A few weeks ago I clicked onto a song entitled, “Doom,” by a band that goes by the name New Beard. I was instantly charmed. Certainly not a term that Ben Wigler, the band’s mastermind, would choose. Perhaps he would prefer that my socks were rocked off, or that my nonexistent beard was melted. To which I would assure him they were, and it was… I just had to wait until the 2:52 mark of “Doom,” wherein his guitar proceeds to melt all non-guitar objects for 38 seconds until it politely takes a bow.
With “Doom,” I was taken in a way that my favorite songs always do. I had it on repeat, couldn’t possibly grow tired of it, told my friends they had to listen to it and was grabbing the faces of those close to me and yelling, “you won’t stand still – so why should the world?!”
Below is a lengthy interview with Wigler in which he discusses but isn’t limited to: Michael Jackson, Elliott Smith, Ween, Dungeon, the tuba, Brooklyn-based music, Chinese folk music, North Carolina, Stockholm, Battlestar Galactica, tips on how to be a cool indie band, getting a real job, Tokyo, the history of rock music and what it means to want to follow in the footsteps of your rock heroes.
I told you it was lengthy.
SM: First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions we have for you.
BW: We are so thankful to you Swill Merchants for taking the time to come up with these incredibly thoughtful and detailed questions. Please accept my apologies in advance for answers that are too long and will most likely make me sound like a total douche-macouche.
SM: In discussing New Beard you’ve mentioned your influences were Dangerous-era Michael Jackson, Elliot Smith, Neil Young, Dungen and Ween? Can you expound upon that?
BW: I intended for New Beard to sound beautiful, with infectious melodies, and more intricately ornate orchestration than most people can handle. On songs like “I walk the streets”, the Dangerous-era Jackson vibe really reigns – that song is actually about how I used to be forced to moonwalk down the aisle of my school bus before being allowed to get off to go home. I was known for doing these ridiculously accurate MJ impersonations in the 3rd and 4th grade and I never really lived it down! Dangerous has this bleak, ornate, sad, desolate-though-surrounded feel that, to me, is the most beautiful work MJ ever did. Elliot Smith and Neil Young also have those voices that ache at you. I think I have a bit of an ache in the way I sing, and that’s where MJ came from on Dangerous as well, especially on songs like “Who Is It?” I don’t do the MJ dance moves anymore, but I always kind of thought MJ’s voice was what made him truly special- my approach to singing in a rock band is to think about what MJ might have written and sung if he was paralyzed from the neck down and didn’t have the moves to rely on.
You know, there’s a lot of self-doubt that plays a role in what I do. A lot of this is the music of someone who feels pained by being strange, but at the same time loves being strange. Dangerous was the album where Jackson seemed to have his most self-conscious music – “Don’t you judge of my composure ’cause I’m lying to myself” – a last artistic chronicle of his being aware of the insanity of his life. There is a lot of that on New Beard City.
In terms of the production of New Beard City, Dungen’s entire catalog and Ween’s “the Mollusk” are the benchmarks for me in terms of dreamlike beauty. Ween speaks to me in terms of their being insanely-talented, face-meltingly capable musicians, who don’t take themselves too seriously. And Dungen has so much of that dreamy beauty, and gives me an overdose of the ache-inducing melodies that shaped who I am as a singer and songwriter. Gustav is about a zillion times cooler than I am, but I’m also a zillion times more hobbit-like than anyone making music today, so that’s my unique angle on things.
I don’t think that was a very good answer, but it was a long one ;)
SM: You’ve gone on record as saying New Beard truly brings a hell of a live experience. You’ve also said that European audiences appreciate live music more and are less stuck in their ways than American audiences. What do you mean by stuck in their ways?
BW: Let me quickly say that I do think New Beard kicks ass live in a very different, exciting way, but we’re still developing the show, and the rest of this response isn’t written from a place of being sure that I’m offering a Radiohead-quality performance (yet) so hopefully that will cut through the impending snark…
When I talk about American audiences being stuck in their ways… maybe I shouldn’t ;) But since you asked, what I mean is this… I feel like Napster, digital downloading, etc. is not at all what has ruined the music industry. I feel that what has ruined the industry is the ease of access to recording tools. ‘Prosumer’ recording rigs are so cheap and easy to put together, now anybody can be a musician. This is a great thing for democratizing music, but frankly, it’s been the reason everything has gone to shit. Not only are the avenues flooding with music that is good-but-not-great, but everybody thinks they are an expert. When you play a show, everyone in the audience thinks they are a rock music expert, and that they know better than you. I don’t listen to a ton of music made today, because a lot of it strikes me as barely-above-GarageBand quality, or shit that apes first generation indie without adding anything new.
American audiences have largely lost their innocence. You’ve got to be someone really huge, or at least deified by the indie powers-that-be in order for people to get outside of themselves, uncross their arms, and really rock out to the music. If you’re a medium sized band, many audiences are looking for your mistakes, your flaws; the things that make them feel as though they can do just as well, or even better; the reason not to care. These folks will happily pay $5 per beer and drink themselves into an oblivion (so will I), but few value the merchandise of the band that is providing the backdrop to that particular drinking experience – because they could make something better, so why buy it? I know that sounds harsh, but I really think it’s true.
Around the rest of the world, I think there is more innocence. There isn’t a guitar center in every other town… people are making music, probably just as much of it, but I don’t think it gives them a sense of superiority. There is a feeling of “let’s see how the experts do it” – where they are psyched to see people who literally spend every waking hour of their day on music, shredding their own bearded faces off and melting the crowd’s faces – they’re not looking for your weak points. They want to have a good time and they want to see a performance that they know they couldn’t come up with on their own.
I should take a second to shout out to the best sector of American music-listeners. There is a big difference when it comes to age. Now I’m really feeling like an old crotch, but the truth is that people in their 50s (ie. the people who drove rock music when it was still in its infancy) are still as hungry for new rock music as they ever were. They value owning a CD or t-shirt, and even if they’ve got a collection of vintage Les Pauls in their basement, they value what a passionate artist has to say, and they don’t come from a knee-jerk “I can do that better than you” perspective.
To clarify, I’m not sure I qualify as an ‘expert’ – but I’ve been doing this every day since 2003 and have certainly put in my 10,000 hours writing, playing, and producing music. And while I try to maintain my innocence as a music appreciator, I’ve also been that douchebag with his arms crossed looking to hate on a band at times, so I’m as snarky a bastard as the next guy. I also got my first ‘prosumer’ recording rig in 1998, so I’m probably part of the problem ;)
SM: What do you bring to a live show that may surprise the attendee? What’s the goal when you’re up there in front of your fans?
BW: I’m very happy with our live show, but there’s definitely a huge pile of stuff we have to do before I shoot my mouth off again about how great a live band we are ;) We’ve got tons of chops, vision, & creativity – but we’re really really informal and rough around the edges. In a good way, I think! The goal is to give people a sound that no one else really has, a lot of beauty, but in a way that doesn’t come off as super pretentious or labored over. We’re kind of like a punk-rock version of Yes or Rush, when it comes to the live show. We’ve been very effective so far, and the touring we’ve started to do for the album has been great. If our phase 1 goal was ‘people should leave a NB show feeling like they had never quite heard anything like it,’ I’m confident that we’ve succeeded. But with no album to work on just yet, my mind is starting to deconstruct the live show a bunch, and I’m seeing so many things that I want to do differently or better. The goal for the next phase of New Beard is to keep to the informal feel, but to give people more bang for the buck. I want to give people a truly enveloping atmospheric experience that transforms the medium-small sized places that we play into a different world for a short period of time. There’s so much more we can do. I am very lucky in that our drummer is a total mad man – people have told me that watching him play is like having a genuine religious experience. He’s like having Artie, the Strongest Man in the World in your band… if Artie had Neil Peart’s chops.
SM: Moving to a larger discussion; when it comes to hip-hop in New York, there are notable artists with notable acclaim from all boroughs and parts of the city, but it appears indie music hasn’t spread quite like that. Why do you think Brooklyn is such a hot bed for the all-encompassing term “indie music” in NYC?
BW: Hmm… Are you including the Lower East Side with Brooklyn? The LES is still a huge factor, and that’s technically Manhattan. But Manhattan as a whole has become incredibly uncool over the last decade – I have a hunch that we’re going to see Brooklynites moving back to Manhattan as Brooklyn becomes even more saturated and expensive. And I think that we’ll see Queens on the rise as well. Astoria is blossoming, and it’s well known that lower rent prices = more artists and musicians. Williamsburg and even Bushwick are so incredibly expensive. Queens has some ass-kicking metal, punk, and outsider music – there’s definitely stuff going on there. Staten Island… come on, no one is ever going to try to turn that place into an indie rock paradise. All of the good clubs are in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. The marketing for Brooklyn in general right now is just so outrageously huge, it’s just been a magnet.
I honestly don’t know much about hip-hop, but from a total layman’s perspective, it seems like hip-hop is a more portable artform. You don’t need a stage big enough to hold several amps and a drumset, you just need the basics to get some pre-recorded stuff into a house PA, and there are clubs with PAs everywhere, and there are people with interest in hip-hop culture everywhere. Hip-hop is the rock music of our day – I once met Chris Stamp, the guy who signed Hendrix and executive produced virtually every record by The Who. His take on it was that indie rock was white kids trying to relive the glory days they grew up reading about in magazines and on old-school MTV, who believed in a dream that had been dead for years. He thought that rock music existed as a reaction to the shock of World War II that really divided kids of his generation from all those that came before, with a bunch of kids who really had nothing – spiritually, materially, emotionally – who were trying to use rock music to find “something.” It wasn’t a bunch of people setting out with an artistic goal, or with even a big dream of materially comfort.
Now that those guys have all had kids, they’ve found their emotions again, and the genuine market demand for rock music has been diminished to close to zilch. What we have left are guys like me… who somewhat selfishly want to spend our lives playing music instead of getting a “real job doing something actually productive” because we grew up obsessing over rock music, dreaming of doing rock music in front of huge crowds.
I do have a unique creative vision, and the people I make music with are some of the most unique individuals I’ve ever met, and I do think that New Beard is one of the most unique bands on the scene. But I’m also one of those guys who heard “if you apply yourself, you can do anything!” growing up, and the fact of the matter is, there is not much of a marketplace for recorded music of any variety, and that market shrinks the further and further you get away from electronic dance music, clearchannel pop, and hip-hop.
So Brooklyn is all about a bunch of people like me who have taken a previously only semi-cool borough of the coolest city in the world, and turned it into a playground where we can grind out our fantasies until we’re either lucky enough to be recognized as extremely worthwhile, or until we give up and get real jobs.
Hip-hop & EDM (not that the two should be so grossly bracketed together) seems to harken back to the roots of what Chris Stamp thought made rock music so explosive: this is the music of people who didn’t have a coddled upbringing making music to escape the often bleak reality of their lives (…except for, you know, the ones who had fucking RAP TUTORS growing up and only feign poverty and disenfranchisement) – there is always going to be an audience hungry for music that allows them to truly escape, if only mentally, from a bad situation. That’s when your product has real “value.” That’s the situation in which the music is more important than the PBR. So I’d say that, in general, hip-hop is beating the pants off of rock music in terms of being the vital musical success story of our generation, and is spreading farther and farther every day.
Some might think it’s a bleak outlook, but I don’t think it’s that far from reality. And personally, I’m very happy grinding out alongside my dream band, even if all that comes from it is a bunch of spectacularly heartfelt and passionately crafted of music created purely for posterity. I’ll tell you, if New Beard is a tree in the forest that falls without anyone around to hear it fall… we will have made a fucking sound!! And that is the energy that is fuelling this weird thing we know of as the Brooklyn hot bed of indie rock.
SM: Music often settles into regional sounds. Ben, you’ve been apart of the indie rock scene in New York for about 10 years and spent some time in North Carolina. That experience puts you in a good situation to answer the following question; New York seems to be home to more than you average number of quality bands that are incorporating a large orchestral sound to their contemporary indie music. Do you think there is something to New York, or Brooklyn perhaps, that brings this out?
BW: Did you mention North Carolina because of the Trekky scene, with the awesome band Lost in the Trees? North Cackalacka definitely has another treasure trove of orchestral bands.
I think there are some pretty reasonable explanations for why it works this way in NYC. First of all, there are just a higher number of musicians here, period. NYC is a destination for people who are accomplished musicians. A lot of the people who come here to do classical music are also rock music fans, and orchestral rock is a way for them to cut loose. There are also lots of crappy players of these instruments, but if you’re a pretty girl, it doesn’t matter how bad you suck at the violin, you’re going to make an indie rock band marginally cooler by playing a violin in it, and doing so will make you marginally cooler. That’s the goal for many. To become marginally cooler. And for some reason, especially post-Arcade Fire, just the sight of a non-rock band instrument makes a band marginally cooler. But then there are also the sonic reasons – classical instruments are fantastic sounding! Frankly, New Beard adopted the tuba on a dare from a mega-fan of Arizona who thought it would be cool if my new band had a tuba instead of a bass. So I was on the lookout for that – fortunately, I happened to find the best tuba player on the planet and he happened to be a perfect fit for the band, whose capabilities in the low end arena genuinely outshine any other low-end providing instrument I’ve ever heard. It’s a great visual prop. It definitely makes New Beard marginally cooler, and definitely makes us sound better – Tuba Joe is just an absolutely ridiculously talented musician and what he does with Tuba and electronics is mind-numbingly gorgeous. But he was the only weird instrument we had for a while. When we lost our keyboard player (who was a gigantic part of our sound), we played around with a lot of other instruments, from another guitar player to a punk-rock flautist, to an accordion player, before we settled on Maria Christina Eisen (touring sax player for Holly Miranda). When we chose her, we didn’t choose her because we needed a girl to make us look cool (although she does), or because we wanted another orchestral instrument. It just so happens that the saxophone, when not being played in a trad(itional) jazz context, sounds fucking amazing, and Maria plays it like she was J Mascis ripping a solo. Fortunately, for some orchestral-tinged bands, the instruments really, truly add a ton to the sound of the band. We’re definitely one of those bands, and I’m so lucky to know so many beard-meltingly fantastic players. I’m also an instrument fetishest, and I think there are lots of other folks like that in this town, and so between ‘moderate increase in coolness,’ ‘genuinely adoring the sound of non-rock instruments in a rock context,’ ‘being almost sexually obsessed with exotic instruments,’ and ‘all the best orchestral players in the world who are willing to rock out live here,’ New York offers a huge range of reasons to incorporate a non-rock instrument into your band.
SM: Ben, you’ve stated that “Doom” was written in 2003, after the first time you moved to NYC and that the record is in homage to big cities specifically NYC, Tokyo and Stockholm. The Tokyo, track if you will is evident, is there a specific Stockholm track?
BW:”Wedding Waltz” is a track that was 100% crafted in Stockholm by Gustav Ejstes – he loved the melody to a section of our song Given, and he wrote this flute introduction for the song. We ended up using it as an interlude track – something that sort of delineates the record into a Side A and Side B, even though we have yet to release the album on vinyl. The song has a stark, efficient beauty that I associate with Stockholm. When I listen to it, I think of a wedding being held in a super-modern church with a raging snow storm going on outside.
But Given is the song that gave birth to Wedding Waltz, and I think Given is also a very Stockholm-esque track. It is the first song I ever wrote for my own voice, penned in 2001 during my first year of college up in Rochester. I tried for years and years to get it done right, as I always had this big ass vision for the song, and it always eluded me. I’ve recorded that song 8 different ways. I think it’s the song that convinced Gustav and his partner, the amazingly talented visualist Jenny Palen, that we weren’t just some fanboys reaching out to our hero – but a band of comparable artistic talent that was worth working on. Gustav’s reaction to that track, and the subsequent video that Jenny made for it (set in Stockholm), was probably the single most validating experience of my artistic life. I got a cheezy tattoo that says 11/11/11 because that is when the video was released on Stereogum, and that song was finally born into the world 10 years almost to the day after it was written.
SM: How did those three cities influence the album as a whole?
BW: Stockholm was where the album was finished – we’ve given a lot of props to Gustav Ejstes in the press for this album, mostly because I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for finishing the album and giving the album a sound that mellows out a lot of the obsessively detailed overdubs. Even though he did not record the majority of the album, we credit Gustav as a co-producer because the album frankly would never have been finished and shown to the world if he hadn’t come onboard.
He recorded a lot of parts, from flute to electric piano, that tied the room together, and he even sings on the record… in English! The person who is credited as the main producer of New Beard City is my ex-Arizona bandmate Andrew Dunn, an incredibly incredibly talented person and probably one of the smartest artists I’ve ever known. But making this record tore our souls apart and really damaged our friendship – Gustav’s coming on board gave Andrew & I the chance to finish the record we had both worked so hard on. We honestly would not have finished it any other way. Although Andrew is no longer with the band, he stayed with us through the mixing and mastering process, and I’m very very glad that when the album was finished, we were both thoroughly satisfied with the results. Andrew and I suffered from a combination of Stockholm syndrome and cabin fever. We went crazy because we kept ourselves isolated while making this thing, and loved the project even as it held us captive.
I pined for New York the entire time I lived in Asheville (a city I love!) and really felt as though my band Arizona shot ourselves in the head by distancing ourselves from the place of our origin. In NYC, you never know who you’re going to meet, or what vein of creativity you’re going to tap into. It’s a stifling place at times, and certainly a hard place to make a living making music, but there isn’t anything like New York in terms of the real-life social networking opportunities.
NBC features a who’s who of amazing New York players ranging from hand percussionist Mathias Kunzli (drummer for Regina Spektor) to Stefan Zeniuk (the madman behind Gato Loco and formerly NY Howl) to Masayo Ishigure (a renown Koto player). I could go on for days about New York’s influence, but I’ve already pole-vaulted into totally self-indulgent territory and am going to try to make the rest of my answers shorter.
Tokyo is all about Tony, the Neil Peart of our band. Tony and I have known each other for 15 years, and his taking 4 years to teach English in Japan is why he probably avoided being drafted into Arizona thus keeping his sanity mostly intact. :) Maybe more than Tokyo, I imagined the various mega-metropolis that I read about in Japanese manga.
SM: Is New Beard City hitting on a larger theme than those three specific cities?
BW: To be totally honest, every time I’ve tried to make a concept-ish record, it ends up being only three-quarters baked at best. You can’t look at the lyrics to this thing like a Roger Waters-esque literary piece, and so I’m not sure the album says anything specific about any overarching theme. But I wanted to provide snap shots of a fictional city, the orchestrated overdubs are meant to represent the insane amounts of stuff & people that exist in cities, and the go-anywhere nature of the album’s genre hopping also is intentional in that cities offer so many different districts of flavor.
Certainly, it’s not a literal ode to those three cities. It’s an ode to the amazing ability to have unpredictable human experiences of a kind that I really associate with city life. There are many sub-themes of the album, boroughs of themes in a way, but the overall thing is basically about my relief to be back in a big city.
SM: Over the past year or two there have some been some great indie music that has been influenced by Asian music, looking at Geographer, Kishi Bashi and of course yourself. Kishi Bashi stated he loved the percussive nature of the Japanese language. What aspects of Japanese folk music influence New Beard?
BW: The Japanese language is my favorite to sing, even though I don’t get to sing the Japanese song on NBC (that’s our drummer). Maybe my favorite song to sing is Cruel Angel Thesis, the theme song to the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, a very popular karaoke song in Japan.
My interest in Japanese folk music grew out of a love for Chinese folk music – I play (badly) a Chinese violin called the Erhu. I’m known locally as a bit of a gear freak – I really have a fetish for exotic instruments. I believe these Eastern instruments, such as the Erhu from China, the Shakuhachi flute from Japan, and the zithers that are related in both cultures, are *awesome* devices when used in the context of western music. Shakuhachi is all over film scores, and the erhu played a big role in the score for Battlestar Gallactica, which I’m a fan of. I’m also a huge, huge fan of the Tsugaru style of Shamisen playing. Yoshida Brothers popularized that over here when they did the “Wii” theme for Nintendo.
That percussive style is a huge influence on the way I attack the guitar. I had hoped to have Yoshida Bros. play the main rhythm parts for “My People Are Around” – that song would sound so much cooler with Tsugaru-Shamisen.
The Japanese also have a very open definition of beard – their word for beard, hige, refers to any type of facial hair. It’s the definition we use.
SM: If you wrote the New Beard autobiography, at this very moment in time, what would the title be?
BW: “The Beardslinger” or maybe “Another Beard in the Wall, Pt. 2”