When your debut album lands you four Grammys — including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year — there’s a lot of pressure to deliver on the follow-up. That’s what Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were faced with following the release of their hugely successful debut, 2012’s The Heist. Careful not to rush things, they took their time putting together their sophomore release, this year’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. The album features guest appearances from stars both old-school (Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One) and new (Chance the Rapper, Ed Sheeran), not to mention big-screen actor/musician Idris Elba.
It’s also spawned a new full-scale international tour. And since Lewis and Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) have been customers and fans of Pond5 for quite some time now, we caught up with them as they hit the road to talk about the new record, their elaborate stage set-up, and how our vast library of multimedia content plays into their grand vision. Read on for your glimpse behind the scenes of a world-conquering global pop juggernaut.
Describe a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis show — the stage, the screens, the experience. How does mixed media play a part in it?
Ryan Lewis: The stage is a massive diamond, filled with smaller diamonds that can rise or sink into the floor. Catwalks spine out of both sides. The screens split into three displays that move throughout the stage, or sync together as one massive display. This makes for a very dynamic experience. We can get absolutely bonkers, or we can shrink down to an intimate show. Mixed media plays a huge part in this — everything is working together. You have a foundational instrumental with live musical performance over the top, screen videos synced and matching the tone visually, physical assets on stage, choreography — it’s a rollercoaster.
You guys are about to embark on a major European tour. Which tour stops are you especially excited about? Where do you want to go that you haven’t been?
Ryan Lewis: I’m on it right now! I’m most excited for Dublin, I would say. We’re spending a week there. Some of my family is flying out and it’s one of my favorite cities in the world. If I could go somewhere I haven’t been before, I would say I’m really excited to go to South America. It’s an area of the world I’ve never been.
How was it working with all the guests on the album? What was your most memorable collaborative moment?
Macklemore: I always really enjoy collaborations. Whether it’s on record or behind the camera, working with creative individuals I have a long-lasting relationship with, or have literally just met, is really inspiring. Out of the collaborations on TUMIM, I’d have to say “Downtown” was SO full of collaboration, it was a highlight. The OG’s, Eric Nally, all the musicians I experimented with, Jason Koenig, and the music video experience — it was dope.
How did you sync up with Idris Elba?
Macklemore: Idris is exceptionally talented. I knew him as an actor and quickly discovered he’s a rapper, DJ, you name it. We hit him up and he was gracious enough to bless the dance floor.
How does Pond5’s video collection compliment your music and lyrics? Do you choose videos that relate to your lyrics literally, or is it more of a montage feel that you’re trying to convey?
Ryan Lewis: Pond5 has become my essential tried-and-true platform for developing stage content. It’s an endless archive of creative works, old footage, color palettes, and textures that allows me to explore a thought I have in my head and see how closely I can actualize it. I would say 30-40% of our visuals I directly match to the lyrics, but the majority of our content is brand new ideas or mood boards.
You have a sizable volume of media sourced from Pond5. What are some of the ways you use the material in addition to your tour screens?
Ryan Lewis: I’ve used Pond5 content in music videos before. There is such a stockpile of 8mm footage — I used Pond5 in “Same Love.”
Do you compile your video collections with very specific usage in mind or sometimes just download content that speaks to you that you’ll find a place for in the future?
Ryan Lewis: Both. It depends on what I’m making. If I’m making visual content for “Dance Off,” that’s a pretty concrete concept and vision. But I’m usually making folders of random useful content along the way, like “weather” or “worldly” or “fire and flames.” Stuff like that. You never know what you’ll need.
For those who don’t really know Pond5, why do you choose to use us for your creative needs, and who else would you recommend give us a try?
Ryan Lewis: I recommend Pond5 to anyone exploring a visual idea and seeing what exists to create it. Anyone looking for textures, designs, stock footage, old footage, you name it. If you’re working on live visuals, music videos, or promo videos, it can be immensely helpful.
What’s changed for you in the way you approach making music since you first started out?
Ryan Lewis: I’ve been focusing on actually becoming a better musician. My job encompasses a lot of different things you can practice — writing, composition, beats, mixing textures, recording, lyrics, song structure. I think lately I’ve been trying to move away from producer execution and back to the basics, music theory.
What do the Seattle Seahawks have to do to get back to the Super Bowl?
Ryan Lewis: They need a new anthem. Working on it.
All photos by Zoe Rain.