(Photo by Drew Reynolds)
Feb 18, 2021
Americana through a Brooklyn filter
With his first solo album, Brooklyn-born producer and bandleader Ben Rice contemplates a borough he doesn't always recognize
When the coronavirus shut down the live music industry down last spring, Ben Rice’s plans for producing and touring in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York were put on ice. Which turned out to be a blessing: A global pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to come face to face with his own songwriting.
“After sitting at home for like, a month, I started getting inspired to make my own music,” he tells Brooklyn Magazine over the phone from his home in Ditmas Park. “I’ve got this studio sitting there that nobody else can go in.”
So Rice masked up while the rest of the world stood still.
“I just let my mind run wild,” he says, noting he already had a few songs on the back burner, but no specific plan when he sat down to work. “I wound up having something that felt complete, that felt really important to me at this stage of my life, and I wanted to release it as an album and share it.”
The result is “Future Pretend,” technically Rice’s solo debut, which will be released on February 19. It builds on his garage rock roots, fusing blues, indie pop, and punk intensity. The result mixes the swagger of Oasis, the retro-eccentricity of the Strokes, and the American romance of Tom Petty. The bedrock of Brooklyn indie is here, but as the title implies, Rice has one eye on the horizon.
The video for “Taste Like Sugar,” filmed at Rice’s Brooklyn apartment, was made by a refreshed artist who’s comfortable in his skin, yet keen to try new things.
“I stopped thinking in the context of ‘well, does it fit this genre?’ or ‘does this make sense from a business standpoint?’,” he says. “I just really wanted to make something that felt like the city that I grew up in.”
“Future Pretend” searches for that version of Brooklyn. Though its first line is “I don’t recognize my city,” it isn’t a nostalgia record; it feels like a New Yorker trying to find his place as the city changes around him.
Portrait of the musician as a young man
If you were a musician recording a few tracks at Clinton Hill Recording Studios in 2003, you might have been surprised to see a teenage Ben Rice there.
But Rice was born and raised in Park Slope and Ditmas Park. He made his first four-track recordings here at age 12. The borough practically rings in his ears. And the Clinton Hill studio gig quickly became more than a summer job. It turned into a calling.
“I like a lot of different kinds of music,” says Rice now. “And I like to work on a lot of different kinds of music. … As a producer you can kind of go in and be the fifth member of the band or, for a solo artist, their counterpart in a project.”
Ask Rice about collaborating and he might start with Surefire. From 2003-’09 Rice fronted the indie band, whose garage rock sound got them signed to Warner Music Group. His next project, Blackbells, got good radio play, but couldn’t find a place in the changing scene. By 2012 Rice devoted himself to production, building Degraw Sound, a recording studio in Gowanus.
Ask him about Gowanus and he’ll tell you that staying close to home is important.
“I love Brooklyn,” he says over the phone. “I love that there’s so many different kinds of scenes within it. I think that whatever kind of music you’re into, you can find people here that are into that as well.”
Rice has worked with everyone from Norah Jones to the Jonas Brothers; he’s partnered with the Smithsonian. But until now, there was one person he’d ignored: himself.
After returning from a month-long production project in Texas two years ago, Rice began to notice subtle and not-so-subtle changes in his old stomping grounds.
“There used to be Brownstones over here and now…what is that massive crater in the ground?” he says, describing his walks around Gowanus. “It was half ‘wow, I literally don’t recognize my city’ but also me realizing that’s probably how everyone has felt through the course of history in New York.”
Still, Rice says he owes much to Brooklyn, no matter how it looks. He’ll always find new stories to tell here.
“I wanted to write about things that I knew. I didn’t want to write about things that I was just going to be making up. As I’ve spent my entire life in Brooklyn, it felt like a good thing to write about.”
“Future Pretend” is an Americana record for New Yorkers, a resilient, sentimental look backwards and forwards. The perspective isn’t just for country-dwellers, Rice says. Brooklyn is long overdue for the treatment.
“One of my favorite things to do in New York is to go on, like, pizza expeditions. Just walk around Brooklyn and go to these places that have been making the greatest pizzas in the world for decades. And to me, that’s Americana. And going to a place like the parade grounds, that’s Americana. All of those places to me, are as much Americana as being from the countryside.”