Hey Ben, I hope you are doing alright. Thanks for your music and such an inspired album. I wanted to start from “Youth Pastoral” and from what it makes me feel. For instance, an irrepressible urge to hug you, metaphorically speaking given the situation. I think this has always been a feature of your music (live and in recording), being very “corporal”, as if it were a tangible object of love, so to speak. Do you agree and is it something you find in songwriters or music you like?
I think you often want to hug people who have their arms open to receive you - if the record is anything, I hope that it's a set of open arms.
As you say, there's not a lot of hugging happening in the world right now, there's not a lot of gathering in anyway at all, and what's so cruel about it is that hugging and gathering together would be exactly the thing to help with all the trauma and loss. I didn't mean to make something that could serve as a comfort under this dark cloud that we're all under at the moment but, if it has done that at all, I'm glad.
And you're right, I do think nearly all the music I like has a wonderful way of inviting you into the room, bringing you in over the threshold - whether it's the sweaty pit solidarity of hardcore or the ecstatic sensuality of the dance floor or the totally out-there sci-fi world of someone like Ornette Coleman. There's an invitation there, and in that invitation, kindness.
Let’s start from the title, which has a pretty definite imprint. Can you tell us a bit more of your spiritual journey? What is the main message of your “pastoral”?
Well in some ways the title is very literal - it has largely to do with my youth, which took place in this bucolic fantasy setting of Orange County (a beautiful California suburb by the sea). In other words, a type of pastoral. But it also has to do with a specific moment in the story of my faith, one that was led by young preachers of a very specific type - the southern California "youth pastor," the type of dude to bleach the ends of his hair well into his 40s and do extreme sports on the days he's not at church. There's a deep, overflowing sadness in this archetype, and a real sense of male rage, as well. The type of dude that holds the faith but feels that they are never enough. I wanted to hold all those images in the songs and in the title.
A bit ironic during these times maybe but ultimately I think the message of the record is simply to hold your loved ones close and cherish them - friends, chosen family, partners of all stripes, whoever. Gather them together - there's a deeper truth and a more eternal love there than in any holy book or in any set of expectations. My little community was reminded all too vividly last summer that anyone can be taken from you in an instant, and now we all need to avoid seeing each other as much as possible. Being together is holy, I wish I had believed that even harder earlier on.
Four years have passed from “Bowl Of Plums” and, while anyone can see your musical style hasn’t changed, “Youth Pastoral” seems to speak from a different place. In your words, how do you think this new album is different from your first outputs?
Though I really love everything I've worked on, "Ben Seretan" and "Bowl of Plums" were really made while I was still learning how to make a record. We recorded my first one extremely quickly - I think there was a total of 4 days in the studio! That's it! Partially because I was very broke at the time and partially because I loved making something real, alive, flawed. And as a result there are a ton of sour vocal notes, tempo changes, weird noises - little imperfections that make the record what it is. "Bowl of Plums" was made a bit more luxuriously, but was also tracked at at least five different studios across the USA. I still wasn't sure what it meant to make a record, and there's this kind of wonderful naivety on that record, too. Very open-hearted, very unguarded, almost alarmingly so.
"Youth Pastoral" in its design was recorded with considerably more care and intention, and written over a much longer period, too (the oldest song on the record - Holding Up the Sun - dates back to late 2015). We had this great thing going where I was recording my vocals at my buddy Alex's house once a week for a few months - I'd alternate between going to therapy one night and his house the next night, it was an extremely deep way to work. There was no rush, there was no hurry - I knew how I wanted things to sound and, maybe what's more important, I felt like I would always have the opportunity to get to make another record.
So maybe that's why it sounds a bit more mature, a bit more aged, besides the fact that I'm older! Also a huge part of this is that I got really serious about working out all the time starting in 2018 and, really, my lungs are just a lot more powerful now. I find it much easier to sing, which I think really shows on the album.
In these four years there was also the 24-hour recording project called “My Life’s Work”. Can you tell us about it and how it influenced “Youth Pastoral”?
As I was just talking about, I have allowed myself patience in the last few years - both with how I work and what I expect of myself. I learned a lot of that from the My Life's Work project, something I worked on at least a few hours a week for nearly 18 straight months. There was no way to rush through that, there was no way to make something that long quickly, and so I had to slow down, become intentional, and dedicate myself to the work (I realize now we've made our label's mascot a tortoise...slow and steady...).
When I started out working on My Life's Work, I knew it wasn't a traditional "album," but in the process of releasing a track at a time I started writing, writing more and more, til that became an essential part of the whole thing. That weekly writing was super helpful exercise in working shit out while writing the songs that would end up on Youth Pastoral...I was remembering things in those essays, thinking about growing up, digging memories and dreams up out of the earth. It really laid the groundwork for orienting myself.
When I think of contemporary music with an underlying religious theme I think of Sufjan Stevens, The Innocence Mission. What is your point of reference in terms of putting this kind of discourse into music, from any time? There is definitely something that echoes the gospel and spiritual tradition in the album (“Holding Up The Sun”)…
I do love a lot of that type of music - Sufjan comes to mind, as does Danielson, but then there are other types of devotional music that I love just as well, if not more so - people like Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane (especially her later ashram music).
For me I think it actually goes the other way, though - I first learned how to play music in church, singing in choir, taking piano lessons from the church accompanist when I was very young, and later playing guitar and bass in the youth group worship band, which played a very kind of Coldplay influenced devotional music. I found a kind of secular joy deeper than the comfort of religion in that music, I felt things reverberating in my body that stirred me more than prayer ever did.
It took me many years of loving music to finally let my guard down and really start dancing but I think dance music is really where I feel the most holiness now - I never feel more divine than when I am absolutely lost in a thudding bass drum, surrounded by other people, deeply late at night. That's become gospel to me!
There are a number of collaborators on this album that really make some tracks shine even more (I am particularly fond of sax tracks), but I thought you might want to talk a bit about Devra and her work.
I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by and get to work with some of the most talented people I know, people whose work I sincerely love and admire. I'd like to run some of them down for you...
Nico Hedley plays bass and sings, and has been playing with me for about 7 years. He's a fluid, wiggly bass player who feels totally comfortable improvising an exploratory melody underneath my songs. A great cheerleader. He has an amazing, country-leaning band (Nico Hedley and his Family Band) and he also put out probably my favorite 7" of all time.
Dan Knishkowy plays drums and sings a bit, also played guitar (I think) - Dan's an incredible songwriter with a subtly mind-blowing finger picking guitar style. He also has a band I play electric guitar in called Adeline Hotel (that, actually, has a tremendous record coming out May 8th).
Alex Lewis plays the lap steel and some of the slappier electric guitar parts - a deep old friend and easily my favorite guitar player, he's in a couple of great bands in Philadelphia (Flat Mary Road and the Early) and also produces thoughtful radio and audio pieces.
Dave Lackner plays all the reeds and woodwinds on the album, and Dave makes and releases some of my favorite-ever music on his label Galtta Media - the last two records in particular are slick, sleazy, delicious. He's an amazing player, and his band Blue Jazz TV puts on an incredible, incredible show.
And Will Stratton - a really remarkable guitarist, songwriter, and composer who I have been a fan of for at least ten years - did us the honor of mixing the record. It would not have sounded good without his delicate expertise and enthusiasm.
But of course the largest presence on this record - as she was in our lives - is Devra, who besides being a laughably talented harmony singer was also one of the most fun and coolest people I've ever had the pleasure of calling a friend and, on top of all that, also made the most beautiful, serious, moving, and ecologically-minded sculpture. I love her, I miss her, I'm sitting next to an enormous slab of resin that she made as I write this. Still learning from her every single day. She would be so, so stoked that I'm mentioning her in an interview, and trying to remember her enthusiasm is really the only way we got up the courage to put this record out. It would have been so great to release this album with her by our side. I urge you to check out her work, it really speaks for itself:
This is your first album released by your label, Whatever’s Clever. Why did you decide to start a label? What has your experience with it been so far?
I had been sort of casually using the name Whatever's Clever for my own stuff for a while - since 2016 - but it wasn't until Nico had a couple of songs to release that we made it an "actual thing" - and it's still really just a bunch of us collectively trying to support each other and make what we do matter a bit more. I try not to think of it as "my label" - it's really just a group entity, a way of channeling positivity for each other, and maybe it just so happens to be the case that I have energy and space to do the leg work. Trying to make use of people's talents - cooperating in a way that doesn't really happen in the New York music scene, which can sometimes feel cutthroat or at least a little cliquey. For instance, Benedict Kupstas - songwriter in the excellent band Field Guides - is also an extremely talented designer, and has done a lot of great work for people in the label circle, including our cute little logo.
It's been great so far, really helpful in my experience, and I hope we can continue doing things. I mean, we are continuing to do things - we have a record coming out April 17th by an incredible composer and percussionist named Matt Evans (this is a great look into his world) and the Adeline Hotel record is coming out in May, and we're talking about releasing some stuff in the summer, too.
My favorite part of the label is this series of living room shows we've been doing at my apartment (we call it Tortoise Town) - they're really special, really intimate, deeply non-commercial events that sometimes turn into big parties but often just allow people a space to interact, scheme on some dreams, and hear some nice music on a couch. The Scree release show back in the Fall was one of my favorite nights ever, tons of people warmly sitting and listening to this thoughtful, quiet music, upright bass thumping in the corner...I hope we can get back there soon, and I also hope we can figure out some way of digitally simulating that shortly...
Luckily for us you have always had a special relationship with Italy, releasing your previous records with the Italian Love Boat label, touring Italy extensively and so on. Can you tell us about it, how it all started and so on?
It all started because one day my good friend Andrea Pomini downloaded my record illegally. He's a true mensch, and a deep listener, and a real champion of things that he likes, especially if nobody else likes them! It clicked for him, for whatever reason, and soon he was writing about it for Rumore. It kinda took off from there, Back Door in Torino bought a bunch of copies to sell and soon enough I received an invitation to play at a yoga festival in Sezzadio. Andrea offered to put out a CD reissue on his Love Boat label, and then that festival invitation led to a 3-week tour that, still, is probably the happiest period of my life. Very pure joy, singing for folks and swimming every day. I loved traveling on the trains, carrying all my shit with me and meeting people in the summer...I tried to do everything in my power to come back!
I've done in total like five months of touring Italy in the last five years, including last summer at the Buskers Festival in Lugano. We actually cut an entire record while we were over there last summer at Outside Inside Studios (one of my favorite places I've ever worked - Matt Bordin is a genius)...hopefully we can release that soon and bring the band back to Italy.
Also - my buddy Jordan Knecht eventually published a book about that first tour, if anyone's interested - the audiobook version is available here.
You play instruments for other bands/artists. Can you tell us about a project you are collaborating with at the moment?
The big one for me coming up is the Adeline Hotel record, called Solid Love and out on May 8th. I really love these songs, songs about friends and community and that reassuring feeling that enough love in your live can give you. And Dan's unlocked this hypnotic, jammy, intense but also quiet vibe that I love playing on top of. They're succinctly written but more often than not spiral out in these winding jams, where big swells of David Lackner saxophone or beautiful clusters of electric piano from Winston Cook-Wilson (of Office Culture!). The folk singer Brigid Mae-Power (who we're all huge fans of) sings backup throughout, too, and there's tons of cello sprinkled throughout by our friend Kristen Drymala (of the band Quarterly).
Who knows what the future holds - hard to collaborate too effectively at the moment, at least for me personally - but I also played guitar on a great record by Will Stratton that may or may not come out this year (and we've been playing shows together as a duo for a couple of years). There's also this experimental duo I have with Matt Evans called Thee Obsidian Gong - we cut a record while Matt was in residence at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn a while back and it absolutely rips, we're working to bring you that as quick as we can.
That all being said, if anyone wants to collaborate or play together, please email me!
Thank you for your time. I see there is a list of very interesting facts about your life in your bio, like shaking hands with Neil Young and working as a carer for a famous turtle. Would you care telling us one of these stories?
Ha! Well, those are two of my best, but let me see:
When I was fresh out of college, I had nowhere in particular to go, so I moved in with my mom and step-dad at their lake house in super rural Missouri. It was the kind of place where I had to drive 8 miles to use the internet at the McDonald's. I enjoyed my time there, but when my buddy asked if I wanted to join him in driving cross country to New York City, I leapt at the opportunity to move there. I had about 300 dollars to my name and a week to kill until he arrived to pick me up, so I started looking for gigs and internships on Craigslist.
One really caught my eye - it was something like AMERICAN CHEESE INDUSTRIES, INC. and they were looking for a general production assistant. I had at least some of the skills mentioned, so I shot them an email and waited to hear back. I found out in a little while that I was getting the gig.
Well it turns out that this production company was owned and operated by a white rapper who was possibly developing a TV show with HBO. And I say white rapper because that was decidedly his genre - he was an older caucasian dude, smoked a lot of weed, and did these really over-the-top, cheesy songs and music videos that were goofy as fuck and seemingly really strongly influenced by Dolomite-type blaxploitation stuff. He'd be, like, eating ribs with his shirt off and rapping, that kind of thing.
But the REALLY crazy part of this whole gig is how he made his money...the rapping was the passion project...this guy was the owner/gallery manager/representation for a jack russell terrier that had a burgeoning international painting career. Yes, the dog was a painter, and yes the dog sold work and had pieces in exhibitions all over the world. You can look her up, her name was Tillamook Cheddar and she was actually a wonderful dog, very sweet to be around. The dog's artwork was crazy successful and allowed this guy - I gathered - to pursue his REAL passion of being corny as hell over beats.
So he wanted me to work not for his money-making painting dog, but for him as he attempted to become a famous MC. This involved mostly me filming rehearsal (and turning the camera off when they took bong rips) but once involved helping to stage-manage a show he was playing...he had just injured himself, he had a hernia, so there were certain things he couldn't do during the performance...I remember having to lift a refrigerator on stage for some reason, he pulled props out of it, and the whole time he could barely move because he was in such pain. Kind of heroic, in its way.
The last time I saw either Tilly the dog or the MC was when I had a piece commissioned. The MC had offered to sell me one at a deep employee discount and I had been sleeping on my friend's floor for weeks, so I wanted to get her something nice for her birthday. We set up a time for me to come watch Tillamook Cheddar make the painting. The way they did it was he would prepare this big bundle of paper, tape, and pastels - he prepared it in such a way where when the dog bit or scratched the package, her gestures would transfer on to the paper. The result was this really abstract but moving, gestural painting. Maybe it was the huge hit of vaporized weed he offered me when she began, but it was truly uncanny watching the dog work - she seemed to be considering what she was doing at every moment, she really seemed to have actual intent, to have a plan for self-expression. And, I swear to God, when she was finished, she backed away and barked twice, the agreed-upon signal. It's a wonderful painting and still hangs in my buddy's apartment.
Next time you interview me I'll talk about being a nude model, ha!