As a singer-songwriter, Jeffrey Lewis became part of the late ‘90s anti-folk movement in his hometown, New York City, along with Kimya Dawson, Diane Cluck and Regina Spektor and he’s been steadily releasing new music ever since.
Lewis is also an accomplished comic book artist, often incorporating his drawings into his live performances as either introductions to songs or interludes between them.
Lewis will take the stage with his backing band The Voltage for a Sunday matinee at Café Nine in New Haven, with local indie rockers Pond View starting things off at 4 p.m.
We talked to Lewis ahead of the show about the comic books he grew up reading, using his performance as a way of communication, being excited to play with his current songs and a pile of songs he’s whittling down for a new album.
RD: When you were growing up, what became your first love? Was it comic books or music?
JL: Comic books, definitely.
RD: Were there any particular ones that you initially gravitated to as a kid?
JL: Rom The Space Knight from Marvel Comics was my favorite, that was the only one I really felt I was following from issue to issue but I was also a fan of picking up whatever else I could get my hands on. Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, pretty much anything at random but somehow Rom was the one I’ve gravitated to the most since I was five.
RD: When it comes to your own comic books and your own design, what do you consider to be your main influences? There definitely seems to be an aesthetic similar to American Splendor and Robert Crumb, maybe I’m not correct but that’s what I get from it.
JL: Definitely ‘90s alternative comics. The era of Eightball, Peepshow, Optic Nerve and Dirty Plotte, there’s a sort of culture of those comics that were coming out via Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics during that time. Love and Rockets was also part of it, I loved it so much that it’s a shame to me that culture is gone. As of the last 20 years, all of those sorts of people just want to make these giant books that come out once every seven years or something. I kind of miss the trashy, less pressurized, freer creativity when they were actually comic books, but the creators were just really great.
Joe Sacco, Chris Ware and all the stuff that was coming out around that time kind of just vanished. I kind of felt like somebody has to be trying to make that stuff and you just gravitate towards what you love. It’s the same thing with music, I just gravitated towards it because I love it so I can’t help but want to be a part of it.
RD: Yeah, I totally get that. When you perform it’s a mix of a show and a presentation with you playing a song and then showing a comic either on an easel or a projector. Which kind of comics do you usually include and what made you want to structure your shows this way while combining two creative mediums into one?
JL: I usually show comics about the history of Communism and Vietnam or a weird story about a creeping brain that gets larger and takes over the Earth. It could be a detective story or the story of Salvador Allende in Chile, these are the topics I gravitate towards and the ones that interest me whether it’s some kind of absurd fantasy or some kind of historical situation I’m compelled by or struck by. It’s definitely a range of things but the stuff that I show in the concerts I feel like it’s a different genre than the comic books that I make as comic books. The illustrated song stuff is what I think in Japan is called “Kamishibai” or something, apparently in the 1950s after World War II in Japan these itinerant troubadour types would go around singing stories while presenting illustrations and they would go from town to town on a bicycle. I feel like that’s an interesting precedent for what I’m doing, I hadn’t been aware until someone told me about this Japanese tradition and I feel like it’s the closest comparison to what I do in my concerts.
It’s sort of a very different storytelling medium than comic books as comic books or songs as songs. It’s a third path that I think other people could explore, it makes a lot of sense. That combination of words, visuals and storytelling has got a lot of possibilities.
RD: It’s very interactive as well. Would you say that your experience of holding lectures helps you form this kind of presentation and performance? I know you did one on Watchmen way back in the day.
JL: Yeah. I think if there’s a connecting thread between the comic books I make, the songs I make and those illustrated song projects that I show or if there’s another project I might be working on, I guess it’s just basic communication. It’s the way you have to communicate something and kind of figure out how to get it across with the best structure, whether it’s a beginning, middle and end that all fits together well or sort of expounding on a thesis in a certain way to explain where you’re coming from. That probably applies to all the things that I do, how can I get this across in a way where I kind of have that mind meld with the person who’s receiving it where we really understand each other and it’s all completely fully communicated. It could be a feeling, a story, a sort of thought or even just something that I’m questioning. The constant challenge is how best to communicate this so it’s a shared experience between everybody who’s in the room, which would be me and whoever else.
RD: That approach makes sense. You’ve put out a lot of albums, EPs and singles throughout your career along with being involved in many compilations. What would you say inspires your prolific output as a musician?
JL: I’ve realized over the years that work creates inspiration rather than the other way around. If I just set myself to the task of making up a song, something will come out. I won’t know necessarily what it’ll be but I’ll sit down and try to write a song or make up a song and it’s the same thing with comic books, illustrations or other projects. Once you do it, it’s like you’re heading into the unknown and you’re exploring. You don’t know what you’re going to find but it’s not going to be anything you’ve ever done before, it’ll be some new thing.
It’s almost like a sport. When you’re playing baseball, you don’t know how the game is gonna go but you just get onto the field and you do your best. It takes a completely unprecedented shape each time and that’s really thrilling to get engaged in that process and try to not be scared of failure because nothing ever comes out the way you necessarily think it will. It’s just a matter of how joyful it is to engage in that process with all of its agonies and ecstasies. I write a lot of stuff that I sort of put aside, if I write a bunch of songs maybe one or two of them feel like something that might be worth playing for people.
RD: This current northeast tour you’ve been embarking on, which includes a stop at Café Nine, has you performing with The Voltage as your backing band. What makes this band different from either Los Bolts or other bands you’ve been in?
JL: It’s just been the case over many years of making songs, making music and touring that the musicians in my band sometimes just shift around. There’s been different kinds of phases where I had a certain drummer, a certain bass player, somebody else doing keyboards and then that bass player moves away or the drummer gets involved with another project. Then somebody else comes in and each combination & overlap of personalities, skills and approaches just kind of creates new textures and new opportunities to do interesting things. I feel like I’ve sort of tended to change the band name to reflect those shifts and I’ve been really excited to take the current lineup on the road because we haven’t been really doing any touring in a while. I’ve done some solo tours over the past year or so but this will be the first time that I’m taking the current Voltage band lineup on the road with Mallory Foyer on violin & keyboard in addition to Mem Pahl on bass and Brent Cole on drums.
The violin is something I haven’t had in the band before and it’s sounding really great. I’m really excited about the new songs and the way the old stuff is sounding. I try to write a different setlist every night so I mix in old stuff and new stuff, stuff from the middle era and illustrated stuff. I have so many things to choose from and I’m really looking forward to showing people how it all sounds with this current lineup. I’m also hoping to make a new record when we get back from all this touring and we’ll be ready to get into a studio to get something new happening.
RD: About that record, do you already have a vision in your mind for it? Do you have anything written down for it already? What is the status of it?
JL: It’s hard to say, I’ve got a lot of songs made up since the last record which was Bad Wiring that came out in 2019. That’s already quite a while ago, so I probably have a pile of 60 to 70 songs made up since that time. I’ve been putting out batches of homemade recordings on Bandcamp, especially during the pandemic when I wasn’t able to do anything else other than being stuck in my apartment in New York. I thought it would be interesting to release these homemade tapes of songs that I was making but in addition to that, every time I came up with a song that I felt like could possibly be included in a new album I set it in a different pile. In this pile of songs there’s maybe about 15 to 18 songs that I’m thinking could potentially be on my next record.
A lot of it has not developed with the band as much because we spent the majority of the pandemic not seeing each other, not touring and not getting together. There’s more of the solo acoustic songs in this pile I have for the new record with half of them being more like band songs so I don’t know. I’m not really sure which of these songs is going to end up on the record but after this tour I’ll know which of these songs have really gelled and which ones represent who we are now.
Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage
250 State St., New Haven
Sunday, Sept. 11 at 4:00 p.m.