Huey Lewis on playing old hits, making new music and embracing “American Psycho”

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
In their 36th year as a band, Huey Lewis and the News will make their local debut with a two-night run at Belly Up Aspen Dec. 30 and 31.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Huey Lewis and the News

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Tuesday, Dec. 30, 9 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 31, 9:30 p.m.

Tickets and more info:

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the album “Sports,” the apex of Huey Lewis and the News’ hit-making run in the 1980s. These days, Lewis enjoys playing the laundry list of popular hits he and his band added to the annals of rock and roll three decades ago. He likes playing them more, now that he and the band have a limited touring schedule.

’Power of Love’ is a blast to play,” Lewis said recently from San Francisco. “Yeah, it’s an old hit but it’s not ‘One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater,’ you know? It’s a gas to play as long as you don’t play it 200 nights a year, and we don’t do that anymore.”

By the time Lewis’ band broke out with 1982’s “Picture This” and then became one of the most popular bands in the world with 1983’s “Sports,” they were already veteran musicians and uniquely prepared to handle the success without going insane. (The VH1 “Behind the Music” on the band was strikingly different from most entries in the series, in that it didn’t have a crash-and-burn third act.) Lewis had bummed around Britain playing harmonica for a period and had been a dead-broke troubadour making the rounds at San Francisco bars for a decade before his band made it big.

“I knew that a hit, when it came, that it was our moment, so we did as much as we could and took it all with a grain of salt,” he said.

He’s proud of the fact that the band produced its own records, allowing them to make pop hits on their own terms.

While their run on the top of the music charts extended through the early 1990s, a new generation found the band through the 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “American Psycho.”

Ellis’ 1991 satire about vapid New York banker Patrick Bateman, who doubles as a serial killer, was interspersed chapters of Bateman’s analysis of pop music of the day, including Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News.

The 2000 film memorably singled out the chapter on Lewis and used it as a monologue, delivered by Bateman (Christian Bale) as he murdered a rival with an ax while “Hip to Be Square” played on his stereo.

Lewis loved the book. But, he said, he has never seen the movie because its makers used Lewis to drum up controversy and publicity for the film.

“I read the book, and clearly Mr. Ellis knew who we were,” Lewis said. “He had it right and he was clearly a fan. It was pretty amazing.”

When the filmmakers asked his permission to use “Hip to Be Square” in the movie, he OK’d it. But when he declined to allow the song to be used on the soundtrack, he said, leading to a recall of the soundtrack from stores, the filmmakers used him to create a fake controversy.

“The night before the premiere, literally, they issued a press release to every press person in America that Huey Lewis had seen the movie and it was so violent that he pulled his song from the soundtrack,” he said. “It’s a complete lie. So I boycotted the film, so that I could tell people I’d never seen the movie, which I never have.”

Despite his anger over that incident and his resentment of “the Hollywood press machine,” for which he offered some unprintable and expletive-laden criticism, Lewis said Ellis was among the few who understood the social satire of “Hip to Be Square.”

“’American Psycho’ is about exactly what ‘Hip to Be Square’ is about,” he said, in that it’s making fun of ‘80s yuppie culture with a first-person narrative.

“I originally wrote it in the third person,” he said, “and then I thought it would be funnier if I put it in the first person. Not everybody got the joke, but Bret Ellis did.”

In April of last year, Lewis made a Funny or Die video with “Weird Al” Yankovic, parodying the movie’s scene, and promoting the 30th anniversary of “Sports.” A shot-for-shot remake of the “American Psycho” scene, it put Lewis in the Bateman role, talking about the film rather than about himself, and “Weird Al” in the murder victim role played by Jared Leto in the movie.

While “American Psycho” offered Lewis’ old music an odd pop culture resurgence, some of today’s leading young musicians treat him with reverence and have invited a reconsideration of Huey Lewis and the News. He’s collaborated with the popular improvisational rock band Umphrey’s McGee and seen his songs covered by Arcade Fire.

If Huey Lewis and the News formed today, he suggested, their songs might sound more like those bands’ than the ubiquitous singles Lewis and company recorded in the ‘80s while selling 20 million albums.

“We were just trying to make a record and get a hit single,” he said. “In the 1980s, if you didn’t have a hit single you did not exit. There was no jam band scene, no Internet – it was all about radio. In today’s world, we would have been a jam band. We would have been just like Umphrey’s McGee, I think. I look at them and it reminds me of us when we were young.”

To break through and get heard back then, he said, Lewis and his band set out to make the best series of singles they could on “Sports.” It ended up producing huge hit singles in “Heart and Soul,” I Want a New Drug,” The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “If This is It” and “Walking on a Thin Line.”

“Those songs are aimed right at radio, but we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so one is a rocker, one is a ballad and so on,” he said. “We knew we needed a Top 40 hit. We didn’t know we were going to have six of them.”

After the success of “Sports” and 1986’s “Fore!” the band started to branch out more creatively, dropping the formulaic pop convention to explore soul, R&B and more far-flung musical territory.

“Once we had commercial success, we made a deal with ourselves that we weren’t going to do anything for just commercial reasons,” Lewis said. “We had in the past, but we weren’t going to do it anymore. We were only going to do things for creative reasons.”

Lewis and his band play a two-night New Year’s Eve run at Belly Up Aspen, beginning Tuesday, Dec. 30 and including a midnight New Year’s toast. While Lewis has skied here and visited Aspen before, the gigs mark he band’s on-stage local debut.

“It’s one of like four towns in the world I’ve never played,” he said with a laugh.

The band is still making new music. Their last album, “Soulsville,” was released in 2010. Lewis said he and his bandmates recently recorded four new songs, and have been working on more together at their Bay Area studio. They haven’t decided whether to release a full album, an EP or a series of singles, Lewis said, but they will try out some of the fresh material here in Aspen.

“We’re gonna get a couple new songs in,” Lewis said. “I know people are not always excited about that, but that’s okay with a healthy dose of the old stuff.”