When I called Black Joe Lewis for an interview, he didn't answer because he had gone on an errand and simply left his cellphone behind. He called me back later, but the incident stood as a clear, though maybe unconscious, example of Lewis' refusal to be chained to technology.
Our willingness to be bound to our devices—an obvious symptom of 21st-century life—inspired the title of Lewis' new album, Electric Slave.
Lewis and his Austin, Texas-based band are on the road promoting the album, and their current tour hits Club Congress on Saturday, Dec. 7.
During the interview, Lewis expanded upon the concept behind his record's title.
"I'm a big sci-fi fan, and the title of the album is sort of a play on Brave New World, and instead of soma it's your iPhone. I just find it interesting how marketing and media make you want these technologies and use them to keep us in line."
Soma was a drug in Aldous Huxley's classic novel that was described as having "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects." Lewis is a big Huxley fan and an even bigger fan of Star Trek in all its shapes and forms.
Like Jean-Luc Picard, Lewis prefers hardbound books to tablets. When there's downtime on tour, "I just fucking pick up a book, none of that other shit, you know?"
He said he feels as if real, immediate experiences are being eliminated by our culture's dependence on electronic devices.
"Like at concerts, half the people are holding up their phones and watching the shitty picture on the screen rather than the live concert in front of them. I think it's an example of how nobody really lives in the moment anymore, and they're more controlled by the technology than they are using it just when they need to."
Released by Vagrant Records, Electric Slave is Lewis' third official full-length album, following Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! in 2009 and Scandalous in 2011, both on Lost Highway Records. (A self-released album also came out early on, and a small Italian label issued a hard-to-find recording, but even Lewis doesn't have a copy of that.)
Lewis doesn't consider himself a technician; he performs from the heart. He didn't pick up a guitar until he was in his 20s and bought one at the pawnshop where he worked. He has never taken a guitar lesson and plays by instinct, incorporating a few licks he learned from other musicians along the way.
He's also the last person you might think of as a musical purist, willfully melding genres with the same effortlessness as his first real rock idol, Jimi Hendrix.
Still, many music fanatics who worship at the crossroads of blues, garage rock, soul and punk might be tempted to find a holy grail of sorts in Electric Slave. That his soulful rock 'n' roll howl has been compared to the likes of Howlin' Wolf, James Brown, Jon Spencer, even a young Mick Jagger, doesn't hurt a bit.
There's the fuzzed-out blur of "Skulldiggin," the meld of punk and rockabilly on "Young Girls," the garage-rock-meets-Stax sound of "My Blood Ain't Runnin' Right," the jittery funk of "Come to My Party" and the growling workout "Vampire," almost seven minutes of stylized, modern blues that might make Los Lobos and Tom Waits jealous. Most of the songs are infused with rowdy horn charts as well.
Lewis' new album also sounds tougher and harder than his past releases; the result is a barely controlled frenzy. When I suggested this, he concurred.
"I think so. I like the albums we did before, but when we went in to do this record, we had a different approach. I think this one is more representative of our live shows, the same energy. It's the same sounds we have been playing around Austin for years, but it might sound more like what you could expect us to sound like at a show."
Electric Slave also is the first album on which the group is not being billed as Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Lewis said he never liked the name. In fact, "We've been trying to get rid of that for years. It was originally a joke, and somehow it stuck."
But the "Black" in front of his name remains. When asked about this, Lewis said it refers to another obscure joke. "It's kind of tongue-in-cheek. It's meant to screw with people, you know? Me and a buddy of mine would make up these little comedy skits, and we had one character called Black Joe who was a crazy old dude who yelled."
Although Lewis, 32, is a dyed-in-the-wool Austinite, reveling in the city's focus on music and thriving on the friendly competition among players and bands, he's actually a native Tucsonan.
"I was born in Tucson, and lived there until I was 4 or 5 years old, which is when we moved to Austin."
Because he was so young when he lived here, Lewis has only a few memories of the Old Pueblo. "I remember my grandmother was the principal at the preschool, my mom worked at IBM and my dad worked at Pennzoil. Maybe my most favorite memories of Tucson were of going to Mount Lemmon. I still like to hike there when I can.
"I still have lots of family there, and I see them whenever I'm back in town," he said. In fact, according to reports, when Lewis played Club Congress last year, many of his relatives turned out to support him.
Lewis will arrive in Tucson with his five-piece backing band—including a couple of horns—and a pair of rising-star opening acts.
Radkey is a trio from Missouri that consists of brothers Dee (guitar, vocals), Isaiah (bass, vocals) and Solomon Radke (drums). They play a furious take on punk rock that earned praise from Lewis. But because they are young—16, 18 and 20—they recently were kept from playing at a nightclub in Utah.
Think No Think, like Lewis, hail from Austin, and their experimental blues-rock sound is starting to attract national attention.