When I call Joe Lewis, who performs under the moniker Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears, he's just waking up. Vacation in Hawaii is treating him well. Lewis, born and raised in Austin, Texas, is seeking refuge far from the mainland—resting before he hits the road again, and partially to escape the firestorm of the President's first days.
Lewis's music is raw and aggressive, but his speaking voice is quiet and pensive, constantly in search of just the right word. Backlash, the blues-soul outfit's forthcoming fifth LP, reflects Lewis' slowed approach. The album displays the band's hallmark bite, but the signature is more restrained and precise. "We finally figured out what we wanted to be as a band," Lewis says. "It took us a long time to figure out where at the table we should sit."
Lewis first rose to prominence with his blues-based tunes in 2009, using the South By Southwest Festival as his own backyard springboard. The guitar player and bandleader stayed busy, releasing an album every other year from 2007-2013 on labels both big and small: His second and third records were released on a Universal subsidiary, and his fourth on indie powerhouse Vagrant Records, a sign of both Lewis' popularity and the explosion of neo-blues and soul acts like the Black Keys.
Since the release of that Vagrant Records album, Electric Slave, Lewis has gone silent. That album auspiciously sports Lewis' name without the companionship of the Honeybears title. Had the band broken up? Would Lewis' trademark horn-accompaniment be missing? Lewis had never intended on keeping the Honeybears moniker in his name, it was simply a silly title to help describe his steady backing band. When the change occurred, unnecessary confusion mounted.
To hear Lewis tell it, the reasoning isn't quite so dramatic. He had simply grown tired of the addition, and had never planned for it to exist for so long. After exclusion from promoters—unwilling to book Lewis because they thought it would be a solo show—the bandleader once again added "The Honeybears" back to his name, and got to work on the band's fifth LP, Backlash.
The album, out February 10 via Ingrooves Music Group, responds to the criticisms Lewis fielded in those intervening years: from blues traditionalists upset at his diversifying sound to jealous peers hoping to break into the festival circuit; from former lovers to impatient fans awaiting a new release. Lewis's music and lyrics are less vindictive than defiant: If he wasn't shying away before, he certainly isn't now. On "Freakin Out," he puts it all on the table: "I'm trippin' out down the stairs / I think I broke my neck / Trying to look at you / I'm freaking out / Now I'm lovesick / So obsessed trying to get with you."
Backlash is Lewis's most stylistically diverse work yet, touching on rock, punk, and fuzzy blues in addition to his funk- and R&B-tinged roots. But it's also his most cohesive listen. Lewis combines Stax-style horns and dusty funk to create an album that focuses on maintaining a specific aesthetic throughout. Single "PTP," whose video premieres on Noisey today, is a horn-laden, uplifting ode to the power of female sexuality. There's not much of a backstory, nor is it politically correct; Joe Lewis doesn't give a shit.
He's a soul and blues traditionalist who finds the retro romanticism of modern blues rock crossover acts uninspiring; it's the sort of stuff Lewis made early on—maybe too early—but has since moved past, even if that meant forgoing the kind of fame Bridges and Hawthorne have since gone on to enjoy.
Backlash is a record for late nights and too-early mornings, with yelps evoking James Brown and horns that take a page from the Daptones, piercing through the mix without ever overindulging. It may have taken him four years to get here, but it's arguably Lewis's strongest work today. If you miss the sound of those early albums, tough luck—you're just another in a long line awaiting the backlash.
Noisey: The new album, Backlash, sounds like an old soul record with modern touches. "Wasted" immediately comes to mind. What inspired that shift in sound? Electric Slave is a little more bluesy and a little more edgy.
It's just sort of the stuff I was feeling at the moment. I wanted to keep this album really cohesive. The last album was a little bit all over the place. There are a couple of rock songs on there, it's a lot more mixed. I just felt like I was maturing as a musician, I feel like this is by far the best album we've done. We finally figured out what we wanted to be as a band. When we first started we were all really young, I was in my mid-20s. But having experience making records, it was all pretty new to us. It took us a long time to figure out where at the table we should sit.
I feel like most artists look back at their old work and it always sounds naïve or immature.
Definitely. That was definitely the case with this band.
You recorded this record in Austin. What does recording in your hometown mean to you?
Ah, man. Cost [Laughs]. It's just where I live. We have a good producer, Stewart Sikes, too. He lives out here.
He recorded the last one too, right?
Yeah. He did the last one. I really just like staying at home to record. I can go home at the end of the night, which really benefits me.
What does Stewart bring to your music that you're looking for or unable to bring yourself?
It's really just having an extra voice, you know. Like, 'right here, the drums should be like this,' or whatever. He's a drummer, too, so he's really great with that. He told our drummers what to do and I think it really pops on this record. He's also great with mic-ing up sounds. A lot of times, a lot of our songs will be pretty much done, but he just adds in a little extra to help make them great. It's just really cool to have that extra voice. He's worked on so much shit, too, he's just got that experience.
The album is about regret and backlash, but you push through it. The album sounds pretty defiant and sturdy. Where did this attitude come from?
I feel like I've gone around telling a lot of people to fuck off [Laughs]. Everyone always has their own opinions, so it's backlash from being insistent on doing my own thing. I'm uninterested in accepting the status quo or the scene. When I was younger it was all about fuck the scene, you know? It's kind of like the badass has it harder because everybody's hating. Everyone's like, "Oh, how the fuck did he do this? How did he do that?" But I'm still here, you know?
So are you trying to tone down your attitude? Or are you doubling down?
No. I'm still the same guy. I'm still aggressive. Now I'm just working against the backlash from doing my own thing. But the backlash can be anything, you know?
How did the idea for "PTP" come about?
I actually had this friend who was dating a stripper. He sort of, she was sort of like a pimp to him [Laughs]. She was telling him what to do. I'd wake up and he'd be downstairs—we lived together—playing with her kid, and I was always like, 'Where is she?' And he would be like, 'Oh, she's at work.' He'd be taking care of her kid and driving her car around and she'd be telling him what to wear. They hadn't been dating very long and he was kind of obsessed. And he was like, Oonce you do it with her one time, man [Laughs].' I know it's kind of crude [Laughs].
My cousin Tiffany, she has a great way of coming up with terms and characters, and they started calling her 'PTP.' Power to the pussy. I was looking at my friend like, shit they're right. He can't stop doing all this shit and they just started dating. So that's kind of where it came from.
Why did you decide to make the video a cartoon?
I really like it because I don't like acting or really being in my own videos. I really like cartoons, too, so it's just a cool way to give an artist rendition. I love when artists interpret my music. I thought it was cool. I really want to do another one.
What were some of your favorite cartoons growing up?
Oh, shit. Too many, man. G.I. Joe, Transformers, Watership Down, X-Men was also a big one. When I was really little, He-Man was cool, but that was way early. Thundercats, too. I used to watch all kinds of shit. But yeah, G.I. Joe and Transformers were the biggest ones.
You used to play a bunch of shows at the Hole in the Wall in Austin. Are you planning to do that again with the new record?
We'll see. We haven't really picked a place to do a release how yet. I've been doing bigger clubs around town, so I would like to do something a little smaller. We'd have to do a couple of nights, but I'd love to do the release at one of my older stomps.
Do you like going on tour?
The older you get the harder it is. It normally takes about a week to get acclimated to what we're doing. It takes about a week to get over the anxiousness and stuff and get the show really tight and good. We haven't done a long tour like this in a while, so it will definitely take me awhile to get used to, but yeah, once we get into it I love it.
How big is the band you tour with?
This tour will be with a seven piece. We'll be touring with two saxophones and a keyboardist this time, versus a trumpet, which we used to do.
Do you have a favorite place to play in the states?
Yeah, I love the West Coast. People are free out there, you know? But deep Chicago is also good to us, as is Columbus, Ohio. We have good shows all over. It'd be hard to say, but pretty much where we have the most baller shows people really get wild.
There's a little bit of Russian on the album cover. What's that about?
[Laughs] Yeah. Since I had to change the name back I had to make it look cool. I wanted to work on the brand and everything, so I wanted to make it look distinct. I've been reading a lot of Russian literature—that shit is crazy—so I figured that would be cool. It still says The Honeybears.
Yeah, that's what the Russian is. I figured I'd go with that. Fuck it, I'll make it look all wild.
People can't complain now, at least.
Yeah, fuck that [Laughs].
What sort of Russian literature have you been reading?
My buddy got me into Maxim Gorky. I've also been reading Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekov. Those are the ones I've really been reading up on. I haven't done any Tolstoy, because he was a nobleman who romanticized peasant life, but Gorki was a straight up peasant. Gorki is the best shit.
Are you a big reader?
Yeah, I go through my phases. I try to get down on books.
Is that how you stay busy in between tour dates?
I fish a lot. I love fishing when I'm back home.
Oh really? Where in Austin? I live by Lake Travis so I fish there a bunch.
Mostly Decker Creek. It's the east side lake so no one really goes there. It's sort of the forgotten lake. It's close, too.
Who are some of the musical inspirations for this new record?
I've been listening to a lot of Bobby "Blue" Bland, a lot of Bobby Womack, too. Some of the songs—I'm a big Bruce fan. A lot of people don't know that. We always have the punk rock thing, that's always there. With this one, I was listening to a lot of Nile Rodgers. Chic stuff. Just a bunch of different stuff going on.
There are a lot of moments on the album that have stripped down ideas with complex horn arrangements. Was that tricky to balance?
I don't really like having horn lines that are too complicated because I'm more about songs and the way horns complement them. But for this record, the horn players came up with a lot of their own lines. For the most part the players do their own arrangements. We kind of just went with whatever sounds good. I was really happy with the drumming, so we went around that. But there are definitely some crazy horn lines on there.
We're talking on Inauguration Day. What are your thoughts on the terrifying stuff about to happen all over our country?
I'm just gonna try to lay low. My main worry is with police brutality. With him up there in the feds—it's not like Obama did a ton of stuff in that regard—I feel like the crazy cops are gonna go fuck-all on us. I haven't been paying too much attention. I'm out here in Hawaii and no one really cares who the president is [Laughs]. When I come back, it is what it is. I don't like it, I'm just gonna try to watch my back. There are just a bunch of aggressive people coming out of the woodwork. Just watch your back. That's all you can do.
Will Schube is a writer and filmmaker based in Hudson Bend, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.
Backlash is out February 10. Pre-order it here and catch Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears on tour at one of the dates below.
02/10 Austin, TX - Waterloo Records (in store)
02/14 Lafayette, LA - Blue Moon Saloon
02/15 Mobile, AL - The Merry Widow
02/16 Atlanta, GA - The Earl
02/17 Charleston, SC - Charleston Pourhouse
02/18 Charlotte, NC - Visulite Theatre
02/20 Richmond, VA - Strange Matter
02/21 Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
02/22 New York, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
02/23 Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer
02/24 Boston, MA - Middle East Downstairs
02/25 Burlington, VT - Higher Ground Lounge
02/27 Montreal, QC - La Sala Rossa
02/28 Toronto, ON - Lee's Palace
03/02 Cleveland, OH - Grog Shop
03/03 Columbus, OH - Newport Music Hall
03/04 Chicago, IL - Metro
03/06 Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue
03/07 Omaha, NE - The Waiting Room
03/08 Kansas City, MO - Knuckleheads Saloon
03/29 Albuquerque, NM - Launchpad
03/30 Phoenix, AZ - Crescent Ballroom
04/01 San Diego, CA - Casbah
04/02 Los Angeles, CA - Troubadour
04/04 San Francisco, CA - The Independent
04/06 Seattle, WA - Neumos
04/07 Vancouver, BC - Fortune Sound Club
04/08 Bellingham, WA - The Wild Buffalo
04/09 Portland, OR - Mississippi Studios
04/11 Boise, ID - Neurolux
04/12 Salt Lake City, UT - Urban Lounge
04/13 Boulder, CO - Fox Theatre
04/14 Taos, NM - Taos Mesa Brewing Company
04/15 El Paso, TX - Lowbrow Palace