Artist/musician Jeffrey Lewis grew up just a stone’s throw from Sidewalk Café on Ave. A in NYC. He may have stuck to his downtown, indie artist roots on his band’s latest album, ‘Em Are I, but as we talked during a pit stop at the end of his most recent tour, he revealed that in this modern age of technological gadgets and au courant internet friends, it gets harder and harder to zero in on your craft. Even for a DIY, seemingly boundless artist like Lewis, a few absorbing hours of creative focus can mean a small triumph on any given day.
I last saw you when you were on tour with The Cribs, and then at your fabulous Joe’s Pub show last year. Did you remember any exciting moments from that tour?
Oh yeah, that Joe’s Pub show. It was pretty exciting for me because I got to meet the producer Ted Hope who was there. He’s done a lot of stuff I like a lot, The Devil and Daniel Johnston and American Splendor, which is one of the best movies ever made out of a comic book. I got to meet him and then hang out in his office talking about stuff. You never know who’s at any particular show. That’s one of the exciting things about being involved in the arts. You encounter all these people whose work you really like, even at our relatively small level. I feel like we’ve been really lucky to come in contact with a lot of people whose work I find brilliant.
You’ve toured with some amazing artists too.
It’s kind of astounding. I don’t know how many other bands have managed to be a support act for as many people as we have. I guess other bands may have graduated to being headlining acts a long time ago, but in a lot of ways, I prefer and enjoy being a support act, because by playing to a room full of people who may not have heard your stuff, you really have a chance to grab people and really blow them away. The element of surprise, of our unusual stylistic approach, is not something that’s going to be new for someone whose already seen us like twenty times. Particular astonishment, or being freaked out by the weird combination of elements in our shows, is something that is great when you’re doing a support slot in front of a huge room filled with people who mostly have no idea who you are. It’s one of the thrills of playing to new people.
It must be fun to see their jaws drop and say ‘wow’.
Yeah, [laughs], that’s another thing… low expectations are easier to surpass than higher expectations.
The title of your new album and cover art is a bit quizzical in a way. What were you going for?
I like the idea of the layers unfolding. I have a bunch of my own references, but I’m not sure it means anything to anyone else. I originally designed the album as almost an origami, fold-out cover. I thought it would be cheaper and lighter to produce since it was just one piece of paper folded in different ways. But with anything in the music industry at large, the more unusual it is, the harder it is to make happen. I was really pleased they went with the idea of my Crass album last year, which was pretty elaborate. Apparently, with this one, even though it was going to be less paper, and less materials involved, the construction of it was a little too unusual for them to mass produce. I have prototypes of the original artwork at home and was kind of tempted to do a limited edition of a few hundred of those, even if I had to do it myself. But basically, the idea is an MRI scan of layers and the insides and outsides of each layer. The music industry is all excited about the fact that we have such a high percentage of download sales for the album, but for me, the whole thing is the inside and outside of the whole thing, and the art and music are as much a part of the MRI title as each layer and sound… Each layer isn’t the be all, end all, it’s the combination of it all.
Did you write the bulk of these songs in the isolated environment of that Maine cabin you like to escape to?
I guess all over the place, parts of them came from me when I was in isolation [in] Maine and other ones came in pieces while I was on tour in different environments. It’s funny. I don’t necessarily remember where certain things came from… but when we were in a club in Holland a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t been to in four years, I remembered one of our songs was actually written there backstage. A lot of times I guess I’ll forget where the germs of these things came from.
Does the quietude of a place like a cabin in the woods get you to focus easily?
It’s been a great thing for me, just having that pure, creative time to work on the art or the music and not have any distractions. There’s nothing else to do there, and Christ, I’d get bored if I didn’t have anything to work on, so I have to force myself into that position to get the stuff done. When you’re as unfocused as I generally am, it just sort of having to take that extreme measure. I wish I could be as productive when I’m in NYC, but it doesn’t turn out that way.
I think NYC is difficult in general for that, and it’s also maybe just modern life, with all the gadgets we have, making it near to impossible not to multi-task.
I don’t know how anyone gets anything done. I don’t even use Twitter or Facebook or even MySpace… I’m just not involved in any of that stuff, and I still feel as though there’s just an overwhelming amount of all this stuff that keeps you from spending six, seven or eight hours working on your art.
As far as some of the personal revelations you kind of came through with on this album, do you still find it rather fun to push your own buttons and reveal something you don’t feel comfortable with at first?
I feel like that’s the most important thing for art in general. I mean, if it’s not somebody sending you a postcard from some fringe, it’s not that interesting. The art I find interesting is from people who’ve had the guts to show what it was like to be in places that you yourself maybe aren’t. Obviously, I’m maybe not nearly as extreme as a lot of people are who have led really extreme lives, or incredibly brave lives, or just bizarre lives… but on the other hand, there’s so much out there that’s just so middle of the road. It’s not like I’m G.G. Allin or anything, but in my own small way, I try to tell the truth. I guess it’s just a little weird that there’s more people listening to me now perhaps, but I don’t want to second guess things too much. I just let things come out as it comes out.
I know you appreciate the fact that music and art can be done on a smaller budget, but would you ever want to hear your songs done on a larger scale, such as with an orchestral backdrop or whatnot?
I guess anything could be done well if it was done well. There is something great about folk music and punk music and comic books all have it in common that they can do something and have it be democratic, without that many resources. It kind of levels the playing field, which is the connection between those three things. Of course, it’s great when someone does the best they can with whatever the resources they have available to them. When more resources become available and if you decide to make use of a big budget production, you’re forced to make a decision, rather than doing your best with what’s at hand. I guess that a lot of us fall into a certain trap, thinking every album or production has to be a bigger step up or more elaborate than the last one. It’s pretty rare to meet people who go back and forth. Our current album is sort of a step back, we used our friend’s studio. I’m not sure what the next level will be. It’s too early to think about it.