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4 March 2008

Jeffrey Lewis (Interviewed) & Crass (Covered)

In this week’s print edition of LA Weekly, I contributed a piece about Jeffrey Lewis’s new album 12 Crass Songs, and the phenomenon of young(ish) indie rockers covering 80s era hardcore punk songs. Here is the unexpurgated Q&A.

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What are you doing the next few months?
Well I’m doing a bunch of solo dates opening for the Super Furry Animals and Times New Viking and immediately after that I’m doing the west coast with the Mountain Goats, and then I’m doing a bunch of one offs with Kimya Dawson + Mount Eerie, and then a full US tour with Ra Ra Riot and The Cribs. I’ll do whatever I can scrouge up. I’ve worked with whatever I manage to bring up. All this US stuff wraps up in April 4th, and then I’m doing some festival stuff in Belgium starting April 15th. So we have about a week off between now and May.

Is it an interesting time to go out there with Kimya given her recent success?
I’ve played tons of shows with her in various situations. I’ve known her for years so it’s not that strange.

Well you have to acknowledge it seems like a pretty good time for anti-folk again — between Kimya contributing all those songs to the Juno soundtrack, one of the best selling records of this year, and you having a bit of a renaissance of interest with your 12 Crass Songs?
For myself it’s not so much that there’s been a resurgence because…don’t call it a comeback I’ve been here for years.

After the jump, a Teenage Kicks exclusive: Will Jeffrey Lewis’s next covers project be devoted to Public Enemy?

I’ve been making a living from my music for 7 years now and it’s been very underground in the US. It’s possible with the Crass album that it’s a just quirky project that’s been getting more attention. But we’ve been touring and doing shows with bands like the Mountain Goats previously and I’ve done a bunch of tours with Kimya and with Adam Green. With this new album, the quirkiness of the concept seems to be generating press and I guess we’ll see if that makes much of a difference in terms of the kinds of people coming to the shows. But we’ve existed as a very under the radar cult thing for a number of years now and it’s nice when certain events sway things your way for a little bit, but over the years these things come and go. I’m just happy we’ve managed to keep our heads above water through all kinds up and downs.

Has it been different in Europe?
It’s hard to know but it seems as if our strongest fanbase has always been in England. But in a way the geography helps so much over there, because every day you’re driving two hours instead of nine hours like in the US and — especially because of the job George Bush has done at destroying the US economy — the shows we do oversees are so much more profitable. Though, you know, it’s also been the case that everything has a snowball effect so the more you tour in one place the more you build up a fanbase. So in that way one thing leads to another. It’s possible we have the same number of fans in America but here they’re spread over 3000 miles instead of 300, so we’re traveling 100 miles to reach every 30 fans. Not being a mathematician I couldn’t be for sure.

How did you come across and get engaged w/ Crass?
Well did you get the comic? It’s a shame with all the reviews so few people have seen it. I put as much time into the packaging of this album as the music, and it’s this very elaborate die cut fold out comic book thing that explains the whole genesis of the album, and my experience with Crass.

The story is that, at one point, I had a roommate who was a skinhead, my freshman semester at college. I was the only hippie at the college, and he was the only skinhead, and being general misfits in the college population we spent a lot of time introducing each other into music. I was into a lot of obscure psychedelia, and he was into various punk and skinhead things I had never been aware of. He introduced me to stuff like Crass and the 4-Skins and Oxblood and various other bands, and Crass was something that stood out because I started noticing I was hearing those songs in other places. The actual recordings — as well as the iconography and their whole aesthetic. And this was in like 1993, and I started to realize how much they formed a certain part of culture worldwide. I mean everyplace that I traveled across America, to squats in Europe, to the Czech Republic, and I’m sure even farther afield than that. Anywhere in the world where there’s some awareness of punk and DIY aesthetics or a squat scene of any kind, Crass forms part of the inspiration for those people. It’s incredible they had such a long lasting impact, and inspiration.

And especially when I started making music myself and touring many years later, around 2003 or 2002, when I started to do tours and really become more of a band, as opposed to just doing my comic books, Crass is one of the few bands that stood out — maybe with Minor Threat and very few other examples — as the sterling example of how moral it’s possible to be as a band, regardless of what kind of music you play. Whether you’re placing rock or punk or jazz, they set such a high standard of how you can interact with the music business, with your fans, with the world — as a band and as a person, regardless of genre. It’s like people walk around with those What Would Jesus Do bracelets, and I think if any band walks around with a What Would Crass Do idea in your head, weather you’re a punk band or a blues rock band, it’s a pretty good start.

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Was there a reason these songs needed to be interpreted now?
I’ve always been interested in unusual and unexpected cover songs, so I’d always thrown in random covers of songs over the years. Songs that people wouldn’t think not only that they wouldn’t think I would cover, but that they wouldn’t think anyone would cover. I like the idea of surprising cover songs being part of a set. We used to do “Murder Mystery” by Velvet Underground and stuff by the Last Poets that requires great deals of memorization, and many many words.

I had been doing some Crass songs live over the past four years, and then it was really just one night I just sat down with a tape recorder, and an acoustic guitar and a bunch of Crass albums and just had the inspiration to record a bunch into the tape recorder see what they would sound like. I filled up a tape, and listening to that tape the next day a lot of them just sounded fantastic. The lyrics were so clear and powerful and there was so much I could do with these songs. This was probably back in 2006, and it just became a bedroom project with my friend Matt who has a set up in his living room — mics and Protools — and over the years I would work on these songs, and over about a year and a half of working very relaxed in stop and start fashion with no thought of deadlines or idea that it would be my next album, I ended up with these twelve finished songs.

I emailed with Crass’s record label to see what they thought of the idea of this being an officially released album, and got very positive responses from the Crass people. But it’s very ironic. By the time this album is released in America, the Dirty Projectors have just put out that album of Black Flag covers, so it seems as if these things are just popping up at the same time as some kind of unconscious cultural wave of retro interest in that period of hardcore.

But the Dirty Projectors project was kind of about taking these very simple Black Flag songs and turning them into this very multi-faceted, prog rock, cinemotrograpical project. [I believe that mysterious term is a portmanteau word coined on the spot by Jeffrey, combining the words “cinematic” and “autobiographical”?—ed] Whereas I think my Crass project was kind of the opposite thing, where I’ve taken these very dense and very hard to listen to Crass recording and tried to present the real powerful core meaning of these songs, in all of their amazing lyrics and songwriting, and make them more listenable and more understandable which seems to have had some kind of positive effect. A bunch of people who hadn’t heard Crass before seem to be listening to them which is a good thing.

What do you think drew you to these songs? Was it their specific anarchist politics, or the emotional potency?
With Crass it’s incredibly multi-faceted because every aspect of what they did was inspirational on its own. The political aspect absolutely. The sense of rage. The sense of right and wrong, and the uncompromising hope, really, that they had. It comes across as anger, but with Crass it’s an unwillingness to compromise on how much better humans can do vs. what they’ve been doing. And that’s a feeling that’s equally relevant to any time in human history. It’s a really passionate wake up call of saying “Why settle what we’re settling for when there’s so much more people are capable of?” And then, on a more practical level, there is the high standard they set for how a band can operate both financially and socially. And then, you know, just musically being totally and uncomprimisingly creative. Crass was so incredibly hated by the press and huge segments of the listening audience — even the punk audience. They’re probably one of the most hated bands of all times. There’s no reason for that to fade away and for their achievements to not be remembered.

Was there any thought of making Crass’s message more accessible to people today? That perhaps clothing it as slower, more comprehensible music, rather than noisy hardcore, would bring in more listeners, or a wider variety of listeners?
There’s people that have had that reaction. They find these versions easier to listen to. Even people who were Crass fans in the early 80s they said they liked listening to our album today, in the same way that they used to like to listen to Crass when they were younger people with more of an appetite for hardcore. And then, of course, we’ve had the opposite reaction: Crass fans who hate our versions and like the old stuff, and would like to hang us

Have you thought through the idea that your versions may be even more edgy than the originals in the context of today’s pop music? Hardcore punk is something for malls now. Bands like Slipknot sound nearly as extreme as Crass did. Crass’s music doesn’t sound quite as edgy as they once did.
There’s a funny thing about talking about bands that are on the bleeding edge. The edge always exists somewhere. There’s always… Like in the 60s that edge was the Fugs, or the Velvet Underground. Then in the 70s, that edge was Richard Hell or in the late 70s it was Crass or the Sex Pistols. At any given time there is an edge, and I don’t think you can look back and say these more difficult sounds have been accepted. There’s always something on the fringe, but it’s wonderful when that can coincide with morals, and that’s what Crass and a lot of these edgy bands that I love were getting at. There’s one thing about something being unacceptable and on the fringe because it’s distasteful. But when there’s something like the hippie movement or the punk movement or the indie rock movement, in its best aspects, there’s a kind of moral standard that it sets forward in combination with a rebelliousness and an unlistenability, and an unreconcilability with the mainstream. It’s what creates the counter culture, and certain sounds may have become accepted but certain other ones have not. And never say never but there’s something about bands like Crass and The Fugs that still cannot be accepted. Whereas the Sex Pistols you might hear that played in any given venue. They probably get played in the Gap or something — not that I have anything against the Sex Pistols. The Fugs and Crass, though, you just don’t hear them in polite society.

In your version of “I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just A Trick” you namedrop Sarah Jessie Parker, which I’m guessing is supposed to be Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex in the City. That hadn’t been broadcast when Crass broke up in 1984. I noticed there were a number of changes like that — both in terms song structures and lyrics. Did you feel you had to take a free hand in transforming these songs?
Absolutely there was a lot of that, changing places and names, and mostly structural changes. A lot of the original Crass songs were more like rants that didn’t have choruses or things like that. A lot of the original songs go from part A to part B to part C to part D to part E than end. I made a lot of them go ABAB and so on, just to make more standard song structures. There is a lot of that in my album. But for the most part, it’s amazing how much of Crass’s original lyrics still make sense. You just have to do a bit of updating. Sarah Jessie Parker was Farah Fawcett in the original. She just doesn’t have a lot of cultural relevance today. And where they would mention Ireland or the Falkland Islands you just plug in Iraq and it makes sense. They were not so much a topical band as a band against a system, and though some of the particulars may have changed, the rest of the parts are still valid.

Was there one record you pulled from most?
Unintentionally I pulled from Stations of the Crass most. But the 12 songs that I pulled for my album was actually just a random selection. If I had been more consciously picking an equal sampling, it may have been a more equal album line-up. But I think Stations has a disproportionate representation.

What do the members of Crass think of your album? Have you heard any feedback?
I’ve been in touch with a number of the Crass people, and so far it’s been positive across the board. I started with Allison Schnackenberg who currently runs Southern Records because I’m donating half the money to charities and I wanted to discuss with Crass where they thought that money should go. They were very hands off about it, and said do what you want with the money, it’s your project. But I did talked to Allison from Southern about this, and I’ve talked to actual Crass members.

There were so many people involved. They were kind of like a commune. And most of them have been very willing to reach out. We had Eve Libertine who did a lot of back ground vocals — especially on Penis Envy — she hung out with us before and after a show and sang with us. Steve Ignorant came to see us play and just introduced himself after the show, and we had a brief little five minute chat. And that was very nice. Phil Free and Joy De Vivre came to see us recently in New York City and she got on stage and recited a few recent works during our set. They’ve all just been so friendly and supportive and had nothing but nice things to say about the project and the whole thing. Penny Rimbaud I’ve not heard from directly but I’ve heard from a third party he heard the album and was hoping to see our last UK tour but didn’t make it out. It would be nice to encounter him at some point.

Earlier your mentioned Dirty Projectors take on Black Flag. Do you know if he’s had a similar experience as you have with the members of Crass?
His experience was a real contrast because I heard from Dave [Longstreth, the band’s singer/guitarist] and the Dirty Projectors that they had tried to contact Black Flag a number of time and in a number of ways and not heard anything at all. So, you know, it’s a very different experience from what they’ve gone through

Any more thoughts about Dirty Projectors and you both revisiting hardcore past at the same time?
I have met Dave and we did mention that it was funny that the releases were happening simultaneously — though as I said I recorded my stuff in May of 2006. It just took a bit of time for it to come out. But then, who was that woman who did those jazz versions of punk songs a few years ago? Oh yeah, Nouvelle Vague. But that came out a few years ago. You know, they say the bow and arrow were invented simultaneously in South America and Asia. I think that just happens. Who knows how many other people haven’t done this sort of thing over the years? For all I know someone may have released albums of Crass covers in 1989 and people were doing covers all through the years, but for my project there just happens to be interest from the press. A lot of the press we’ve gotten, especially in the UK, has been from people that are now journalists but were Crass fans at times. It may just be a generational difference of who is writing the articles now. I was talking to John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and he was one of the first people that heard a version of my Crass album and he was saying he used to cover “Do they Owe Us a Living?” I’m sure there’s all kinds of examples of people who have covered this stuff over the years.

This Crass project is not the first time you’ve written music about music, and music history specifically. You have a great song called “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” which, among other things, places him in the context of “greater” songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. You have another about the history of punk rock on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Do you feel like there’s a kind of pedagogical responsibility to being a songwriter?
I think part of it is that I’ve been a comic book artist most of my life, and that’s allowed me to listen to a lot of music. Because part of what I enjoy in life is working on my comic books for hour after hour and being immersed in music old and new. Because you can’t listen to music while you’re playing music, but I get to listen to it while I’m doing this other stuff. And coming to music from the world of comic books, I’m maybe more steeped in listening to music than people who play music exclusively. I’ve never considered myself much of a musician. I never play really unless I’m on tour. I don’t think people necessarily need to have a sense of history to be musicians. There’s something to be said of someone that’s free of influence altogether or doesn’t have an awareness of where they fall in the space-time continuum then someone that is overly aware of. But it’s something I can’t help but love. And that kind of naturally comes out in my comic books and in this Crass song project. I also do a whole lot of comics and songs that have nothing to do with music. I’ve done these things on the history of communism, and autobiographical things about my father’s life, things that are not music based. But it seems like it’s the music-based ones that have been getting more press interest. Those are my thoughts on that.

Well, I’d like you to speak more directly about how you think this relates to your audience. Do kids these days lack historical awareness and is it your job to educate them? Is there a lack of context among younger listeners today? Can we blame the internet?
Musicians — especially troubadour travelers – have always made it part of their job to be bumblebees, cross-pollinating things that they’ve discovered, whether it be the kind of things I do or, “Hey I’ve traveled all through Georgia and now that I’m in Boston I’m going to play some music that I heard some old guy on his porch doing. And now that I’m in Chicago, I’m going to play you some Boston fiddle music.” Musicians have always been the conduits that have introduced people to music. So whether it’s making a mix tape for your friends or just taping records from other people that you’ve been introduced to. There’s a tremendous joy of getting to discover music. It’s a joy to introduce people to stuff they’ve never heard of before. I do think the internet has taken some of the mystique out of music. Because nowadays if I find a strange ‘60s album and I don’t know anything about it, I can type it into the internet and I can find who it is, how much it’s worth, how and why they made it. Whereas before the internet became such a big part of culture, you had to do a bit more detective work on your own. And there’s good and bad aspects of that.

We’re also living in times now where there’s been a convergence of culture and technology so that everything’s been reissued. There’s very little that remains a really undiscovered gem. Everything has been reissued but for many decades that was not the case. I think there’s never been more of the history of recorded music available than there is today. At the time, certain things were out of print. Now it’s easier to find anything you’re looking for and that can only be a good thing.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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