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September 21, 2008 - Entertainment / Music

Mr. Guy
Ben Lee
The Gospel of Ben

It isnít too often (any more) that I find myself singing along with a chorus, and even rarer, bopping my head along to a beat. Once youíve heard the Gospel of Ben Lee you may be sucked in as well. Hallelujah!

Photography by Taylor Crothers

Iím speaking to Ben by phone. Heís hanging in Brooklyn, staying on a friendís couch because: ďhe doesnít live anywhere at the moment.Ē He lives on Planet Earth. Heís on a mission. Wants to awake us from our slumber so we can start loviní one another. Is it so wrong?

Right now heís contemplating what a hassle it would be to put his boots on and brave the chilly New York winter. I am most likely a diversion so he can put it off for another half-hour. But Iíve caught Ben Leeís disease and thatís the way he likes it Ė he sounds like he would talk to me for a week if thatís what I needed. He has no use in pretense. Heís a self-help guru in rock ní roll guise.

At 14 he was in a famous punk band, Noise Addict. By his late teens, he was dating Claire Danes (theyíve recently split). Heís played music with everyone from Kylie Minogue to the Beastie Boys and even actor Jason Schwartzman. Now, at 26, and a long ways from his angrier punk roots, Lee delivers a solid piece of pop mastery on his sixth album Awake is the New Sleep Ė a title that sounds like it should be packaged alongside another hot singer/songwriter, Conor Oberstís (Bright Eyes) Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning. Although, whereas Oberst travels to the dark side of the moon and back, Lee prefers spending his musical time catching the rays and trying to rally the collective sunshine in us all.

SOAK: How would you describe the new album?
BL: Itís an album that pretty much deals with hope and faith, and how you jump into life knowing itís a risk, knowing you could get hurt, knowing you can be vulnerable and yet you still jump in a hundred percent.

SOAK: In the past, youíve described some of your musical experiences as a struggle. How did this one go?
BL: Oh, it was an amazing experience. Itís a really rare experience where you donít feel like youíre building something. Itís more like youíre receiving a gift. You know what I mean? Everything just happened so easily. I havenít had many experiences like that. Itís starting to get like that more and more. I do feel like for a long time, I bought into a lot of the bullshit about everything having to be a struggle to be quality. And in my experience, in creativity, the more relaxed I am, the more joy there is, and the better the work. But thatís just me. Maybe itís different if youíre in System of a Down or doing some heavier things.

SOAK: Like a performance artist who paints in blood.
BL: And semen.

SOAK: Which is always lovely to see.
BL: Yeah.

SOAK: How did the Benís come about?
BL: I was friends with [Ben] Kweller and [Ben] Folds, separately, and one day Folds just called me and said: ďDude, Iím going to tour Australia and I think we should all do it together. And I was like: ďOh! Letís make an EP!Ē Because thatís my answer to everything: letís write songs together. I love collaboration. That was kind of like the beginning for me to have these creative experiences and justÖfun.

SOAK: Speaking of collaboration, whatís going on with ďMixed Tape?Ē
BL: Itís done but itís not mixed yet. Hopefully it will come out later in the year. Itís kind of cool, because I got people to sing words that they wouldnít normally sing. Note: Mixed Tape is a mix of Benís friends playing his music.

SOAK: Such as?
BL: For Folds I wrote this kind of homoerotic song about listening to the radio and feeling sexy. He found it very uncomfortable.

SOAK: Have you ever pissed any of your family or friends off with something youíve written?
BL: Yeah, Iím sure I have. I remember a few incidents over the years where people would come to me and say, ďgosh, I donít know why you wrote that.Ē And I think sometimes they donít understand that a song is just a moment. It doesnít necessarily have to sum up some kind of comprehensive issue youíre talking about. And more and more, I feel like the songs come from somewhere beyond, anyway. So sometimes you just have to serve them and really not get too concerned with how people are going to respond to you.

SOAK: Otherwise youíre censoring your process.
BL: Right. And youíve got to be a little bit protective of that and believe in it.

SOAK: How come the Ataris took a shot at you in their song ďBen Lee?Ē

I never met someone so jaded
Your music's really over rated
Nothing but a lot of pretentious noise
I know that Claire Danes is your chick
To me you're just some ugly prick

BL: I donít know. Apparently, I met them and they didnít like me. I donít know, people take shots at you. That seems to be part of the process of living. If youíre a musician or something, and come from such a public forum.

SOAK: Are you not returning serve?
BL: Well, I donít even know who they are.

SOAK: Maybe theyíre trying to start up an east/west rap-type feud.
BL: Maybe. But my dreams are too big to worry about having feuds.

SOAK: Why do you make music?
BL: I think what really drives me today is that itís my way of helping, you know what I mean? Like the world has a lot of problems. People are sad, get depressed, they suffer a lot. And I know when I play live, I just try to bring them some joy and bring them a bit of hope.

SOAK: Does music have the power to change people on a conscious level? Or is the transformation subconscious?
BL: Itís so beyond our understanding. Itís like a vibration, and your whole body starts changing and opening up. I canít even explain it. Itís so beyond intellectual capacity to understand. But faith, like somebodyís faith in what theyíre doing, is totally contagious. I think thatís how I started writing Catch My Disease. Because it kind of is like a disease; the joy that comes from creation. Itís like a fungus.

SOAK: A fungus? In a good way.
BL: Right. Iím Ben Lee and Iím an emotional fungus.

SOAK: But I bet the chicas still worship you. Whatís the best line youíve heard from a groupie?
BL: Oh, man. UmÖ(several moments float by) Some of them, justÖI kind of like it when the girls are straightforward. And, you know, youíre leaving and, ďOkay, look: Why donít you come back with us and you can have sex with two beautiful women and have a good time and then be in bed by three?Ē And, you know, whether you take them up on it or not, itís just nice to know that that degree of honesty still exists.

SOAK: Yeah: If youíre a rock star!
[Lee laughs at the truth of the moment.]

SOAK: And so the dating life is going pretty well?
BL: Itís kind of like, itís musical.

SOAK: Musical chairs?
BL: No, no. My commitment is primarily to music. Aside from frivolous things that happen in your mid-20s and playing rock ní roll, thereís not a whole lot of room in this instant for a partner in there. I look forward to one day settling down, but Iím on a mission. Iíve got to give it my all right now.

SOAK: What about musical influences?
BL: When I was a little kid it was like Michael Jackson, Tiffany, Pet Shop Boys, you know, stuff that was on the radio all the time. My older sister used to listen to Roxy Music, Fleetwood Mac and Bowie, stuff like that. And then I got into Motley Crue, and Guns and Roses and Nirvana.

SOAK: And Jack ní the Beanstalk.
BL: I used to sing it all the time. Once in kindergarten, one of the teachers had some kind of emergency and left me in charge of the class. So, when the parents came to pick us up, I was standing on a desk, doing all the characters, the whole thing from beginning to end.

SOAK: Whatís the key to keeping your creativity flowing?
BL: I guess itís just not looking at it as a thing thatís separate to the rest of my life. Like, for me, everything is creative, every act. The way you eat, the way you walk, the way you dream. And for me, the more I put into that, and the more attentive I am, the things Ė like ideas and songs Ė flow naturally.

SOAK: What is surrender about for you?
BL: Itís just about the flow of things. I always think of that Einstein quote: that one of the fundamental things a human being has to decide is whether we live in a friendly or a hostile universe. And I believe we live in a friendly universe. I believe the way things are goingÖitís trying to teach us something. Itís trying to elevate us. And that most of our problems come from resisting. So, for me, surrender is trying to get back in sync with what path Iím meant to be on.

SOAK: You once said you were either Godís gift to music or a phony who should be shot. Who are you today?
BL: Well, I donít think I should be shot. But I donít think Iíd ever come out and say such arrogant things as I did in the past. To me, more and more (I donít believe Iím Godís gift to music), but I believe I have something that I can do that no one else can do. I believe I am doing something unique and for me thatís reason enough to keep going.

SOAK: And in 2003 you told the Boston Globe: ďI just want to tour. I want to remind people Iím alive.Ē
BL: Well maybe they know Iím alive now. I guess I want more than just to tell them Iím alive now. Hopefully I can remind them that theyíre alive. Thatís the new mission.

SOAK: Weíre all in this together.
BL: Exactly.

Writer Rick Cipes wishes he was a rock star -- or at least he could get sloppy seconds from them! Check out theguyreport.com for more.

Keywords: Ben Lee, alternative, rock, music, band, artist, Bens
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