Harry Lewis was playing with his band, Smash Palace, at J. C. Dobbs, a popular South Street nightclub in Philadelphia. The house was packed as I squeezed past the waiting line. “Nice crowd, “I commented, as I found Harry in his dressing room, fiddling with his drumsticks. I wanted to get acquainted with Harry prior to the first set to have a comfortable atmosphere for the interview at the end of the night.
I found Harry to be a very laid-back person, with a gentle personality and a calm air about him, but when I watched him play, he was a most powerful player. He was the kick in the band. His movements were overemphasized, and his sound cut through like a cannon. Also, although his concentration was intense, he offered direct eye contact with the audience.
As an entertainer, Harry’s energy seemed endless, but despite this, he did not overpower the music. Instead, he added a quality of sound that complemented each song. After the final set, Harry mingled a while with the crowd. Then, he moved toward the dressing room, where we began our interview.
HL: I can think back to the age of seven. One of my cousins had a drumset, and he showed me how to hold the sticks. I carried them around all day, so I wouldn’t forget how to hold them. As soon as I got home, I actually carved a pair of drumsticks from a tree branch. I used some old cookie tins for drums and just had a good time.
In fourth grade, we were introduced to different instruments and allowed to take an instrument home. If we liked it, we had an opportunity to buy it. I already knew I was going to be a drummer. The school offered lessons, and we were taught to read a little bit. Other than that, I’m self-taught. When I got to high school, I played in the marching band, orchestra, and dance band.
I’ve only been in two bands before Smash Palace. We played pop, rock, and a couple of cover songs, but it was mostly originals. While I was in my second band, I heard about the opening with Smash Palace. I was friends with Phil Barnett, the bass player, and I called Phil to set up an audition. That was it!
We rehearsed at least six months before we ever played a gig. We didn’t want to start with a bad reputation. We got a good response right away, even though we started in a small club in South Jersey. Later, we started playing in Philadelphia clubs and hooked up with our manager, Chris Evans, who found us gigs in New York City. The next step was a record contract.
DS: Was that a long-term goal?
HL: I never really had any long-term goals. I’ve always taken my drumming one step at a time. When I reach one goal, I shoot for another. Ten years ago, my goal was to play in a band that worked in clubs. After that, I wanted to play to larger crowds. That has happened. Next, I wanted a record contract, and we got it. We signed with Epic/CBS Records and recorded our album in Toronto. Our producer was Tom Treumuth. The album was mixed in New York by Bill and Dave Wittman. The album was released in October, and it’s doing really well. We had our first tour with Mr. Mister and other scheduled concert stops.
DS: Tell me a little more about the recording.
HL: I spent the first morning checking the drums. The rhythm tracks were recorded while the entire band played together. My sound took about five to six days. We recorded the album in three weeks, and it took another two months to mix.
DS: Would you do anything different in recording a second album?
HL: I think there will be a few changes for the next album. I don’t have to play as hard to be effective. During our first album, I played with as much energy as I could. I think that, if I play with a little less power, it may even come out better.
DS: Tell me about the video.
HL: We went out to Los Angeles to do the video. We were there for five days. We spent the first day traveling. During the second day, we planned the video. On the third and fourth days, we worked hard! We spent 15-hour days shooting. It was hard work but a lot of fun.
DS: What distinguishes you from other drummers?
HL: My power, mostly. When I get in front of people, I put everything into it. I try to make direct eye contact with the people in the audience and do certain things that set me apart. I tend to overemphasize my strokes to add to the show. Sometimes I pick up habits of other drummers and try them out in my act. Every drummer is a little different from the next.
DS: How would you describe your style of playing?
HL: I try to put on a terrific show. I try to please the audience, instead of other drummers. My style is very serious and direct. When I play, I mean it. I don’t have any hidden tricks. I’m a basic 2 and 4 drummer who doesn’t like to play intricate fills just straight-ahead power drumming. It’s the kind of sound this band calls for. When I’m on stage, the number-one thing is the music. I want the music to sound great. I don’t want the drumming to stand out and detract from the songs.
DS: You’re well known on the Philadelphia music scene as a good, hard drummer, and the word is spreading.
HL: I never went out to play drums just so I could become the world’s finest. I just go out, have a good time, and play how I play the best I can.
DS: What style grip do you use?
HL: I use matched grip. I think it looks better, and I can hit harder. If I were to play in a jazz band, I would use the traditional grip. I can get better control of my left hand, since I learned to play that way originally.
DS: Describe your setup.
HL: I have a Tama Imperialstar X-tra drumset. The extra-deep drums fit my style of playing. I use a 16 x 22 bass drum. My two toms, mounted on the bass drum, are 13×14 and 14 x 15. My floor tom is 16 x 18. My snare drum is by Sonor. It’s 6 1/2″ deep and has a seamless ferro-manganese steel shell. Occasionally, I use an 8″ Ludwig snare in addition to the Sonor. I set the Ludwig snare to my left and use a digital reverb on it. It sounds like a cannon. All my cymbals are Zildjian. I have 18″ and 19″ Rock crash cymbals, 14″ Rock hi-hats, an 18″ China-Boy, and a 22″ Earth ride cymbal. All my cymbals have a Brilliant finish.
DS: If someone asked you what a drummer is to a band, how would you respond?
HL: The drummer and the bass player are the driving forces in the band. The drummer is the central part of the energy and provides a reference point for the people on the dance floor.
DS: Do you believe audience response helps your playing?
HL: Most definitely. When I first started, my band wasn’t very good. Sometimes the reaction we received from the audience wasn’t very good either. I could always hide behind my drums in that case. Luckily, the band I’m in now has a great following. I could play forever under those circumstances.
When I see people moving to the music, I’m really flattered. It’s a good feeling! When I see people watching me, I try to put out extra effort I like to show off a bit, too, and twirl my sticks. I just have a great time.
DS: Do you believe it doesn’t matter what you’re playing, but how you play it?
HL: No, I don’t believe that. If you play something you don’t like, then you can’t put your heart into it.
DS: So you’re saying that, if there is a song you don’t like, you don’t put your heart into it?
HL: That’s not necessarily true. When you’re playing a set of ten songs, of course there are going to be songs you don’t enjoy playing. But I always put my heart into the whole set.
DS: There are probably thousands of good drummers who haven’t gotten a break yet. Do you feel particularly lucky?
HL: I was in the right place at the right time. That had a lot to do with it. I used to follow Smash Palace before I was in it. I actually waited for the drummer to leave. Then I auditioned. My advice would be to hook up with a band an original preferably and get gigs. If the band doesn’t work well, just play your best and try to make a name for yourself.