Jun 21, 2018
Benjamin Lazar Davis On His New Album Nothing Matters
Photos Zach Gross
Benjamin Lazar Davis’ music has done something that most music is not able to do: It’s gotten me to sit down and write. That’s the best compliment I can give to an artist. Ben has managed to create a record, Nothing Matters, that truly captures the essence of being alone in the best way possible. Recording the entire record without any external distractions, Ben maps and treks through internal abyss and offers it to us to listen to and, if we’re lucky, feel on a personal level, alone, in our very own way.
Nothing Matters. What was the inspiration behind this album?
Ben: I was on tour. I play with a lot of different artists. More and more I started to make money playing in other people’s bands. And more and more I had an equal place on the bill. I was more of an equal and less of a support, like with Joan As Police Woman. I think Joan was an inspiration. She believed in me, and I felt inspired to create my own thing.
There’s so much traveling and doing live shows; I just felt like I needed to make something of my own. I don’t know. There was something that was dragging me to be my own person, and to see what it’s like to make something on my own. Also, being out made me feel like I just needed to hole-up somewhere and not travel.
For this record… There was this other record I tried to make for this band, Cuddle Magic, that I’m in that happened before Ashes/Axes, which is our most recently released record.
I learned that having options was not good for creativity. Having all those different things was a lot. I could try out these different drums and all these different strings. So I thought, no. I’m only bringing these instruments: pump organ, mellotron moog, concert bells, CR78 drum machine, kick drum, snare drum, high hat, 2 acoustic drums which were my dad’s, upright bass, electric bass, and 2 microphones.
And this stuff you kept at your parent’s house?
Ben: Yea. Most of the stuff was mine and I brought it in. I kind of spent all the money I made on tour on the gear. I think it was like ten grand or something. I spent it on the recording gear, because I had all the instruments mostly. It was kind of the reaction to this other situation where I had too many options. Now I’m like, I’m going to do this and set a schedule for myself.
So you did three months on Long Island?
BLD: And a month in Saratoga.
Walk me through what only a month of creating an album looks like.
BLD: I had to get all of the recording done in that time but I knew I was going to mix it. I actually mixed it with a friend from high school, similar to when we were talking about people who inspired me. He lives in Brooklyn too, so I came back to Brooklyn after that. He and I did two weeks of mixing but that was spread out over a month and a half.
So the recording is all you: one month in your bedroom.
The bedroom you grew up in.
BLD: Yea. There were 2 bedrooms. The bigger one, I grew up in when I was little. I shared that with my sister. We had a tenant living in the smaller one. Then she moved out and I lived in the smaller one for a while. When my sister went to college I moved into the bigger one. I recorded in the bigger one.
Are you focusing more on solo work now versus collaborative projects, work with the band? How do you balance that out now?
BLD: I think I’ll do collaborations. I’m about to go on tour with Anna & Elizabeth, one of the artists that I produce. They’ll be touring the UK and those shows I’ll open. I’ll open for them and then play with them also. So a lot of double duty stuff. I’m also working on another record with Joan. Cuddle Magic has a record we’re planning on doing entirely in a bathroom. Hopefully we’ll do that this winter. I’m also excited about the next Benjamin Lazar Davis record. I’ll be working on that next year. To me doing my own thing feels so right.
I bring something to the collaborations differently now that I have my own thing. There was a struggle before. I wanted to put my print on all of these collaborations, which of course I always do. But now it feels like, because I have my own thing, it’s even more exciting collaborate. I would love to do Benjamin Lazar Davis more but I don’t ever want to stop collaborating.
What’s the message that you hope people take away from this new album?
BLD: I feel like everyone should take away from it whatever they take from it. For me I feel like there’s was no kind of intention. My vibe and essence are sown into the record, the DNA of the record. The emotional quality is there from as well. What about you? What do you take away from it?
When I lived in Atlanta, there’s a radio station I’d listen to whenever I wanted to work on my book. It’s the M83 radio station on Pandora. All the songs with sound similar to M83 played on that station. I would literally write through without paying attention to what’s playing but also really paying attention to it. I was always put in a space where I’m able to write and the hours would go by. Everything would flow out of me. That’s where your music puts me–in that kind of space. I find sometimes that, in writing, I think too much. It’s nice when I have those external sources to help me flow through it.
BLD: That’s great. I feel happy when I can make something that inspires other people to make art.
Is there a moment that you can look back on and say, that’s the first time I realized my work meant something to someone other than myself?
BLD: Hmm. That’s a good question. My parents were very supportive growing up. My brother. I’ve done a lot of co-writing with him, even back to when we were really really little. I think my work meant something to my dad and my brother in terms of their excitement to make music with me. You can hear it in their voices. There’s this one song where my dad is playing the piano and I’m singing, and I’m singing in fake English accent. I can hear my dad coaching me on where to go on a track. I know it means something to him. And I don’t feel like I’m making music for other people when I’m making it, though people really appreciate and enjoy my music. I feel like the truest form of art gets made when you’re making it for yourself. And if the art that you’re making for yourself seems to align with a lot of people’s taste, then there’s this true thing. For me I feel like I should be able to make my best music when I’m trying to please myself. I’m the only person that can really know what I think.
So music runs in the family?
Ben: Yea. My dad’s a musician. My grandpa’s a musician. And he was a dentist, my grandpa. He played Classical piano, but improvised. You think of Classical music as something that’s written out. He [grandpa] would improvise, in Classical style, on piano. My dad started playing music at an early age–breathe instruments, like clarinet. He played a lot of Dixie Land music; and early swing music on a tenor banjo, kind of like Louis Armstrong. He’s older now. And books a festival that happens in Saratoga, Springs. It’s based on contra dancing, which is square dancing and other forms of dancing.
When you go back and listen to your music, where does it take you?
BLD: As far as this record, it takes me back to my parent’s house and making the record and hanging out with my parents after making the record. All the tribulations of loading the bass cabinet up the stairs. When I first came to Saratoga my siblings and their children were there. My brother’s there helping me take stuff up the stairs. [laughs] It’s not like I’m listening to the record and thinking about this stuff in details. But these are fond memories: being sick. The last song on the record I woke up with a sore throat and I was like, fuck it; I’m singing this anyway. There’s lots of memories from making it.
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