THE BEGINNING

In a Visions festival special, in conversation with !!!’s Nic Offer and Jeffrey Lewis.

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As a partner at Visions festival (10 August 2013) we asked two headliners, !!! and Jeffrey Lewis, if they’d like to have chat with each other. They said yes.

Nic Offer: “If you can, without answering the question, please tell us a question that you are very tired of being asked over and over by journalists or other people who ask you questions… What’s one question that you wish you could lay to rest and never be asked again?”

Jeffrey Lewis: “I’ve been asked over and over since the turn of the millenium what ‘antifolk’ is, or to explain my role in the ‘antifolk movement’, or to justify my title as ‘king of antifolk’, or other such questions that I have answered so many times I now just have stock answers that I keep in a file on my laptop and paste into email interviews. In fact, I have a file of stock answers to many stock questions now… I figure if a journalist isn’t going to take the time to read any prior interview of mine in which I’ve already answered certain questions, then why should I take the time to come up with a whole fresh new answer for that person? And what’s the difference if I cut and paste an answer vs. basically saying the same thing in slightly different words each time? In fact this itself is an answer I am cutting and pasting in from a previous interview (kidding).”

NO: “Ours is fairly obvious and I guess we were asking for it when we chose a name we hoped would set us apart from all the other bands. It has definitely set us apart in that most bands don’t have to answer why they chose their name 17 years after it’s been chosen. Can you imagine: So John, why did u choose a name like The Beatles? Talking of starting out, what were your goals when you started playing?”

JL: “To strip away everything interesting about music and see what was left, what was real. I didn’t want to have any fancy performance name, no fancy recordings, no costumes, not even any particular technique of vocal or instrumental delivery that could get in the way of finding out what could be powerfully communicated with the most basic possible approach. Obviously this was in a large part due to my own limitations, financially and technically and every other way, but I did want to make better music than anybody else by sort of sneaking in the back door of music, skipping all the steps that everybody else was bothering with, cutting to the real stuff.  I felt as though a lot of artists use all these resources of skill and production and talent to try to build bridges of communication to reach across to people, and I wanted to make the whole bridge idea seem pointless by just reaching out directly, with no bridge/architecture as an intermediary, if that makes sense? What was your goal?”

NO: “To change music. No shit! We were arrogant punks, naive, earnest, arty and sophomoric to the core. I suppose a case could be made that we did change it a little bit, dance music is now well integrated into indie music, but I’d probably be the only one trying to make that case.”

JL: “I don’t know about you guys, but my goals have changed over the year, because after a little while I could no longer be completely artless in my approach – you can’t help but learn stuff, so I found myself actually knowing how to play guitar more and more (though I’m still not great by any stretch), and knowing how to sing better, knowing how to record better, etc. If I tried to make music now the way I made it when I was starting I would just be faking, so the only solution is to push forward, to dive into the new levels with as much excited cluelessness as in the beginning. As long as you make sure you’re trying to get in over your head, out of your depth, I think that’s important, that maintains the sense of discovery and keeps you at the same creative edge of hope and despair, about whether what you are trying to do is even possible. Once you know it IS possible to do something, you have to try for the next thing, and keep being willing to fail.”

NO: “I think when I sit down at the drum machine, there’s still a part of me that wants to make the beat that changes music, but I think we’ve become more interested in just writing a good song, certainly a humbler path. I think it’s a common path for musicians. You just keep trying to do what you do in a better more distilled form. Obviously some do this because they’re chasing the money, but I think there’s another way that it happens when you’re just trying to do what you do, but better.

Here’s something I wanted to ask you: What’s something that you’ve learned over the years, which you perhaps wish you knew earlier on? Like, a tip for a quick, effective sound-check, or a travel item you now know you can leave out of your luggage, or a better way to pack an instrument when boarding a flight, or how long is too long to be on tour, or any other hard-won information?”

JL: “You don’t need to carry a big bulky power converter to other countries, what I’ve learned. You can just plug in your pedals or your phone or your computer to a regular small adaptor plug and things won’t actually explode or fry out. Most of the time.”

NO: “For me, I just wish I had worked as hard in the early days, as I do now. You really can get better the harder you work. Just write and write and write as much as you can. If people like what you do and you have the luxury of quitting your job, treat music like a job. That, and always pack your swim trunks, cuz u never know. Molly, who I was in OutHud with, taught me that many years ago, and I’ve been glad for it many times.”

JL: “What was the first, most exciting “biggest gig ever” for you (like the first time you played a gig that was leaps and bounds beyond any size/importance/excitement/etc that you had previously played)?  I don’t actually mean the biggest gig you have ever played, but just the first time you suddenly found yourself at a deeper end of the diving pool? Mine was Opening for Cornershop at Irving Plaza in New York City in 2001. That was a particularly exciting one. I think it was a sold out show, something like 1,200 people, which was a whoooole lot more people than I’d ever played to in NYC, and just a few blocks away from the open mic where I had started out. I had assembled something like a 5-piece band of friends to be my band at that show, with my brother on bass as usual, but it was an ensemble that I think only existed for that one performance, I don’t exactly remember. It was a great band with great arrangements, whatever it was – and the thing that made it the coolest was that when we starting playing there was a curtain obscuring the stage, so we start this extended intro to our first song, and then the curtain rises while we’re playing, and we suddenly just look out at this huge packed room and all these spotlights, it was really a crazy rush. That one moment when that curtain rose is forever etched in my memory – whoah, that felt crazy, and I think it would have been a lot different without that curtain happening, like if we had had to walk on stage in front of everybody and pick up our instruments and introduce ourselves or anything like that. It would have felt crazy but not as shockingly crazy maybe.”

NO: “Starting at the bottom, you have a lot of those steps. I mean the first time we played a loft party in Brooklyn, or made $200, we were ecstatic. But the first time I can remember just thinking “what the fuck are we doing here?” was our first European show. We played at the Trans Musicale festival in Rennes, France. We played on the same stage right before Gang Starr to 6000 people, the biggest show we had played at that time by 6 times. Our backstage was connected to Gang Starr’s and Premier passed Tyler a blunt. We were smoking blunts with Maurice Fulton and Mu backstage. I went home with a French girl…. Needless to say, if we had stopped then, we would’ve been satisfied just to brag about that weekend for years to come. But I’ll tell you, I’m jet lagged, just back from a festival in South Korea, so I woke up early and I’m sitting outside a laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry while I do this interview on my phone. I’m listening to a group of NYC garbage men hanging out and having their breakfast. I’m about to get on a plane tonight for Budapest. We’re on before Blur at Sziget festival. There’s no doubt that these garbage men make a lot more money than I do, but I still feel fucking lucky.”

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