When planning their album release parties, musicians tend to look for several key components: a killer guest list, a jaw dropping venue and, naturally, a massive stage. But in the COVID-19 epoch, reality couldn’t be more offbeat.
For the long-awaited drop of SG Lewis’ debut LP, times, this adjustment meant reimagining the February 19th celebration from a raucous champagne shower to a gentle pour, sipped from modestly sized glasses in the comfort of his parents’ home. Composed of 10 nostalgia-fueled tracks dedicated to the club, the irony couldn’t be more real.
“A lot of these songs were written without knowing this pandemic was going to happen,” Lewis told EDM.com of times, which was released via Republic Records. “But then they had this message in them, a reminder that the things I always thought were going to be there tomorrow may not be.”
Still, an unwavering commitment to a good time is deeply embedded in the record. This sentiment shines through the circumstances of its release, projecting a beacon of energy and color through the banality of quarantine. Tracks like “Feed the Fire” with Lucky Daye and “Impact” with Channel Tres and Robyn are instant toe-tappers, fizzing over with groove and dance-like-nobody’s-watching ecstasy. “One More” with Nile Rodgers packs its punch through the legendary musician’s electric guitar riffs, and “All We Have” with Lastlings blissfully pushes the boundaries of Lewis’ signature dance-pop spirit.
Musically, what links times together is a fanatic-level infatuation with disco music, contrived in part by a close read of Tim Lawrence’s “Love Saves the Day.” The book, the 26-year-old said, added much-needed historical context to a longtime fascination with the genre. He eventually amassed a playlist of hundreds of songs for inspiration, citing Sister Sledge, Donna Summer, Chic, Larry Levan and David Mancuso as favorites. Currently, he’s working through another Lawrence book and Rodgers’ autobiography, “Le Freak.” “There’s so much to learn, you know?” Lewis said, geeking out.
However, what proved most influential for Lewis was formally immersing himself in an education of gay, Black club culture. He was then able to connect it with his own affection for the dance floor, harbored during his time at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. “I think anyone that’s enjoying electronic music, in any form, needs to recognize where it came from,” he mused. “It just increases your appreciation for it tenfold.”
Especially important to Lewis was the idea of disco as a soundtrack for safe, inclusive spaces. “That seemed like such an incredible thing for music to be able to do,” Lewis remembered, characterizing times and its corresponding visuals with the word “euphoria.”
Importantly, Lewis took care to capture all sides of this emotion, adding the depth and dimension the record needed to drive forward. All too often electronic albums fall flat with a mind-numbing repetition of synths and drop sequences, but Lewis staves off this trope with evolving sounds and moods left up to interpretation. The album's cover, for example, was shot at Brixton's Phonox nightclub, where Lewis remembers soberly dancing the night away after his most recent heartbreak.
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“You could listen to a song like Lovebirds’ ‘Want You In My Soul’ (with Stee Downes) and that’s a very emotional type of euphoria. There’s a euphoria in the pure, oozing emotion of it,” Lewis explained. “And then there’s also much more heady, urgent, heightened euphoria, something like Oxia’s 'Domino.' It’s a wide spectrum.”
Much of this sonic diversity can perhaps be linked to the project’s deeply collaborative nature, brilliantly overflowing with contributions from his musician friends. Frances, the featured vocalist on “Heartbreak on the Dancefloor” and the keyboardist for “Fall,” previously worked with Lewis on selects from his breakthrough Dusk and Dawn EPs. Phairo, a producer largely known for his work with Bruno Major and a 2015 remix of Lewis’ “No Less,” was tapped for “Back to Earth” as a bassist, keyboardist and songwriter. And, after working on 2016’s “Meant To Be” with Lewis, Chad Hugo of The Neptunes fame returned behind the scenes as a songwriter on “Time” with Rhye and “Chemicals.” Even Alex Rosner, an iconic audio engineer who created the first rotary DJ mixer, makes an appearance, with snippets of a conversation with Lewis interwoven with the aural fabric of “Times” and “Rosner’s Interlude.”
Funnily enough, the finishing touches on times were completed last spring in the attic-turned-studio of Lewis’ parents’ house during the UK’s first lockdown, capping off a process that began in June of 2018. These lucky family members heard the vocal and instrumental contributions from these powerhouses practically 24/7: “They feel more attached to the music when they hear it, like, 100 times a day,” Lewis joked.
Commemorating the record’s release in this same setting—this time under the thumb of yet another lockdown—was a full circle moment for Lewis. He doesn’t consider himself to have grown up in a musical household, and his chance obsession with music has had a meaningful impact on his parents and two brothers. “It’s brilliant. They’ve come to Glastonbury, to Coachella,” Lewis described. “A huge part of our family and what we do on a Friday night is stick records on and enjoy a drink together. It’s so huge to us that it’s hard to imagine a world without it.”
While his next record will hopefully materialize in a more professional setting, Lewis is hyper-aware of the way the pandemic might affect its sound, largely through its erasure of his primary source of creative input: the club. The change has forced him to look inside himself for inspiration. He’s lightly scratched the surface of this process with his entry into vocal performance, teasing out the anecdotal lyrics on “Chemicals” and “Fall,” he said. Mainly, though, he just feels like a kid on the first day of school, taking in the possibilities and absorbing as much music as he can. It’s only a matter of time before we see the fruits of this labor.
“Music is really the only thing that I love like this. It sounds corny. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and it’s the last thing I think about when I go to bed,” Lewis said. “There’s nothing else that does what music does for me in this life that I’ve found.”
Editor's Note: After this interview, SG Lewis announced an official album launch party for “times,” scheduled for June 25th, 2021 in London. “Think friends, family, good times, b2b DJ sets with some of my pals, and everything in between,” he wrote on social media. A raffle for a pair of tickets concludes Friday, February 26th at midnight GMT.