December 01, 2006
"Extraordinaire." That word's been on my mind, and it's a hard word not to have on your mind when you listen to the music of Benjy Ferree. It's extremely hard to not smile whilst listening to his excellent debut album, Leaving the Nest. But if there's more to his music than the simple pleasure of enjoying hearing a man make music because he wants to make music, then I really don't care to know, because...well, why ruin the beauty with over-analysis and theories? That said, I want to warn you about the excessive smiling your face will be doing when you hear "In the Countryside" or "The Desert," because you will be doing a lot of that. My chat with Sir Ferree was a wonderful experience, and I hope you enjoy the read...
How was your recent set of shows?
It was amazing! I got to play with Archie Bronson Outfit, and they're my favorite band. I got to tour with my favorite band--you can't beat that!
When you play live, do you play by yourself?
Normally, I like to play with my band. But if my band is busy, I'll play by myself, or I'll play with my cellist, Amy Domingues. She's a real good cellist. But I prefer to play with my band. It's a whole lot more fun when the troops are there. I'll play acoustic, too, but I enjoy playing with my friends live.
I've heard your music described as being a cross between alt.country and folk, but I think your music transcends all that. I've noticed a bit of rustic naturalism to Leaving the Nest.
A lot of people ask me if I listen to alt.country. I don't really know what that means. I don't have my ear too close to the ground with new bands. If I listen to anything, it's usually older stuff, like the Carter Family, with the latest being Dylan or Towns Van Zandt. But I really prefer to listen to music like Hot Snakes or Drive Like Jehu. I think it kind of comes out the way it does because I don't know what I'm doing. I own an acoustic guitar, and I'll write a song, and it'll come out the way it comes out. On Leaving the Nest, I had some acoustic guitars, my friend played violin, and I played with my friends. I've had a lot of questions about whether or not I play alt.country. By definition, the only bands like that I listen to are ones like Uncle Tupelo or Wilco, but they are only called that because labels had to market it. As far as being rustic or American sounding, I was raised in the Church. We sang traditional Gospel songs. But I was also raised on Bad Brains. Growing up, I was the type of kid who had to sing in church, and I hated it. I wanted to be a lot of things but I never wanted to be a singer. But I stopped singing for years, until I moved to Los Angeles to be a movie star, but I was a horrible actor. I started writing songs, and I started to sing again, and the only reason I started to sing was because no one would sing the songs I wrote. The most singing I'd done before then was when I was little, and I always hated it. I always had fun singing rock and roll, but they wouldn't let you sing it in church. I dunno why there's a rustic feel to my music.
To me, the basis of "rustic" isn't just nature or country-sounding, but it's a spirit, a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky, carefree spirit.
I guess I can be carefree about my music. I would agree with that on my own interpretation. For me, music is the most fun thing to do. I'me sure you've heard countless artists say that they're people with problems or people with troubles, and that all their troubles go away when they play music. Music is just…I can't believe there's a label that actually wants to put my music out and help me tour. That's a joke! But I'm happy to be a part of the joke, It's fun! But yeah, I'm free-spirited in certain areas. Definitely, when I perform, it's a joy. And writing songs? Some songs take minutes; some songs take a year. You walk away, you give it some space, and when you come back a year later, it feels right.
Is there a particular song that took you a year to write?
Umm, let me think...I can't think of one offhand on Leaving the Nest...maybe a year to come out, because we had the EP out a year ago, and Domino asked me to turn it into a full length, and so we added another half of a record to the EP. It's the same artwork, too. We did that because I was afforded the opportunity to do so. I always wanted it to be an EP. Domino's nice. I said "Sure!" when they offered, and I got to re-release those songs.
I take it that it's been almost an accidental career for you, then?
Yeah! Exactly! Like Roald Dahl. I've always felt that he had a great story, because he didn't want to be a writer. I read a lot of Dahl as a kid, and I fantasized about him because he lived in DC for a long time, and that's where he began writing. And I think, "Hey, that's me, I never wanted to sing!" Don't get me wrong; I love to sing--I really, really love to sing--but I never looked at it as something I could do independently. Acting was always my thing, but I was never good at it. I never had that acting bug. But I had a revelation about music when I was in Los Angeles. I saw that everyone there had fake breasts and fake bodies and fake orange skin and fake hair and I realized that all the people I had romanticized, be they actors, painters, or musicians, they all created their own worlds, their own existences. I figured that the only way I could create my own existence and my own reality was to completely depend and escape into music. I think most people do that. Not just to pass the time, but also to escape and to have fun. The reason I like to play live, it's absolute communication with the audience. They can be intimidating at times, though. Some audiences are great listeners. Some audiences really want you to open up and those are always amazing. IT can be a real roller-coaster ride, though. Some audiences don't care that you're there, and that's when you just play for yourself and you just have fun. Audiences can be intense; they want to know what's up, they want you to tell your stories. I'm dying to play for audiences. I just want to travel and experience all sorts of audiences. It's an adventure.
You strike me as the kind of guy who'd be happy on tour for a year.
You know what? I've never toured for a year, and though I'm sure there are obstacles you face doing that, but I'd much rather do that than bartend the Capitol Hill scene here in DC, which is what I'm doing now. Don't get me wrong; I love bartending. I'd rather tour the States. That's why I love playing in bars, though, because I feel like I'm still a bartender.
I've talked to other musicians who also work or who have worked as bartenders, and they tell me that when you're behind the bar, they get a glimpse of humanity you simply cannot experience anywhere else.
Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of people will trust bartenders. If you're an alcoholic, you obviously can't give a care in the world about what the bartender thinks of you. If you're a person who has to suppress a greater issue and you're vulnerable to the bartender, you have to say "I don't care about what you think, just please give me a drink." If you get that person warmed up on a couple of whiskeys, they'll tell you either a happy story, or they'll talk about the news or about football or whatever it is they like. It's just real in a bar. They're watering holes, but they're something more. People have used them for town halls. But there's just something about a bar. People go there to escape, they go to get rid of their fears or their anxieties, or they go there to find the courage they can't find in their normal lives, because alcohol gives you courage. It helps people become what they want to be. And music? Music is so important in bars, especially at the end of the night, when people are drunk. It's amazing when a DJ plays a slower song, or someone goes to the jukebox and plays a slower song, a song that really makes you think about your day and what it meant to you. It's a really lucky person whose song is played, because they get to sum up everyone's lives for that day. That's not just in my bar. That's in every bar in the world. It's amazing.
Do you think your experiences behind the bar have inspired your music?
Umm, good question! (Pauses) I want to say not at all...hmm...but maybe, subconsciously, yeah. I don't know. Right now I want to leave my bar. I'm not really thinking of the bar. I do when I'm onstage, if the stage is in a bar. (Reflective pause) I don't know if anything I'm doing is directly inspired by the bar; I mean, it's just what I've been doing as work for a long time now, but I wouldn't say…but yet, I dunno! (Laugh) Hmm...
Well, I'm thinking about the bartenders/musicians I've talked to, and they seem to say that the bartender role gives them a chance to develop themes that are more universal, even if they're not directly inspired by their role at the bar. It gives their music a closer touch with humanity and ideas that are more universal.
Yeah, more universal, and you want to cut through all the bullshit. A song is a song, and you either sing it the way you sing it, or you don't. That's why the most moving singers aren't always the ones who are good; they're the ones moaning on their porch or they're singing at the bar. I know people who know hundreds of songs and can play them well. I'm not one of 'em. I can't really do memorization. One of my favorite bands is The Beatles, but I don' t know the lyrics to "Hey Jude." I just care about the feeling. I have seen people who barely know how to play one chord, but they deliver the most amazing performances, because they just don't care, because they know it's just a song. Some people, they really are on trial when they sing, some people aren't, and some just don't care that they're on trial but they say, "screw it, I'm singing anyway!" I really dig those performances. I guess if I'm singing ant the vibe reminds me of my bar, then I'll sing to the bar. To me, it's just about being able to sing my song.
From what you've told me, it all sounds like a happy accident.
It is a happy accident! The label the EP was put out on was my friend Laris Kreslins' label. He put out some seven inches a few years ago, but I don't think he had put anything out since then. He heard a few songs I had been working on and then he offered to put them out on his Box Theory label. I said, "Sure!" To be honest, that was the label for me. I felt like I had reached Nirvana. A friend of mine who knows what he is doing wants to put it out. I'm a firm believer of the opinion that if people like your music, they'll buy it. Now that I'm on a label, it's a much bigger world, and I just don't know what to expect. Before, it was just my friend saying, "Hey, could I put out your EP?" and we did it just for fun, and then we'd hang out together. The only reason I signed to Domino is because Laris gave me his blessing. I was so scared to sign to a label because I don't know anything about the business. I don't know anything about money. So I was intimidated by the label. Also, I'd been in Hollywood for four years, and being around the industry, I'd rather be with my friends. Then Laris introduced me to Chris Gillespie, who runs the American branch. Chris, man, he's my friend! I can't believe I've made good relationships. That's the luckiest part. It is a business, but they're good to me, so it's no big deal. I'm sure, for people who crunch the money and the figures; it's not a lot of fun, but who knows? For right now, I have nothing to complain about. I'm very lucky. I'd be making music anyway, and I'd bartend, but thanks to Domino, I can go out on long tours. I was always down on the label experience until I met Chris and Laurence, who runs the label back in England. When I met them, I realized they were similar to Laris; they actually listen to music and they know more about music than I do; they own thousands of records, and they've turned me on to music I'd never had heard otherwise, and they're my friends. I know it's a business, but I gotta be around friends. I need someone to interpret for me.
Just from our conversation, I kind of gather that your philosophy of life is to find happiness in the here and now. I get the impression that even if you didn't have the chance to release another record, you'd still be making music and doing your thing, and you'd be perfectly happy about it.
Yeah! I found an existence for myself. I used to be quite an idealist about life, and I gotta say, living in Los Angeles broke down that false existence I once had. I had to get scared, create my own world, and take risks, and not care at all about tomorrow. Obviously, we could all be dead tomorrow. We could be dead in the next five minutes. Music--it's here to pass the time, it's here to tell stories, and it could mean a million things to a million different people. I'm definitely the luckiest boy I know. Wanna know how? Just being able to tour with the Archie Bronson Outfit. I guess I'd become jaded with a lot of guitar-driven bands, American rock bands, too. But at the same time, I guess I'm afraid to get my feet wet. I'm always afraid I won't like something. Then I heard their record, and their songs, they're folk songs, but they come out really, really twisted and really, really heavy. They follow this tradition of Blues that has been going on in England since the 1960s, but they don't sound like Zeppelin or any of those kinds of bands. They sound like a cross-polinization of the Blues and whatever, and it's so endearing to hear, and it doesn't sound at all cliched. I'm proud to have toured with them. They're one of the best bands. And to be able to tour with them was amazing. They're my favorite band. What could be better?
Benjy Ferree's excellent Leaving the Nest is available now on Domino Records