Laneway Festival 2019 wrapped up last week and it has me thinking about the festival in 2015. Playing Laneway was an incredible introduction to New Zealand and Australia but also to new artists. This interview may not have been possible with out 2015s festival because that is precisely where I met Benjamin Booker. Although we were both living in New Orleans at the time we met half way around the world in Australia. Also by chance, whimsy, or happenstance, we again live in the same city where I had the opportunity to ask him to participate in this series.
Ben is working on and writing a new record and some of the songs are about Los Angeles. We also talked about his shows opening for Neil Young and our shared respect for Amiri Baraka (author of Blues People and Black Music) and Kim Deal of The Breeders. It is my pleasure to see Ben grow as a song-writer, singer, and performer. I look forward to the record and hearing his distinctive raspy voice from here to Oz and back again.
Read other interviews in this series here. *
Q Tracks like “Believe” on Witness feature string arrangements. You also play keys and guitar. What is your musical background?
I played piano and cello for a bit in middle school. It wasn’t long enough to get good at either but looking back it definitely help to give me a good music foundation. I left both of those instruments for guitar which I picked up learning all the Nirvana songs. At one point I could literally play all of them.
I’m still pushing and trying to learn stuff all the time. I’m not at the point of being able to do string arrangements. My friend Oliver Hill [of Pavo Pavo] jumped on to help with Witness strings. He’s way past me musically.
Q You've spoken about your time in Mexico City sparking your creativity for Witness. Have you been back?
No, I haven’t actually. I tried to make plans a couple times but things have come up. Hoping to get down this year for sure though.
Q How did you end up working with (one of my personal favorites) Mavis Staples? I imagine she lives up to and exceeds her legend. What was recording and touring with Ms. Staples like?
Mavis is one of my favorites, too. The more I learn about her, the more I realize the massive impact she has had on so many artists. Even Michael Jackson’s famous “shamone” was taken from Mavis. We met writing a song together for an album she did with M. Ward. It was called “Take Us Back” and incredibly has become a regular part of her set.
Sadly, I have never actually been in the studio with her. When she helped me by singing on my record, the producer flew to Chicago to record her vocals and I think I stayed home to save money. HUGE REGRET.
I was lucky enough to open for her in England last year. It was incredible! We sang a song together and I was in tears by the end. I love that woman. Truly. I’m doing something special with her this year but I don’t know if they’ve announced it yet.
Q What is inspiring your new album/songs?
Drum machines, poets like Amiri Baraka and Morgan Parker and Leonard Cohen, love, death, Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane, Ethiopian jazz, R & B, youth, traveling, friends. I love the time in between records. I see it as my job to soak in all I can. What do I need to do today? Live!
Q What can we expect from you in 2019?
I’m planning on hopping in to the studio at some point this summer. People will most likely hear something before the year is over.
Q How did those shows in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis go with Neil Young?
Oh boy! I really am one of the luckiest people on the planet. The shows were incredible. My dream is to be able to play only beautiful, old theaters which is what I got to do on that run. Sitting on a gorgeous stage, with an acoustic in front of thousands of dead silent people ready to listen... what else could you want as a song writer? I’m very thankful to everyone involved for having me out.
Q It would be remiss of me to not mention our collective love for Old Style Guitar Shop in L.A.
Old Style is the best! Shout out to the crew over there. Everything in the store is there for a reason. It’s the kind of place where they won’t just try to sell you the most expensive thing. They had other fancier basses when I was looking but the owner said the Aria Pro II Cardinal Bass was one of his personal favorites. $300 and it rules! Kim Deal used one. God I love her.
Q As a musician, and even before, you’ve moved around. How did New Orleans shape you/your music? How is Los Angeles treating you?
I think traveling is in my blood. My dad was in the Navy and my parents would take us on impromptu trips out of town for the weekend. Life is too short to stay in a little corner.
I think New Orleans was the perfect place to start making music because there isn’t a music business there. I’m not sure what it’s like now but no one was trying to “make it.” Any success seemed lightyears away. I think that really helped to leave room for creativity.
I think I’m going to be in Los Angeles for a bit, or at least until it gets to expensive I guess. It’s been life changing for me. It’s a big city which has given me access to more music, museums, food, different people. I love the options and feel very inspired.
Q I have to ask, when are we djing together?
Anytime! I would love it if we could have regular house parties and DJ. Monty could be cool too. We’ll talk when I’m back from Australia.
The easy-going and infectious personality that is Mac MeMarco has been on our collective radars since 2012 (perhaps even before with Makeout Videotape). After hearing Rock And Roll Night Club and subsequently stocking it at Reckless Records in Chicago, I approached his manager (Hi Michelle) and label Captured Tracks in hopes of hosting an in-store performance at the shop. The album was just hitting shelves but I was interested in seeing them live almost immediately. The in-store didn’t pan out but I did see the band’s show at The Empty Bottle and Mac and the band.
Since then, between 2014 and 2017 we have toured closely (Angel Olsen festival sets would often be directly before or during Mac’s) and I always enjoyed traveling and talking with Mac and “the boys.” Recently, I was looking forward to hearing about their new album and the inception of Mac’s own label. He reveals a few hints as to what the record will look like (I haven’t considered Mac to be a cowboy - until now.) and a teaser about tour plans this year. Mac also affectionately calls Michael McDonald “Mike” which gives me a blissful feeling.
This and previous interviews have been a pleasure and I’m excited about the music due out this year. Though we are still waiting for Rihanna’s reggae album, Sharon Van Etten drew first and delivered a powerful punch with Remind Me Tomorrow and with records by Hand Habits, Cass McCombs, and Jessica Pratt announced - we’re in for an earful in 2019.
UPDATED Feb 13: Some folks inquired about the disappearance of Mac’s Instagram account. The tech website The Verge hosts an article that uses his page as an example of an app-wide glitch resulting in follower loss. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Q You announced a new label in August, Mac's Record Label. Have you chosen a roster, future releases, or reissues?
I keep getting hit up asking this same thing from all kinds of people and bands. I don't really have any plans to put anyones music out other than my own right now but maybe I will once I get some of my crap out there. It's kind of just a really fancy way of saying "self-released,” although it is all through a great distro label that's essentially doing all the heavy lifting for me. We'll see what happens - no plans right now.
Q How much can you share about your next album?
I'm not sure how much I can say right now. I just finished making it and it's getting mastered right now. It's my "cowboy" album but it's not really "cowboy" in a lot of ways hahaha. It's probably the weirdest album I've made - very jarring. I went a little crazy making it, feeling groovy about it now, it should be very strange playing it live.
Q Was touring solo (with out "your boys") a welcomed change of pace or a necessity for songs on This Old Dog?
I've done shows on my own periodically for a bunch of years now. It would usually be in more of a unconventional setting than with the band. It's definitely a very different thing than how we normally do things, I talk a lot, it's very relaxed, very quiet. I really enjoyed doing a whole tour of it. It was just Kiera and me in a Dodge Caravan so it was definitely pretty different than how things usually roll out for us these days. Took me a little while to get back into the swing of driving all the time and actually working and settling everything at first hahahaha.
Q When/why did you make the shift from strictly guitars and drums to incorporating keys and synths on tour and your albums?
Salad Days was the first time I had actual keyboard driven songs on any of my records. I had been interested previously but I really have no clue what I'm doing on a piano or keyboard and had very little understanding of synthesizers or anything like that at the time. I'm also not exactly a shredder on guitar either so it's nice to have a couple more colours to paint with. To be honest, I don't listen to very much guitar music nowadays, maybe for a long time actually. I wish I could play the keys better but there's also something in not really knowing where to go on an instrument, lots of pleasing mistakes.
I was talking about the intro to synths in our live sets the other day. I remember not wanting keyboard stands on stage for some dumb reason, I thought they were whack or something. we just used stools from whatever club we were in hahahahaha.
Q What is your relationship with Japan and Japanese music (ie Haruomi Hosono, YMO, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tomita)?
I love it! I have for a long time now, too. The more I dig the more I love it. I never seem to run out of new stuff by that crew, they really went in on so many genres and styles and just pumped so many records out over the years. I'm down for all of it, too. From the James Taylor or the band sounding early Hosono stuff to the wild minimal-ambient stuff from more recently.
I've had the opportunity to meet everybody from YMO at this point, some more intimately than others. Meeting Hosono is one of those big days in my life I think, very cool. There may be a little Hosono related treat happening in June. No guarantees but keep ya eyes peeled… that's all I'm gonna say.
Q Care to share some of your current influences and collaborations, Shamir, Flea, Michael McDonald, Anderson .Paak, etc... ?
Ah, the crew. I feel like we have a really interesting group of friends and contemporaries out there right now, a lot of people whose music is varied pretty far from what I and the band do, which is really cool to me.
I was at Anderson's place a couple nights ago showing him some stuff from my new record. He's a wild one, love the guy, insane musician. I think especially with his crew, it's really intimidating but also inspiring being around a bunch of people that are so comfortable and talented on their instruments and just musically generally, it's very cool.
Flea I only really met at a dinner with Anderson and The Free Nats [Nationals] one night in South America, also very nice guy, insane shredder. Spent a night with Shamir in Philly last time we were out there. I would consider us good friends at this point, OG, great vibe, great tunes, mad love, mad respect.
Hanging with Mike McDonald is insane, he's a legend. He loves showing us pictures of his airstream trailers. Hope we get to see the dude again soon.
Q What are your feelings branching out from your contract with Captured Tracks?
Although I'm doing "my own label" now I'm still working with CT on a bunch of stuff. They're still working and producing all the stuff that I've done with them over the years and I'm sure we'll work together a lot more in the future. They essentially taught me all I know about the "indie rock biz" hahaha. they're my family, we got the whole thing rolling together, I got mad love and respect for all of them.
Q Your previous tour made donations to Girls Rock Camps (you've also auctioned your shoes), how did you decide where to make donations?
All that pretty much came from the shoes thing haha. I thought it would be funny to sell an old stinky pair of Vans on eBay one christmas, the auction got way out of hand, people were bidding thousands and thousands of dollars, I think the winning bid was finally 21k, which obviously no one was going to pay, so I wound up splitting the bill with Vans and the money got to the camp.
Initially I just thought it would make more sense to have money from something as ridiculous as selling gross shoes go to a charity than into my own pocket, and when I was looking at the available local charities partnered with eBay, the Willie Mae [Rock] Camp came up.
I'm a musician, I figure money going to organizations that help other musicians makes sense. I never had an opportunity to go to a camp like that when I was younger but I wish I had, I think what they're doing is really cool.
Q Any plans to bring Agnes (Mac’s Mom) back on tour?
haha! Maybe, you never know. It was actually Laneway Festival that sorted all of that out last time. She still makes appearances and our shows every once and a while. she's a celeb hahahhah.
Q What do you think your influence has been on music?
I'd like to think that people can look at what we do and realize they could also get out there and do it. I've always tried to keep things fairly straightforward, no bells and whistles, dare I say "DIY" haha.
I like to make songs, I like to play for people, but I'm also a fairly normal person, anyone can do this stuff if they want to and they should!
I will be guest hosting Chris Kissel’s show Contact Wave with Chuck Soo-Hoo (aka Ki Oni) on Sunday, February 3 from 10a to noon on Dublab. Tune in > here < or on the player below.
Usually hosted by Los Angeles-based DJ and journalist Chris Kissel, the monthly dublab program Contact Wave enthusiastically celebrates the best experimental, avant-garde, psychedelic, and off-the-grid music crafted in L.A. and beyond.
UPDATE: Download our set > here < if you missed it!
We’re excited to announce the debut album from Oakland's KIM featuring shredders Jessica Calvanico (Geffika), Laura Nichols, Brad Amorosino and Tim Dixon on bass . Recorded in 2018 by Ross Harris and mastered by Howie Weinberg. Out in February 2019 on Love Lion and available > here < soon.
Follow them on Instagram or Bandcamp for future shows and releases!
Officially, sold out of our Gospel collection "Shout Music" (fear not, you can still buy a digital copy via Bandcamp). Thank you to our early buyers for helping us donate proceeds to the Black Lives Matter movement.
We also have a dozen or so copies of the Chicago-centric compilation Grid City available. We look forward to bringing you new music in the new year!
Very excited to present the December/January issue of Bass Guitar Magazine UK which features Gina Birch (The Raincoats), Dr. Helen Reddington (The Chefs), Shanne Bradley (Nipple Erectors), and yours truly. The article highlights the documentary Stories From The She Punks: Music With A Different Agenda.
“A new documentary devoted to the story of female musicians and their determination to break into the male-dominated punk rock scene is on the way. Titled Stories From The She Punks: Music With A Different Agenda and based on a book called The Lost Women Of Rock Stories From The She Punks: Music With A Different Agenda by bassist Helen McCookerybook, the doc (soon to appear at film festivals) is being promoted by the release of a song “I Play My Bass Loud” written by Gina Birch of the Raincoats. The song features five key bass players, four of whom - McCookerybook and Birch plus Shanne Bradley and Emily Elhaj - have gathered here to reveal how their career paths coalesced at this point.” - Bass Guitar Magazine