Black Joe Lewis (due tomorrow at the Westword Music Showcase on the mainstage) isn't one to make fancy comparisons to the musical legacies of blues giants and soul progenitors. Lewis and his band, formerly known as the Honeybears, have earned comparisons to everyone from Howlin' Wolf to Muddy Waters, and the 2011 release Scandalous offers clear ties to roots cues based in traditional Chicago blues, gritty R&B and even vintage gospel.
Lewis shies from such comparisons. The guitarist, who built up his chops playing dive bars in clubs, insists he only plays what feels natural to him and hesitates to delve into any deep connection to the music of the past. We caught up with the guitarist and vocalist to talk about why he feels more comfortable on a stage than in a studio and to delve into his fondness for talk radio.
Westword: One of your big breakout moments was the rave reviews you picked up years back at South By Southwest. Has the festival circuit remained important for you guys?
Black Joe Lewis: It's good for playing for a lot of people; it's always good for picking up new fans. It's kind of like going to free concerts, seeing a whole bunch of bands that you want to see. It's cool. South by Southwest was a breakout for us a long time ago, four or five years ago. For our first record, as a band, it got us hitting the road and getting a little creative if you want to call it that.
Since Scandalous came out last year, what's the schedule been like? Have you focused on the festival circuit, or have you felt comfortable playing the role of headliners?
We've been touring. Right now, we're working on our new stuff and hopefully we'll go in and record sometime this year, whenever we're comfortable. In April we did a little run. We got to open up for Flogging Molly - that was good for us. Then we did some shit with the Preservation. We went back up to Colorado, down to the southeast, back up the east coast. In July and August, we've got some stuff. July is probably going to be out in the West, August on the East Coast. We try to keep stuff going on, but now we're winding down for the year and focusing on writing and that kind of stuff.
With Scandalous, it sounds like you guys tried to explore some new territory. The sounds on this latest record seem to vary more from the hard-core blues cues of Howlin' Wolf to more gospel and soul-oriented material. Was that on purpose?
I just put on whatever I got that sounds good. The second record and the first one - I really don't like either one of them (laughs). I mean, they're all right, but they don't really sound like us live. It's one of those things that you're never happy with the things you do, but I don't care for the way they sound. I like the material, the writing a lot more on the second record ... I feel like it's a completely different sound. I always just figured I'd play the type of music I enjoy listening to ... I never saw it like [roots music]. I just do what I enjoy doing.
So do you consider yourself more of a live musician? Have you switched up your approach to playing in concert?
Yeah, for sure. I've got more experience now though, and I have more of an idea of what I want to do. I stick with the Telecaster - it's always felt good under my hands, so I wouldn't change. I'm starting to switch up pickups a lot now, but I approach playing my shows the same way: I keep it fun. You just go up there and act like a maniac, you know? Like a superhero, just go for it.
Your background included a lot of small club gigs in Austin. Do you think that's part of it?
Yeah, I started pretty rough. I played open mikes and I would play on the streets on the drag, stuff like that. I just kind of worked my way up. I had various residencies and weeklies. The Hole in the Wall, I played there every Sunday for like three years. The shows weren't that great, I'd get drunk and be scared, but they let me come back, for whatever reason it was. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't have been able to try to build my name, if they'd said, 'You suck. No more shows for you.' I had some of the worst shows you could play. Now it's just of like all good, because I've already had the shittiest shows ever, and it can't get much worse. I'm still here, so fuck it. I'm just here to have a good time.
What's the plan for the showcase?
We've been playing a lot of our new stuff on the last few tours ... We'll just ramp up the crowd a lot. As crazy as they are, we are. We'll just jump around a lot, you know, you gotta make people like the show, have them walk away with a facemelt.
What's on your playlist right now?
What have I been listening to .... [Pauses]. At the moment? Just psycho talk radio. [laughs] I've been listening to Danny Brown, the rapper. I like him a lot at the moment. What else? [pauses] I just listen to a lot of old stuff, honestly, or mix tapes or stuff like that. I don't listen to much music at all. Just playing guitar, you hear everything and you want to step away for a while, you know? I listen to talk radio in the car.
What's the appeal behind talk radio?
I listen to Alex Jones. I like listening to that guy still. There's just some funny shit on there. I like listening to him rant and yell about crazy shit. "Coast to Coast" is a good show. Stuff like that is just very entertaining, and it's kind of relaxing in the car. You can laugh at them. I mean, Rush Limbaugh says a bunch of crazy shit, but every now and then he's funny. He's such a fucking prick, but I can make it through about 20 minutes of his show.
Are you still centered in Austin? Do you think the city and its culture have impacted the band's sound?
The band's still here. I live in Montreal with my girlfriend now. I just come back; I'm down here all the time. Everybody lives here still. I think there are so many other bands here, so you have to try that much harder to get noticed here. A lot of people live here and play music, so I guess the influence of Austin would be.
A quick background question: Where did the name for the Honeybears come from?
It was a dumbass thing we came up with in rehearsal. We're actually just going by Black Joe Lewis now. The Honeybears have actually been dropped, but it sticks around.
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