We spoke with Stephen Lewis about Leave The Lights On, his debut single with the Big Band of Fun and asked what worries, if any, he had about releasing music after years of existing strictly as a live band.
The music business is a mystery. It always has been. Always will be. You could form a band, release a dozen albums over as many years, maybe even get a few favorable reviews, and still be left wondering if you made the right career choice. You could also form a band, not release any music whatsoever, and play the biggest festivals anywhere. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it.
Just look at Stephen Lewis & the Big Band of Fun. Over the past five years they’ve appeared on some of the most coveted festival stages in the world of popular music – Glastonbury, Mountain Jam, Burning Man – without ever releasing a song. Not even an instrumental. Nothing. Zip. Zero.
Last week, Stephen Lewis & the Big Band of Fun broke form and shared their debut single, Leave The Lights On. The song debuted on CBC Radio’s East Coast Music Hour on March 19.
For Lewis, who owns and operates Marshall Studios with his bandmate Jay Merrill, choosing to release the band’s first single wasn’t an easy decision. Would their audience move with them from the stage to the studio? And does it even make sense to attempt bridging these two worlds after finding so much success without ever formally releasing a studio recording?
“There was a lot of hesitation in releasing the studio track after building an entire career based on our live performances,” said Lewis. “Also, there was some hesitation in only releasing this as a single because there are a lot of elements in this one that are a bit different than what we are known for.”
After a first listen, the song and its delivery sound more softened than what audiences have come to expect from the group. With its cascading synth pads, polished vocal effects and various programmed elements, Leave The Lights On sidesteps the uptempo groovy neo-funk that has helped shape the band’s nightly setlists from the beginning.
Up to this point, Stephen Lewis & the Big Band of Fun have been known entirely as a ferocious live act mixing flawless musicianship with a level of on stage charisma few can compete with. None of that energy is immediately present on the band’s first studio offering. But after a second and third listen, you can start to hear how the song could translate live. Shifting between driving momentum and occasional pauses in rhythm, Leave The Lights On presents a variety of exciting dynamic possibilities that will no doubt prove to be a rousing landscape for Lewis and his band to explore and reinterpret on stages this summer.
“Ultimately, Jay and I really agree that we don’t want to ever be boxed in by genre. When we came up with this song we felt that it was too good not to put out there for people to hear,” said Lewis.
But as much as Leave The Lights On may come across something altogether different for the band, there are similarities that exist between this and every other song they’ve ever performed.
“The bass guitar and the rhythm guitar you hear on Leave The Lights On is actually Jay and I playing live, when we first came up with the riff idea,” said Lewis. “So even though it doesn’t necessarily translate fully into what we are known to do live, we did do our best to secretly hide the elements of the live show in this song.
“We also just really needed to get over the hurdle of being hung up on releasing music because at this point we probably have 40 different songs we could release,” he said.
In the end, Leave The Lights On is more than just a debut single. The decision to release a studio track and the confidence gained through the process has only helped strengthen the creative bond between Lewis, Merrill and their bandmates. It’s also a catchy AF, highly danceable song that may end up expanding the band’s reach, attracting new audiences, and opening up new opportunities down the road.
And finally, what would a Stephen Lewis & the Big Band of Fun song be without an underlying element of positivity?
“Leave The Lights On is a song about triumphing over the unthinkable,” said Lewis. “The mental health part is a big underlying theme of this song, and creating something that helps others forget about how hard life can be is the most beautiful thing we know.
“With the state of the world and all the craziness, we figured that leading with a song that has a hopeful message was a good idea – for everyone.”