Interview by guest contributor Charles Bramesco of Random Nerds.
It’s George Lewis Jr.’s birthday, and he’s looking a little worse for wear. Not disheveled, exactly — his leather jacket, coiffure and faded jeans are all on point. But it’s his birthday, and though tonight he’s going to perform at the Black Cat, last night he was celebrating. He still mustered the strength to sit for a few questions from All Things Go about Russ Meyer, the cultural character of Florida, and the uneasy relationship between artists and the corporate architecture attempting to wring the money out of them.
In the past, you’ve spoken about the films of Russ Meyer and Motorpsycho in particular. What is it that attracts you to those movies?
Oh, yeah, I was so obsessed for the longest time. Meyer was line with, ah… [long pause] My brain isn’t working yet, it’s my birthday and I had a long night last night.
Holy shit, happy birthday.
Eh, thanks. There were these almost Satanic filmmakers, who were making “hell on earth” reflections of human beings at their worst. [Meyer] was helping to develop the classic villain. in Motorpsycho, you’ve got the guy back from the Vietnam war, and he’s gone mental from PTSD. It’s a very real prediction of what makes people turn evil.
The whole motorcycle-picture trend was one of the first genres to pick up on the dark side of youth. The biker gangs were seen as a threat to the decency of America’s young people. Do you think there’s a link between motorcycle culture, which you’re actively involved with, and the danger of being young?
There’s this thing that comes with being young — not all teenagers go through this, but I certainly did — I was being more reckless than I should’ve been. I look back on my teenage years and I think, “Wow, I can’t believe I got away with all that, I can’t believe I made it through those nights of going too far.”
Young people think they’re invincible, right?
They do. And they are, to an extent. Until they’re not, and that’s hard.
This is about to be a rough fucking segue: What number birthday is this today?
Yikes. I’m just gonna lie to you, and say I’m turning thirty.
It seems as if with every new album, your sound is getting bigger. Do you feel that as you’re aging, you’re driven to do something bigger? Are you pushing yourself to top the last one, whatever that might have been?
I don’t think about making records like a competition. I think that’s the fault of music journalists and the business that people think records have to outdo each other. Records are exactly what the word says: they’re a record, a document of a moment in someone’s life. Which should never be judged against one another. Where’s that leave you? And I’m not accusing you of that or anything. All I wanted to do was something I hadn’t achieved before. I suppose in this instance, that idea of “bigness” was a theme. But it’s not an active thing inside of me, where I’m setting a course to do that. I’m naturally going through the motions of my life, and realizing the patterns that I’ve already seen myself do, and making sure I don’t do those again. I want to find new patterns, and new ways to excite myself or make myself feel uncomfortable or to expand in some way. Taking risks is huge for me. I think it’s funny, I hear my peers and critics say that I’m not taking the risks I used to. But I’m taking a bigger risk in not doing the obvious.
Every time an artist’s sound has a big shift, even if it’s in a direction that listeners might think of as “conventional,” that’s a risk in itself.
Right. It’s a huge risk, because I understand that people loved the first record for its layers and vagueness, which is beautiful and I really appreciate that, but I have to change as a person. I get bored really easily. I want to make sure that I’m giving myself a reason to do this.
Do you feel that pop music, or music with more approachability to it, has a stigma attached? Even just amongst music critics, or hardcore music nerds?
That’s hard to say, because I don’t consider myself a part of that scene. You could probably tell me. There must be, because it’s a topic of conversation, I hear that. But I don’t think that’s gonna last very long. I think the beautiful thing about music right now is that it’s all becoming one.
It’s gotten more inclusive.
Exactly, it’s like, everyone’s doing R&B, big artists artists are adding what people might call “indie” elements to their music. It’s all pushing toward the center, and I love that, because you’re gonna have a lot of creative people taking advantage of the lanes combining.
This is your first tour after Eclipse and signing with Warner Music. Have you noticed any change in your day-to-day life or the recording process since parting ways with 4AD?
I recorded the whole record with 4AD, Warner picked it up after it was finished. So there was no change on that end, same process as the last record. I do see a difference in the day-to-day, though. I have a lot more communication with the people from Warner, which is funny, because you’d think the opposite. They’re bigger, but they’re more hands-on, at least with my project. I feel very connected, like I can call anyone I need in the middle of the night.
It sounds like you like that.
Yeah, it’s important to me. We get taught, as artists, to hate labels. And rightfully so, because labels have taken advantage of artists for ever and ever and still are. But what people don’t realize is indie labels also take advantage of artists. Everyone gets taken advantage of in this business. If you decide to make music your business, you are going to get taken advantage of, no matter what. Touring is the biggest scam that an artist can endure. If you look at anyone’s touring money, and you look at the way the pie is split up, musicians are always the ones getting fucked.
You think it’s a matter of getting in, securing your own interests, and finding someone on your wavelength?
You have to trust the people you’re around, and understand that you’re going to get taken advantage of, and try to leverage what you get out of it to make your career go in the direction you want. You want to stay creative, and not get bogged down by how hard it is. It’s a very hard thing, I don’t recommend it to anybody.
You had a few projects before Twin Shadow. Have you seen the darker side of that, the whole music-biz deal?
It’s all perception, depending on your goals and your perspective. But I’ve seen the darker and the brighter sides of it. I’ve been in music forever, been in many, many bands before Twin Shadow, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. The process of all of it, the learning, the things I’ve gotten out of it. But my God, I can’t sit here and say I’d advise anyone to be a part of it.
That’s pretty cynical talk for a birthday.
It’s not cynical or anything. I’m just saying I wouldn’t tell anyone to be a musician or artist. A true artist knows pretty early on that that’s the only thing you can do. There’s a deep sense of what the sacrifice is going to be that comes on when you first realize that. You know that you’re going to sacrifice a lot. And you know you’re going to have to be more focused than anyone else to actually become successful. I think that those things happen naturally, too. People don’t need too much coaxing. Artists find their way, they have their own journey. But they know. And I guess that’s all I meant, I’m not trying to shit on art or anything. [Laughs.]
Ah, I’m just giving you a hard time. Now, you’re from the Dominican Republic and your parents are still back there — do you still feel a strong connection to your roots in your music and life in general, whether that’s the D.R. or Florida [where Lewis grew up]?
I feel very close to Florida, still. At the tip-top of this tour, I bumped into all my childhood friends. When we played in Florida, I saw a lot of great old friends and I remembered the cloth I’m cut from. And that was great, because for a long time I’d try to cover up or deny my Florida-ness.
I didn’t think about it much, I tried not to talk too much about it.
Do you think Florida has a rep?
I think it does, and it always has, and people are realizing now what that rep is.
Florida as the crazy-news-story capital of the country.
“Florida Man,” yeah. It’s true, my whole life was “Florida Man” shit. It’s a wild place. Any place that denies its physical nature like Florida is a strange place. Florida is swamp land, with a lot of fake man-made beaches. Pretty beaches, but dredged beaches. They’re constantly dumping sand on the mainland to keep the state afloat. It’s a swamp with shopping centers paved on top of it and really long stretches of the same highway. The physical element is extremely strange.
And then on top of that, it’s a very conservative state with a lot of people who are still hanging on for dear life to the Reagan-era way of doing things. These people aren’t peers of Nirvana, they’re in positions of elderly power. It’s an old-school, Reagan-era world. There’s a lot of backwards shit in Florida, lots of laws that’re crazy. Talking to my friends, I hear about the gun laws. You realize a lot of things: Like, I didn’t have art or music in my elementary school. They had it one year, then they cancelled it. I thought about that, and I never realized how that affected everyone else. It didn’t affect me that early on, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I think about the opportunities missed by young people, and I wonder how much of that affects them.
You’ve got your hand in a lot of enterprises. You’re a published novelist, starred in the quasi-short film that was released to accompany your single “Five Seconds,” there’s the new record and the tour. Where do you see yourself taking the Twin Shadow project and your talents next?
I’m back in the music mode. I had a realization that music is divine. There’s not much in my book that’s better than that. It keeps coming at us. Its format hasn’t changed in the ways that other art forms have. It’s based on trend, but doesn’t have to be. Anyone can break that trend, just with an amazing song. It’s a really powerful thing. I was pulling away from it for a while, because as a creative person, the tendency is to do everything within reach. But the more I think about it, the more I just wanna play music.
Last question: You’re playing Madison Square Garden, who do you want on the double bill with you?
Hmm. Right now? Either HAIM, Tobias Jesso Jr., or Kero Kero Bonito.