Photo (and all photos included) by Violet Hirst.
Ben Woods and I caught up in between the release of his new album, Dispeller, and his nationwide tour which begins this week. We met at The Label offices in downtown Tāmaki Makaurau and had both attended a JPEGMAFIA show the night prior (Ben’s sister is Lyttelton rap act Ferby, who was opening for JPEGMAFIA that night!). I was trying to find the balance between navigating fantasy and reality. Ben was trying to find the balance between the flow/dream state, and practicality. We were both tired.
I first saw Ben play at the Newtown Sports Bar in 2021 and was in admiration of the vast collection of musicians he’d brought together to paint his music. If you can, I highly recommend getting along to one of his upcoming shows.
I had a fever the day I decided to develop this film and accidentally exposed half the images to sunlight. I could only hope that the bleeding of light and collage of distortion in these photos could somewhat resemble the sense of experiment in Ben’s music.
Are field recordings (or people recordings) something you’ve always done? I can hear tape effects/recordings on most songs - including my favourite, 'The Strip'.
I used to record conversations with strangers when I worked putting up posters for Phantom. It was super inspiring but then I got told off. Now I have this one tape recorder from the 70s that I carry around with a leather strap. With that song in particular, I was walking around at night in bars trying to find some disgusting party noise to put in, and thinking about the weird come-death of nightlife in Christchurch post-earthquake. That is the solo instrument that’s on almost every song of the album. For Wearing Divine, I recorded Marlon singing a hundred times over and sped it up, then slowed it down. Instead of a guitar solo, I just went straight to that machine.
I love how worn that makes it feel.
I love how you can record something really loud, but put it into a song and have it sound so tiny. That loud noise would probably sound horrible if put straight into the song, but when it’s squashed down it becomes a small piece of the room.
What’s the attraction of putting a room into your music?
I’m also trying to figure that out. When I started recording, I realised I could change the sound for every song. For my last record, I thought a lot about what it would look like on a stage with four people - because before that, I was only solo. This time I was thinking more of the space you exist in while you listen to a song. Often in bad recordings you can hear the sound of the room, the scuffing of it, and I love that. With this record I wanted to exaggerate that and make it quite musical, even though “where is this?” is not always a thought people have when listening to music. I wanted to be brought into the world of the room, and then take a digital turn. That’s my next direction.
Are you constantly writing?
My brain is always in one of two places. If I run out of songs I’ll put my songwriter hat on, write some chords and lyrics. I have a fondness for classic songwriters like Leonard Cohen, but often people who are so good at it will get wrapped up in their craft, and not move much from the simplicity. Once I’ve written a song, there’s all the experimental things I want to further explore. I might spend months not writing a single, but messing around with gear in the studio.
Are you a digital nerd?
I think so. I used to be really into amplifiers and analog things. Whereas now I’m loving being on a laptop more and more. You can do so much with software, creating sound-rooms which I feel you can’t do with amps alone. Take JPEGMAFIA, the production on his music is great. You never know where you’re sitting. It sounds like a roomy drum kit that then twists to an old record, then twists again to 808’s. It’s bulgy to say but I think that’s the future of music.
It’s energy. I’m such a naturalist though, I’ll only want to record the room and leave it.
I think I’m greedy because I want all of that. I love the new Grouper album, where every song gives the sense of a different room. As if she’s in a basement with a microphone. I want that, and then have it turn into a digital trap beat.
I hear a bit of that already. I appreciate there’s a balance of songwriting and experimentation in your music. I’ve been trying to figure out your lyrics, they seem so carefully placed.
With my first album I was super careful. I edited lines over and over, then got so sick of it that it gave me a headache. You can easily over-edit and move further away from the idea. With this one, I felt if I could just do it quickly it would be a better portrait of me, and the feeling. This one’s definitely a bit dreamier as it’s quick and impulsive. It’s a weird nod to an experience of mine that no one would ever guess.
I was considering Hovering at Home, and the line you repeat of “my body I’m giving”. I had so many visions of offering.
That song to me is being cooped up, in hermitude. I wrote it feeling quite alienated from the small community I was in, where you can’t go to the supermarket without seeing someone you know. It’s both beautiful and sometimes, if you’re not feeling great, horrible. It’s a little bit scathing, in saying: why would someone ask you to stop preserving your own energy? When you’re already giving them all you have? It’s hard to step back when outwardly you want to give people what they need.
Are your songs coming from quite an intentional place?
It sounds pretentious, but it’s true in that you start and it reveals itself.
Oh no everyone says that, I say that too.
I find the first line of the song tends to inform the rest of it. Like in 'Fame', the first line is “Fame, you know you’ve always had it made”. That’s what I heard in my head before I knew what I was going to write, then I thought - ah, what do I feel about that? The rest of the song is me trying to make up for that eeriness and explain what I’m talking about.
Often the first line is what keeps coming back.
That’s always the weirdest line for me. Like in 'Hovering at Home', “I buried the bread that I threw to the hounds”, that’s pretty unhinged.
I read your thank-you’s post, and it felt like a village had come together supporting you with the album. I also just watched your short-film and saw many faces there.
Yeah that’s true! I love a visual companion to set the time in stone. We recorded it maybe more than two years ago.
Wow! But everyone looks exactly the same.
Only one person looks different!
When did you decide this album was set in stone?
It was done pre-covid but we were tying up loose ends throughout lockdowns. It was quite nice to have all this time with it, figuring out what needed to change. It meant everything got patched up. It did take a long time, but the writing was done when my last album came out. I was in the studio that day, ready to record.
Was there a moment when it all came together conceptually?
I don’t think I had that moment. There’s many little ones, but the more time is given to it, the more context I have for it. Now that it’s been released, I’m beginning to feel like I’m putting it all together. Thinking about where I was when I wrote the songs, a lot has changed. It takes a lot of time and when it’s finished, you need to set it aside. Now I revisit it and feel like I’m watching a film, being taken back to that space and time.
It’s so lucky you have the short film to do that so well. Do you think the southern landscape folds into your music?
I feel like it does but in ways that are almost subconscious. The same way your personality develops. I don’t intentionally write songs about the port, but it’s definitely not an accident the music is brooding, slow and a bit magical. I think that speaks of New Zealand, or the South especially. It’s sparse and cold. That’s why I felt like I needed those segments of driving around to those small towns in-between.
And it’s accompanied with interlude songs, it feels like we’re being given an eye into those passing moments.
They were demos - using that same tape recorder! They could never be songs at that stage, but suddenly with a visual component they’re beautiful - as a soundtrack. I didn’t really know the answer but I knew I wanted to give everything I could to the space I was around. I knew the collage of details from driving around would give a sense of where I come from. When you put it all together, it starts to make sense.
That personal footage provides a realness contrasting to the performance.
We just set the date and drove around, not knowing where we were going but going everywhere. I feel like that’s Christchurch.
There’s a sense of stillness or brooding in music that comes from being in a space where you’re looking for inspiration, or where you have to create it yourself.
That makes me think of 'The Strip'. That talks about city stuff, the element that comes from. There’s certain parts to do with finding your own fun.
I know what it’s like to be waiting, or searching for inspiration, and yet battling that you know contentedness comes from within.
Fighting for it while getting annoyed at it not being there? It’s easier to find that in a very small place sometimes than it is in a big place. It’s there, you’ve just got to either find it or make it for yourself. What defines the music that love is that it is thankless a lot of the time. There’s not a lot to climb to? So if you don’t want to do it for you, then you won’t do it.
So where to next?
I’m gonna go to Melbourne.
Everyone says that!
I definitely think of myself as being in New Zealand, but I want to give being outside of here a go before I get too cozy.
I think every time I make an album I want to work with a different person. We were talking earlier about space - I feel where you record is the same. Who you do it with can be more musical than you think, so I’d like to shift that up. I’m moving towards something a bit more hi-fi - I want to be able to produce something that sounds top-40 as hell but also fuck it up. I think if I aim for top-40 I’ll make a mess anyways.
I love when you try and aim for something outside of yourself and come through totally authentic anyways.
It’s all about being authentic. It’s all about space.
Ben’s short film which displays his wide band and which we refer to in the discussion can be watched here. You can listen to and support Ben’s latest album Dispeller on Bandcamp here or via the Flying Nun Record Shop here - my favourite is track 3, ‘The Strip’ which features Charlotte from Womb. Buy tickets to his tour via Banished Music here.