Anxiety Attack: Jeffrey Lewis

JLExcerpts from an unpublished Jeffrey Lewis interview…

Part of what makes me such a big fan of your records is going through things like anxiety attacks and then listening to your records and feeling like someone else knows what I’m going through. Are you very aware when you write that you’re trying to say that to people? It’s something I struggle to talk about.

“I’m often surprised that people… I mean, I’m not surprised that people relate… I figured that somebody out there would relate to this stuff, but I feel like… obviously, people say the most personal things are the most universal things, or somebody said that, maybe Lenny Bruce or somebody? A lot of songs I’m really surprised that people… ah… I guess I’m not surprised that people relate, I’m surprised that people relate where… like you’re here, obviously, a very hip, together, young guy, you’re looking good in a Keith Richards shirt, you know? You should have the world laid out before you… you’re a swinging young man in London. Why would this guy relate to a song about an anxiety attack? Or… some stuff that I have that’s very New York City-oriented… I’m talking about certain trains, certain streets, certain people, but I can play it in Russia and people are into it. It makes me wonder how much other bands… well, er… I don’t know… I’m exposed to a lot of different bands in doing this because I play shows and every night we’re playing with other bands, we’re at festivals and seeing other bands, and I don’t know what other bands find important to talk about. For me, if there’s something that feels a little bit uncomfortable or something that it’s difficult to have a regular conversation about, or a casual conversation about, unless it’s somebody that’s a very close friend… and yet you can make a song out of it and play it in front of a hundred people or a thousand people or ten people, or whatever the case may be… and it makes sense in a social context in that way, whereas just one-on-one if you were to sit down next to somebody at a bar there’s no social construct for it.”

It’s weird to even talk about it now.

“Yeah, it’s very odd, right? Us sitting here and talking about our anxiety attacks… there’s no social… there isn’t really a roadmap for how you and I, who don’t know each other, are going to talk about something that’s intensely personal to both of us and yet when we’re in a room together and there’s a song as a bridge between us then we can share that space and relate to that. Except that it doesn’t always work, and I don’t really know why. I have a lot of songs where I’m like: ‘OK, I’m talking about stuff that’s personal’ and nobody cares, or people don’t like it, or I don’t like it, or, just, it’s not a good song. I started writing songs because I thought: ‘OK, this is not very hard, all I have to do is talk about stuff that’s important to me and it’ll be a good song.’ Over the years I’ve realised that that’s not necessarily the case, and I don’t know what that extra factor is, that turns something from just somebody talking about stuff into something that makes a song that creates that space that can be shared… yeah, I wish I knew what that was, because I could write more songs if I knew how to access that. Sometimes you just fall into it and you’re like: ‘Alright, great! I’ve got a song!’ Then a lot of times it just doesn’t work and you end up with all these embarrassing songs that are somehow in poor taste. Like my old ‘Complete history of Jeff’s sexual conquests, volume one’, which was an old song that I was playing when I first started out, and that song is one that I can’t… you know, when I’ve played it live at all in the past bunch of years it just seems in poor taste. Maybe it’s too personal? Too specific? It’s not something that other people can relate to, or it’s too much like… I don’t know… I mean, I just don’t know. Some things work, and some things just don’t and I’m not sure why.”

I love that your lyrics are direct, even blunt, but do you ever wish you could stop making sense?

“It’s true that I don’t understand how abstract writers do it. I mean, I think Adam Green is a really brilliant songwriter and it’s very surreal and very playful, and it has this wonderfully absurdist kind of freewheeling approach, but it maintains a real emotional impact and I can’t figure out how that works. That really doesn’t make sense to me. Or other songwriters, they’ll hit a certain channel where you’re beyond normal language. It’s like being an abstract painter: you’re able to really move people, moving beyond representation. If you look at a painting and you’re like ‘Oh, he can paint a really good picture of what’s happening in the street’, that’s cool, but it’s almost too easy. ‘Alright, but can you move me if you break out of that entirely?’ I don’t operate on that level. You hear certain lines by Dylan or Leonard Cohen or other songwriters, Syd Barrett, songwriting that just works and you’re like: ‘Why did that move me? I don’t even know why, it didn’t even make any sense!’ There’s a higher art to that and I’m just a literalist.”

But there’s something great about that frankness.

“I’m definitely a fan of it. That was what I wanted. When I started making music I wanted it to have no thrills… even to the point of having just my name… just ‘Jeffrey Lewis’, the most boring name in the entertainment industry. No band name. Nothing interesting about it. Not even a Devendra Banhart-type exotic name. You basically can’t get more boring. My whole idea was: Let me just strip away everything. Nothing fancy about the voice. Nothing fancy about the music. Nothing fancy about the recording. Nothing fancy about the name. No image. Just as boring as possible so that when something moves you it’s just the complete, direct frankness and you’re like: ‘Woah, I can’t believe this guy has blown my mind as much as anything does but without all of those extra crutches.’ It was Daniel Johnston who really blew my mind with that concept. I guess it was the mid-90s when somebody first introduced me to Daniel Johnston’s stuff, when his ‘Fun’ album came out, and that is pretty produced compared to his other stuff, but even that just had this emotional and lyrical and musical frankness and directness to it that gave me a whole new concept of what music could be and that just inspired me and gave me a completely new ideal for what great music was. So now I don’t know if that was a mistake or not, because now I’m kind of more of a normal band. I play with my brother on bass and our drummer Dave and we go on tour with a band… here, we’re about to sound-check and play a show and sell merch… These are all things that a normal band does. Maybe it really would be better to have a band name and have an image and all of that stuff, because it probably adds to… I don’t know, we could wear costumes on stage or something. You’re charging people money to come to a show, is there a point to not giving them a show? It becomes an awkward situation because I’m very much not a spectacle, but maybe… you feel like: ‘Am I ripping people off by not being a spectacle, by just doing this normal, direct thing?’

Do you write from a blank page or construct a song from phrases?

“It’s shameful how little I actually write songs. I almost never pick up the guitar at home. The guitar sits in the closet 95% of the time. I almost never just play guitar. Once in a while, a little bit of an idea will come into my head and maybe I’ll write it down and if it’s going somewhere I might pick up the guitar and put some chords to it. Which I know is a terrible mistake because if I write 20 songs maybe one of them will really feel important enough to do something with, so I should just write more. But usually what happens is that I’ll write a song, and then looking at it again I’ll realize this line and this line are kind of stupid and I should just take them out and put something better in there. I wrote this song but only about 40% of it really felt good to me, and the other parts I’ll just have to replace with something better eventually. If I listen to the original versions of a lot of my songs I’m like: “Man, I’m so glad I changed that.” So many of my songs just have gotten better and better, especially through live performance. I listen to the early, original versions or sometimes I find an old lyric sheet, and I’m like: “Man, those were the original lyrics? I’m so glad I changed that.” The song concept is there and most of what’s good about the song is there, but there are some really stupid lines that just got whittled away eventually. It’s definitely a constant process.”

You need that freedom to make mistakes.

“Yeah, right. If it had to be great the first time you’d never write anything. You’d just write three lines, it wouldn’t be great and you’d crumple it up and throw it away. You really have to allow yourself to just not worry about how good it is. Even in live performance, every night we’re trying out stuff that we’re not really that honed on. Allowing yourself to not have it perfectly, and kind of discovering it as you go along: “Last time we did that song something cool kinda happened in the bridge when you did this thing. Let’s try to keep that again.” I suppose it’s also because my band almost never rehearses, ever. We get so much better when we rehearse. There were like three periods: Fall of 2007 we booked a week in a rehearsal studio and we got a zillion times better. It was like: “Oh my God, why don’t we do this all the time?” I feel like we leapt up from a solid week of rehearsal and my band has never been the same. There were maybe two other times in the last 10 years we’ve done that. Most of the time it’s just kind of like: “Hey, let’s meet up and go on tour.” Then night by night we’re just hammering it out and after about four shows everything has really taken shape. The new material is taking shape and the old material is getting tighter. It’s all happening in the live moment, which is the best rehearsal anyway. You can rehearse something in a practice space and when you get on stage it’s going to be totally different anyway. First of all, in a practice space you’re all facing each other and on stage you’re facing out and not seeing the other people.”

Is part of the fact that you rarely write songs down to the fact that your first love remains drawing comics?

“Uhhm, I wish that was the case. Most of my – I feel like 99% of my time is just occupied with emailing, I’m just like booking shows, figuring out how to rent a car from Frankfurt airport and if we return it to Hamburg airport it’s going to cost us an extra 70 Euros, so we shouldn’t do that, and I got to tell so and so what order the tracks are going to be in for the album and then I am filming some of my illustrated songs for this like TV show in Philadelphia so I need to work out what days I am going to be in Philadelphia to film that. So I mean, you know I am basically, I’m not actually Jeffery Lewis, I am like Jeffery Lewis’ manager and I kind of wish that there was a Jeffery Lewis who meanwhile was working on comics and music. But between the three band members we all sort of share the booking and managing, tour managing, figuring out who is selling merch after the show tonight and who is driving and who is going to get paid by the promoter tonight and who is going to, you know, talk to the record label and Jack, you know my bass player, he’s like ‘Jens Lekman announced a U.S. tour and he doesn’t have a support act announced, so why don’t you email him and ask him if we can open up a few shows?’ So it’s like ‘alright I’ll do that’. It’s almost really stuff like that but between the three of us we are all sort of on it. You know even the managing and organizing side is pretty fun, but email is so weird because when, you know, I never operated as a band before email and I think if you are dealing with the phone then there’s an end to a conversation, but with an email it never ends, like you know somebody emails saying ‘you know that was a good show you did last night’ and I email back ‘oh thanks’.  They email back ‘What comics are you into lately?’ or blah blah blah. It’s like every single person just turns into a pen pal and then like every time you open up your inbox there’s ten bazillion things and I don’t know why I prioritize that, I should be like alright ‘I got to draw two column pages before I catch up on my emails’, but instead I’m like ‘no I have to catch up on the tons of emails’ and then I draw my cartoon page, so yeah that’s a stupid way of going about it.”

Live performance isn’t perfectible in the way that writing is. You don’t get a second chance. How you deal with the two worlds of writing and performing?

“Well, it’s true that the feeling of having done a bad show, is like the worst feeling, it just feels so miserable, you don’t want to talk to anybody and find yourself a dark corner and just disintegrate. And I never want to show my face in that city again. I mean if it was a bad show, I will never go to that same city again for years. I feel like just now I am able to show my face in… say, Berlin. In 2008 and 2009 we played a show in Berlin and screwed up a couple of songs, broke a string. Man, I mean I can’t show my face around Berlin. It was just sort of last week that we played a show and we were like ‘Maybe we can start to re-establish ourselves there’. But it also sort of goes both ways because if you do a really great show then you don’t want to come back to that city again either. Because then you’re like: ‘We will never leave them with a better impression than that’. We played an absolutely incredible show. We felt amazing about it, everybody felt amazing about it – that’s it. You know, we have to leave them with that, rather than diminish that, so …but also a show cannot reach the heights of being a great show if you’re not taking chances. I think that what really makes it a great show for the audience and for the band is when you are doing something that you’re not sure you can pull off. It’s not when you are doing something that you have already rehearsed to the point that you are going to get it perfect every night because that’s just theatre, I think. That’s just like memorizing your script for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and getting on stage and reciting it. It’s just that when you are going out on a tightrope and then throwing yourself off it. The audience picks up on it, I think. There’s a certain energy that’s sort of happening as an exploration when you’re really… you know, it’s like the difference between trying to kiss somebody that you’ve never kissed before… and it works! And you’re like ‘YES’, rather than kissing your girlfriend of the past five years where… I don’t know, I mean it’s still cool, it’s better than… something good is still better than something bad, but the thrill of, you know, the excitement, of like, risking the disaster of getting rejected, because you know the rejection feels horrible, but if it works then that’s really hitting the heights. It’s sort of the same on stage. There’s been times were we’ve been playing  and we were a sort of more cowardly on stage and we are just playing songs that we know how to play in a way that we know will be good. And those are good shows but the greatest shows, you know, you can’t just get comfortable doing that because you’ve got to be willing to fail in order to get to the best place. But the failure is still horrible, it’s really terrible.”