”You’re the only one who knows how to have fun,” says a panhandling comedian who’s been working New York City’s Union Square Park with his dirty jokes for at least five years. He probably tells everyone that, but he’s particularly correct in saying it to Benjamin Booker on this unseasonably cold June evening, a few hours before Booker is set to headline Irving Plaza for a Governor’s Ball pre-party.
The New Orleans-based, Florida-bred guitarist and songwriter has been on a global tear as of late, playing Coachella, Primavera Sound, and several more marquee music festivals — basically every one he didn’t hit last summer while balancing an opening slot on Jack White’s tour. Booker’s been going non-stop since then, touring behind his well-received self-titled debut LP released last August by ATO Records, and generally avoiding home. He had four weeks off in December and three weeks off in May — stretches that left him offering his unpaid services sweeping up a NOLA art gallery where a friend works, just to get out of the house.
Luckily, at the moment he’s not only headlining his own tour, but starting to write his second album as well. Booker has no specific aims, except maybe to write less directly to his loved ones in song, and to shake the blues label that’s often attached to his music.
“I could never plays a blues festival,” he says. “We have one song that is literally just four minutes of feedback and (sings), ‘Naa naa.’ I don’t think they would like it. That’s why tonight we’re playing with [noise punks] PC Worship. I listen to that kind of stuff, not like, Stevie Ray Vaughn.”
Booker’s the kind of guy who’ll play a New Orleans brass band favorite or an Otis Redding cover, but mercilessly inject seek-and-destroy distortion into both, shoving a mic up to his amp at live shows while doing so and just staring out into the crowd. His voice possesses a raspy soulfulness, which shines when he eases up on the garage riffs and psychedelic organs. This is the version of Booker you hear and see below, in his “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” live video, which Flavorwire is pleased to premiere.
Though it’s certainly less politically minded than his last video, that sense of variety is emblematic of Booker, who can’t be pegged as one thing or another besides simply, “rock ‘n’ roll.” For a time his labelmates (and fellow Jack White tour openers/Andrija Tokic collaborators) Alabama Shakes seemed the most apt point of comparison, but with their most recent album, they moved to more elaborate sounds, while Booker maintains a more punk aesthetic and a mischievousness to match. Back at Irving Plaza, he sits down on stage during his set to interview a random fan; when he finds out the guy works in finance, he kicks him off the stage with an affable chuckle. Happily, Flavorwire doesn’t work in finance, and we spoke extensively to Booker about his upbringing, the Internet, and the perils of writing songs about people you know.
Flavorwire: You came up in the Florida punk scene, but your household growing up was religious. What was your musical path like, personally?
Benjamin Booker: My parents were pretty religious, but my dad listened to mostly soul and funk. But, I didn’t really hear any rap music ’til I was 14. I don’t think I even listened to the Beatles ’til I was a teenager. My parents didn’t listen to that kind of stuff. I grew up going to church so it was never explicit.
I left the church thing very early. My friend who I used to skate with, and who would always bring a guitar to school, gave me the Minor Threat discography and I started skating. I had a friend who was playing in a band, who invited me to skate practice to watch them. I started going there a few times a week.
How old were you when you decided church wasn’t for you?
I was about 10 when I stopped being into it, but I was forced to go, so I probably didn’t stop until I was around 13 or 14.
So that led to some friction in your house, I bet.
Uhhhhhh… yeah. [Laughs] There was some friction about it. My mom went to school for theology and used to work at the Christian broadcasting network when we moved to Virginia. She volunteered during prayer, so it was very much a thing.
You’ve said before that your family is not really following your career. Is that still the case?
I never really talked to them about what I was doing. I think they were just worried, as parents do, about me supporting myself. And since I hadn’t talked to them, they didn’t know. They also hadn’t been to a show [of mine], but they came to a show in October and that really made everything better. They didn’t love it, but they were like, ‘Oh this is what you do, there are people here.’ I think they also thought that I was hanging out with a bunch of girls and doing coke off of people, and I was like, ‘No, I’m just eating some guacamole in the back before the show.’ I don’t think you can do that stuff anymore. If you’re a band and if you’re living like that, nowadays, you just like wouldn’t make it. There’s no room to just do that.
I feel like it’s difficult for young performers to know their limits straight away.
Well, I feel like in the beginning there were a lot of rough times, because you start doing it and then you realize you’re at a club and that there’s free beer every day and you’re like, ‘Whatever, let’s just get some shots of whiskey, right?’ And then you party every day and then you’re like, ‘Nah, I can’t live like this.’
When did you realize that?
When we got banned from a venue in Seattle called the Tractor Tavern. And that was a night where we were like, ‘Yeah, got it: take it easy.’ The show ended in a riot and I got dragged off stage, so yeah, it’s done now.
Have you started thinking about your second album yet?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been writing. I have to take breaks because If I start working on something, I’ll do it all day and that stresses me out. I’ll be hanging out with friends and not really paying attention to them.
Do you have a certain direction you’re heading in so far with the new one?
No, not at all. When I start, I usually don’t go in with, ‘This is a song about this.’ I just start and sing a melody or something, and usually if you’re just playing and singing on top of something, even if you’re just mumbling, you start with something and you think, ‘Oh that’s interesting,’ and you build off of it… and it turns into something. But it’s weird how if you do it like that, it’s more stream of consciousness. It ends up being really personal because it’s the things in the back of your head that keep coming up. Whereas if I were just writing, it would be more contained.
Do you ever experience that openness and then want to scale back?
Well, I didn’t do that on the last [album] because I didn’t know that it was going to be heard by anyone. But for this one, yeah, definitely, totally. This time I’ll probably be a little more cryptic. It gets weird to write personal stuff and then have people ask you questions about specific lyrics and songs. In the beginning, I would start to talk about it and it would be upsetting. Then the people who the song was about would read the interview and it was even worse because they know it’s about them. That happened with my Vice interview, so now I don’t talk about it.
But you didn’t write the songs in the first place to communicate a point?
Yeah, but only for one person. Most of the songs were written for friends — there were specific songs written for people. I would just record them and send them to a friend. So yeah, it was songs for one person. It really wasn’t for anyone else to hear.
I’m guessing that caused some confrontations that weren’t great.
Yeah, it did. It wasn’t like I was writing them love songs. It was usually problems in relationships that needed to be talked about because when I was writing wasn’t the best of times. It was a good way to start a conversation, which it did. It helped a lot — it helped heal a lot of the problems that I had.
But what would happen is that one person would have it and then they would say, ‘Oh I like this,’ and then send it to a friend. Then a few people would listen to it and then people would ask, ‘Could you make this easier to send?’ So I put it up on Bandcamp and that was the progression.
I didn’t realize that’s how your music got out there in the first place.
I’ve never said it before. It sort of spiraled — eventually it was on Bandcamp and people started seeing it, then a blog picked it up and I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus.’
Were you thinking that was a bad thing initially?
I was terrified to play. It was something I thought I wanted to do after seeing friends play shows. If I would’ve known back then that I’d be doing this now, I would have been terrified. But it felt like I got to take some steps, like I wasn’t diving into the deep end immediately. Some bands put out a record and haven’t played a show and then play a show for thousands of people. I can’t imagine doing that.
That’s something that frustrates me about Internet music culture’s desire to constantly “discover” brand new acts. You’re not doing bands any favors if they’re not ready to tour.
Yeah, and you shouldn’t have to if you’ve only released a few songs. Like, Jai Paul has two songs out but there’s probably a lot of pressure to put something out. Everyone I know keeps asking, ‘When is he going to put something out?’ Leave the guy alone, if he never puts out a record, then he has two awesome songs.