In conversation, Joe Lewis, the titular singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist for Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, is about as laid-back as it gets. His answers tend to be one or two sentences, max, with an excitement-meter reading that hovers around comatose. That's in conversation. On record, especially on 2013's Electric Slave, Lewis is an absolute wild man, screaming at the top of his lungs over his molten, megaton riffing and guiding his swaggering rhythm section through 11 elemental heavy blues rockers with sheer punk abandon. It's a primal roar that makes AC/DC sound like XTC.
It was also, in Lewis' view, not the band's most focused work. He's talked in recent interviews about how the album was "all over the place" and placed a heavier emphasis on hard rock than he preferred. And the first single off the band's just-out album, Backlash, is proof enough that he wanted to go in a different direction.
"PTP" is a horn-spiked slice of funk rock that settles into a ridiculously in-the-pocket groove and allows Lewis to spin off some fleet-fingered soloing in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughan. It's a harbinger of an album that takes a step back to the bluesier music that Lewis and company offered on their first three records, but Lewis' vocals are more soulful and restrained than ever before.
"PTP," by the way, stands for "Power to the Pussy," a title in the tradition of past Lewis gems like "Bitch, I Love You" and "Get Yo Shit."
"I just think the songwriting's better," Lewis says of the songs on Backlash. "It's a lot more blues versus the last one, which was a lot more rock 'n' roll. I wanted to do more blues stuff. The last one I was yelling a lot, and it was a lot more hard rock."
Lewis says that out of the band's five albums, Backlash is the one that has the most defined sound, although he acknowledges that he might just be saying that because the album is new.
"I think after years of doing it, I just like the songs better on this one than the other ones," he says. "But I guess I've probably said that about every other record that's come out."
It's certainly the best-sounding album the band has produced, thickening up the rhythm section and adding some bottom-end to Lewis solos. In some ways, it could even be called refined. "I think that just comes from more experience and time," Lewis says of the band's more honed sound. "We've learned to play long sections of the songs and then go back and see what works — keep it natural."
Perhaps another reason the band's in-studio sound seems to be peaking is that Backlash is the second album they've done with Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Modest Mouse).
"It's cool that he gets what we're doing," Lewis says. "And a lot of times he'll throw ideas out about the songs. Having that opinion outside the band is a good thing. We go in there with what we've got, and he gets the sounds. He's not super pushy or anything — he just says try this or try that, and it's something the band hasn't thought about. He's really good at getting the sounds we want."
The video for "PTP" is a striking clip that animates the band members, and Lewis is matter-of-fact about why he liked the concept, even if the name of the person who created the video (Roger Haus) eludes him. "It's an artist out in L.A.," he says. "I don't like acting or being in videos that much, so this was a good away around it. Everybody likes being in cartoons, right?"