P.C.Pop with Pablo

I Wish I Was Him — Ben Lee Interview — 1997

In Ben Lee, Brad Wood, Claire Danes, Concerts, Ione Skye, Iron Horse Music Hall, Liz Phair, Malavenda, Music, Pablo Malavenda, Pop Culture, UConn, WHUS on February 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Ben Lee Interview


From 1991 to 1998, I hosted a radio show at WHUS Radio, UConn student-run radio station, called PC Pop with Pablo. For over seven years, every Thursday morning from 8 to 10 a.m., PC Pop was on the air featuring music as well as commentary about pop culture, campus events, music and general absurdities. PC Pop music included a wide range of new, funky, pop, independent, punk, hip-hop music and spoken word.

Anything involving Ben Lee was a part of the musical line up.  It started in the early 90’s with music from the legendary band, Noise Addict.  Soon after Ben Lee’s solo work became an obsession of me and the show.  When Ben Lee announced a tour date in New England on June 18, 1997, I contacted our “person” at Grand Royal Records and arranged an interview.  The tour was in support of Ben Lee’s sophomore solo LP, Something to Remember Me By.

I took the road trip from Storrs, Connecticut to the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts with my radio show engineer, Kristin Curry.  Being a radio host and a fan I was excited and really, really prepared.  My goal was to make sure it was a fair interview and that Ben Lee knew that I was no joke.  We got there early, found the club, were able to gain entry, and were escorted to the “green room.”  To our surprise, Ben Lee was with his new “partner” — Claire Danes.  I’ll admit I was excited but also a little bit more nervous now that it was Ben and Claire.  The interview was a wonderful experience.  Ben Lee was as personable and funny as he seems to be in the media.  I was there for Ben so I was respectful to Claire Danes but did not really focus on her during the interview; and she stayed a distance a way from us.  As the interview progressed, Claire Danes became more vocal and became more comfortable being in the room.

Ben Lee and Claire Danes were together until about 2003.  In 2008 in a Hindu wedding ceremony in India, Ben Lee married Ione Skye, best known (by me) as the woman in the movie Say Anything who was serenaded by John Cusack with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel‘s In Your Eyes in true Romeo & Juliet style.

The interview was edited and produced by Kristin and me and aired with selected songs on June 26, 1997 (one day before my birthday).  The transcript of the interview was posted on my website and was linked from Ben Lee’s website for a few years.  I recently found a copy of the interview and thought it would make an interesting Blog post.  I decided to share the interview again for all of Ben Lee’s fans new and old.  Ben Lee is still recording and producing great music.  In 2011 he released Deeper Into Dream and has a few US tour dates in 2012. I hope you agree that this interview is an entertaining and rare glimpse into the history of Ben Lee’s career and the history of rock-n-roll.  It is a experience I will treasure forever (as a rock historian).

Here is the interview.  Enjoy.


 

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

The Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Massachusetts

 

AIRED:  Thursday, June 26, 1997

on the

P.C.Pop Show, WHUS Radio, Storrs, Connecticut, 91.7 FM

  


Tell us how you got signed by Fellaheen Records.

I can’t even believe you’ve heard of Fellaheen Records, this is my favorite radio station.  There was this record company in Sydney called Waterfront Records — had Sydney punk rock bands.  When I was in the band, Noise Addict, I sent them a demo tape.  At that stage, Waterfront was finishing and one of their guys was becoming Fellaheen.

One of the guys who started Fellaheen….actually one of the guys was from Waterfront, the other guy was running a promotions company called Golden Sounds.  He came to see me play at this library-book-sale gig that my dad hustled me in on.

Have your parents been supportive of your music career from the beginning?

Yeah, pretty much.  In the beginning it was just in a fun way.  Not with anything serious.  Now they are pretty supportive genuinely in good ways.

Do your parents now believe that music is your career?

They probably figure it’s a living but they hope it’s not all I do just because our family has a big intellectual history.  They are very interested in that kind of SHIT — so am I.  They are happy for me to do music but they would also like for me to change the world.

Since you just graduated high school, is this year going to be devoted to touring and promoting S.T.R.M.B.?

Yeah, maybe two I don’t know what I am doing.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “8 Years Old” and ”16.”

I find personally, both those songs are pretty defining moments.  I’ve recorded a lot of songs where certain things have been uneasy about.  I really feel for me saying what I wanted to say.  I’m not saying this to be arrogant or anything, I’m the only one that could have written them.   But I don’t think I could have written them any better.  And don’t thing anyone else could either.  Like I think I did something that was the best I could have done at the time and I could do those songs now, either of them.  But “16” I listen to that song and I’m like FUCK, thank God that song was written, by me too.   I’m so proud I wrote that because why don’t people write songs like that anymore and why don’t….  And I think I captured something I’m gonna be grateful for later in life, you know.  And you know “8 Years Old” it’s just a true story.

PLAY “8 YEARS OLD”

PLAY “16”


Tell us how you go about writing a song.

I used to write a lot of songs just all over the place and so now on purpose I’m gonna write less songs and try and write better songs just to change it because I wanted to challenge myself.

How often do you write now?

I am writing once in a month.

Is it more of an intentional process?

Yeah, yeah.

Your producer on Grandpaw Would and your latest S.T.R.M.B., Brad Wood seems to always be bragging about his basketball skills.  Does he always beat you on the court?

He’d have you believe that.  We only really played “H-O-R-S-E.”  He kept spiking my drinks and stuff and there was a ghost in the studio that was throwing off my game.

Was this in Chicago?

No, in L.A.  There is a ghost there.  We had heard all about this ghost, right, ‘cause it used to be a ballroom, this studio, and I went in to record, I went into the corner, and I heard out of the headphones someone go, “Argh, Argh, Argh,” like an old drunk man.  I turned to Brad and I went to the mic and I said, “was that you?”  He wasn’t even in the control room.  I told him about it and he said it was a cheerleader ghost, “Rah, Rah, Rah.”

Did you know of his work with Liz Phair before you began working with him?

Yeah, that is pretty much why we got him because after we heard that record, we were like, “yeah, that will be good for my songs.”

What was it like meeting Liz Phair for the first time?

It was cool, you know.  I’ve never really been like, I mean I’m a huge fan, but I was never really like, I don’t really get intimidated by people.  I was just hoping she was a cool person, and she was, and we hung out a bit and played Scrabble and Hangman.  She used the word “stucco” for the first time in a sentence.  I’ve never heard anyone use that in any reasonable context.

Are you going to work the word “stucco” into a song?

I am planning on it.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Ketchum.”

Ketchum, I was really getting into Hemingway.  This was like last year when Margot died and I just read Across the River and Into the Trees which just blew my mind.  And I was reading and there was this big article about Ketchum.  I wanted to say with that, I don’t know if it came across, some people think I was being sad, you know, being like morbid talking about death.  What I really meant by that song was Hemingway died such a beautiful and tragic death.  He moved to Ketchum to die and he said, “that if life has meaning for you then life can cease to have meaning.”  And he killed himself.  It was so perfect in a way.  Really sad but really perfect in a very romantic way.  And I’m talking like in the whole song, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna make my life have a perfect end and a perfect beginning.  But then I realize that it’s not in me to do that.  But if the world’s gonna take me it’s gonna have to wear me down.   You know, I’m gonna fade away, I’m not gonna burn out.

PLAY “KETCHUM”


Do you think there is any danger to singing such personal songs?

Yeah, but that is what I do.  It is like saying to a skydiver is there any risk in it.  That is part of the job.  It’s complete exposure, what ever that means.  It is equally thrilling and scary.

Some of your fans feel as if they have known you for years, that you are a close friend.  Does this ever scare you?

It scares me sometimes when like I’m just having a bad mood or I had a bad gig or sometimes you’re not in the mood to really hang out and someone comes up to you feeling like you owe them to hang out because you have been with them for years, you know, and like you owe them something.  I find that hard.  And I didn’t like it when someone came up to me right when I was about to walk on stage with the guitar and I was like, “I can’t sign this now.”  I was just warming up and said I would do it after.  But after, I just didn’t see him, I don’t know what happened.  And they posted this huge thing on the internet saying I was a PRICK and I’m only in it for the chicks and they were all down on my records and stuff.  That really bummed me out because, you know, I mean, the thing is that people in the public eye is that everyone has these ideals, everyone’s got a certain amount of romanticism that they want the world to be like, you know, and when they find that they can’t live up to those ideals in life they project them on other people.  People project these ideals onto you that you’re incapable of living up to all of the time.  So, that’s what depresses me sometimes.  But equally it’s good to be able to connect to so many people in just a short time.

Do you think about how many people you are speaking to and speak for in your songs?

I don’t know, I mean, I know I am speaking for….  You know why — I’m just trying to connect to something that’s human.  So, in a way I am speaking for everyone.  But I’m surprised that people that really like me are quite fanatical about it — that’s cool.  I want it man, I’m ready to speak for the generation.

Sometimes you just like….  You’ve read Catcher in the Rye, right?  You know when he’s talking about how he knows it’s a real good book is when after he finishes it he just wants to just call up the author and just talk about life.  When you feel like you’ve become friends with him, that’s what makes good art.  It’s impractical for the person making it to really, to do that kind of thing because that’s what makes a good thing.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Household Name.”

Searching for immortality through art in a time of pop culture.

PLAY “HOUSEHOLD NAME”

PLAY “A MONTH TODAY”


We just heard the song “A Month Today.”  Tell us about that song.

That’s also pretty self explanatory, that song.

Why did you record it a capella?

I wanted to write an a capella song.  And it just seemed like I just started writing some words and I didn’t need any music.

Do your artistic talents go beyond music?

I mean, I dabble in everything.  I’m a jack of all trades.

Do you think someday you will pursue an acting career?

I would do it.  Me and Julianna Hatfield went on this tour in Australia and we toured movie theaters because we both like, it was just a way of projecting our failures.  I was an actor.  Have you seen the movie, Salute to the Jugger, a Rutger Hauer movie, have you heard of it?…with Joan Chen and Rutger Hauer.  I was in that movie.  Sa-lute to the Jug-ger.  I was an extra in that movie but you can’t really see me because it’s really dark.  I swear to God that I was really in that movie.  Secondly, I was in this advert for Nutrasweet.  I was a cowboy.  I was in this tree house and there was all these Indians, and one of them was my friend, Pixie, who I wrote, “Away with the Pixies” for.  She was running around the bottom with a dog and another boy.  And I was in the tree house looking with binocular and stuff and that was the end of the ad.  It was really strange and didn’t really boost Nutrasweet’s commercial appeal much through that particular advertising campaign.   Other work I’ve done, I was in an advert for Charge laundry detergent but I also ended up on the cutting room floor on that one.  Another one I also got cut out on, another movie, a movie called Black Rock, an Australian movie where I was actually playing myself and I was basking in the street.  I was playing and these kids come passed me and they go, and I’m sort of serenading this girl ‘cause she’s pretty and it’s making fun of me I suppose.  So, I’m serenading this girl and she turns around to her friends and says, “give him some FUCKING money” and they throw these coins at me.  But I got cut out because the movie was too long, so there you go.  My mom was in Murder, She Wrote.

Tell us about your collaboration with film maker Tamra Davis, Mike D.’s wife.

I’ve done a song for her next movie.  I’ve done it, I’ve recorded it.

Will you be acting in the film?

No, I’ve just recorded a song for it.  It’s called, “You Have to Burn to Shine.”  Yeah, and I’m gonna play it tonight.

PLAY “YOU HAVE TO BURN TO SHINE” LIVE


What happened to your song that was supposed to appear on the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack?

There’s all these politics.  You know the problem, I don’t know if I should talk about this.  Like with record companies, with major labels, they seemed to be a bit less supportive of the people coming up on their roster.  They would just put on Everclear which is cool, they’re a good band.  But I mean I wrote a song.  I personally wrote this song, you know, for that movie.  That’s cool.

Will you be releasing it soon?

No.  No.  It’s not even mine, I’ve forgotten it.  It had one good verse in it:  “I have two fantasies to occupy my head, simply your beauty and the hour of my death.  I heard that death and love never leave each other’s sight but I never knew the meaning ‘til tonight.”  It was from a Keat’s thing, where he said, “I’ve two fantasies that bleed on these walls, your beauty and the hour of my death, oh that I can have possession of these two things at once.  That’s love.”

Do you study literature?

No, I just dabble.  I like it all, I love it all.

What do you think of the U.S.?

I just like it.  It’s easy with sexuality.

I don’t let him make fun of our country (Claire)

Yeah, she’s so patriotic.  It’s like, um, you know what I like about it?  It’s very….you’re in a country…you see, the country I’m from is a bit old fashion in a way.  I’m living in a country where a man can still win over a woman on the dance floor which is a thing I really respect.  If you have a disagreement, you actually shoot each other in my country.  You go out and you do a quick draw.  And we don’t have any property or we don’t have fences, you just like, and we have baby taking day, I don’t want to go into it.  But it’s like, um, this country it’s really backwards and forwards.  I like it here how people are encouraged to excel.

What do you dislike about this country?

I don’t like how people are encouraged to excel…because it makes them like, um, no, really I like and dislike the same thing.  Because everyone thinks they’re going to have an empire here and everyone wants to run a talk show…I say here as I’m holding this mic.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Shirtless.”

That was just a funny song I wrote.  Just during puberty, you know, you have a little problem with showing your body in public places.

It’s just a fun song, you know.  It seems people really like that song because people can really relate to it.  I mean it’s not that extreme, you know, like as I say in the song but it’s just a point I’m making.  I just like that idea of like if you let someone see enough of you physically they can take a lot of you emotionally.  It’s a pretty bad recording.  I like that song.

PLAY “SHIRTLESS”


Do you think that the music industry will ultimately save you or destroy you?

Both.  You know what my problem is?  I don’t even know if it’s a problem but the way I am is I really didn’t have a hard life.  I got things I wanted.  The way in my psychological make up is I need a lot out of life.  I need to take a lot from it and every problem I’ve ever had has stemmed from that.  That I’ve tried to extract more than the world can give me.  It’s not that I’ve been…some people go through things where they get a bad family situation.  I’ve just…I just need a lot to be happy, you know, and so, and I’m very passionate about life, so the music industry gave me something and music gave me something but you also lose so much in it.  I don’t want to get to deep on you.

Talk about your recent collaboration with T-Bone Burnett.

That’s it, “You Have to Burn to Shine.”  How did you know about that?

This is the song for the Tamra Davis film?

Yeah, I recorded that song.  Jim Kelpner played drums on it, who played drums on “Imagine,” and Greg Cohn who plays bass for Tom Waits, he played stand up bass, Money Mark played piano, Ben, I forget his second name, he plays for the ‘Stones now he played organ, and Russell Simmons played percussion.  And we recorded it live in a circle and T-Bone conducted.

It’s just like my song and I just brought in these people to play with me.

Was your work with the Australian band, Gerling, a one shot deal?

I did two shows with them.  Gerling are really funny, right, because they encouraged a lot of the way I handle life.  Like this interview, a lot of this wouldn’t be going down if it wasn’t for Gerling.   Because they really encouraged my whole attitude towards like portraying myself as an individual.  Like I interviewed Gerling, and I interviewed one of them and I said, “tell me some stories about recording” and they told me a story about Jarvis Cocker from Pulp.  He came into the studio and they said they’re going to a rumble and they punched Jarvis Cocker in the stomach and Michael Jackson right hand glove came out.  I mean, if you can’t see the genius in that.  And so after I heard that story my life changed.  So, I played guitar when the guitarist left for two shows then they’ve got a permanent guy now, Burke.

Should we expect to see a U.S. release from Gerling?

They’re not even big in Australia.  No one’s heard of them.  They’re pretty cool though.  They have a song called, “Slut Pinacle” which is my favorite song.  It goes, “driving down the street in your slut mobile, you’re a FUCKIN’ slut and everybody knows.”  It’s so good.  And like for me to play guitar on that was amazing.  And they have another one called “Jimmy Wore a Crowbar” and another one called “Jack Pallance Naked in His Lounge.”  It’s true.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Trying to Sneeze.”

I didn’t remember.  I wanted to write a song that was really abstract.

Claire: I love that song.  That’s one of my favorite songs.

Really?  I had that line in it, “my street filthy as it may be is still my street.”  I don’t remember, man, that was like three years ago.  I was but a lamb.

PLAY “TRYING TO SNEEZE”


If you look at rock’n’roll history, there have been individuals like Paul Westerberg, Alex Chilton, Evan Dando, J.Mascus, who all worked in a band and eventually either went solo or took greater control of their groups.  Their solo work never really measured up to their earlier work with their original band.  What about Ben Lee the solo artist?

Personally, whatever.  If they’re happy making their music then, just because you decide to make a mellow record or something, you’re not losing your edge.  I would say that, OK anyway, that doesn’t really matter.  But what I have to say about that is that I don’t think of myself in terms of those guys.  I’m not trying to be a singer/songwriter or whatever.  I’m not trying to be anything.  I’m just trying to like tell you how I feel exactly right now….NOW, you know what I mean, right now.  And I’m sorry, if  I keep doing that, what does it mean “I lose it.”  If I’m actually telling you how I feel right now that’s my mission.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Away with the Pixies.”
I just wrote that for my friend.  Yeah no, she’s a great friend but she is called Pixie.  Her name is Amelia, really.  She looks like a pixie admittedly and everyone calls her a pixie and they still do.  And she went through a bit of a craze where she was like, “man, I’m 16, 17 years old and I don’t want to be called this little baby’s name anymore.”  And I just wanted to write that song like away with the pixies, off with the fairies.

PLAY “AWAY WITH THE PIXIES”


Are you really thinking about writing a rock opera?

It was a joke.  I said two things in my bio.  I said I was going to do a rock opera and I was going to do an album with Fiona Apple covers.  Neither of them are happening.

 It was supposed to also include Tom Waits songs.

And Tom Waits covers.

A rock opera with Fiona Apple and Tom Waits covers.

That was the idea, right.  It was going to be a call and response thing between boy and girl about love in the ‘90’s.

So, you lied.

It was an idea.  I wouldn’t call it a lie.

Would you ever be interested in becoming the next Andrew Lloyd Webber?

I would do that.  And I actually lied to a magazine in Australia who totally believed me.  He asked me about the rock opera and I said I was asked to play the main part in this English rock opera called “Lysergic World” and its about Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD.  And he totally believe me.  I guess it’s believable.

Another lie?

I don’t lie, I’m just creative.  I’m just trying to make this interesting for me and you, you know.

Would you ever perform on Broadway, say in Grease?

Which part?  Sandy, Sandra Dee?

Rizzo?

No, I wouldn’t do something like that.

Where would you draw the line?

I’ll do anything if she’s like written in blood.  You know, if people want me to be a part of something, if it’s for real or if it’s like an opportunity for me.  Like I’m gonna go on tour later this year with some people, I can already see it, someone’s gonna find it a little dubious, you know.

 Jewel?

Maybe.  But I’m gonna do some big things like that and it’s like for me I don’t have time for that because it’s just me.  I want to get to play for as many people as possible.  And it’s still me no matter who else is on the bill and where I’m playing, it just still me and my guitar.  Whatever, you know.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Mouthwash.”

That song I really had the line first, “maybe the fields don’t want to play me.”  Because these two people who were friends of mine who were going out, they were talking about getting married and he said I want to go out and play the field a bit.  And she was like what if the field doesn’t want to play you?  I just thought that was a cool line and so I just wrote that song.

Where did the letter in the liner notes come from?

That was a real letter and that girl, my friend, Melanie has, um, I actually…she was out of town when I was doing the artwork.  And I thought I’ll ask her about it but I didn’t I just put it in and she still hasn’t seen it.  And I don’t, I totally forgot about that until you reminded me.  What does that say?  You know what that was, it was an essay for like her SAT equivalent like we call the HSC.  She, um, oh you’ve got it damn.  Me and her, sort of like had a little, we liked each other, you know.  And she wrote about me.  That was her final English essay.  My friend, Melanie, she had to write about, I forget what the subject was, but she chose to write about me.  And then she send it to me.  This was like she had school assignment, it was so weird.  And it bummed me out when I got that, so much.

PLAY “MOUTHWASH”


Are you looking for that big MTV break?

Some people think that.  I didn’t even make a video for this record.  I made one where I just went basking in the street.

You did one video in which you were in a Gulliver type role.

Yeah, that was “Away with the Pixies” but that was my first record so I wasn’t really selling out.

Did your videos get air play?

MTV played a bit of all of them.  But the new one is just me basking in the street with live sound.  For people to talk about that’s like MTV playing it is me selling out, I don’t even give justification to those arguments by responding to them because they’re so retarded by my point of view.   I played a song in the street and MTV chose to play it.

Can MTV give too much exposure too quickly  to up and coming bands?

You know what I say, “If the people like it’s good and it’s good if the people like it.”

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away).”

I love the Motley Crue.  That was my first rock concert.

No, I just like that song.  “Girl, don’t go away mad, just go away,” what a great line.

PLAY “DON’T GO AWAY MAD (JUST GO AWAY)”


What was it like working with the members of that dog?

I’d never heard that dog at that point.  I’ve heard their new record now.  It was fun because I think they’re a pretty hard working band from what I understand.  Mainly, I got to work with them because Brad knew them.  He just made their record and they were very, um, talented musically.  For me it was like I felt good about giving them something to do that was that relaxed.  Because I’ve now read interview where they’ve been talking about me saying it was like insane, where I thought it was really normal.  They came in and we were hyperactive and jumped around and played music but I didn’t think that’s how they work.  But for me, it’s like I love working with different people.  They’re so talented, you know, all of them.

Who are some of your favorite collaborators?

I loved playing with Money Mark.  He was really amazing.  I only bring people in if I already love them.

We’re going to go to the music now.  Tell us about “Gramercy Park Hotel.”

If there was anymore of it that would of made it more clearer, I would have said it, but it doesn’t, so I won’t.  It’s just to say that the power of song, you know.

PLAY “GRAMERCY PARK HOTEL”


Does it surprise you how you have been embraced by artists the indie rock scene like Lou Barlow, Julianna Hatfield, and Thurston Moore?

Yeah, it does.  I don’t really think about it much.  I mean, now I’m just trying to do something that no one else is doing, that’s what I’m trying to do.  And what I have ended up doing is something that no one else is trying to do.

What are your days like?

This, This right now.  Just sitting around doing stuff, you know.  Just trying to explore new territory, push the envelop.

You have developed into a powerful singer/song writer, where does performing live fit in?

I used to not really be much of a live performer pretty much until about half way through last year.  I just made up my mind.  I’ve seen a lot of people play like Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright who are really amazing live performers and I was just like FUCK I should get my SHIT together.  I should go further, you know what I mean, I should take it further.  I wanted to create magic, you know what I mean.  So, last year I just decided that I was gonna do it and I started.  The songs I was writing, before I even recorded them, I worked them into the set and stuff, so, it became a lot about playing live and, um, I got good at it.

How do you feel about having to perform live to promote S.T.R.M.B.?

I was always interested in doing it, I was just never happy with it because I wasn’t very good at it.  It is just a line you pass where someday, I mean, you just feel confident, and you’re like, “wow, I get it now.”

We’re going to go to the music now.  Do you have a favorite song?

A song I’m sort of getting into again, an old song, is “The Loft” off Grandpaw Would.   I just starting to play that a bit now and then.  And I am really getting back into that song.  Like, it’s so the time I wrote it.  That’s about staying with Brad the first time I went out to, you know, Chicago in his place, the Loft.  And it so sums up the time, exactly.  And it still applying now.  I’ve still got to come to terms with what I’ve found.  That’s the aim of my existence.

PLAY “THE LOFT”


Thank you’s


Retweet from Ben Lee – February 24, 2012

Ben Lee Retweet

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: