FAIRBANKS - Guitar, check. Comic books, check. Artwork, check. Sleeping bag, check.
Jeffrey Lewis was doing some last-minute packing Wednesday in his New York City apartment in preparation for his trip to Alaska this week, where he will be performing with his brother, Jack, who came up early to do some hiking.
“He’s supposed to meet me at the airport in Anchorage, if he hasn’t gotten eaten by a bear,” Lewis said.
Lewis, a musician and artist who has played all around the world, including China, South Korea, Russia, Europe and Scandinavia, is excited about spending a week under the midnight sun. It will be his first visit to Alaska in his strange, decade-long career.
“I’m really glad to add Alaska to the list of places that we’ve been,” he said. “We’ve still not played in Hawaii or Japan, though. We need to do more exploration around the Pacific.”
Lewis will perform at The Pub on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on Friday and will participate in and perform at the comic art celebration “Wall of Balloons” at the Wood Center on Saturday. The performances are part of the KSUA and Concert Board summer concert series.
Lewis’ comics and drawings are an integral part of his musical performance.
Lewis, 36, and his brother Jack were raised in New York’s Lower East Side by “loving beatnik parents” with no television. Lewis grew up loving comic books, both reading and drawing them. After earning a literature degree, he embarked on a career that embraced both his love of comics and his love of music.
In 2001, Lewis signed a record deal with British label Rough Trade. He released his first official album, “The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane.” A decade and five albums later, he’s still on the road, drawing comics and singing songs with diverse themes, but trending toward life-affirming viewpoints: “bad times give you something to talk about/the next time you feel you’re all worn out/remember life is a story, don’t you doubt/it only takes a day for everything to turn around.”
Lewis is known for his illustrated historical songs, which cover such topics as the Mayflower, the history of Communism and history of the French Revolution. His band is Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard, which normally consists of Lewis on guitar and vocals, his brother Jack Lewis on bass and a drummer, with sometimes more or fewer musicians, depending on the circumstances. This week in Alaska, it will be a duo of Lewis and his brother.
Lewis’ music is labeled as “anti-folk,” an amorphous label that he embraces, even if he happily finds himself at a loss to define it.
“I’m lucky there’s no definition,” he said. “Everyone who plays music gets called something, maybe like post-punk or indie rock. It would be inevitable that I would be tagged by a journalist as something, but I’m lucky it’s anti-folk, which nobody has ever heard about or know what it means. So I’ve never been pigeonholed.”
In addition to the historical illustrated songs, Lewis also performs what he calls “loud, high-energy kind of punk” songs and “long folk narratives.” He said the illustrated songs are popular, especially when he’s playing in a country like France or South Korea where there’s a definite language barrier because the audience can follow along with the drawings even if they don’t catch all the words.
He enjoys playing songs about the history of the French Revolution in France or the history of Communism in South Korea so he can get feedback from the audience.
“We’ve certanly had interesting experiences in South Korea, and China was a really crazy tour as well,” he said.
His songs aren’t all historical in nature. Lewis said he’ll come up with a concept, maybe a historical theme or some weird horror story and write the song around it. Illustrated songs, by their nature, have a different structure than other songs, he said.
“The concept itself makes sure there’s not any repeating parts, so I don’t have to draw the same things,” he said. “Those songs need to have a beginning, middle and an end, so it structures those songs a little differently than verse, chorus, verse chorus.”
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.
If you go
What: Jeffrey and Jack Lewis in concert, 2 shows
When: 8 p.m. June 29, UAF Pub
Cost: $5 or free with Polar Express card
When: 7 p.m., June 30, Wood Center (as part of comics celebration Wall of Balloons)