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Juliette Lewis meets her rockin' destiny   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Art & Music

Juliette Lewis meets her rockin' destiny
By Mike Usinger

Even though she's been famous since scoring an Academy Award nomination at age 18, it took Juliette Lewis a while to get used to the spotlight on-stage. Sometime around 2003, the 34-year-old decided to abandon Hollywood dressing rooms for life in a tour van, forming Juliette & the Licks. As anyone lucky enough to have seen the group rip up Richard's on Richards in November 2005 will confirm, her mission isn't so much to entertain as to search and fucking destroy all that she surveys. She freely admits, though, that when she first picked up the mike, there were nights when she found herself wondering what she was doing.

"Oh please–let me explain something to you," a raspy-voiced Lewis says, on the line from an Austin, Texas, tour stop. "That's all that happened in the beginning. But I think I approached this whole thing in the right frame of mind. I only ever expected to have to work my ass off and have to prove myself. That's actually given me a sort of perverse pleasure."

There's no better proof of Lewis's willingness to commit to rock 'n' roll than Four on the Floor, the recently released second album from Juliette & the Licks. Where the group's 2005 debut, You're Speaking My Language, was high on live-wire energy but short on hooks, the follow-up makes a strong case that Lewis is a quick study. "Smash and Grab" charges straight for the trash-and-glitter mean streets of Garageland, "Mind Full of Daggers" does riot grrrl with a passion that would wow Bikini Kill, and "Get Up" finds Lewis stomping through the same territory as AC/DC back in the black years. Those who demand something more from rock than bands that tread safe ground can head directly to "Death of a Whore", which imagines a spoken word–obsessed Courtney Love fronting a shit-kicker version of Sonic Youth.

"For me, You're Speaking My Language was like an unfinished record," Lewis reveals. "There were good songs on it, and people responded well to those songs, but the record was a bit all over the place. Four on the Floor is more focused: it's like the real beginning for us. We've realized our sound, and I set out to capture what we're like as a live band on record. That's way easier said than done, but I think we really brought a lot of energy on this one."

If getting the Licks' live show on tape was a challenge, that's only because Lewis is nothing short of a human fireball when she finds herself facing an audience. Coming on like a Red Bull–jacked conflux of Iggy Pop and Karen O, her goal is simple: to bring it every night. She'll argue, however, that she's not a performer as much as a conduit. That might sound like new-age babbling, but anyone who has witnessed the magic that occurs when a performer connects with a crowd will know exactly what she's getting at. Whether you're talking M.I.A. pulling half the room on-stage at the Commodore, or a reunited Pointed Sticks getting 500 fans to sing along to vintage pop-punk classics at Richard's on Richards, good shows become great ones when the line between artist and audience is erased. Lewis is one of those rare performers who's charismatic enough to break down the barrier.

"I have some maturity–I've been through things and let go of some things," says Lewis, who's now clean and sober after struggling with drugs and alcohol during her 20s. "So I'm not bringing my baggage to a show. As an artist, I've always had a sensitivity to emotions and to people. Everyone has their war stories. My goal is to help them let go, whether it's trivial problems or they're so bored they no longer feel anything. I want people to feel alive.

"I remember, in the beginning, being on the Warped Tour [in 2004] in a bikini and leaping in the audience," she continues. "I wasn't afraid to do that because I didn't see myself as this little sexualized fucking toy thing. I see myself as the Tasmanian Devil. You can throw me around, we'll pass the energy."

That spirit has earned Lewis the respect of those for whom rock 'n' roll has been a lifelong pursuit, rather than a temporary diversion between movie projects. One of the biggest boosters of her Licks–who include Todd Morse of New York City hardcore heavyweights H20 on guitar–is Dave Grohl. Although the former Nirvana timekeeper fronts the Foo Fighters these days, he was stoked to slide back behind the drums for the recording of Four on the Floor.

Outside of the studio, Juliette & the Licks have caught the attention of acts ranging from the Foos to Social Distortion to Turbonegro, all of whom the band has opened for. Such rock legends and underground giants have embraced Lewis for a good reason, and it's not because they loved her performance as Mallory in Natural Born Killers. If her run with the Licks has proved anything, it's that she's for real, not a spoiled actor playing another role.

Juliette & the Licks

"I love the communal aspect of playing music," Lewis says. "We've played a ton of music festivals where we've been on bills with hundreds of other bands. Even though there doesn't seem to be a hierarchy, there are some rock stars who like to see themselves as untouchable and who like the pedestal. I'm not like that, which is why, when I first got famous, I never jelled with the 'You're over there, I'm over here' people in Hollywood.

Juliette Lewis

She pauses, and then laughs. "I'm really more of a of-the-people kind of lady."

Juliette Lewis sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On the importance of connecting with audiences: "For me it's about breaking the anesthetized television culture that we've all bought into. It's about, 'Let's engage and have some interaction.' It's the idea that music is very spiritual."

On what prepared her for the Licks: "I come at this whole thing always having been an outsider of some sort. Thanks to movies, I'm used to having rejection and judgment. I apply that reality to my music. I don't have some gentle ego where I have a need for everyone to love me. I think that's why this works."

On the learning process: "The closest I got to punk growing up was the Stooges. Later, a boyfriend of mine introduced me to the Pixies and Sebadoh and Archers of Loaf, which I guess actually aren't punk. Even now, I'm discovering things like Bad Brains, thanks to my brother, who's living with me. I love discovering that kind of stuff–better late than never."

On Hollywood: "More than ever, it's about what dress you're wearing. I fought that with a passion–that's why you never saw me wearing Marc Jacobs. I thought, 'The second they are talking about what I'm wearing, I haven't done my job.' People remember me for the roles that I've done, not my chiselled cheekbones." - ArtsyStuff Magazine