Blake Lewis is the biggest star in America. The baby-faced, Redmond-born 25-year-old didn't even win this season's American Idol and yet he's a household name from coast to coast.
Household names, though, are typically scoffed at in the ghetto of music elitism. How can an artist maintain integrity while signing up for such a mass-market fabrication? Why even sign up? For most career musicians and music devotees, American Idol is a farce that's best ignored. Even Lewis will tell you so.
"The whole 'Hey, hey we're the Monkees' aspect of things," is how he puts it during a quick Seattle stopover between wrapping the show and hitting the road for a four-month Idol tour. "I stopped watching TV eight years ago because I can't stand it. Going into American Idol, I was like, what the fuck am I getting myself into?"
Lewis had a hard time with his first audition last September. He was crammed into KeyArena with 9,000 other hopefuls and asked to perform 30-second bits in a tiny, curtained cubicle, shuffling from one production assistant to another. It was the first time he'd ever felt nervous, he says.
"It's all about instant judgments. Being a musician out of Seattle who makes noise and beatboxes..." He pauses, as if the notion of such a freakish thing ending up on prime-time television is pure fantasy. "Everything's underground until there's support, and then when there's support people say you sold out."
Lewis had that support when he took a few rare nights off to perform with old friends in Seattle, sitting in with rock-reggae outfit the Mob Law and sci-fi jazzbos AriSawkaDoria earlier this month. It wasn't the anonymous, hormonal Blaker Girl boosterism that carried him to the finals of Idol, but a personal, hard-won respect he'd earned over five years of gigging around Seattle. Maybe there was some star-fuckery and attempted coattail-riding going on, but the honest hurrahs were more apparent. Which is why Lewis made a point of rocking a Fremont audience of 50 when he had just come from an international audience of close to 50 million.
"He's doing the same thing he's always done," says Ari Zucker, local guitar whiz and a friend of Lewis's for about four years. "He's always been just Blake, amazing beatboxer, great guy. That's how we've always known him and now the world knows him that way."
"Blake is himself, as an entity, and they just put him on TV and people love it," adds drums whiz Kevin Sawka, another of Lewis's peers and an underground hero in his own right. "There's so much crap on TV and they finally found something authentic. Like, this guy is for real. He's not the best, but he's great at what he does."
Culture has gone inside out when a beatboxing pop singer on American Idol can be called "authentic" by one of the most respected musicians in Seattle. Such is the looking glass of post-reality-show reality. But these guys have played with Lewis for a while, back when he was Bshorty, the scat-singing live-music junkie who held a weekly improv session at ToST for more than a year. They're also two-thirds of AriSawkaDoria, the backing band Lewis called for when Idol sent him to Seattle during semifinals weekend to play a pair of hometown shows.
"I felt like I was in the Beatles for a day," says Zucher. "I can equate May 11 with one of the best days of my life."
"Westlake Center—there were over 10,000 people there," Sawka says. "[Blake] came up from L.A. in a private jet and he had a limo and a bodyguard. Then we went over to Bothell and there were even more people there. I never signed so many kids' arms, fingers, shoes."
"There were more cameras and media, girls were screaming," Zucher continues. "We played for like 30,000 people that day."
Zucher and Sawka stand a lot to gain from Lewis's current close-up. They speak of points—credits given to songwriters or backing musicians who play on spec.
"One point on a record that sells three or four million—that's a lot of money," Sawka says. "That's a house."
Lewis appears on Sawka's new solo album (Cyclonic Steel, coming out June 26) and his existing association with AriSawkaDoria could also boost that band's debut CD when it arrives in August. They're likely candidates to be Lewis's band once his obligatory Idol tour is over in the fall. But they're hoping for more than lucre once Lewis releases his album this winter.
"It could potentially be the next wave of Seattle underground music," Zucher says. "It could happen."
Sawka's music on iTunes—sizzling, clubby drum 'n' bass—is already catching some of the spotlight reflected from Lewis. Those teenage Blaker Girls who turned on to beatboxing through Lewis's vocal version of "You Give Love a Bad Name" might get their first taste of Sawka's drum 'n' bass done pop style if Lewis gets his way on his solo record.
"It would be hilarious," Sawka says. "It would be counteracting the whole concept of pop—cutting it in half. He could redefine a musical genre, in a sense. We'd be laughing our way to the top."
Another Seattle mainstay has a more sober opinion. Michael Shrieve played in Santana's original band at Woodstock and on the Abraxas album. He's host of ToST's Monday-night sessions and Lewis's longstanding friend.
"There's always a trickle-down effect," Shrieve says. "But I don't know how much effect it'll have on Seattle."
Still, Lewis's old compatriots like Common Market and Blue Scholars are grabbing the spotlight on their own; another star rising from the Seattle underground can't hurt. "All the success he's got, he deserves it," says Mass Line DJ Sabzi, who went to high school with Lewis. "He's worked harder than anyone I know. He's just doing his thing and taking advantage of every opportunity."
Which includes wearing Common Market and Mob Law T-shirts on TV, repping his roots every chance he gets. That's how to maintain credibility while standing eyeball-to-lazy-eyeball with Paula Abdul.
"As much as I could, I tried to say something," Lewis says. "I wouldn't be in the place I am if I didn't have my friends."
All this attention coming back to Seattle, the city that Idol's judges claimed had the season's lowest talent denominator back in February? Underground musicians praising a TV star? The irony is rich. Lewis could be an entirely new brand of artist, performer, cultural lightning rod.
"My feeling is that anybody could've done it," Sawka says. "But many people don't wanna do it."
Zucher remembers footage of the Westlake concert. Lewis is holding up a sign with a picture of Simon Cowell on it: "Someone must've given it to him. It said 'Simon was wrong! Seattle rocks!'"