22 Questions with Paul Lewis

I think it was fall of 1989. My friends John and Cindy Cavanaugh called to say that “Paul’s band” was playing in Winston-Salem that night, and that they were driving up from Charlotte, and did I want to meet them for the show. Sure, what the heck. I’d been hearing about John’s old buddy Paul for a long time, and when you’re a single guy in my home town on a weeknight, pretty much any excuse to get out of the house is a good one.

That was my first encounter with YNOT?!, and it was one of those “omigod” moments that music fans have all too few of in their lives. This band just fucking raged. They had the sound, they had the songs, they had the look, but mainly they had this singer who just radiated presence – clearly, this guy was born to front a rock band.

Later that night I met Paul Lewis for the first time. And he pretty much blew me off. Which is funny, looking back on it, because Paul isn’t the sort who really does that to people. Mainly, he just hadn’t seen his best friend in months and had no idea who the hell I was.

In the years since, I’ve gotten to know Paul really well, and I’m a bigger fan than ever. I’ve watched him struggle, working desperately through the ups and downs of two bands and a host of personal challenges. And now, finally, I’m seeing the debut of his first solo CD, Get On With It, which was released late last year. As noted in the Pit’s Best CDs of 2001 review, it’s marvelous.

Paul recently made the time to answer a few questions from an old fan and friend.

1: What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make as you’ve moved from fronting YNOT?! to recording and touring as a solo artist? Do you miss a more collaborative environment, or do you prefer having complete creative control?

PL: The biggest adjustment has been being the one that makes the decisions, and I mean all of them. When touring with YNOT?! and Dead City Radio I had to rely on so many other people for things to get done and for the show to take hold. Touring as a solo artist is, quite frankly, easier. The marquee reads “Paul Lewis”; therefore, all I really have to worry about is me.

When I play with the group that I have now, if they need to move on…so be it. No issues. No arguments. No bullshit. YNOT?! and DCR went through so many personnel changes that it hurt the progress of the groups. When I went into the studio to make this record I knew exactly what I wanted. This recording was not about collaboration. Although I did write with three people on this record, it was about wearing different hats (I love hats by the way). I wanted and needed to write, arrange, produce, sing and play. I want a future in this business. In order for that to become a reality you have to be able to do it all. I still want to collaborate with other artists and I’m sure that I will.

2: What can we expect from you during the coming year – new CDs, major tours, what?

PL: A tour is in the works. It will begin this summer and we’re not sure right now when it will end. We will be hitting the tourist spots on the East coast, as well as the rock clubs from Boston to Florida. I have already been writing songs for the new CD. I hope to get back into the studio before the end of the year. MP3.com will soon have unreleased music available, including live YNOT?! and rare studio tracks from the past and present.

3: What was the last movie you went to see? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

PL: Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. I went with my daughter, Alyssa, and we both loved it!

4: The early days of your career were marked by turmoil, both personal and private. But things seem a lot more focused and stable for you over the past three or four years, especially. What’s the source of all this peacefulness?

PL: Well, put simply, my wife. About eight years ago I was unsure of my future as an artist, as a father and as a person. Nothing seemed to be going my way, then I met Michel and she helped turn my life around. My daughter was a huge inspiration as well. They loved me and supported me unconditionally. My father told me before I left that, “Alyssa will be OK. Go and learn something. You’re spinning your wheels out here.”

I moved to LA. Six months later my father died. I was devastated and scared shitless. Seven months after that my grandfather died. They had always told me to keep following my dreams. There was never a negative word from them. I was a mess after they died. I tried to hide it, but it was impossible. For two months I went on a drinking binge and made an absolute ass of myself. Then one day after a heavy night of drinking and stupidity, I quit drinking completely. So with the help of my wife and friends, I started to make things happen and it has been a positive trip ever since.

5: What’s your favorite song on the new CD to play live?

PL: I would have to say “She Speaks To Me.” I arranged it a little differently for the live performance. That’s all I’ll say. We have to have some mystery now, don’t we?

6: Two-part question: Was there music playing your “first time”? And what do you think is the greatest make-out album ever recorded?

PL: Actually there was no music. I was to busy trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. It would have to be a toss-up between Sade’s Promise and Roxy Music’s Avalon.

7: What non-musicians have most influenced your music?

PL: My father (who actually played piano and sang). My wife and my daughter, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Joe Orton, Andy Warhol, Keith Harring, William James, Oscar Wilde, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edgar Allan Poe, Stan Lee, Ridley Scott.

8: Popular music is experiencing a period of tremendous change, and nobody knows for sure what the landscape is going to look like when the smoke clears. What technological, social, economic, etc., trends in the industry strike you as most significant, and in what ways do you expect popular music to change over the next decade?

PL: Technology has fallen into the hands of the independent artist. Thanks to the Internet, the major labels are not as necessary as they once were to help promote and push an artist. Artists are able to make more money off of their music than ever before. There’s a crazy concept. The creator of the art is actually getting paid for the art.

I believe more advances are on the way that will not only make the large record labels obsolete, but agents and managers as well. Not that agents and managers aren’t helpful – in some cases they are. But many artists are finding ways around that thanks to the Internet. As a listener, I like to be moved by music. Not much of what I hear on the pop airwaves moves me. You’re somehow forced to believe that if it isn’t on the radio then it must not be good. That is yet another lie from corporate America.

9: What artist that you absolutely cannot stand to listen to do you respect the most? What artist that you have zero respect for do you listen to anyway?

PL: I would have to say that I respect Barbara Streisand, but I just can’t listen to her. She has done it all. I mean, Oscars, Grammies. She has directed, starred, the list goes on and on with this woman. She has allowed nothing to stand in her way and she’s had plenty going against her. She has overcome great obstacles in this business to be the enormous success that she has become. That’s something to aspire too.

Marilyn Manson is someone I just can’t respect, but I do listen to some of his stuff. It appears from what I’ve seen and read that he doesn’t care about his audience. Whether or not that’s true, I’m not sure, but one thing that I know to be a fact is that he doesn’t acknowledge who he really is and where he came from. He becomes quite irate when someone mentions it. That really bothers me more than anything. I am proud of the fact that my first six years were spent in the smallest of towns on the eastern shore of Maryland, a place called Bishopville, with my great-grandmother. We’re talking one road, one bridge, one store, one sheriff, etc. Then I lived in Salisbury and Ocean City, Maryland for a majority of my life. My father said to me once and only once, “be true to yourself.” My grandfather said to me once and only once, “no matter what happens, Paul, never forget where you come from.” So I can’t understand denying where you come from.

10: YNOT?! shows were always good for a healthy dose of glam theater, in addition to the music, but you seem to have moved away from some of these performance elements. Why?

PL: Now that I’m a solo artist I play with many different musicians and I need to conduct and play the guitar more. When I was with YNOT?! I didn’t have concern. I came from a strong musical and theatre background and each song had its own performance, so that’s what I did. I performed each song, instead of just singing it.

My writing, singing and playing has improved tenfold. I’ve recently put a band together on the East Coast that allows me to play less and perform more. So I haven’t really moved away from these performance elements. I just had to leave them on the back burner until my band was ready.

11: What’s your favorite TV show?

PL: Pay cable rules! I like the edgy stuff. HBO’s “America Undercover” is a great show. Actually any show on HBO… “The Sopranos,” “OZ,” “Sex In the City” (sometimes). I don’t watch a lot of regular TV anymore but I do like and watch “The West Wing” when I can. It’s a very well-written show. I recently started watching a show on FX called “The Shield.” A majority of TV is crap, but “The Osbournes” has to be the funniest show ever! Rock on, Ozzy!

12: What was the best live show of your career?

PL: It’s a toss-up. When YNOT?! played the 99.1 WHFS festival, there were about 25,000 people there and it was the most people I had ever played in front of before. We sold a ton of CDs after that show. And my first gig on the Sunset Strip about six years ago at The Roxy. It was just me and my guitar. Here I am, on the Sunset Strip for the first time in my life. I had no fan base in Hollywood. No one was there to cheer me on except my wife. I was a nervous wreck. I went on in front of a packed, very loud room. When I started the set, I began with an a capella verse of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” The room went quiet. I went into “Elizabeth,” and I had them. They had no idea who I was but after that many of them wanted to know. Those people are coming to the shows now. It was a great night.

13: Let’s say I could arrange for you to meet and have dinner with any one person alive today. Who would you choose?

PL: David Bowie, without a doubt. [Ed. Note: I knew I should have added “except for David Bowie” to this question.]

14: If we go back to the early ‘90s we find your old band not only playing with some people who later had major commercial success, but headlining those shows (and Hootie and the Blowfish come specifically to mind). How did a band as great as YNOT?! fail to make it big while other groups, some with substantially less talent, go on to find fame and fortune?

PL: YNOT?! should’ve made it, but due to poor management, lack of commitment from its members and too many personnel changes it just wasn’t meant to be. Learn from it and move on. That’s what I did.

15: What are the last three CDs you purchased?

PL: Let’s see…REM’s Reveal, Tears for Fears’ The Hurting, and the Christiane F. Original Soundtrack (all tracks by David Bowie).

16: Lately you seem to be dividing time between LA and your old stomping grounds on the Eastern Shore. Is the bi-coastal lifestyle something you enjoy, or is it driven more by professional necessity?

PL: In the beginning it was professional necessity and now I enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed the road. To be a touring act such as myself, the road becomes a part of you. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

17: If we’re doing one of those “music family trees,” in what neighborhood would you put yourself and what other bands would be in the near vicinity?

PL: I guess I would be completely surrounded. Classic R&B on one side, classic rock on the other, glam rock, punk, alternative, jazz and blues filling in all other sides. This tree would be very top-heavy with artists like Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Al Greene to Journey, Styx, Foreigner, and then Roxy Music, Prince, David Bowie, The Jam, The Sex Pistols, REM, The Cure, The Smiths to Billie Holiday, Herbie Hancock, BB King, and John Lee Hooker. Whew!

18: What was the first rock show you ever saw? What was the best rock show you ever saw, regardless of size of venue?

PL: The first rock show I ever saw was Blackfoot and Rick Derringer. I barely knew who they were. I was 11 years old. All I knew was that I was going to a rock & roll show and that was all that mattered. The best is a toss up between David Bowie at the Capital Ballroom in DC and Prince at the Key Club on the Sunset Strip. It was amazing to see these two icons playing these small intimate venues.

19: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but aren’t necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection that you hope people won’t notice when they come over?

PL: Do I really have to answer this? OK… I guess it would have to be Boy George and Culture Club.

20: If they were to make a TV mini-series based on your life, who would you want to play you?

PL: No doubt about it – Toby Maguire. Go Spiderman!

21: Radio has deteriorated so badly in recent years that there’s almost no risk of hearing good new music by listening to it (unless you’re lucky enough to live near a good college station). Do you see any hope for the resurrection of radio as a meaningful medium for new and non-corporate acts, or is it gone for good?

PL: I don’t think there is much chance of it getting better due to the fact that it’s based on money and advertising and until that’s no longer a factor it will continue to get worse until, well… the music actually matters. I’m not sure if that’s even a possibility. Maybe an uprising or revolt could stop it. Yeah, a revolution. Independent artists coming together to overthrow the corporate-run radio stations. Actually, thanks to the Internet it’s happening as we speak.

22: Who do you think are the three greatest male vocalists in rock/pop/R&B history? Female?

PL: This is a tough one, but I’ll try. Steve Perry from Journey, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and Al Greene. Now the females…Sheryl Crow, KD Lang, Aretha Franklin and Sade. Okay, that’s it. I know that’s four, but that’s as close as I can get.

“Learn to hear mermaids singing and peace will produce in you.”

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