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
– Read Part II
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.
After the jump: Lewis's musical-historical songs and What Would Crass Think of his cover versions?
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.