Music From the Soul – Sublime Singer Songwriter Benjamin Booker Talks to The MALESTROM
After the rip roaring success and critical acclaim of his self titled debut 2013 album, American musician Benjamin Booker is back. After a short hiatus away from the business to battle some personal demons, Booker returned with the barnstorming new record Witness in June. Having moved to New Orleans for work as a young man Benjamin caught the music bug from the Big Easy, a city drenched in blues and set out on a journey honing his energy filled live performances. We’re happy to say that spirit and passion remains, if his US tour reviews are anything to go by. Having just embarked on his UK tour we caught up with Benjamin Booker to get the lowdown on the eclectic influences that have shaped his sound, his thoughts on Trump’s America and being in a good place.
The MALESTROM: Benjamin, you never intended to be a musician. Was it New Orleans that inspired you?
Benjamin Booker: I was working a job where I wasn’t making much money, maybe $800 a month. So, I started playing music for food and beer.
TM: Was there something about that Delta blues down south that caught your imagination?
BB: I just liked the idea of one person and a guitar. It seemed like those old bluesmen were superheroes. I never missed other instruments. Right now, I’ve drifted away from blues though and I really haven’t listened to it for a couple years at this point, but I’m sure it will come back to me.
TM: The Gun Club in London were a big influence. What was it about their music that resonated with you?
BB: Yeah! Very cool. I liked the combination of blues and punk, the passion and energy. I also loved JLPs lyrics. So dark, especially as a teenager. “I will fuck you until you die/Then bury you and kiss this town goodbye.” Don’t hear that everyday!
TM: No, you certainly don’t! And T-Rex too, a British band that weren’t that well known in the States?
BB: Yeah, I used to smoke weed with a friend just about every day in college and Electric Warrior was an album we could always agree on. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. It’s a perfect record to me.
TM: Tell us about your upcoming tour and the new album Witness?
BB: I just wrapped the US tour and we’ve just begun here in Europe. The US was great. I had no idea what the response would be like but it was so wonderful to see people singing along to the new tunes and getting into it. I’d say it was a success. The new record is way more layered and musical than the last record. The live show has more ups and downs and we get to play with the audience’s emotions a little more.
TM: There’s a little bit of Hendrix in your music as well, and obviously Nirvana had an impact?
BB: I’m definitely a big fan of both. I learned to play guitar by picking up Nirvana songs. I love Hendrix but I’m nowhere near being able to play that stuff. I’ve been trying to learn the acoustic Hear My Train a Comin‘ for about ten years. I’m about 15 seconds into the song so far.
TM: You received critical acclaim quite early on. How much encouragement did that give you?
BB: It definitely doesn’t hurt, but at the end of the day you’re still standing in front of a bunch of people and have to make it happen. At that point, whatever people are writing about you, doesn’t make a difference. But I appreciate the kind words of course.
TM: You’re renowned for your live performances. Is that the essence of your music, live on stage?
BB: I don’t know what the essence of my music is. I have more control live. Recording is always more of a collaboration, but live I get a chance to stretch out more and try new things which I really enjoy. A lot of the songs are different live than on the record. So, ‘live’ is probably the essence. Even when I was writing the second record I was thinking a lot about what was missing from the live set and how to fill in gaps.
TM: There’s a lot of blogs saying you’re keeping rock n roll alive, so something’s working?
BB: Ha! Don’t they just break that out every now and again for page views? The English love a good saviour. Don’t put that on me though, it never ends well for those bands does it?
TM: The last few years have been busy, touring with Jack White and singing with Mavis Staples. How has that been?
BB: I actually had a chance to take about a year off between touring the last album and this one which I really needed. I’m still learning to enjoy things as they’re happening and take it all in. It’s hard when you’re nervous and sleepy all the time.
TM: It’s been a tumultuous time to say the least in the US, how has the political climate had an influence on your music? Especially with Mr Trump?
BB: Well what’s happened now in the US has affected everyone’s lives. Its not just Trump, it feels like a lot of things are changing. When I meet people visiting the US for the first time I can see a worried look on their face and I have to say “It wasn’t always like this. We’ll get through it.”
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TM: What change would you like to see that could have a long- standing impact on the future of young people?
BB: I’m waiting for the baby boomers and “greatest generation” to die off. I think we could do a lot better without all of their antiquated views.
TM: Your songs feel so personal. Is it hard performing them?
BB: At the beginning it was really difficult. I could get through songs like “Carry.” But, after playing them hundreds of times you get past that.
TM: How hard was it slotting in to the punk/grunge scene?
BB: I was never really part of any scenes. I was always on the outside looking in, especially when I was a teenager.
TM: Tell us if you can, as hard as it is for us non musicians, if you only had three songs you could listen to for the rest of time what would they be?
BB: Ah, I’d say, Sly and the Family Stone “Just Like a Baby”, Nina Simone “Suzanne”, and Mulatu Astatke “Tezeta” (Nostalgia).
TM: Nice choice. So where do you feel you are at in your life, you had a bit of a rocky period? (Drink/Drugs)
BB: I’m in a good place.
TM: Where do you see Benjamin Booker in ten years time?
BB: I try not to think that far ahead.
TM: We often ask for some words of wisdom for our readers, a mantra or philosophy you live your life by? Inspire us?!
BB: Yeah, don’t eat Indian food before a show.