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Jeffrey Lewis is a musician, cartoonist and self-proclaimed lo-fi filmmaker from New York. He is celebrated for his ceaseless creativity and unique performances, which combine art and music in the form of low-budget hand-drawn music videos and documentaries (such as his take on the French Revolution, filmed for the History Channel). As a tie-in to Litro #109: Comics & Graphic Fiction, I speak to the prolific artist about comics, creativity and his impending UK tour for his new album, A Turn In The Dream-Songs.
Do you feel fortunate that you’re able to incorporate your comics into your performances? Since, apart from perhaps Q&A events, cartooning is a very solitary pursuit, with few opportunities to present directly to an audience.
Absolutely, considering the fact that with music the touring element is an accepted part of the whole, so you are able to take your art out to people all over the world instead of staying at home waiting for the world to come to you. Comic books are more in the stay-at-home-and-wait category, so it’s very lucky for me that I have a good way to take my comics out to the world via the music touring. And the illustrated songs that I do in performances are another good way to combine the elements of both.
Do you think drawing allows a mental break from writing, which is consistently intensive?
Yes, there’s a different part of the brain that I use when the drawing gets past the idea/sketch part and can switch to autopilot. That’s my favourite part, whether it’s inking, or colouring, or an elaborate perspective drawing, or any other task that allows the verbal brain to take a rest and listen to music, that’s where I get a lot of music-listening done. Just putting on album after album while engaged in those tasks, that’s a great way to spend time. But the earlier planning stages of the comic stuff requires much more focus in a way that doesn’t allow me to talk to people or listen to music, just different parts of the brain. I once read that Daniel Clowes (author of Ghost World and David Boring) concentrates so much even on the inking of his comics that not only does he not listen to music, he actually has to wear headphones to block out all sounds, and that’s even at the parts of the process that I’d consider the “autopilot” parts.
Do you think it’s a shame that comic publishing seems to be moving more in the way of graphic novels, with less and less serialised comics being published these days?
I do prefer the regular comic book format. The days when I could go to a comic store once or twice a month and find a new issue of Peepshow, Underwater, Eightball, or Optic Nerve: you wouldn’t quite know what you were going to find that week, but chances are you’d find at least one new comic that you could be excited about buying for a couple bucks and reading on the train on the way home, or while sitting on a stoop on the street. Nowadays there’s no point in going to a comic store more than twice a year, because all the same artists are only releasing their work when they’ve got eight years worth of pages to compile into a giant tome. There’s no surprise about finding it, because now it’s treated like a new novel or movie or album, with advance press releases and book reviews and signing tours, so you know in advance exactly when this new big thing is going to be released. Plus it’s a bigger investment, both of time and money. Also, if the only really good comic books are coming out in only big book form then it even renders comic book stores obsolete, these big books are designed to be sold in bookstores so the comic industry is sort of backstabbing the comic stores that built up their fans in the first place. That’s my take on it all, anyway.
Are their plans to make a ninth edition of Fuff (Jeffrey’s self-published comic book)?
Definitely, I just haven’t had time to start it because the album artwork for A Turn In The Dream-Songs ended up much more elaborate than I’d anticipated. But I’m almost ready to print Fuff # 0 which is a 72-page collection of earlier comics from 1998-2001, all of the little comics that I used to use as advertisements for my concerts when I was first playing shows in NYC. I had released this collection in photocopied form around 2002 but it’s been out of print for a long time and this new printing will be better quality, with more material. It’s taking a long time to clean up and format all the pages but I’m almost ready to send it to the printer. There’s a lot of other old comic stuff of mine that I might reprint too, maybe I’ll do a Fuff -1 and a Fuff -2, though really I should be getting to work on Fuff +9.
Can we expect to see any new music videos at the UK dates later this year?
I’ve got at least one new one that nobody’s seen yet, and a couple from last year that I barely performed live at all because I didn’t have them memorized, so I’d like to incorporate those into the upcoming shows at least a few times. I’ll bring some of my old music videos along, too. During our recent China and South Korea tours I performed my illustrated History of Communism in China, and my other illustrated history song The History of Communism in Korea. It was a great opportunity to see if I had gotten the stories right at all.
If I’m not mistaken, you spent some time studying in London. What was your impression of the city while you during your time there?
It was very exciting to be away from America for the first time. I was in Ealing for a few months in 1996, so it wasn’t exactly the heart of London or the heart of anything, but even living in the suburbs was a thrill to a kid like me who grew up in the city. The guy that I shared my room with was a strange force in my life, we were at odds about many things but we both agreed that it was very important to not spend our little bit of money and little bit of time on anything pointless – instead we used our bit of cash to take weekend bus trips to Scotland, or hitchhike around Ireland, stuff like that. We became so frugal that we actually decided to be homeless for a few weeks when the weather was warm enough. We would stash our school stuff at the lockers in the school building and do our homework in the university library and then sneak into the park to sleep at night. So we were doing all this travelling together and having this homeless experience, basically depending on each other for survival, even though we had some serious personality conflicts.
I remember stumbling on a small comic book shop that was selling original comic book pages, including original art pages from V For Vendetta and Watchmen. They were only about £200 – 300 per page at the time, which of course was way out of my budget, all I could do was stare at them, but I’m sure that now those pages must be worth a small fortune. I don’t think I’ve ever found that shop again in all the times I’ve been back to London, but I’m sure those pages are long, long gone in any case.
And of course Alan Moore’s comics informed a lot of my impression of London, because this was during the time when the From Hell series was coming out, concerning London history and architecture and city planning, so that was on my mind a lot during my time in London.
What can we expect from A Turn in the Dream-Songs?
I generally lean towards a more scattered batch of material, I think consistency has been sort of my enemy on most of my albums and concerts, but this new record is a lot more consistent than the albums I’ve done before, for better or worse. It’s mostly the same musicians on every track, and all recorded in the same room, plus it’s the first time I’ve put out an official album that has zero input from my brother Jack (my usual bass player and occasional song collaborator). So, this is sort of my first solo album in a way.
During your set at Brixton Windmill last May, there was a song with the lyrics: “time is going to take so much away, but there’s a way that time can offer you a trade: you better do something that you can get better at, ‘cos that’s the only thing time will leave you with.” Do the lyrics describe your motivation for creating?
That’s on the new album. The older you get, the faster time seems to go, everybody knows that. So how come people don’t wait until later in life to do things that take a long time? It would be so much faster to do a 3-year project when you’re 40 years old than it would be to do a 3-year project when you’re 20 years old.
For the full details on Jeffrey’s UK tour, click here.