Pleasure Craft is the performance moniker of Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Sam Lewis. In both theory and practice, Pleasure Craft is a blackboard on which Lewis chalks, erases, and chalks again. Over a handful of singles and two EPs—including the newly-released collection EP2—Lewis has so far used Pleasure Craft to cycle between dark, ‘80s yacht rock, neon new wave work-outs, and trippy synth-pop, all of which probe issues like addiction, masculinity and its attendant damages, identity and mental illness. His vocals are sometimes an Idiot-era Iggy Pop deadpan, sometimes an unhinged David Byrne cry, sometimes a controlled, acerbic baritone lilt that is all his own. But none of these sounds or touchstones are endpoints for Lewis, hence the unassumingly titled EP1 and EP2—simple titles that convey Pleasure Craft’s commitment to killing its darlings in the name of personal and artistic progress.
Lewis created Pleasure Craft in 2017 in the wake of years of musical zig-zags: childhood piano lessons followed by the trumpet at age 11, then switching to acoustic folk in the vein of Bob Dylan and a long-term plan to become a pilot. After moving to Toronto to study as a trumpet major at Humber College, Lewis picked up electronic production from a friend and began creating.
Pleasure Craft songs begin with Lewis building demos on his laptop, and sharing them with his most frequent collaborators as needed: vocalist/composer Mingjia Chen, guitarist River Radcliffe, drummer Ben Green, keyboardist Jeremy Ugro, and producer Andrew Feels. Recordings are similarly disparate, with some parts recorded in home bedroom studios, and others in Humber’s studio facilities. Each of these partners is a critical part of the project, which fluctuates between a four- and eight-member configuration for shows.
Pleasure Craft’s compositional imagination and dexterity are both incidental and deliberate. Lewis is a detailed and passionate sonic architect, but he rejects any semblance of a ‘brand’ or singular, commodifiable identity—which are often assumed to be prerequisites in an ultra-capitalist modern music industry. “I get it, identity is important because your audience jumps on that identity and takes it for themselves, but it’s also not human,” says Lewis. “No one can be drawn down to an image. Everyone has so many different sides.”
In a way, Lewis’ work with Pleasure Craft is ego death, an acceptance of meaninglessness and a rejection of any stable identity. “That’s why the EPs aren’t titled,” he says. “I don’t want them to be big announcements of my creative identity. I want them to be more exploration. The Pleasure Craft sound, whatever that is, is developing and changing really quickly, and I like that. I don’t want to settle on anything.”
Thematically, the project is located squarely in Lewis’ lived experience. EP1 was written right after he moved to Toronto, and its undercurrents of ambition, self-perception, and others’ perception of the self reflect the city’s preoccupation with these queries. Lyrics across his fast-growing discography prod at these ideas: “Everything that I own is a version of myself in a solid object/Everyone that I meet is a model on an east Toronto billboard,” he croons on the jilted R&B of EP1 cut, “Back In The Game.”
With EP2, Lewis turns darker, more anxious, less linear, more sarcastic. “Work It Out,” the riveting opening track, parses Lewis’ difficulty maintaining relationships with partners, friends, and family as a result of hypermasculine coding and the ways it catalyzes mental illness. “I don’t wanna say what I mean cause it doesn’t matter/I don’t wanna say what I mean cause I don’t care!” he cries on the chorus. “Soda” is a bright, bubbly ‘80s dance-pop track that takes on how men pacify themselves with drugs and alcohol in lieu of personal expression. “Let It Fade,” which builds to a hulking, improvised outro, is a vulnerable exploration of how Lewis relates to himself and other people. “If I write a lyric that makes me uncomfortable, if it’s not something I would want to announce to a room full of people, those are usually the best lyrics,” he says.
The EP fades out on “End,” a short instrumental track featuring cello. It’s an appropriately humble ending to a set of recordings that trouble their own existence. Pleasure Craft picks apart the social programming that’s culminated in a nauseating list of unhealthy conditions, for both working musicians in their industry and private citizens in their personal lives. Lewis is trying to cultivate these two sides of himself in a way that bucks the familiar, damaging patterns. In both cases, that starts with a rejection of self-importance.
“I’m not trying to make anything cohesive or important,” he says. “It’s just a collection of songs.”