Benjamin Booker made an all-American rock album for the 21st century and talked to us about the hallucinations that inspired it.
Photo by Max Norton
People still show up to Benjamin Booker's shows sometimes expecting an acoustic set. This is funny both because his only album, which came out this week, is completely swathed in distortion and because it's not exactly like he has a storied history touring the country. Benjamin Booker, Live, has been a thing for just over a year.
Then again, it has been a hell of a year. In April, Ben played on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and earlier this summer he was Jack White's opener for a run of dates across the Midwest. A couple weeks ago, he played Conan. Before his album had come out, he'd racked up accolades from serious music outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR (plus Noisey, which is not serious), and now that it is out, it's clear those accolades were not misplaced (especially Noisey's, which I think we can all agree were particularly visionary). Since first releasing a short set of acoustic demos recorded in his parents' bathroom and attracting attention from the blog Aquarium Drunkard exactly two years ago, Ben's rise has been rapid and charmed and richly deserved.
Benjamin Booker is an all-American rock album for the 21st century, with both the worn-in feel of a lost 78rpm classic and the livewire soul of modern punk. Although in person he has an easy-going, boyish charm, Ben's voice on record has the raspy howl of a back highway bluesman, and he sings like he's constantly on the verge of becoming completely unraveled. His words tend to be either mumbled or lacerating, blurring into and blaring forth from the midst of guitar licks that crackle and burn.
On “Have You Seen My Son,” the song grinds to a complete stop before exploding into a haphazard guitar solo that becomes a wall of noise. “Slow Coming,” which, true to its name, has the slow cadence of a ballad, reaches a similar climax, with Ben resignedly singing “the future is slow coming” as the track melts into a rush of noisy guitar. It's my favorite song of his, pairing a sense of modern paranoia with more timeless concerns: “even though computers are taking up my time/even though there are satellites roaming in space...I'm still looking out for you.”
This balance makes Benjamin Booker an arresting listen and feels like an Americana that actually resembles America, hewing closer to newly definitive bands like Titus Andronicus, TV on the Radio, or Dinosaur Jr. than some of Ben's more costumed peers looking to fill a similar niche. It sounds like the swampy locales of the South that fill Ben's biography—growing up in Tampa, going to college in Gainesville, moving to New Orleans—as well as a document of the dumbly bland realities and subtle terrors of living in those places.
That's not to paint a particularly dark picture of Ben, who stopped by our office a couple weeks ago to enthusiastically chat with us about adult contemporary music, his hatred of Eric Clapton, and his interest in owning a portable vaporizer (potential Benjamin Booker sponsors, take note; we promised we'd mention that in the interview). He also talked to us about the half-truths that helped him get his record deal, the skate park that helped him get into music, and the hallucinations that helped inspire his album.
Photo by Joshua Shoemaker
Where were you when all of this music stuff started? Tampa? New Orleans?
I moved to New Orleans after college. I just got a job with a nonprofit, and I did Americorps, which was rough. You get paid like 800 bucks a month, and my rent was like 500 bucks a month. So you can imagine how much fun that was. And then I just played acoustic shows, which sucked because who wants to see somebody play acoustic guitar? I don't even want to do that. Then I went back to Florida for a few months because I found a drummer that I loved, who drums with me now. And then we both moved back to New Orleans.
Did you always want to be a musician?
No, it just seemed so undoable to do it as a job. It just didn't seem like something I would be able to do. I didn't play shows until two years ago. I never played shows, which got really hairy when I first started talking to labels. I was lying like 'oh yeah, I've been on the road touring, playing so and so's shows.' I'd totally never played before, but it worked out.
Did you have a specific Americorps organization you were working with?
Yeah. It's called Hands On New Orleans. They just find volunteers for other nonprofits. They have a website where you can go online and sign up to volunteer. But it's miserable. The idea is they work with poor neighborhoods, and they want you to be on the level with the people in the neighborhoods that you're working with. But I was like 'I'm already poor! I don't need to see this.' So everybody you're working with is living off food stamps and has no money ever. It's like 'are we going out to a bar? No, we're just going to get a couple of [40s] and walk around.'
What was your life like when you were growing up?
I grew up in Virginia Beach 'til I was like seven or so. [My dad] was in the Navy, and he retired and we moved to Florida. But Florida was cool. I skated when I was younger, and the skate park had a venue called Transitions Art Gallery that had all-ages shows and stuff. There was just like a show every night, and I went as much as I could.
There's a band called Cult Ritual that's like really incredible. And then there's a band [now] called Merchandise. They all grew up playing in bands when they were like 16 there. It was just like kids putting out records with their allowances. It was cool.
Were you good at skateboarding?
No. Well, I was pretty good when I was younger. I started when I was ten or 11, but then I saw somebody get hurt one time, and I didn't really want to do it that much after that. When you're younger you're more fearless.
What did you study in college? What was your major?
Are you ready? Journalism. I just did music stuff. It was so bad. I played guitar, so I wasn't focused on the articles at all. I was just using it as an excuse to talk to bands and ask them questions that had nothing to do with anything. Like I was supposed to preview a show, and I was asking them like ridiculous questions. But it was great because I got to talk to the bands I wanted to talk to. I booked shows in college, too, and it was just like 'we want to see Deerhunter play, so let's book them.'
Photo by Joshua Shoemaker
What are your parents like?
My dad was in the military for 20 years, so you can imagine. He was a cop in the military. My parents are just like pretty religious, conservative people. And Florida is crazy. It's just like the wild west there. When I was in school I got into so much trouble because it's just so easy to get into trouble.
What kind of trouble?
Drinking and drugs and stuff like that. It's so easy to get down there, which is maybe why everybody is so crazy all the time. The stuff that people get into there—I knew people that were going to rehab when they were like 15. It was too much. A couple years ago I like hit a wall when I was in college and was like 'I gotta take it easy.' I just like walked into my living room—this girl I was living with was addicted to OxyContin—and there were people shooting up in my living room and I was like “fuck this, this is not cool, I've got to get out of here.” People love drugs down there.
Having conservative parents, how were they reacting to that?
My parents don't even drink.
Is that kind of what “Have You Seen My Son” is about?
Yeah. I went to go visit my cousin in the hospital who ended up dying. He was just a kid. And we went on this car ride afterward. That kind of stuff makes you think about your relationship with other people, and we just got into this huge, five-hour-car-ride-long fight with [my mom]. I was doing the music thing, and they just completely don't understand, like 'why do you want to play guitar?' It was just the day that I realized that they were always going to be a little disappointed in me. They still, you know, they love me and I love them but they're always going to be a little unhappy.
How has your relationship with them changed since?
It's fine, they're happy that I can like pay bills and eat food and stuff. I mean because, like, when I was in New Orleans I was eating like bread and butter for months. So they're just like thank god you're eating and stuff. I lost like 25 pounds that year it was horrible. It was the worst year ever. So they're just happy that I'm working I guess.
Do they like any of your music now?
They've never even been to a show. I think that the first time my mom saw me was on 'Letterman.' I was like 'I'm on “Letterman” did you see?' And she was like 'Yeah, I couldn't understand anything you sang.'
Maybe for the best?
It's definitely for the best. That song [“Violent Shiver”] starts off with a line about like erotic asphyxiation. I was like 'thank god my mom couldn't understand what that song was about.' [Laughs]
What's the album about?
Well, I first started writing the album when I was living with that girl that I was talking about who was like addicted—this was at the point where I had been like high for basically four years of my life like 24 hours a day and drinking and not taking care of myself. And she was worse than that. I have a history of schizophrenia in my family, and I was afraid that—I don't know, that's like the age that that stuff happens. II was afraid that I was like losing my mind because there was a couple of nights that I had some crazy visual hallucinations, and I wasn't even—I thought I was insane. It was just like a getting my shit together time. Just like 'I can't be a kid anymore and getting fucked up all the time.' And I guess also [I was] just ready to accept certain things about myself. My parents were super religious and conservative and not the type of people that you could go to and talk about things. So I think it's just communicating the things that I hadn't been able to say for my whole life. All the pent up things that you want talk about to people but you don't know how to say it.
That girl, there's a song called "I Thought I Heard You Screaming" on the record. This was around the time that I thought I was losing my mind, and I was like constantly worried about her all the time. And one night I was in my room, and I heard this blood-curdling scream, and I thought it was her. And I walked in, and she was fine. Like all the worrying manifested into this crazy hallucinating thing. That kind of stuff. Just, like, the people around me, there was so much happening. I was seeing this girl whose father had been murdered in a home invasion, and that was going on at the same time. It was just like a lot of shit happening. And I guess it was me just trying to make sense of that all happening.
Photo by Max Norton
So that's a lot of the period that ended up in the songs?
Yeah, yeah. Just like the shittiest time in my life. It was like a rock bottom.
Do you still drink? Do you still drugs ever?
We drink on the road, but I definitely don't do what I used to do because I can't do it. I'm one of those people that can't stop. Also, like, the year I turned 21, Four Loko came out, so you know. It's just sad, I hardly remember most of college. I honestly don't remember most of it. And I was like 'I don't want to forget my whole life.'
When you moved to New Orleans was there new stuff there that became part of the songs you were writing?
It's mostly drawn from that earlier period. I was basically by myself in New Orleans basically that whole year. I knew like the three people that worked in my office and that was like it. So it was like a really bummer situation. And I lived with this dude who like, it was so depressing, he had moved from like the Czech Republic and got a divorce and was just like an alcoholic who worked at a dog salon. He would steal meat from the dog salon to make food. It was such a bummer. This was the time that I was writing the album that I was just like 'ugh.'
You play music that's kind of in this blues vein. What's your experience as a black guy making music that's sort of in line with this black genre that has developed a largely white fanbase?
Yeah, I never listen to like any of that middle period, the white stretch of blues kind of stuff. I hate it more than anything. If I saw Eric Clapton—
Fight Eric Clapton!
I'm coming for you Eric Clapton. I don't play that kind of stuff at all. There's like two solos on the record, and they're like ten seconds long. I didn’t do like eight minute long solos. We didn't do that all. I guess people just assume if you like blues then you like all those things. But there's a lot of shitty blues. I don't know, I don't really write blues songs. I guess I listen to a lot of blues, and sometimes I take blues melodies or parts from blues. But I listen to like punk and then I took stuff from soul and blues and stuff. But I wouldn't say that we play blues music really. I just have no interest in that stuff. [In faux music hippy voice] 'People are, like, trying to put labels on shit, man.'
How do you feel about more contemporary music?
There's a lot of people I'm really excited about right now. Like all of the garage rock stuff. This band from Memphis called Ex-Cult rules. And like Amazing Snakeheads and Parquet Courts. There's a lot of real bands that are playing rock and roll music, but it's newer sounding stuff.
You know who fucked it up for everybody? Animal Collective. Seriously. I mean like, that kind of chillwave stuff was around for so long, and it got so huge. And now fucking like the Mumford-wave shit is like—it should be everybody's goal when you start a band to put these guys in the dirt. It's not really Animal Collective. I like Animal Collective. It's like the bands that started after.
Kyle Kramer loves instigating fights with Eric Clapton. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
Want more interviews that rock? Check these out: