GUY RAZ, Host:
What the film "Sideways" did for pinot noir, "Juno" did for a genre of music called anti-folk. If you saw the film, you'll be familiar with this song by the band Moldy Peaches.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
I: (Singing) You're a part-time lover and a full-time friend. The monkey on your back is the latest trend. I don't see what anyone can see in anyone else but you.
I: (Singing) I kicked you on the brain in the shadow of the train...
RAZ: Forget Woody Guthrie or Peter, Paul & Mary. Anti-folk doesn't have to be harmonious, though it can be. It doesn't even have to be musical or political or relevant. It just has to be different.
JEFFREY LEWIS: An appreciation for creativity over technique. What's more important is if you're coming up with something interesting and creative and unique.
RAZ: That's Jeffrey Lewis. He's a performer at the heart of the anti-folk movement in New York City. In fact, he's so anti-folk he denies being part of it. Here's a song from his album, "City and Eastern Songs." It's called "Don't Be Upset."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T BE UPSET")
LEWIS: (Singing) I took my darling out to the aquarium. Sea creatures stared at us, and we stared back of them. My baby freaked when she peeked at that eight-legged blob with a beak. She was too scared to speak. I said don't be upset, it's only an octopus. Don't bother it, and I'm sure it won't bother us. Please don't get upset, my darling, please don't get upset.
RAZ: At 33, Jeffrey Lewis has already produced 18 albums. He also draws and writes a comic book series. Lewis is now on tour, promoting his new album, 12 cover songs of the '70s punk band Crass.
We caught up with him earlier this week in St. Paul, Minnesota. Jeffrey Lewis, I saw a review that called your music bizarre but brilliant.
LEWIS: Well hey, I'll take it. I don't know, I feel like New York City sort of has a history of not quite fitting in to what's going on musically in the rest of the country or in the rest of the world.
I mean, the weird '60s bands that came out of New York, from Silver Apples and The Velvet Underground and The Fugs, every - none of which, you know, seemingly fits in stylistically with each other except for the fact that there's somehow this - it's just a New York City thing, you know, or a sort of rag-tag collection of musical misfits, and it's kind of a New York City tradition, and that's part of the, you know, the wording of that album title, "City and Eastern Songs."
I kind of thought of it as, well maybe it is sort of a genre into itself. If country and western is a genre, then New York should be called city and Eastern.
RAZ: And New York is so present in so much of what you write about and sing about. There's a song that you wrote called "The History of Development of Punk Rock on New York's Lower East Side from 1950 to 1975." It's an epic title - a nine-minute song. I wish we could play the whole thing, but let's just hear a bit of it for a moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, THE HISTORY OF DEVELOPMENT OF PUNK ROCK ON NEW YORK'S LOWER)
LEWIS: We start with Harry Smith in 1950, a beatnik weirdo living in New York City. His huge collections were insane, of Easter eggs and paper airplanes and rare records. He had about a million and sixty.
To change America through music was his hope and to make some money because he was broke. He compiled a triple-decker collection of songs from his records, released as a Smithsonian anthology of American folk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEWIS: Smith's plan began to work as foretold. This weird music began to take hold. It sparked an interest in these forms of life, underground from the norms and soon, millions of folk records were being sold.
By the early '60s, Dylan, Baez, Phil Ochs were doing intellectualized copies of the old folks. Then one strange folk band downtown called the Holy Modal Rounders began to make it more anarchistic with weird voices and drug jokes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LEWIS: (Singing) Mom's out there, switching in the kitchen, and dad's in the living room, fussing and a'bitching. I'm out here, kicking the gong for euphoria, euphoria, when your mind starts reeling and a'walking.
RAZ: This song is really a history lesson, in a sense. It goes through all the phases of the development of punk.
LEWIS: Well, I've been really into incorporating history into the stuff that I do, whether it's in the comic books that I make or in the songs or in these things that I call low-budget videos where I sort of have illustrations that go along with the songs.
And I have this history of communism project I've been working on for a while. It's like a multi-part, illustrated, rhyming, full-color history of communism. So at any given concert, I might do one or two chapters of that.
RAZ: And you sing, but you also draw comics to go along with these songs.
LEWIS: Yeah, well I mean, the comic books, I've been making my whole life. Since I've gotten involved in making music, I've got about 25 of these done now over the last couple years. I'm sort of singing these songs, and my band is playing, but rather than playing my guitar for those songs, I'm sort of flipping through these drawings that go along with the stories that I'm singing.
RAZ: But are they two different people, the comic-book artist and the recording musician?
LEWIS: I think in both, there is a sense of substance over surface that I, you know, didn't ever set out to be a particularly flashy illustrator. I have a real kind of practical, get-the-job-done approach to the artwork, but comics are such an antisocial form of creativity. You're just alone in your room for hours and hours working on them, whereas with music, you actually get to bring what you do out to the public and sort of run around the world doing it.
RAZ: Jeffrey Lewis, there's a song that you sing, it's called "The Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," and I guess it's about taking the subway to re-master an album of yours. You run into the singer Will Oldham. He's not exactly a household name, so first, can you explain who Will Oldham is?
LEWIS: Well, Will Oldham is - he's a household name in the world of independent folk, I guess you could say. He's a very quirky and somewhat mysterious character who changes his name every few albums, so it's a little hard to keep up with him, but he has a massive, massive following. He's what a lot of people look to as the standard-bearer of weird, quirky folk stuff, I think you could say.
RAZ: Jeffrey Lewis, before we talk more about this song, I want to play some of it because it's such an interesting song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAMSBURG WILL OLDHAM HORROR")
LEWIS: (Singing) I said, Will Bonnie Prince, Palace or whatever. What do you think about it? Is it worth being an artist or an indie-rock star, or are you better off without it? Cause you know, maybe the world would be better if we were all just uncreative drones, no dead child, hood dreams to haunt us, a decent job, a decent home, and if we have some extra time we could do real things to promote peace, become scientists or history teachers or un-corrupt police at least. Come on Will, you gotta tell me.
I grabbed and shook him by the arm. The L train was leaning Bedford with 10,000 white 20-somethings crowed on...
RAZ: The lyric that we just heard, you're asking is it worth being an artist or an indie-rock star, or are you better off without it because, I mean, maybe the world would be better off if we were all just uncreative drones.
Jeffrey Lewis, there's a theme in a lot of your music, a sort of a struggle with your own identity and the kind of anxiety that comes with that struggle.
LEWIS: Well, I think any artist might have - well, I don't know if any - but at least for myself, I guess I should say, there's this question of well, okay, here I am actually surviving just, you know, from making these comic books and making these songs and these other projects, and am I actually doing something for the world? I mean, do I really deserve to survive off of this?
And you know, an artist or an entertainer is not somebody who's lobbying for better environmental laws or being a neighborhood pediatrician or who knows what, you know, a pro-bono lawyer for tenants who need help with their rent, being a teacher.
You know, there's obviously all kinds of good things you can actually do with your life, and being an artist is a dream for so many people, and then once you're sort of on that path, for myself, I find there's a - you know, am I actually doing enough in the world, and - and also just my own personal anxieties of, you know, do I even deserve to exist as a human being, which I don't know how much of that is down to just being a neurotic, New York, Jewish guy or how much of that is, you know, a widespread phenomenon among all humans in this day and age.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LEWIS: (Singing) I lay down every night because I can't get no rest because it starts (unintelligible) in my brain, and then it's pounding in my chest. What if I've wasted all my youth? What if I've wasted growing up? What if I've wasted my whole life? Oh man, I feel like throwing up. It's an anxiety attack, an anxiety attack. I've got a bad case of the horrors, and at night, it comes back.
RAZ: I wonder if the lyrics are more important to you than the way the music sounds?
LEWIS: I think at its heart, a song has to have content, and no amount of glossy surface or expensive production or fancy singing, to me, makes up for just having a real heart and something to say.
RAZ: Do you feel like you have to say something in all of your songs?
LEWIS: I do feel a certain responsibility that, you know, if I'm going to be presenting my material to people, then you know, there should actually be some real content to it, and a lot of - not that it necessarily has to be non-fiction by any means, but I do have a sense of, you know, it really needs to mean something to me if I'm going to find it worthwhile to actually create.
RAZ: Jeffrey Lewis is a singer, songwriter and comic-book artist from New York. Jeffrey Lewis, thanks for being with us.
LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
RAZ: To hear more songs by Jeffrey Lewis and to see some of his drawings, go to NPR.org/music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEWIS: (Singing) ...and I used to feel so smart and how I used to feel so strong, but this just can't be how to live. I must be doing something wrong.
RAZ: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Andrea Seabrook returns next week. Have a good night.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.