Clocking up hundreds of thousands of plays on Soundcloud, we meet with Ben Khan in his first proper face-to-face interview.
Ben Khan is the first of Noisey UK's "debuts" - a in-depth profile of a brand new artist. We'll be doing one a month until the apocalypse, or music ends (both estimated to be in 2016).
“I’m not going to sit here and not answer your questions”, Ben Khan tells me, as he sinks into a plush set of upholstered furniture at West London’s Electric House. “The reason why people are saying it’s like that is because I’ve held it all back. I want to keep the music out there and keep myself to myself.”
We’re in a dimly lit corner of the most luxurious venue on Portobello Road. Portraits rule the walls while plungable chaise lounges and ottomans are opulently scattered across the floor. The décor is not dissimilar to a reimagining of Jay Gatsby’s mansion. A menagerie of salariats and executives pollute the interior with bubbling conversations about business while waitresses pour out expensed pints of Amstell. And then there’s me and Ben, sat face-to-face, paddy-footing into his first proper interview.
All I really know of Ben is his stats. His first single “Drive (Part 1)”, a jaggedly atmospheric smooze of dirty Southern blues intertwined with deadly R&B, has clocked up 170,000+ plays on Soundcloud. His second, “Eden”, was immediately awarded the Best New Music accolade on Pitchfork while also reaming in almost 400,000 plays. His music is addictive, soaking the listener into a world where soul, contemporary funk and off-the-wall instrumentation fornicate. It’s like fucking a stranger, dirty and uncomfortable, yet warming, too. But beyond music and numbers, Ben has decided to remain unknown.
Like many of his contemporaries - Jai Paul, JUNGLE, Burial - Ben Khan resides in a world where Twitpics, Reddit AMAs and hash-tagged single releases are anathema. It would be easy to call this a marketing cliche, but, as Ben explains, it’s more of a Catch 22. “It’s a thing from being a little insecure about letting everyone in from the offset. It’s not really my style,” he tells me. “If you’re meeting someone you don’t just say – “Hi! Hello, my name’s Ben!” – and then tell them your life story. You don’t do that. Especially if you think that thousands of people may pay attention to you.”
He won’t remain silent forever, choosing to naturally build up a rapport with his fans until he feels comfortable. He tells me, “You have to open up at some point, if you have a relationship with someone it has to progress, otherwise it gets pretty boring.”
Today is not that watershed moment. Fifteen minutes have passed and we’ve already blasted through several pages worth of prepared questions, Ben, politely, side-lining many of them. It's not that he's exactly refusing to answer but he’s not letting me in either. I swirl the dregs of my wheat-beer around the glass, begging my next question to appear, and ponder what we’ve learnt so far. Heritage wise, as you can tell, the name Khan is not entirely English. His Father is a Kashmir born silk-maker (who also contributed to the photo above). He started making music like this about a year and a half ago, and he’ll keep his influences close to his chest because, “it’s an important thing, explanation can ruin art”.
Everything that Ben Khan does is considered, from the way he’s dressed today, a puffy bomber jacket with a patterned shirt splaying underneath, to the way he treads cautiously into our battle for information while maintaining a strong degree of courtesy. This year, he’ll be putting out his debut EP, which is part of a strategy that’s been worked upon for two years, giving some insight into the centralised, strategized mindset behind his madness.
For Ben, it’s about challenging people and reaching the passive listener, those that don’t actively spend hours on Soundcloud looking for the next big thing. He tells me, “the active listeners are going out [and finding good music], because they’re active about it. The big industry won’t change a formula that’s working, which is understood. Whether you come at the [passive listeners] from the right or the left, if you reach them, you’re going to make a difference. It’s an exciting possibility. You could open up other people’s idea of what it means to be pop music.”
It’s an approach that is ingrained in his latest release, “Savage”, which manages to blend shutterbug synths, wonky R&B, and murky electronica into something that is extremely accessible. “If I wanted to make a pop song, it’s easy for me to examine one and see the exact elements of it, and do it,” he says. “It would happen easily and I know that there would be a market for it. But I shouldn’t want to do that just for the cash. The cash is appealing, but…” It’s boring, following a blue-print step-by-step? “Yeah, it’s not bringing any value. You’re not going to bring any value to the equation.”
Instead, his value lies not in vocodoring his songs all the way to the dance-floor at Tiger Tiger, but in “encompassing personality as much as possible into music”. This personality is subtly drip-dropped into everything that Ben does, from the Salvador Dali artwork that decorates his rarely used Twitter page, his portraiture heavy Blessed Vice site, and his self-made music videos that are built on the foundation of his love for film. The video for “Eden” unobtrusively features shots from Only God Forgives, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and a Salvador Dali sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, among others.
“I’m not trying to make revolutionary changes here, but I’m starting from a ground level and I want to open people’s minds a bit. There’s a lot of closed minds out there, and tunnel vision, which will lead people to a boring place,” he says. “I didn’t get in this music thing to be a big star. I didn’t do it for that.”
On the table next to us, a white-collared man is loudly discussing a financial deal that sounds like it's going to make someone a lot of money. Meanwhile Khan is telling me that his EP will touch upon “struggling with ideas of religion and concepts of our society in general. It’s a messy game isn’t it, man? It’s just observations. I’m not a politician and my brain isn’t wired like one, so, I’m not going to try and get political. But, there’s definitely things, which to an open eye, are quite ridiculous, whether that’s looking at a small country like Britain or a country like India, there’s a lot of corruption and bad things going on," he looks over at the white-collared man and nods.
"That’s the thing,” he tells me. “I’m not an activist, but I think about it a lot. And in the future, if there’s something I can do with my music to put a message across, I will.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil
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