Jeffrey Lewis: 'Bands today don't have anything interesting to say'
New Yorker Jeffrey Lewis is no fan of bland songwriters ... which is just as well for those expecting to see his trademark colourful show when he plays Belfast next week.
Jeffrey Lewis is, in his own words, an "old, bald and funny-looking" musician. While this description encapsulates Lewis's endearing self-deprecating streak, it doesn't come close to telling the whole story.
For a start, he's only 38 years old, and while he may have lost a few hairs recently his incredible productivity shows no signs of slowing down.
The New Yorker has released over 20 collections of his quirky, culture-referencing material (he's given nods to many acts from The Fall to Leonard Cohen throughout his discography) since launching his career in 1997. In this time he's performed with a number of backing bands and his current incarnation, The Jrams, will support him at Belfast's McHugh's Bar next Thursday, August 28.
"I change the name a lot because I've never found one strong enough to stick with," laughs Lewis. "You need a name like The Velvet Underground or The Violent Femmes to make it. Alas, the search continues."
As well as being a multi-faceted musician, Lewis is a keen visual artist and comic-book writer, and often lectures at universities around the world on a variety of topics. I wonder if this range of activities, as well as the vast spectrum of musical genres he dabbles in, confuses the press, who continue to label him a cult act. Then again, it is undoubtedly hard to get a grip on an artist who is regularly described as "anti-folk".
"Yeah, I'm sure I've really dented my rocket-ship to fame by not repeating the success of my early singles!" says Lewis lightheartedly when asked whether his diversity has affected his popularity. "It's hard to see any way that my music could reach a mass audience really, regardless of how much I change or stay the same. As far as I'm concerned, though, I've reached a listenership far beyond what I thought possible."
In reality Lewis was never likely to attract a mainstream crowd due to the offbeat nature of his lyrics. As well as throwing in shout-outs to niche bands, Lewis is also known for mentioning New York landmarks in his songs. Listening to the singer's material can make you feel part of an exclusive club; that is if you understand his references. Either way, even Lewis sometimes feels alienated in his homeland.
"In a way I'm some kind of New York poster child, having lived there my whole life," he ponders, "but generally the New York rock scene has always been about bands moving over here and loudly announcing themselves. So I don't really fit into that either."
The singer offers no apologies for his specific, potentially confusing lyrics, though. He professes to hate the blandness of contemporary songwriting. "I listen to all these modern bands in hope of finding something interesting, and not a single one of them seems to have anything of interest to say," he says. "Modern musicians are a mostly vapid bunch."
This disdain perhaps informs his colourful live shows, which are often improvisational. "A gig isn't a theatre piece, it shouldn't have a script," opines Lewis. "It's more like a sport. I just go out there every night and use the appropriate tools."
For Lewis, a successful gig requires an element of unpredictability, even if the recipient of the shock is he himself. "I try and surprise myself, take chances and think on my feet. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, but if it goes okay then it feels great."
- Jeffrey Lewis and The Jrams play McHugh's Bar in Belfast next Thursday, August 28. For details, visit www.wegotttickets.com