Whether performing as a solo artist or with her band The Licks, there’s never been anything about a Juliette Lewis show that would suggest anything other than complete and utter devotion to her music. Not only that but the quality of the work that she’s unleashed up to this point is equally admirable.
Let’s face it, it’s not always that way. There’s no hiding the fact that Lewis was world-renowned for her onscreen work (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Natural Born Killers, The Other Sister, etc.) way before she released the debut Licks EP, ...Like a Bolt of Lightning, back in 2004. But if Keanu Reeves’ Dogstar, Steven Seagal’s blues stuff and Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars have taught us anything, it’s that these things don’t usually go well.
Lewis has, for 14 years, gleefully disproved the theory that actors should stay away from music. She’s a fiery, passionate and charismatic frontwoman, happy to sweat it out with a room full of rock fans, often diving fully into an enthusiastic pit. She has shrewdly surrounded herself with talented musicians — some of them big names, others workhorses, but all well-regarded by people in the know.
Importantly, Lewis never tried to play on her name. She's always been happy to play dive bars, and has even been spotted hauling gear before and after shows. She wasn’t only willing to start on the bottom rung and prove her chops, she was excited by the idea. And she earned her stripes.
The Licks put out two excellent full-length albums in 2005 and 2006, and then she put that project on hold. Her debut solo record, Terra Incognita, was released in 2009, with the sophomore Future Deep album dropping in 2016. There have been occasional live shows, both solo and from The Licks over the past couple of years, leading to rumors of new Licks material on the way. Lewis says that, in fact, she’s been songwriting but nothing is imminent.
“I’m not working on a new album,” she says. “I’m following what I’m in love with and who I love playing with but it’s really hard to do everything. I’m trying to do my day job, acting, and commit to my musical heart and soul. But no, I’m not making a record right now, I’m just songwriting. I've got no pressures on myself. I don’t work for a label. Everything I’ve ever done is super-independent. I’m at the mercy of my own discipline to see things through. But with my old band The Licks, we started to play, we got together, it felt really good, and I thought, ‘I have this band and I miss music so much when I’m not doing it,’ so I decided to do some Cali shows.”
Much of that songwriting of late has been with her boyfriend, Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage fame. Lewis says the pair are exploring different musical sensibilities together.
“The Licks are very much a guitar-driven, rock & roll band and we try to stretch ourselves here and there — at the show, we do this slow, sweet ballad,” she says. “We’re known to be pretty ferocious but one of my favorite songs I wrote with Todd Morse [Licks guitarist, formerly of punks H2O] in the band is called ‘This I Know.’ Right now, I’m just writing with different people. Mainly, I want to put a record together with Brad and I don’t know what that project will be called.”
Wilk will, in fact, be guest drumming for The Licks at this week's show at the Teragram Ballroom, which is exciting to Lewis. The couple have spent countless evenings, she says, geeking out to music of late.
“We geek out on talking about how space, in between playing, is as important as what you play,” she says. “We were listening to the band Can the other day. The shows that I’m putting on are really because I really miss the energy of a room and my band, so I just decided, fuck it, I don’t have a record or anything, but I do have an audience there that we all throw down together in a room and that’s exciting.”
There is, Lewis says, a distinct difference between the raw rock & roll of The Licks, and the more eclectic and free solo sound.
“When I started The Licks, I had that idealized intention of forming a collective and we’d all song-write together, and we did for a while,” she says. “But what I do solo is just ‘anything goes.’ With The Licks it’s very much two guitar–based, and drums. I wrote with Isabella [the Machine] Summers of Florence + the Machine and Brad Shultz from Cage the Elephant on the last record. So I just work with anybody I’m grooving with at the time. It is different, what I do solo, but it’s still me. So there’s still an energetic and emotional throughline no matter what I’m doing that’s me. It’s not like I’m becoming something I’m not.”
On Friday, The Licks play a rare show at the Teragram, and Lewis is determined to make it a memorable evening, though for all the right reasons.
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“I’m a purist — I don’t even want a backdrop,” she says. “I don’t want anything that takes away from the music, the band and the energy in the room. What can you expect? Energy, energy, energy. If you’re having a crap day, if you’re moody and don’t want to come out, or if you’re feeling great and want to celebrate, all of that can get amplified or released if you come to one of my shows. That’s the thing. Really fun rock & roll, a couple of surprise covers that everyone sings along to, and a big old smile on your face from beginning to end. I’m a salesman but I stand by what I put out.”
When this short run of shows is over, Lewis will of course return to acting, while trying to work in some recording and more gigs.
“I’ll try to pull something together,” she says. “I believe more in EPs than a full-length record nowadays because you can get it all done and ready sooner. So probably an EP or a couple, I’m not sure. Then probably some more shows, someday.”
Juliette & the Licks play at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 20, at the Teragram Ballroom.