Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week, we’re featuring SG Lewis, a London-bred producer and DJ who’s collaborated with the likes of Clairo and Ray Blk, and is releasing a trio of club culture-influenced albums this year.
Put Pharrell, James Blake, and Bon Iver in a blender, add in a heavy serving of throbbing bass from a neon-lit London nightclub, and you’d have a taste of what SG Lewis has concocted over his short career. It hasn’t always been breakout hits and massive, three-part concept albums about club culture, of course.
Like so many other young creatives, the 23-year-old British export found his entrance into the industry though the pop culture goldmine of MTV. “It was that Neptunes and Timbaland era of pop music and hip hop,” Lewis recalls. “I remember watching a lot of music videos and behind the scenes shit based around that era. I became fascinated with the role of Pharrell and Timbaland as these artist/producers.” While the glory days of music television may be long gone, the seed that Lewis had planted watching TRL bloomed into a affinity for remixing tracks and dropping them into the internet — and it didn’t take long for his emotive, electronic sound to stick.
While taking on DJ residencies in London’s Chibuku Club and working on his own music, Lewis caught the attention of PMR Records thanks to a particularly mesmerizing remix of Jessie Ware’s “You & I (Forever)” in 2014. Two albums and collaborations with everyone from Toulouse to G-Eazy later, Lewis began to certify his place as one of Britain’s most captivating talents last year before cementing that status with January’s drop of “Aura.”
Shaking off the frost of the icy London winter, Lewis’s track with vocalist J Warner was a disco-infused breath of fresh air and signaled his most sprawling project yet: a three-part, 18-track concept album about club culture. Broken down as a sonic trilogy, Dusk, Dark, Dawn is the young artist’s ode to the dimly lit dance floors that have shaped his sound.
Fresh off the release of Dusk earlier this year and his surprise summer hit “Better” with Clairo a few weeks ago, we caught up with Lewis to talk embarrassing teenage band names, when to expect Dark, and his sweaty, anxious introduction to Pharrell and James Blake.
You got your start DJing at Chibuku Club and now you’ve this concept album, Dusk, Dark, and Dawn, about club culture. How has this environment influenced you?
It’s been a very formative environment for me and this album is an ode to those experiences I’ve had and my interpretation of music that is focused around club culture. There’s so much music involved in a night out in terms of the start, middle, and the end of the night.
I think it’s easy for people to write off club culture as this shallow thing people do — getting fucked up on the weekend or whatever. Some of my greatest experiences and memories have happened within the club scene and being in a room with other people. There’s music being played and, it’s kind of corny, but there’s this connection between all of these people. There are really beautiful moments in and around club culture that I’m trying to highlight and replicate.
With that said, is there anything you wish you could change about club culture in London?
Oh, definitely. That is all a very romanticized view of club culture at its best. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t played nights that are the stark opposite of that. With any scene, there is good and bad. If I could change anything… I can’t really tell people how to enjoy their night out because it’s unique for everyone but there are always issues when a scene becomes heavily commercialized. You have something that gets very popular and then money arrives and that tends to set a ticking bomb on the end of that scene. It’s what happened with dubstep. If I could change anything, it’d be keeping things genuine and keeping the control with the artists rather than with promoters.
Definitely. One thing that’s big here in Berlin is putting stickers over phone cameras so that you focus on the atmosphere rather than taking selfies.
Yeah! Even when I’m DJing, people want to take photos. Stickers over phone cameras might seem quite drastic but it’s necessary because clubs need to be these places of escapism. If people are just trying to document their experience the whole time and there are flashes going off on cameras, they’re not going to be present in the moment and enjoying the night for what it is.
You were in a few bands as a teenager. What was the worst band name you played under?
(Laughs) My first band was called The Superheroes — we thought that was a good idea. We literally went into Topman and bought these Superman t-shirts that were popular with 12-year-olds at the time and we stood on stage at school and thought we were really cool. We thought all the girls would be really into it but looking back, I think it was pretty lame.
Yeah, I’d imagine the girls probably weren’t that into it either.
No, no. We were just these sexually frustrated kids trying to impress everyone.
Your top three musical influences are Bon Iver, James Blake, and Pharrell. Have you met any of them?
Yeah, it’s kind of a crazy story. I had a song put in the HBO show called Ballers by Scott Vener who is a music plugger, and he does a [radio] show with Pharrell called OTHERtone on Beats 1. He invited me down to the studio where they were recording two years ago and I ended up meeting Pharrell. I lost my cool completely and was freaking out, but that’s not the craziest part of the story.
At the end of the evening, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I was set to go and asked Scott if Pharrell was gone because I wanted to thank him for having me. Scott said to follow him and he went down this corridor and knocked on a door of another studio and then gestured to come in. I walked into the room and James Blake and Pharrell were making a tune together. I completely lost the ability to even construct a sentence. So, I kind of met them both but I doubt they would remember anything other than just a nervous kid stumbling over his words.
I would’ve had to leave immediately because I could not handle that.
I was sweating and I’m a pretty anxious person anyway so I just went inside myself. There’s quite a funny photo because Scott asked if I wanted to take a picture with Pharrell. I stood next to him and he does this sort of prayer hand pose in photos a lot and I was so nervous and didn’t know what to do with my body so I looked at him and saw him do that pose so I just copied it. There’s me sweating trying to do this prayer hand pose. All of my friends texted me saying it was a really cool photo but asked what the fuck I was doing because I’ve never done that pose in my life.
Your breakout hit was “Warm,” which was obviously about a breakup. How’d that person react to it?
(Laughs) Yeah, I’d been through a breakup but the person was pretty happy about it. It’s not really a “fuck you I hate you” song. It’s kind of a nice song and very complimentary.
You wrote that song with Sophie Cooke in your parent’s attic. Are you parents big fans of your music?
They’re my biggest superfans. My dad has Twitter now and spends all day tweeting Radio 1 saying to play SG Lewis or replying to Radio 1 DJs. It’s gotten to a point where one of them, Clara Amfo, knows who he is and responds to him asking how his day is going.
At least your dad knows how to use Twitter, you know? That’s impressive.
He’s on Instagram too!
You’ve got to be careful about what you post on there now.
That’s true as well. He’ll text me asking why I’m smoking.
Of course. Now, you’re friends with Dua Lipa. When can we expect a song together?
(Laughs) We both have huge love for each other’s music and have spoken about it a bunch. She’s killing it so much right now so whenever I see her, we just hang out and catch up instead of talking about getting into the studio. I’d love to work together in the future and I’m sure it’ll happen naturally.
Can you give a set date or timeline for when Dark will be out?
The first tune is coming in a few weeks and then the whole thing will drop pretty soon after that. I want to drop Dark quite quickly now that it’s finished and not string it out.
What can we expect from it?
The energy and feel of Dark is higher — the intensity and atmosphere is more aggressive. It’s moodier. There’s always a central running theme in my music and there’s a central sound that runs throughout the album. It’s not just six ten-minute techno tracks. It’s very much in-line with the music I make but more of an interpretation of different genres through my eyes. I’m excited to show off a few styles of music that people haven’t heard from me before.
Be sure to revisit our previous edition of Under the Radar with NYC’s Diana Gordon right here.