On my radar: Jeffrey Lewis’s cultural highlights

The singer-songwriter and comic book artist on the brilliance of band biographies, the joys of Jon Allen’s comic books and the horrors of war

Born in New York City, Jeffrey Lewis grew up in Manhattan and studied literature at State University of New York at Purchase. While living in Austin, Texas in 2001, Lewis was signed to Rough Trade and released his debut album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane. Lewis’s music is often described as anti-folk, a genre inspired by folk while subverting its earnestness. Lewis has lectured on Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, self-publishes a comic book series called Fuff, and creates much of his own album art. Lewis’s latest album, Manhattan, is out now on Rough Trade and he is touring the UK until 19 December.

1 | Audiobook
The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

the rest is noise alex ross audiobook cover

I like listening to educational audiobooks while touring and I’m really enjoying this one – if I’m going to be in a car for six, seven hours a day, it’s probably a good idea to use the time to learn stuff. I love that it’s something to occupy my mind, keep me challenged and stimulated. Before every tour I’ll present my bandmates with about 20 options of audiobooks, to see if there’s anything everybody can agree on. This one’s all about 20th-century composers, most of whom I know nothing about – Mahler or Strauss or Sibelius – but I love the anecdotes, and these people’s personalities, their artistic travails. How these things interacted with the history and culture and politics of the 20th century and how it impacted the lives of these composers and the work they created.

2 | Comic
Ohio Is for Sale by Jon Allen

ohio is for sale artwork COMIC – Ohio is for Sale by Jonathan Allen

I discovered this comic book a year or two ago and I love the artwork: Jon Allen has this really interesting style and pacing, it’s very understated. It’s about these weird creatures that live in a house – a dog and some kind of alien lizard – it’s very cartoonish but the guy is a high-level illustrator. It reminds me a bit of Calvin and Hobbes. I think the seventh issue just came out; I have the first six. I’m very appreciative of finding a cool, independent comic book that’s coming out in individual issues – I feel like that’s disappearing, now everybody just wants to do these giant graphic novels that are supposedly more respectable. But I have a real love for this weird, underground thing, going to a little comic book store and finding a new issue.

3 | Museum
War Remnants Museum, Ho Cho Minh City

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I feel like in America you hear a lot about the Vietnam war, but it’s really interesting to hear the story from the opposite perspective. My band played in Vietnam this summer, and going to this museum was a cultural highlight of my year. It’s full of horrible photographs of wartime atrocities, a lot of which are hard to look at. Also necessary, because for any nation to go into war, to send troops to some foreign country, it’s something you need to be aware of when making that decision: that you’re basically creating a situation of complete horror, women and children blown to pieces, villages destroyed, lives ruined either through injury or death on a massive unimaginable scale. They just put it right upfront, what actually took place in the war: it’s information and images that you probably wouldn’t see in any American museum.

4 | Film
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Paul Muni as James Allen in in I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
‘It was really just slavery’: Paul Muni as James Allen in I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Photograph: Handout

This was shown at the Film Forum in New York City: it’s your basic arthouse movie theatre which shows old, foreign or independent films. I’ve seen a lot of movies there over the years. This one really knocked me out. Apparently it’s a true story about this guy who escaped from being on a chain gang in an American prison and what it was like for him on the run. According to what I’ve read the film seems to have had an impact on politics, because it revealed the horrors of the chain gangs to the American public. Prisoners breaking up boulders with thick axes – it’s a very cartoonish image but it was really just slavery. It eventually led to an outcry and they stopped being used. But the movie doesn’t come at it from any particular political angle, it’s just an action film about this guy and his escape.

5 | Book
The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall by Steve Hanley

The Fall in London, 1988.
The Fall in London, 1988. Photograph: Peter Brooker/Rex

I really enjoyed this memoir by Steve Hanley, who was the bass player in the Fall for about 20 years. I’m a big fan of the band and I’d been waiting a while for a book like this. It’s compellingly written: it’s really interesting to hear what it was like on tour, the early days. I just read Big Day Coming about Yo La Tengo and Black Postcards by Dean Wareham. I’m constantly inhaling these band bios, especially about bands I love. I’m usually even interested in reading about bands that I’m not particularly leaning towards, but the Fall is probably one of my top three favourite bands of all time so this was a book I just couldn’t put down. I wished it was three times as long – I would have gobbled it up just as happily.

6 | Restaurant
Lui’s Thai Food, New York

Lui’s Thai Food, 128 E 4th Street New York.
‘Excellent’: Lui’s Thai Food, 128 E 4th Street New York. Photograph: Handout

This is my favourite Thai restaurant in my neighbourhood in Manhattan. It’s a cool, small place with really excellent spicy food – I’m a fan of the grilled salmon and green curry and the vegetarian mock duck. But what hooked me was that they play really great music. Every time I went in I started noticing, they’re playing Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, they’re playing Yo La Tengo. I was blown away. So I asked if I could talk to whoever was picking the music, and through that I kind of became friends with this woman and her cousin. You would never suspect that this woman, probably as old as my mum, from Thailand, working in the kitchen of this place, is a total fan of the Wave Pictures or Stereolab.

7 | Venue
Saturn, Birmingham, Alabama

saturn club in Birmingham Alabama

We played here the other day. There aren’t that many venues like it in America. It’s got a big apartment upstairs where the bands can stay, which is really nice if you’re a travelling band, you know you have a place to stay after the show. The venue itself has this really great outer-space decor – rockets, circuit boards, video games – and Sun Ra, the jazz guy [who claimed he was] from Saturn, came from Birmingham Alabama. It has a bit of a Sun Ra theme, with his records on the wall. So there’s a connection between Birmingham, Alabama, and Saturn, outer space. I didn’t expect there would be such a big, hip indie rock audience in that part of the country – you’d expect to find a venue like this in Seattle or somewhere, but to find such a big, well-funded, well-put-together music venue was a nice surprise for all of us.


Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

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