Ten Feet Tall, Bulletproof and Invisible: An Interview with Ben Lee
A mammoth color billboard advertising the movie The Mod Squad adorns the side of a building at the intersection of Bowery and 4th Street in New York City. Two blocks west, inside a small import music store, called simply “Other Music,” one of that movie’s stars, actress Claire Danes, mingles with a crowd of fans who’ve gathered for an in-store performance by her boyfriend, 20-year old Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee. Life is imitating art, and you are there.
Breathing Tornados , released on the Beastie Boys label, Grand Royal, in March, is Lee’s third solo effort — his second since parting ways with his teenage punk band, Noise Addict — making him something of an industry veteran before he’s reached legal drinking age. Lee may sport blue glitter polish on his fingernails and show adolescent delight at discovering a rare, Australian fanzine in the store’s upstairs office (“It’s probably a collector’s item!” he declares) but the sophisticated sound of Breathing Tornados is anything but kid stuff. Recorded entirely on computers and produced by Ed Buller of the Psychedelic Furs, the album gathers a dozen emotionally dense lyrical journeys where Lee ponders love and death, hope and surrender with the intuition and poise of a man twice his age. Musically, Tornados moves fluidly from the acoustic folk of “Birthday Song” to the Bossa Nova beats of “Nighttime.” The sound is transcendent and timeless.
Ben Lee and his band have been gigging out all over town, as he says, “Just warming up really to go on tour…trying to do as many shows as we can before we really get going, to sort of…get in the groove.” Get ready, get set, get in the groove: the Ben Lee express is coming full speed ahead. This interview took place on the day Tornados hit stores stateside.
This has been kind of an interesting day for you: Your record is just released, you did a Sonicnet Chat, and an in-store performance, and now you’re doing another interview.
Ben Lee : For me, a record coming out is the beginning of a really long time of work, so it’s kind of a psychological thing. I’m like, OK, today it all starts. But it’s not like there’s news on the first day about anything, so it’s kind of fun. It’s good to know it’s out here, ’cause it was out everywhere in the world except America, so at least now it’s out everywhere.
The first thing I thought of when I heard Breathing Tornados was, “oh, the Psychedelic Furs!”
See, I’ve never heard them, and I think it was a total subconscious thing. Everyone says “Nothing Much Happens” is the most Psychedelic Furs-ish, and that’s probably the song that Ed (Buller, producer) had the least input on. It was also the song I wrote last, so I just think our musical personalities had been rubbing off on each other so much that I wrote the song in the style of a band that he used to be in that I hadn’t heard.
It could also have something to do with the production he brought to it, and what he did to your song, not just how you wrote the song.
Also, on “Ship My Body Home” your voice sounds a little bit like Richard Butler.
See, that kind of stuff is the weird stuff, cause I’d never heard him. I guess I’m always reluctant to listen to things people tell me I sound like. Like when people said [I sounded like] Billy Bragg, I said ‘I’m never going to listen to one of his records’ – and I haven’t, because people have given them to me.
You really made huge leap creatively from Something to Remember Me By and Breathing Tornados . What goes on in that kind of re-invention of the self?
I think it’s one of those things that’s specific to pop music, that you have to change from one record to the next, just to be relevant. Not that you have to be trendy or hip or something, but you have to be different, cause pop music’s about getting the new record, which is meant to say something new about an artist. On the other hand, you’re still an artist. You have to develop in a way that’s about what you need to get back from your work and what’s going to reveal something that you want to say. It’s kind of this weird place where the pressure to change and what you have to evolve into meet, you know what I mean? It was two years, really, between recording, and it was just a period [when] I though so much about what music means to me. I started college and dropped out, and it was just a very intense period. I just basically, at some point, realized how much music meant to me. That was a real deciding moment to me, where things started sounding differently and I started not feeling guilty about examining things. That’s the only way I can describe it.
I don’t want to over-emphasize your age too much, because what seems apparent is that you are such a huge music fan, and I know how that love of music alone can inspire great work. What I wonder about is the sophistication and deep intensity of your lyrics, and where do you draw that from? It seems beyond what you could have experienced by the age of 20.
You know, there’s different sides to that. In terms of the legitimacy of doing it? I’ve always thought that idea was bullshit. I’ve always been, my god, if you can’t write pop songs about things you haven’t lived, where can you fantasize? That’s what music’s about. I used to hate it when people would talk about authenticity and legitimacy, and people are doing it less, but it was really alienating to think about this person isn’t for real. For me it was always like, it doesn’t have to be real and it’s even better if it’s not.
But it seems real…it seems honest.
There are people who have all kinds of theories. For me, I just think things aren’t as sophisticated as people make out. You know, to have an idea, ideas are easy. It’s the feelings that are coming more slowly to my music. I’ve always understood things at a cerebral level much quicker than I’ve understood them emotionally. I’m trying to get more into not relying on that so much. I used to be very much concerned with what I was saying …It’s a performance, know what I mean. Not that I’m so into rock and roll decadence, but I’m starting to understand things about emoting. It’s almost like actors. Actors that have lived and are drawing on life experience and actors that understand it perfectly but haven’t had the experience, and they give different performances. I’m starting to work that stuff out.
Do you feel like you’re under a lot of pressure to live up to your own reputation?
I do, but I also see people around me under so much more pressure and [what I go through] it’s quite minimal. I haven’t had a hit record, I’m not under that kind of pressure. Like, hearing U2, you have the CEOs of oil companies calling you up, telling you they need the record to be a hit because they have their shares in the company. That’s pressure, know what I mean? I put myself under more pressure than anyone else does, but that’s how you get things done. I put a huge amount of pressure on myself. This is about, for me, a process of creating that person I want to be and working it out in music and working it out in my life. So, that’s deadly serious.
Let’s talk about the way the record was recorded, using all computers. Generally you associate an artist like Trent Reznor with that kind of process. What was your impetus for doing it that way?
It started off being a purely financial thing. The amount of experimentation I wanted to do, I couldn’t do paying $1,500 a day for the studio. I didn’t have a budget that was big enough for that. So I was like, well, I can either really push myself and try to cram everything into that time and just cross my fingers and hope it comes out OK, or I could start getting more into the idea of doing it as a home recording. And my concern was that it wasn’t going to sound big enough, like it was going to sound like four-tracking. I wasn’t so aware of exactly how amazing computer technology is. I started exploring it and Ed was showing me stuff. We did a few experiments and it sounded incredible. We had like six hard drives in a row ’cause he had so much information to store. It was amazing, it was really cool. It took four months [to finish the album].
It would be cool to do an entire interview with you just discussing the recording process.
Everyone talks about the loss of organic feel and all this kind of thing about recording digitally, but to me, that’s more than been compensated for by the freedom you’re given to experiment. I mean, the fact that you can have a band spend no money on an album, basically, but be able to cut and paste as if they’d been recording for three years? That’s beautiful! That’s like what punk rock should be like. It shouldn’t sacrifice quality.
I think you’ve got some beautiful sounds in there. I love “Nighttime,” and how you sample those orchestral strings.
Yeah, yeah…That song actually took the longest to record out of anything. I was never fully happy with the mix, just cause it’s so elaborate, there’s so much going on in that song. That was the first song we played to Grand Royal when they came in to visit the studio — cause they really stayed out our way. We played it and they were just like — you can imagine, they’d heard Something to Remember Me By and then they came and heard this song, “Nighttime” — they were just like, ‘What are you guys doing’ And I was like ‘Do you like it?’ and they say ‘We don’t know.’ I mean, it was such a shock.
What does the name Breathing Tornados mean to you? ‘Cause you are kind of like a breathing tornado…
Well, there are two ways you can read it: The idea of “A breathing tornado” like it’s an adjective, [but] I was thinking of it more, originally, as the idea of breathing tornadoes.
Breathing them in?
Yeah, just trying to get it under control, restlessness, recklessness, you know, that feeling of being ready to explode. Hmmm…