With a voice like scorched earth and a guitar played as though its strings were ablaze, Benjamin Booker has taken the blues straight to hell. His songs, mini-dramas of sun-bleached rock, trade on the old-time traditions of players like Son House, Lowell Fulson, and Brownie McGhee. Booker’s approach is to push the perimeters of the blues to its most uncomfortable and perilous extremes, affording his music the cautious air of danger. His self-titled debut, released in 2014 on Rough Trade records, is a revelation of pantheon dimensions, a temple of ancestral and present influences which has carried Booker’s collection of work to esteemed heights.
Much of the album features rhythms built on the rickety backs of jumping guitar lines which threaten to collapse; numbers like the frantic rush of “Always Waiting” and the chancy swing of “Wicked Waters” plumb the wreckage of trashed pop tunes and turn up gold. On slow-cooking ballads like “Slow Coming” and “I Thought I Heard You Screaming”, the shyly observed drama of Booker’s surroundings are relayed with biting and restrained contempt. It’s been a long while since an artist has made music that can simply be felt and the singer’s strange and blood-tipped impressions are beautifully and majestically transmitted into song.
A reticent young man with a dry sense of humour, Benjamin Booker answers PopMatters’ 20 Questions.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Patti Smith, Just Kids.
2. The fictional character most like you?
3. The greatest album, ever?
Return to Cookie Mountain, Disintegration, or Unknown Pleasures
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek by a lot.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Sashimi! Preferably salmon.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud of making it through the last tour without a guitar getting completely ruined. There’s usually a night when things get rowdy and one goes down.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Having a good memory.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
John A. Williams’ Clifford’s Blues.
10. Your hidden talents ....?
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Make time to do things you enjoy. Don’t work too hard.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
An ‘80s Peugot bike. I’m on my second one. The first did not make it through my first Mardi Gras.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but now.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ....?
Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. I worked at a coffee spot before this whole music thing.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I don’t really have a preference. I can usually adapt to any place.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I love you Beyoncé.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Sleeping and catching up with friends.