Interview :: Ben Lee
April 2nd 2013
For the best part of twenty years, Ben Lee has carved a niche in the Australian music industry by making love songs his currency.
Be it forlorn (‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’), fervent (‘Catch My Disease’) or fucking earnest (‘Love Me Like The World is Ending’), Lee’s heart has been at the heart of all of his biggest successes. Now married with children, Lee has found a new muse in a psychoactive drug tea called Ayahuasca, native to the South American hinterlands. As a result, the thirty-four year old is coming out with a new record that’s named after and influenced by his experience with the medicine, and suffice to say, it’s a far cry from the traditional song structures and inventive pop melodies that marked his previous work. The Flog’s Max Quinn caught up with Lee to find out more.
Max: I want to get into the new album, but I wanted to start by asking you about a picture that I found in a Fountains of Wayne album booklet yesterday. It’s of you and their singer, Chris Collingwood – it must be from the early 2000s – and I was wondering if we could start by talking about that time in your life, and where you were headed.
Ben Lee: I’ve always been a student of the craft of songwriting. A big part of how you learn that stuff is just getting in a room with people and writing songs – and Adam [Schlesinger, from Fountains of Wayne] was one of the first people I got in touch with when I moved to New York. I really admire his fantastic pop craftsmanship. Shortly after we went on tour, and me and Chris became buddies. We still hang out sometimes. I always remember that time as my introduction to co-writing.
Am I correct in saying that a lot of your early career was geared toward writing pop songs for the radio?
When I was a kid, I experienced pop music via radio. Listening to the Pet Shop Boys and Michael Jackson – radio was the medium through which I was discovering music. But my love of pop songs was a transcendent love, that was not about commercialism. It’s about the way you feel when a great chorus comes in, and the way you feel when you’re in a space with thousands of other people and you’re all screaming the words to a big hit. It’s an emotional experience. I did find that it did provide me with the right kind of vehicle to gain some commercial success, but it wasn’t necessarily about commercial success.
I read a comment you made recently that was to the affect of: “My Documentary should be called How I thought Getting Famous Would Solve all my Problems and Why It Didn’t.” Were you speaking in jest, then?
Somewhat. I think I honestly believed that I could pull out the one great story at a party that makes everyone laugh. It’s this type of validation that I was looking for. I was always kind of a ham. I think I genuinely believed that chasing a certain kind of appeal was going to make me happy. It’s interesting – because it specifically didn’t, but the journey I had to go on, ultimately has. It’s a very paradoxical thing.
What changed in you to lead us to where we are today, with this new album Ayahuasca?
Broadly, my music has gotten increasingly personal and esoteric over the last ten years. I have always written really honestly about whatever I’m passionate about, and this I guess is a reflection of that. This whole phase I’m in of my career involves tackling deeply personal projects that move me and are for my friends and my family.
More specifically, this is about Ayahuasca, which is a healing tea from the jungles of South America. It’s something you have to surrender to. It really dominates the spirit and heart and mind and body for the time that you are under its influence. It can offer you a lot of insight, and I’ve been working with it over the last few years with a teacher. Just like with all of these other records where I’ve fallen in love with a woman and wanted to make songs for her, this was a similar process of something affecting me in a profound manner, and seeking to use what I have to pay tribute to it.
Does is have medicinal properties?
Yeah. It’s a detoxifier. That applies on a lot of levels. It was used traditionally for things like tapeworm and infections and viruses to purge the system of toxins, but it also applies on a psychological and emotional and spiritual level. There are often issues that are at the root cause of some illnesses that maybe don’t even manifest as illnesses, but they’re at the root of existential dread or depression or anxiety that needs to be dealt with. The medicine will bring it to the forefront of your consciousness.
In that sense, have you been using this tea to look inside yourself?
Yeah, that’s very much it. It’s an inner work. It’s quite confronting, because for the five to seven hours [you spend under the influence], you just lie there with your eyes closed. And you go inside. And you find new things. And it’s far from boring – it’s a rollercoaster ride. But where you’re taken … and the vastness of what’s actually inside our consciousness – it’s so unbelievable. It’s an amazing experience.
What were you looking for?
Knowledge. I’m a student, essentially. I don’t think of it as much as that I’m seeking something that I’m missing as much of it is that I want to know more about what’s out there, and what’s in here. And I’ve always been open to anything that resonates with me as possibly having something to offer. Ultimately, I was curious as to what existed.
How did that result in the music we hear on the album?
The music stemmed from a devotional, ‘falling-in-love’ experience. Me and Jesse, my collaborator, we both wanted to revel in the mystery of what this medicine is all about. It’s really very mysterious. It takes you places that are very hard to explain. And without getting too weird – if we haven’t already – we actually wanted to allow the message in the medicine to come through.
What’s the message?
I think it has a lot to do with the way that our world is out of balance at the moment. It’s interesting because the medicine is in varying states of legality around the world, and people often talk about that in the taboo sense of psychdelics in general. I just keep coming back to this idea of: look at the world. Look at the institutionalised insanity, where the things that perhaps cause the most harm are the things that are institutionally supported in our world. We kind of wanted to just allow this feeling, this atmosphere – the intelligence of the medicine – to speak through the music we were making.
As a result, they’re not exactly pop songs as we’re used to hearing Ben Lee write pop songs.
Yeah. And I think the abstract side of me has always been present. Even in Noise Addict, we were really into Sonic Youth and we did long noisy jams, but that stuff never made it on to record. I always thought that albums were where you have to put ten great songs with strong choruses; I fell into a patriarchal idea about what albums had to be. But I have always liked experimental music, and because we’re dealing with something of a very slippery nature – consciousness – it made more sense that the music would become more abstract as well.
It’s interesting that you mention that idea of consciousness – do you think that’s become somewhat of a motif for you?
In 2004, I called my record Awake Is The New Sleep, and it’s become more and more meaningful since then. All of my work, to some degree, has been about this subject of awakening. But it isn’t a new idea: if you look back at fairytales like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White where characters fall asleep, and in that sense they’re sort of in danger. It’s a metaphor for our consciousness falling asleep, and us being hypnotised by powers that perhaps don’t have our best interest at heart.
You could also say that about the modern world; we’re hypnotised into not thinking about this planet we’re living on, or questioning the capitalist system. Yeah! So waking up consciousness is sort of what it’s all about. It’s something that my own revolutionary tendencies veer towards that, as the sense that I see it as a root cause of a lot of the problems in the world: the fact that we’re collectively asleep.
Are you a lucid dreamer, if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor?
I’ve had experiences. I understand the principle of it and I’ve worked with my dreams a lot. I haven’t practised it a whole lot, but I understand the power of that philosophy.
Do you think it could be a reciprocal kind of relationship? The type of songs you write affect the experience you have with tea, which in turn affects your dreams and so on?
Interesting question. I hope so. I’ve always believed in that saying “when the student’s ready, the master appears” – but there are forces at work in our collective consciousness that, as we take a step towards it, it takes a step towards us. I’ve seen that evident in my own dreams, and more broadly in my own life.
In what way has that been evident?
In a very literal sense. I’ve had questions, as I assume most artists have, about how I’ll support myself if I allow my work to go into these more abstract areas. If you make a career the same way I did, through the form of music and the subject matter of love songs – which are the currency of the music world – it sort of makes sense that you can make a living and support yourself. To let go of that, and to explore these more subversive areas, makes you worry about stuff like kids, and making money, and supporting my family.
But I’ve just kind of seen that the more I serve consciousness, and the more I keep my mind focused on helping me wake up, and can hopefully help my audience to wake up, things sort of just get taken care of. I have some lean months, but then something magically comes in. Before I ever really consider giving up, I find myself quite supported by the universe. I keep moving forward and seeing what’s going to happen.
WHAT: Ben Lee – Ayahuasca album tour
w/ Darpan and Friends, Appleonia, Avasa & Matty Love, Nadav
WHEN: Thursday 11 April
WHERE: Paddington Uniting Church
HOW MUCH: $35 + BF from here
PLUS: Catch Ben Lee performing live on Mornings with Stephen Ferris – Thursday 11 April at 11am!