By Brian Wise.
As I wandered across the infield at ACL Fest a few years ago Black Joe Lewis came like a bolt from the blue. I had left the tent that housed Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and his tight, slick band. The rest of the audience loved it and for a while so did I but I was looking for something else and I found it.
Lewis, and his then band The Honeybears, were rough, raw and exciting. It was as if James Brown’s son had been locked away for 6 months with nothing to listen to but Live At The Apollo and Exile On Main Street. There was soul, blues, R&B (as we used to know it), a bit of funk and even some garage punk thrown in. It was never going to be a ‘commercial’ sound in the sense of selling large quantities but you could see how Lewis could develop a rabid following for his live shows. In 2009 they were named by Esquire as one of the ‘Ten bands To Break Out’ after the SXSW Festival.
In the six years since Lewis’s first recording, there have been four albums (the latest being Electric Slave), line-up changes for the band, a move away from Austin, Texas and a change of record labels. Lewis has played more festivals around the world, including Australia and while he might not be enjoying huge chart success yet his live show is as dynamic as when I first encountered him. Last time I saw him was just a couple of years ago in the Gerwshin Room at The Esplanade Hotel in Melbourne, a room that must have held only two hundred and fifty people, and he nearly blew the roof off the joint.
Electric Slave follows very much in the mould of previous Lewis’s albums, though it retains a ragged edge, despite the fact that it was produced in large part by Grammy Award winner Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Cat Power, Modest Mouse). Sikes has, thankfully, resisted the urge to smooth out the essential Lewis sound.
Lewis has also returned to Austin to record at Church House Studios (run by Australian David Boyle), though three of the new tracks (‘Skulldiggin’, ‘Dar Es Salaam’ and ‘My Blood Ain’t Runnin’ Right’) were originally recorded and produced by John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, St. Vincent, Okkervil River) at Elmwood Studios in Dallas.
These days it is also just Black Joe Lewis as the band moniker. While guitarist, and bandleader, Zach Ernst has gone there is still a killer horn section (saxophonists Jason Frey and Joe Woullard, trumpeter Derek Phelps) along with longtime bassist Bill Stevenson, and drummer Eduardo Torres.
The album opens with the wild ‘Skulldiggin,’ followed by the frenetic ‘Young Girls’ and then the pleading ‘Dar Es Salaam.’ The mood hardly stops until ‘Come To My Party,’ which is about the closest thing to a radio hit that the album might yield.
‘The Hipster,’ a not so tongue in cheek observation, sums up Lewis’s attitude as he sings, ‘Come on man, fuck that shit.’ No doubt he could have gone down a safer, more predictable path but that is not where Lewis is at the moment. Rather, this is uneasy listening!
As I catch up with Lewis by phone, he is in Austin, Texas, getting ready for an extensive 22-date tour across the USA that kicks off this week in Rhode Island and ends in early December back in El Paso, Texas.
You recorded the album at Church House Studio, owned by an Australian, Dave Boyle.
Oh, yeah, Dave’s awesome.
Tell us about that.
It’s a nice studio, it’s got a good vibe. Dave’s always cool…….he’s just kind of got a good vibe to it. It’s hard to explain, like it wasn’t like super fancy or anything but everything that you needed and like a warm place to be. You know, all the people that work there are cool and you got everything you need.
I guess it’s handy also being able to record in Austin – it’s handy to be near home isn’t it?
It costs less money. Everybody can go home at the end of the night. I think it’s way better in doing it like that. You don’t have to do all the travelling and all that. We never go on to travel to do a record but I guess that might have its perks to it too but, you know, it was cool just being able to come home at the end.
I imagine that you’ll be coming back to Australia at some stage with this album too.
Yeah, I’ll be heading over there in….when are we going… February I think.
You had some pretty wild shows when you were here last time on your first tour.
Yeah, the first tour was Splendour in the Grass. We played like a Veterans’ Hall and I think it was in Melbourne. That was pretty cool. I’ve never done that before . We did that festival in Sydney. That was a good one. I’ve always had a good time in Australia.
Let’s talk about the production of the [new]album. Electric Slave was produced…most of it was produced by Stewart Sikes. Can you tell us about how you came to work with him and a little bit about him?
We went in and did like three songs with John Congleton and then he was too busy with other bands or whatever so he referred us to Stuart. Then it just clicked right away and we went in there and we did the rest of the album with him. He actually went through and he tweaked some things on the first three songs that John did. So Stewart did the vast majority of the record and he was good for us. He let us just kind of work how we wanted and is kind of easy going and it’s pretty cool. It was just a good fit and John referred us to him.
How are they like different in their styles of production? Do you find the producers dramatically different? How does it work?
I think that’s the sounds that they were using. I think Stewart got what we were doing a little bit better than John did. So I think that just naturally made it sound better than we got with John. And they were using different sounds. John’s is a little bit more…like some of the guitar, John’s are different than the ones that we ended up putting on the record with Stuart’s. It was all good and I think that it was a better fit in the end.
I imagine it also depends a little bit on the studio. It’s a smaller studio so you’re not going to have a huge elaborate lot of things happening there, I guess.
Well, I mean you know how it is. Everybody’s got like all that digital stuff you can do but I think it was just that he understood what we were going for and the sounds were good and a good fit for us.
And how long did it take you to write the songs? You’ve got 11 songs on the album. Was it a long process or does it come pretty quickly to you once you get started writing?
I wrote seven of them probably a long, long time ago and we just never got a chance to record because some people in the band were leaving and what not and had some bullshit to get through and take care of. So it took a few years longer than I would have like for us to get this record out.
So a lot of these songs we’ve been playing live out for a while and we’re just now getting to put them out. Then the last four came along kind of a little bit later on after the first seven were written. So it’s just a bunch of stuff that we’ve had around we just never had a chance to get in and record.
Can you tell us about what you are aiming for in terms of the sound? Is it different to the previous records?
I think it’s back to like what I used to do when I first started playing. It’s a little bit more blues rock and stuff like that. There’s some songs that bring rock and roll on there. Typically, it’s more a raunchier album than we’ve done before but it’s like the most original stuff that we’ve done. It sounds different from the last two albums for sure but I think it still sounds like what I’ve always done.
Because your albums in the past have been pretty sort of raw haven’t they? You’ve managed to get a particular raw live……..almost a live sound on them, haven’t you?
Definitely. That was one thing we wanted to do with this one is try to get because we felt like the first few records didn’t really represent what we sounded like live. The guy that was producing it back then was just…he misunderstood what we were trying to do and so the records were a little weak.
I think on this one we wanted to capture what we do like – actually what we sound like. So after everything got cleared up and what not we got to go in and finally sit down and record all this stuff.
When you say everything cleared up was that just the change of lineup or were there other problems you were having as well?
We had a few guys leave and then we had to replace like the drummer and that took a while to find the right guy. It’s just like the whole process of people leaving the band and what not, you know. We have stuff going on, so that takes time and by the time you probably get done dealing with all that shit and then you have to get back to recording and all that.
Tell us about the meaning of Electric Slave. Who are electric slaves? What’s it all about?
Everything’s like digital now and all that shit. You go out and everybody’s got their…everybody’s always on their cell phone. Nobody talks on the phone. It’s all text messages. Nothing’s really personal anymore and now the kids don’t play outside like they used to. I don’t know about over there but we got all the drone stuff going on. You know, we got robots coming on line.
I think the next step for the next super phone would be just make it to where you can implant it under your skin or some shit. I just see a lot of people at dinner and like they’re always on the phone. Everybody’s into – they look up shit on Google and what not. It’s like a porn epidemic. Everybody’s like really hardcore into porn like young kids, you know. They don’t know what it’s really like or something. All this shit. Digital era I guess.
There’s certainly a message behind that song, that’s for sure.
Oh, yeah. ‘Skulldiggin’’ is really the main one about all that, you know. It’s kind of like my comment on the media. Over here we just had that Boston bomber shit and then they put the guy on the cover of the Rolling Stone, you know. So, it’s just weird shit. It’s like nobody can really trust what they see anymore – especially over here.
It’s like everybody’s a celebrity for any reason whatsoever, isn’t it?
Yeah. Facebook …… everybody has their little page. You know, look at me. This is what I do and everybody’s just kind of losing that now. Nobody really talks on the phone. They just text each other and it’s easy to hide. It makes it easy to hide from conflicts. You know what I mean?
I mean technology’s definitely got benefits but I think that’s misused a lot of times. I mean also just like with the stuff that’s on TV and the media – how they cover things. You know, they had that Trayvon Martin thing for that the way that it’s covered. Just kind of like brewed a lot more hate than there needed to be and, you know, like when you have like just little shootings and stuff they kind of sensationalize these guys that….but they’re mass murderers, you know, and they’re just trying to be all like how bad they are and then every other screwed up kid in suburbia is going to be like that’s what I want to do. You know what I mean?
I don’t know I just think that there’s something weird going on with the whole of what we’re being fed. I guess I don’t know what’s going on in Australia but I imagine it’s everywhere though.
I think it is. On the other hand you’ve got a track song called ‘Dar Es Salaam.’ Tell us about that.
It’s one that I wrote about aliens coming to earth and just shaking their heads at us and being like, you know, you only have so much time left and just have people killing over money and all the weird religious fighting right now in the Middle East and all that. Just all the bad shit that’s going on here. They just shake their heads at us like, ‘You got to figure it out.’ Then they’re offering like the peaceful people a chance to go to Dar Es Salaam back to where they’re from before the bomb goes off or whatever. It’s like my Sci-Fi song.
You’ve also got a song called ‘The Hipster.’ I don’t think you’re a hipster, are you?
No. I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know. But that’s the thing. I mean who says that they are? I don’t know. The lyrics say for itself, you know. When you hear it, it is just making fun of a fake artists like struggling artists. In Austin you got a lot of kids, they wear like these tattered clothes and they’re talking about how arty they are and how poor they are but really they come from suburbia and Dallas or something like that. They’re all like art freaks all of a sudden and like punk rockers in Highland Park, Texas. It is just kind of making fun of those people.
BLACK JOE LEWIS TOUR DATES
Sep 24 – Fete Lounge, Providence, RI
Sep 25 – Spaceland Ballroom, Hamden, CT
Sep 26 – Terminal 5 w/ Okkervil River, New York, NY
Sep 28 – Grog Shop w/ Pickwick, Cleveland, OH
Sep 30 – Turner Hall w/ Pickwick, Milwaukee, WI
Oct 01 – First Avenue w/ Pickwick, Minneapolis, MN
Oct 02 – Bourbon Theatre w/ Pickwick, Lincoln, NE
Oct 03 – Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art w/ Pickwick, Norman, OK
Oct 31 – ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Austin, TX
Nov 22 – Chelsea’s Cafe, Baton Rouge, LA
Nov 25 – Bluebird, Denver, CO
Nov 26 – Urban Lounge, Salt Lake City, UT
Nov 27 – Neurolux, Boise, ID
Nov 29 – Neptune Theatre, Seattle, WA
Nov 30 – Rickshaw, Vancouver, Canada
Dec 01 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR
Dec 02 – Humboldt Brews, Arcata, CA
Dec 03 – Fillmore, San Francisco, CA
Dec 05 – El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
Dec 06 – House Of Blues, San Diego, CA
Dec 07 – Club Congress, Tucson, AZ
Dec 08 – Lowbrow Palace, El Paso, TX