Greasing the skids

Berklee grad ditches career at a major record label for Boston and a beat-up, vegetable-oil-fueled van.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 1, 2010

FLIP SIDE Maitland-Lewis’s car, much like his career choices, reflects his punk-rock ethos.

Things could have been different for Ben Maitland-Lewis. Instead of caravanning two hulking grease-mobiles to the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin next month — and having to raise donations for a new transmission through his "Get Our Veggie-Fueled Tour Bus Back on the Road" campaign — the founder of Back Bay's Sidehatch Entertainment Group could have flown and bunked in style. Had he continued climbing the major-label ladder at Sony BMG, Lewis also could be sporting pitch-black Zegna threads and sipping signature cocktails at Top of the Hub.

Instead, the casual Berklee grad meets me for beers at McGreevy's on Boylston Street — one of several local joints whose leftover grease makes the wheels on his bus go 'round. Most record-label players wouldn't be caught drunk in an alley making off with bucket-loads of hardened oil. But for Lewis — who, at a low point in his music-industry career, once helped promote a Martha Stewart Christmas compilation — dumpster diving is as much a metaphor for his punk philosophy as it is a mission in environmental consciousness.

Of course there's confusion stirred in Chinese restaurant owners when Lewis and his gang of scruffy T-shirt rockers ask for used kitchen grease. But convincing immigrants to donate lard is a relatively easy task. For his half-dozen clients — bands including KID:NAP:KIN and The Murder Mile — he serves as everything from branding chief and merch maestro to roadside mechanic and drummer.

"Asian restaurants have the cleanest grease," says Lewis, Boston's slime sommelier. "Sure, there have been some crazy experiences with the language barrier, but you need them."

Unusual beginnings
Clean-cut and forever in blue jeans, Lewis looks more like a stereotypical grad student or programmer than he does an industry mover. His demeanor is also unique for someone in the music biz; in an industry where most are too cool for cordiality, Lewis is all handshakes and smiles. Even when discussing a pet peeve like major labels sitting out the digital revolution, he abstains from going negative (or even cursing).

Since Lewis doesn't favor squeezable red latex noses, few might guess that he joined the circus in Germany at age 11, either. Though he speaks with no foreign accent, the former unicyclist and juggler spent his childhood in London and Munich before moving to Palm Springs for high school.

"My parents weren't carnies or anything like that," says Lewis. "They're businesspeople, but I was an only child and I was bored."

Lewis took an interest in the business side of entertainment as an adolescent. Drumming for the Cali rock band Phallus, he pounded highway with mega acts including Incubus, and became a fixture on the Warped Tour. In his travels Lewis hung with road vets including members of the Andover alt-rock staple Piebald, whose early embrace of grease guzzlers would later inspire him. But his greatest lessons came while smacking cymbals silly.

"As a drummer, you sit back and figure out what needs to get done while your lead singer and guitarist fight over who's going to get a solo," he says. While the rest of my band bickered, I booked shows and got to business."

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