Shake Things Up Friday the 13th with Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams
By John Perye . June 11, 2014
Freak-out this Friday the 13th with Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams at Kantine am Berghain. The trio, featuring Caitlin Grey and Heather Wagner, just kicked off an extensive European summer tour in the UK on June 5th, and will be stopping here in Berlin to bring witty and wildly creative songs to the stage. Unaware until recently of the multi-talented musician/comic book artist Lewis, I quickly wised-up due to the impressive body of work he has amassed over the last 12 plus years. A true wordsmith, Lewis’s songs are instantly relatable, and I can genuinely say that I’m thrilled to be getting a chance to see him perform live.
I spoke with Lewis before the tour and he had this to say:
For Berliners who are not familiar with your music, how would you describe it?
Lo-fi folk, sci-fi punk, and low-budget films!
You’ve collaborated with a lot of musicians in the past. This time around you’re with the Jrams, a band you released a self-titled album with earlier this year. Should we expect only songs from the newest release or will you be playing stuff from your whole repertoire?
I try to have a rule that at every show there is no song I’m guaranteed to play, and no song I’m guaranteed not to play, I am very inspired by bands like the Grateful Dead or Yo La Tengo, where every show was a different set list, it was so much fun to be in the audience whenever I would see those bands play, because you never knew what song was coming next. So I have tried to copy that style, but it’s difficult to have so many songs in your memory! Especially because the current musicians have only been with me a few months so they don’t know how to play everything yet, but they’re learning more and more. Right now there’s maybe 35 songs I can pick from each night when trying to decide what to play. There’s another 5 or 6 older songs that I’d like to teach the Jrams next, maybe as the tour goes on we’ll continue to add material to the list of possibilities. Also I keep writing new songs, and I think it’s important to let new songs evolve on stage a bit, so I like testing out material on stage too. I think it’s bad to let old songs go for a long time without being played, you forget how to play them, so it’s a challenge to keep as many songs as possible in the rotation every night, it’s better to know as much as possible, that way you can respond to each situation with more tools, more possibilities. I don’t like seeing a band and knowing in advance what songs they will play, in what order… that’s a boring way to see a show, and a boring way to play a show! I usually don’t write a set list, just decide after a song what the next song should be, or ask my band what they think we should play next.
You have an intense tour schedule for June and August. You’re not missing a beat, playing literally every day. This must wear you down or is it the way you like it?
It’s the way I like it! In 12 years of doing this I have almost never had a day off on tour, as Mike Watt of the Minutemen famously said “if you’re not playing, you’re paying.” I’m on tour to play concerts; otherwise I would be at home working on comic books or working on writing songs or recording or something. Some days we even have two shows!
Five of this month’s tour dates are in Germany. Do the crowds here respond strongly to what you’re doing?
Germany was one of the first areas of Europe that I ever toured in. The first time I played gigs in Europe was in Holland in early 2002, then I went back to Europe in summer 2002 and played some shows in Germany, and now it’s 12 years later and I’m still doing it. If you told me in 2002 that I would still be playing shows in Germany and other countries for the next 12 years it would have seemed impossible. Most bands don’t go that long. Germany has always been a good place, and in the early days there was a Rough Trade Records label contact in Berlin, so that helped get some press and attention in Germany. Now that office is long gone, but I never relied a huge amount on press and label assistance, it can be very helpful to have that kind of support from label and press, but I learned very early that the most important thing is just the art itself. If you can continue to create work that you feel strongly about, everything else will continue to be good, whether you have label support or press attention. Germany was one of the first places my band had fans, and it continues to be a place where we have a lot of friends and a lot of good shows.
You’re playing Berlin on Friday the 13th, at the Kantine am Berghain. Should be a wild night. Any fond memories of past Berlin visits?
So many! I remember playing in Berlin in spring of 2003, with Herman Dune and Rachel Lipson, and we had a terrible show at Rotor Solon, the sound was just feeding back, the place was beautiful but the music sounded bad, and we were very tired and sad about it… and then after the show, the guy that we were supposed to stay with said that he had something come up, and we couldn’t sleep at his house! I think it was because he thought we sounded so bad he decided not to let us stay with him! But then the next night we played another show in Berlin, at a different place, and it was a fantastic show. And then the same guy said it would be okay for all of us to stay with him! I think he liked us again. Anyway that was 2003, a long time ago. There have been so many great times in Berlin and some of my best shows ever. It’s so sad that we lost Festsaal Kreuzberg to the fire, that was a special place. Also I saw the Fall in Berlin in 2005, at a great sort of rock club on the river, one of my favorite Berlin memories. And swimming in the public pools.
Not only do you write songs, but you also have a talent for drawing comics. You’re stuff looks like it could jump right off the page onto the side of a Berlin building. What is it like for you seeing all the street art around Berlin?
It’s so fantastic, it reminds me of being a child in New York City, I was a little kid in New York in the early 80s and my school yard was covered in great graffiti, and all the trains. It’s like a strange dream to remember it now, I was so young. Berlin is like being back in that dream, but it’s even better, it’s such a feeling of freedom to be in a city that has such explosions of creative thoughts everywhere you look. All the broken glass and dogs and punks, that also gives me very good feelings, and reminds me of New York when New York was in more interesting times. Now New York is very different, but for me Berlin still has the true city-spirit, even though Berlin is changing too. Every place changes, you just have to appreciate the special times when you are lucky to catch them.
Once again, Jeffrey & the Jrams will be playing Friday the 13th, at Kantine am Berghain. Am Wriezener Bahnhof
10243 Berlin Friedrichshain. Doors at 9 PM, show at 10 PM.
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