Editorials — March 25, 2015 19:16 — 0 Comments

A Sandwich For Ben Todd

I love making sandwiches. I love making sandwiches and I think I’m really good at it. I also like talking with interesting people. In this column, I make sandwiches and talk with interesting people.

I first heard Ben Todd’s music about ten year’s ago. A friend dropped by my work around closing time and said, as he pulled out a couple of DIY-looking CDs, “You gotta hear this!” He’d just seen Todd’s one-man band, Lonesome Shack, play at the Blue Moon. We put the music on and I became a fan instantly. It sounded like a black dude from the thirties singing somewhere far south of the Mason-Dixon line. The band has gained a few members in the years since, and there’s arguably more boogie now, but the essence of the music has remained: a haunted, echo-in-a-well voice at the end of an obscure dirt road.

Ben recently stopped by Monarch to have a sandwich and talk. I made three sandwiches this time: the Classic BLT, The Classic BLT with avocado, and a fried smoked mozzarella and bacon with pesto. I served the sandwiches with potato chips and a little beer.

On early inspiration:

I started off learning songs and trying to play faithful to an older tradition. I could never play ’em quite right. I could never be Fred McDowell. I could never fit culturally into that tradition. A lot of that music was created in a totally different world than I live in. I’ve felt inspired by it, and I want to take that inspiration and do something with it.

On tradition and belonging:

That’s what made me want to move away from trying to play in a tradition that wasn’t mine, feeling that there’s something that’s not right about that, or I’m not comfortable with. Trying to play music that is generally, not just racially significant, but from a different time, from a different world. Why is it that I connect so much with this music? I’m totally drawn to it, and inspired by it, but I don’t feel justified in trying to fall right into that tradition. That’s why it’s hard for me to feel like a blues musician.

On the limitations of genre:

Well, people want to define things to know what they’re about, and I think there’s use for that, for the general public to get an idea of what something is about. But probably most artists who are trying to create new art don’t want to be defined by a genre. It’s unfortunate that genre keeps people from digging into something. I might have an idea that I don’t really like pointillism, so I’m not going to check out the latest pointillist painter, but maybe they’re doing something really cool. A lot of people say that they flat out don’t like jazz, so they’re not going to check out Industrial Revelation because of the jazz connotation. So genre becomes limiting in that way.

On being commercially defined as Blues:

It’s fine. It’s undeniable that we’re playing blues, in a way. The format, the limitations that I put on my songwriting, and that I struggle and battle with a lot, are the basic limitations of blues that I think are cool. I’m drawn to blues that are instrumentally droney, repetitive, but strange…stuff that doesn’t adhere to a definite pattern. Twelve bar blues seems inherently boring. You know exactly what to expect. I’ve never been comfortable with being defined stylistically.

On style:

I think in songwriting I often try to make new patterns that I haven’t done before and that I haven’t heard before, but tonally, and the voicing, is in a pretty limited area.

On the evolution of traditional songs:

There are so many accounts I’ve read of old blues musicians. It was a common question of ethnomusicologists would ask if they were song collecting, “Where did you learn this song?” It’s always something like, “Oh, I just picked it up.” or “I saw old Buddy Boy last week on the carnival circuit, and he played this song and I held it in my mind and then I went home and learned it, and I think I got it pretty close.” It’s like telephone. It gets changed every step of the way.

On authenticity:

That descriptor used to annoy me a little bit, because I felt it made the music sound like it was old-timey, like it was authentic to an age that wasn’t mine. So I was not always happy when people said that. And a lot of people have said, “Your music is really authentic.” I think it’s a great compliment in that it doesn’t refer to a time or anything. Authentic just means that it sounds real.

On playing with the band and playing solo:

I’ve listened to old live recordings of the first couple times we played together, and it sounds really weird. Like, what are we all doing? It’s developed to a point where it’s changed my songwriting because I’m always thinking about how a song would work in a band context. And then I’m always excited to hear what they come up with, and it’s surprising all the time. I like playing alone for different reasons. I can loosen up a bit, go on tangents, mess with the format of the song and the rhythm. I can slow down or speed up.

On writing a new record:

A feeling of a blank canvas at the beginning is always daunting. Putting all this energy and hoopla into a record, and then what do you do next? You have all these expectations for yourself, and it’s not really clear. I don’t usually have ideas about songs before I sit down with a guitar and work it out. If they don’t come, I have to just keep hammering away until something cool comes about. It’s not something I want anyone to hear.

On the lyrics “meeting of minds, outside of time” from his song “Head Holes”:

There was a feeling about coming together with someone mentally that seemed timeless, that just seemed bigger than either of us. That song relates to a particular mushroom trip, but also to meeting my girlfriend at the time. It was a bit of both things, and feelings of universality.

On not having enough time:

It’s the worst feeling. It makes me really bummed out. I think time management can help, but it’s more about attitude. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s always stretching and contracting. I’m feeling it more and more with age, and I think that’s why I don’t hang out as much. But then it’s really important to hang out too, and just relax and have time to not feel like I have all this stuff to do, whether or not I have stuff to do. There’s always stuff to do.

On licking frogs or toads:

Well that’s another way to get high that’s sort of common in the Southwest. I say frogs (in the song “Head Holes”), because it works, but I think they’re toads. That was metaphoric. I haven’t actually licked the toad. I have talked to people in Tuscon. During certain times, monsoon season, they’re around. You get a quick psychadelic trip out of it, a couple minutes long. Just a blast, like out, really fast.

On the effects of psychedelics on his music:

I haven’t made a connection. It gives me a good mental workout. It provides fresh ideas. I don’t do psychedelics a lot, but occasionally I’ll do lower doses and I like it, but when I do a bigger dose, that’s when I find that it has a bigger effect overall mentally. I find it handy for digging back into my past and reprocessing things. That journey brings up new ideas, which contributes to songwriting for themes or lyrics, but I can’t say that it affects my guitar playing.

On the state of the music industry:

I do think about it a bit, but usually when I’m depressed about music. It’s not going to help me to make more music to think about it.

 On getting rich off Spotify:

I think we made like five bucks last years. This year should be a little better, maybe twenty bucks.

What he’s listening to:

A lot of Fred McDowell still, Howling Wolf, for older music, Staple Singers lately. Some old soul like Little Ann. It’s pretty awesome that so much is being re-released now, old singles compiled. A lot of labels are just doing that, like Light in the Attic. I really like a lot of the African guitar stuff, like Bombino. I like that desert blues stuff. For newer stuff, I’m a big Kurt Vile fan. I like Kendrick Lamar.

On the sandwiches and his preference:

Excellent. I’m on the fence between the avant garde and the BLT with avocado.


Caleb Thompson is a co-founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney