From the terrace of Jeffrey Lewis’s parents’ Avenue A co-op apartment, there’s a clear view of Sidewalk Café. “I feel like maybe I could just swing down there on a rope,” he says, laughing. He’s long since graduated from performing at the tiny, venerable venue, home of the anti-folk scene that nurtured his quirky, wordy catalog in the late ’90s and early ’00s. But it’s not like Lewis is packing stadiums now or anything. A musician since high school and an artist for even longer, the 33-year-old East Village native is getting ready for a three-week U.K. tour with his band, the Junkyard, where he’ll sell out venues that hold up to 800 fans. Back in America, though, a headlining slot at Bowery Ballroom is the highest-profile gig he’ll play behind his new Rough Trade album ‘Em Are I, and even that seems a bit excessive to him. “If we were hitting, like, 150 or 200 people everywhere around the States, that would be totally fine,” he says. “Once it starts getting above, like, 400, it just takes it into a different context.”
The ironic thing is that Lewis got into music so his ideas would reach a wider audience. Before that, he was drawing and self-publishing autobiographical comics. Still active in that world, he often mixes the two disciplines, projecting comics onto a screen behind his band. He once did a live, a cappella version of Nirvana’s Bleach, with an illustrated story to match; he’s also got a song to accompany his illustrated history of communism. “Without the outreach of the music, it’s just so much harder for people to find out that my comics exist,” he says.
Originally a hobby that Lewis indulged in at home during his breaks from drawing, songwriting won him praise almost immediately on the late-’90s downtown troubadours’ circuit, which included anti-folkies like Juno soundtracker Kimya Dawson, who collaborated with Lewis on a 2001 album. It was his association with a thriving scene that included the Strokes and Dawson’s band the Moldy Peaches that won him the Rough Trade deal that’s still in place, though Lewis is quick to point out that it isn’t exactly a lucrative contract. Not that he wants one. Asked about his relationship with his label, he launches into a tirade about record-business excess. “For some reason, [Rough Trade] wouldn’t book shows for us unless they had all this other official stuff that went with it: a driver, a tour manager, hotel rooms, rented gear,” he explains. “And I was like, you know, if all of that stuff is being added to recoupable cost, there’s no way I’m ever gonna make any money, ’cause I know my stuff has a limited appeal.”
Lewis’s music appeals to a certain sector of new-punk and comic-book geeks who enjoy squirming along to his earnestness. Wordy but not necessarily bookish, his best-loved songs are often painfully honest interior monologues about things like panic disorder (“Anxiety Attack”), uncomfortable LSD experiences (“The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane”), or having visions of being raped by a Will Oldham look-alike on the L train (“Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror”). His awkward onstage presence—he stands slouched over a beat-up acoustic guitar plastered with stickers—is as charming to his fans as it is unsettling to the mainstream. Occasionally, Lewis indulges in rock ‘n’ roll and leans toward punk. His last album was composed entirely of songs by the anarchist English band Crass; ‘Em Are I opener “Slogans” is straight-up pop rock. But plenty of his new songs, like the Greyhound travelogue “Roll Bus Roll,” retain the acoustic instrumentation and campfire sing-along choruses of an artist steeped in folk.
Beyond his obvious punk-folk roots, two people have influenced Lewis’s approach to music the most: Daniel Johnston and Michael Azerrad. The former, a saint among makers of no-frills, anti-mainstream pop music, was a major inspiration for Lewis’s earnest songwriting. The other eye-opener was Azerrad’s 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, a history of founding underground rock bands like the Minutemen, Fugazi, and Sonic Youth, which introduced Lewis to the ride-bumming, floor-crashing business model that has afforded him a modest living playing music. His ramshackle approach to touring has actually worked in his favor at times, especially in the U.K., where his mounting fan base includes Eddie Argos of the band Art Brut. (“Slap Dash for No Cash,” a track on the band’s new Art Brut vs. Satan, is about Lewis.) Argos describes his first time seeing Lewis perform in Cardiff, Wales, as a revelation, partially because Lewis failed to make the sound equipment work properly. “The whole room had to lean in to hear him,” Argos recalls, “but it was somehow still a fantastic show.”
More recently, Lewis has taken his low-budget approach into the video realm. The comic-themed clip for his new single, “To Be Objectified,” appears on the self-explanatory 99dollarmusicvideos.com. And now that his music is resonating with a wider audience, his ideas about comics are reaching more people, too—just as he’d hoped. An expert on Watchmen since he penned his 1997 SUNY Purchase senior literary thesis on the iconic graphic novel, Lewis has used his notoriety to capitalize on the interest kindled by this year’s movie adaptation. (“I didn’t think it was bad, at least compared to From Hell!”) So far, he’s given lectures in Oregon, New York, and various cities in Australia. Higher-profile outlets for his thoughts on the subject of songwriting have emerged as well. Last year, Lewis was invited to contribute to The New York Times‘ op-ed blog Measure for Measure, a collection of essays from such artists as Andrew Bird, Suzanne Vega, and Rosanne Cash. His own posts included treatises on originality and political songwriting, and an illustrated autobiographical account of the year 2008, when he toured the globe almost constantly.
Back at Mom and Dad’s place, Lewis wades through the bedroom he once shared with his brother, Jack, a longtime Junkyard member. The six-by-10-foot space is like an archaeological capsule of Lewis’s life’s work. Dig into the boxes on the floor, and you’ll find installments from his current comic series Fuff (formerly Guff), old runs of his pictorial travel diaries, and copies of books he illustrated. Peel off the layers of posters on the walls, and there’s Luna on top of typical high school obsessions like Pink Floyd. Amid it all, Lewis slumps into a worn futon to reflect on his career arc. He complains that he misses the spontaneity of traveling with randoms and sleeping on sofas. “It seems inappropriate to ask for those favors now that we’re making money,” he says with a sigh.
Still, he’s relieved that his modest success keeps him away from mundane money gigs. “My last day job was with the 2000 Census,” he says, giggling. “I always kind of figured all this would fall apart just in time for 2010, so ask me next year how well I’m doing.” Or maybe he’ll ask you.
Jeffrey Lewis plays Bowery Ballroom May 20
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