Last Time I Took Acid
Currently making a noise on the NYC "anti folk" scene, along with close mates Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis is an all round cartoonist, raconteur & singer with a unique take on NYC life. His debut mini lp, "Last Time I Took Acid I Went Insane", is now out on Rough Trade Records & includes "The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song", which was released as a ltd 7" by the same label a while ago. This particular song tells the tale of Jeffrey overhearing a snippet of converstaion outside the Chelsea Hotel alluding to Leonard Cohen & blowjobs - as with much of his material, the humour is as evident as the fidelity is not. Jeffrey also drew the cartoons that adorn The Moldy Peaches lp sleeve.
Nick Kuntz caught up with Jeffrey recently to discuss anti folk, aunty Kimya & (sadly) the effects of the World Trade Attrocity on the good folks of NYC;
An Audience With Mr Jeffrey Lewis;
trakMARX - You work as a cartoonist as well as a song writer, we understand. Is yr. music an extension of yr. cartoons or a reflection?
Not quite sure what the difference would be. I've drawn comics my whole life, and I guess there's a big degree of influence on the songs from comic books, particularly 90s alternative comic stuff like Peepshow and Eightball which is just inspiring in general. I sort of try to combine it all in whatever way I can think of; I have big illustrated versions of a couple songs that I turn the pages of when I sing them, and I make a lot of miniature comic books to promote my shows when I'm playing somewhere. Stuff like that.
trakMARX - What takes priority?
Definitely comic books and drawing. Well, that's what I tell myself, but the song stuff has occupied more and more of my life in the past couple years.
trakMARX - We have heard rumours of the "Anti-folk" scene - can you quantify what its all about from yr. perspective?
On one hand it's "folk-punk", but that doesn't describe a lot of the people on the scene. The thing is, it is a scene of some sort, and that's just the name we've ended up using to feel like we're all part of the same thing. By a scene, I mean stuff like me and Brer Brian and Seth Quankmeyer Faergoalzia and Kimya and a bunch of others hanging out together at a campfire eating marshmellows, or Major Matt Mason's apartment a few blocks away from me where I can go record stuff, or me taking a walk last night and bumping into Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend and Cockroach hanging out eating pizza; it's just the coolest thing in the world to be part of this community of incredible creative minds, everyone goes to eachother's shows, critiques eachother's records, plays on stage and on recordings and on the street with each other, makes up songs together, it's really just great. There's a real sense of community, and Anti-folk is the name that makes it easy for us to refer to it all even though there's a wide stylistic variety that is included beyond just folk-punk. There's insane and perverted musicals too, like Eminem Vs the Gay Pimp, and Fun Wearing Underwear, and Prepare to Meet Your Maker, that a lot of us are involved in writing/acting/participating in.
trakMARX - You are close friends of Adam & Kimya of MPeaches - you obviuosly have some uncredtited friends helping out on the lp - do they put in an appearance on "Last Time I Took Acid...."?
Nah, any other voices/noises/etc are probably my little brother (not so little anymore) and I did credit everyone who helped record the stuff or who appear on each track. Kimya and I do have a short CD of songs we made up together, and I did that uncredited drawing of Adam and Kimya and Jack on stage that appears on the back of the Moldy Peaches CD booklet, which was kind of a nice surprise when I saw their official CD the other day because that drawing wasn't on the photocopied homemade version that I have.
trakMARX - The chorus to the title trak seems to echo The Ramones - 1st rule, 2cnd rule, 3rd rule etc - was this in any way homage?
No, just a list.
trakMARX - You seem to us to be loosly following a tradition of expression laid down by David Peel & The Lower East Side. Are you familiar with David & has he been influential in any way?
Oh yeah, I love David's stuff, and I see him around the neighborhood once in a while. The roots of Anti-folk, and punk itself, are certainly right here on the Lower East Side with the Fugs and the Godz and David Peel, I love all that stuff!; My parents have lived in the neighborhood since the early sixties, and used to see the Fugs play- my mom has the first Fugs album in its original Broadside label pressing which is pretty rare, she bought it at one of their shows in like, 65 . That stuff made a big impression on me when I found that record around the house a bunch of years ago! Absolutely classic. I played melodica for David for a couple of performances a couple years ago, and whenever I see one of his albums for sale at a local record store I tell him, because he can buy it for 25 bucks on 7th St and sell it for 75 bucks to collectors in Japan. He's got a huge catalogue of recordings, I actually only own the first two albums, the ones on Elektra. And I have a comic book about when I met Tuli Kupferberg in 1997.
trakMARX - Did the L.Cohen Oral song aktually happen in real-life?
trakMARX - We've had Hi Fidelity & Lo Fi - now some critics are accusing you of being No Fi. How do you feel about that?
I think it's silly how people use the term "lo-fi" but then consider perfectly professional sounding recordings on four-track machines to be lo-fi - so what's left to call stuff that's just recorded on a radio? And I think fidelity can certainly get a lot lower than the stuff on my CD, not that I feel that's something to aspire to, but I really don't think those recordings are SUCH bad sound quality. It's like people have never heard recordings that are REALLY bad sound quality so anything that doesn't sound as slick as U2 is considered bizarre even though it's basically just a plain recording of the songs the way they actually sound when you just hit record and play them. I don't mind being called no-fi, but then what do you call stuff like Daniel Johnston's Retired Boxer album, "minus-fi"? I think maybe "homemade" is a more descriptive label.
trakMARX - The MPeaches have recently expanded to a full working band - have you any similar plans?
Well, I actually play solo pretty rarely, I get kind of embarrassed to be alone on stage sometimes, more likely I'll have my brother with me for part of a show, and anywhere from one to six friends on stage at various points. It's not like a band, it's much more relaxed. Like if I'm gonna do a show I can just ask Spencer from Balloon Heaven if he wants to play mandolin with me, or John Kessel if he wants to play theremin or ask Kimya or Diane Cluck if either of them want to come up and do some of the songs we wrote together, etc, that's another one of the great things about having this musical community around here, and everyone knows how the songs go, and every show ends up being totally different! "The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane" can become sort of a group therapy session with people from the audience coming up to relate their own experiences and add instrumentation, stuff like that! Well, it doesn't always come out good, and sometimes I kinda suck as a live act, but the thought of having a regular band and practice sessions where everyone has to gather at the same place at the same time just seems incredibly stressful and problematic, so this other system has evolved out of laziness on that level, trying to play with other people and sounds, but do it the easiest way possible. Plus in New York City there's always going to be a hassel with drums - who the hell can have a drum kit to play in their apartment? I think the practical problems of trying to have a "regular" rock band in NY has probably led to the Antifolk scene being so lyric-oriented instead of musically oriented. And I must say I really preferred the original "Moldy Peaches 2000" with its sloppy line up of kids wearing chicken heads, I thought their songs were more chaotic and fun when it was less like a "professional" band.
trakMARX - The current NYC boom has been simmering for a while now - how incidental were Oneida in stoking a new set of values in the New Yawk underground?
I have to admit I don't know Oneida. All I know is I started going to the open mic at Sidewalk Cafe in spring of 1998, at the exact time when a guy named Grey Revell had just arrived in NY from the west coast, knowing nobody, and he was totally blowing us away with his songs (he actually just recently got picked by CMJ as one of the top unsigned artists in the US). Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend got clean of alcohol and drugs around that point and forged himself into an absolutely amazing engine of folk-punk writing/performing, he had a big hand in inspiring a lot of people, and along with Lach and others we all started hanging out late at the open mic every week like till 3 am, and a lot of friendships were formed. Then there were people like Major Matt Mason, Paleface, Mike Rechner (now of Prewar Yardsale), who had been there before us and now were sort of coming back into action with the rising energy of what was happening. And in 1999 the family just grew and grew, people that I'd known in college, like Quankmeyer, and Steven and Jack (the current Moldy Peaches band), became connected to the downtown scene, Adam and Kimya came to NY from where they had been living in the northwest and started playing the Sidewalk open mic, a brilliant 18 year old named Turner Cody came down from Boston, Spencer appeared and started recording us all in his apartment in Jersey City, and it kinda wonderfully snowballed. But in a way that was very disconnected from anything else in the city; it's all been very insulated in the sense that none of us are really involved or aware of the greater New York City band scene, and they're not aware of us. The Strokes were playing every week at the Mercury Lounge, five blocks away, and no one had ever heard of them untill the British press hype began, and they certainly hadn't heard of any of us.
trakMARX - What does Jeff Lewis listen to @ home?
Other than Antifolk, I'm actually a big buff of sixties psychedelic and garage rock, I've got a whole lot of old records by bands like the Crome Syrcus and HP Lovecraft and Lothar & the Hand People; I certainly can't afford to pay collector's price s for them but over the years just by dilligent searching through the record bins of the world I've amassed a lot of that stuff for really cheap although the covers are often battered, etc. The garage rock aspect doesn't show up in my songs other than a bunch of the stuff I do with my brother when we're yelling about zombies and time machines and stuff, but the folkier ones were really a huge influence, especially all the early Donovan and Pearls Before Swine albums. Daniel Johnston. And I also love the Fall and the Clash etc, and indie rock, blah blah, name drop, name drop. I particularly liked your Crass interview, I just got Penis Envy in May and it's one of the albums that has been in constant rotation in my tape deck all summer.
trakMARX - Is "...Acid" intended to be viewed as a full blown debut & will you be coming to the UK to promote it?
I suppose it's as "full blown" a debut as I'm likely to have. It's all songs that I've been circulating on different cassettes for the past couple years, but there's probably no more than a few hundred of those tapes at most, just in the possession of friends and whoever gave me 3 bucks for one at an open mic or a show. I never sent anything out to labels or anything, in fact I've never even met any of the Rough Trade people, I just got an email from them sort of out of the blue a few months ago after they had signed the Moldy Peaches. I feel like I'm dating someone out of my league who's likely to realize it and dump me on any given day; like what if they were to actually meet me and come to a show? They could just be like "THIS guy? If only we'd known he was like THIS we never would have made the mistake of contacting him!" Though if Rough Trade wants to invite me out to the UK to play I sure wouldn't refuse, I've got a friend who's studying in London this fall and it would be great to get a chance to visit her there. Plus I have no job and no apartment, so why not.
trakMARX - How has the musical community in NYC reacted to last week's terror?
Like everyone, at first it was just absolute shock, now things are basically as back to "normal" as you'd expect; subways run, people go to work, shows and open mics continue, although the CMJ fest has been postponed till October. Looking at the weirdly diminished skyline after having lived here all my life with those towers makes me feel like I'm looking at my mom after a mugger just punched her front teeth out. But for all the sense of loss and outrage, what scares me now, and I think a good amount of the creative community, is not terrorist attacks from bloodthirsty religious fanatics in the middle east, but the huge gains that may likely be reaped from this by the bloodthirsty religious fanatics who run our government. Talk of vengeance kind of makes me sick. Maybe I should just speak for myself. As far as strictly musical concerns, I just heard that the Strokes are pulling "New York City Cops (ain't too smart)" off their album before release, and even though it's already released I know Kimya at least feels awkward about foisting "New York City's Like a Graveyard" on people right now.
trakMARX - Will life ever be the same again for any of us from now on & are you as scared as the rest of us?
Horrible as these events are, if society rolled right along after the World Wars this little drop in the bucket is not going to halt what's called "progress". An attack on New York City and Washington DC is definitely unprecidented, but much worse things HAVE happened. As far as "life being the same again", life will never be the same from one year to the next anyway (I know you wanna smack me for saying some corny shit like that, but it's what I feel right now). A massive violent crime like this will never be forgotten, I'll remember first seeing those TV images till the day I die, just like the Challenger disaster, but like I say it's not unpredictable events that scare me as much as it's the fascistic changes in the name of "security" which are being discussed. Everyone knows anything can happen, but that's life, and you just have to deal with it as best you can. Anytime I've taken a plane I've been half convinced I was gonna die but I don't let it stop me. I always think that if I was immortal then I'd have an excuse to be afraid for my life, but considering we all die no matter what, it makes the stakes lower, if that makes any sense when put like that. Anyway, that's what I've told myself anytime I've flown. I forget if it was Benjamin Franklin who said "he who sacrifices freedom in the name of security deserves neither freedom nor security." I think about that a lot. It's a powerful quote.
"Last Time I Took Acid" is available now on Rough Trade Records.
Nick Kuntz 2001