His name takes up half the marquee, but Ryan Lewis rarely gets a word in, what with that Macklemore guy’s never-ending rap-rap-rappin’. The 24-year-old Lewis is equally responsible for the duo’s rise over the last few years: His beat-driven orchestral pop-hop productions provide the foundation for Macklemore’s arena-sized lyrical moralizing. In mid-February, I interviewed both of them individually for a cover story in FILTER Magazine’s annual Good Music Guide (which is out next week). Seeing as Macklemore is typically the Jay to Lewis’ Silent Bob, we let Lewis take the mic here.
I was at the Neptune in early February when you guys were the surprise guest, and it struck me that between Ref. 74 passing, and then “Thrift Shop” exploding and the album doing so well, the tour taking off, tickets selling—it must feel like you guys are winning it all right now.
Ryan Lewis It does. It’s a weird feeling. It’s something that comes with a lot of repercussions. You’ve been haggard; you can’t really go out in public. Experiencing this next level of fame—on one hand you’re super pumped. And then, on the other half of that, you’re also kind of readjusting to having a single song blow up so massively. That inevitably has taken the forefront of so many things. You look at Red Rocks, 10,000 people—a huge portion of new listeners that aren’t familiar with the rest of your catalogue. So it does feel like a very transitional time and it’s taking a lot of getting used to.
So what’s next? Do you one up the success you’ve had or maintain this level that you’re at? Have you even considered what happens next?
That’s the golden question. Anybody who has something super successful, one song that launches them onto a new platform, I think that you have a variety of moves. The most important thing to us is remaining true to who we are as artists, in the midst of all the opportunities and everything that comes with having a wild single. Being able to go back and make the music that you, yourself, absolutely want to make.
At the same time, you look at The Heist and the catalogue that’s already been put out and you kind of go, “Okay, what do we follow up with?” At this point we’re choosing “Can’t Hold Us.” If you would have asked me a year ago what’s the lead single to the album, I probably would have said “Can’t Hold Us,” not “Thrift Shop.” So then we go and make a music video for that. We play a bunch of shows. We do as many music videos as we can from The Heist. It was always an album I had so many visual ideas for.
We’ll be starting to work towards the next project, working on new music for the fans. And just trying to be normal. I mean, to me that’s an equally fucking important thing. Particularly for somebody like Ben, who’s the face of this whole thing. It’s weird, dude. It’s a weird position to be in. If you’re the front man, it’s a position that 99.9 percent of people can’t empathize with. They don’t know what it’s like to be put in that position. So I think that having all these goals is huge, but trying to just kind of maintain and adjust—and you know, Ben just got engaged—and to live a life that doesn’t have to do with radio and “Thrift Shop” blah blah blah. Which at the same time, I don’t think is the real root of making good music if you’re living a life that is actually worth telling stories about.
You don’t want to lose sight of that, because that’s what has brought you to where you’re at.
Yeah, exactly. That’s on everybody’s minds as well. We’re going in to shoot a video for “Can’t Hold Us,” which has so many shots that are out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s the original team. It’s been a breath of fresh air just to feel like we’re in a very familiar position. I remember two-plus years ago being outside of Snoqualmie on an abandoned lake with stumps and sideways rain on a little SLR shooting Ben acting for the “Otherside” remix video, and freezing and moving a boat on our own. I think going out to do this “Can’t Hold Us” video has been equally stressful and brutal, in terms of weather and executing everything. But it’s been so refreshing exiting all the interviews and the TV, and everything that goes post-album, and being able to go back into what I actually love to do and what Ben loves to do, which is create.
Yeah, what you’re describing sounds like working several full-time jobs at the same time.
Exactly. We are absolutely running a massive business right now. And at the same time, we are absolutely wanting to do what we love, which is create art. If you look at it like a chess game and what’s your next move, a dumb artist focuses entirely on business, because there’s so many opportunities and things you can do now. You can do anything you want, honestly. But I think the best thing we can do is just go a little bit backwards, and go back to the studio and kind of get back to it, to find a healthy balance between following up and continuing to work with The Heist, but not letting that us put all our eggs in that basket, per se.
It’s funny that the last number one song to come out of Seattle was “Baby Got Back.”
Is that true? I thought that was the last hip-hop song.
Nope. There was no grunge number one song. “Baby Got Back” was in 1992. It was in the same year as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
What about the Postal Service?
No, that was never number one. That was just some obscure indie shit.
Do you see any kindred sort of sensibilities with you guys and Mix-A-Lot?
I think the only real obvious similarity, to me, is that the Northwest has really no hip-hop identity. After 20 years, “Baby Got Back” continues to have a real national hip-hop identity. It’s not the Bay, it’s not Brooklyn, it’s not West Coast, it’s sitting in it’s own little pocket. It’s the place where “Baby Got Back” and “Thrift Shop” come out of, because we’re just kind of on our own shit. That allows us to not have to follow in a lane that’s already been made. There’s a ton of freedom up here to create whatever you want, particularly in terms of hip-hop. But I would say that it crosses all genres, for sure.
You guys are often cited as the entry point for young listeners’ first taste of hip-hop. How do you respond to that?
In the last year and a half, our fan base got a lot bigger, started to get younger. It’s primarily built up of high school kids to college kids. It’s not something that I pursued, but once it happened, I’ve embraced it. From the producer perspective, it’s just obvious that Ben, as an MC, that’s a great audience for him and the type of songs that he writes, so it makes a lot of sense to me. Ben is somebody that tackles subjects that are very much speaking from his own personal life stories, many of which revolve around that age where you’re figuring shit out.
You guys are bringing musicians like Wanz, and forgive me but I don’t have the name in front of me, the trumpet player…
Yeah… And the vocalist for “Can’t Hold Us,” these guys used to be a cameo on a single song, but now are going on tour with you as part of the band.
Right, absolutely. That’s also something that wasn’t necessarily in the plans. It was a combination of things: A) [us] being not that well known, and B) our opportunity to collaborate was very much with the people in the town.
“Same Love” was an interesting example. We approached three different, well-known vocalists to do the hook on “Same Love,” got denied on all of them and then the Mary Lambert connection happened super randomly. She just happened to be a spoken-word artist who had a singing career in Seattle that was a friend of Hollis’, who we had worked a lot with. I heard her on the Internet and hit her up; she wrote the hook a couple hours later and then came through and recorded it, and that was that. Or with “Thrift Shop,” which we wrote the hook, but we really wanted someone that sounded like Nate Dogg. So I hit up a mastering engineer I work with and asked him if he knew anyone. He knew Wanz, who is 51 and has been a software engineer forever. Wanz came through at one in the morning. And that pretty much is the story of The Heist. It’s a lot of those kind of random two degrees of separation—somebody knows somebody else. That’s the lane of what we imagined for the songs. From banjo players to piano players to vocalists, and once the album became immensely more successful than what we were guessing, it was just a natural opportunity for these people to perform in a live atmosphere.
That’s part of what makes it feel like a Seattle album.
Right, I feel you. It’s a lot of Seattle musicians, for sure. There are only a couple of people that are from out of Washington: I think the Band of Horses feature, SchoolBoy Q. I think pretty much every single other person who worked on this album is from Seattle.
How did you start as a musician?
I started playing guitar when I was 10, and by the time I was 13 or 14, I started a band. I played a little bit of bass, I played the drums and I sang in my first band—until I realized I didn’t have a singing career. Then I got kicked out of my first band for taking it too seriously. That was when I was like 14 or 15. The band that I started, the rest of the members kicked me out of. But it was interesting, because I was a middle schooler, but it was also when I started working on web development, learning HTML, doing graphic design, printing my first t-shirts. It was kind of like opening the door to things that I now do professionally.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and moved from Spokane to Seattle, and like anybody else, I pirated beat-making software and was just doing it for fun. But after a while it hit a point where I decided that I was going to tell people I was serious, which was scary because my beats sucked so bad back then. But it was always such a genuine intrigue and passion to be writing music, to be recording instruments. The mixing process I’m equally interested in, developing textures, making the vocalist sound a certain way. As well as going and sitting in on mastering and learning about that, and the flip side with digital photography, Photoshop, video production. And I love color editing. I love fonts. At some point, all this shit just kind of opened up and that’s why I think that I love working with Ben. Even in the beginning, we just got along really, really well, but it was an open door to be challenged in all of these different things that we had to do in order to start anything. And that still hasn’t stopped, it still exists now going into do the next bigger thing. There are a variety of challenges, and you kind of step up to the plate and learn how to do it yourself. And that’s been such a dream come true in terms of being on the team with this whole thing.
When did you and Ben first meet?
We met when I think I was 17 or so.
How old are you now?
I’m 24. And if I was 17, he was 22 or 23, but I’ve known him for seven years. We were in super different places back then though. It wasn’t until maybe the very end of 2008 that was the beginning of what is happening now, in terms of “we’re going to do a project together.” We were good friends and we had known each other for a while, but we never really worked together consistently until two or three years after we met.
When you first started making beats, who were you influenced by?
Kanye was one of the first hip-hop producers that I was intrigued by. When I first got into hip-hop, I listened to a lot of very bad hip-hop, a lot of shit that made me feel the kind of the same way that metal did at the time. But I don’t know, when you’re in bands when you’re 13, 14, 15, there’s like that one type of music that is amazing and everything else sucks. Then I hit this certain point when I started enjoying a wider variety of music. So the influences were probably less hip-hop oriented once I actually got into producing.
And sampling’s also weird, because you’re naturally exposed to a whole bunch of stuff that you would never have heard before, and that only added to transitioning from only listening to heavy rock music to starting to listen to everything. Like when you’re also listening to vinyl, you’re listening to orchestra, film scores, stuff from the ‘50s, ‘40s, ‘60s and you start to fall in love with stuff that you would have never heard otherwise.
What about these days? Do you listen to current music?
I do, as much as I can. I’ve been extremely busy, so I don’t get to be as much as a music researcher and have ample time to hunt down what I want to hear. I still listen to all sorts of shit, and probably the thing I listen to the most is ‘40s on 4 on Sirius XM radio in my car.
‘40s on 4—it’s the 1940s satellite radio station, and it’s amazing. I love that. I literally flip between ‘40s on 4, Shade 45, Hip-Hop Nation and a pop station, and that’s kind of my rotation. Sometimes I’ll go on ‘90s on 9 just for shits and giggles. Once you get it, it’s ‘40s on 4, ‘50s on 5, ‘60s on 6. I love music from the ‘40’s.
Who are we talking about? Like jazz from the ‘40s?
Yeah, kind of. Like everything from jazz to the Andrews Sisters. I think that my love of it has to do with the way records were made back then. It’s not like I have a list of artists that I think are the best artists of all time. You know, I love Billie Holiday and stuff like that—‘40s and ‘50s. But it’s the texture of the sound, something about driving around to ‘40s on 4, particularly after you’ve been bumping a bunch of hip-hop, it’s like a release. It’s music that has nothing below 200 hertz; it has nothing in your subwoofer, it’s all filtered off. It’s living in this little realm that’s inherently nostalgic, which I love about it. It sets the tone that nothing else will, and it has nothing to do with the music. It has to do with the frequencies, kind of.
Yeah, it’s almost like this imaginary space that once existed; something that you never experienced.
Right, and I think that’s true for a ton of decades. Like I think ‘60s and ‘70s records have that a little bit, and it’s half of what makes music nostalgic. Part of it is what people were playing and what was trendy at the time, but I think the other half of it is the means in which people were documenting it, and the ‘40s, to me… Maybe it’s just my personality. I love Boardwalk Empire. I love old shit. I love time pieces, for sure. But to answer your question, I bump that. I bump a lot of indie stuff. I’m trying to think of who I got lately that I really like. Um… obviously hip-hop, I love Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid M.a.a.d. City. I like the new A$AP Rocky record, I like… Frank Ocean, I don’t know, I like everything, I really do. Other than pop country, which dominates much of the U.S., which is crazy to me.