Excitement and Connectedness
For two decades, Jeffrey Lewis relentlessly travelled the globe with his guitar and ink pen, then the pandemic hit. This summer, the likeable New York anti-folk musician and comic artist is finally set to return to Bremen - for two concerts, a reading and the extremely rare pleasure of a Jeffrey Lewis exhibition. An interview by Jeff Hemmer.
exhibition and reading:
Jeffrey Lewis' Low-Budget Documentaries / A History of the World in Crayons and Songs
location: Galerie Raum404
Nicolaistraße 34/36, 28195 Bremen
Vernissage: august 19th, 2022, 7pm
Finissage and reading:
september 17th, 2022, 12pm (reading: 1pm)
opening hours: thursday and friday 4pm to 7pm
saturday 2pm to 5pm
In-between gigs, you’ll also be reading at Raum 404 gallery for the closing event of your first exhibition in Bremen: Jeffrey Lewis’ Low-Budget Documentaries – A History of the World in Crayons and Songs. Why did you choose to focus on your Low-Budget Documentaries for this show? What can people expect to see at Raum 404?
Sometimes art galleries contact me and ask about possible exhibition ideas, but this is usually not something I can do, because my art is mostly illustration things, pages of my comic books, pages in my sketchbooks, it’s not really designed to be displayed in a gallery. Also I get very nervous about my art being out of my possession. If I have to send things in the mail, or leave things in gallery or in another place, I worry about who is responsible for keeping things safe. My art is not “valuable” in the art world, I’m not a famous artist, but it is valuable to me, personally, so I never want things to get lost or damaged. So I usually don’t show my stuff in public, it just all stays in my closets at home. But it’s nice to do some different public stuff sometimes, and I have so many of these illustrated songs and “documentaries”, it makes a project that’s a bit different from my usual performances.
There’s a strong element of community and oral tradition to your whole body of work - in the sense that you participate as an artist, performer and commentator creating new work, but you also go a long way to reinterpret, rewrite and expand on the work of artists that inspire you (e.g. Twelve Crass Songs LP or your Shakespearian sonnet versions of Sonic Youth lyrics). How do you dance the lines between Jeffrey Lewis the fan and Jeffrey Lewis the artist, Jeffrey Lewis the chronicler and Jeffrey Lewis the regenerator – and are there any lines at all?
I am just a fan of art and music and comics and things. Like anybody, I have the things that i am passionate about, the ideas that get me excited, the bands that get me excited. My excitement just naturally goes into the projects that I do, whether it is some idea for a song, or an idea for an album project or an idea for a poster like 100 Fall Songs. Inspiration and excitement come in many forms and I try to follow the excitement and the passion. And this is the same for the historical projects, too. If I become interested in the history of an event or a place, and I make a project about it, I get swept into the passion of a certain thing that gets me interested and involved.
One of our recent monthly topics was ‘spoken word’ – in a way, the most direct and also the most elusive form of human communication. You started out playing open-mic nights and, to this day, you often document open-mic nights and poetry slams in your sketchbooks. What is the magic, possibly the challenge, of live poetry and analogue open-mic culture in an age of social media and live streaming?
I try to be in the habit of writing a new song every week, if I can, but sometimes I skip some weeks. And I like to take my new song to an open mic-night in New York. There are different ones. There’s one I like on a Monday night, there’s a different one I like on a Wednesday night, there’s one that happens on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I pick one and I try to go every week and become a “regular.” And it’s also great for me to see so many different kinds of performers. A lot of things might be boring but then sometimes there’s things that are unexpected and magical or inspirational. It’s all unpredictable and every 5 or 10 minutes there’s a new performer on stage. It’s a night of entertainment that’s very different than being at a normal gig. It’s a real sample of humanity and creativity, and it’s also great for drawing all the different people who get on stage, young and old. It’s very basic and analogue, as you say. A real human form of sharing and being in a room of people. Even if I don’t know anybody or if I don’t talk to anybody, it just feels less lonely than being at home. I really feel at home at an open mic, even if I don’t know anybody and nobody knows me. It feels like my world, my tribe. Except when it’s people doing cover songs, which I find a bit boring and unimaginative, unless it’s something very interesting.
As a writer of song lyrics and comic scripts, you use literary forms that depend heavily on their symbiotic relationship with the music or the drawings. Spatial restrictions, rhythm and timing come to bear in very particular ways, and there can be great differences in the dynamics of writing, composing and drawing. How do you experience the writing and creative process?
You just make stuff and hope it comes out good, putting down words and ideas, hoping to find something to feel excited about. And then you can always change it and fix it and try to take out the parts you don’t like as much, and try to make more parts that feel good. It’s free, a free activity, to write or draw a comic book, or to try to make up a song, or work on song, writing some new lyrics, changing some parts. Or when I make my illustrated songs. Usually all these things seem impossible, every time, it always feels like it won’t be possible to make something. But you start, somehow, just putting down some words, and then ideas start to happen.
You are mostly referred to as a musician and a comic artist, which entails that the writing effort involved in both forms is acknowledged only implicitly. How important is the writing aspect to you personally?
The writing is really the main thing, because I’m not a great musician and I’m not a great singer and I’m not a great illustrator. Everything is exciting only if the ideas are exciting, if the emotions are feeling powerful in me, or if I’m really feeling the flames of a project, a song, a comic book idea, an illustrated song idea. It’s hard for me to tell people I am a musician, it doesn’t feel like I’m a musician. Music itself is not the main point for me. Sometimes I even try to make the music as simple and stupid as I can, and I try as hard as I can not to sing, to remove anything fancy from the music and the singing and the art, to leave nothing but the heart and the ideas and the love and the interesting parts. You could say that is writing, but it’s also like painting, painting with ideas and feelings and inspirations. If something feels really exciting or interesting or moving to me, then I hope the power of it will be understood by other people, too, and it’s a great feeling when other people share my feelings about this stuff.
Quietly reading a comic that you can hold in your hands is a different experience from listening, singing or moving your body along to a song. How do you decide on the medium you are going to use for any particular idea? Do you sometimes end up with a comic when you thought you were going to write a song, and vice-versa?
Yes, sometimes there’s an idea that becomes a comic instead of a song, or sometimes it’s both. Like recently, I was thinking I have to stop making such sad songs, or making such sad comics. The world has been so full of disappointment and difficult, in a global sense and in a personal sense, so I thought maybe for an experiment I should try to make a comic book about all the things I should feel proud of, or maybe a song about all the things I should feel good about. So then I wrote it as a comic, but then I also tried to write it as a song, so now I sort of have both, a comic and a song, both with sort of the same topic. But a lot of songs are just about feelings and a lot of comic books are just about strange characters, so these are two different paths and I need each one to be in the different medium or I can’t do it the way I think would make sense to do it.
For this last question, I need to speak from my own experience for a moment: I grew up reading mostly fun and entertainment comics as a child, then lost interest for a while in my early teens. This only changed when I came across some punk record artwork by Eric Drooker. Through his work, I discovered a whole scene of political comic artists from New York’s Lower East Side, most notably the long-running magazine World War 3 Illustrated. I remember this really blew my whole perspective on what comics can be.
Growing up in the Lower East Side yourself, were you aware of or connected to this scene, and if so, how did it shape you as a comic artist? More generally, are there any comics in particular that had a profound impact on your own understanding and practice of comics?
Yeah, of course, Seth Tobocman in particular of the World War 3 people. He lives a couple blocks from me and he is really one of the great comic book artist and one of the most important artists of the Lower East Side, but he is very humble and not very well known. He’s very much a local phenomenon, only a certain circle of people in world are aware of his work, but it’s really some of the best stuff anybody has ever done. His style, and his heart, the way he works through the morality of these situations, local and global, and presents the core of the topic in such powerful words and visuals, he’s really at a high and unique level of powerful artistry. But he has no commercial ambitions, it seems. He has only followed what he thought was right, and it has no real place in the commercial world of comics, even the hip world of indie comics. He’s an outlier, he’s doing his own thing, and doing it very powerfully, for many years. If you see that stuff, you have to give it the highest respect.
Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper are both also great, and they operate in some similar realms, both with their own styles, but in the same realm of radical politics and comics that are coming from a sort of radical-poster or stencil visual background, not coming from the standard roots of comic book illustration. But Kuper and Drooker are both in the shadow of Tobocman, really. Seth Tobocman is the purest and most powerful.
I very much admired and wanted to be a part of that world. I applied to be Kuper’s assistant when I got out of college, and I also did some pages for World War 3 Illustrated and did some lettering for Tobocman, and I was present at some of the same local protests and actions and performances, in the 90s and since then.
But I had too many other interests, my path in comics and music had a different input of influences. I couldn’t be totally dedicated to the World War 3 scene, though I always wished I had been deeper in that. It spoke to me very much, in my neighborhood history and my parents’ culture as well. But in my own radical illustrated song histories I have done a certain amount of work that still overlaps the WW3 scene, and it all has the same aesthetic of being “people’s art” in a certain way. Even though my visual style is very different from Tobocman, I am similarly trying to tell stories that aren’t being told in culture, and to tell them in supremely accessible ways. So in some ways there is some idea and purpose that is deeply shared, but different methods and different paths.
As for other comics that have been a big influence on me, of course it’s the expected list - Joe Matt of Peepshow, all the Daniel Clowes Eightball stuff, everything by Alan Moore, everything by Chester Brown, Robert Crumb of course, and some more modern people inspire me too, like Gabrielle Bell and Noah Van Sciver and Craig Thompson. Chris Ware, Frank Miller, Hernandez Bros, Sandman, Elfquest, 80s Marvel, 60s Marvel, Lee & Kirby, Windsor McKay, Steranko, Jim Starlin, Rick Veitch, other stuff, all this stuff made big dents in my mind at various times in my development and pushed my style and my interests in various ways that have stayed with me in big ways. But Daniel Clowes, to me, is the greatest of all time. The most perfect comic book creator in history, and the first 20 issues of Eightball are the greatest comic book of all time.
Thank you so much, Jeffrey, for this interview!
geboren 1982 in Luxemburg, lebt seit 2009 in Bremen und arbeitet als freiberuflicher Comiczeichner, Illustrator und Workshopanbieter. Aufgewachsen in einem Winzerdorf am luxemburgischen Moselufer, zog es ihn zunächst zum Geschichtsstudium nach Schottland. Später führte sein Weg ihn nach Bremen an die Hochschule für Künste. Im gleichen Jahr erschien mit Spring Forward, Fall Back sein erster Comic als monatliche Serie in der luxemburgischen Wochenzeitung Woxx. Beruflich war Jeff Hemmer jedoch lange im pädagogischen Bereich verwurzelt und hat sich erst 2020 dafür entschieden, sich auf Comics zu konzentieren.
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