Turning up the Voltage – the Jeffrey Lewis interview

Three’s Company: Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage, namely Brent Cole, left, and Mem Pahl, right (Photo: Nic Chapman)

I’m guessing cult US indie singer-songwriter and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis is back home in New York right now, after a recent run of UK dates with his band, The Voltage.

And again, he picked up plenty of new friends, having received jaw-dropping praise from major news and music outlets before now, along with awed testimonials from big names on both the underground and overground scenes.

Listen to his new record Bad Wiring in a few weeks and you’ll see why, a 43-year-old now some 18 years into his recording career clearly on a creative high. And while waiting for that November 1st release you can always catch up with his tremendous Modern Lovers-like lead single ‘LPs’ and trawl back through an impressive back-catalogue.

As those who put his records out succinctly put it, ‘In all of indie-rock there is no force like Jeffrey Lewis. Although mostly recognised for his lyrical skills as well as his illustration and comic book skills, the secret weapon in Lewis’s arsenal has been his slow evolution from DIY folkie in the late 90s to barn-burning indie-rock live sensation.’ Is The Voltage frontman guilty as charged on that front?

“Well, it’s certainly true that over the years we kind of went through this evolution of turning into a band from just being kind of me in a bedroom with a tape recorder, with my brother Jack playing bass. It was the two of us for a while, we started making up songs and by 1997, playing little places in New York.

“By around 2002 we started playing with a drummer, starting to go on tour, learning the ins and outs of what it meant to play shows on stage and make recordings. It was a very slow, weird learning process that we sort of accidentally found ourselves engaging in until at this point we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a band, here we are on tour, and we know how to talk to a venue, do a soundcheck and ask for ‘more keyboard in the right stage monitor’ and professional sounding stuff.

“I guess that just slowly happened, but then with all these bands we love, like Yo La Tengo, The Velvet Underground and all that kind of noisy full-on sound like The Fall, and Stereolab … for a long time I felt there was this disconnect between the fact that we’d be getting press that would consider us a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter thing, then we’d show up and play this loud, full-on rock’n’roll stuff with distortion pedals and everything.

“And still to this day I show up at a venue and they’re surprised that the guitars will be going through an amplifier, or that there’s a microphone for the guitar, or we have a DI box, and so on.”

Is that all down to the Lightning in your name (apparently, his parents actually named him Lightning Jeffrey Lewis, on account of adverse weather conditions when he was born, or as he put it, ‘the result of being born on the Lower East Side in the 1970s to hippie parents’)?

“Yes, but we were always a bit noisier than advertised, I guess. The quiet stuff is an important part of what we do also, but that dynamic and ability to just throw in all the things we love into this project has always been part of it.”

He calls The Voltage his new band, but the musicians are the same he had in previous incarnation Los Bolts, namely bassist, Mem Pahl and drummer, Brent Cole (also of the Moldy Peaches), that pair having toured the world with for the past four years.

As for that more recent name change, as he puts it, ‘Everybody knows most good bands have a ‘v’ in their name – the Velvets, Nirvana, Pavement, Vaselines, Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven, Modern Lovers, and so on’.

In fact, before Los Bolts it was The Rain, seemingly also in reference to the Lightning in his name.

Triple Voltage: Jeffrey Lewis and arm-wrestling bandmates Brent Cole and Mem Pahl (Photo: Bristol Mather)

The new LP was recorded and produced in Nashville by Roger Moutenot, also responsible for producing several influential Yo La Tengo albums, and who also worked on Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss and Sleater Kinney’s Hot Rock, more than enough to convince Jeffrey he was the right man to capture these 12 great new songs in the studio.

“As an experience of working with a producer, it was a dream come true. I obviously worship a number of records Roger had produced in the past, so I specifically sought him out. The fact that he’s in Nashville was just accidental. We would have travelled to record with him anywhere. But now when people hear we made our album in Nashville, everybody’s like, oh, I guess this is your country album.”

It’s a great record, I can reveal, with plenty of memorable moments and clever twists and turns, and above all gifted songwriting. As the line from opening track ‘Exactly What Nobody Wanted’ puts it, ‘So awesome, just awesome’.

And from the cracking punk riff driving ‘Except for the Fact That It Isn’t’ to Jeffrey’s breathless alternative state of the nation address on ‘My Girlfriend Doesn’t Worry’ right through to pensive, poignant closer ‘Not Supposed To Be Wise’, I’m hooked. What’s more, songs like ‘Depression! Despair!’ have Lou Reed writ large on them, echoes of his ‘New York’ album heard on the latter.

I’m only a few listens in, but the fruits of their labours suggest the band and their producer had a winning working relationship.

“Oh yeah, that was fantastic. I would definitely record with Roger Moutenot again. He was such a great person to work with and it really seemed that he got the atmosphere andthat was some of the sound I’ve been going for many years, a sound he cooked up initially in the ’90s with Yo La Tengo. Yeah, it just seemed a natural fit.”

Jeffrey continues to get lots of great press, and is ‘slowly but surely on a trajectory to immortal cult status’ according to Line of Best Fit, ‘dazzling’ according to Mojo, ‘Weird? Very… but also downright inspiring’ in Rolling Stone’s view, and was seen by the NME as ‘The Big Apple’s best-kept secret…. Genius-gone-ignored… mind-blowing.’ What’s more, former Pulp frontman and BBC 6 Music presenter Jarvis Cocker reckons Jeffrey is ‘the best lyricist working in the US today’. High praise indeed.

He recently undertook an 11-day, 11-date UK tour including Oslo in London, two shows in Scotland and a Welsh finale at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach. When we caught up he was just set to leave Lancashire for the long trek up to Scotland. How was The Ferret in Preston that previous night?

“It was great. And a good crowd. It’s been quite a while since I was there, and not since it was the Mad Ferret, going back – off-hand – to maybe 2011. It’s been a long time.”

So long it’s no longer mad?

“Right. Yes. It’s straightened itself out.”

Lewis Carols: US treasure Jeffrey Lewis supplying a little six-string sonic therapy for us (Kelley Clayton)

There seems to be a lot of love for you on this side of the Atlantic.

“Well, I guess, I mean people are coming to shows, so that’s good.”

The UK became in a sense a second home for you, the first country to put out a CD by you, for instance.

“Yeah, we really got just a fantastic leg-up and head-start over here, first of all with Rough Trade putting out my stuff, even though it was just home-recorded cassettes. It’s amazing that Geoff Travis took a chance on it and put it out, and we were able to do a Peel Session in 2002 – that was also a tremendous big start in England.

“And one of my first gigs in London, a very tiny show in November 2001, Ben Ayres from Cornershop just happened to be in the audience, even though there were only about 30 people in there, and invited me to go on tour in England opening for Cornershop. That was also just tremendous. So within a very short time, just a few months, somehow I just had all this exposure, and was really off and running quite quickly.”

And the UK’s always been in your musical DNA, I’m thinking, with all those cool indie bands and so much more you appreciate coming from this side of the Atlantic.

“Yeah, definitely. I was always a fan of Cornershop, for example, and stuff that Rough Trade had done. “

Jeffrey had a long drive up to Glasgow that day, but I put it to him that he was used to all this by now, surely.

“Yeah, and it’s also such a beautiful drive, the journey up to Scotland.”

Lightning Reactions: Jeffrey Lewis, hoping to see us next summer (Photo: Sonya Kolowrat)

Beyond that he had several more UK dates, then it was on to Italy before returning home. Can he take inspiration on the road while he’s out there, writing songs between shows? Or is that something that happens when he’s home and reflecting on it all?

“There’s usually just too much other stuff to do. Songwriting doesn’t usually happen on tour, and then it’s usually on to organising the next tour. There’s a USA tour in November, so I need to make all the posters and mail all the posters out for that and sort out where we’re staying each night on that tour. And with the new album, Bad Wiring, coming out on November 1st, there’s quite a bit to do with that. It’s sort of juggling three, four or five full-time careers, basically.”

How very indie D-I-Y, and that’s even without mentioning his other career, other than to say that we should also keep an eye out for other interesting Jeffrey Lewis projects, such as his new giant-size comic book issue, Fuff#12, and first book Revelations in the Wink of an Eye: My Insane Musings on Watchmen, from Conspiracies to Stupidities. 

I was only on my first listen of the new LP when I spoke to Jeffrey, but already loving what I was hearing. It’s difficult to keep track with various formats involved, so what number recording would he class this one as?

“Well, I’ve got seven albums on Rough Trade and this will be the first on Moshi Moshi, but I’ve also got a few others, various self-releases, and a couple of projects on Don Giovanni Records, so it sort of depends what counts. I guess I’d say I have seven official albums and this will be number eight.”

With this recent UK visit a pre-release tour, any idea when he might return for those who missed out this time?

“Well, we usually come to England at least once or twice a year, so I’m thinking maybe next summer, depending on whether there’s a festival situation or something. Maybe that could be a good time to come back.”

This tour was with The Voltage, previously knoqwn as Los Bolts – was it just you, Brent and Mem?

“Yeah, although actually at the moment we have my brother Jack, who’s been in my band quite a long time in my early years, and once in a while we get him to join us again. So we’ve got him jumping in as a special guest band member, just for these UK dates. He wasn’t with us in Germany last week. Usually we’re a three-piece, but once in a while Jack joins us.”

Electric Performer: Jeffrey Lewis hanging out, without his Voltage, as heard on Bad Wiring (Photo: Sonya Kolowrat)

On the sublime ‘LPs’ from this new album, you talk about some of your key influences, and you also paid tribute recently to cult lo-fi underground US singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston (who died barely a week earlier), clearly a major inspiration on all you’ve gone on to do.

“Yeah, absolutely, going back to when my brother Jack and I first heard his stuff in 1995, with the album he put out on Atlantic Records. That was my first exposure to him, and we became completely devoted fans. We weren’t really making songs prior to that, and then it just inspired our entire approach and us making recordings in the late ‘90s. Yeah, without Daniel Johnston’s influence and all his cassettes … I think I have pretty much all of them, and  that’s really how I got started.

“I even lived in Austin, Texas briefly, on a sort of Daniel Johnston pilgrimage back in 2000, and while I was there I was able to get my hands on quite a number of his tapes I hadn’t been able to find in New York City prior to that. I also did a number of gigs with him over the years, the first in New York in 1999, and later also in Texas, Manchester and London. He was also such a great guiding light for how strong and true a song was possible to be.”

Was he encouraging of your work too?

“Well, he was quite introverted. It’s not like he would reach out and give encouragement to somebody who just did his thing and was very … he wasn’t a person you could have a normal conversation with. He was very much in his own head, and wouldn’t really engage in that way.”

I mentioned the track ‘LPs’, the first track aired from the new album. Call it an obsession or perhaps even a disease, but so many of us relate to that musical journey you embarked upon, finding our way through the record racks, so to speak. And in your music there’s so much within that we can identify, from Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (there’s even a subtle nod on ‘LPs’ in the way he phrases ‘Radio in the first line, and the Voltage’s echoed harmonies) back to the Velvet Underground …

“All band names with a V!”

Well, exactly. I love that, and reckon I hear Violent Femmes in your work in places.

“Yeah, Silver Jews, Pavement … I don’t know why these bands have Vs in their name but at a certain point I noticed a proper band seems to need a V.”

Indeed, and Silver Jews are another band receiving plenty of interest of late, with the all too early departure of founder David Berman in August. at the age of 52. I was also going to mention past WriteWyattUK interviewees They Might Be Giants there, not least from their more new wave-like early days, but they don’t quite fit Jeffrey’s flying V remit. But no matter. He’s still got plenty of influences to fire at me …

“Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids … the list goes on and on!”

Crown Joules: Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage bandmates Brent Cole, left, and Mem Pahl, right (Photo: Nic Chapman)

Jeffrey Lewis’ new LP, Bad Wiring is out via Moshi Moshi on November 1st. For more details and all the latest from Jeffrey, try his Facebook page and website.








About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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