Popular conjecture claims that Black Joe Lewis started playing guitar simply to annoy his redneck co-worker at an Austin, Te xas pawnshop. That's partially true -- he did purchase his first guitar there and played it in his down time -- but Lewis, seeing his friends in bands, had elected to fill his life with music. Despite the steady, but low-paying, job, he knew music was his true calling. Once he became proficient enough on the instrument, Lewis began performing with blues, punk, rock, funk and soul musicians -- anyone who'd have him. Forming his own band -- originally, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears -- he put those influences to good use. More recently, however, shedding the Honeybears, Lewis' sound has grown exponentially as allows those rawer elements of his past -- from feedback to deep fuzz, growling vocals to guttural howls -- shine through in Electric Slave, an album that leaves listeners breathless. Lewis says the progression from high-energy soul/funk act to psychedelic blues-rock warriors was a natural one. In fact, Lewis enjoys his "own original sound" so much, he's willing to forsake the past for what the present brings.
"It's exactly what we wanted it [to be]," he says. "It's music on the edge. ... I think this is the best stuff we've done."
Up on the Sun caught up with Lewis in Austin where he'd just finished a recording session. Lewis took some time to discuss development of his new sound, Austin's music scene, the downfall of technology, and true story behind why he picked up a guitar.
Up on the Sun: Electric Slave has received many positive reviews, yet, what's the one thing you're most proud of about the album?
Black Joe Lewis: It's exactly what we wanted it [to be]. It's got our own original sound. It's music on the edge. The band is exactly how it needs to be. It's got blues, rock 'n' roll, funk. A lot of our older stuff got good write-ups, but I think this is the best stuff we've done. I just wish we had more of this stuff [to play in concert]. We don't have anything new recorded yet, so sometimes you have to play [older[ stuff you don't like as much. The more we get this out, the more we want to play [this way].
So, what about new material along these lines then. Seems like you're ready for a new album?
We're actually writing our next record, and we're almost done with it. We're not playing it out, though. We want [the songs] to be perfect. Plus, it's kind of shitty to play the same stuff over and over, so we're going to save it so we have a whole new set. I can kind of go crazy playing the same old stuff, so when the record does come out it will be kind of fresh and new.
Your earlier work was more soul- and blues-drenched. Was there a conscious decision to get louder and harder or did this progression occur naturally?
It was the most natural progression. You have to understand, I've been playing in Austin for five or six years, and I've always played like this. I just feel like this is what we've always been going for. It's still soul-blues-rock like we've always done, but it's as simple as certain elements of the band that aren't there anymore. Now, we can lean into our natural sound. I've been playing stuff like that for years. Now, it's not influenced by someone else's thinking.
Your producers, did they have much of a say in letting you find that freedom?
Oh yeah, different producers and different band members that aren't here anymore all contribute to us finding what works best. I think now we can go in any direction without somebody trying to make us go in a direction we don't want. I don't have to deal with that anymore.
This sound combo: horns, fuzz, heavy basslines... it strikes me that this isn't something just any band can churn out.
It's important to have the team of guys around me that I do. It's easier to get work done when you're not constantly battling other people, you know what I mean. The guys I have around me now know each other and have an understanding of what works. The guys that are still around are the ones that got it in the first place. They want the same things, so it happens naturally.
You talk about playing in Austin and the city had virtually every style that's ever been. How did that shape your sound?
I definitely played a lot of music, and it's hard not sound like other people. There are probably four or five other people who sound like me. I'm not the best at what I do by any means, but I've got my own sound. You've got to have your own thing for people to want and come hear you.
This is a little ironic, but your song "Skulldiggin" is an assault on technology draining the human race -- and here we talk on the day huge lines are forming around the U.S. for the iPhone 6. I hear up to 12 blocks long in New York City -- to buy a phone.
It's pretty fucking retarded if you ask me. I'll probably have one at some point, but I won't wait in line. People have their priorities screwed up. You take the harder road and you get better at something. You take the easy road and you don't know anything. Everything's at our fingertips. You don't have to do research to learn or understand what things really mean. We don't really learn. [Technology] has taken away our need to learn anything and taken out the personality [in people]. It's almost like a Matrix kind of thing. I'm not against technology; I just don't think we really know how to use it right.
That makes music the final frontier then, right? There's plenty of technology in the industry, but it's hard to beat the simplicity of a guitar plugged into an amp.
I agree. Younger kids might disagree. The most popular music right now is that shit where some guy is playing his laptop. How hard is it to do that? There's no art anymore. It's just for entertainment. It's mind control to keep people passive.
Your backstory says you got your first guitar when working in a pawnshop and you started playing to annoy your redneck co-worker.
He was my boss. He's still over there I think. I just killed time by playing guitar. But when I bought one and took it home, that's when I really started to learn.
Did you come from a musical background in your family?
I did it on my own. My grandfathers apparently played -- one played sax, the other guitar. My parents didn't play though. It's something I went and did on my own.
Once you realized you had some talent, what direction did you want to take?
I didn't really like where I was in my life at the time and I knew some friends who were making a living playing music. They got to go travel and party and play music. It sounded great to start a fucking band and get out there -- playing on the street, playing happy hours to nobody. It can be daunting, but before that, I was just scraping by making enough to pay rent and eat. It wasn't that different. My whole life's daunting.
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