Jeffrey Lewis – Anti-Folk Implosion

Jeffrey Lewis, New York’s anti-folk anti-hero took time out ahead of his recent gig at the Kazimier to chat sibling rivalry and crazy drivers… 

It’s not always the enormous, monolithic artists who illicit the most loyalty from their fanbase, or indeed, wring the greatest amount of joy from their relatively humble patch of the music landscape. One man these things are true of is Jeffrey Lewis, self-appointed standard-bearer of the now almost forgotten New York anti-folk scene.

It was our pleasure to meet Lewis recently, ahead of an uproarious gig at the Kazimier. Two days into a new tour, we wondered whether he and the band (the Junkyard, featuring brother Jack, Dave Beauchamp on drums and Kristin Andreasson on keys) still – if they ever did – enjoy touring.

“I think it’s pretty enjoyable. People have the impression it’s a heavy schedule, but it doesn’t always feel like that … all told, it’s about 11 weeks out of the year in the tour van. It’s a few weeks here, a few weeks there – nothing to complain about.” What about having your brother along for the ride? “There’s always tremendous disagreements about everything”, Lewis says, all wry smiles. “We had to get a drummer and a fourth member to give us an unbiased opinion. That’s a constant dynamic that fuels a lot of what goes on in the band.”

“There’s always tremendous disagreements about everything”

Though tours are clearly taken firmly in stride (this one includes the rest of the UK and Ireland, before Germany and then back onto the States), we wanted to know if our visions of a jobbing band piled into a cramped old tour bus were anywhere near the reality. “We’ve done it different ways. The first years … we spent in other people’s cars. We met a lot of cool people that way, treating that driver as another member of the band. That was a really good system. Every once in a while, you’d end up with a crazy driver but 90% of the time it was fine.”

To pass time between dates, the band listen to a variety of stuff, “a lot of it educational”, Lewis points out. He’s not joking, either. “Adventures of English: the history of the English language … Rough Trade gives us a pile of CDs, too; it’s nice to keep abreast of what’s going on … [but] in a car seven hours a day, you might as well be learning something.”

Anybody more than just a little familiar with Jeffrey Lewis, or who has seen him before, will be aware that as well as recording artist, he’s devoted to comics; his own comic, Fuff, has been a long-term project he views as seriously as the music. We asked how the two creative processes differ.

“I love drawing and making comic books – I can listen to music while I’m making them! I can have both. Every once in a while I’ll notice I have a pile of new songs. The art takes more discipline – the comics require a lot of focus. The music is more inspiration based … less labour. An idea for a comic could take me 5 years to execute.”

“Every once in a while I’ll notice I have a pile of new songs”

We want to know about that ‘pile of new songs’ he just referred to, can we expect any tonight, or indeed in the form of a new record? “I don’t have any plans to make a new record any time soon. But I just realise I have new stuff and should record it.”

Our hearts sink a little, but just then, Lewis dangles another interesting thought out there: “What I’d really like to do is put out an album of the illustrated songs (see pic). That would be an interesting next move to make … it’s easier to think of than to put the time in; I’m pottering around with it though. I have Ernie Brooks, the Modern Lovers bass player, working on them with me. The next is the visual. Do people even buy DVDs these days? Should I put out an app?”

He’s been nothing but charming throughout the interview but as we reach our final question, it occurs to us he may rather not hear it. But a rush of blood takes over and before we know it, it’s out there: what is anti-folk exactly, and did it ever really exist anyway?

If he’s perturbed or thrown by this, it doesn’t show. But it’s obviously something he’s given thought to. “People been kicking that term around since the mid 80s. Whatever it means, I don’t know. A lot of people, like Regina Spektor or Adam Green are described as anti-folk, but I don’t know if I would use anti-folk to describe them. Honestly, I feel like I am the only one. It only makes sense to apply it to me and only me.”

It’s said matter of fact, with a smile. It’s not antagonistic, or meant to challenge. Later in the evening, gig well under way and us somewhere near the front of a throng of devoted fans, it’s clear that while he may bare a passing resemblance to other NYC artists doing the rounds, Lewis is largely treading a singular path. He’s a very modern eccentric, a little Daniel Johnston, and sure, a little Adam Green, but when you get right down to it, he’s all anti-folk.

 Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard play Bestival on the weekend of 6th September 2012

Posted on 29/08/2012 by thedoublenegative