Interview — Mohamed Sqalli
Photography — Charlotte Robin
Interview — Mohamed Sqalli
Photography — Charlotte Robin
Tampa's gifted child burst into the indie scene this year, collecting critical praise for his eponymous debut album. In this interview, he discusses being a teenager in punk-dominated Tampa, being anchored to blues music and his distaste for electronic music.
Hi Benjamin. Congratulations for your upcoming album. Can you tell our readers what they are going to find in it?
Oh, man. It’s a hard question to start with. Well, I guess they will find a little bit of everything that I listen to: blues, rhythm & blues, folk, punk, tiny bits of shoegaze. It’s the first album, you know. It’s like when you write your first book, it’s like if your entire life was mixed in it.
Can you tell us more about your inspirations on this album?
I listen to a lot of blues from the twenties, thirties, like Blind Willie Johnson who is my favorite artist of all time. But I also listen to a lot of punk stuff, especially from Florida. I grew up going to local punk shows. I also have to quote T-Rex, Otis Redding or The Jesus & Mary Chain…
You grew up in Tampa, a total punk territory. Tell us about being a teenager in that place.
Yes, Tampa is all punk. And like noise kind of stuff, very experimental. From 14 to 18, when I was in high school, that’s the kind of stuff I went to. Just kids, teenagers playing punk shows and stuff, saving out money and putting out their record.
The album was recorded in Nashville. Was it something you asked for?
I wanted to do the record analog, not digital. So we went to The Bomb Shelter, a studio that is totally analog and where other bands from our label, Alabama Shakes and Hurray For The Riff Raff, recorded their album. I knew the guy there was good… and analog was important to me. If you want to put out an album on vinyl, you might as well do it right.
How was the atmosphere at the recording of the album?
It was really good. You hear all the time about bands having very stressful recordings. Even if we recorded the whole album in 6 days, it should have been more stressful than it was but I don’t know, we just went in and did what we do on the live shows. Since it’s analog, you can’t really mess with things very much. It was mostly just live, second take kind of stuff. We basically finished most of it in two and a half days and the rest of the time.
… you drank shots of tequila.
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s it. It was me and Max (the drummer) on most of the songs. Then we had other people coming playing organ or this kind of stuff. Most of the record was done on a couple of days…
I heard you studied journalism in college. Was it something you were interested in?
I was too scared of playing music for so long, so I thought maybe I would just write about it. Yeah, this and my parents. They are still a little wary of this whole music thing. (laughs)
You said in an interview that when you entered the studio in Nashville, you just had a notebook with notes on the songs. Why did you proceed this way?
Actually, we weren’t prepared at all. We didn’t have any notes. The producer had one page of notes. Even if I wanted, I wouldn’t have known what to do, I had never done that before. They basically just pressed Record and we just played the album during 6 days. There wasn’t a whole lot of rearranging stuff or something crazy, just playing the songs.
Some kind of 6-day long concert, then.
Yes, something like that.
Wasn’t it also a way for you to keep the feeling of hurry, that is very present in the album?
Yeah, totally. Like I said, growing up listening to punk and stuff like that, it was never about the songs being perfect and stuff. If you listen to the album, there is ton of mistakes but I don’t really care (laughs). That stuff feels more fun and more real to me.
You look like a very nice person, but when you sing, there is some kind of rage that comes out? Where does it come from? Is there an angry Benjamin Booker and a nice one?
Maybe when I was writing the songs, I was a little bit angry. I had a rough couple of years before the songs came out. I don’t know… But things are better now.
I heard you used to work in a record store…
Yeah! Until November of last year. (laughs)
To what extent did it contribute to your musical knowledge ?
It was great. I got to listen to a lot of stuff that I don’t listen to usually, a lot of African stuff particularly. I found this guy Malombo, who is very good, Fela Kuti… that kind of stuff. And also weird old psych from the 60s.
It was regular record store, with all kinds of music?
Yeah, all kinds of stuff…
Lady Gaga included?
(Laughs) There was some Lady Gaga, yeah… I have nothing against Lady Gaga. I would go to a Lady Gaga concert. Why not? I like people who put on a show.
After growing up in Tampa, you moved to New Orleans. Does your passion for blues rock come from there?
Not really, I started listening to blues-rock when I was 15 or 16, much earlier. In New Orleans, there are people who play that kind of stuff, jazz etc… But really, this is for the tourists. There are all kinds of bands. Since the Katrina hurricane, a lot of people came from other cities to live there because it’s really cheap. We’re friends with a lot of bands that started in New Orleans: folk bands, punk bands and DJs…
How do you explain that a lot of blues rock acts like Hanni El Khatib or Alabama Shakes, have known such a tremendous success recently? Do you think blues-rock has become hype again?
I think that just guitar rock in general is having another go, I don’t know. We have gone through too much shitty electronic music in the last few years. I think that probably people are getting bored with it.
Really, you didn’t like even maybe the last Daft Punk?
I don’t give a shit. That’s not my thing. I know that people really loved it. My ex-girlfriend really was into that. But I never got into that kind of stuff. I just don’t get the same kind of feeling when I listen to electronic music as well as when I listen to people playing. Two DJs with masks? I really don’t want to see that shit. I don’t think it’s bad though. Anybody who’s doing something that makes people feel good is fine.
What’s the main benefit in being signed to a record label like Rough Trade?
Resources. It’s not just money. You get to do it full-time so you have to get out there and do it. This, and you can you can touch a larger audience, of course.
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