Ben Frost 2024
Photo: Topper Komm / Mute Records

A Kind of Beauty: An Interview With Ben Frost

Ben Frost, Australia’s premiere avant-garde composer, unleashes his first solo album in seven years by returning to the pitch-black metal he loves so dearly.

Scope Neglect
Ben Frost
1 March 2024

Ben Frost is no stranger to extreme sounds. For over 20 years, he’s been exploring the interplay between heavy metal, noise, punk rock, modern classical, and minimalism. He finds the beauty in savagery, stitching together the sound of feral wolves and toxic volcanic winds into long-form ambient neoclassical sound sculptures. He also provides otherworldly, unsettling soundtracks for dark, surreal dramas like Netflix’s Dark and 1899.

On his newest album, Scope Neglect, Ben Frost returned to his roots in heavy metal and the visual arts to produce a record of surprising elegance and subtlety. Recorded in Berlin at Candy Bomber Studio with engineer Ingo Krauss, Scope Neglect finds frost collaborating with fellow Australians Greg Kubacki of Car Bomb and Liam Andrews of My Disco to produce an LP that’s as much avant-techno as power chord.

We caught up with Ben Frost in New York as he was preparing to embark on an international tour to talk about Scope Neglect, what differentiates a solo album from a collaboration, working with Kubacki and Andrews for the first time, and the subtle Melbourniansim that unites them.

You’re pretty prolific, but this is your first solo album in seven years. How do you differentiate between material for a solo record and the other projects you work on?

I suppose the problem kind of starts and ends with energy levels. There is not an infinite source of energy for me in writing music. Inevitably, working on collaborative projects, whether a film or some other form of collaboration, tends to eat up a lot of my battery. I think I became very aware that after several years of working on film projects, my interest in writing music was sort of waning. In a way, it felt like I was becoming too comfortable. It was becoming too easy not to work on music for music’s sake. I really felt the need to draw a line in the sand and say to myself, “You need to go back to work. You need to dig deeper.”

It was tough, man. There were several years that really felt like a sort of death throes for a lot of what had come before. For me, writing music and making albums should be hard. It should feel like a challenge to myself. Once I got that all out of my system, the challenge to me was to do something with these components. And to make something a little more lean and a little more opaque in terms of where it’s coming from and even where it’s going. Something that could exist in a universe of its own. That really played on my mind throughout the process. I’ve not tried to explain things to myself or anyone else. Instead, I tried to allow this music to really exist in its own world.

How different is it working on more open-ended material than material with pre-existing visuals? Is there any overlap? Is there any visual component that emerges as the work progresses?

If you’re talking about visual components like film, there is something highly addictive about working on a movie with a brilliant narrative. It’s a much easier way of writing music as there’s something to lean on. There’s a sort of framework for it. There are rules. It’s a kind of spatial space to work in.

Working in this creative vacuum, where you can do anything, is a scary place to go into. It’s even scarier when you spend less time working in that space.

What are some things that you like about working with sound as a medium compared to other mediums? Are there any similarities?

For me, sound is a profoundly visual medium. It always has been. Like there’s some sort of amorphous space between melody and harmony and texture and shape. There’s a visual quality to the way I work with music.

Mostly, it’s a reductive process. There’s a certain sort of proportion or balance I’m looking for in the way things react – the way things move against one another or the space around them, the sharpness of an edge, or the quality of the material itself. Like “is this a texture, a rough surface sort of thing?” Or “is this sort of oily or plastic-y? Is there a Y-axis, or is it moving there?” Or is it more horizontal with a sense of liquidity and flow? These are all things I think about and spend time adjusting in a really instinctual way.

I suppose at the end of the day, I’m just looking for a kind of beauty. I think that I’m honestly just trying to make something beautiful.

What does that intuitive decision-making process look like?

When there’s nothing I want to change, when there’s nothing left, that’s annoying me. That’s the thing I’ve spent the longest time thinking about when I’m talking to other musicians, especially when I’m working with people from a composition background, where you’re working with a process where you’re placing notes on a page to be transmitted to a group of musicians. Presumably, what you’re looking for when they’re performing is if they’re going to play it back the way you hear it in your head. It’s never really been that way with me.

Instead, it’s more “I want this element, and I want this element to exist in the same space.” But how they behave in relation to one another is a question mark until I have a chance to capture and record it. Then, the process becomes reductive in that it’s about refining. It’s like a snapshot of a kinetic action.

How do you decide which initial elements to work with?

For the last several years, I’ve been looking for music that deals with the mechanics of metal. I would never really hear it work in a way that seemed to work. There’s a lot of metal that carries a lot of extraneous information. So this album is sort of setting up a situation where I could bring in a specialist like Greg (Kubacki). It’s a study of a different approach to music that is very, very foreign to me.

I think the thing I’m always looking for is a situation that puts me on my back foot. I’m most engaged when I’m uncomfortable with the framework. I feel like it’s my job as an artist to keep pushing that envelope and create a framework for the things.

How did the collaboration with Greg Kubacki come about?

It’s pretty straightforward. I just wrote to him. I noticed Car Bomb were fans of mine, and I was very much a fan of theirs. I just wrote and said I was starting to work on a new record and asked if he wanted to be involved. To my great joy, he was up for it. The first time we ever met was in the studio—day one recording, never met before. It was a big risk—a big risk on his side.

I’m really happy it worked out for us. The first challenge is being willing to do something that results in failure.

What about Liam Andrews?

We go way back. We’re from the same hometown. Melbourne. My Disco are one of my favorite bands. Irrespective of our common ground in all of us being Australian and from Melbourne, I think they would still be one of my favorite bands. Even if I had never met them, there’s a way that they operate that I find inspiring and increasingly so with time. There’s this really ego-less collaboration between the three of them. It results in this music that’s constantly searching, constantly challenging itself – and it’s all self-imposed.

I have a lot of respect for this guy—a lot of love.

Did he bring any of that energy to this record? 

The interesting thing there is the contrast between him and Greg. Greg was kind of an unknown quantity to me as a human being. We’ve gotten to know one another much better since then. We’re quite good friends now. But at that point, he was quite a mysterious force.

I think with Liam, in some ways, the opposite is true. I feel like I’ve never had to explain myself to him. He has a kind of intuition I’ve never encountered before. Honestly, maybe there’s something that is genuinely, fundamentally Australian or Melbournian because it’s really kind of uncanny how much there’s a kind of unspoken language there.

What kind of preparations did you make for Scope Neglect

There is a lot of anxiety in inviting a musician like Greg to the studio. It’s all goodwill, but it’s a nerve-wracking scenario. I was very aware that this is a person used to working in a band context, with other musicians in the room. In this situation, there’s not a lot to lean into. So, I went into these sessions very purposefully. In some cases, I had entire orchestrations, with rhythm, drum beats, chord changes — things with a very clear and almost hamfisted arrangement or shape to them that he could lean into, that would make his playing more conversational.

Of course, I intended to delete all of that afterward, like removing the scaffolding. I knew that in order to conjure the thing, then I would have to build the foundational architecture that he would have to navigate through. When that’s removed, there’s a sense of space or kind of void created. There’s a lot of negative space in this music despite its ferocity or violence. I think that there’s a kind of beauty, a lot of air and breathing room in that negative space.

You’re about to go on tour for this record. What have preparations been like? What’s the live incarnation going to be like?

In some ways, it’s like reverse engineering. Ordinarily, you’ve got a band, and you play songs, and then you record them. Whereas we started with the recording. Now it’s like how do we take this idea and extend it further? There have been a lot of growing pains trying to work out how to make this kind of work live in a way that’s interesting for us. I have no interest in just copying and pasting what’s on the record.

I’m excited to play more shows and see where it goes.