Jeffrey Lewis Makes Sad-funny, Punk-folk
Jeffrey Lewis thinks a lot about writing his setlists. But Lewis, a folk-punk songwriter and cartoonist, thinks a lot about a lot of things. He thinks about songwriting, art, relationships, culture, communication, humor, sadness, craft, skill, entertainment, commerce and history. On the subject of setlists, though, Lewis said that, on the night of a gig, sometimes writing the setlist felt like the most creative part of the evening. The songs have already been written and rehearsed, the instruments need to be kept in tune, and stage lighting needs to work, et cetera, but much of that comes down to technicalities. When Lewis, 42, sets out to write a set list, he thinks about the arrangement of tunes for a performance as something like the opening gambit of a chess game.
The songs are like chess pieces; Lewis said, “each piece has a particular power.”
The way you arrange them together, one song after the other, can force a certain reaction or require a specific series of moves based on their function and force. He doesn’t want too many sad songs or funny songs bunched up together, or too many strummed songs, or songs in the same key one right after another. Those are practical decisions about how to entertain a crowd. The same things that drive some bands to zero in on a particular set list to play the same sequence of songs night after night, to maximize the punch delivered to a crowd, those are what drives Lewis to tinker with his setlists every night, in hopes of never boring fans, of coming up with new combinations and new configurations that might fit the given night and given crowd.
You can hear the results of his setlist-tinkering when he plays On Pop of the World studios in Greensboro on Jan. 10.
I spoke with Lewis by phone from New York City, where he lives, on New Year’s Eve, the day after he’d just finished a big show that he’d been nervous about, and the day of another big year-end show that he was hopeful for. Lewis is funny, insightful and wide-ranging in conversation, much like his songs. He’s relentlessly creative and productive, operating a sort of dual artistic life as a maker of cartoons/comics/illustrations and as songwriter/performer, a wide-ranging DIY folk-punk. He tends to think of himself as being somehow more focused, evolved or accomplished in the sphere of comics, but that’s hard to square with the fact that he has toured the world playing music and has records out on the iconic taste-making Rough Trade label.
“I’m much more of an illustrator than a musician,” Lewis said. This comment is made in the context of discussing his song “Time Trades,” which is a deep and lovely meditation on how time basically robs you of stuff — your looks, your health, etc. — but that through patient work, repeated effort, and humble practice, we get something in return from time. We get better. We become better people. We become better at being people, ideally.
If you want to get a sense of how funny and smart Lewis is, listen to “Have a Baby,” off his 2015 record Manhattan, with his band Los Bolts. In typical, lyric-packed Lewis fashion, the song runs through a somewhat self-important-sounding person’s list of superficial style concerns, about what types of clothes to wear out, what sort of picture to use in an online profile photo, about the merits of analog over digital media — familiar subjects, perhaps, for anyone in the world of indie rock. “That stuff’s important to me,” goes the attitudinal and ironic refrain a few times before the kicker of a turnaround, “at least until I throw that bullshit out and have a baby.” The song treats style posturing as a meaningless plumage display leading up to the Darwinian finish of reproduction. He seems to be making equal fun of culture-consumers and breeders. Imagine a sort of surf-punk face-off between Jonathan Richman and the self-lacerating hipster-eviscerations of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, and you’ll get an idea of Lewis’s skills. He somehow manages to be biting without being brutal. He’s not mean-spirited, though he wields a scalpel.
Lewis has connections to artists like Kimya Dawson (they’ve collaborated), and one can hear a distant link to similarly smart-funny-candid-touching songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III. Lewis is a bridge to the outsider folk-freak world of the Lower East Side from the ‘60s. He was friends with Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, towards the end of the poet-singer’s life. Lewis has also collaborated with like-minded, slightly crazed folk-wizard Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders. Lewis’s autobiographical explorations — mini-memoirs set to the song — have something in common with the deeply confessional work of John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon but without the same taste for misery and pathological levels of awkward self-revelation.
Lewis isn’t necessarily trying to make listeners squirm in profound discomfort.
When I ask Lewis if there’s such a thing as a song with too much candor, he says yes, that he’s abandoned songs like that over the years, songs that he says were “too icky in a personal way, that felt too oversharing.”
He’s written songs that refer to the music of troubadours Will Oldham and Leonard Cohen. But he’s also written song-story-epic chronicles like “The History of Punk on the Lower East Side 1950 – 1970,” which is a mini-class medley that moves from Harry Smith to the Velvet Underground to the Silver Apples and the Stooges.
He’s written songs about other people’s songs. He wrote a hilarious song about taking LSD and going out of his mind (“The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane”). And then he wrote a hilarious song about people mistakenly thinking that that song meant he wanted to take more acid (“No LSD Tonight”). He’s also written equally funny songs about the indignities of being a working indie musician (“Support Tours” and “Indie Bands on Tour”).
Lewis has said that Lou Reed and Daniel Johnston are two of his songwriting idols. He’s also said that the long-running and wide-ranging band Yo La Tengo are the model of productivity and aesthetic excellence that he aspires to. (“It’s kind of funny that I’ve put so much effort into constantly sounding like them, and I guess I’ve just failed so completely because no one ever [compares me to them],” he said.)
Aside from emulating Yo La Tengo, hitting the sweet spot between sad and funny, between deep honesty and universal insight — that’s what Lewis is after.
“I do my best to hit the ball,” said Lewis, likening the challenge of songwriting as an at-bat. “And I hit a lot of foul balls,” explaining that sometimes he pulls too far toward depressing or too far toward silly.
Lewis compared songwriting to a mysterious kind of groping.
“I often think of it like you’re reaching blindly into another dimension and you’re trying to bring something back,” he said. “You’re sticking your hand into mud, and you can’t see.”
I asked Lewis some other questions, about rhyming, writing songs for musical theater, and about whether great songwriters tended to write great songs late in their career (his answer: generally, no). Lewis was game to chat, thoroughly entertaining, and self-effacing. (“I’m just doing too much stuff, and everything I do is just an excuse for why I’m not better at doing something else.”)
But ultimately he wanted to make one point about what he and his band are trying to do: They may be humble, DIY polymath jokesters, but they want to blow your mind if you come to their show.
“That’s just my aim every night,” he said.
“We’re actually just a great band, and I think anybody who sees our shows has a hard time describing how or why it’s great,” Lewis said.
Putting all the mumbo jumbo (his word) about songwriting and setlists and music history aside, Lewis says he knows they’re doing something right when people come up to him after a performance and say that was the best show they’ve ever seen.
“We get that reaction pretty regularly,” he said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.