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Lick it up

"Acting is a reee-ally interesting thing to do," Juliette Lewis says slowly of her "other" profession, in the same way an accountant might answer when asked if he digs his mind-numbing gig. That's probably why the actress — probably best known as serial killer Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers — traded Hollywood for the tour bus a few years back, wrangled up a band she called the Licks, and hit the road with one of the most frenetic live shows that, it's safe to say, has ever been witnessed on this or any other plane of existence.

Forget her acting roles. Know this: Juliette Lewis live is something — there's a pure rock 'n' roll honesty in her chaotic white-girl Tina Turnerisms — and, yes, some things are sacred. Lewis gets that look in her eye that says this is It, as if a gun's pointed straight at the back of her head. It's a beautiful thing to watch.

"Everybody on that stage just gives 110 percent," Lewis says of her band. "It's not just me, though I know I'm the whirling dervish, whatever-you-want-to-call-me front person. It's the whole band, this electrified energy machine. We just love what we're doing."

Lewis is in her Los Angeles home, packing for a three-week European festival tour. The night before, JL and the Licks did their first hometown gig in "I don't know how long." The sound was abysmal at Silver Lake's Spaceland, but Lewis, wearing a two-feather Indian headdress, didn't disappoint despite how self-conscious she sounds about it now.

"One of my biggest pride and joys is the audience we've put together over the past couple of years," she says of the previous night's very-L.A. "industry showcase." "They're just the best, but there were probably only 30 of our fans there last night."

By circumstance rather than calculation, most of the band's fans are in Europe (where rock 'n' roll continues to thrive) these days, which is why the band is heading there tomorrow before supporting Chris Cornell stateside.

Two years ago the band signed with mini-label Fiddler, which released their debut EP ...Like a Bolt of Lightning, a rambunctious mix of hurried production and sloppy, Stooges-style rock 'n' roll and, in the same year, a glorious rock 'n' roll album, You're Speaking My Language, which featured unexpectedly ambitious forays into arena rock (a bit of Van Halen even) and ballads while still giving up the fast and hard noisy hooks.

When Fiddler went belly-up — just as Juliette and the Licks were finding their legs — Lewis found herself with no U.S. distribution and little patience for the music showcases necessary to woo labels.

"I was all inspired and crazy and driven and writing and, rather than wait around to get another label in the States," Lewis says. "I just went back to our European label and built our following over there with the new album Four on the Floor." (The new record features "fill-in" drummer Dave Grohl.) The Euro success got them the deal with Hassle Records, which is releasing the record here this week.

"The thing is, I started music a little bit late, at 30," she says. "So I'm not really into waiting around until somebody graces me with, 'Oh, we'll put out your record.' I'm too into the DIY of music and making it happen. ... The live show is alive and well in Europe."

Lewis doesn't care if her audience is European, Asian or American and marvels at how international audiences all react the same to powerful rock 'n' roll, but, she says, "It's fun to be home. It's going to be exciting here, because we're going to start off where we left off playing." Meaning small venues.

It's easy to dismiss Lewis as just another Hollywood actor with delusions of musical grandeur (uh, Keanu Reeves anyone?), and perhaps she's not as "naturally" gifted as some. Jared Leto, for example, shines as the frontman of 30 Seconds to Mars, but Lewis, despite her rough edges, is so balls-out, so ambitious as a front woman that it's impossible to deny her. In fact, she'd be shamed in a head-to-head singing competition on American Idol, but Lewis shows us that in these soul-free times singing is so much more than hitting the notes. It's like this: How would David Johansen or Chuck Berry or Mick Jagger or David Lee Roth or Joe Strummer or Janis Joplin fare on American Idol? Yeah, they'd get the boot.

Lewis began writing songs about a decade ago ("It's funny because what I was writing was neurotic and melancholy") and a musical career was but a dream for her then. Besides, she was a film star (see From Dusk Till Dawn, The Other Sister, Kalifornia and others.)

"I hadn't found my rock 'n' roll voice yet and a rock 'n' roll voice really stems from confidence, from not playing it safe or being an imitation of something." The woman is confident on stage.

"In the beginning, the real turning point was just starting a band, when I decided I wasn't going to do music through a producer developing me or picking up a guitar to be a singer-songwriter — but through the live experience," she says. "I knew I wanted to cut my teeth live, by trial and error, making mistakes."

This learning curve mirrors that which she experienced as a 14-year-old actor. By 18, Lewis was working for Martin Scorsese in Cape Fear.

Is it the immediacy of live rock 'n' roll that works for her, or is it something deeper? And how does it compare to film work?

"I love being part of a group that's doing something interesting, but more and more it's hard to get movies that are breaking the rules," she says. "I only use part of my creative voice, if you will, through acting. Music utilizes everything from the visual aspect, to songwriter, to overseeing the stage show. It has more that I want to do."

Sure, it's easy to dismiss Lewis as just another Hollywood actor in rock-star boots, even if she has all but abandoned her acting career and the attendant paychecks for a life of uncertainty in a band that just recently began to show a profit.

Jared Leto's take: "I think sometimes painters make very good filmmakers, sometimes they don't. Sometimes journalists write a great novel, sometimes they suck. I think in every genre, sometimes people are good at things and sometimes they're not. And I think there've been so many actors out there that have made some embarrassingly bad music, but I also think that there are thousands of bands out there that have done the exact same thing. What the interesting thing to try to decipher is why do people want to criticize someone making creative choices?"

Lewis talks of an antipathy toward actors doing anything but acting, and chooses her words carefully. "I think it's more this very stale mainstream medium POV that's all glossy People-oriented with nonartistic views. When you're honest, writing, painting, theatrics, I don't know — you can go on and on — they're all extensions of each other. You're still dealing with emotion, communication, and storytelling to a certain extent.

"I don't mind being the circus freak," she adds. "I don't mind being what brings them to the room. As long as they're in the room, we'll do the rest."

 

Sunday, July 22, at the Fillmore (formerly State Theatre), 2115 Woodward, Detroit; with Chris Cornell. All ages. Call 248-645-6666 for ticket info.

Cole Haddon is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes

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