Interview :: Benjamin Booker
January 6th 2015
Benjamin Booker is a young guy who has shot to stardom quite suddenly in the last year or so. With his debut self-titled album garnering much critical acclaim, it’s no surprise to see him on the hotly contested lineup for the 2015 Laneway Festival.
Unfortunately, though, our interview is off to an uncomfortable start. It’s unclear whether Ben Booker is shy or just stand-offish; but he’s softly spoken in any case.
As it turns out, he was never ready for any of this. Glamour and media attention, that is. After eight or so years just playing guitar in his room for kicks, he decided to let a few friends hear his stuff.
“I had a lot of friends who didn’t know that I played guitar until the record came out, close friends even. I wasn’t doing anything with it really until very recently. I had just recorded some demos to share with friends, and they got picked up by a blog in Los Angeles… and then played on this national radio program… and things just happened after that. I had no plans to do this at all. Things just happened really fast,” he tells me.
I feel like I’ve forced it out of him – there’s no excitement in his voice as he recounts this.
Naturally, the story behind the songs on the album is of particular interest. They’re largely catchy, thrashy punk-blues numbers that make you feel like dancing, although when you pay attention to the words, there are some deeply serious themes going on. This question is met with even less eagerness.
“I dunno… I’ve gone through a hard time, and I just needed to do it I guess. It was more just capturing how I was feeling at that time. I mean the newer stuff I write, I don’t know what it’ll be like. It depends on where I am I guess, at the time I sit down and write songs.”
When asked about his popular single ‘Have You Seen My Son‘, it’s clear why he’s not feeling talkative.
“Yeah, I mean… I’d rather not. I dunno. It’s just a rabbit hole I fell down again. It’s just a little weird, you know, when I was writing the record I didn’t know that anybody would see it but friends. And now there are some times I’ve talked about the songs and stuff, but they’re about real people. People I was around, people that I cared about and that I loved. Sometimes it seemed like things written in magazines and stuff when I had discussed it, just… I dunno, I don’t feel good about it.”
At the very least, I respect the guy for being that honest. Who wouldn’t feel strange about having their personal life plastered across international media? It’s a poignant reminder that musicians are expected to do exactly that on a daily basis – which is a little screwed up. And what’s interesting is that he’s pretty much answered my question without telling me anything at all.
Booker reveals later that he actually started on the opposite side of all this. He’s only 25, but he’s already been-there-done-that with a music journalism career. It made him part of a relentless machine that ultimately, made all the music run together and become meaningless. No wonder I’m the last person he wants to confide in.
When we turn to the recording process itself though, he starts to relax. Sure, he wasn’t planning to be a star, but that makes him no less the purist music maker. Benjamin Booker was recorded in an old-style analogue studio, and is released on vinyl as well as other forms. It was very much thought out this way.
“It was a deliberate choice, yeah. I mean I have been in a digital studio before, and like, I didn’t realise how many options you had when you’re recording digitally. You could basically just change every word in the song, fix everything. If I would have had to do that for this record it would have driven me insane,” he says, and there’s a smile in his voice. “Like, it was just nice to know that I really couldn’t. Like, the tracks on the record are mostly live, so it’s like you gotta play the songs and that’s it. It made it easier for me. I knew it was coming out on vinyl too, and like yeah… it made sense to record it on tape.”
After commenting that the level of digital intervention these days can take away from musical sincerity, I can hear his smile widen. Perfection is definitely not what he’s bothered with.
“Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I didn’t want the record to sound flat… and when it’s live, you know, on the stage you just have to live with it. You’re really capturing a time, and not so much trying to make a perfect record. There’s tons of mistakes on the record.”
Playing live is what it’s all about for Ben Booker, hence the relaxed attitude to recording. And even though he guards the intensely personal nature of his songs, the way he reconciles that with playing in public is the fact that live shows are about a vibe. They’re not about lyrics.
“There are definitely some aspects of recording that I enjoy, but really the live show is the whole reason you do it. The people in front of you and their reaction, you know. It’s so nice to play a song and see people dancing and smiling and having a good time with their friends.”
Ben’s love for performing has a strong link with good memories in his past. When he was a kid back in Florida, he used to hang out at the skate park and watch punk shows. It was then that he first started soaking up music that was a sort of hybrid – “folk punk” – where bands would mix American roots and punk styles together. But the most important thing was having the chance, in his words, to “get rowdy” with friends. It’s definitely telling of where his thrashy punk-blues style comes from, but also reminds me of a comment I saw on his Facebook page:
“Maybe I should have posted the lyrics a long time ago or included them with the album. But, to be honest, at the time I couldn’t imagine anyone singing these very personal songs back to me. For me, it was never about people at shows understanding all the words or me hitting all the right notes. For the hour we’re together I want you to feel what I’m feeling. I want to look out into the crowd and see you smiling and dancing and having a good time with your friends. Who cares what I’m saying. Shows are about getting away from bullshit jobs, fights with partners, and paying bills. Just have fun. B.”
It seems to put our whole conversation in context – I realise now that it was almost telling me to stay off the topic of lyrics. But play his heart out at a concert? Hell yes. In any case, now we’re talking about Laneway Festival, which really ends up being more of a philosophical conversation about how people in different countries view the world. Unsurprisingly by this point, Booker is not bothered about stardom or rubbing shoulders with stars. He doesn’t even know the lineup for the festival, and asks if Courtney Barnett will be there. She will be, and he’s happy to hear it, as it will be a reunion – he’s just finished touring with Courtney’s band and had quite the rowdy time with them.
Barnett and her band are some of the many Australians Booker has met, who have paved the way for his enthusiasm about visiting our shores.
“I went to school with people who were from Australia, like exchange students and things like that, and everybody seems to generally be pretty cheerful and like really nice. The Australians I’ve known, at least, usually like to have a good time at parties… so it’s been fun. And every band that I’ve talked to says that Australia’s their favourite place to play so… I mean they can’t all be wrong.”
I casually comment that the U.S. seems pretty glamorous for us too, especially since Booker himself is based in New Orleans, an important music city. There’s laughter in his voice when he replies.
“Is that what people think, that the U.S. is glamorous? Oh my God. Since I’ve been travelling I would say the U.S. is the least glamorous place on the planet. No, people are getting the wrong impression I guess… I dunno, you guys have a good reputation.”
Well, that’s good for us. And since what he seems to like most is a rowdy crowd having fun, we’ll probably deliver on that when he gets here.
What we can look forward to is Ben’s unpredictability. Like he wanted his album to be full of life, so must each and every live show. I admit that I think there’s nothing worse than a live show that sounds just like the CD. He agrees with me, but he’s not one for getting fired up.
“We’ve been playing for so long now that you just gotta change it up, you know,” he comments casually. “I mean, the live show’s gonna be very different to the record, so I dunno, I hope everyone just enjoys it and has a good time.”
The uncomfortable feeling we began with has vanished, and I can’t wait to see this guy and his band play in the flesh.
WHAT :: Benjamin Booker at St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival
WHO ELSE :: Flying Lotus, Mac Demarco, Caribou, FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Courtney Barnett, Peter Bibby
WHEN :: Sunday 1 February, 2015
WHERE :: Sydney College of the Arts, Rozelle
TICKETS :: $160 here
WHAT :: FBi Presents Benjamin Booker (Laneway sideshow)
WHEN :: Monday 2 February, 2015
WHERE :: Newtown Social Club, 387 King St, Newtown
TICKETS :: SOLD OUT – but if you’re an FBi supporter you could nab a double pass here!