Jeffrey Lewis's adventures as a musician and comic book artist have taken him lots of places over many years now. Plot a point on the globe and there's a pretty good chance the New Yorker has visited to perform there as a headliner or touring alongside contemporaries like Devendra Banhart, Kimya Dawson and the Mountain Goats.
But, he admits, he can recall only a single visit to Houston in three decades of performing. He'll add to that tally tonight when he and his backing band, Los Bolts, visit Super Happy Fun Land. One of Houston's preeminent singer-songwriters, Adam Bricks, is on the show as support, as is Days N Daze (full disclosure: the author's son is a member of that band).
So tonight's show is a rare chance to see Lewis in the flesh and hear his shrewd lyrical wordplay and catchy tunes live. His latest album, Manhattan, is a winning collection of songs which follow a solid blueprint he established years ago with titles like "The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane" and "Cult Boyfriend," tracks that are wordy, wryly humorous and keenly insightful. We chatted with Lewis ahead of tonight's show and he generously spoke on everything from the mystery of Houston to the importance of Lou Reed's face.
Houston Press: What are your recollections of playing in Houston before? If you've had a quintessential Houston moment in your career, what was it?
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Jeffrey Lewis: It’s possible that the only time I’ve played Houston was at Warehouse Live Studio, in 2010, when my band was on a USA tour opening for The Vaselines. I think a lot of tours tend to stop in Austin and New Orleans but don’t schedule a Houston stop in between, although it’s very well-placed geographically along that route. I’ve been trying in the past couple of years to expand my usual USA touring paths, trying to avoid our usual reliance on our fan bases in established areas like Chicago and Boston and LA, and instead doing more gigs in places where it’s a real mystery whether we’ll have much of an audience. It’s financially shaky for sure, but the USA is too big and interesting to just do the same cities over and over.
There are great bands everywhere, amazing creative scenes and people and spaces, and of course now that I’ve been making music for a while there’s that much more of a chance that the music has had legs of its own, via the internet and word of mouth and whatever else, and that there’s people who’d want to come see my band even in places where we’ve never played before. So Houston is one of those mystery spots, we’ll see how it goes and who shows up!
As for our quintessential Houston moments, I’ve got to say I’ve spent more time listening to the Geto Boys over the past couple decades than most people might think possible, I even once wrote an essay on Geto Boys lyrics for a zine. So that’s a bit of Houston-area culture that’s often with us in the tour vehicle - “You can’t front on it clown, before we came around, H-Town was no town!” We always like to see interviews with Willie D and stuff like that, though our interest is sort of tongue-in-cheek since they’re obviously just outrageous and over the top. I’ve got quite a love for early '90s gangster rap, the story-telling and the kind of B-movie exploitation thrills, kind of like how I love old weird horror movies too; anyway the Geto Boys, and thus Houston, provided us with some of the more memorable gems amongst that stuff.
Who is touring with you presently as Los Bolts?
My band since late 2015 has been Brent Cole on drums and Mem Pahl on bass, although I had already been playing and touring with Mem for a number of months prior to that, when Heather Wagner was drumming. Heather got too busy with other stuff so the band swapped from being Jeffrey and Mem and Heather to being Jeffrey and Mem and Brent. But I’ve known Brent since the '90s, he was the drummer in Dufus and in The Moldy Peaches and other acts that I often shared gigs and tours with, going back a ways, so we had already spent time on the road together in the past. Brent is in his early 40s, and Mem is in her early 20s, so it’s actually been a great combination of touring experience and touring enthusiasm, and this chemistry has really clicked, it’s the most consistent line-up I’ve had for years. I keep changing the band name every time I get new musicians in the band.
The only Texas gigs on this tour are Houston and Austin, it’s just a two-week tour in total; one week of gigs to get us down from NYC to Austin, and then a week of gigs to get us back up home. No nights off on tour — ever! If I can help it.
I'll probably direct people to the incredible YouTube for your "anti folk complete history of punk rock" to clue them to some of your influences; but which of the many artists you must have followed have been key to your work as a songwriter? Are those influences the same for your work as an illustrator or is that a separate set of influences?
It’s a separate set of influences for sure. The comic books I make are inspired by a lot of 1990s-era alternative comix makers, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, stuff like that, but also my illustration approach has always been pretty deeply rooted in the regular mainstream Marvel comics I grew up with in the '80s, so although I’m essentially making alternative or underground comix, I’m still trying to apply a pretty high level of professional technical illustration craft, some of the stories might get extremely weird or uncommercial or transgressive or underground or however you want to call it, but there’s nothing very punk or wild about the drawing style.
For my songwriting I still have to say that Daniel Johnston has always been the be-all and end-all. A lot of my guitar playing was learned from Donovan and Pearls Before Swine records, basically 1960s folk and hippie stuff, but Daniel Johnston’s stuff really showed me what a song was, what a song could do, where it could come from and what was important about it. It still puts everything else to shame, really.
Lou Reed also is one of my guiding lights, I have a big poster of Lou’s face on my wall at home, I cut it out of an advertising poster that was pasted around the streets in the early 2000s, and he’s sort of grimacing but sort of almost smiling if you look at it in the right way. When I write a song I sort of look up at the poster fearfully to see if he’s grimacing or smiling at what I’m doing. And local NYC artists have been big influences on me. There’s a mostly-unknown band called Prewar Yardsale that had a really big impact on me.
Speaking of influences, have you pondered much that you are now someone whose work has influenced artists that have followed you? For instance, Adam Bricks, who is on Monday's show, spoke openly on Facebook this week about how he once subletted your space in NYC while you were on some tour and has followed you ever since. How does it strike you to know your work has inspired fellow artists?
Of course as an artist it’s always great to think that somebody out there is appreciating some of the material you’ve put out into the world, that’s what you hope for when making the stuff, that the material that pleases you is also going to somehow find its way to other people who can share some of your own feelings about it. Or maybe they bring totally different feelings to it, or they take it in a way you don’t even like.
I saw some interview where Mark E. Smith of The Fall was being buttered up and being told how The Fall were an important influential band, The Fall had inspired Sonic Youth, and stuff like that, and typically he was disgusted and said “Can you imagine anything worse than inspiring Sonic Youth?” I definitely encounter artists who make me think, geez, is that really what I sound like, is that what people think of what I’m making? If that’s how it’s being interpreted I should quit immediately!
Pandora and other computer programs are like that too, they’ll come up with a mathematical formula that says “Jeffrey Lewis sounds like this and this and this” and then it’s very depressing because there it is, mathematical scientific evidence that I sound like stuff that I totally hate! It’s okay when people tell me these programs say I sound like The Violent Femmes or the Dead Milkmen, but when they put me in the category of, like, Ani DiFranco or They Might Be Giants, to me that’s totally off the mark.
Has anybody ever come up to you and said “You look just like such-and-such famous movie actor?” Sometimes you feel like it’s a great compliment, other times it’ll be an insult! Overall I guess it’s insulting in general, because everybody is a unique and unprecedented individual, as a human and as an artist, so to lump anybody into a category with anybody else is doing some kind of disservice, though we do it all the time.
How do you deem something song-worthy? What criteria has to be met for you to fashion a tune or an idea into a song? And is the criteria the same for your work as a visual artist?
Some ideas end up as comic books and some ideas end up as songs. I don’t know which songs will come out strong enough to hold on to, but the ideas themselves don’t determine the quality of the song I think. Stan Lee said that Spider-Man wasn’t any more of a good idea than anything else, the idea is arbitrary, it’s just something magical that sometimes happens in the execution of an idea that is what you’re always hoping for. I write a lot of songs that aren’t worth playing out in public, or worth putting on an album. It’s very disappointing, to think you have a good idea for a song and then when you’ve written the song it just didn’t turn into a good song, and you can’t figure out why or how you went wrong.
One element that appeals to me personally is when something ends up with a weird poignance where I can’t tell if it’s happy or sad. There’s also elements that are impossible to put into words, just the right time to step on a distortion pedal so it punches you in the face in the best way, or also weird things where a certain song becomes a bad song if you play it back to back with something else that cancels it out. But for me and you and everybody else, you know it when you feel it, though it’s hard to know why. You can discuss why afterwards, you can take something apart and talk about which parts worked, but you can’t really use that same knowledge to help make the next one, for some reason.
My favorite song on Manhattan is probably "Sad Screaming Old Man;" but the one that hits closest to home in our house is "Support Tours." Days N Daze is on the road about nine months of each year now and that song rings so true to their experience and many current musicians (especially all the "cult boyfriends.") After all this time, what's the best advice you can share with fellow musicians about how to keep forging ahead when you're doing it yourself? What keeps you motivated from one tour to the next?
I’m only in it to sell comic books, ha ha! If I just stayed at home drawing comic books nobody would see them, but if I run around the world playing music then people come up to the merchandise table and see the comics. Also I love the travel and the adventure! As a teenager me and my friends would always go around following the Grateful Dead and traveling from show to show and seeing the country and seeing friends and relatives in different places and figuring out how to do it on almost no money, and then later in life when I got into making music it was like the same thing, the challenge of how to get from Point A to Point B, without necessarily much hope, other than bring totally delighted and amazed and appreciative of everything that does happen to work out.
I never planned to make a living from music, I always just wanted to make comic books, but one thing lead to another and I do very much enjoy the life and the challenge of being in a modern traveling band. In many ways I feel very suited to it. But I have to say that the money and the appreciation really goes a long way to making it all desirable and possible. If I wasn’t making money or encountering fans, I might as well be home making comic books.
I don’t feel like I was born to make music, I’ve never considered myself a musician. For various weird reasons my music became the “day job” that sustains me while I’m waiting for my comic book career to take off! I’m being a little facetious but that’s kind of how it took shape. Friends of mine who are musicians have said stuff like “Jeffrey, you’re living the dream, that’s so inspiring, how did you make it happen?” but I’m not actually living my dream, I’m just taking the best thing that came along in the meantime, just like most other people. I think a lot of people find themselves being pretty good at a career that is not what they necessarily thought would be the life they’d end up in.
So to other musicians I’d say, just keep plugging away, play as many gigs as possible, write as many songs as possible, you just never know what might lead to something else, in music or in anything. I could always complain that I’m not further along in my music career, and I love to complain as much as anybody, but I’m also way further along in a music career than I ever thought I’d be or intended to be. And I like the challenge of being the underdog, being the support act that the audience didn’t come to see. I would love to hang out and talk with Jesse and the Days N Daze folks about their touring experiences and how it’s all been for them, everybody develops their own methods for this stuff, so it’s fun to see how other people have figured out how to do things.
There’s no school for this stuff. It’s like, you’re on a desert island, and you have to figure out how to survive; but then you meet another band that has been surviving on a different desert island, and they tell you “Did you know you can actually eat those green coconuts if you blah blah blah?” and you say “Thanks for the tip! Did you guys know that when there’s a rainstorm I dig a water-pit in the dirt and then I can do blah blah blah?” It’s like everybody evolves separate stuff in isolation then you can share your trial-and-error tips with each other when you cross paths.
The video for that song reminds us that you've played lots of places with lots of fellow musicians. Of them all, which places and which acts proved most interesting to you? Which places and artists proved most surprising to you, and why? What place and which artist would you still like to visit/gig with?
I can’t believe I actually got to share stages with Devo, Roky Erickson, Stephen Malkmus, tons of acts that I never would have thought I’d get to cross paths with, but I’ve still got a few dreams to chase after, like, I’ve never gotten to open up for Yo La Tengo. If I could do a tour opening for Yo La Tengo that would be the top thing I’d love to do. I toured with Times New Viking in 2008 and they had recently done a tour opening for Yo La Tengo, I was totally jealous and happy to hear their tour stories about it! And I’ve never been to Japan, it would be great to get to do that someday, a tour of Japan.
I’ve been able to tour in some unexpected places, gigs in Russia and New Zealand and South Korea and Alaska and China, and a couple other places like that, pretty far outside of my normal touring areas. South Korea was surprising, it was so modernized, I thought it was going to be more like China, which has a lot of aspects that seem less modern or western, but South Korea was more like how I’d picture Japan would be. Australia was maybe actually the strangest place I’ve toured, I did two tours in Australia, it doesn’t necessarily sound like it would be strange but to me it’s a very strange place.
What's next on the horizon after this present run of dates?
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We’ve got plans to record our new album in Nashville in March, I hope it works out. Roger Moutenot is the name I always saw as producer on the 1990s Yo La Tengo albums that I love so much. I figured I should just look this guy up and see if he’s still recording bands, and it turns out he’s got a studio in Nashville, and we talked about it on the phone and made a plan to try to make this happen.
I’m writing the new issue of my comic book, I was hoping I could draw and finish the new issue over the winter and get it printed in time for this current tour, but I haven’t even started drawing it yet. We’ve got a UK/Europe tour in April, and I’m not sure what’s happening after that. I’m finishing mixing on a new album that I made with Peter Stampfel, from the Holy Modal Rounders, we’ve made two albums together in the past and this is our third one. He’s turning 80 this year, we’ve been planning to make a third album for a while but it kept not happening, now that’s finally getting finished. I’ll probably either put it out myself or put it out with Don Giovanni Records, a label that has put out a bunch of Peter’s albums as well as putting out cool modern bands like Screaming Females. It’s a good label, I’ve worked with them in the past.
I recorded an album last year that’s all covers of songs and poems written by the late Tuli Kupferberg, of the Fugs. Tuli died in 2010 and I’ve been wanting to record this tribute album for a while, it’s now getting mastered and ready for release.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts, 7 p.m. tonight at Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk. With Adam Bricks and Days N Daze. All ages, $10.