One of my rules is that each feature and collaboration has to bring something to the album that I can’t bring to it myself—to animate the record or inject something that isn’t there otherwise.
Nothing is more expensive than missed opportunities. Somebody, somewhere said that and now we live with the adage—that constant threat. It’s certainly true in our line of work. How come the recorder is nowhere to be seen when your interview subjects drop would-be lede, golden nuggets? Take for instance that time Richard Armitage passed off this wild revelation as casual banter: being up for the part of Pennywise in It and there being an audition tape floating around of him “naked, going crazy.” (That would’ve been nutso casting.) What about that time SG Lewis recounted a particularly embarrassing and funny story—David Chappelle is right, it’s comedy until it happens to you—from Thailand that got us saucer-eyed? Where were you then, voice recorder? This is perhaps an opportunity to revisit that story, but there are other things we want to catch up on.
It’s been a minute since Anthem met up with SG Lewis in South Korea during his Asia tour. “Hurting (feat. AlunaGeorge)” had reached #1 on the Billboard Dance/Mix Show Airplay chart, and another first for him: a visit to Bangkok. The producer, artist, and DJ has since completed the roll-out of his three-part conceptual album Dusk, Dark, Dawn, played Coachella—not only a personal milestone, but his father’s as well—premiered a short film, and dropped new tracks featuring Clairo and Ruel. SG Lewis is now in the middle of his North American tour, a few days short of its second leg. (Remaining tour dates over here.) Never one to rest on his laurels, he’s expected to release more music this year—an album, Beyond Dawn. Beyond that, the Brit will be hitting the O2 Academy Brixton stage in 2020, which will mark his biggest headline show to date.
Dusk, Dark, Dawn is out now.
You were such a good sport at our photo shoot the other day. I know you weren’t feeling a hundred percent. What in the world did you get into the night before?
Dude, I was pretty hungover. [laughs] It caught me really badly that day. This giant red spot appeared under my eye—it looked alien. After the New York show, I was playing a DJ set at the afterparty. The booth was open so any fans that came could walk up and have a chat, which is totally cool. But every fan that walked up was like, “Do you want a drink?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I was taking tequila shots. Then we had another show the next night in D.C. If I was 19, I could get away with it, but I’m 25 now.
You must have so much stimuli coming in all the time. You came up in the Liverpool club scene since your teens so it’s not an alien concept. What’s interesting to me is when you talk about having been a really introverted kid, in the same way that producers generally are. You guys are so often alone in what you do—you’ve talked about this before. Do you feel like an extroverted introvert nowadays?
That’s an interesting question. You’re right—as a kid, I spent a lot of time alone and I was a more introverted character, I guess. I think true music is just playing live and playing live makes you more extroverted. It’s a good thing. But I never intended to be center stage. That was never something I looked at as a little kid like, “I really want to stand up in front of those people and perform.” My love was always for making music. This became a live project because of the instrumentation and then by default I ended up fronting shows and became more extroverted. There is the opportunity to socialize through music with the parties and stuff, and a couple of years ago I was definitely taking advantage of that. But I choose my moments now instead of partying every night or whatever.
Hitting the stage in front of large crowds must rewire you completely. I remember this quote from a famous, touring comedian: “I’m scared of flying, but I can’t afford to be scared of flying so I’m not.”
Exactly. When you’re DJing, you’re behind decks. You have a barrier between you and the audience, and you can hide behind that. But as soon as you remove that, it’s just you and the crowd. They’re watching everything you do and feeding off your energy. If you’re tripping out and feeling nervous, they’re gonna feel uncomfortable. So it was an absolute necessity. It’s like, “I have to get used to this.” It’s a challenge.
When we linked up in Seoul, you were still very much in the middle of the 14-month-long roll-out of the Dusk, Dark, Dawn trifecta of EPs. Now you already seem pretty deep into completing your next album Beyond Dawn. It’s always on to the next thing, right? It’s the artist’s compulsion.
Totally. The next project is very much a new era. Dusk, Dark, Dawn brought a close to that concept. Looking back on it, I’m so proud I was able to realize that idea. It was an ambitious one. I think on paper it was a cool idea, and in practice it was like, “This is actually quite a challenge.” Now going on, I feel like I’ve learned more about myself as an artist. It was a process of self-discovery, for sure. I just jumped straight into this next album, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do. At the moment, honestly, all I can say about it is that I’m singing a lot more. It’s a lot more disco-influenced. I picked up a lot of disco vinyls and I feel like a lot of that is finding its way into the music at the moment. I don’t think it’s a completely different take on where I started from, but it has been an evolution.
I hear it’s more uptempo compared to your previous effort.
Yeah, that’s for sure at the moment. I’ve been studying ‘80s New York and ‘90s rave as well.
So we’ll be hearing more vocals from you on the next record—more than ever before it sounds like. You’ve also gone on the record to say that you never sang in your former bands or in school, so this has been a steady development. I love that it’s a real manifestation of a motivational poster—“Find your voice.” It bodes well, too, that you’ve been collaborating with a coterie of amazing vocalists and yet your fans seem to prefer that you sing on your own tracks. That seems to be the consensus online.
That is sort of wild to me. People could’ve literally been like, “Nice try, but no thanks.” [laughs] I’ve been lucky enough to work with world-class singers, you know? It was also a personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could do something that, before, I had considered totally impossible for me to do. The positive reactions, I guess, come from a level of my audience showing that they connect with me as an artist and as a person, which I’m so lucky to have. I’m truly humbled by that. I think everything has been an experiment up until this point. I’m excited to show them what me singing on a track sounds like in 2020 and beyond. I feel like I’ve found a process now where I’m going into the studio and unapologetically singing. I’m super, super excited at the moment.
When we were in South Korea, you were just days away from releasing the track “Better” featuring Clairo. You’ve also released “Flames” with Ruel since then. There’s obviously a spectrum of collaborators. Some artists don’t like to collaborate or feature at all. Other artists such as yourself absolutely revel in it and seem to genuinely love creative partnerships. I think the latter is the hallmark of a music-obsessed person. There’s an underlying appreciation and admiration for music shining through.
Definitely. First and foremost, I’m a fan of music. The first thing I do when I wake up is think about music. I put some music on when I take a shower. I’m constantly digesting music. I was having this conversation with my friend Nick [Sylvester] who runs a label called Godmode. Artists can have tunnel vision with their tastes sometimes. In terms of my process, I’m just trying to work with people that I personally listen to and people that I’m a fan of. I’ve gotten to collaborate with a wide-range of people, from Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs to someone like Ruel. With the album that I’m now working on where I’ve been able to put more of myself into the music, one of my rules is that each feature and collaboration has to bring something to the album that I can’t bring to it myself—to animate the record or inject something that isn’t there otherwise. It’s an important rule that every feature has intention and every feature has purpose.
It’s always puzzling when you come across somebody who makes music and they openly admit to not listening to much music at all, in the same way that you sometimes meet filmmakers who don’t watch loads of movies. That nerd quality is conspicuously absent. They feel like interlopers. Do you ever come across people rather high up in the industry who surprisingly possess little to no music knowledge?
I wouldn’t want to name names. I wouldn’t want to make it out to be a negative thing because everyone’s process is different. But I have met people who try to make pop music on some level and they’re not very knowledgeable. I mean, I can understand that approach in trying to be completely original, but I think it can be detrimental. I don’t think anything is truly original in this world. I think everything that we believe to be original is really a combination influences that have come before, whether they’re things that are completely different or things that are very similar. No one is born in isolation in their house with this divine, original thought. Music is the result of experiences and the influences around you so I’m trying to be influenced by as many things as possible. I’m trying to digest many different kinds of music so that my interpretation of what that is becomes more interesting and varied.
I’m digging your merch, by the way. I actually wanted to ask you about your arm tattoo. There’s a variation on that graphic in your store, but this is on your physical body. Maybe it’s extra personal. You’ve received some rather funny comments on Instagram: “Claimed by the Illuminati” and “Is that James Blake’s hand?”
With Dusk, Dark, Dawn, there’s a pair of hands or a singular hand in each of the artworks. The hands were a way of telling the story of what was happening throughout the project. There’s several levels to it. In Dusk, for example, it’s a single hand and it’s closed. There’s an element of anticipation and anxiety about what is to come. That leads up to Dawn where a much more intimate pair of hands signify two people connecting in the night and ending up together. Hands are such an emotive tool. You can tell a lot about a person by their hands—“Are they stressed?” There are so many things you can learn from hands. Then Robbie [Ra], who did my tattoo in L.A., loves drawing eyes and things and it was just him saying, “Do you want to draw an eye on there?” I was like, “Yeah, it looks kinda cool.” Then I found myself in the Illuminati, I guess. [laughs]
With the visuals and packaging, it’s always so much more thoughtful than we think. When you say “anticipation and anxiety about what is to come,” it brings to mind not only this North American tour you’re currently on, but your O2 Academy Brixton show in 2020. It’s said to be your biggest headline show. It’s neat that artists have that kind of certainty in front of them to balance out all the variables they’re not in control over in the business. You’re headed towards something concrete and it’s a milestone.
It is nice, but there’s also a certain level of Imposter syndrome. I know it’s kind of crazy by now, but when you put on a show like that you fear that no one will buy tickets and that I’ll be in this huge venue by myself with my mum and her friends. Every single time, I can’t get my head past it. The anxiety builds. It should be a chance for me to be like, “I’ve arrived. This is everything I ever wanted.” But honestly, until it sells out I’m like, “Shit—how am I ever gonna convince 5,000 people to buy tickets in London?”
This question comes at you from Ruel: “What’s your favorite song in your catalogue right now other than the sweet electro banger that is ‘Flames’ featuring Ruel?” Bless him.
[laughs] Damn. I mean… Other than the dope, fit, sultry stylings of young Ruel on “Flames”? I’m gonna say, at the moment, it’s “Aura.” “Aura” is just the track that feels so good. It’s not the biggest streaming track on my Spotify, but whenever I hear it I’m really proud of that. It has so many things: sensuality, beautiful chords and melody, and great vocals from J Werner. I’m still always proud of “Aura.” Thank you to lovely young Ruel for that question!