Irrelevant Interviews - Jeffrey Lewis

By Kat Gardiner

Irrelevant Interviews is a new column by Portland-based writer and director, Kat Gardiner. Kat used to do this column for the PNW weekly, Willamette Week, but now she's going to be doing it for us, because we're cooler. Duh. So it's new in the sense that we have it now, and they don't. BOOYAH!

Photo by Jack Lewis.

Jeffrey Lewis is a better writer than I am. He’s also nicer, more optimistic, and was raised by beatniks on the Lower East Side. He combines lyrical whimsy and realism in a way I have wet dreams about. In addition to writing antifolk way better than most of his peers, he also finds time to draw damn good comics and take care of John Hodgman’s cat, Petey, too. While jealousy should have set in, I prefer to stay in clumsy awe.

So if you like words, music, and/or comic books put together with humble genius, Scotch tape, and staples, I suggest you check him out. It’s kind of like realizing that not everything has been said before—there are still thoughts left to be thunk.

If you live in New York City, you can do that in person three times this month at the Mercury Lounge, three Sundays in a row: March 3rd, 10th, and 17th. He’ll be playing with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, too, which makes me want to smite someone out of jealousy because I live so far away and have to live vicariously through his records, comics, and YouTube videos instead.

I did get a chance to talk to him twice on the phone, though, which is two times more than most people. I asked him a bunch of questions I hope no one has ever asked him before, and then he drew pictures of his answers.

VICE: Can you remember the first album you ever bought?
Jeffrey Lewis: There were a couple that were probably, or possibly, the first. They would have been cassettes, definitely, and I think the first one might have been Escape from the rap band Whodini, which is actually a really overlooked, classic rap album of the mid '80s. For some reason nobody ever talks about Whodini in the same breath as, say, Run DMC and all those other '80s rap stars, but that album has so many songs that were totally hip, at least as far as I can recall. There were, like, five songs that I would hear regularly around the streets of New York that were all on that one album. It’s really solid. I still have the tape to this date, even though it’s in pretty crappy shape.
 
Do you remember the last dream that you had?
Hmm. I think it was something pretty normal. Like one of those kinds of things that totally could have happened, and it was… you know, actually, it wasn’t that normal, come to think of it. I was at a speaking event being given by Neil Gaiman, the comic book writer. It was a small event because everyone was sitting in a bunch of folding chairs—maybe 60 people there—and I was kind of excited for a chance to talk to him about a couple of things. I was thinking about what stuff I might want to talk to him about and then I kind of realized that he was really drunk and people were having to help him walk down the aisle and I was like, “Oh man, I guess I don’t really want to talk to him, anyway.”
 
 
Do you have a favorite animal? One that you identify with, perhaps?
I don’t know if I identify with them so much, but I definitely love frogs. I always have. As a youngster I had a number of different frogs at different times. So whether that means I have some kind of frog-like aspects of my personality, I don’t know, but it's definitely a favorite animal.
 
What was the last book you read?
I’m in the middle of reading Feel Like Going Home, by Peter Guralnick, which was written in the early '70s. It’s just profiles on different blues guys. It’s pretty interesting because it’s all guys who were still alive at that time. He’s got one chapter where he visits Muddy Waters at his house in Chicago and talks to him and sort of does this little biography of him. Then there’s this one chapter where he talks to Robert Pete Williams and another about Howlin’ Wolf. All those guys were still living when he wrote it, so there are decades and decades of living memories of performances and recording experiences. All kinds of crazy ups and downs. It’s pretty cool. I mean, at this point the book is so old it’s like a time capsule in a lot of ways—this little old paperback that my dad loaned me. So I’m enjoying that aspect about it, too.
 
What did you have for breakfast today?
I’m eating it right now. A slice of pizza, of course.
 
Do you have a cat?
Oh, no, never, but I’ve spent a lot of time with John Hodgman's cat. My girlfriend is his catsitter, so a lot of times we’ll be over at Hodgman’s place feeding Petey. That cat, Petey, has been a part of my life for the last couple of years.
 
What does he look like?
He’s a very old puss. Advanced in age, but still rather frisky. He’s mostly kind of white with some gray and black, shorthaired. Very standard, textbook kind of house cat. You know, not too big, not too hairy. Well groomed.
 
What's the most awkward date you’ve ever been on?
Oh, man! Like all of them. I did have this pretty awesomely awkward OkCupid dating experience a couple years back. At that point I didn’t have a cell phone and was outside this bar where I was supposed to meet the girl. It was crowded and I couldn’t figure out where to find her. I had never met her before, we had just done the online dating thing and you know how nobody ever looks like they do in their photographs. So I ask these two dudes out front if I could use their cell phone to call her after I unsuccessfully looked for her inside, and they for some reason were feeling like being jerks to me. They were like, “No dude. Maybe there’s a pay phone down in the subway, haha.” They were basically taking the opportunity to just diss me because they didn’t want me to use their cell phone. Which, by all means, sure, why should they let me use their cell phone? But at the same time they were really getting off on the fact that they were holding this power over me. Real jerks. So anyway, eventually I did locate her in the club, and she was hanging out at a table with some of her friends who, of course, happened to be those two guys that I was already lifelong enemies with.
 
Did you go on a second date?
No, I actually just ditched after a few very awkward minutes. I think that was the same night that Fucked Up and J Mascis were doing some 24-hour gig somewhere else, so I went over to that.
 
One last question. What is your favorite body of water?
When I’m on tour in England, there’s this weird little service station that we always stop at on our way up to Scotland, just around Carlisle in Northern England. It has a little dining area with a duck pond right next to it—just such a weird little spot off the highway. I always look forward to that one meal every year when I happen to be on my way to Scotland. I always try to sit and look at the duck pond. It’s usually pretty rainy. Sometimes there are sheep. Sometimes there’s this weird sort of shepherd wizard guy who looks like he’s been living in the hills forever. 

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