Australian-born singer-songwriter Ben Lee issues his new album, Quarter Century Classix, on 22 November. The collection features covers of songs Lee first heard in his formative years from Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Daniel Johnston, the Breeders, Built to Spill, Superchunk, Pavement, and others.
Joining the musical adventurer in this endeavor are Mike Watt (Minutemen), Maria Taylor (Azure Ray), William Tyler, Petra Haden Julianna Barwick, Mary Lattimore, and Joey Waronker and more. Lee has already premiered his cover of Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane”, directed by Jake Fogelnest, who served as host of the New York public access turned MTV cult hit TV show Squirt TV in the mid-1990s. That video features the film of Lee in his teens as well as current footage.
Part of his desire to make the album, he says, was to celebrate the songwriters of the early 1990s, most of whom have never broken into the mainstream. Built to Spill’s “Car” and Guided By Voices’ “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” are rendered with a newness that demonstrates not only Lee’s appreciation for the originals but his ability to transform the material into his own. The material is never overly-reverential and yet is deeply moving as we hear them in their new settings.
With previous albums such as Ben Lee Sings Songs about Islam for the Whole Family, a cover of Against Me!’s New Wave album and other, unexpected turns, Lee remains an artist who never trods the expected path, something he demonstrates with commitment and affection on Quarter Century Classix.
Speaking with PopMatters, Lee recounts his early days in the music business, as a member of the band Noise Addict, rubbing elbows with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo as well as his deep appreciation of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.
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What was the inspiration for this album?
I was stuck in a hotel room in Chicago with some edibles during the polar vortex. I made my first record, Grandpaw Would, in ’93 or ’94 in Chicago. I was thinking about that point in my life, the music that I loved, and what the music I loved at that age, 14 or 15, meant. It goes into your DNA. I started thinking about how, if it would have been 1990 and we were talking about music from 25 years before that would have been 1965: Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Beach Boys, music that has become canonized. But because music has become so niche and splintered into genres and subgenres, the music that my friends and I loved as teenagers is not considered classic. I wanted to make a record that treated this music as canonized classics. That’s what it is for a lot of people my age.
Were these songs that you’d played while sitting around the house?
They were not songs that I had ever physically played, but they were songs I knew like the back of my hand as a fan. I started sketching them out a little bit. It all happened so quickly. It’s funny when you’re a fan of a song on such a deep level. Once you figure out how to play it, it’s not like you’re looking at every lyric and trying to figure out what it is. You know what it is. I sketched it out in those few days in that hotel room, then got back to L.A. and started bringing in friends who felt simpatico with the project.
I was surprised by the momentum it took on in terms of how many people felt it was something really needed for them. I’ve gotten a lot of really nice emails and messages from people my age who have said, “Oh my god, this is like a mixtape I made in 1993.”
Maybe the fans of these bands are a little bit underserved in terms of a conversation about what this music means to us.
I’m taken back to when I was a college student living in my first apartment. This was the music that was around me every day.
For me, these were singles I was buying on import in Australia, or they were on mixtapes. When I look at who I am as a human being now and the kind of life choices I made and have continued to make on a daily level, they have to do with my sense of really believing that the weirdos still should inherit the earth. All of that was formed from those songs.
That’s one of the gifts that music gives. It’s not just about taste. It’s about life.
I know. A lot of this music was not made by the most healthy people psychologically. Indie rock in the ’90s was not known for being free of irony or condescension. The real gift is that it was intelligent, free-thinking, and had a sense of humor about itself. It was passionate without being sentimental. I think that’s a lot of what I always wanted to carry forward in music and art. We should be able to evoke emotions without being corny. That would be the cardinal sin of the early ’90s. Whatever needed to be conveyed, there had to be a way to convey it. Don’t use the trope. Use something interesting. Use a new play on words.
You cover Guided By Voices, and I think of Robert Pollard as a shining example of one of those people who created a whole universe of his own with his music.
In a way, all those artists did. I think J Mascis did too. So did Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. I was watching this reality TV show that Adam Levine produced about songwriting called Songland.You have a generation of songwriters now, growing up, thinking, in a way, that hit songs are the only kind of songs you’re allowed to write. Even indie artists are trying to write hit songs all the time. Spotify hits. Trying to get on playlists. Grab you in the first 20 seconds. Songs with guest features.
In a way, it’s great because what the mainstream has become is more diversified. There are more weirdos in the mainstream. By the same token, there is a gentrification of everything fitting into this hit song format.
When you talk about Robert Pollard, it’s fascinating that he is not considered, by the mainstream, as one of the great American songwriters. He should be, but he doesn’t fit the mold of what a hit songwriter in American culture is at the moment. That’s part of what I wanted to celebrate too. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. These are classic songwriters even though they might not compete athletically the way that songs have to these days.
I’m told that Lee Hazlewood was one of those guys who felt that if one of his songs wasn’t a hit, it was a failure. It’s amazing when you consider how revered he is today.
It has become a bit like that again. People release one song at a time. If it doesn’t connect and become some sort of viral thing, it’s a failure. Did you see the video that Jake and I did for “Sugar Kane”?
The view count on it is not astronomical. It’s not like one of those YouTube videos of someone falling over. [Laughs.] But the passion that is being evoked in the people that are responding to it is incredibly satisfying. Me and Jake were talking about that. “Isn’t it funny to be so satisfied by something that, in numbers, has not done competitively well?” But it’s deliberately niche. The freedom to be deliberately niche is sort of like that punk rock aesthetic. It doesn’t have to be for everyone. Not everything you make has to be for everyone. It’s OK to make things for people who get it.
Photo: Cary Mosier / Courtesy of New West Records
You have a history with Sonic Youth, to say the least.
Thurston and Lee heard the Noise Addict demo before we’d done anything when they were touring Australia. They invited us to the studio to record for a day when they had a day off in Sydney. By the end of that recording session, they invited us to play a few live songs through their equipment. This was at Salinas, which held about 1,800 people. We had only played to about 18 people in our history. We were so little. We were 14. The mic was so low, Thurston got down on his knees and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the real Sonic Youth!” [Laughs.] That moment was what really introduced my music to the world. It’s something that I’ll always keep very dear to my heart. That was on their Dirty tour.
We didn’t stay in super-close contact, but it’s almost mythological, the importance that that band played not just in my life but in the lives of so many different alternative acts. They took on the role, in a good way, of gatekeepers of alternative culture and underground culture. They helped so many people. But it’s not just me. Look at Nirvana and Mudhoney and the Boredoms, all the bands Sonic Youth introduced to the world. They played that role with such dignity.
Before I heard them I was probably listening to a lot of heavy metal. But they were heavy too and arty and conceptual.
They were also psychedelic. I’d heard the Doors and Jimi Hendrix and those acts, by the time I’d heard them in the ’90s, it was almost like cliched forms of psychedelic rock. Whereas what Sonic Youth were doing seemed truly psychedelic. I did not know what was going on. It was noise and feedback, and then these melodies where Kim’s vocals would come out, and she wasn’t so much singing as speaking. I think the essence of where music and psychedelia truly interact is that it should take you somewhere truly unexpected. Sonic Youth were like our Grateful Dead.
You covered Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle”, and I’m assuming that when you recorded the album, Daniel was still alive.
I played with him on his last tour, and the experience of playing that song with him was something I was really grateful for because it was so meaningful for me. Just to get to play acoustic guitar behind Daniel was heaven. It came from that very real place. We ended up releasing it a couple of weeks after he died. It’s bittersweet when an artist like that passes on and you see the outpouring of love because it’s so great, it’s so wonderful to see. You realize how many people were inspired by someone. But you also wish it would have happened when that person was alive.
There were a couple of emails I wrote to people just expressing gratitude and fandom to certain kinds of fragile artists I’ve interacted with over the years. You realize that you have to say those things while people are around.
His level of expression was so profound.
Whatever problems he had, he didn’t let it touch the music. When I played with him, you could see that it wasn’t easy. But at the moment that he got on the mic to perform, he was Iggy Pop. He was 100 percent present in the song. I did a Morning Becomes Eclectic with him, and you can see him singing his ass off. The main thing I took away from him was, if you keep showing up to the song, that’s where you can really serve. He continued to do that.
Tell me about making your arrangements of these songs. It sounds very much like a Ben Lee record. Were there particular challenges that you faced?
It was not that hard. I only did songs if I could find my way in authentically. There was only one song that I started that I couldn’t really find a way to make it sound like me. That was “Carnival” by Bikini Kill. It didn’t sound authentic when I played it. I don’t know why. Once I sketched the song out and figured out how they worked, I forgot that they were covers. I just treated them as, “What’s the right thing for the song?”
Julianna Barwick, who I’d known for years, was excited to work with me. She came in and introduced me to William Tyler and Mary Lattimore. A lot of it was how I would treat a normal record: Who’s inspiring me? Who am I excited to play with? I remember hearing Woody Allen say that 90 percent of making a movie is casting. You cast the right people and let them do their thing. I’ve felt that with people performing on a record. If you have to give them too much direction, you probably haven’t chosen the right person. The right person gets in and delivers and does it because they get the song.
How do you feel about where this record fits with everything else that you’ve done?
What’s funny about this generation of music that I’m paying tribute to is that because that was my formative music, it was also something I had to push against at a certain point. With the joy of indie rock also came the constrictions. As I found myself wanting to experiment with different types of production and commercial goals and collaboration, then writing about spirituality, writing about psychedelics, all the things that I wanted to explore, I found that those were all things that were outside of what was expected within a certain culture.
I think that’s normal. Whatever scene you come up in, you have to burn bridges down a little bit and go, “Hang on, I’m my own man. I want to do what I want to do, not what Thurston Moore says is cool.” That’s part of growing up. You have to kill the Buddha in the road. The beautiful thing at the moment is going back, making peace, and paying tribute to those artists. I’m grateful. I really want to give back to all the artists I covered.
Sonic Youth and Sebadoh have shared stuff about this record on social media. I take it that they feel a degree of respect and honor in this process, and that is the ultimate goal of this. It takes a village to raise a kid. These are the artists that raised me.