Originally published in Spinner, April 5, 2010
by David Chiu
Anti-folk musician Jeffrey Lewis grew up as a comic book fan since the age of three and was exposed to works such as ‘The Watchmen,’ ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Love and Rockets.’ It was a love he never shook off during college and as a budding musician in the ’90s, when he would create comic book fliers to promote his shows. “I always used to say the show was advertising the flier more than the flier was advertising the show,” Lewis tells Spinner. “It would always be these little surreal stories. After the whole story at the very bottom, it would be like ‘Jeffrey Lewis is playing at such-and-such Wednesday at 9PM.’”
Lewis continues to make comic book art in addition to performing his music, and one of his works is featured in the upcoming paperback version of ‘The Beats: A Graphic History.’ He is also a speaker on ‘The Watchmen’ and has previously written for the New York Times’ Measure For Measure music blog. On Tuesday, April 6, he is scheduled to perform at an event, ‘A Night to Remember,’ an New York City’s Highline Ballroom.
Storytelling seems to have inadvertently influenced his previous album, ‘Em Are I,’ which has a thematic thread that was pointed out to him by critics. “I started seeing some reviews that were like ‘This was Jeff’s album on mortality,’” he says. “I was like ‘Oh, I guess there were a lot of songs about death.’ I haven’t intended it to be a concept album about loss or triumph over loss or a philosophical triumph over death. I do think there are certain things that keep popping up over the course of the album in different forms.”
Lewis came out of the anti-folk scene where he performed at New York’s Sidewalk Café. It was through befriending another band from that scene, the Moldy Peaches, that got Lewis a record deal from Rough Trade, best known as the label for groups such as the Fall and the Smiths. “Unbeknownst to me, they took some of tapes of songs, compiled a CD and gave [it] to Geoff Travis of Rough Trade,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t like I put any effort into sending demos or putting my stuff on CD. It was just homemade cassettes. My whole intention was that if people like the tapes, they’ll duplicate them and pass them around.”
The singer has also merged his interest in history with his music and art by drawing books based on various subjects and then being filmed flipping the pages and singing along (like this biography of Barack Obama). “I was always good with book reports in school,” he says, “so it was kind of a way to continue to assign myself book reports that I have to present to the class. In some ways, it’s a lot easier than writing my own songs because it’s already there. These stories have actually happened that to me are interesting and amazing.”
Whenever he has some time off, Lewis works on his art at his cabin in Maine.”The best feeling for me,” he says, “is actually getting something done that I feel happy with, starting with an empty page and ending up with a comic I’m excited about, or a song that I’m excited about, or doing a really good show where you feel like all the elements came together in the right way, and mixing the education in as well.”