Joe Lewis didn’t play music until his late teens—and he can thank a combative fellow worker at a Texas pawn shop for getting him started. “It was just me and one other dude at the shop all the time, and I fucking hated him,” Lewis says from his Austin home. “We never talked, and when we did we were arguing. So I just walked around and fiddled with the merchandise.” He settled on a cheap guitar that he took home and “piddled around” with.
He’s not piddling around anymore. But a decade into a music career as the combustible center of Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, the 35-year-old singer/guitarist muses that associates still mess with you in this business.
“I’ve had people who are, like, friends of mine come back and try to get money out of me,” Lewis says. “I had a manager that was all fucked up. The experiences of dealing with people, I’ve gotten better at it. I was so wide-eyed before.”
After his 2011 second album Scandalous brought Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears’ gritty, horn-iced mix of blues, soul, funk and punk to a wider audience, some members of his band pushed to do more soul. But Lewis wanted harder-rocking blues riffs, and as he says, “I control the art.” The membership changed, and Lewis dropped the Honeybears tag for his 2013 follow-up Electric Slave.
“I thought [that name] was stupid and took it off, but then a bunch of people got confused, like it was a whole different project,” says Lewis, who brings his revived Honeybears to the Middle East Downstairs on Feb. 24. “Even though there was a lot of drama that we had to work through, I think things unfolded for the better.”
Indeed, his Feb. 10 release Backlash delivers his broadest, most assured album yet. “Shadow People” retains the heavy rock riffs while “PTP” pumps the funk. Breakup ballad “Lips of a Loser” swirls with Isaac Hayes-style soul, and “Nature’s Natural” gets political about police shootings and black-on-black crime. “Nobody’s going to respect you until you respect yourself,” says Lewis, who injects sinuous guitar lines throughout.
He credits the album’s breadth to his growth as a guitarist, songwriter and singer—and he pursued singing only after the guitar, taking one voice lesson. “In the last few years, recently, I’ve felt really confident with where I sit at with my voice. It’s trial by fire, dude.”
Even if he didn’t sing or play early in his life, Lewis was drawn to music, starting with hip-hop. “As I got older, I tried to broaden my tastes,” he says, leading to classic rock like Jimi Hendrix in high school and more blues after he took to guitar. “My dad and uncle always listened to blues and soul. I got back to revisiting [that].”
He cites Lightnin’ Hopkins, Iggy Pop and James Brown among his main influences. “Lightnin’ was cool as shit,” Lewis says. “He was my favorite bluesman, and he’s from around where my family’s from in East Texas.”
The budding guitarist began hanging with Austin musicians, “picking up things off them. I was working a day job I didn’t like and said, ‘I want to do that.’ ” Of his first bar gig, Lewis says, “I was underage and they were all watching me really close, but I was going up and drinking whiskey. And then I used to get too drunk and started cussing everybody—and everybody loved it.” Eventually he found the musicians who helped him launch the Honeybears.
As for the “Black” prefix adopted for his stage name, Lewis says, “Me and my buddy used to make these little comedy skits, and Black Joe was one of the characters. He’s like this crazy dude. And we thought there’s not a lot of black people playing the blues… It’s kind of a joke or parody on the Austin thing.”
A decade later, his long-term goal is simple. “If I can keep doing [music] forever, or make it my career, I’d be happy,” Lewis says. “I’m making way more money than I ever had with any day job I’ve ever had, so I’m liking it.”
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears play the Middle East Downstairs on Feb. 24.