Reverb Interview: Ricky Lewis on Working with The Weeknd

Getting called up to the big leagues is a study in do or die. The years of practice, playing, and focus most musicians experience are all for even just the slightest edge when the opportunity of a lifetime rolls around. But if you’re at the right place at the right time with the right talent, the rewards can be enormous.

Ricky Lewis is one guy who knows about those rewards. A seasoned musician with experience drumming for names like Canadian pop star Keshia Chante, Lewis is best known as the drummer for The Weeknd since the group started playing live shows in 2011. Moody, atmospheric, and intense, The Weeknd’s experience, attended by thousands per show, is anchored by Ricky and his command over the rhythm section.

We caught up with Ricky to talk about playing around the world, incorporating electronic elements into an acoustic set up, and where he draws influence from. Check out the interview below.

What’s it like going around the world with one of the biggest names in music right now?

Honestly it's a blessing; a lot of us live in different places so we don't always travel together, but for the most part, we travel together if possible but usually like for instance I'm one of the only ones that live in Canada and spend time here. Once we meet up in whatever city then, as a unit, we travel. I travel with my band mates all the time, too, or even when we're touring, literally we're all around each other almost 24/7.

Are you from Toronto, living there?

Yeah, born and raised. Born and raised.

When did you meet Abel [Tesfaye, founder of The Weeknd]?

I met Abel I think May of 2011.

So right around after he released House of Balloons, right?

Yeah, it was maybe a couple months after he had released HoB.

The Weeknd - "The Hills" (Live at The BRIT Awards 2016)

How did you start playing drums for The Weeknd?

Man, that story is a blessing in itself. It was kind of like right place, right time, you know? Basically, at the time I was doing a lot of bar gigs and playing for random artists and stuff in the city.

An old friend of mine who was playing with Abel at the time, a guitar player, he basically invited me to a rehearsal. From that, he was like, “Here’s the music, this artist is this amazing new up and coming kid. You should really check him out.” So of course I did, and he gave me the music. I basically studied it, showed up to rehearsals with them, and that rehearsal process is basically where I first met Abel.

Who were you playing with prior to doing these rehearsals?

Well I was playing a bit with an artist called Keshia Chante. She's a Canadian artist. She also hosted 106 and Park for a bit as well. I had a rock band that I used to play in as well called VanessAlegacy.

What was your background like? When did you start playing, who were your influences?

Ricky Lewis

Ricky Lewis

Oh, man. Actually, I'm lucky because my family is all musicians, so I started playing drums watching my older brother, who is also a very talented, well-known drummer.

I used to follow him around to all of his gigs and he let me sit right behind the kit. I'd watch him play so I could get a good view of how he interacts with other musicians and stuff like that, even understanding the whole process of learning music, bringing it to the actual show, and how to interpret it live.

My brother is a huge influence for me when it comes to music and drumming. And like I was saying, my family, they're all musicians. My dad plays multiple instruments and sings. My mom sings. My little sister, and a lot of my uncles and aunts, we all play and sing as well, so I have a very musical family.

A family affair.

Yeah.

Do you get a Lewis Family Band going in your downtime when you're not touring?

Definitely. Actually, you know what's really funny? Every year, when me and my brother are in town, we have a family reunion and bring instruments. We all play and jam out for hours together.

Oh, nice!

Yeah it's just a really cool family experience that I love, you know?

Totally. One thing that always seems like kind of a paradox in The Weeknd's music is that there is so much emotion and so much atmosphere, yet a lot of it is electronic-based, which people can see as sterile, kind of processed. How do you translate those electronic elements into a live format?

Man, it takes discipline and balance. There’s a time and a place for everything: as a drummer, I might want to always play an acoustic kit, but that's not what's always called for. I have to find a way to balance between the electronic and acoustic. So the samples, all of the different important parts that are in Abel's music, and the actual acoustic kit. It’s basically finding ways to blend them together.

Was this the first instance where you started incorporating sample pads and trigger pads into your acoustic kit, or had you done that previously?

Oh, I mean, I've done that previously. I did that a little bit for Keshia Chante and also for that rock band, that rock group that I had.

I had a very small, minimal pad, like an SPDS, that I would use for a lot of the different samples and stuff like that back then. I guess over time, like just the way that The Weeknd's music works, it kind of drew me more into the world of electronics and finding different ways to bring those same songs to life.

Roland SPD-SX

Roland SPD-SX

What are you using now for the samples?

I'm using the SPDSX, so it's a version above that.

That covers all your bases?

Pretty much. Actually, for my tour setup, I have two of them. The one on my left side I have for all of the main samples. Then there are certain songs that strictly sample bass.

For instance, for the verse for “The Hills,” there are these hi-hats, closed and open hats, snares and bass drums. I’ll basically play both parts in songs, like [those samples] on my left side, and when I go to my acoustic kit, I have triggers connected to it. The SPDSX is for those triggers and I have a double foot pedal that's set up to the right of my normal pedal that's connected to my bass drum.

Oh wow, okay.

Yeah and I use that to trigger all of the electronic bass drums so I don't have to turn my body all the way to one side to play any specific parts.

Roland PD-85BK

Roland PD-85BK

That's really streamlined.

It really is. I mean, it has to be. When I first started with Abel, when we did the Kiss Land Tour, I had these huge PD85-like Roland pads, four of them set up to the right side of my kit. It was so fun to play because it looked like an electronic kit set up on the side, you know?

But at the same time, it was difficult to go from playing something like “Belong to the World” and then having to switch and literally jump to the other side of my kit and play like “High for This” or something. Over time, I had to develop ways to, like you said, streamline my approach to getting to each song.

I know like you're a seasoned guy, but was it just another ballpark when you went on that first tour with The Weeknd in terms of the crowds you were playing to?

Oh for sure, man, for the actual experience myself, yeah. But I mean, again, I'm blessed; I have a lot of good friends, and again, my older brother, and things that I find to kind of help me prepare and be ahead of the game in terms of knowing what to expect. Kind of like finding the right way to prepare to play in front of like crowds at that level, but yeah, man, the first couple of shows were crazy. I have never seen anything like that in my entire life.

What was the first show that you played with him?

The first show that we ever did was the Mod Club in July of 2011. It was actually Abel's first show as well.

Oh, nice.

Yeah, so I've been there since the beginning.

Oh yeah, so you were there for that Coachella performance like, what, four years ago?

Yeah that was me, man. Before I even had dreads, too.

You had that like apple fade Yamaha kit, right?

Yeah.

Actually, on the subject, you're with Tama now, right?

Yes, I am.

How did you develop that relationship with Tama?

I mean, I've always loved Tama drums, you know? Part of wanting to use Tama drums was some of the drummers that I looked up to.

Ricky Lewis and his Tama Starclassic Performer B/B

Ricky Lewis and his Tama Starclassic Performer B/B

Like who?

For instance, Brian Frasier Moore. [He] was a big influence for me, especially when it comes to playing electronics and acoustic drums together. I guess I was chasing the tone and sound of his drums. The logo I saw was Tama, so I was like, “Man, I'm like in love with the company.” Even other guys like Little John Roberts, man.

Oh yeah.

Yeah, he's another guy for me, too and another reason why I fell in love with Tama drums, so yeah.

When I was like 13, my dad got me this canary yellow [Tama] Rockstar kit from the '80s from one of his buddies.

[Laughs] Oh, crazy.

I love the brand. It's also interesting looking at Tama's roster and thinking of names that I immediately associate with the brand; it's all either R&B fusion guys or straight death metal.

Heavy rock, death metal, yeah.

What have you guys got coming up in the future? Are you doing some touring with The Weeknd, or you going to be playing with some other outfits? What have you got going for the summer?

Man, honestly, as far as I know, we have a festival coming up in I think October, October 28th and it's in New Orleans—I'm not sure.

Voodoo, it's the Voodoo Festival.

Yes, there we go, it's the Voodoo Festival, yeah.

I think that's the next big event that we have. I think we have something else lined up in Paris in a week or two. I'm not sure exactly, I think it's a fundraiser of some sort, but yeah, other than that as always we have a fall tour happening later on this year...

Sweet, dude. Ricky, thanks so much for talking with me and I don't want to keep you from staring out the window as you were.

[Laughs] Matt, you should see the view, man, honestly it's pretty good.

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