Black Joe Lewis
Goes His Own Way
For a time, Black Joe Lewis had a "No BS" button pinned to his guitar strap, and nothing better describes both his music and his personality. After breaking out of the Austin, TX scene with his backing band the Honeybears in 2009, with two albums of punk-infused, horn-driven R&B for the Lost Highway label, Lewis changed course in 2012, parting ways with longtime second guitarist Zach Ernst and drummer Matt Strmiska to sign with L.A.-based Vagrant Records. His new album Electric Slave — credited only to Black Joe Lewis — displays a much heavier sound, combining the visceral attack of James Brown and R.L. Burnside with the explosiveness of the MC5 and Funhouse-era Stooges. Exclaim! got the lowdown on all of this from Lewis at his home in Austin, just prior to his upcoming tour, which includes a handful of Canadian dates in mid-September.
This album is definitely the heaviest you've ever sounded, especially the opening track, "Skulldiggin." Had you been looking to go in that direction for a while?
Yeah. I think with the membership changes in the past couple of years, I wanted to get back to the approach I had when I first put this band together in 2007. And just being the only guitar player in the band now made me focus a lot more on that, too. "Skulldiggin" was something we started jamming on and I decided to expand on it by putting a bunch of guitar parts down in the studio. A lot of these new songs came about that way.
What inspired the track "Dar es Salaam?"
That was another one that came out of jamming. The other thing about that song is I'm a big Star Trek fan and I love Uhura. Her name comes from the Swahili word for freedom and that got me reading about Africa. I discovered that my ancestors came mainly from Tanzania and I wanted to work that into a song somehow. Dar es Salaam just had a really nice flow to it when I sang it, so that became the hook.
Speaking of freedom, it seems to be a theme on the new album, from the title and "Skulldiggin" both conveying the idea of how people can become enslaved to technology.
Yeah, I guess that was something I was thinking about a lot. I mean, you can't help but notice it everywhere — people not being able to have normal conversations anymore, and walking around with their heads buried in their phones and their iPods. There's nothing you can do about it, but I think it's worth reminding people of that every so often.
You worked with a couple of different producers for the first time on Electric Slave, on top of signing with a new label. Was that another aspect of the new direction you were looking for?
Yeah. Once we got through the band shake-ups, it made sense to work with some new people. We started off recording three songs with John Congleton in Dallas, and then we did the rest with Stuart Sikes in Austin. They've both worked on a lot of great records and understood what was needed for these songs. I'm really happy with this record in every way. This is the best the band has ever sounded.
I really find it interesting how you've had this rapport with the indie rock scene right from the beginning. Why do you think that is?
I don't know man, I just never wanted to have us be anything other than a great rock 'n roll band. People might want to label us blues or R&B or whatever, but that's not who I am. Sure, those things are a part of what I do, but mainly it's all about putting on a good show and getting everyone having a good time. There's no category for that other than rock'n'roll, as far as I know. Once we'd started playing around town, we got to know the guys in Spoon and Okkervil River and played a lot with both of them. We toured with the New York Dolls and with Lucero, and with Sharon Jones too. The crowds were all the same, generally. They wanted to come out and party.
The timing seems to be perfect for Electric Slave, with blues-influenced rock really as popular as ever. Do you feel you'll be able to broaden your audience with this album?
I hope so. I mean, we're pretty fortunate here in Austin having such a great music scene that people don't really judge you on anything other than whether you're good or not. I think the only limitations that exist are ones you put on yourself. Like I said, I'm a big fan of sci-fi, but most people wouldn't think that by just looking at me or listening to some of my early music. I been saying for a while that I wish I could have re-recorded that first album [2009's Tell 'Em What Your Name Is], but now it's just like, fuck it, move on.
You're playing some shows here in Canada in September. What's been your experience like up here?
It's been great; I've played there a lot. I actually lived in Montreal for a while before I was playing music. I'd moved up there to be with this girl, but it ended up not working out. I didn't really feel that comfortable in Montreal anyway. I hate to say that people seemed snooty, but that's the way I felt at the time. And I didn't really get what a lot of the bands there were doing. A lot's changed since then, obviously.
So what are some of the things you've learned in the past year?
Basically, if you want to be in this business you've got to take control of what you're doing. There's always a lot of people telling you different things, but if you don't have an idea of what the right thing to do is, then it's just gonna cause a lot of problems for everybody. I think this new album is a big step forward for me realizing that.
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