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.
– Read Part I
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.
After the jump, a Jeffrey Lewis explains how his project differs from that of the Dirty Projectors, and invents a new word which you, the readers, have permission to use when you want to sound extra pretentious.
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.
To be completed next Tuesday.