Friendship At Heart Of Stephen Lewis and the Big Band of Fun

Photo by Brandon Toomey

You think you had a hectic weekend last week? Chances are that Fredericton’s Stephen Lewis has you beat.

Last Thursday, Lewis and his band mates in the funk-oriented Big Band of Fun – Jonah Haché and Marco LeBreton – left New Brunswick for performances at multi-disciplinary festivals in College Corner and Garrettsville, Ohio.

While everything looked good on paper, a delayed stage time at the first festival meant the group only started playing at 2 a.m. By the time they walked off stage, they had no choice but to drive the almost 500 kilometres to their next show – an early afternoon slot – without the benefit of stopping and sleeping for the night.

But now that the entire 5,000-kilometre journey that brought the trio through seven states is now squarely in their rear-view mirror, Lewis can reflect on the experience:

“I’m exhausted, but it was worth it,” he says.

While going to such great lengths for the sake of two performances might not be plausible for all independent acts, it is that commitment that has earned Lewis and the Big Band of Fun the hearts of fans right across Canada and the U.S.

The singer began playing south of the border as a solo act approximately three years ago, and, finding an audience for his unique approach to playing live – Lewis relies on creating loops of music to emulate a full-band – continued chipping away at the vast market.

Those little gains made over the course of the last few years have begun paying dividends in terms of broadening the group’s fanbase.

“It’s like almost anything to do with a band – it’s an investment, making sure we play as often as we can. There’s a good-sized market and interest for what we are doing. Not that jam bands and related festivals aren’t popular here in Canada, the audiences just tend to be much larger in terms of the amount of people we are reaching.”

Lewis’ path to the present day, and his inspiration to originally go it alone as a one-man band before recruiting Haché and LeBreton, stemmed from a bad experience he had with a former group last decade.

He says while the band had a number of things going in their favour, they struggled with aspects of being a group, leading to the eventual departure of their bassist and drummer.

Frustrated with the experience, Lewis took a one-year sabbatical from playing music before ultimately returning to establish himself as a one-man band.

“It was actually my mother that spurred me to get back into music. She knew I played bass, guitar, and keyboard and asked what I could do to leverage these various talents while playing alone. For my birthday that year, she got me a looping pedal, just so I could explore what I could do with it,” he says.

To Lewis’ delight, he quickly found an audience, and went on to release two efforts as a solo artist, 2013’s Peanut Butter & Jam and Life’s A Garden in November 2015.

And while the one-man band configuration was working out well for the artist, he found a kindred creative spirit in Haché, who he met at a regional music festival.

“Jonah messaged me and suggested we get together and jam sometime. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a path I wanted to go down, given the experience I had with my former band, but talking more about the music we were each making on our own, and sharing those ideas led to us starting to play shows together. One thing just led to another and here we are today.”

Lewis shares that Marco LeBreton’s arrival as his drummer happened in a similarly serendipitous way.

“Jonah and I were playing a festival and Marco was on the bill with another band. Jonah convinced me to bring Marco on stage to play the last three songs of the set. At first, I thought the idea was ridiculous – this guy I didn’t know was going to come up on stage and play three songs he’s never heard before – but I went with it anyway. It was that performance that cemented the idea that I could work in the configuration of a band again. I’m so happy that we’ve arrived at this point.”

With a plethora of material to draw from for their next album – their first as a band, which Lewis hopes to begin making headway on later this year – the singer believes a key part in making this group work has been maintaining open lines of communication with each other.

“It’s going to sound incredibly sappy, but what keeps us moving forward, and why I think we work so well together, is the fact that we love and respect one another. In a situation like last weekend where the pressure is on and everyone’s tired and hungry, that’s where things usually tend to go wrong. It’s easy to start snapping at one another in those situations. Instead, we focus on the positive and just help prop each other up.

What: Stephen Lewis and the Big Band of Fun with Nebullama
When: Friday May 12, 10 p.m.
Where: Tide & Boar Gastropub, 700 Main St., Moncton
Admission is $10