When Black Joe Lewis was 20, he worked for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Scratch that, he worked for a guy that was the spitting image of the “Worst. Simpsons. Character. Ever.” And instead of being a comic book guy, Lewis’ bossman was a gun nut who ran a pawnshop in Austin, Texas. Seeing as how Austin is a musical mecca, the store sold a lot of guitars, and at some point, the future soul man decided to take one home. He begged his friends for lessons, and eventually brought his crappy amateurish playing to open mic night shows at the appropriately named Hole in the Wall.
“A lot of times I would be too scared, so I’d get really drunk. Then I’d be scared and drunk, and I was forgetting all my shit,” Lewis says from Montreal, where he moved last year to be near his girlfriend. “I wasn’t really that good and it wasn’t going that great, so I started cussing at people, and everyone laughed. For a while that was my thing.”
He adds, “The best advice is if you fuck up, who gives a fuck. Act like you haven’t.”
As bad as those shows were, he felt nothing really could be worse, and with those failures under his belt, the rest would inevitably be smooth sailing. “Yeah it’s like when I did Letterman. I wasn’t nervous or anything because it will never be as bad as what I’ve done in the past. I’ve made it out of that,” he says. “It’s a gift, all the bullshit I’ve gone through. It keeps me grounded. It’s helped me be more mature in my adult years.”
After graduating from open mics to having his own band, he floundered. Indeed, Lewis, now in his mid-20s, was thinking about giving up music, but then Zach Ernst, a young promoter/guitarist, booked him to open for Little Richard. They became friends. Ernst later introduced Lewis to the crew who would come to be his backing band, the Honeybears.
Things progressed from there. The rock ‘n’ soul band went out on tour with Austin indie heavyweights Spoon and Okkervil River. They signed to major label subsidiary Lost Highway and released two well-received albums and an EP. But as a young band, there have been growing pains. The lineup has undergone a number of changes. Ernst recently left, along with the drummer. It’s painful for Lewis, but just part of the business. “Things took off pretty quick for us, sort of out of nowhere, and there were a lot of things we hadn’t gone through right off the bat that a lot of bands had because they had more years under their belt,” Lewis says.
He feels like things are beginning to shape up. Their second album, last year’s Scandalous, shows a marked improvement over Lewis’ 2008 debut, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! The songs are tighter and their influences better balanced, with the band choosing to tone down their more soulful side.
On the album’s lively opener “Living in the Jungle,” the horns and Lewis’ funked-up yelp may scream out soul, but the jagged guitar lead echoes post-punk acts like Gang of Four and Fugazi. Or take the puckish irreverence of “Mustang Ranch,” a rockabilly tune about the notorious Nevada house of ill repute. Although “Jesus Took My Hand” may sound like the title to a gospel tune, it’s actually a hypnotic piece of blues rock psychedelia. They even offer an incendiary cover of the Dead Boys’ punk classic “What Love Is.”
“It seems like the first record was just this fun little party record or whatever, but after five years of playing together, you start to figure it out,” he says. “We’re kind of getting used to what we’re supposed to be doing.”