Chillin’ with Jeffrey Lewis

With the sound of his friend and collaborator Kimya Dawson in the background, Jeffrey Lewis, whose unique mixed media approach has led to international success, answered questions in between sets Saturday night at the Northern.

What’s your relationship with Kimya Dawson?

It was 1998 when I started playing songs at the Sidewalk Cafe open mic in New York City, and about a year later, Adam Green and Kimya Dawson showed up and started playing the open mic as the Moldy Peaches, and everybody just really loved them. We started hanging out ‘cause we were somehow the most similar out of all the people on the open mic scene. I don’t think anyone who was there was really into Daniel Johnston, or Beat Happening, you know, all of that sort of thing, or even the Velvet Underground. Then Kimya showed up, and I felt we were somewhat on the same page.

Kimya started making her solo songs not long after that, and blew everybody away. In a certain way, it inspired me to stop making the kind of solo songs I was doing, because she was so much better at it than I could ever be, so I [thought I] better move in a different sort of direction.

When I moved from New York City to Austin, Texas, in 2000, Kimya came down there and visited me for a little bit, and we sort of hung out for a little while, wrote some songs together. She really helped me get my whole music career started because the Moldy Peaches signed to Rough Trade Records. Rough Trade asked them if there was anyone else in New York they would recommend the record label check out, and they were like, “You should really hear our friend Jeffrey Lewis.” I pretty much owe everything to Kimya and Adam.

Do you and Kimya plan to cross paths?

It’s usually not planned, I’ll notice her tour schedule and I’m like, ‘Oh hey, you’re playing Austin, Texas the day after I am. What time are you going to get to town? Maybe we can get lunch.’ So that’s pretty neat.

We have songs together as The Bundles that kind of evolved over the years, so every time we cross we try to do some of those songs, like tonight. We haven’t actually planned a tour together in a number of years, but we have in the past. We used to book tours together and go around Europe together and stuff.

Where’s your favorite place to play?

For my band we have the biggest audiences in England, for whatever reason. Certain areas are really special. Definitely Olympia is one of the special places in all of America. Bristol, England is sort of like that also. It’s got a really cool DIY atmosphere to it. I can’t really pick one favorite place to play.

When you tour around do you try and play more all-ages venues?

Yeah, it’s really hard in America, since so many places are 21+, but this tour we managed to do all-ages [for all the] shows on the tour. It does bring us to some unusual venues. I think it’s ridiculous, people under 21 can’t see a show? Who do they think the fans for music are?

How long have you added a visual element to your shows?

In the early days of me playing shows, like the early 2000s, I was constantly experimenting, most of which didn’t go anywhere. Whether it was dressing in costumes or just reciting home movies or just weird silly things, I thought every show should be a different kind of event. One of the things I thought of to do at my shows was to illustrate my songs. And it worked. So I did it again at the next show. Out of all the experiments of my early days, that was one of the things that stuck around.

I feel like I can do those [illustrations] easily and it’s something that works nicely at a concert. At bigger concerts I do use a projector, but the drawings have more charm. They do get destroyed on tour. If I use the projector, the images are preserved on my laptop. I can only carry two or three of the books on the road and then they always get real beat up and torn up. It forces me to make new ones. I can’t fall into a cheesy trap of doing the same thing over and over.

What’s next after Olympia?

Seattle tomorrow (11/11) and then we tour our way back over to NY through lots of areas where there’s only going to be like two people at each show. Well I don’t know, maybe I’ll be surprised, but it’s a lot of places where we’re playing for the first time, Iowa, North Dakota, Montana. America’s weird, it has this whole stretch between the west coast and all the way across to Chicago where there’s almost no real place to play… thousands of miles with almost nothing in there, same thing in the south between Phoenix and Austin. It’s very challenging… you’re just driving so long. I think you have to be into the traveling aspect of it, or don’t bother doing this.

How do you feel about your career?

I’m just amazed I’ve been doing this for so long. I never had expected any of it. I always thought I would just make comic books. Everyday I spend doing this is just a bonus. I feel like a lot of musicians in my situation might be frustrated, saying “Oh we wanted to be playing Madison Square Garden and we’re still just playing these little venues,” but the whole thing is all a plus for me. When people have to pay hundreds of dollars to see you play, there’s just so much more pressure to deliver that and you can’t experiment as much. You have less leeway to fail. You can’t really do anything special unless you’re willing to fail.

To see what else Jeffrey Lewis is up to check out his website.

By Kelli Tokos