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Jeffrey Lewis & Clark

An interiew featuring Jeffrey Lewis, Chloe Ulrich, and Chloe Pullman.


Earlier this month the Coop hosted anti-folk icon and comic book artist Jeffery Lewis alongside local indie artist Mo Troper and the winners of Lewis and Clark’s Battle of the Bands competition What’s Her Face. Lewis to Lewis and Clark for an intimate acoustic show centered around his raw stream-of-consciousness songwriting style. Before his set that mentioned everything from ghosting to the fall of the Soviet Union, we had a chance to sit down with him and ask him some questions about his creative process, influences, and the beauty of open mics



Ulrich: I’m a really big fan of your collaboration with Diane Cluck and I’d love to hear a bit about that because the only thing I’ve read about it online is that it was recorded in your shack in Maine.


Lewis: Well, I had just sort of built this shack with my dad because I was really into the idea of having a place where I could just work on my comic books and just get away from everything. It was like an 8-hour drive from New York City so it was pretty far away and kinda in the middle of nowhere. And I knew Diane Cluck from New York City music scene stuff, we’d play at the same open mics and we were friends and I really liked her music and she said she was going to come visit me at the shack. A lot of people had said that they were gonna come visit me and no one ever did cause it was such a long distance but Diane actually made the whole trip up there. We had a really nice few days just hanging out and we made up some of these songs together. 


This was before there was such a thing as streaming so it was a big surprise that once people started to listen to stuff on streaming those songs became much more well-known. It's amazing that these things that we didn’t think that many people would hear have now become some of the most heard songs for either of us, so it's just so unpredictable and weird that anyone has heard those. And we keep talking about how we should make up some more songs together sometime but somehow it just never happens. We do hang out a lot, she’s been living in Virginia for a long time but if she’s on tour or comes to New York she usually stays at my place in Manhattan and I’ll see her if I’m touring through Virginia. We’ve done a lot of shows together and I have all of her albums and I’m still just a big fan. 


Pullman: Awesome yeah, well since we’re in college we were just wondering how your songwriting/artistic process has changed since you were in college?


Lewis: It is so weird to me that I even ended up making songs because when I was in college it wasn’t a thought in my mind at all. I was not one of the musician-type people that were in bands, I was just totally into making comic books. I was just drawing all the time and I was sort of lonely and isolated and not very social, just kind of someone who was drawing in my sketchbook all the time. I was a literature major in college and I was interested in music, I had a radio show with my college radio station and I was a fan of music but I was not one of the people that was making music until after college. I just started making up songs because I was so broke and lonely, you know just trying to draw and make comic books and get jobs as an illustrator. Somehow I just started hanging out at open mics because I realized anyone could just go in and sign up and play. So I just started going to the open mics and I would just sit there and draw people all night, and after doing that for a while people started to approach me and were like “Hey would you like to play this show?” and it just kinda developed in this way that was not what I thought was going to happen. I thought I was gonna graduate school and try to find a job making comic books and while I was waiting for that to happen and submitting my art portfolio to magazines and getting rejection letters I started hanging out at this open mic and started to have opportunities to play shows and here we are! So the difference between my songwriting in college and my songwriting after college is that I wasn’t making songs at all in college! I was just making comic books and the songs just naturally came later.


Ulrich: Interesting, I think that’s definitely inspiring to hear as someone who likes music and appreciates music but isn’t really into making it. And there’s this strange feeling that it’s too hard to get into now, or like I’m too old, even though I know that’s not the case.


Lewis: Certainly not! Or, for anything really, I just feel like any path you just don’t know where life will take you. I feel like there was so much pressure in school like you’re supposed to know what you’re gonna do and sort of be preparing for it and I felt like I was preparing for a certain life and then something totally unpredictable happened. So sometimes people, especially aspiring musicians, are like “oh how did you fulfill your dreams?” and I’m like “I didn’t fulfill my dreams!” I was dreaming of being an illustrator and I feel like no one can predict what will happen in life. So yeah, I feel like you have a bunch of interesting cool things ahead of you but nobody knows what they are! 


Ulrich: How would you go about explaining the anti-folk genre to someone who’s not familiar with it, or sort of, kind of what it means to you or if there are any emerging artists in the genre that you look at and think “wow I love what they’re up to.”


Lewis: Well, at the time, when I started playing at the open mics and meeting some of these other songwriters like Diane Cluck or The Moldy Peaches when they were also at the open mics there before they got more well known, it was sorta just a place for people who had nowhere else to go because most of the people there didn’t really fit in to any other music scene. It wasn’t like being in a regular rock band and it wasn’t like, it was just sorta these people who didn’t know where else to go. And that term anti-folk, I had never heard of it but after I had been hanging out there a bit people started saying “oh you’re apart of the anti folk scene” and I was like “alright that sounds cool!” I didn’t know what it meant but it just felt fun to know that there was some name for this thing that was just a bunch of random people that didn’t have a specific style or a specific music scene to hang out in. There was even a little fan zine that this poet guy was making called Anti Matters that was this zine about the anti folk scene where people would get interviewed and write reviews of each other's records and it was sorta like this whole little community around this one open mic. It just seemed so neat! I wanted to know who these people were, I’d check out their records, but yeah it didn’t really have any specific meaning it was just kind of a clubhouse for just random weirdos. And apparently, from what I’ve been told, there was a place like that in Portland in the 90s called the X-Ray. I was never there, it was a long time ago, but people told me stories about a place that like, people that have come to the sidewalk open mic in New York are like “oh this is sorta like what the X-Ray in Portland used to be like” so, yeah I’m kinda curious about it. I’ve never even seen photos of what it looked like. But yeah, as far as who is around now if I go to an open mic, I still try to go to the open mics a lot cause you never know what you’re going to see– I still like drawing people I still bring my sketchbook and, um, yeah. I always have all these open mic drawings. There's a woman named Phoebe Croitz that I’m a really big fan of and I think her songs are really fantastic.


Lewis: Yeah I always try to bring a new song, write a new song each week, so it's a really good homework assignment for myself. And actually, [pointing to a drawing], this is the guy who used to have the anti-folk fan zine, he hasn’t done it in a number of years but um, this is just sort of my weekly habit. I’ve been doing that for so many years and yeah– Phoebe Croitz is someone who any time she's at the open mic I’m super psyched. There’s just, you never know what you’re gonna see. Sometimes it's just really boring and then sometimes somebody that you’ve never seen before gets up and does something that is really cool. There was a band called Sourdoe and I thought they were doing amazing stuff but maybe they broke up or something I haven’t seen them in a while. But yeah, that was someone who was also really impressing me at the open mics.


Pullman: Yeah, speaking of your art I’m really into your comic books, they’re amazing. I love your illustration style and I’m curious who is, Rom Spaceknight?


Lewis: There was this toy and it was a toy that was not very popular and it was Rom SpaceKnight and the eyes would like light up and it was supposed to be this guy from outer space and in order to help advertise the toy they contacted Marvel Comics and they made a comic book about this character and it was sorta like a corporate collaboration between the toy company and Marvel comics to help sell this toy. But the toy ended up being very unsuccessful, it just went out of business immediately and when I was a little kid I really wanted to find this toy because the advertisements for it made it seem so cool. I was just 5 or 6 and it looked like the coolest thing in the world but I could never find the toy anywhere, but for some reason the comic book had more popularity than the toy. So even though the toy sorta faded into obscurity the comic was around for maybe 5 years and there ended up being maybe 75 issues of the whole series and it was just my favorite comic when I was a little kid, if I had a chance to buy comics I always wanted to find the Rom comics and because of the copyright from the toy company they were never able to reprint those comics, like marvel comics never had the full rights to the character, so they were never able to popularize it like Spiderman or something because the copyright was so mixed up with the toy company. But I never understood that when I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about the business side of it, I just always remember when I was a kid that was my favorite character and then for whatever reason they just never talked about him or reprinted him and he never reappeared in any later comics so it just remained part of my childhood that was just this like, special memory of my childhood, and I always would draw Rom and I just felt like the character had just inspired me to get really into comics and drawing. So everytime I start a sketchbook I always start with some drawing of me and Rom together, it has been my tradition for many years. 


Ulrich & Pullman: That is so sick!


Lewis: Yeah so this is my new sketchbook and here’s the drawing of me and Rom together again. So it, yeah, it's just my little tribute to that character to start a sketchbook with a drawing of us hanging out, so I’ve been doing that for many many years. And nowadays, I guess the character is a little more well known, like I think that they finally have started to reprint the old issues. It’s not like its great, I mean for some reason when I was like 6 or 7 that was just like the character that seemed the most interesting


Ulrich: That is interesting cause I feel like sometimes you realize you got really attached to things as a child and then you look back on them and you’re like “what about this made me so infatuated with it?” 


Lewis: Right, it almost has some psychological aspect to it, you analyze yourself like why was this so important to me? What does this say about my persona?


Pullman: Why Rom? We may never know…


Lewis: Yeah I’m just like why did I identify with that character? I don’t know, like what do you guys feel like you have certain things that you were heavily into at a certain young age that just appealed to you so strongly for some reason?


Ulrich: Hmm… Well I know when I was really young I was into those kind of off putting early animated Barbie movies that came out in the early 2000s. My mom couldn’t stand them but for some reason I was just obsessed with them and I watched a little bit of them for the first time recently and I was like oh yeah she was right about these being kinda awful but something about them was really captivating to me. 


Pullman: I was really into Hello Kitty


Lewis: That was always very mysterious to me as a kid! I was like who is she?


Pullman: I don’t know, something about her just drew me in


Ulrich: I still like her to be honest


Lewis: True, but as far as I’m aware there’s no story behind her. Like does she have a movie or something?


Pullman: She’s just a little being and I used to have this book that was like Hello Kitty in different cities and they would just put the stuffed animal in different cities and dress her up and I would just flip through it over and over and over again, I just really loved it. And I really love Snoopy too.


Lewis: Yes those are great, I really loved those when I was a kid. I used to always get their collections out of the library. 


Ulrich: Okay I guess speaking of your personality and the media that shaped you growing up, is there any song or album besides your own that kinda would help people get to know you better or you feel like it really encapsulates who you are? 


Lewis: A couple of things. I mean when I discovered Daniel Johnston’s stuff that was so life-changing to me. I mean I wouldn’t be making songs without having heard those Daniel Johnston recordings cause I had just never heard anything that sounded so homemade, and so just straight from the heart and so just, it just seemed like somebody who was really just talking about things that they really cared about a lot and it just came through so clearly. And the fact that it was just obviously made on a cassette and you could hear all the mistakes and you could hear him just start and stop the tape and it was just so mind blowing to me. I really feel like I can divide my life into before I heard Daniel Johnston and after, it was just this huge shift for me. And I definitely wouldn’t be making songs without that it really changed my whole perception of what music could be. It's hard for me to pick just one Daniel Johnston album but there's one called Don’t Be Scared that is one of my favorites that had a really big impact on me. I can’t even listen to it really cause it's just too intense, like every song is just too emotional so maybe every two years I can listen to it but I can’t just casually put it on cause it's so heartbreaking. And I also really feel like Syd Barrett, the guy who started Pink Floyd, the early Pink Floyd stuff with Syd Barrett and also his solo recordings are also just super important to me cause I just feel like there was something about the way you could kinda hear him being a little– he was sorta going crazy and he was sort of losing his grip on things in a way that I really related to as a teenager. In fact, thats actually, when I was– I forget how old I was when I heard Daniel Johnston, maybe I was like 19 or 20, and that was the first time I really wanted to find those Daniel Johnston recordings cause I read an article in a magazine that said he was sorta like Syd Barrett and I was like well I have to hear this guy. So there was something about somebody who was like maybe very alienated but was finding a creative way of dealing with it that just really appealed to me. So I guess that would be two artists that I would think of. 


Ulrich: Do you have any recommendations for getting into Daniel Johnston? Cause I’ve tried to listen to some of his stuff in the past but there is something very harsh and emotionally devastating about it like you said. 


Lewis: Well I feel like there's two phases of his career because the stuff that he recorded in the 80s he was in much better shape, like his voice and his mental health was better, he was much more together. And all those 80s recordings are like the best stuff, like the album Don’t Be Scared that I was talking about, I think that's from 1982. And then after he started getting more famous he really got in bad shape and his voice started to get really ragged and I think he was on a bunch of medication for his mental issues and so a lot of the later records do have this unpleasant sound, like his voice sounds very hoarse, and I’m not really a big fan of those later albums. But that was after he got more well known he was already kind of like almost a different kind of person. So when I first saw him live he just really seemed like he was in rough shape but then when I saw the documentary movie about him that had all this footage of what he had been like in the 80s I was like oh thats the guy who made those recordings that I’m really in love with. So it's sort of like these different phases of his life so I guess I would really recommend some of that early stuff, like the first album Songs of Pain and Don’t Be Scared and the What of Whom, like some of those albums from the early 80s– they still don’t sound like normal music they still sound very homemade and you can tell it's just somebody in their house with their piano but its definitely easier to listen to than some of the later stuff. 


Pullman: Yeah that kind of production style is that kind of how you work too? Is it just you and recording software or do you try to go into a studio?


Lewis: Well I’ve been doing both the last bunch of years. I guess it depends on whether I’m playing in a band or just playing solo, I feel like if I’m solo it's easier to just record at home, um I used to just record with tapes but now I just record into my phone, you know a voice memo thing and I’ll just hit record and play the song. But if I’m playing with my band then, like I’ll do studio recordings but then you have to deal with mixing and like is the bass too loud or the vocals and there's so many more decisions and it's like– cause then you’re like maybe I should add a keyboard to this. So it just becomes this much more complicated thing to think about. But then I have the recordings that are like the studio recordings with the band and then I have just a bunch of homemade recordings and I’ve mostly been putting the homemade recordings on my Bandcamp every year, at the end of each year I’ll just put a batch of homemade recordings on Bandcamp, and in that way it's almost like i have these two different careers with the band stuff and studio recordings and then I have all these homemade recordings. And I can’t really decide what to do with those, like whether I should put them on something cause they’re not really anywhere else like not on CDs or records or anything. 




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