Below is our interview with the creative genius, Ben Levin.
I’d never heard of Ben before Andy tagged me in a comment on a video Ben posted and suggested I interview Ben for the site. I was flattered that someone as busy and popular as Andy would think of me, but I was doubly impressed at Ben’s music video. It was visually creative, the music was very interesting, the lyrics were profound, and Ben was just a fun-looking dude.
We soon started chatting on Facebook and I found that he’s the guitarist for a band I’d only briefly listened to called Bent Knee. Mike Keneally had posted something on Twitter about “the incredible Bent Knee,” so I put Bent Knee in my private list of music I should someday get to hearing. Personally, I was more entranced by Ben’s solo music than I was with Bent Knee’s.
Then Ben sent me a full copy of his latest solo effort, Life and Back, as well as a preview release of Bent Knee’s to-be-released album, [Say So]. My mind was blown! At that point, I knew I had to prioritize Ben in the queue of people waiting for me to schedule interviews. So here we are!
This interview was conducted on Monday, April 11, 2016 at 9PM AZ.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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Anthony: This is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I am here with Ben Levin. Unless it’s “Le-VIN…” Is it “LE-vin?”
Ben: No, “LE-vin” is good. Thanks.
A: All right, cool. Ben Levin from Bent Knee . Ben, I have been listening to your music in Bent Knee and your solo music. It’s pretty incredible stuff.
A: I was wondering if you could introduce yourself. Tell us a little about yourself. Take as much time as you want and say as much as you feel is necessary.
B: Okay. Hello, I am Ben Levin. I’m a musician. I make a lot of concept albums and really over-the-top music, but it’s always about little human things. I like telling stories with music and I like playing guitar. My favorite thing with music is making albums and writing then recording music. I think that’s the thing that is the most enjoyable aspect of life so far (outside of the love with humans thing, that’s pretty good too).
Let’s see… I am based in Boston and here I perform in a number of groups, mostly with the same people in those groups, but in different configurations. My pals who play in those groups and I have this collective called the Secret Dog Brigade in which you find Bent Knee, Ben Levin Group , Justice Cow , Mr. Gavin’s Meat Farm , That One Eyed Kid , my solo stuff, and then Courtney Swain (the singer from Bent Knee)’s solo stuff. And everyone else’s solo stuff as it comes up.
I play in all those bands even though they’re mostly comprised of the same 8 or so people. It keeps me pretty busy and I teach music lessons on Skype. I have a YouTube channel and I make instructional videos as well as music videos. Private videos are just stupid running around and screaming. I’ve got about a dozen of those.
A: Are those creatively done or are they more improvisational?
B: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, they’re usually outtakes that I enjoy that I keep from when I’m trying to do something serious. Before I start filming an instructional video, when you’re making an instructional video or anything that you’re going to put on YouTube, I have no idea who I’m actually talking to and there’s so many ways to interpret a person, so I think one of the safest ways to be inclusive when you’re making a video is to be happy just because, as long as you’re genuinely having fun, people can see that and at least they understand that you’re not resentful of the moment that you’re trying to bring them into. It’s more fun to be in it.
So, before I start recording, I’ll often be like HA-BLEE-DOO-LA-HOOGLAH-HEYGLUH-HOGLAH-HUNGAH! Or I’ll scream profanity or I’ll make up funny little phrases that are usually not too offensive, but it’s hard to think of one. They just kind of come. So, that gets caught on camera and then sometimes I think it’s funny.
A: So it sets the mood?
B: Yeah! And then I have a bunch of private videos that are old trailers for shows that I made when I was in college for concerts where I would be in college acting like a guy in college. Not that interesting to anyone except for my anymore. So, they’re there.
A: Why so many bands at one time? What’s the purpose of having 8 separate groups with the same people?
B: Well, that’s a great question. I know it’s kind of weird because it’s the same people. Everybody wants to be on our team, but everyone also wants to do their own thing. You can’t really sustainably hire people to play your music when you don’t make any money playing that music and you can’t have 8 bands succeed at once. Maybe someone could, but it seems like such a terrible gamble.
So, because there’s no way to get your music played by musicians and pay them, a better thing is to trade where it’s like I’ll play all of your songs, I’ll do whatever you want, and you play on my songs and you do whatever I want, and we’ll be in this band where we’ll collaborate, too. So everyone gets fulfilled in that way. Whoever’s got their own kind of path and music that they really want to try, gets a chance. And then, for Bent Knee in particular, it makes it so that when we’re in there, we’re much more easier to be democratic.
There’s a lot less conflict because we’ve all got some way of satisfying our own very nit-picky and control freak types of ideas. It creates a window for compromise. It’s sort of like an economy of creativity where I have the stuff I do absolutely by myself, it’s like life [inaudible]. I’ve done that a few times.
Then I’ve got Ben Levin Group, which is music that I write, but ultimately I give an incredible amount of final say and power to everyone in the band, so it’s still pretty egocentric for me and pretty satisfying with “I can write the music and other people play it,” but there is a level of dependence, especially with the producer, Vince, who’s also in Bent Knee. He mixes all the Ben Levin Group stuff and produces it. It’s really a big, collaborative thing, even though it’s got my name on it.
And then Bent Knee is the ultimately democratic musical experience where everybody is equally involved in the music and the band is very familial in that way. There’s no leader. So, that’s the advantage of many bands with the same people.
A: That’s great. How did you guys initially get together?
B: We mostly met at Berklee College of Music . I’m in this band, That One-Eyed Kid, with someone I went to high school with. His name is Josh Friedman and he literally has one eye and that’s why the band’s called that. You’ll see him in a lot of my videos playing with me. I’ve been playing with him for a long time and then it made sense that when I went to college in Boston, I went to Berklee and he went to BU, and so we continued playing together and he’s been in Ben Levin Group since its second year. It formed in 2007 and he’s been in it since 2008 and we were in bands throughout high school.
Everyone else I met through Berklee, pretty much. We all kind of started in Ben Levin Group to some capacity, like the violinist from Bent Knee, Chris and I met through Ben Levin Group. Courtney saw us at a Ben Levin Group show and then we started collaborating Bent Knee from that. Josh, the one-eyed kid guy, he’s in Ben Levin Group. Gavin, the drummer in Bent Knee, in Ben Levin Group. Just a lot of people. Everyone had something to do with the Ben Levin Group.
So, that was sort of the beginning, but you can’t… Having the Ben Levin Group is like a composing studio group thing and it’s very important to me and it’s a very special space, but it’s very hard to do things by yourself or to always be in charge of everything. It was kind of against the grain for me to truly push that as far as it could because I wanted everyone to always–I wanted people to take on different jobs and help me manage the band and stuff, but I realized that can’t happen if it’s called Ben Levin Group and it’s just my music.
I think it’s a maturity thing where you’re able to, at a certain age or a certain level of musical experience, be able to find just as much joy or maybe more in collaborating with others at an equal level than you do bossing them around. And the reason for that, I think, is when you’re in high school and you’re trying to be in a band with people and collaborate, you just fight all the time because everyone’s kind of an idiot. I’m not saying everyone in high school is an idiot, but you’re pretty bad at expressing yourself in a constructive way and being bold enough to say what you mean, but also sensitive enough to say in a constructive way and to take criticism–collaborating in high school is incredibly hard.
But then collaborating in college is only slightly easier. But then when you graduate from music school, a few years after you graduate, people start getting pretty good at music and pretty good at life, too. They start figuring out who they are for real and then you can start saying, “Hey, I have an idea for this, but this person always has great ideas and they might be better than mine and I actually want to hear them.” That’s why it took me so long to enter a fully collaborative project like Bent Knee and it’s why Ben Levin Group was the first thing that happened because you’ve got a lot of hunger to make albums, but you don’t necessarily trust that everyone’s going to do a great job unless you tell them what to do.
A: Right. I just interviewed Jeff Berlin a few weeks ago and he was talking a lot about music education and schools like Berklee. You ended up being a very creative person. Do you feel that your music education or the experience you had at Berklee ended up forming that or just educating it or opening/expanding horizons? All of the above? How did that experience help you as a musician?
B: It helped me to be more creative and find my own voice because what happened was at Berklee, it’s sort of like an all-you-can-eat buffet of every kind of musical style, but there’s not enough time to really get 100% amazing authentic experience out of any one of them. So, unlike other music schools, where I think you can be completely focused on classical or jazz or one thing like that, and then become a true expert at that one field, I think Berklee’s advantage is it gives people a chance to try everything and get pretty good at everything. There are people who get great at one thing there, too, but I think generally speaking, it’s a lot more of an experimental school to go to.
You try things out a lot. What that does is, because you’re surrounded by musicians and because you can try any kind of music you want at any time any semester, you get burned out on–well, not burned out, but you go through the process of trying and forming opinions about directions very quickly. So, I think it might have taken me maybe twice as long to discover that I even cared about bluegrass if I hadn’t gone to a place that provides bluegrass and metal because I wouldn’t have gotten my metal kick properly fed. I really wanted to learn some metal, that was there. I wanted to learn some jazz, that was there. I wanted to learn some bluegrass and that was there. I wanted to learn Middle Eastern music and that was there.
And so this whole phase of just figuring out what I like and trying things was accelerated that way and I don’t think it ever truly ends, but what happens is I think when you’re in music school you make music that’s about learning music. So, I’m interested in this style and I want to make music in this style and so you try it. People do this all the time. It’s like, “Oh, I really like Michael Jackson, I want to make pop like he does.” So, you try to make a bluegrass song and, “What if I try to mix bluegrass with jazz?” Everyone does that! Mix this and mix that and mix this and mix that.
And then you just sorta do it and then, for me, I didn’t want my music to be about learning music anymore because I got through that. Then music started being about more of a dialogue with the audience and with expressing things that are true in my life rather than making kind of meta-music about the things I’m learning inspired by the things I’m learning. I’m more inspired by life lessons and–I’ve got an album called Pulse of a Nation , which is the first time that transition took place where I went from making albums about trying things out to now making albums about my life. That was about the first time I broke up with a serious girlfriend, my grandma died, and these are normal things that happen to everyone.
You end a first relationship, you–and if everything goes according to plan, your grandparents die before you and your parents die before you and it’s a horrible thing. It’s really hard, but everyone goes through it and that’s a really potent place to start writing music, even if it’s instrumental music, it can very clearly be about that and maybe people don’t understand that it is, but they can feel that it means a lot to you. And so I think Berklee helped me get to that point where I could start writing music that was about myself eloquently and also in a way that didn’t only make sense to myself because I had a really big vocabulary of styles, but I wasn’t also just obsessed with showcasing styles. I kind of had gone through that.
A: Can you tell us a little about your influences? Who were the major musicians throughout your musical formation in your life?
B: Sure, yeah. I started out listening to Rent the musical over and over again on CD player when I was in elementary school. The original Broadway cast recording and I listened to the first disc for, like, a year every night. And I listened to the second disc after that. I listened to that obsessively and I really liked the way the melodies were and everything sounded really cool. I’d been playing piano at the time and so I was starting to be interested in music a little bit when I was in elementary school.
But, then when I was in high school, I started getting into bands like Nirvana and Weezer and these really emotional rock bands like System of a Down and stuff. That made me interested in guitar because I had a friend who was playing those songs on guitar and I was like, “Wait, how long have you been playing?” I was like, “You can play professional music after six months?! That’s crazy!!” He was like, “Yeah, whatever.” So then I wanted to play professional music.
I wanted to play the music I listened to because on piano I never got good at any of those things I was trying because it just wasn’t the music I was listening to. I didn’t think I could do it. That was the other thing. But, it clicked in my head. It was like, “Oh, I can do this!” The Nirvana tunes and the Weezer tunes, they didn’t seem that hard and I started learning them. And so I was hugely influenced by grunge music and music about feeling pathetic.
And then I got into metal, particularly Megadeth for a while because that was my first exposure to that kind of guitar playing, like with Marty Friedman doing so many things. Such a versatile sound palette within just the narrow world of lead playing. They sound as full and rich as a human voice. Got into Led Zeppelin for similar reasons. Then I started being obsessed with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani , and Yngwie Malmsteen because I saw the G3 Live in Denver DVD and that’s when I started thinking I might want to do music for a living because I was so freaked out by Steve Vai in a great way that I learned everything I could about him.
I found out he went to music school, he went to Berklee, which I hadn’t heard of, and then I was talking to my parents and I was like, “I think I want to go to music school. I could learn guitar in school.” And they were like, “Yeah, that’d be great.” And I was like, “Wait! So… college could be great! College could be really fun! Having a job could be guitar!” That was a lot from Steve Vai because Steve Vai, his life as far as his career goes, as far as the story of his career, is incredibly optimistic. It’s a really positive story.
I’m sure he’s had all kinds of hardship in his personal life, like everyone does, but his career arc is wonderful. It’s like, if you want to see if it’s possible, look at that guy. He went to music school, ends up in Frank Zappa’s band, and then before you know it, he’s in all these big stadium gigs. But then, his greatest music is what got the most attention. He started a solo career that was really crazy and creative and that was like what I wanted to be doing.
I started making albums on my own in high school. I made four albums or five albums, four that I actually released and they were horrible. Total garbage. I did that all day every day when I wasn’t at school, so I don’t know if I got 10,000 hours from that, but that was enough time to make a lot of mistakes. I just made a lot of horrible music and then when I was in college, I made three or four, and since then I’ve made ten more. It’s my favorite thing to do! So, Steve Vai had a big role in that.
And then, after college, I got really big into Sufjan Stevens and I got really big into Nick Cave and Kendrick Lamar is my newest obsession. There’s the Tune-Yards and I like Esperanza Spalding ’s new album a lot. You know, my thing shifted and I don’t listen to guitarists anymore, but that was a big thing.
I would say that Steve Vai had the most influence over my life up to the end of college and then Sufjan Stevens has had the most influence since then. I love the way he can make songs that are completely magical and enthralling and they’re about subjects I wouldn’t otherwise care about, like a whole album about the state of Illinois .
I’m from St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois never seemed that interesting and I never bothered to go there. Then he makes that whole state seem like a fascinating character, and it is. It’s a whole state. So much happens in a place and he shows the magic in that, which I think is incredible. And he did that for rodeos and he did that for Michigan state and he did that for artists and he did that for, well it wasn’t that hard to do, but this story of his relationship with his mom , he makes that very tangible. So, that’s kind of what I’m trying to do as well.
A: One thing I found so interesting about your latest solo release is the looseness of time. It’s almost like the album is in a dream state where it’s like there are several drum patterns going on in slightly different tempos and you’re singing or rapping kind of in your own world, but it all comes together, it all falls apart, it all comes together. How did you get into that? Your musical influences up until you mentioned Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens are pretty straightforward music. They’re unique and interesting, but not so experimental in that sense.
B: I think my process is whatever I’m listening to now in the time when I’m making the album. I just rip it right out and then I screw it up because I don’t have any experience with it and so the way that some hip hop is behind the beat, like particularly the new D’Angelo record or any of the J Dilla disciples, and certain tracks on Kendrick’s album like that–Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the greatest concept album I’ve ever heard.
I think it’s just the most amazingly executed album I’ve ever heard. It raised the bar on albums for me tremendously. It really flipped my life. And it’s only been about a year since I first heard it, but it flipped my whole perspective on time and on what a concept album can do. It was one of the first hip hop albums that I loved. There are albums I think are really great, but this is an album that I can’t think of any album I love more than it and I think is necessary to use what you like about it in your own music. It’s necessary to have that love for it.
So, the timing, the way they’re behind the beat is very nuanced. It’s the result of a lot of time playing, the music that came before the music they’re playing, there’s a lot of background and subtlety to how that “behind the beat” goes. But when you’re just now finding out about it and pointing at it like a straight line, like, “I’m gonna go behind the beat. NOW.” That creates a much more sort of caricature version of “behind the beat.” I think that by itself would be pretty stupid and pretty intangible, but I mixed it with all the stuff I know well from all the music I’ve already made.
So, there’s this certain cohesiveness I find. I’m pleased with it and I haven’t heard–not that many people have heard it in the first place–but I haven’t heard anyone complain about that. Actually, your coworker was pretty thrown off by it, but I think it eventually makes sense what it’s for because there’s microtonal melodies–microtonal music is melodies where there’s notes between the notes and they use “out of tune-ness” in a standard definition of what “in tune” is and they bend that and, man, it sounds cool when you do it well.
The same is true in timing. You know how there’s only so many beats? [Beatboxes.] And then it’s like, [beatboxes]. And then it’s like [beatboxes]. And there’s [beatboxes]. These beats just keep popping up, but they always feel different when there’s different humans playing it. So, every human drummer has a different [beatboxes]. Every human drummer has a different one of those. So each time we hear a different human playing it, it is a different beat and for that reason, that inconsistency we get so much fresh energy from different songs.
That’s why the same chords can work over and over. It’s always going to be a different sound because it’s different people. So I was exploring that hard, microtonal beats thing. How far can you go out before it sounds “wrong?” I think whenever it went so far out that it sounded wrong, I’d try to make those moments very forcefully disturbing so that I’m using the “wrongness” and any time it felt like it was really in, I’d try to complement it with something beautiful. That’s how that went down.
A: A lot of software now on computers is very grid-oriented. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for those unknown territories. How do you assemble these kinds of rhythmic shifts and microtonal adjustments in whatever software you’re using when it’s not really a feature that Apple’s gonna build into Logic Pro or something.
B: Yeah, well there’s some stuff that’s really mathematical. Mostly I play the beats in and that’s how I do it. I’m just not that good, so they’re sloppy. A tip for you musicians: If you make something sloppy and then you loop it in a quantized manner so the loop always starts perfectly on the 1, then it is not sloppy anymore. If you take the out of time thing and loop it perfectly, you feel that pulse, you feel that return.
So, you can play beats in for, like, 15 minutes and then listen to spots that really stand out, cut those and loop those spots. That’s a great start for some really organic, but in-time-out-of-time stuff. That’s something I do that’s pretty feel-oriented. I’ll just play.
But then there’s also other tricks, like if you quantize to the quintuplet instead of the triplet or the eighth note and you don’t quantize at 100%, the notes don’t know where to go because you usually are playing or typing them on the triplets or on the 16th, so you’re evenly dividing things by 3s or by 4s or by 2s, but when you quantize to quintuplets, they sort of shift closer to the 5, which could be closer to the early 2 or the late 2.
You can write in hi-hat parts and cymbal parts that are hard “out.” They’re really quantized to the quintuplet, but not all the way. They’re just not followable by themselves, but then you give a really on-time kick and snare, a perfectly executed kick and snare, and the next thing you have is a loose and dance-able groove.
I just think that some people learn music through analytical thought and some people need to jam it and need to hear it and some people need both. Everyone needs a little bit of both for sure, but some people are skewed for sure to the “I need to understand it from an analytical basis” and other people are more skewed to “I just need to absorb it from hearing it.”
For me, I think, when I can think about something analytically, then I can actually make it organic because I’m not thinking while I’m doing it anymore. Once I understand the pattern, then I practice the pattern and then it’s no longer thoughtful and then I can skew the pattern in slight ways based on what’s happening around me. And other folks, if they learn the pattern, all they can do is remember the pattern, and think about the patterns inhibiting.
So, I don’t know how a guy like Kendrick Lamar, or like some drummers I’ve played with who just have a really great instinct for the perfect “outness.” I don’t know exactly how they come to know that “outness.” Or if they think of it as “outness” as much as they think of it as how they like beats and that’s it. I know Kendrick Lamar’s a superb musician, so I imagine to some extent, even if it’s not how he does it, he’s probably able to analyze it to some extent. You know, When the snare and kick are really tight, but the bass is really lazy, then you’ve got an awesome thing there.
I don’t know how much other musicians think about it as these formulas the way I do. I will say I’m not authentic with it in that I haven’t learned a lot of the grooves that these grooves are coming from in their original context. I’m just doing my own caricature impression of what I’ve heard from this album that changed my life, basically. Yeah, so, that’s how I was thinking about it.
A: Guitar is your primary instrument. Correct?
A: There’s not much overt guitar on the album. Is that a constraint you set for yourself?
B: I think guitar is a widely overused instrument. I think there’s a pop culture and sexiness to it that was a big reason why so many people started using it and playing it. It’s a super versatile instrument, so if you’re going to play an instrument, that’s one of the best instruments to pick up. There’s lots of stuff to do as a beginner, there’s lots of cool stuff to learn, lots of resources. And then it’s a rabbit hole that goes forever, just like any other instrument, but the initial phase is really rewarding, unlike violin where the starting phase of learning violin is torture. It doesn’t even involve a violin. It’s just practicing bowing in the air.
The first phase of guitar is incredibly satisfying. You can play chords. I can show anyone, little kids, adults, anyone, to play 3 chords in a half hour lesson. They’re not hard to play. These are perfectly executed one-finger chords and they’re chords. There’s no way to say, “Well, that’s just a beginner chord.” It’s a chord. It’s totally legitimate and if you put it through distortion, 8-year-old boys have a life-changing moment.
Guitar is incredibly prominent as a social thing as a fun instrument to learn. And then everyone who starts a band has them. But, I don’t think they’re treated equally with all the other instruments when people are writing for that reason. I think it’s skewed and I think it shows up just because they’re around.
So then you have a lot of bands with two guitarists in it and there’s no reason why there’s two. The net result of there being two guitarists is that you can’t ever hear anything else. Just like there’s drummers who are always riding on the crash cymbal, which totally cuts out the vocals (if there are vocals)… It’s not like these people are consciously deciding to cut the vocals out, they’re just playing this instrument this way and they play it because they’re around and that’s what they’ve got.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but when I’m writing music, I’m thinking about instruments pretty democratically. The guitar shows up the amount I think that sound should show up. I’m definitely limited by the fact that I can’t just jump into the studio whenever I want and record a real string quartet or record a live drum and bass section any time I want, but I can do it pretty often because out here in Boston, I know musicians who I can do things for them and they can do things for me and get that trading kind of thing.
I know those musicians and also there’s a recording studio that’s a non-profit called The Record Co that we do a lot of our recording at where they give a rate that allows me to experiment. So I’m still limited in that I can’t do it all the time, but I’m not as limited as I think I would be in some other scenarios. I just kind of lucked out with Berklee, it was a really lucky thing for me. I was lucky that I could go. I was lucky that when I was there, I actually met the people who I’m playing with now and that they stayed in Boston. And I’m lucky that the record company exists at all and that they are available to me. I’m lucky that everyone in my bands want to go spend a day in a recording studio even though they’ve got lots of work to do.
But, that was not your question, the question was about my limit of the guitar. But, rambling! That’s one of my strengths! I’m quite good at filling space. And you know what? Filling space, that’s another thing I’m really paranoid about filling space with the guitar. It takes up an incredible amount of range. It takes up a hefty amount of low end, and then an absurd amount of mid, and then if you’re going to mix piano and guitar and the guitarist is going blah blah blah blah blah, there’s gotta be a really compelling reason for those two instruments to be together in that way.
There are lots of compelling reasons for that, but they just aren’t as common as, say, drums, bass, and one other thing. Drums and bass will be way more prominent in most of my music because I like beats. There’s more often than not a need for beats. There’s less often a need for a giant space-taking chord machine, which is guitar.
A: Sounds like you think very texturally and sonically, not so much in terms of arrangements like, “Oh, I should have the guitar strumming here and I should have the bass doing this here.” It’s more like filling frequencies and painting kind of musical landscapes. Is that a good characterization?
B: I think about arranging or voicing a chord. If you play a power chord on the guitar, it’s just two notes, but the way they are and the way they sound makes a huge sound, even if it’s a clean guitar. Even if it’s an acoustic guitar. The overtones are so deep and everything is so powerful with just those two notes. And most of the same lessons you get from that power chord you can apply to where the bass player is playing on his fretboard and where it lines up on the kick drum because one good thump on the kick drum with one good low F that’s sort of muted can be all the low end you need for the next two weeks.
But, similarly, if you take that same kick and line it up with a low F on an electric guitar, you’re in a totally different situation in terms of what else can be in the low end and you’ve still created that low thumpy F. And you can voice your whole arrangement like you would voice one chord on an instrument. So I think of it that way and I also think of it–because I’ve made a lot of crappy albums.
I’ve made an astounding amount of crappy albums for my age because people are a lot more careful. I think they make better albums in terms of the number–usually people are too scared to make the investment to make a second crappy album after they’ve made the first one, so it’s usually people who hit a pretty good sound on their first one who make second ones. I mean, that’s not necessarily true, but I just get the feeling that people strike out less than me.
I like everything since I made Pulse of a Nation in 2009, but before that, stuff you can’t really find for the most part, some of it’s still there, but it’s pretty much garbage and a big part of the things I hear that are problems are just poor voicing of instruments. It’s just like, if you have four-part counterpart going on, you have four different things going on, I never really asked why?. I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to have four things happen at once?”
I’m not saying you should question all those ideas, you should definitely try them. But once you do it, the reason why it’s there should be that it sounds good, not necessarily that you really wanted something with four parts in it. And that’s kinda where my mind went.
I know Bach does it and I like Bach. He’s interesting. There’s this kind of, “I’m like Bach,” part of your brain that was more dominant before Pulse of a Nation and then in my most recent work, I’m almost never thinking that way. I think that’s an evolutionary thing. I’ll look back to now and notice a lot of mistakes, but I just can’t notice them yet. I don’t know what mistakes I’m making, but I’m definitely making mistakes. I just can’t point to them.
It’s easy to point to, even in Pulse of a Nation and beyond, these albums I like, I can still point to section by section and say how they could be better and change them. A lot of my music doesn’t sound good live from that time, but it works on a recording because you can cheat, you can double, and you can cut through.
A: It sounded like a lot of your time is spent teaching guitar lessons on Skype. Is that primarily how you make a living now?
B: Yeah, that’s basically all the money I’ve made since college. I’m hoping that Bent Knee makes money. I think if I were to spell out my ideal income structure, it would be: make a lot of money from making music and then teach for free and teach sort of philanthropically where I would like to find people who definitely should go to Berklee or somewhere like that, would get a lot out of it, but can’t because the way things are right now–it’s like taking on more than $200,000 in student loans and then it’s really hard to take the kind of risks necessary to have a music career if you’re in that situation.
It’s still possible, it can be done, I’ve seen it, but it’s unfair because you definitely get an amazing one-of-a-kind experience at Berklee, but I know if you could just get in a music community and have someone guide you through what Berklee would have been like, if you got on mentor you pay once a week and you can get in with the community and it’s not the same thing as going there at all, but it’s a different way to get probably the same thing.
I know somebody who didn’t go to college at all who’s one of the people I play with all the time, he’s just as good and knowledgable as me and my Berklee pals. He’s self-taught. He was lucky he knew the right questions. He figured out what the right questions were and lots of questions and then he found people who could answer because they see his passion and they answer him. But, it looks like it’s going to be the other way around for me.
It looks like I’m going to be making a ton of music and, hopefully, continuing to grow in terms of how many people care about it. But, it could be a linear curve, or it could be an exponential curve. If it were a linear curve to my fan-reaching to how many people care over time, we’re talking at least another decade until that’s lucrative and then in that decade, there might not be an industry for just making your own albums.
It might be people are making music for VR and they’re making it for video games and they’re making it for meditation and they’re making it for movies and they’re making it… tons of money making music, but I don’t know for sure that making your own albums will always be a source of income. Right now, even if it exists, you shouldn’t put all your chips in that.
Touring is the alternative way to make money. If you’re an original band, you can do festivals and get paid a lot, so there’s money out there, but touring is not sustainable. Having gone on 16 tours that were all in a minivan and all sleeping on the ground and all that stuff, I imagine it’d be easier to tour for longer if you were in a nicer accommodation than what we do, but it is not a long-term sustainable income source if you want a family and if you want to be able to get sick and not have it ruin your career. Not have it bankrupt you.
Now that’s not going to stop me from doing it, but I’m just saying that I shouldn’t expect that to be my–I should push that as hard as far as I can because of the music and then I should also anticipate other ways that I can turn that into money and I think one of them is: I want to be a famous musician because if I’m a famous musician, I can teach more people. I can reach people in large numbers. Colleges will give me a stage. I’ll be able to do clinics and you can make enough money that way. You can make a living. I think that’d be a beautiful way to do it.
I think that for the original music I make is where, morally speaking, people should pay and then for education, we should all pass down the sacred art of music. But, I think that paying teachers is essential and I’m really glad people do pay for education in that the more education you can get online for free, the more people are realizing the value of one-on-one interaction and I’m getting all kinds of students who I think showed up on YouTube searching for lessons expecting to not pay for lessons.
They’re expecting to get everything from YouTube and they found something that really inspired them on my channel and then they want to actually study with me. I think that’s telling of how I’m giving so much for free and it’s my best effort at explaining things, but they still want to sign up, so I don’t think there’s going to be an end for people getting paid for teaching. I wouldn’t want there to be.
But I’m just saying that if I could have things my way, I would just not have to worry about money with teaching and just do it maybe a little differently. I like my students, though. They’re the people who want to self educate, but ended up paying even though they can’t all afford it as often. They can’t do weekly lessons, some of them, and I really admire that hunger. You were going to get a free lesson and then you decided you got so much out of learning something that you wanted to pay and you weren’t even ever prepared to.
I think that’s pretty amazing. I don’t know. I’m happy with things. I just want to make more money so I can do the other things that are important in life. I want a certain level of–I want to be able to help other people by not always needing to depend on my health being perfect and my stuff not being stolen. There’s emergencies and stuff that’s gonna be horrible, it’s gonna shatter things, I wanna have some money.
A: I love your passion for all of these things. I think it’s really admirable and it’s wonderful.
B: Same to you! I’m really impressed with what you’re doing. Your site looks beautiful and your stuff just comes across as like you really have a huge heart for it and it comes from this deep respect for music. It’s fun to hear and see it.
A: Thanks a lot! That’s really nice of you! I really appreciate that. I have to say, and I think I emailed you about this, I was listening to your latest album and it was so personal that I had to stop listening to it. It was this crazy trip I was driving to Denver overnight, my wife was stuck in a blizzard on her way to the airport and the airport shut down and all this stuff, but on the way there on this 14-hour overnight drive from Phoenix, I was listening and some of the stuff you’re talking about is so personal and relatable.
I just recently delivered a presentation about Make Weird Music to a pretty large audience and I was so wracked by my nerves because it was so personal and I thought, “How did Ben release this music that’s so intimate and so deep and personal in a way that’s almost uncomfortable?” I really related to a lot of the things you were saying about the woman stuck in the infirmary, the old-people home, and the dignity of her humanity. Some of the lyrics in Porn Sucks–it’s pretty funny, but also you’re like, “Wow, there’s some really insightful stuff.” Tell me about what it takes for you to go to that depth and really bare it all for the sake of music. Is that a struggle for you? Did you really have to overcome anything to get to that point?
B: It’s cool. Thanks for asking me that. I’m really glad that the songs connected in that way. Those are really important issues to me. Especially ageism. It’s a word that doesn’t get thrown around that much. It’s sort of like fat jokes. People aren’t that sensitive to how fat people feel about fat jokes–not to get on you about the Suge Knight thing [referring to a joke I shared before we started filming], he’s kind of a dick–but I’m just saying particularly with elderly people. I mean, this is where we’re going. This is us.
Elderly people–we are elderly people. If we assume everybody dies, then we’re already dead in that that’s like the majority of history as far as we know is going to be us dead. It’s this blip of life. Same is true about the elderly. I think it’s just really sad how they have to take a back seat on life in society. It’s also just really sad how aging looks.
It’s very hard to cope with that reality. It’s very important to me. I think the reason why I write about things so bluntly and the reason why I’m able to do it is because I trust that if I do it in that kind of format, it’s the best chance I have at people seeing it as their own lens of it. Like, seeing it through their own lens rather than through mine because music just makes the human more relatable because I’m just a character in your stereo and you can only assume who I am. You’re really imposing yourself into your idea of me and for that reason, you can understand me better. You can empathize with what I’m saying. It’s the perfect medium for empathy.
I don’t force enough details on you to make you see my story, I just give you enough for you to remember your story and then compare and contrast it to what I’ve given. I kind of feel like that’s my best way of being accepted in these confessions, or whatever they are. With anything that I feel that if I get it out clearly, if I can really say what I feel, other people probably feel that in some way in some part of their mind.
Like about the porn stuff, I think most people look at porn and I think within a demographic–I don’t know the stats of it–but I think that people look at porn a lot. I also think that when most people finish looking at porn, they don’t like it. I think once a man, particularly because I’m a man, I know how it feels once you ejaculate, you want to turn that thing off as fast as possible and it’s like, suddenly you’re just disgusted with it and it’s just this presence in your room that you’re ashamed of. You go to great discomfort to turn it off as fast as you can. And it’s not like you’re afraid you’re going to get caught of it.
It’s because the idea and the sight of it is appalling after you’re done and I think that’s a real telling sign and I think other people can relate to that feeling. I’m just kind of assuming that’s how other people feel when they’re in that position. I don’t know what is or what that’s doing. I have to explore it.
I think a good way to explore a thing like that is to publicly describe it the best you can and then see what other people think. And so, you know, people disagree with me on that song and a lot of people agree. I’m still not completely sure what to make of the porn industry because I know there’s so much wrong with it, but people should have a right to do it.
So, I don’t really have my mind set on a lot of these things and I just want to–questions and music go really well together. I think answers in music kind of–I can’t think of too many things I would want to write that are telling people the way things are. Hip hop’s a good medium for telling people the way things are. That’s part of why I love To Pimp a Butterfly is because every track on Kendrick’s album there kind of contradicts the previous one. He’ll tell you the way things are, but then he’ll tell you the opposite in the next track. I think that’s a much more human dialogue kind of feeling than an album–you know, it’s an album where I think you can empathize and see where he’s coming from better at the end of it whereas other albums I’ve heard about racism in America, things like that, social inequality, make me feel sort of alienated like I can never understand.
This one didn’t make me feel like I can totally understand, but it made me feel like I can understand where Kendrick’s coming from a little better. It’s like one guy closer to being able to empathize with someone else. If an artist can–I think it’s just a great medium for contradictory statements and for questions and believing both sides and leaving things up in the air.
A: I totally agree. There’s an album called From the Corner to the Block by the band Galactic and every song has a different rapper. I always just liked the drum parts and there are some good hooks and stuff, but, literally, five years after I bought the album I started listening to the lyrics and I was like, “Oh my goodness! This stuff is profound!” As a guitar player, as a Steve Vai fan, as a Zappa fan, lyrics were always like, “Whatever. They kind of decorate the landscape.” But on this stuff, it’s so deep and so when I was listening to your album, which Andy Alt introduced me to you as some sort of guy who won a Steve Vai guitar competition and I heard your music and I’m like, “What does this guy have to do with Steve Vai?” Yeah, but the lyrics are such an opportunity that I don’t think I will ever breach, but I was very curious if there’s a struggle for you or if it’s just like, “No, this is my venue and this is how I do it and I’m much more comfortable doing this than having a conversation about it.”
B: Yeah, I think it makes it easier to have a conversation about it when you know somebody’s heard the song because it’s harder to judge someone when they’re really opening up. We’re so afraid of being judged when we open up and become vulnerable but I think as the receiver of that opening up, past a certain age it’s really hard to punch that wound or see someone be that vulnerable and take advantage of it and push them. But people out there do that and it’s a risk certainly to open up like that, but it’s better to do it, I think.
A: Do your parents hear this music and go, “Wow Ben. I never expected this from you?” As a father myself, I’m like, “What if my kids released music like this?” You know? It’s pretty out there and it’s very–it makes a statement. It is not benign music and it’s jarring and disjointed at times in a good way. I don’t mean that in a negative way.
B: Yeah yeah. I appreciate those adjectives.
A: But like you said, you exploit the moments where things don’t work and it really does become an uncomfortable experience at times. And listening to the lyrics, it’s even more uncomfortable. Have people close to you, like your parents or a significant other or siblings or anything, had strong reactions to what you do?
B: Well, my parents are amazingly understanding. Not just understanding, but if I make something in a song, then they take it really seriously and so, I have an album called Sea Stories about a sex addict and he’s telling his story to his daughter and she ultimately accepts him for who he is. It’s kind of in the Nick Cave style.
It’s really influenced by the Nick Cave album, Push the Sky Away . He’s got albums like: “She was a light, I was a match, I was the light that could fire up her snatch.” Lines like that. But, he makes them work. I think that’s really amazing. In Sea Stories, I have a song called Constellations and the chorus is like, “Where does Orion keep his belt when he’s humping all those whores. If I was made in God’s image, does he have a thing for whores?” They’ve heard me do this for a while, these kinds of ultra-jarring lyrics.
I have an album called Freak Machine and that was the first time I did that kind of thing. The whole thing is sung by Courtney, the girl from Bent Knee who sings. She sings, “My heart says no but my cock says yes” in the first song and she says it with all her might. My mom was like, “Can’t you say, ‘My heart says no but my thing says yes?’” That was the only time I think it ever came up that way, but they immediately, once they heard the finished thing, they understood why.
I think they love music too and they love books and they’re in the science and medicine field, so they’re not making music, but they love all that stuff and they understand that’s what part of music’s for. I don’t get crap from them, but this one music video I made for Freak Machine, in the climax, my pal who stars in it shits out a rainbow and he gets smothered with a pillow that’s a monkey’s head. There’s a bunch of orgy stuff. There’s tons of blood. It’s really gruesome. It’s appropriately gruesome.
It’s the right video for that song, but I know a guy who went up to me one time and he was avoiding eye contact with me. I went up to him and I said, “Hi,” because I knew him and I liked him. He was really shy to talk to me and I figured out through the conversation after talking for a while that he saw that video and didn’t understand the story behind it at all and just thought that I was this messed up kind of mean, evil person who would impose this on people.
That was weird because once I told him what it was about–it’s about a guy who shoots himself in the head and he experiences his greatest humiliations and realizes what he’s done as he’s going. It’s about a character so extreme that I hoped other people would be able to look at him and think, “Hey, at least I’m not that messed up.” It was supposed to cheer some of my friends up who were really lonely. So when I explained the video like that, he was nice to me again and friendly again. That’s only happened that one time, really.
Sometimes you give people your best and then they reject you. I think that’s just a necessary piece of taking much-needed risks. Like you talking in front of all those people and sharing what you’re doing and sharing your heart is really valuable because there’s probably a lot of people who want to know how you’re doing what you’re doing. You’ll give them the courage or the little boost they need to go and do what they want to do. And if people are doing what they want to do, that’s great! You can deny them all of your own greatness at their expense because of the few people who reject your best. Or even if it’s lots of people.
One thing I always try to remind myself with making weird music is that if I make weird music, or music that is very specific and maybe not widely appealing but you have to have this certain set of interests to like it, the people who like it feel included in an often-exclusionary social world. If you’re the guy who gets beaten up in middle school, you hang out with the other guys who get beaten up and that makes it better. If you’re the only person who likes prog, then you go find prog hangouts and they get really close.
The prog community is really close. The metal community is really close. The hip hop community is really close. A lot of underground music scenes are really strong because people combine. So if you’re making super weird music, there’s this chance that you can reach these people who will really love it who, otherwise, no one is really making music for them.
When I made Life and Back , before I put it out, I didn’t think anyone would actually like it. It was the first time I ever thought that. I thought people were going to make fun of my rapping and they’re going to think it’s too far and people are going to react like they did with the Freak Machine video and they’re going to give me crap. It’s actually been more well-received and talked about to me more than most of the things that I do besides Bent Knee. Bent Knee always gets lots of attention because it’s six people working all the time.
I’m glad you picked it up and I have a chance to talk to anybody about it. When I put it out, though, I thought there might be some guy who’s day-to-day ritual is he sits at home and let’s say he’s got diabetes or something. That sucks. Or he has some condition that he can’t run outside and he’s alone, but the one thing he really likes to do is listen to music and this album can be one of the albums that really makes his day worth having.
That’s always possible and you’d never know if that were the case because: what are the odds of the guy contacting you? Usually that doesn’t happen and you have no idea how many people are actually–maybe the number of views on YouTube or whatever, but you don’t really know how many people in the world are really affected by what you’re doing on the internet. You don’t want to deny those people anything.
A: Oh yeah. One thing I love about your album is it’s easy to get lost in and I don’t understand it. I don’t mean thematically. I mean you just do so much stuff on there that makes me think about what I do as a musician and it’s so interesting. It’s so thought-provoking musically. It’s really cool to see someone tip-toe-ing to the edge, but it’s not something like several people I’ve talked to–Like Mattias Eklundh was just saying, “I want to be on the right side of weird.” I think you’re on the edge of the right side of weird. It’s not Rock in Opposition or Henry Cow or something like that, it’s its own music and it still fits within those bounds of “this is really creative and really interesting.” But it’s “outside” enough that makes me think it’s another world that I don’t understand and it’s probably part of the roots in hip hop and my exposure to hip hop is too limited, but there’s only so many hours and so many albums. But I can’t wait to check out some of the albums you’ve mentioned.
B: I just say Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and then Case Closed. There’s obviously tons more amazing hip hop, but I just think that is the greatest expression of what I like about it and I want to use what I like. Hear where that all comes from for me.
A: Well, I thank you so much for your time. It’s really generous to give me so much of your time.
B: No problem. I appreciate it. It’s really fun for me and I’m glad that music matters to you. I’d love to be able to say that I can put out an album and I know for sure that a lot of people will care, but I never really know for sure. It’s nice when anyone cares. It’s especially nice when someone who cares so much about music cares.
A: That’s great, man. I can’t wait to talk to you and Bent Knee about the new album. I have so many thoughts and ideas about where you got influences. I could be totally off, but it’s what I hear when I listen to it.
B: You’ll like them. They’re pretty silly.
A: Thank you, Ben!
B: Thank you!