2007_01_newelt.jpgYou probably already know Jeff Newelt, a.k.a. "Jahfurry," and if you don't, he's probably waiting to meet you. The professional publicist, tireless connector, and man about town, goes out almost every night of the week, with several parties and people on permanent mental speed dial, his brain constantly buzzing with new ideas. Described by friends as a "human MySpace" (Anthony Lappé) and "an infectious force of nature" (Larry Smith), the 35-year-old Long Island native and current Queens resident even has his own logo, courtesy of Dan Goldman, and flits from the mostly underground arts and comics world to the reggae and jazz scenes and beyond, always in search of more people to add to his coterie. By day, he works as a publicist focusing on Samsung in his job as PR Account Supervisor at MWW Group. By night, he wears any number of hats: Minister of Hype for online comics collective ACT-I-VATE, SMITH magazine Comics Editor, creative consultant for online graphic novels Shooting War and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, writer and performer, popping up on stages at parties and bars across town to rattle off his unique musical blend into the mic. Whether reporting on Comic-Con, waxing lyrical about Alan Moore, performing with Kochie Banton, auditionining for Gizmodo's theme song competition, or throwing wild parties, he puts 100% of himself into the task at hand, and has a wonderful time doing so.

After spending 20-hour days at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas, he returned to New York with energy to spare, but took the time to email Gothamist the scoop on his kinship with Frank Zappa, on-stage alter ego, the future of online comics, who's on his must-meet list (hint: not Britney Spears), and how he keeps track of his ever-growing social calendar.

Where in Queens do you live and how long have you lived there?
I live in Woodside, and have been there for 4 years, Great 'lil neighborhood with grade A nooks for nosh, like on my corner, La Flor, a mind-blowing Mexican restaurant/bakery. I order either a Mexican pizza or torta milanesa on my way home from work, while still on the overhead 7 train, the call made as I hit Queensboro Plaza. I get their definitive big chocolate chip cookie for dessert, primordially jahrumptious like something Hansel or Gretyl would pull out of a snacksack packed for them by a goodnatured gnome.

When and how did you get the nickname JahFurry, and what does it mean to you? Do you feel or act differently when you're performing or known "as" JahFurry vs. as "Jeff Newelt?"
"JahFurry" the moniker was morphed from Jeffrey to Jeffurry to the rasta-ready JahFurry by my chum and Dub-dealer DJ Ananji.

JahFurry is me when I break the fiction wall and jump into the "movie" Purple Rose of Cairo-style⎯when I guest reggaejazzy psychedeliditty on stage with some of my heroes in the NYC magical musical underground like Cedric Brooks, Pat Cisarano, Ras Droppa, Clark Gayton, Bill Sims Jr. I started by helping promote shows, and writing promojournalistic emails about shows I recommend, then one day, when I was doing a backstage imitation of my raggaguru Kochie Banton, keyboardist George Laks told me I should "do that some o' dat on stage.” So I did, and that was my first time ever on stage, and I do so now and then, and only recently started doing so under my own JahFurry banner, like I did last week for Heeb magazine's Group Therapy show at Mo Pitkin’s.

JahFurry is the fortunate transmorgrification of "Man-Boy Jeff," the 14-year-old glandularly precocious funnysmart nerd summercamper with "counselor legs" and pelt-to-match who was mercilessly derided by YMHA teen tour tarts. I was a teenage 40-year-old-virgin. Now I embrace the tufts, the errant follicles, the anacondian nose hair that mischievously protrudes, poking pals in the eye from across the room. In fact, in my performance last week at Group Therapy, backed by Bill Sims Jr. (Lackawanna Blues, Seven Guitars) on guitar, I introduced the imaginary nose-hair-harp and strummed a mean long strong strand, if I do say so myself. [twang]

But, whether I'm in a suit being introduced as Jeff Newelt or on stage as JahFurry, it's the same shtick. One beard one man one love.

You told me that you often see people that you know you will meet or plan to meet in the future and bring them into your wide web of activities and artists. What are the qualities that make someone the sort you'd want to meet and take under your wing or vice versa?
Actually, you are one of a gaggle of folks who I knew about, and thought "hey, I could should be friends in cahoots with them,” encountered first, online, by way of blogs, on MySpace or wherever, and then met IRL in 2006. Each time it’s surreal yet inevitable, more "of course" than "oh my goodness.” The key being, there's no planned seeking out, it was just written . . . online. This happened a scary amount of times recently, where my online orbits with someone intersect, that someone's thumbnail icon becomes slightly sharper upon each subsequent view, more 3D then others, almost winking at me, and then sure enough, IRL encounter soon, usually days after. Of course this is coming from someone who was positive that Jan was winking at him from her Brady intro-sequence square.

In terms of the sorta folks I embrace, Martin Buber, my favorite early 20th Century Jewish German existentialist once wrote, "When the Day of Judgment comes, the Lord is not going to ask you ‘Why weren't you Moses? Why weren't you Jesus? Why weren't you Buddha?' . . . He's going to ask why weren't you Rachel Kramer Bussel? Or why weren't you JahFurry?" Meaning, it's one of our holiest tasks to realize our own uniqueness. We're here to be ourselves, so that's what I look for, folks who are themselves . . . and who don't smell.

You're the Comics Editor at SMITH Magazine, where you helped launch Shooting War to much fanfare and in fact propelled it into the world as an online comic vs. an animated TV show, creator Anthony Lappé's original idea. In terms of Shooting War, what made you think it'd be perfect for an online comic, and what do you see the world of online comics offering that traditional print media doesn't?
I thought Shooting war would be perfect material for an online comic because obviously the Iraq War is a topic everyone is thinking about to some extent every day, and also the lead character being a videoblogger. SMITH magazine is all about telling one's story, and celebrating the new technologies that enable us to tell our stories, so a magazine about personal media revolution and a comic about a videoblogger in Iraq made the perfect timely combo, and introduced many readers to webcomix (and comics in general) who had never read them before.

One of the differences between comics and animation is the sense of time. In comics, there are spaces, between panels that are filled by one's imagination. Between panel 1 and panel 2 is a panel 1.5 that exists only in the reader's mind, so each reader's 1.5 will be slightly different. With animation, it's all given to you on a platter, not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just a different thing, and, I think, less interactive, a less pensive experience. It's these spaces between the panels in Shooting War, and in graphic novels in general, that activate the unique power of the medium.

Because Shooting War debuted as a serialized online graphic novel, it was an extraordinarily interactive experience. Dozens of readers would "comment" on each chapter, and those comments, as well as actual current events, sometimes influenced the content as it was created in real time. Of course the crux of Anthony Lappé and artist Dan Goldman's wickedcool dystopian vision was pre-imagined, the interaction with readers in real time did have some effect on the final product. And the creators' responses to readers' queries in real time provided instantaneous DVD commentary track-like bonus material to gain insight from. Oxymoronically, the serialized graphic novels on ACT-I-VATE are unique for the same reason.

You just helped launch A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld on SMITH. What about this comic appealed to you and how did it come about?
Neufeld, whose work I first got into by way of his art in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, has been writing/drawing super smart autobiographical comix for years. His art is largely naturalistic but rendered with a soulful panache that makes even his simplest illustrations never drab. Josh is also a member of ACT-I-VATE, the online Indy comix collective that includes Dan Goldman, Dean Haspiel (another Pekar collaborator), Nick Bertozzi (who's upcoming The Salon is so far my pick for graphic novel of the year⎯a brilliant premise with an even more brilliant execution), and other badass comics creators who joined together to create a free daily online comix anthology.

Katrina Came Calling, the print version of Josh's LiveJournal online diary of his time volunteering with the Red Cross in Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina, blew my mind with the brutal picture it painted and to me was screaming for the comics treatment. When I introduced Josh to Larry Smith at the Shooting War launch party last summer at Sutra, and Josh gave Larry a copy of Katrina Came Calling, my eyes went blank, head went back, a gargle-like sound ensued, foam came out of mouth, and my brain fast forwarded 10 months to SMITH inviting Josh to turn that experience and then some into a web comic for SMITH, as sort of an American Splendor 2.0 Altmanesque simultaneously panoramic and microscopic look at the ongoing effect of this tragedy on the lives of five real New Orleans residents and also other regions, such as Biloxi, where Josh volunteered.

The difference between launching this ambitious project online on SMITH as opposed to in print is the ability to include some subtle yet resonant multimedia flourishes. Let's say there's a television in a survivor's living room, that may be clickable to a video interview on YouTube, or click on the stereo in the background and a podcast of local musicians might start. So far only the prologue is online, so much of what I just spouted about won't be evident for another couple months. But what is online is a potent prologue, the beginnings of the blog, and links/resources to learn more about the disaster and relief.

You're also the Minister of Enthusiasm for online comics collective ACT-I-VATE and seem to be particularly involved in the launch and promotion of independent artists. Do you think that being or at least starting out without any corporate backing encourages artists to take risks and go places they wouldn't otherwise go? So many of the scenes you're part of seem to work largely on an underground level; is that the ideal, or would you like to see them blow up in a huge way?
This is where my e-taglines, Support The Sublime, comes from. And of course, anything/anyone that I think is great should only blow up in the hugest of ways. Any one who gets pissed when one of their personal cult favorites achieves larger success needs a head knock. Too often it's the "near great" or the "really really good" that succeed on the grandest commercial scale, and the truly great often doesn't get their due. This is partly a function about what it means to be a great artist, there's often a "sensitivity" there, and that doesn't mean a wimpiness. That means a distaste for self-promotion, for spending more time in the hair salon than in the rehearsal studio, etc. That's where I come in, sometimes. I'll toot my friend's horn while they're literally tooting their horn. Another pet peeve of mine is when some fooker criticizes a musician for doing music for a corporate commercial; if you really cared about music you would know that sometimes it's dough from those money gigs that pays for the production of ten brilliant underground Dub or jazz records that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Duh.

As a longtime comics reader and fan, where do you see the world of comics going, especially in terms of covering topics of political relevance like Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq? Is the kind of social commentary found in A.D. and Shooting War something comics are particularly well suited to tackle?
Comics are spectacularly well suited to tackle such topics. Comics are stories told in words and pictures, sequentially. They hit both right and left-brain at the same time. I believe that the intellectual, literary, artistic, and spiritual nutrients are most easily ingested in comic form, and this easy digestion in no way implies any dilution of quality whatsoever, in fact, often the opposite. That comics do these topics justice has been proven and then some by books like Maus, Safe Area Gorazde, Kings in Disguise, Persepolis, Nat Turner, etc. Actually, comics are an ideal medium to tell any kind of story. Also, you don't need a special effects budget and the actors always remember their lines.

By day, you're an account supervisor at MWW Group, where Samsung is your primary client. You're just back from representing them at CES and are in charge of helping launch new products and liasoning with media at trade shows, and you've been in the full-time, professional PR world since your early 20s. What made you want to go into PR, and how does that relate to your early start in music promotion?
I was always loved waxing enthusical about things I'm into and also introducing people to each other to make stuff happen. I started a weekly club nite in 1994, along with musicians Clark Gayton, Pat Cisarano, and Kochie Banton, called RubADub Jazz, a jazz meets reggae nite, inspired by acid jazz pioneers Giant Step. This was before email and in addition to hitting the phones, I would roam the Central Park green handing out hundreds of flyers. I'd sit and chat with picnickers raving about incredible underground sounds that could be heard for a fraction of the cost of more commercial fare. Sometimes 10 or more folks I met on Saturday in the park were there digging it the following Monday at the Metropolis Café (now Blue Water Grill). And some of those folks turned out to be journalists who I earnestly psyched up to do stories which resulted in the cover of the New York Times Sunday Styles Section, etc. After RubADub Jazz ran its course as a weekly (I've been helping promote occasional shows with permutations of this crew ever since), and the all-star musicians all went back on tour, someone told me I should do PR because that is what I was already doing naturally.

Also, about the same time Flavorpill and Craigslist started, I began my own no-frills Newelt's List, a once-or-twice a week plain text email calling out upcoming NYC shows featuring multiple permutations of this extended family of top shelf musicians, the guys who make the stars sound good. This was a combination of PR and journalism because in some cases I was promoting these shows, but also establishing myself as someone with taste, someone who could write well about things I loved, and who couldn't be paid to cry wolf. I got this list up to over 2,000 New Yorkers and still enjoy being the one to get countless "what should I do tonight" emails and now text messages. Now I work MySpace and other internet communities in addition my occasional blasts to spread the love.

You started working with Samsung while at another agency and must have done a a good job because you went with them when they switched agencies. What about your approach to PR differentiates you from others in the field? Do you bring some element of your "JahFurriness" to your professional work?
What differentiates me is my inability to and refusal to cry wolf, and also the fact that I never talk up or down to people but to them, and the fact that I talk about more than my client. Also, PR is partly about introducing people to each other and also introducing people to things and to ideas. Whether it's introducing an executive to an editor, a product to a reviewer, a comic to a potential reader, a song to a listener. As for what other aspects of JahFurriness aid in my professional duties, that you'll have to sign an NDA for and hear on the sly. I don't want no RasFuzzy copycats poppin' up all of a sudden.

Dean Haspiel echoed something several other people said about you in terms of you being a connector: “While folks worth a damn are holed up experimenting the next big thing, JahFurry is busy connecting the dots." Yet you also have many of your own projects you're developing. Do you feel more comfortable behind the scenes or pushing someone else's product than strictly your own?
It’s equal. I have no problem being the invisible catalyst, the hairylegged bearded cheerleader, but also I'm not shy if and when I know I've got somethin' goin' myself on that's worthy of attention, whether its some writing, a ditty, or some other shenanigans. I happen to be blessed by being around many phenomenally talented artists and musicians, so there is a lot of goodness to spread on their behalf . . . when something of my own matches up, you can be sure you'll hear about that too.

Another of your circle, Doug Jaeger of The Happy Corp., emphasized your relentless positivity: "I've never met anybody hanging out with Jeff that he didn't think is great." Do you simply surround yourself with people you admire, or turn the other cheek when you encounter people you don't connect with?
I do have a "pay no mind list" that means folks who are haters, shmeckels, etc., they're off my radar. In terms of surrounding myself with folks I admire, yes, I'm compelled, like life or death compelled, to assemble a super team, for what ultimate purpose, to face what adversary, I do not know, but I know that the team must be formed at all costs, and forming this alliance must be fun for all involved. Doug and his crew are a key component. I first met Doug a few years ago, when I did PR at The Art Directors Club, where Doug is now a Board Member. We didn't get to connect then, but I was reintroduced to him and The Happy Corp. through comics destroyer Paul Pope who invited me to the Super Heroes Ball, a 2006 New Year's Eve party thrown by their event throwing alter ego, LVHRD, "an organization [of which I'm a proud member] that seeks to unite creative individuals that have a passion for change, a willingness to succeed and the determination to overcome conventions." I honed my ditty-chops in their MCFGHT karaoke showdown in Chinatown; my doppelganger Mark Marmalard hosted their CLLPHNLCKN event at the MoMA, and by the time this sees "print" yet another doppelganger, Martin Maxwell, will have hosted their Architect's Duel III.

You threw a huge party last summer at the The Happy Corp. headquarters to celebrate the release of Douglas Rushkoff's graphic novel Testament from Vertigo as well as the signing of the Shooting War deal with Warner Books. The party was sponsored by everyone from Sapporo to Pravda Vodka and featured the debut of a new mix by DJ Spooky and got featured in Publisher's Weekly, and everyone involved credits you as being the one to take the party to the next (and the next and the next level). How long in advance did you start planning it and what are the ingredients that make a perfect party?
The Happy Corp throws a mean Friday happy hour, a true salon 2.0, and in the summer it spills onto their sweet deck. So Doug Jaeger proposed I host one of those soirées and bring a crowd to complement their crew and enjoy the sponsored goodies. I was stunned by the generosity and immediately saw him and raised him one with notions for my ultimate team-up soiree. I only had a week and a half to plan so my brain lit, computing how many folks/projects I can synergize how fast. Shooting War just got a book deal, and Doug Rushkoff, one of my favorite writer/thinkers, who I had just met at San Diego Comic-Con, had just released Testament, a brilliant graphic novel take on the Torah showing it to be an open source document and tool to hack reality. I figured why don't I toast those two projects, and also use the occasion to do my own overdue onstage team-up with beatboxer Adam Matta. The scene was like a Kirby cover with folks in from Uranus just for the occasion. I called in a favor and had Dan Goldman create the first ever JahFurry logo. He nailed it and it debuted projected within a loop of images from all involved. Seeing my logo for the first time, I felt like Navin Johnson reading his name in the phonebook: "I'm somebody!!"

2007_01_newelt2.jpgYou interviewed Frank Zappa in 1991 for 34th Street Magazine at University of Pennsylvania and consider that one of your proudest moments. How did the interview come about and why was it so special to you?
I was features editor, in charge of securing cover story interviews, so of course many of those I tried to secure were my favorites, and when I did secure them, I assigned those stories to myself, like Zappa (and Stephen King, Dave Barry, Stan Lee, Adam Sandler, etc.).

I have a way of looking at my favorites things that I call the top shelf, meaning there is no best anything, just a top shelf that could include any number of items. Well, you don't get more top shelf than Zappa, one of the great artistic iconoclasts. Others next to him on the shelf would include--this is when my inner Jewish-grandma kicks in, a la the inability to single out a favorite grandson, or in this case, a hero--Robert Crumb, Kafka, Alan Moore, Brian Eno, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Warren Ellis, Woody Allen, Vaclav Havel, Dave Chappelle, Grant Morrison, Doug Rushkoff, Sacha Baron Cohen, Harvey Pekar, Gil Evans, Nat Hentoff, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby.

So . . . Zappa was relentlessly Zappa and he taught me the importance of being relentlessly Jeff Newelt. He also stuck up for himself and others, and was a great "musher," someone who mushed together genres, musicians, mediums, and whatever came out was great and 100% Zappa. I like-a da mush.

Anthony Lappé told me he sees a kinship between you and Zappa, and that his absurdity gets close to your "absurdist, surrealist sensibility." Would you agree?
Well, let's just say when I interviewed Zappa, he and I went into a tangent on how different ways of saying the word "doody" can elicit different kinds of laughs. We did a 30-second doody-jam. Gossshhh . . . where are those TAPES?! During the interview, Zappa made a profound distinction between the English language and the American language, the American language being more jazzy, more morphable. As far as "absurdist, surrealist, sensibility" at some point every day I hum to myself "watch out where the huskies go and don't you eat that yellow snow.” I even do occasional wacked-out Zappa-medley duets with my first PR boss, Sal Cataldi, who plays out as Spaghetti Eastern Music.

2007_01_newelt3.jpgYou wrote for Penn magazine 34th Street while you were a student there, edited by Larry Smith. You wrote about peeing next to Stephen King and getting Dizzy Gillespie to puff out his cheeks with you, and have encountered many other celebrities in your social wanderings. Does fame phase you at all? Do you credit celebrity in its own right or does it depend on what the person's famous for? In other words, would Britney Spears be welcome at one of your shindigs?
To me, fame has absolutely zero positive correlation with merit . . . two completely different things. There are many famous folks who are worthy of our attention and there are many hugely famous folks, who take up an egregiously undeserved amount of collective brainspace. DELETE. EMPTY TRASH. Paris. Nicole. I don't hate them, I have nothing against them, but I sure don't need to know anything about them at all, nothing, ever. Britney would be welcome at any shindig of mine, but wouldn't interest me so much. Fame shmame. Quality shmality is what gets JahFurry off.

That said, I do have a list of folks I admire who I'd love to meet and have a "moment" with and the challenge is to be interesting to them.

You come from a long line of New Yorkers, including your grandfather, Lou Weiser, who was one of the first Jewish cops in the city and was involved in city politics. Can you tell me more about him, and do you see yourself as living out his legacy?
Well, he's still living out his own legacy, knock on vood, down in Florida. I guess me and my brother Marc are living out different halves: Marc is an NYPD Sergeant and has his old badge number. I am a chip off the other side of the block--Grandpa Louie for many years was (and still is) President of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Civil Service, as well as a leader of the Shomrim Society (Jewish Police). He would host sprawling breakfasts in NYC, with a dais full of New York Senators, Governors, Mayors, Congressmen, labor leaders you name it. Receiving wisdom and blessings firsthand from folks like Simon Wiesenthal, Ellie Wiesel, and Isaac Bashevis Singer ensured I grew up never starstruck by the likes of a shallower fame. He would also organize huge weekends in the Catskills at the Concord Hotel, and me and my brother had a blast, us and hundreds of old Jews. I guess some of my sensibilities were molded by countless hours kibitzing over cocktail franks with my Grandpa's friends, including the wonderful Maurice Blond, who gave me my first comics and whose daughter, music publicist Susan Blond, I did my first internship with.

One day I asked my Grandpa Louie what the Yiddish word "Bangaluch" means. After every single family dinner since I was born, my Aunt Greta, my Uncle George, my Grandma, everyone would hug and say "Bangaluch." Turns out it was "Good Bye and Good Luck" said very fast and with a Yiddish accent--they don't have Yiddish accents they just do it when the say that word. Also, sometimes my Grandma would wrap half a bagel in a napkin as a "Fahlayta" of course meaning something for later.

How many nights a week do you go out, and how do you keep track of your voluminous social calendar? With all the gadgetry at your disposal, do you use a PDA or planner of some sort?
I go out 4 or 5 nights a week. I use a combo of a PDA synched with my Outlook calendar so that's how I keep track of meetings, dinners, etc. Events I actually keep track of by way of reminding others about them. I usually spread word about whatever it is I'm going to that night, so I just read my own emails. Also, what helps me out bigtime is sending emails to my Gmail from my handheld. Gmail is so easily searchable. Also, my friends and I always ping each other to see if we're going to this or that, so the network keeps me on point.

So much of what you do seems like it would only be possible in New York, where you have access to various types of artistic and creative communities. Do you think you could do what you do somewhere else or is there something inherent to the city that makes it ideal for your organizational talents?
I think no other city could activate the JahFurry factor like NYC, or even come close, London came the closest for me, but not too close.

Describe your ideal night out on (or in) in the Big Apple.
Good music. Good food. Good friends. Good beverages. Good ____.

What's your biggest accomplishment so far?
Again, the Jewish Grandma in me who cannot play favorites even if you held her at gun point, or even worse, pork point. I am the same with my pet projects, my allies, my friends, my heroes--I can't choose. I guess my biggest accomplishment would be, just recently, the one I had after this terrific BBQ feast in Vegas . . . but maybe that's more a movement.

-- Photo by Ryan Roman

Find out more at www.myspace.com/jahfurry and www.newelt.com. Jeff Newelt performs with Cedric IM Brooks on Sunday, January 28th at Sin Sin/Leopard Lounge 85 2nd Avene (10 p.m., $5), and Thursday, February 1st at the ACT-I-VATE first anniversary party at The Village Pourhouse, 64 Third Avenue (6 p.m., free).