Method and Madness 

Juliette Lewis finally sheds her Hollywood past to become a rock star.

The last time Juliette Lewis called, she was two months late. She didn’t mean to be. She had tried to get in touch'a few times. But there was a broken-down bus. And then there was a dead cell phone. Maybe a couple other things, enough so that by the time she randomly called one night, chiming, “Hey, this is Juliette,” like we were old friends who had forgotten to talk for a few years, I had no clue what to say. That didn’t matter much. She did most of the talking.

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Which is normal for her'she can be chatty. But she also had plenty to say, mostly because I didn’t really care about Juliette Lewis the actress. I didn‘t give a damn about Natural Born Killers or how Giovanni Ribisi kissed when playing a guy with Down syndrome. I cared about her band The Licks. And, for Lewis, that was new.

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In fact, the whole idea of being in a band was new. She’d formed Juliette & The Licks a few months prior and had her first stint on Warped Tour lined up for later that summer. The group’s debut EP … Like a Lightning Bolt (Fiddler) had just come out. Reviews were mixed, with a predictable splash of brutal criticism. She is an actress, after all. And, in the pre-Jared Leto/30 Seconds to Mars days, to pull double duty on both the stage and screen meant you either had to be a role model for the future sluts of America or go by J.Lo'which, really, was kind of the same thing.

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“Yeah, the novelty factor didn’t do much for us at first,” Lewis admits. “But I didn’t care. I had this side of me that I just had to get out. I was a person in the desert for 15 years trying to express myself in a new medium. I had to do it.”

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And The Licks had promise. The band’s debut was a brash and snarling bit of Stooges rock. It clanged and roared, strutted with the kind of confidence usually limited to ascot-sporting bands from Sweden. And Lewis, she threw herself into the mix with so much angst and anger that it was surprising she hadn’t taken to rolling in broken glass every night. She had a voice as dangerous and alluring as a biker-bar stripper. She could be brash and breathy, subtle and surprising. She was good. No one wanted to admit that.

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Three years and two albums later, folks'at least American folks'still don’t want to admit that. The Licks are still held at arm’s length, like giving in to Juliette and Co. is somehow akin to admitting that most other bands in the United States rock as hard as cotton, and we need an actress to save us. She doesn’t have that problem in the rest of the world. The Licks just sold out the Astoria in London, a 2,500-seat venue. “We earned that,” she says. But in the United States'well, all Lewis will say on the subject is, “We have work to do in America, just like everybody.” How diplomatic.

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But she shouldn’t have to resort to such niceties'especially with a disc like Four on the Floor (Hassle) in her pocket. The Licks last disc took the promise of … Like a Lightning Bolt and made it into a dirty symphony of sex, noise and spit. The band carved out a niche between The Who and The Hives'power driven home at right angles'made all the more apparent by drummer Dave Grohl (yeah, that Dave Grohl) doing his best Keith Moon impersonation on tracks like the raw and revved “Get Up.” And Lewis finally figured out a way to write with the same bravado as she sang. Like the hooker tragedy “Death of a Whore.” She drops lines like, “High heels clipping like clattering cans, you find a mark in the shadow of a man, I’ve been wronged by my wrongs again,” with all the frazzled energy of a woman regretting her entire life.

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“God, I’m so glad you said that,” she says (she’s on the phone from Turkey this time; and yeah, she was late). “That song is a beast to sing. It’s the most dramatic song I’ve ever written'a f'king dark tale about causing your own fate. And it ends so violently. At first, I couldn’t perform it live. It was too much.”

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That changed when Lewis resorted to something she’d learned'haters take notice'acting. She tapped into her empathy training. “That’s one of the great things about this marriage of film and music,” she says. “Both are just working with emotion. You just try to imagine yourself in a situation you haven’t been in before, find the emotion, and then work within it.”

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Which, for her, is easy. For the rest of us, probably not. But God forbid anyone takes singing lessons from an actress.

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Juliette & The Licks
nw/ Chris Cornell
nThe Depot
n400 W. South Temple
nFriday, July 13
n7 p.m.
nDepotSLC.com

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Jeff Inman

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