, it’s not the case. But hopefully it won’t be seen as, ‘Okay, there’s this Nouvelle Vague jazzy versions of Dead Kennedys songs, Dirty Projectors, and now here’s another guy jumping in with some covers.’ [laughs] It’s just ironic and weird that certain things are in the cultural zeitgeist and seem to show up at the same time.
Would you consider this album to be a sort of wake up call for the fashionista music fans out there? Did you intend to educate or just entertain people by redoing these songs?
I don’t have much of a singing voice and I’m not much of a musician, so almost everything I’ve done is done with a sense that it’s got to have some kind of content. That was just my whole mode of making songs and performing anyway. I feel like there’s so little stuff that has content. So much of what’s hip these days just strikes me as easy listening. Some of it’s really nice, but I don’t really hear much of a difference between that and whatever is on AM radio or soft listening stations. I like Sufjan Stevens and Beirut and all that sort of thing, but it just felt like, what if some of that stuff had some really intense meaning to it and actual content? It was just juxtaposing Crass with that kind of Belle and Sebastian music. It seemed like an interesting project.
The time is right, especially with the whole green movement moving to the popular forefront. Even kids who might not have cared about such things before are starting to become aware of the smaller problems in the world that they can help fix.
At any given time, there are always people who are conscious of problems and conscious of solutions… there are also people making music and films who go on about that stuff, successfully or not. It’s all easier said than done to say, ‘you should do this with your life,’ instead of actually getting down in the trenches and walking the walk… It’s very easy to point a finger at someone and ask ‘who are you to point a finger and get so holier than thou?’
What’s your answer? How are you trying to change things?
I just felt like using the money [made from this album] in a positive way was going to be an interesting experiment. Putting a bunch of it into different things… I didn’t have the idea for this album to specifically benefit a certain cause. It’s more like as things come by, I’ll put some of it towards that or that… It’s made me realize how music and art can kind of be like this (poly)telekinesis where just because of this work of art, you can take money out of one bank account and put it into some other bank account where it ought to be. It’s kind of an amazing thing to have that be able to happen. Not that this album’s brought in vast sums of money, but it’s a weird question.
You see artists who do advertisements for selling cars or whatever, and even if they’re putting all that money towards some good cause, is it worth the integrity they’re losing? But, at the same time, what’s one person’s integrity versus five thousand dollars going to somebody who really needs the money? I’ve just been kind of going back and forth in my head about those issues.
It is beating the establishment, in a way, since you’d be putting the money towards a better cause.
Yeah, right. It’s taking the money and making your own use of it just because you managed to create some kind of music or art that was able to channel it.
Like a new kind of Robin Hood.
Yeah, but whatever comes my way’s just going to be a drop in the bucket. It’s still something.
You have all your comic book work as well, so I’m sure you can survive and not sleep on the street just because you’re giving this money to a cause.
Well, yeah, in the last five years, with my music and art, I’ve been paying rent and living, what to me is a pretty comfortable life. My standards may be lower than that of most people [laughs], but I feel like I’m doing fine and I’m kind of amazed that I’m keeping my head above water. I feel like I can’t really take it for granted since I don’t know what the next six months will bring.
I loved the last album, City & Eastern Songs, by the way. Just thought I’d mention it.
Cool. I never have any sense of whether anyone in the states even knows these things exist. Rough Trade, at least for me, is all totally under the radar. There hasn’t been any outreach other than just word of mouth. Wherever I play around the country, it seems like it’s just weird little pockets of word of mouth, and people who have songs on mix tapes.
You’re not a big-budget band like The Killers but there’s always the audience who will find you.
Yeah, especially now that things are just more findable.
And since Rough Trade is such a great label overall, you can’t really go wrong with most artists they release.
I guess that’s kind of the whole point of a label in this day and age. [The tables are turned and Lewis asks me a question] What about you? How do you find out about music?
I’m an editor of the magazine so I’m lucky enough that all the new music comes to our door.
You must have the sense of feeling overwhelmed by the piles and piles of CDs to sift through.
It’s saddest, in a way, to see the self-releases who send their disc in with a big fancy folder and tons of glossy pictures. There are those who think the bigger the press kits, the more likely we are to pay attention to the music, but it’s often the opposite.
[Lewis] Whether it’s an independent artist or a label release, it’s kind of the same thing. They can put all this money into making something glossier and glossier, but if it doesn’t have some kind of content, it’s all worthless anyway.
Sometimes, if we put on something for only sixty seconds, we can tell if I’m going to like it already.
The more over-saturated everything is with entertainment, the less of a chance any entertainer is given. It becomes a desperate question of ‘what do I do in the first thirty seconds of this gig to grab everybody in this room?’ It makes it so much harder to just relax and do your thing and let people come to you. I guess that’s always the way it is.
–MVW, Photos by Tear-n Tan