Jeffrey Lewis is a highly talented, principled and idiosyncratic New Yorker, creating music and comics imbued with a punk, hippie, DIY sensibility. He started his career in the late 1990s, coming to prominence in the antifolk scene collaborating with musicians including Kimya Dawson, Tuli Kupferberg, Peter Stampfel and bands such as Dufus.
After initially creating a buzz through releasing his music on home made cassettes (featuring intricate art and comics also by Jeffrey) he signed to iconic British record label Rough Trade in 2001; which helped to propel him to fame in the international cultural underground.
In short Jeffrey can best be described as a mixture of Woody Guthrie, Steve Ditko and Lenny Bruce: Jeff sings, makes comics, he’s opinionated, a little bit druggy, informed about history and politics; and makes wry observations about the ins and outs of daily life.
And he’s been doing it to much acclaim for over 25 years now!
Wanting to know Jeff better we sent him some questions to answer over email.
Take a dive into his world below…
City, State and Country you currently call home?
City, State and Country you’re from?
Please describe some memories – such as art, music, friendships, adventures, study, romance, politics, work, crime, religion… anything really – from the stages of your life noted below:
* Your childhood:
Happy childhood on the Lower East Side.
* Your teenage years:
Discovering music, a first love of classic rock – Stones, Beatles, Dead, Dylan, Floyd, starting to buy all these LPs cheap because everybody was dumping their vinyl LPs so a lot of this incredible 60s stuff could be found for very little money.
* Your 20s:
Trying to break in to a comic book/illustration career, but also starting to make up songs, building a following at open mic nights, making tapes of my songs, getting asked to play gigs, and then getting asked by Rough Trade Records if I’d like to put out some of my taped songs on a CD with their record label.
That started my whole “real” career, and then I started learning how to book shows and organize tours, and I started learning how to have a band and make recordings.
(3 photos of Jeffrey Lewis in 1998 playing a gig at Sidewalk Cafe in NYC – Accompanied by Jack Lewis + Joe Lee.)
* Your 30s:
More and more touring, more and more loneliness and heartbreak and tears and misery, but I also realized I was no longer a starving artist, after being totally broke my entire life and coming from a totally broke family I noticed I had actually started to have a consistent amount of money in my bank account.
This was from the hard work of all the tour organizing and gigging and making comic books and fighting like hell to have a career despite having zero support from booking agents, managers, or even really from the record label – The Rough Trade label would release my stuff which was a tremendous huge help but the rest of all of everything was just entirely up to me to make happen or not.
* Your 40s so far:
More heartbreak, more loneliness, but a lot of maturing too, a lot of facing demons, a lot of therapy and transformation and feeling better inside myself, sometimes.
David Berman killed himself and that was a shock of cold water to the face that the dark thoughts can actually kill you if you keep going down that road.
The pandemic apocalypse turned life completely upside-down, after 20 years of non-stop tour-organizing as my way to make most of my living, I had to put a lot of work into figuring out how to re-organize my time to do a better job of selling my comics and music through my online presence.
Also, being dropped from Rough Trade after the 2015 “Manhattan” album, which to me was sort of my masterpiece, was a step towards a completely independent musical career, although I’ve fostered some less-intense relationships with other label situations since then.
To quote Lou quoting Andy: “It’s just work.”
(The cover to 2 zines by Jeffrey done in tribute to Sonic Youth and Shakespeare.)
Comics + Music Questions
When and why did you first become interested in comics, music and everything creative?
… and any pivotal creative moments / influences?
My family never had a TV when I was a kid so comic books, and books, were my whole entertainment life, and I read a lot.
Drawing was a big form of entertainment for me too.
A pivotal creative moment was being maybe 8 or 9 years old and the most desirable item on the planet, for any young boy, was the Castle Greyskull playset from the He-Man/Masters of the Universe line of toys. But this was an expensive item, that my parents would never have afforded to buy for me, so I just made my own, out of a cardboard box.
I look back on this as a good indication of a life-long ability to make the best of a situation, and the ways to use creativity and determination to achieve for myself the things that society has already determined would not be mine, like a music career for example.
If you had to explain your creative endeavors to some recently crash-landed aliens…
What would you tell them?
I want to have a band that is like a combination of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
Or, I want to have a band that is like a combination of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
Or a band that is a combination of Daniel Johnston and Yo La Tengo.
The aliens would understand what I mean, because people on Earth don’t understand what I mean.
I was a big fan of Tuli and the Fugs for many years, and my first big personal connection to start hanging out with him was when he saw me perform my “History of the Development of Punk on the Lower East Side 1950-1975” at the birthday party of Ed Sanders at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2004.
That was also the event that lead me to meet and befriend Peter Stampfel and also Bob Fass and also Thelma Blitz, so it was a big turning-point night for me, an introduction to new people who would become an important part of my life in the years after.
Or perhaps I should say, an introduction to old people who would become an important part of my life in the years after.
Tuli is a giant influence, of course, his attitude to life and to creativity and to morality, I do a lot of creative projects that seem very much like they would be in the line of work that he represents.
We gotta ask… why have you released the collection of your complete Fuff comic as a package of all 13 individual issues, as opposed to in a single trade paperback?
When people order things from my website I autograph every item, so when people were ordering every copy of Fuff Comix from my website it was becoming a lot of work for me to sign all 13 issues for everybody.
I realized it would make things much easier on myself if I sold all 13 issues wrapped inside one dust-jacket cover, so I could just sign the cover and be done with it.
(The cover to the slipcase of the collected edition of Jeff’s recently ended ongoing comic series Fuff, along with the cover to issue 1 of Fuff; and a photo of the Complete Fuff collection.)
Who are some of your favourite artists, writers and musicians?
…and what is it about their works that so inspire and move you?
Daniel Johnston, the Fall, Syd Barrett, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Daniel Clowes, Joe Matt, Alan Moore, Yo La Tengo, the Rolling Stones, Crass, and all of the psych/garage comp LPs in the Pebbles series and the Back from the Grave series.
I wish my list was not so much 95% white/male but that’s the way it seems to be.
My father listened to a lot of jazz and blues when I was growing up, so in some ways my embrace of rock (classic rock then psychedelic rock then punk rock and garage rock and indie rock) was the way for me to make deep discoveries and connections on my own that seemed to define my own soul in ways that feel personally profound to me as the jazz/blues stuff did not.
Plus the sexualized content of the stuff my dad was into was always a bit repulsive to me, my whole life I have felt uncomfortable with the macho sexualized confident template of masculinity, and in that way the psychedelic or comedic or philosophical sides of music were more appealing, more open, more exciting and creative and less oppressive to me.
Of course I also do listen to quite a lot of rap, and I listen to a fair amount of jazz and blues, and a large amount of African Zamrock and Afrobeat stuff as well, and I have a complete collection of 60s/70s Black militant poetry albums by the likes of The Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, I love all the stuff deeply and listen to a lot of it, but the musical forms that are typified as “Black music” are not often in the core list of music that I think of as my influences, maybe because the kind of blues that my father would play on guitar always seemed so inherently phony to me, that typical 1960s thing of how white people tried really hard to be good blues musicians, while the crazy messy music of the Fugs was so much more appealing/inspiring to me, because it was people just being themselves.
Now, where do women fit into all this?
Why aren’t there more women in my list?
I don’t really know, I do have a lot of favorite albums and comic books made by women, but when I list my personal top favorite stuff it’s always things like The Fall, Daniel Johnston, Daniel Clowes, Bob Dylan, Alan Moore, once again an embarrassingly white/male list.
I know it’s not politically correct, and I could add some other names in there for the sake of diversity, but those really are the top names for the artists who have been the most foundational and influential to me.
If people wanted to listen to your music, read your comics, work with you or buy some of your wares – where should they visit and how should they get in touch?
(One of Jeff’s troubadour-esque performances were he tells a story using art and music!
This one is from 2021 and tells the story of Sitting Bull.)
Odds and Ends
If you could live in any place, during any historical era – Where and when would that be?
…and why would you choose that time and place?
I don’t know, it’s all got terrible pros and cons, as a teenager I wished I could have been part of the 60s, but I was ignorant of all the ways the 60s were horrible, and plus even if you were “part of the 60s” the good part might have been just a few years and then you’d have to live through the long miserable disappointments of the 70s and 80s.
In some ways I wish the internet had taken another 10 years to arrive, because I had very little pre-internet grown-up time, and that was precious great time to have. I wish I’d had more grown-up time without the internet.
I’m very lucky I had the first 20 years of my life with no internet.
What role did toys play in your childhood?
I loved toys, I would do anything I could to get stuff like He-Man, then GI Joe, even though that was tough because my hippie parents didn’t want me to have war toys, for a long time.
Transformers were always too expensive.
Does sex change everything?
I think it should, but it never did for me, for psychological or physical reasons I was locked out/left out of the transformation into a fully-rounded sexually mature adult that ought to have been the psychological reward in exchange for losing the positive elements of childhood.
What are the top 3 items you own?
Typical “nerd” stuff: My record collection, my 1979 Rom Spaceknight toy, and maybe I would say my guitar, not because the specific guitar is necessarily irreplaceable, but because I’ve made my living with this guitar for 20 years and traveled the world with it and built a whole life with it, it has been a constant fixture in my life and my work for a long time.
But I might also say my sketchbook collection or my closet full of all the comic book pages I’ve drawn.
In a fight between Rom the Space Knight (the toy and comic character) Vs. Lou Reed as The Terminator (the mash up of the famous musician and film character you created in a one-off collage) – Who would win?
…and why would they be victorious?
Ironically one of Rom’s most important enemies was Terminator, a cyborg like Rom who was temped into doing bad things because of the tragedy of losing his humanity, while Rom had experienced that same tragedy but never let his despair push him fully over the edge into selfishness.
This was years before the Terminator movie.
The Robocop movie was actually obviously based somewhat on Rom, very similar premise and character, and in the supermarket-robbery scene in Robocop you can notice a Rom comic among the other comics on the shelf, which must have been a deliberate placement because the Rom series had already ended a couple years before they filmed the movie, somebody stuck that Rom issue in the background of that scene for a moment there as a quiet admission that they owed a bit of a debt to Rom, just like I owe a big debt to Rom for getting me into comic books and drawing.
So, to me, Rom does have more foundational power than Lou or the 1980s Terminator movie, tho I love Lou (and I own all his albums, all of them) and I also hold the Terminator (film) in high regard.
Please describe your last dream in detail…
Well last night I dreamed I was at house in the country with some friends, including a woman I had a crush on a number of years ago, in real life she had said no when I asked her out, but in the dream she and I were standing very close together reading from a small strange book, it seemed there was an intimacy and sweetness between us, and I even kissed her cheek, which she accepted as an acknowledgement of this sweetness, which I found extremely heartwarming.
I felt so good about this sweet closeness that I said to her “this is probably just a dream,” but we both brushed that off as just a silly comment.
Then all of us were walking down a gravel road towards a parking lot near a diner, where I was going to get into a car and drive everybody somewhere, but I realized I was only in my socks, my shoes were all the way back up at the house, and I should run back and get them because we were leaving that house and not returning.
I knew this would be a bit annoying to everybody, and I wouldn’t even be able to run back up to the house fast, because my shoeless feet would hurt a bit on the gravel; it was also odd that I had managed to forget my sneakers, because it was a cold night and we were all wearing winter coats and stuff.
But I think, thinking about it now, this represent that I might be coming to an emotional place in my life where I might accept myself a bit more for how I am and how I’ve lived, where past traumas don’t have to be so traumatic in the present day (represented by being sweetly accepted by the woman who had previously rejected me), but that I am still annoyingly behind my friends/peer-group in ways that they don’t relate to or sympathize with, they are all ready to leave the house, but there’s an important part of my travel-ability that is missing for me, something I have to go back to solve, a waste of time that is just annoying to everybody else but happens to be my personal situation.
Of everything you have done, what would you most like to be remembered for?
I really don’t think I’ve reached the level I could or should reach, if I were to die today I think would have failed to achieve the high levels of comic book work and album-making work that I could/should have reached.
However, I think in the realm of live performance, over the past 20 years, there have been many, many nights on stage where the artistic achievement of what happened in that gig was at the highest possible level of that art.
I think the people who witnessed those certain nights, those many various highlights over the years, would agree with me, that something really unique and special and powerful was able to happen because of the combination of elements that successfully hit the mark.
I can’t hit that mark every night, because chance and the possibility of failure are crucial ingredients to that level of success. But the times of true artistic success that happened at certain gigs is a mark of success that I feel quite proud of and a standard I try to hold myself too. And the same feeling applies to the sense of writing a really strong new song.
It may come rarely, but it’s the point of everything.
So, in terms of live performance, and in terms of song-making, I have hit my goals quite a number of times. But in terms of making a specific album or a specific comic book which feels like as much of a full success, I have yet to satisfy myself – but I do think it’s possible to get there, if I can muster enough strength to keep working.
But it’s hard to know what, if anything, I would actually be remembered for. A lot of music and art that is a lot better than mine does not get “remembered” in any significant way.
I guess what I would most LIKE to be remembered for is that I tried, against tremendous odds, a lack of money, a lack of support, a lack of attractive looks, a lack of personal or sexual charm, I tried to create the most moving and most powerful art that a human is capable of, and, like the Castle Greyskull that I made out of cardboard at age 9, I have sometimes made my own version of great art that was, to me, a functional approximation of the real thing.
So, the thing that might maybe be memorable about me, if anything, is that I might not have hit the heights, but I got a hell of a lot further than anybody would have imagined possible, because of the strength and determination of my passion. And maybe somebody would take inspiration from that, and the flame that passed in to me from the artists I loved would be paid forward to enflame new people in new ways, and so forth, and that’s culture – but not just a culture of entertainment – a culture of morality, communication, justice, human creativity and love and family.
(A selection of some of the many records Jeffrey has released.)
- Jeffrey Lewis – Website
- Jeffrey Lewis – Bandcamp
- Jeffrey Lewis – Online Store
- Jeffrey Lewis – twitter
- Jeffrey Lewis – Facebook
- Jeffrey Lewis – Instagram
- Jeffrey Lewis – YouTube
- Jeffrey Lewis – Spotify
- Jeffrey Lewis – Online Message Board
Header photo of Jeffrey is by Kelley Clayton.