Losing Faith and Finding Joy: The Ecstatic Musical Journey of Ben Seretan
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Seretan recently released Youth Pastoral, possibly his most cohesive work yet. PopMatters spoke to him about his multifaceted musical gifts and his unique artistic path.
28 February 2020
"Filled to the brim with something fine / One spark and I explode." – Ben Seretan, "1 Of"
Near the top of Ben Seretan's Bandcamp page, in all caps, are two words: ECSTATIC JOY. For Seretan, those two words are something of constant goal. "It's a pretty good description of what I want to achieve," he said. "At first, I thought that was just a musical thing, a way that I wanted to describe my sound, but I found that it's what I want from all things. It's that kind of turned-on, vibrating, electric, fill-all-the-molecules-in-the-room kind of thing. It's just a phrase that really captures what I'm trying to get at."
For Seretan, it's been a long, winding journey that's led him to his wide and varied musical life in New York. Growing up in Orange County, California, his love of music stemmed from his Christian background. In addition to piano lessons and playing cello in the elementary school orchestra, Seretan explained that his most formative memories are from playing in church. "My mom and sister sang in the choir when I was very young," he explained. "I have a lot of very strong memories of hanging out in the choir green room listening to my mom singing." Later he began playing music in his church's worship band, which he described as "PowerPoint church – lavalier mics, Megatron screens, that kind of vibe." But his loss of faith in Christianity came hard and fast, in a moment he describes vividly in the song "Holding Up the Sun", on his latest album, Youth Pastoral: "In the ocean / With my clothes on / In late summer / Hands on my head / Hands on my back / Hold me down."
Seretan insists that the loss of faith described in the song – on an album filled with references to his fallout with Christianity – is quite literal. "It happened on the occasion of an ocean baptism," he said. "That was really a turning point. And it coincided with a time in my life when there was a lot of change." The divorce of his parents was the first major step in the rupture of his relationship with the church. His mother was in a high-level administrative position in the church, and the family was essentially shunned after the divorce. "It didn't feel right to continue going to church," he said. "And I wasn't really feeling the faith anymore, either. I always found the community that I loved in the church – I felt like I was part of something there. Then I found that I could be part of other things too that were cooler and more interesting.
While attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Seretan began making frequent trips to New York City and formed the post-punk outfit Duchampion – a band he talks about fondly, describing them as "the tightest shit ever." Working as a guard at the Noguchi Museum in Queens inspired what he called "a crazy period of writing. My job was just to stand in a room filled with these beautiful, exquisite sculptures. I had tons and tons of time, so I was constantly writing." It was due to all this writing time that Duchampion's EP was written and recorded so quickly. Eventually, Duchampion broke up, but Seretan kept writing.
"The first few things I put out on my own – I was very formalist about it," he explained. "I wanted it to be only voice and electric guitar. I released a trio of EPs called New Music, New Space, and New Song. Those are all just guitar and voice in various combinations." But his love of ambient, drone music has always been a part of his sound, creating something of a bifurcated approach. He likens the conflation of these two distinct styles to the work of painter Gerhard Richter. "He has these photorealistic, gauzy paintings," Seretan said. "But he also does these color schmears – literally just spreading paint on a canvas to make these giant gestural colors. They're both instantly recognizable as his work. I thought of songs as a sort of photo-realistic approach, and then the drones are sort of an abstract approach."
In addition to what could be classified as "traditional" writing and recording of albums and EPs, Seretan likes to take a unique approach to performances and performance spaces. He attended a residency program in Sitka, Alaska, for art, writing, performance, and science-based practices, to practice playing for longer and longer stretches each day. By the seventh week in the program, he was playing four and a half hours straight with no breaks, every morning. "They gave me this crazy building to work in that used to be a steam power plant," he said, "so I had this big open room with just a single large guitar amp in it, and I would just sit there and play for hours and hours." That was at the height of Alaskan summer, with lots of daylight. "It was really fascinating to start at a certain point in the day, play, and then emerge into another part of the day." That was the inspiration for his series of "Sunrise" shows in Brooklyn.
The first installation of the series took place in an apartment that was part of the now-shuttered community art space known as Silent Barn. "It had a skylight, so it was a really beautiful experience," Seretan said. "It would start in the dark, and by the end, it was morning, and then we'd all go out for eggs and coffee."
One of the musicians who collaborated with Seretan during these shows was Katie Von Schleicher (of Wilder Maker), who describes Seretan's music as "ecstatic, experimental and yet somehow terrestrial and very American. Ben was doing drone sets with guitar before it was ubiquitous." As a collaborator, she describes him as "very enthusiastic and fully encouraging. I can relate to this, but it strikes me that his approach is creating space for the things he wants to feel by making music. As a collaborator, he sets the tone very intentionally and invites everyone to find their own way inside of it."
Musician Shannon Fields (of Stars Like Fleas and Leverage Models) has collaborated with Seretan in the past, and while he would not describe Seretan's music as unique, he feels that's part of what's so attractive about it. "I think auteur values like radical originality and progressive choices are beside the point with his music," Fields said. "Not that he's not capable. His music is comfortable like a worn chenille sofa you spent your childhood on, playing video games and dropping popcorn and pennies behind the cushions. Disarmingly so, in a way that allows you to experience this radical sincerity in his music in an easier way."
Eventually, Seretan's sunrise shows became grueling due to the stamina required not only from the musicians but also the audiences. "Lately, I've learned to ask people of less," he said. "I think I'm more interested in making things accessible to people. I learned that people are multifaceted, and music is one small component of life on earth, and I think I want to give more than I want to request from people. It's fun to dare people to do something crazy, but I think I can better serve my community and the people I want to have in my community if I make it easier to be a part of it."
Other unique venues Seretan has performed in include the National Gallery of Albania, as well as a dangerously crowded pop-up roller rink at Flux Factory courtesy of Springboard Collective. He describes the latter gig as fun but a bit scary. "I like to play in a way where it feels like things could fall apart at any minute – this was taking that to the nth degree," he said, laughing.
On Youth Pastoral, his first "album of songs" since the release of Bowl of Plums in 2016, he comes to terms with his Christian upbringing in both literal and figurative ways. The ocean baptism lines in "Holding Up the Sun" and the song "Am I Doing Right by You," with its repetitious mantra, "Oh my God," are examples of him approaching the subject matter quite literally. "In one sense, God is dealt with directly on the record," he said. "In another sense, God is kind of explored or found to be a potent metaphor in other situations." He describes "Am I Doing Right by You" and "Straight Line" as two songs that are like mirror images of each other. "'Am I Doing Right by You' is a song that's ostensibly about God, but it also freakishly describes a very troubled relationship I was in, where I found myself turning that person into a god figure. 'Straight Line' is the opposite in that it's clearly about a relationship, but it also could be about turning God into a lover."
"I was trained from a very early age to feel bad about feeling good," he said. "I try to draw a parallel between the ecstasy of a religious service and the ecstasy of a dance floor, pretty explicitly on the album's first song ("1 Of"). I think I just get way deeper and way more joy out the secular experience because when you're out dancing, you aren't made to feel guilty about it."
Besides being something of a cathartic document of Seretan's relationship with religion, Youth Pastoral is also steeped in emotional scars that only came to light after the album's recording. Assisting him on vocals throughout the album is sculptor and friend Devra Freelander, who lost her life last summer when she was struck by a truck while cycling in Brooklyn. The album is dedicated to her memory.
"I've had very conflicted feelings about including my friend's voice in all of this, and I was very scared of what it would be like to sing those songs in a room with people who knew her," said Seretan. "It was incredibly intense – a lot of catharsis and feelings of, 'man, she would've been so happy to be part of this.' I just have to say that the people who I play with and the people who are in our wider music community here and even the people I don't know who have come out and listened to the record – people are responding to it in such proper and dignified ways, and I'm very, very grateful. I'm extremely pleased."
The current quarantine has not affected any touring plans behind Youth Pastoral since Seretan's day job makes extensive touring or gigs outside of the New York area difficult to coordinate. And while he was initially doing quarantine livestream shows in his apartment with his roommates – composer/percussionist Matt Evans and rapper/noise artist OHYUNG – he recently drove to Ohio to spend time with his partner, a liberal arts professor who lives there. He's still in Ohio, but he hopes to keep the positive vibes of those Brooklyn living room experiences going in some form or another. His label, Whatever's Clever, organized an all-day slate of livestream sets on 1 May 1 via the label's Twitch channel. Additionally, Whatever's Clever is still pushing out new music, including Evans' new album, New Topographics, and the latest from Adeline Hotel later this month.
"We have to keep swinging," Seretan said. "The truth is, it was always this way to some degree - there are always struggles and calamities. Sometimes there are deaths in the immediate circle we must contend with. But we gather as we can, and we keep swinging."
- Ben Seretan: Youth Pastoral (album review) - PopMatters ›
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