Writer J. Bennett opens up about balancing acts, volcanic bummers, and becoming a band dude.
Photo by David Lee Dailey
J. Bennett spends a great amount of his time talking to musicians. His work appears in Decibel, Metalsucks, Noisey, and many other outlets, and Bennett has established a reputation as one of the most engaging interviewers in the game. With that in mind, it’s only appropriate that we turn the proverbial tables on the guitarist/vocalist to discuss the recent release from LA doom-ish trio Ides of Gemini. Featuring Sera Timms (vocals/bass) and Kelly Johnston (drums/vocals) in addition to Bennett's guitar, Ides of Gemini’s relatively brief existence as a band has garnered the band considerable acclaim, due in no small part to the fact that their music is so wonderfully hard to pigeon-hole into any one genre. It’s a distinction that’s not lost on Bennett in his role as a writer, and one that presents an interesting dynamic with regards to his critical perspective. I recently spoke with J. to talk about just that, as well as where the Ides of Gemini story had its beginnings and what he envisions for its future.
Check out the haunting new video for "Seer of Circassia" below.
Noisey: Ides of Gemini is fairly new; the band only formed around 2010. What’s the background story? How did you guys come together and set about creating this particular sound?
J. Bennett: So the story is, Sera, our bass player and singer, was in a band previously called Black Math Horseman. They put out a record on TeePee several years ago. I forget when that came out—maybe 2006 or 2007. I think it was around 2008 or 2009 that Black Math Horseman played Roadburn, or, rather, that they were supposed to play Roadburn. I went along with them to do merchandise, and help hump gear, and things like that. I’d done that for all their shows just here in California. So we were on the plane, sitting on the runway, getting ready to take off to fly to London first and then Tillburn, Holland, for Roadburn. We were literally sitting on that plane when that Icelandic volcano that no one can pronounce (Eyjafjallajökull) erupted and shut down the airspace for like a week. They had to pull everyone off the plane, and we basically sat in this hotel near the airport at LAX for three days trying to see if we could get a flight out. Meanwhile, they’re supposed to be playing shows, so shows are getting cancelled. Every day you woke up, and it was like, “Yeah, we gotta cancel another show.” That volcano was unprecedented in the history of air travel. No one went anywhere for a week, and the whole tour and trip to Europe was supposed to be two weeks. At one point we were just thinking, “Well, we’ll have to pull the plug on this” because we didn’t know if we would go at all, or if it would even be worth it when we could go. So, Sera and I finally decide to bail and come home. After that, we had this time of a week and a half where we had set all this time aside because we thought we were going to be in Europe, so we basically found ourselves at home with nothing to do. I was like, “Fuck it,” and I’d had these ideas of songs that I had wanted her to sing on anyways, so we just did them. We recorded them all, and we spent most of that time working on that EP. That was the start.
Where did that all start for you, with regards to becoming a musician and developing into where you are now?
Well, the impetus for starting the band was Sera’s voice. I’d never heard anyone sing like that. No one had inspired me to really write music before her. I started playing guitar when I was a teenager, like everyone else. I think I was around sixteen when I started. By the time I was twenty-one, I’d pretty much stopped altogether. I grew up in Massachusetts and lived in Boston for ten years, and while I was there all these bands who were friends of mine were coming to prominence at that time, like Cave In, Isis and all these bands. I’m not sure I thought about this at the time, but now it seems pretty clear to me that, on some subconscious level, I thought that I could not compete with that kind of thing. Those guys are so immensely talented. Another part of it was that as much as I enjoy bands who don’t have singing vocalists, who do more of an experimental vocal thing with the yelling or shouting or whatever, I don’t think being in a band like that interests me really. And again, this isn’t something that I thought about then, but I think on a subconscious level if I was gonna be in a band I wanted a singer and that’s what Sera is. She’s kind of the answer to all your questions in a lot of ways. She is the reason that I wanted to do this, and she continues to be the reason. All the songs are written specifically for her voice. I don’t know how other bands do things, but I suspect a lot of times that musicians kind of do what they want and then they drop it in the vocalist’s lap and say “Do what you can.”
You mentioning that you don’t know what other bands do immediately makes me think about the unique position you’re in, as a music writer who also happens to be in a band that’s susceptible to the same kind of scrutiny you employ. Does that inform your own critical perspective as far as writing about other bands goes?
Yeah, I mean, it works both ways. On the one hand, I think hearing so much music as a journalist—you get promo albums and you’re kind of inundated with all this music—I think there’s a real danger of being caught up in this sort of white noise of too much input. If I’m working on something that I feel sounds too much like something I’ve heard, I usually throw it out the window. Sometimes a thing is just good, and even if you go, “Eh, I can hear a little bit of this in there,” you still have to say it’s good and you keep it. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time it’s like, “This sounds too much like this, or too much like that.” Hearing so much of what people are doing helps me whittle things down, and it also tells me a lot about what I don’t want to do. From the other side, I think even before we started Ides of Gemini, I was moving in a direction where reviewing albums was something I was becoming less and less interested in. Now, I think being in the band has just kind of solidified that attitude even more. There was a time before Ides of Gemini where I wrote a lot of reviews, and I wrote just as many negative ones as I wrote positive ones, and now not only do I tend to write very few reviews, I tend to only review albums that I am very enthusiastic about. Luckily, most of the outlets that I write for are very aware of the kind of music I like, so I very rarely get asked to review something that I don’t like these days. But if I did get asked to review something I don’t like, I would not say “No.” It almost seems—and I hesitate to use the word “inappropriate”—but it’s something within the realm of inappropriate for me to be bagging on what other people are doing now, especially if they’re other bands who are operating on the same level as me. I don’t see how that’s constructive. And, I mean, let’s be honest—you always hear musicians complain about reviewers, saying, “Oh, well you’ve never created anything. What have you done musically? If you think you can write a better album then why don’t you do it,” which, on the one hand, I can see that as a legitimate complaint, but the other side of that is that most people who listen to music and who buy albums are not musicians themselves. So I think having those kinds of people write about the records makes sense to me. In a lot of ways, by joining or starting a band, I think I’m slowly disqualifying myself in a strange way. [Laughs]
That view on only writing positive reviews presents an interesting kind of conflict for the infinite number of bloggers out there. For most of them, and I’ll include myself in that group, it creates the illusion of this aberrant positivity or, worse yet, the idea that there’s no validity to their perspective because they offer no counterpoint.
I think my attitude has always been that it’s just as okay to like something as it is to not like something. It’s as simple as that. I think this holds true whether you’re writing negative reviews or not.
As an interviewer, do you find yourself feeling more empathetic to artists and musicians now because you have an understanding of that other side?
Yeah, even before Ides of Gemini I think I had a pretty good sense of what went into a record, maybe more so than most writers, because so many of my friends were musicians, and I spent so much time in studios and in rehearsal spaces watching it happen. I wasn’t there every day watching the whole process, but I certainly have an appreciation for how much time and effort goes into creating an album. I have way more understanding for that now; just by the nature of it ,I would have to. It also gives me the perspective of when you're hearing something that’s not very good, or that’s half-assed, you go, “Well, why did you guys bother with this?” Because it still takes time, no matter how shitty the song is. It takes time to put it together. It takes time for three or four fucking guys to learn it, and then to go to a studio and record it. The whole process has kind of reinforced everything I felt before in a lot of ways.
As far as Old World New Wave goes, I wanted to ask you about the changes in sound that the band has undergone in just the relatively short amount of time you guys have been together.
A lot of the foundations of the songs on this record were done before Constantinople, the last record, came out. We recorded Constantinople in January of 2012, and it came out in May, just five months later. Most of this record was completed in that time period. The first song I wrote for the record was “Fememorde,” which to me that song is so different. That song was done so early that, technically, if I had presented it to Kelly and Sera, we could have got our act together and put it on the first record. There was time for that, but I knew there was something different about that song, and that it wasn’t going to fit on Constantinople. It was the next step, and that’s kind of where the concept for Old World New Wave came from. Old World New Wave, at least from my perspective, is as much of a sonic and atmospheric concept as it is a lyrical concept, so that song is kind of the impetus for the whole record. The whole thing about Old World New Wave is that we’re thinking about the record in terms of vinyl, so there’s an A Side and a B Side. The Old World songs are the first four, and the New Wave songs are the last five. I don’t know how clear that is for people listening to it on a computer or a CD, so I don’t know that they have that experience of flipping over the record, but that’s how it breaks down. I think the whole thing fits, because you can also listen to it straight through, no problem.
Old World New Wave is out now on CD and digitally on Neurot Recordings and on vinyl via SIGE Records.
Jonathan Dick is planning for the Ides of March on Twitter.