Ryan McGuire and Louis Svitek have played with Lee for more than six years.
By Gil Kaufman
CHICAGO — Louis Svitek has seen plenty of rock and roll in his day. The music-industry veteran has played with hardcore bands such as M.O.D. and toured with industrial legends Ministry for more than a decade. But when a friend turned him on to an unknown, unassuming 17-year-old singer/songwriter named Lee DeWyze almost seven years go, Svitek took notice.
"Lee's got a great voice. I liked him. He was kind of shy, intimidated, nervous, and then when he sang it was just like ... I mean, he's got a fantastic voice," said Svitek, whose large presence, shoulder-length rocker hair, all-black ensemble and hardcore past seem to contrast with a gentle, soft-spoken spirit and admiration for DeWyze's mainstream pop/rock appeal. "I automatically saw that he had talent. And he starts singing all kinds of stuff and was nailing it. Lee's got that voice, and he can do just about anything and make it sound good."
Sitting in the production room at Chicago's Gravity Studios — where he was awaiting the final mix on "Princess (Reprise)," a new single he produced with business partner Ryan McGuire from an unused track recorded for DeWyze's second CD, January's Slumberland — Svitek and McGuire were happy to talk about their longtime bandmate and the first artist on their small indie label, Wuli Records, to hit the big time.
"I met Lee when he was 17 years old at a house party," said Svitek, who went on to play guitar in the Lee DeWyze Band right up until the singer left for "Idol" last winter. "A friend of mine was like, 'You really need to see Lee perform,' because I was already doing music and maybe I could do something and help him out and get [something] going."
The pair met, and when Svitek returned from a yearlong tour with Ministry, he began producing tracks for the teenage singer that would end up on 2007's So I'm Told, DeWyze's debut album and one of the first releases from the label he co-founded with drummer McGuire.
When the veteran musicians first got DeWyze into the studio, McGuire said the "Idol" finalist treated it like a "large lump of clay," and it wasn't long before Lee started asserting himself. "He wanted to do everything acoustic, just him, voice and guitar," McGuire said. "We kind of introduced him to loops, rhythms, drums, percussion and stuff, and he opened up to that." Svitek said the pair didn't really have to give DeWyze any direction, because the singer seemed like he already had a good idea of what he wanted to do.
Even more amazing, DeWyze had just picked up the guitar a few years earlier and, without any formal training, was already chopping out songs at a furious pace. "He would literally go outside and have a cigarette ... and come back and say, 'I just wrote a song,' " McGuire said. "And he'd play it, and then Louis would say the chord, and Lee would be like, 'No, I don't know what that is.' Till this day, he still does that."
With a love for sensitive singer/songwriters such as Dave Matthews and Cat Stevens, DeWyze definitely had a lane he was carving for himself, one that didn't seem to include "Idol." McGuire and Svitek stayed up late the night before last summer's Chicago "Idol" auditions, following a show with DeWyze, and they never imagined he'd end up where he is now. "He was going to do it for a couple of years, and he was just reluctant to [try out] and didn't want to go out and do the whole thing," said McGuire, who added that both men have repeatedly encouraged DeWyze to get a younger band because neither of the music vets are "spring chickens" anymore.
His baseball hat pulled down low over his eyes, McGuire leaned back in his chair at Gravity and smiled when asked to cough up a favorite Lee story as an example of whether Hollywood has gone to DeWyze's head. The tale happens to be a recent one, from a trip McGuire took out to Los Angeles to visit his friend in late April.
"He said, 'You're not going to pay for anything tonight,' " McGuire recalled. "We went out to a sushi restaurant, and then when he went to pay for it, he pulled out half a credit card, the bottom half with just the stripe, because he had sat on it and broke it. He pulled it out of his pants and gave it to the waitress. And I'm like, 'That's my guy Lee right there.' And of course, he's like, 'It works.' And it did work, so I don't think he's gone Hollywood yet. His clothing has changed a bit, but that's about it."
Though the judges have alluded to it at times on the show, one thing both men said most people don't know about Lee is that, despite his seemingly calm demeanor, he's a very, very nervous performer. "If he would come into this room right now and play in front of the six of us, he'd get nervous and probably have to go backstage and get his nerves and come back," said McGuire, who has seen DeWyze lose his lunch more than once before a show.
For now, both men are just watching "Idol" to see how Lee does and enjoying the healthy bump in sales for Slumberland and So I'm Told as a result of the exposure. "We have our hands full right now ... trying to get his product out there [and] making sure people hear what he's done before 'Idol,' because that's crucial," Svitek said. "That's his past, and that's definitely going to carry on to whatever he does on his third album."
How do you think Lee has grown on "American Idol"? Let us know in the comments.
See Lee DeWyze in Concert! Get American Idol Live tickets - Click Here!