Jeffrey Lewis talks the Beatles, approaching gigs like games of chess and frogs ahead of Buyers Club show

Jeffrey Lewis & Les Bolts (Credit: Francois Guery)

Jeffrey Lewis & Les Bolts (Credit: Francois Guery)

As antifolk legend Jeffrey Lewis opens his U.K. tour in Liverpool, Getintothis’ Rick Leach asked a few questions and found out about the role of humour in music, The Beatles and…frogs.

On the back of  last year’s critically acclaimed album, Manhattan, antifolk legend, writer and comic book author  Jeffrey Lewis, returns to the UK to play a few gigs. After a break from playing in Liverpool for a few years, he’s not only back but kicking it all off in our city. It therefore seemed opportune when given the chance to ask him about Liverpool and more. What he had to say was not only interesting and funny, but well considered and, at times, thought-provoking. We have no doubt that his gig at the Buyers Club for the 11th installment of Howl at the Moon will be one to be fondly remembered for a long time.

Getintothis: You’re playing Liverpool on the first date of your latest U.K. tour. What should Liverpool expect from you and what do you expect from Liverpool?

JL:  Hard to say, I haven’t played Liverpool in a few years. Part of the point of this August tour was to try to play a completely different route of cities than what we’d played in the UK in 2015, because there are a number of cities like Liverpool where I haven’t been in a while.  A standard UK tour for me is places like Manchester, Glasgow, Brighton, Leeds, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle, etc, and I wanted to craft a whole tour in such a way that I could avoid all of my normal locations, just to shake things up a bit. 

You don’t want to stay away from places for too long, or people might forget they ever cared about your stuff in the first place.  New bands come out every week. I’ve gotta go around and remind people that my band is better!  I’ve definitely had various crazy experiences in Liverpool, we used to always stay at this weird abandoned hotel/squat house, it’s not a normal city!  And it’s a strange place to begin a UK tour.

Anti folk? Whatever happened to freak folk?

Getintothis: You’ve been playing live for what seems like aeons now and seem so at home in a live setting. Do you suffer from first night stage nerves or are you a hardened veteran? 

JL: It’s always hard, also because I’m always trying to incorporate some new material, or changing up the band in some way, and then there’s also usually a lot of stress or disagreement or debate within the band about the songs to play on each night of a tour.  I’ve never felt comfortable just having a certain set list that gets played on every night of a tour, instead I’ve always preferred the stress of trying to construct a different set list before each gig, wondering what might work, and also keeping track of what was played in that city the last time I gigged there, in order to not repeat myself. 

I think of each gig as a chess game, or a sport of some kind, where the coach might coach the team into attempting a certain strategy before you go out in the field, but once the game is in motion there are always things that can go wrong, some nights you win and some nights you lose.  So in that sense, it does maybe feel like being part of a sport team, every time you leave the locker room to get out in the field you face the possibility of defeat, no matter how good you are or how prepared you are, you have to keep your nerves sharp and feel the fear.

Getintothis: Your latest album, Manhattan, from the end of last year, while still displaying remarkable levels of humour, seems to address life and issues as one gets older. Is that a fair assessment or are we missing the point totally? 

JL: I don’t know, I think even when I was like nine years old I had this anxiety about getting older, not sure where it came from. But I hadn’t particularly thought of this album as one of those anxiety-about-getting-older sort of things.  In fact I think I feel better about everything in recent times than I ever have before, I think the new album is my best ever, and I think my new comic book is my best ever, so I’m going into this year in a very strong position.

Getintothis:  Speaking of Manhattan, did you find it liberating writing about things that were closer to home? Do you find that sometimes the topics for good songs are right under your nose? 

JL:  I wrote something like 37 songs during the period leading up to making the record, and of that batch it seemed like I could sort of pick and curate a certain list of songs that I could title under the heading Manhattan, but there were plenty of other songs I wrote that had nothing to do with any of that. The title is a bit of an intentional cultural suicide, because everybody knows Manhattan is dead and uninteresting, it’s been the case for at least ten years that you’d be hard pressed to find a New York City band that’s not Brooklyn based. 

Manhattan is completely un-hip.  It’s kind of hiding in plain sight, but nobody’s sort of put the final nail in the coffin, so in some ways I felt like turning a spotlight on it as an indie-rock album would make clear how little sense it makes to do.  And especially now that Tuli Kupferberg is dead, and Lou Reed is dead, what’s the contemporary voice or perspective?  I had recently moved back to the neighbourhood where I grew up, so it felt like it made sense for me to go with that.

Getinothis: You recorded the 12 Crass songs album for Rough Trade. Although Crass seemed dour and humourless, I always found them a bit funny- as well as being clearly thought-provoking. Was I wrong? Can humour be found in any sort of music?

JL: I think any good songwriter is inevitably a bit funny, just because humour is part of the human experience.  Somebody who eliminates humour from the picture isn’t telling the full story, although you really don’t find much humour in a lot of art, people tend to not take something seriously if they consider it a “humour” thing.  For me I feel like it’s a good balance against darker stuff, I don’t want to make art that’s too depressing, or too silly. If something can punch me in the chest in a way that makes me laugh and cry at the same time then I think that’s a good thing.

Getintothis: Like you, we at Getinothis are massive fans of The Fall and really enjoyed Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek autobiography. Have you ever considered sort of transcribing your comic books into a pure written form?

JL: Nah, nobody’d want to read them!

Getintothis:  2016 has turned out to be a bit of crap year so far; the deaths of Bowie and Prince, the U.K. turning our back on Europe and the horrific, yet real possibility of President Trump before the year is out. You seem to be a pretty optimistic chap – is there anything that we should look forward to? Or rather what exactly should we look forward to?

JL: Look forward to the defeat of Trump!

Getintothis:  Back to Liverpool. Famous for The Beatles of course as much as anything else. Do you have a favourite Beatles record and if so, which one and why?

JL: I’m a Rolling Stones guy myself, but if I had to pick a Beatles album I guess maybe, oh I don’t know, I was going to say Revolver but then I remembered the boring, sappy parts.  That’s kind of the way it is with almost every Beatles album except for maybe the earliest stuff, there’s some good songs I wouldn’t mind hearing but they are equalled or outnumbered by unlistenable schmaltz that I just can’t bring myself to tolerate any more.  For every killer song like Tomorrow Never Knows or She Said She Said, there’s one or two songs like Here There and Everywhere or For No One that I would be happy to never hear again. 

It’s like they wanted to be a band that had songs for everybody to enjoy, so that meant they had to write a lot of songs for the lucrative little-old-lady demographic.  I do own every Beatles album, I just don’t put them on very often.  But The Teardrop Explodes were from Liverpool, and Kilimanjaro is an album of undying, non-stop, brutally high-quality weird rock and roll, so Liverpool has much to be proud of.

50 years of Revolver at Leaf

Getintothis: Liverpool is also famous for sport in form of football. Apparently New Yorkers love their sport as well; how about you? Does sport play any part in your life – either as a participant or as a spectator? 

JL: No, I’m just a nerd.

Getintothis: Is there anything unexpected about Jeffrey Lewis that we don’t know about which might make us smile?

JL: I love frogs!

  • Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts play Buyers Club on Friday, August 19, doors at 7:30pm.

Full UK tour dates:

August 19: Buyers Club, Liverpool
August 20: Highlands, Scotland
August 22: The Le Tree, Aberdeen
August 23: Beat Generator, Dundee
August 24: The Cafe, Middlesbrough
August 25: The Harley, Sheffield
August 26: Komedia Arts Cafe, Bath
August 27: The Musician, Leicester
August 28: Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
August 29: The Crescent, York
August 30: The Bodega, Nottingham
August 31: The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton
September 1: Boston Arms Music Room, London
September 2: TBC, Hastings