INTERVIEW: Blake Lewis (2008)

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You may know him as Blake Lewis from American Idol, but followers of underground dance music know him as B-Shorty, the beatboxing host of Seattle nightclubs who has performed with everyone from BT to Crystal Method. His new EP, How Many Words, features dance remixes by DJ Dan, Dave Aude, and Jake Benson. A fan of glitchy noise and IDM, you can hear more work from Blake as B-Shorty on KJ Sawka’s drum and bass CD Cyclonic Steel and BT’s upcoming album.

DJ Ron Slomowicz: Congratulations on this hot new EP “How Many Words”
Blake Lewis: Thanks.

RS: Were you involved with choosing the remixes for it?
Blake Lewis: Oh yes, definitely. I reached out to Dave Aude and DJ Dan, I’ve known them for quite some time now.

RS: How did you meet up with those guys?
Blake Lewis: I’ve been doing electronic music for such a long time – going to raves, hosting parties and beatboxing. I met Dan like four years ago and we were instant homies. I would always scratch over one of his records or I would hype the crowd and throw one of his shows when he came back to Seattle. The same with Donald Glaude. I met Dave Aude through Dan and that was right before American Idol, and we just hit it off. I’m such a fan of both of them, that it was just kind of a no-brainer. I called them instantly as soon as I got the approval that I could get some remixes out there. All I listen to is electronic music. I listen to everything else too but I’m constantly banging beats at home and producing with my drummer KJ Sawka, who’s an amazing drum and bass producer.

RS: How did you meet Jake Benson?
Blake Lewis: I met Jake at that Winter Music Conference and he did a really nice sound – a vibey trancey track. It’s really cool to see the interpretation. I talked to Dan and I was like Dan, just do what you do, don’t even, like, put my vocal in it, maybe just a hint of it, but just to glitch it out and do something underground. His basslines are always just strict and thick, I’m such a huge fan.

Image courtesy of Arista / J

RS: Very cool. It’s interesting that your vocals are on the KJ Sawka album and I would guess at American Idol they have you signed to some blood contract where you can’t really do outside projects. How do you get clearance to be on the KJ Sawka CD?
Blake Lewis: Well, we just didn’t care, we just put it out and I told them to. I was on the show and I was like put it out, put it out, I don’t care. To the American Idol people, as long as I’m not selling like a hundred million copies it really doesn’t matter. It’s drum and bass and breakbeat with a reggae influence, I don’t think they even noticed, honestly.

RS: Coming from the electronic music background, what was the American Idol experience like?
Blake Lewis: The American Idol experience, to me, was a remix project. I mean I’m not scared of going on stage and performing, that was the easy part. To me it was like OK, I’ve never really done covers before, how can I tweak these out to my liking. So to me the challenge was OK, this is a remix competition, and basically I just put everything into Ableton Live and put new beats to it and samples and loops and took the the original and fixed it down, fixed it up, time scratched it, and tweaked it out. Then I basically set up a studio in my apartment and/or hotel, wherever we were at with two little M-audio monitors, a little MIDI keyboard and my laptop and just went to town when it was supposed to be. It was good for me because I did my homework at night so when I had to go to the arranging days, I just skateboarded all day. I put my iPod on and listened to my track that I did and that’s how I rehearsed, I was just on a skateboard just listening to the remix I did.

RS: What’s your take on the remixes of Jordan Sparks’ “No Air?”
Blake Lewis: No, I haven’t even heard them. Are they any good?

RS: Benny Benassi did a really sick mix of it. So, how did you hook up with BT?
Blake Lewis: BT and I go way back actually, I know him the longest out of everybody. I met him in 2000 on his Never Gonna Come Back Down tour, the second day before they were done in Seattle. I’ve been a big fan since ’95 when Blue Skies came out. I’ve been listening to electronic music since probably like ’91, dance music in general back in the day with Crystal Waters, Haddaway, and La Bouche. Then I heard Orbital and from then on it was BT. I went to Europe when I was thirteen in the eighth grade and I spent I don’t know how much money on just LPs. Blue Skies kind of changed my outlook on vocals because as a beat box and a vocalist, I love just sounds and glitched-out noises. I heard Blue Skies and BT’s vocal production and how he just twists it up. People are still boggled by his production skills – listening to stuff that was done eight years ago and that’s just like new to them now which is great. I met him just for a second in 2000 and I was such a huge fan. Then in 2003 or 2004 I actually got the chance to open for him with my loop-based set, with all my loop pedals, and so I do basically a vocal electronic show. Like I’ll do like sh-bo-sh-bo-sh-bo, loop it and then I’ll do a bass line, and then a three-harmony, and then maybe a trancey line. Then with all my samples and chaos pads that I wear on my body, I opened for him. America knows me as Blake Lewis because of American Idol, otherwise B-Shorty is what I am known as in Seattle for the work I’ve done with various artists. That night performing with BT was where the connection was really made, just when he actually saw me performing, he was just like ‘I’ve got to work with you.’ I got the phone call from BT actually a couple of days after the finale when I got second place. He had no idea I was on American Idol. He called me and was like ‘yo dude, I want you to get on my album.’ I was like ‘man, I’m getting signed and I just got second place on American Idol’ and I’m like ‘let’s do this.’ And so “She’s Making Me Lose It” was more out of that and he wanted to work with me because of one of my songs called “She Loves The Way,” which is on my MySpace. If you want to check it out it’s on my loop-based stuff. That’s how that relationship was born. I opened for him at a club called The Element where I was the host and I’d beatbox for everyone. A lot of people don’t know but I named Hybrid’s last record. They chose my name, I Choose Noise, Hybrid’s last record is my title.

RS: Wow, I didn’t know that.
Blake Lewis: It’s just so amazing to work with these people because they’re huge to me. I mean BT alone is one of my biggest musical influences, with soundscapes and the way I perceive vocals. It’s electronic music in general but it’s his records and his concepts and song melodies and vocal arranging. Which is great because now we’re great friends, I just actually left his house for five days, I just actually got in to New York, I was with him and we just wrote a song for his record and it sounds tight. His new record is just going to be genius.

RS: I also hear that you’re a big fan of Erasure.
Blake Lewis: Oh man, Andy Bell. I was going to sing “Chains of Love” on the show but I opted to go with The Cure. I love the sound of 80s music in general and that was the whole concept for my record, is kind of like a 2000 and 80s mashup with a little funk soul in there as well. I loved everything from the 80s. I just got Dave Gahan’s last record and it’s fricking amazing.

RS: Was this year your first time at the Winter Music Conference?
Blake Lewis: Yes, it was, you don’t know how excited I was. I’ve I wanted to go for ten years but I’m just a broke-ass musician from Seattle, beatboxing. I could never afford to like go to Florida and didn’t even have a booking agent to book. I didn’t know what to do down there and KJ is my roommate and I was like ‘dude, guess what, I get to open IDMA,’ and I was so stoked and it was crazy.

RS: Well you worked with BT, is there anyone you’d like to work with that you’ve not worked with yet?
Blake Lewis: Oh man, there’s a thousand others. I’d love to work with EdiT and Richard Divine. I’m really into IDM and people that really take noise seriously, the beauty of the dirty and the funky. I’d love to work with Jamie Lidell as a singer songwriter and he’s an amazing electronic producer. God, there’s so many! I mean as far as electronic, I talked to Crystal Method a long time ago because I’ve played with them a couple of times and they watched the show and they were like ‘dude, we voted for you the whole time.’ I gave them a copy of my accapella ProTools session for “How Many Words,” so maybe they’ll get on that. Definitely, you know, Hybrid as well, I talked to them and they owe me a remix because of like when they took my title they were like ‘we owe you a track.’ There’s so many people and I could work with any electronic producer just making beats and have a good time.

RS: Do you think as an American Idol you’ll be able to get more of the next generation in to electronic dance music?
Blake Lewis: I don’t know, I tried to promote it as much as could on the show. American Idol is definitely more of an incentive for people to work with me just because everyone knows who I am. But the fact that they enjoy my music and they believe in it is the main reason why I’ve been working with these people. I’m actually working with Darude for what might become the Dance For Life track.

RS: You mentioned before how the BT was a breakthrough artist for you. If you had to give ever kid who watched American Idol one CD to get them in to dance music, what CD would it be?
Blake Lewis: Probably Movements in Still Life. It really opened my eyes to so many different things and there’s so many different tracks on it. That’s why I enjoy BT so much because he’s so good at trance but he’s so good just in general, his production is so good. The European or Japanese version of Movements in Still Life has this track with Paul Van Dyk (Namaste) and Mike Truman of Hybrid (Running Down the Way Up.) The breakdown on Hip-Hop Phenomenon changed my idea of what I could do live with my voice and I studied that track.

RS: How much pressure was there on you to make the album more pop and less electronic dance?
Blake Lewis: There wasn’t really pressure. I definitely wanted to work with BT a little bit more but we’re doing that already regardless, so I kind of wanted him as the executive producer of the project and the label wasn’t having. I couldn’t get exactly everything what I wanted to do but I got eighty percent of my ideas out on this record. Definitely the more danceable tracks are more of my favorite, the more electro tracks like my single How Many Words, gets compared to Andy Bell which is great. That’s very flattering.

RS: Are you a dance artist?
Blake Lewis: I would like to say yes, I definitely am a dance artist.

RS: Very cool. You mentioned M-Audio a bunch of times, are they sponsoring you yet?
Blake Lewis: No, I want to talk to them though. I mean I’ll definitely talk to them, I have contacts. I went to the Remix Hotel down in Miami and I met a bunch of people and developed a lot of relationships when I was down there, which is great. I just set up my studio finally back again and I just bought some M-audio stuff, so.

RS: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?
Blake Lewis: Oh man, to everyone out there, just thank you for the support. That’s like the first thing and that amazing, thank you for the belief in my music. The fact that they enjoy it and love it as much as I do, means a lot to me. People out there that enjoy making sound and want to make sound in this area, I want to thank you for listening to my noise.

Interview conducted May 2008.

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