Jeffrey Lewis Talks New York, Illustrated Songs And The Future Of Indie Comics
Jarvis Cocker described Jeffrey Lewis as “The best lyricist working in the US today” which is reason enough to interview the man but you may be wondering why we were so keen to add an interview with Jeffrey to our own back catalogue. Jeffrey is not only a lyrical wonder, he’s also a prolific comic artist who has been producing comics since childhood.
For Jeffrey, the worlds of comic art and music are intertwined. You’ll find comic art incorporated into his live performances and videos, and he’s produced artwork for his own albums as well as collaborating with the likes of The Cribs, Art Brut and The Mountain Goats. Jeffrey Lewis has an unbridled dedication to his own comic book creations and illustrations, making him a bit of an unstoppable creative hurricane. He sat down for a few minutes to talk to RedBubble about the future of indie comics and to teach us of the delights to be found in ‘Illustrated Songs’.
Was there a specific age or time when creating music and drawing was particularly important?
I was always drawing comics, and drawing in general from as far back as I can remember. I always associated myself with being an artist, and certainly not a musician. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, 21, 22, that I started writing songs – playing open mics, making tapes of my songs, I started much later and still don’t really think of myself as a musician, it wasn’t really something that I grew up doing, I was just into making comic books, and music kind of came along in a different way a little later on.
Images from Jeffrey Lewis’s ROM Drawings
How do you see the future of comics with small print runs, or independent comic books?
The whole indie comic scene seems to have really switched its focus from comic books to more book store, graphic novel format, where everybody just wants to release something in a book form of 200 pages so you can sell them in a book store. It’s been an interesting thing for indie publishers to move into bookstores, but it’s taken a lot of the fun out of it, going to the comic book store and getting a new issue of 8 Ball. They only want to release things in big books. It takes the artist years to come out with a new thing so there’s no reason to go to a comic book store anymore.
It’s a very different feeling when you’re spending two dollars on a comic book and you can read it for fun on the train on the way home, than spending thirty dollars on this book that will take you a few weeks of carrying it around to read. My brain is still in the old days of stapled, floppy, cheap comics. That’s what I’m continuing to make. There’s a diminishing audience for it as all the popular people only seem to be making it in book form. This means comic book stores are cut out of the equation, and it leaves the stores without much function, so a lot of them are not doing so well and closing down. Maybe this is just the step where comics evolve to a place where I’m not into, rather than evolving to a place that interests me. I wish people were sticking with the original comic book format.
It significantly changes the relationship with the artist and reader too. The reader used to know that every few weeks an artist was sitting somewhere creating for the audience. Do you think this new format seems more isolated?
Yes. Perhaps people felt the same way when music switched from singles to albums. People could put out a bunch of singles in a year and you could be excited by a new Rolling Stones single coming out, but now days, myself included, I only put out an album every couple of years. You don’t really have the same constant relationship with your audience where they see you developing on a month by month basis, and your new ideas developing a little at a time rather than a big chunk all at once.
From Jeffrey’s One Page Comic designed for Art Brut
Do you think your lyrics have a particular geographic grounding? Are the descriptions of places in your songs important?
I am so aware of the New York element cause I feel like I’ve got a strong connection to the tradition of New York City music, I didn’t really realise it at first, the more old records I got from various times of the New York City music scene I realised this thread has kind of gone through many decades.
And what is that sound – The New York sound?
This idea that the words are really important, that the sounds are cruder than words from the rest of the country, that the words are sharper than the music from the rest of the country. That comes from the Velvet Underground and the Fugs, hip hop and early rap that started in NY, about crude basic sounds combined with … a kind of hyper awareness of what you’re doing with your words. Like early Bob Dylan when he started out being a local performer, people were shocked by the crudeness, what they considered the crudeness of his singing. Somehow that’s just a NY city thing, through Patti Smith, Richard Hill, probably Sonic Youth, it’s noisy and intelligent and artsy. I don’t think it has much in common with any kind of West Coast sound, or Southern Sound – there’s definitely a regional feeling for each of these areas – and I fit into the NY sound.
Two page comic for the Guardian Newspaper’s Festivals Feature
Do you feel more connected to either music or comic art?
I feel like I know how to make comics more than I know how to make music. Yet more people know me for my music, and I make more money from music. So maybe I really am more of a musician than a comic book artist, even though I think of it the other way around. I consider myself doing both equally at this point.
When did you start making Illustrated Songs?
About 2001 or 2002, I started trying to do songs in illustrated form for performance. I wanted to show drawings that went with the song, but my early attempts were so crude. I’ve gotten so much better at all the elements of it. They work better shorter, with brighter colours…in my early days when I just starting to play shows around 1999, 2000 – every show I tried to come up with new things to do. It was like I had one foot in performance art, because I was so aware of not being a great singer or musician. Illustrated songs started as something to do at a few shows, but I realised it had a bigger potential. I started doing that more and more and let it develop into it’s own thing, but at the time it was a wacky idea. My shows in the early days were pretty bad! I as just trying things to see if they would work, and I was lucky because no one was paying attention or watching until 2001.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Any words of wisdom for hungry creatives?
Do it whether you feel you’re ready or not! You learn so much more from the experience of doing…creating, writing, drawing, recording, booking things in, touring. There’s no amount of staying home thinking about it that will help. You’re definitely going to make mistakes, you’ll do things you’re embarrassed about. For me, every little thing I learnt, it took years of just trying to get a little better, a little better, a little better.
Jeffrey’s new album A Turn In The Dream-Songs is released in October on RoughTrade Records. If you want to see some classic Jeffrey in action, we highly recommend this video featuring the man himself, performing The Complete History of the New York City Punk Rock Scene. In 8 minutes. Punk Rock Language Warning.