Benn Interview: Part 2 – Music (I)
Hello, and welcome to Hurt Records. This is the second part of the interview with Benn. Part 2 is all about Benn’s history in music, his musical projects other than Z, and some random music-related tidbits for good measure. Enjoy.
How/When did you first get into music?
I was really young when I started learning to play music, but I don’t remember enjoying playing music until I was something like twelve years old. When I was young I lived in a village that was literally miles from anything. It was an arable farming village, and so I spent most of my early years filling sacks with barley. There were eleven children in total at my school. I remember the day that one of my friends received a guitar for his birthday. His father had made it by hand and I think it was the only instrument in our village bar the piano we had at school.
What was your first instrument? What/How many can you play?
My first instrument was a piano. I think that because I learnt it formally with grades it made it feel like I couldn’t feel an emotional connection to it. It took me something like twenty years before I could start thinking of it in a different way. For me, the piano was a tool; an extension of my learning and it really didn’t thrill me in any way. On the other hand though I think that without the piano I wouldn’t have been able to learn the range of instruments that I currently play. I guess in equivalence it’s the same as learning Latin before learning any of romantic languages. It allows you to quickly understand and interpret new instruments.
I have no idea how many instruments I can play now. I can play anything you put in front of me. I learnt piano, cello, violin, viola, and guitar to final graded level. Off the top of my head I can list a few instruments I’ve played this year: piano, guitar, cello, any contra-bass, viola, violin, organ (pipe and electric) drums, flute, oboe, harmonium, trumpet, trombone, dulcimer, zither, glockenspiel, I can’t really sing but fuck it; I give it my best.
Approximately how many guitars do you own?
It’s somewhere just north of five hundred now. Last time I ‘had a clear out’ we shifted about one hundred and fifty guitars. Every five years I like to sort out which guitars I’m keeping, and which ones can go. I hate the idea of burning guitars but even with the new studio I just don’t have the space to keep them all. Guitar manufacturers are very keen to send their artists various guitars to try out and so every month we accept delivery of three or four guitars from various places. The latest additions were the Fender offset range, which were fun… until we burnt them all. By the way, of all the guitars I own, I probably religiously play about twenty of them. Some of my favourite models have multiple copies (just in case I break them or throw them at someone).
What/Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
I’m not sure if I have longstanding favourite musical inspirations. I try and listen to such a variety of music that my tastes change all the time, and so it would be difficult to pinpoint some. Actually, I do recall loving R. Williams and S. Rachmaninoff when I was younger. Their music always felt like it couldn’t have been written by humans. It felt so perfect and so intricate that still to this day it leaves me in awe.
I don’t really have modern equivalencies; the core of modern music is so simplistic now that I can’t remember the last time I have been musically impressed by something. I think that the only modern value I appreciate is that ability for a musician to emotionally connect with me, of which there are too many to count.
Who are some of your favourite active musicians at the moment?
This is so difficult to answer. There are so many incredible musicians that I’m utterly in awe of everyday. Also there are so many categories of musicians now. I think I’ll pick a few modern greats and quickly gauge why they are important to me.
- Mason; this kid is responsible for a couple of my all-time favourite albums. Willy is hands-down the most talented songwriter I’ve heard since the greats. He is also one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard which is absolutely perfect. If you have the time, then listen to the albums ‘Where the humans eat’ and ‘If the ocean gets rough’. I am aware that he has ceased writing music now which is a crime that I am trying to resolve.
- Carrabba; Chris is someone I’ve really enjoyed for the longest time. I can’t remember who introduced him to me originally, but I think he has such a keen sense of understanding what a song really is. Some of his best work is hidden under a pseudonym (which I will not share) and I think he is someone I could definitely spend a lot of time with. He knows his guitars too which only makes him better.
- Karazija; Ryan is another kid who is stunningly talented and I love the way he works. One of the producers I worked with a few years ago introduced us and we have been sharing songs since. I like that there are parts of his album that are quite literally recorded on an iPhone. He isn’t ‘precious’ about how an album is made; instead he takes time to ensure that an album is perfect.
What would be your dream collaboration?
In my recent experience I would have to say that ‘dream’ collaborations are best kept in dreams. I’ve been slowly and surely working with more and more people on my songwriting ‘bucket list’, and when I’m finished with each project I’m honestly left feeling a bit deflated. They say that you should never meet your idols and I feel like this is true in many ways. I’ve recently been working with a band that I met in the States and they have been nothing but lovely… but… I imagined their writing process to be far more interesting and when I left the studio a few weeks ago I couldn’t help feeling a bit ‘let down’ by working with them. When I am writing I spend so much time writing each component, and for example sometimes it might take me a few weeks to write the ‘perfect’ guitar line or lyric. Maybe they are more talented than me, or maybe they just don’t care as much, but I feel like the speed in which they work leaves them unable to truly connect to their songs. By the time I finish and release a song, I’ve heard it a thousand times and I’m proud of every element. I’m not saying that a sound needs to sound perfect; fuck that. I’m saying that some songs need care and attention, and that takes time.
Ended up ranting there. If I could write with one person right now it would probably be with Willy Mason. Give me a call.
All of your different musical projects have their own unique sound, tone, and style. Accompanying these different qualities, do you have different methods, or rituals, for getting into the right headspace for writing for each?
This is something that I never really understood until last year when I tried to just sit down and start writing the next Quiet One album. It’s something that I’m not sure I really have control over, but it completely and utterly affected the outcome of whatever I’m working on.
Quiet One requires a headspace that I simply don’t have at the moment; life is frantic and a constant rush to fill every day. I need a few months off at some point before I can even start to consider writing another Quiet One album. Portraits was a bit simpler, it just required extreme concentration which actually came to me quite easily as I was working through a lot of reading material ahead of recording each song which really helped to get me into the frame of mind to write.
The Z albums are probably the most damaging of all. They require something different. I think people can always tell when I’m writing one of those albums; I’m hard to be around in those moments. My head gets swarmed by the story and it almost becomes a battle to get thoughts out. I become really fucking moody and (I think) completely unbearable. For the Z records the studio is dark (infact Z.3 was recorded completely in the dark) and I don’t allow visitors and don’t allow phone calls. I think it stems from the isolation I was enduring for Z.1. I literally didn’t see another human for months at one point. It was fucking grim.
How/when did you meet Kro/Callum? What about John Williams?
I met Callum when I was studying for my first degree in London. We were both studying music and one of the assignments was to create some sort of song. That song ended up being Revelations and a few weeks later we tracked Origins? Neither John or I can remember who reached out to who in the beginning but we both found each other on YouTube (somehow) and the rest is history.
Two Down in itself has had many different sounds over the years. What inspired you and Kro to constantly change the formula?
I think it was purely that we never really wanted ‘a sound’. We are both nutters so every time we come together we make music that reflects our mood at that time. That is why some of our previous work flows so horrendously; an album isn’t really the ideal situation for a body of Two Down songs. We can go from heartbreak and loneliness to esteemed assassinations (coming soon).
Quiet One is definitely your most personal-sounding project. Does the added intimacy make it easier, or harder to write? How so?
In a way it makes it easier to write because the ideas are completely formed as memories when I think about them. I think the hardest part of writing songs from Quiet One is being honest about things. Don’t get me wrong I’m always honest when I write lyrics but that is when honesty is easy. The times that honesty is difficult are the moments that I’m not proud of or the moments that leave me feeling down.
Diplomat has been a project you've teased in various ways over the years. What are you willing to share about the project? What does it concern, and how would you describe its sound? When will it release?
I will be writing the next diplomat record in 2018. That’s all that I will be saying about this.
Thanks for checking out the second part of this interview. Part 3 will release soon, and will also focus on Benn’s musical projects, including Hérétique and Portraits, as well as his production process.