Ben Greenberg (The Men, Hubble): Interview
“I’m really interested to see what a band looks like in 20 years, because I love bands.”
Ben Greenberg’s active, to say the least. He’s the kind of musician that has restless ambition, who by virtue of activity has made music his life. In the last few years he’s played in Pygmy Shrews, Zs, and his own guitar-based Hubble (in which he soundtracked a video of pictures from the Hubble telescope, NASA-approved). He’s recorded albums for the likes of Pop. 1280, White Suns, and his current band (whom he joined in 2012), The Men.
Due to our interview happening on the day of the release of The Men’s New Moon, our conversation mainly focused around this band and this album. Now, focused is a tricky word here: it was 8 a.m. my time, and Ben was hungover from attending a D’Angelo/?uestlove show at Brooklyn Bowl the night before. Despite this, he came off as good humored and articulate despite my groggy, meandering questions. What struck me the most from this conversation was how optimistic Ben was. As related to his quote, “I’m really interested to see what a band looks like in 20 years,” Ben doesn’t seem like the type to bemoan the “death of guitar bands” or worry about the future of rock ‘n’ roll in some cranky anachronistic sort of way, but that he actually looks forward to the future of music. He also had a lot to say about how people perceive The Men, press, the music he likes, and the music he creates.
How do you feel about the release of New Moon?
I’m so happy. Today’s the day, right? Today’s the day it comes out. I mean we recorded it almost a year ago, so we’ve been touring this music since then, some of it since before then, and just anticipating this record coming out, and today, it doesn’t feel like anything’s different today, yet. But I’m really excited for people to hear it, I really believe in it.
I was going to ask about that, I’ve seen you a couple times in Portland, and like you said, I’ve heard a bunch of these songs live. Is this still fresh to you, or are you going to be like, “Alright, we’re already done with that shit.”
I mean, that’s the way it’s been in the past, like, the bulk of an album worth of songs have about a yearlong lifespan or so. But we’re always changing, we’re not just changing as a band in that we keep writing new songs and discarding old ones, we’re always thinking about new ways to do things, and with this record Kevin and I played a lot more music certainly, but since we recorded New Moon, Kevin has switched from Lap Steel to bass, Mark has switched from guitar to playing piano most of the time, most of the touring we’re going to do this year is going to be in a different configuration from when we recorded New Moon, or most of it anyway, so that will give us a new lease on some of the songs, or like a new instrumentation, or a new way to approach arrangements and dynamics, and it’s important that people keep switching guitars and amps and instruments. You want to present something consistent in the moment, but you want to be open to all the possibilities of how it could come together in the first place.
How is it to play both roles - well three: recorder, engineer, player, in a band. You recorded the band’s previous albums, right?
That’s right, I did. Yeah, I mean I’ve been making a life as a musician and as a producer/engineer for years and years, I’ve always recorded my own bands on my first 8-track when I was 17 or something, and just started making my own records. I’ve been recording other people since then. It’s really natural to me. A lot of bands record their own music, so I don’t really know what to compare it to. I’ve always been involved in both sides of it. I enjoy working with other engineers on my music when there’s people that I have a vibe with/that we get along with, like Daniel (Schlett), who’s recording the TEEN record downstairs, is one of the best engineers I know. Whenever we work together we’ll mix records together as a duo, or I’ll bring something in that I’m playing on. He’ll lend a hand and we’ll commiserate on what to do and how to do it. I really like that process too, I don’t really know how to compare it to anything, it’s always what I’ve done. When I was in college I was in six bands and I had four jobs and a girlfriend. It’s always been like this, always.
Would you consider New Moon more “lo-fi” compared to Open Your Heart?
Well, no. We recorded open your heart on a 2” 24 track machine, so that gives you a lot of fidelity, but we recorded Leave Home and New Moon on the same 8-track that I’ve got when I was 17. But they have a ‘different’ quality to them because when you push a smaller piece of tape with the same sound it’s going to respond differently.
Before we went upstate we were kind of conceptualizing how it was going to be, and there was a lot of talk about how the last record was, for this band, very clean. And people wanted the next one to be raw, not just in terms of the quality of the sound, but how we did it; recording everything live with very few overdubs in the same room and vocals live as well. We just wanted it to be a very bare document. There are a lot of reasons. It wasn’t just to have a contrast to the previous record. That definitely was part of the dialogue, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily lo-fi. I mean, we didn’t mic the snare; that’s pretty lo-fi.
I always wonder how much of the process is deliberate vs. how much of it is kind of what happens. I’ve already seen a lot of people express frustration with the whole country influence. Some people really like it, others are like, “What is this? I’m so mad about this, they’re trying to purposely fuck with me!” Is that true?
That’s a real leap of logic in there. People are obviously going to like whatever they’re going to like and they’re going to not like whatever they’re not going to like. We’re not exempt from that either. We have things we like and things we don’t like and that’s what we’re going to pursue, but we’re not doing it to try and mess with anybody (laughs). I know what you mean; that’s been expressed before. There’ s a felling in the - I don’t know, I hate to even say the words “hardcore community” because I know that I’ll be crucified on the Internet just for saying those words. But I’ve encountered a certain amount of that, you know, people are going to like what they’re going to like, I can’t tell people that they’re wrong, and that my record is better than their HOAX record. People are going to like what they’re going to like and that’s totally cool with all of us in the band. All we can do is make what we want to hear.
It always feels like a critical double standard to me sometimes too, like everybody wants everyone to progress, right, but no one wants someone to make the same album forever.
Right, but then you change too much people want to tear you down.
People can focus on trying to come up with what kind of micro-sub-genre we fall into, or they can just listen to the fucking record if they like it. I think that the people who take the simple approach maybe get a little more out of it.
Yeah, then it’s like, “You’ve gone too far.”
Mark (Perro) was telling me he saw a review of New Moon and someone in the comments said, “This record’s fucking horrible! It sounds like dad rock, it makes me sick, Leave Home is one of the best records of all time!”
I read another review where somebody liked it, but they said, and I hope this doesn’t hurt your feelings here, but they said that Open Your Heart was one of the most depressing things they’ve ever heard.
(Laughs) I mean that’s exactly what we’re saying; like that stuff doesn’t even come close to my feelings. Those are other people’s feelings, that’s the whole point and they’re totally entitled to them, I respect them for voicing their opinions, a lot of people don’t get to do that, so they’re lucky that they do. Stuff like that is just funny, someone praising one thing you did and then saying otherwise.
You know Aaron Sorkin, he’s the guy who wrote The West Wing and The Social Network, he had a great quote about the internet that I read around the time The Social Network came out, it was like, “Everybody deserves a voice, but not everybody deserves a microphone.”
There’s a balance out there that’s important. That Sorkin quote, or that idea, of “freedom’s great as long as nobody touches my stuff,” (laughs) I appreciate what he’s saying in the context of anonymous internet hate, but it’s a dangerous road to go down, it can be a very sloppy road to go down, depending on how you take it.
You guys have a pretty low internet presence. You have a Blogspot page, and I think that’s it. Googling your name is nearly impossible too.
Well I mean, it’s hard to Google the word “Polish” but that doesn’t stop anybody (laughs).
How much of that is deliberate, or do you even really care?
How much access people have to your stuff? For a lot of musicians it’s about having as much up as possible for people
It depends what the “stuff” is, you know what I mean? We want people to have access to our music and our shows because that’s what we do as a band - I think someone should write a book called “Content” about the internet these days because that word has become so disassociated from itself. When people talk about “content” for a band on the internet they’re usually talking about everything but what the band is about. They’re talking about the band getting interviewed in a bathroom in Texas, or the band talking to a puppet in Chicago, or the band playing a song really half-assed in a backyard in LA. That’s not the point of the experience of a band for us. The point for us is the songs, the record, the show, and I think people have as much access to that with us as they do with almost any other band.
I mean, I saw you twice last year within, I think it was two months, in Portland.
Yeah, we’re around. There’s a lot of ways for people to see us and hear us. We would just rather play and work on writing better songs and better records, and playing better shows. That’s where we want to put our focus. So if people ask us to do stuff outside of that realm, sometimes we just have a hard time finding the time for it, honestly. Because there’s so much other stuff to do. The other day we had another press day, and we were in the studio mixing, and we had three interviews in the middle of the day, so we had to stop, do the interviews, and then go back in and keep working on them. You have to prioritize, you know? You do the things that sound interesting or important to you and you hope they turn out cool, but you try and focus on the music first and foremost, almost exclusively if you can. It’s hard to maintain that kind of focus but it’s important to try.
You want to be able to focus on more than one thing, and we certainly do wind up doing things that aren’t making records and playing shows, but as far as maintaining a Twitter, I’m not sure what difference that would make to people being able to hear our music. If we had a Facebook page for The Men, would more people hear it? I don’t know if they really would, more people might read the name but would they really listen to the record and care about them or buy tickets to the show and stuff? I think all that is just working at a level that we’re comfortable with.
I guess for some musicians whose work involves the internet it makes sense to do a lot of that stuff because it’s all part of the aesthetic.
Yeah, there’s so much music these days that is directly inspired, so fully internet-contained. Music that is inspired by stuff that someone saw on their laptop, then they make their own music on their laptop, and then they post it back onto the internet, to the same realm that inspired them in the first place. I think that all that is really cool, it’s a whole new generation of musicians. I’m really interested to see what a band looks like in 20 years, because I love bands. I grew up with a certain idea of what a band was and how it was supposed to function, and I started putting them into practice at a really young age. But as I started to put that into practice the whole world around it started changing at once, so it’s [a] really interesting time. I’m really interested to see where it goes; I feel like people are ready for bands again. I think people are over “projects.”
I’ve seen a lot of musicians - I’m not saying you necessarily have to have a drummer - but I’ve seen a lot of “bands” two or three people, maybe a backing drum track, maybe a drummer, but it feels like a band, it feels like a presentation. But sometimes you see one person doing something with a lot of backing tracks, and it feels like exactly that word, “project.”
Yeah, watching someone do their art project or whatever. I mean if the music is cool or if the project is cool then that can be really awesome. I don’t know, I grew up watching musicians play music and it’s really important to me, just as a human. Even if I wasn’t in this band it would be really important to me. That’s why that show last night was so amazing, because it was just two really sick musicians, no backing track, just playing full songs. D’Angelo’s left hand scares the shit out of me (laughs). D’Angelo’s left hand is the best bass player I’ve ever heard in my entire life. You know? Just two dudes playing music, you see a band like that you’re like, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” You watch an old video of The Byrds playing or something, or you watch a video of Black Flag. There’s something to that interaction between those musicians making that thing together with who they are and what is. There’s other people intertwined, I think that’s really specific to - not a time and place, just a certain sensibility that I don’t think is bygone at all. I think it’s a totally relevant sensibility.
From the viewpoints of other’s, sorry about this, but you tend to ignore or break critical expectation, like I’ve already seen someone call the piano in “Open The Door” antagonistic.
Oh really? They think that’s an antagonistic piano? I don’t know man, I think a Stooges piano is an antagonistic piano, I don’t think that piano’s very antagonistic. I think that Cecil Taylor in 1963 is an antagonistic piano.
I think the point of that review was that vamp was supposed to be the big “fuck you” to the people who liked “Open Your Heart.”
So how much of your own expectations do you break when you go through your process?
We don’t think about it that way, we don’t look back when we think about what we’re going to make next. When I write songs I wake up in the morning, and I pick up the guitar and turn my phone off for a couple hours and sing songs that I like, and then happen upon something. I don’t think we’re different from a lot of other bands in that regard. I don’t know why people get so hung up on (it), you know, like the “real minutia” of what we’re up to. We’re just a band that writes songs that we like. We’re not trying - like, what you and I are doing right now, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but this is the image-making part. Us writing songs and recording them and making records and playing shows, none of that has anything do to with the image-making part. Like the interviews and the photo shoots and the videos and stuff, that’s where that part comes in, and there’s a real line there. Like, all this what you and I are doing right now and all this kind of stuff, there’s no way in hell that we would do any of that stuff in a billion years if we hadn’t done the music part first, quite literally because there wouldn’t any reason to, but they’re really separate things for us. When we hole ourselves up and play music like we’re going to do today when I’m done with all these interviews, no one’s talking about the outside world. So when someone comes in with a riff, a part, an idea, or a lyric it’s not like, “Oh, yeah, the punks are really going to hate that one!” No one cares. We just have this idea, “I kind of like playing it, I think you guys might like it too, let’s share it.” That’s literally where the thought process ends.
I think in the live setting it goes that same way, because it’s not like someone’s going to care when they’re watching you live.
Yeah, Exactly! We did a show, a benefit show for hurricane victims back in December at this metal bar. And it was like a ton of punks came out and we opened the show with three acoustic songs, there were four acoustic guitars on stage, harmonica and stuff, and there were a few heckles, people didn’t necessarily know what to make of it, but man, nobody left. And we played a full set, we played lot of songs that no one had heard before, we played a lot of songs that weren’t necessarily punk bangers or whatever you want to call it. But the whole crowd was moving, we played a packed house the whole set. I think that people are, as much as they like to talk about the - how do I put this, but how much people like to think about things in terms of novelty or irony, or like, surface enjoyment, at the end of the day everyone’s asses were moving.
You want to present something consistent in the moment, but you want to be open to all the possibilities of how it could come together in the first place.
So much of this idea ends up on the antagonism of whatever surrounds the music that’s not the music, or not the art, or that’s not the event.
Right, and people can focus on trying to come up with what kind of micro-sub-genre we fall into, or they can just listen to the fucking record if they like it. I think that the people who take the simple approach maybe get a little more out of it.
I mean that’s why I like the records I like. I don’t like this Gary Newman record I’m listening to because it’s a great example [of] “early cold-wave-synth-pop-pre-psychedelia” or whatever. I don’t give a shit about that. I just like the way the drums come in on the first song, it makes me feel good. Music is real basic like that.
Can you imagine, as a reviewer, when you listen to a new record that you’re going to review for the first time, are you listening to it for its influences or for the way it sounds? I think that the way it sounds is more important, and the way it sounds has to exist in a context sure, everything is influenced by something, but it’s not like that’s the most important part. The most important part is what it is in the first place that you’re listening to.
That actually leads me right to this last question, and I know this is a question you guys have already been asked hundreds of times, but people really make a big deal about the “point of references” thing. The Spacemen 3 thing in Leave Home or Sonic Youth in Open Your Heart, and then there’s - Dusty Springfield in New Moon?
Oh really? (laughs) Wow, that’ s pretty cool, Dusty’s awesome!
I like that you don’t even know.
I think it’s flattering, but nobody knows what we’re fucking listening to. No one knows where the songs really come from, like people can have their own impressions of what they think it really is, but is that more important to people than what it is in the first place? It’s different for everyone I guess.
That’s interesting though, that’s something where I don’t even know if Nick (Chiericozzi) is really into Dusty Springfield at all. I think stuff like that is cool, like when people say it in person, “Oh I really like your music, it made me think of this other music that I really like,” or, “Oh I noticed this shade of this thing that I wouldn’t really expected in there.” That’s flattering, and that’s cool to know that people are thinking about us at all.
But it’s not something that someone has to understand the references to understand what’s going on.
Yeah, I don’t think so at all. I think it stands well far apart from the references that people make to it. We think about it in its own context, we think about it in the context of our lives and what we want to do and who we are, and how we’re changing as people. Journalism is how it is, people are going to write how they’re going to write, and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter too much, no offense.
It’s a boring thing to talk about. When someone’s describing a band to me if they just say they sound like 300 other bands - first of all it doesn’t tell me what they actually sound like. Is it like John Fogerty, Keith Richards, and Jim Keltner in a band together? No, then why did you say that it sounded like those three bands! You know what I mean? Every band is going to sound totally unique from every other band, because it will be made up of completely unique people from any other band. Even if it’s really bad, it’s still going to be really bad in it’s own special little snowflake way.