SAVANNAH musicians, cover your eyes and ears: we can’t have you getting any ideas.
2016 has turned out to be one of those transitory years of artistic exodus. One minute, we’ve got a huge roster of incredible local bands; the next, many are loading the van for the last time and leaving Savannah for good. After prog/math rock pioneers Culture Vulture’s departure last month, another Savannah scene staple is heading to the Golden State: Ben Lewis.
Louisiana-born Lewis moved to Savannah as a child, falling into the original music scene as founding drummer of incredibly popular reggae/funk/dub band Domino Effect. When the group decided to part ways, Lewis turned to a loop station and kept writing. As a seasoned percussionist, Lewis takes looper technique above and beyond, creating unusual textures and beats, keeping the guitar uptempo and breezy, and delivering a richly optimistic performance.
After years as a Savannah favorite, gigging ‘round town and hosting weekly open jams at Barrelhouse South and Ampersand, Lewis is following his muse to Pasadena, where he’ll share his original sounds with the West Coast and grow as an artist. The Road to Cali Tour departs from North Beach Grill, so head to Tybee and bid farewell to one of Savannah’s brightest.
When did you start playing music around Savannah?
I started in the church scene, playing drums for four different churches. I left the church scene because it got to a point...I wasn’t into it, to say the least. I felt like I wasn’t in a position to be in front of people in that scenario.
I left it on good terms and started to put together a band, dropped out of college at 19 years old, moved to Missouri to record a record. And that bombed, but it got me out of the house, out of the city, and out of the depression I was in. As soon as I came back [to Savannah] I started Domino Effect.
Was it around the Domino Effect time that you began incorporating reggae and jam elements into your own music?
The influence on the reggae and progressive jam side didn’t start until I got involved with [Domino Effect’s] guitar player.
I was always straightforward in my songwriting: ‘Let’s get the theme across, let’s hit it and quit it in four minutes.’ I still try to hold myself to that now, especially, but the jam thing was just fun. It was fun to be 20 to 26, 27 [years old] and have our run. It was nice to be in a really progressive, improvising band.
Now with my band, we’re about playing clean, nice, tight music. If it’s over four minutes, we’re taking a solo out, a horn line—someone’s getting their feelings hurt! At the end of the day it’s not about feelings...we want it to be on the radio.
What’s the process like for you, of culling and trimming and focusing on those hooky, radio-ready elements?
I’m constantly trying to write an anthem. My songwriting starts with a melody I can’t get rid of and then I go, ‘Okay, that’s a song, this song’s gotta make it.’ I’ve got about 300 songs written, but the ones that really stick around are the ones that I wake up the next day brushing my teeth and hear the hook in my head.
I’m constantly writing hooks and possible things to put in a song. As a songwriter, it’s not necessarily my job to come up with what to say; it’s to be more observant.
You have a very positive spirit in your lyricism.
My songwriting’s all messages to myself. My job is to be as vague as possible, but as positive and uplifting as possible. I don’t do it on purpose; it just happens to come out like that. Even if it’s something negative, there’s this encouragement behind it.
What have you learned from playing in Savannah that you’ll take with you when you move?
Savannah has taught me so much as a musician, but Savannah is a place that can chew you up and spit you out as an original artist. You can play originals in front of 100 people and they won’t listen to that original song; that can press you. I’ve seen some artists in Savannah play an original song and I’ve seen no response from the audience. Then I don’t see them try to play an original song ever again and they slowly get out of the music scene.
Savannah is a tough place, surrounded by network of really talented musicians. The heavy cats in scene—Eric Moore [Voodoo Soup], Eric Culberson, Hitman’s been around for years—they’re staples in this town and for tourists, but these guys are really phenomenal players. Even the young guys—James Smith, CC Witt and Hunter Price on country side, Basik Lee—you see these people perform and go, “I gotta step my game up! I gotta become legit.” Savannah is on a certain level of quality. You gotta bring it. It’s made me the musician I am.
I’m predominantly a reggae artist, and I feel like the best thing you do for business is put your business in best market for that business. California is that place. I’ll go out for six, eight months then go to Hawaii, do two years of traveling, network in each city, plant seeds.
I have a really good opportunity in California, working with two promoters...
I’ve been in the Savannah music scene for years, but it’s time to go.