Two years into attending Central Saint Martins – University of the Arts London, Lewis James started spending less time in class and more time on tour with Drake. “I was getting letters and all this sh– saying, ‘Are you even a student here?’ My teachers kind of hated me, but it was cool because I was in London designing things that weren’t real yet.”
James, who studied graphic design, always had an interest in architectural design, technology and video. He recalls being blown away by Gorillaz’ music videos at a young age and, inspired by their cartoon-like nature, took up a weekly animation and filmmaking course when he was just 11 years old.
Now, nearly 15 years later, James, 25, has worked with everyone from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Post Malone — and even more emerging artists like Canadian alternative singer Tate McRae. James calls social media “a great catalyst” and says that once a friend tapped him for Drake’s Summer Sixteen Tour that everything snowballed from there. Soon enough, he was teaming with creative director Travis Brothers for Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys Tour in 2018. They’ve remained “partners in crime on all things Post” ever since.
Lately, James has been designing a handful of televised performances for the American Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards and, most recently, Wednesday’s Billboard Music Awards — but says with TV, “There’s only so much you can do.” That hasn’t stopped him from pushing the boundaries of what a made-for-TV awards show performance can be, best evidenced by his latest triumph with Post Malone and Tyla Yaweh’s BBMAs set, filmed in a remote location.
“It was just an explosion of all the ideas we’ve had for a while,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a crazier team to get sh– done.”
Post Malone — 2020 Billboard Music Awards
Ahead of helping design and creative-direct Post Malone’s 2018 Coachella set, the artist’s manager, Dre London, told Lewis to come by a studio on Sunset to meet the team for the first time. Lewis showed up with a laptop and several ideas, to which Post Malone replied something to the effect of: “Sick, f—ing love it.” As Lewis says, “As long as we put a lot of explosions in there, usually it’s OK. So this [BBMAs performance] was perfect, because Post loves fire and anything that makes a loud noise.” Lewis and his creative partner, Travis Brothers, had wanted to stage and direct an offsite performance for a long time, and figured with the ongoing pandemic, now was the perfect time to explore untraditional spaces. So they found a quarry 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles, which they picked both for its remote location and also the giant machinery that lent itself to scalable filming. Lewis — who was directing along with Brothers remotely — says some aspects of the performance were “a bit of a nightmare,” from the crew dealing with wet and muddy sand to loading in gear until 3 a.m. But even so, because the live music industry has been on hold for so long, he says the energy on set was higher than ever. They loaded in massive PA systems to blast music (Post Malone and Tyla Yaweh, who joined in for his “Tommy Lee” collaboration, were both equipped with in-ears and their live audio was captured on set), and Lewis estimates they spent $80,000 on the fireworks alone. “We had the opportunity to just make something huge,” says Lewis. “We really wanted to go crazy with it.”
Tate McRae — 2020 MTV Video Music Awards
Lewis first met emerging singer-songwriter Tate McRae over a webcam while helping her ideate her MTV Video Music Awards pre-show performance of her debut hit “You Broke Me First” this August. He was intrigued, from a design standpoint, by the fact that McRae is a professionally trained dancer and worked with her creative director on a simple concept that used dramatic lighting and costuming to spotlight her vocals and moves. “She had all the choreo, so there’s all that stuff you can play with in terms of the shape of the uniform and how that reacts with light and what we can do there,” says Lewis. “She’s just got a whole other skill set that lends itself really well to performance.” Plus, he says, she has an unparalleled work ethic: For the shoot [in Toronto], we just shot back-to-back nonstop dancing, like a Black Swan sort of thing.” Lewis strongly believes that every stage he helps design, no matter if it’s for an entire tour or a single TV spot, should have a concept and narrative, but with younger and newer talent in particular, it’s all about finding a balance. “You don’t want to overkill it when we start, just keeping it beautiful and simple,” he says. “I think that’s what comes across in a lot of Tate’s stuff, just letting her speak.”
Post Malone, Travis Scott and Ozzy Osborne – 2019 American Music Awards
Ahead of designing a new stage or performance setup, Lewis always starts by sketching it out on paper. “I think when you start from a computer, you’re going backwards,” he says. “You need to see it in space.” As a result, he not only has a massive archive of staging blueprints, but has also been able to physically map out an iconic moment in each of his performances. For the epic Post Malone, Travis Scott and Ozzy Osbourne performance of “Take What You Want” at last November’s AMAs — which Lewis can only describe as “a trip” — that moment came when producer-guitarist Watt seemingly tossed his guitar in the blazing flames onstage (Lewis now has that wrecked guitar in his possession). “[There has to be a moment] to stick in people’s minds,” he says. “Just having that iconography in their performance that the audience can latch onto.”
Post Malone – 2018 Beerbongs & Bentleys Tour
One of Lewis’ favorite moments from his first tour with Post Malone was the artist’s performance of “Blame It on Me.” Lewis recalls spending $13,000 just on fog for the whole tour — another effect he’s a huge fan of. “I’m always at the front of house tapping the lighting director on the back shouting, ‘More fog, more fog!’ and giving him cues when to blast it,” says Lewis. He says with “Blame It on Me” in particular, they piled it on so that Post Malone was entirely concealed at the start, though appeared on screens thanks to an onstage thermal camera. Meanwhile, the arena was only illuminated by 20-foot-high flames that Lewis says radiated enough heat for fans to feel no matter where their seats were. “I like to bring in a little bit of a weird aspect to the shows as opposed to just, you know, running a live show on what a live show is meant to be,” says Lewis. “It’s putting people in a state of the unknown, and they’re just curious for what’s going to happen next. That’s a very good spot for people to be in.”