Radical Face Takes Us to 'Therapy' (EP stream + interview)
Radical Face issues a thoughtful meditation on the process of getting to know one's self via Therapy and talks about letting go of trauma, the loneliness of knowledge, and what comes next.
Ben Cooper's latest EP as Radical Face is Therapy. The collection, which arrives April 26 via Bear Machine, is both a continuation and departure from his eight-year, three-part Family Tree series. Through those releases, he explored his complex family life, ultimately realizing that the material proved difficult to perform and difficult to live with.
Having relocated to Los Angeles after an intense court battle involving his family, Cooper soon began attending weekly therapy sessions. The process sparked his latest EP, resulting in a collection of songs that are thoughtful and which perfectly capture the precarious nature of opening one's soul and seeing what, if anything, is worth keeping and what must be cast away. At times cinematic but always honest and emotionally engaging, Therapy never overplays its emotional hand is all the more necessary for it.
Cooper recently spoke with PopMatters about the record's origins and, yes, his journey through therapy.
Was your move from Florida to Los Angeles in part a spark for this new material?
In 2015, I was part of a nine-month court case, in a lawsuit against my parents, where I was the lead witness. I took two kids into my home after that. It was a big, complicated mess. I got through it [but was] sort of dealing with things in a state of shock. Your body moves but you don't really know what you're doing at all. Once it all finished and the kids graduated high school and went off and did their own things, I didn't know what to do with myself.
So, I started moving. I moved six times in three years. I started going to therapy. I was trying to get back to being a musician after all of these things and the whole thing I'd been doing was going to therapy. I didn't have anything else to talk about.
During that year all I was talking about was what I was learning about in human psychology. I was trying to make sense of things. Originally, the EP was going to be called Verse-Chorus.I just wanted to see if I could write songs with choruses anymore. Part of the question was: What am I going to write about? I decided: No clever titles, no lofty stories. I decided I would write about what I was learning, as embarrassing as that was.
I'm fascinated with this idea of moving. I had a period in my life, several years ago, where I felt like I was moving about every six months or so.
Really? For no reason or nothing quite felt right?
I had a relationship end, then it was moving to a place to wait out the time until I could get to the next place.
[Laughs.] Did you have the same feeling I had? I kept feeling like everything was a hotel or an Airbnb. Or, like, I got less and less stuff every time that I moved. I realized that I didn't care very much about certain objects. It's nice, in a way, sort of freeing. Was it, "I don't really understand what a house is right now other than where you sleep?"
Very much so. There was a place that I was at a little over a year and around the time I decided that I was going to really put my roots down, the landlord informed me that it wasn't going to be available as a rental anymore. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Never mind! Teaches me to trust something!
[Laughs.] The feeling of the temporary, the feeling of, "What is home?" Some of that was the direct circumstance but some of that was who I was at that time. Was that the case for you? "I've just gone through this whole drama of this court case and I don't really know what it means to put down roots"?
Absolutely. My general understanding of home is one that I constantly go back to. I grew up in a really dysfunctional, huge family. When you have nine brothers and sisters in a two-bedroom house it's not really your house. I had a drawer with my clothes in it.
That was my space. At one point it wasn't even a whole drawer. It had a divider. At 14, I made the mistake of coming out to my very religious family. That didn't go well. I got kicked out. So, my teenage years were pretty unstable. I had good friends. I had places I could crash if I needed to. I lived with my dad, technically, but we don't get along. I don't think we've spoken in 20 years. Nothing about any of that had a sense of safety. To me, a concept of home was almost one of danger. Don't drop your guard.
I don't think I found a place that I felt pretty settled until I was about 30. I was in that house about two years and then my niece showed up and told me about all this stuff happening with my family [which led to the lawsuit]. It got bad enough that there were death threats. People were going to burn our house down. Right when I started to trust it, it fell apart. I feel like I'm starting to rebuild that thing but I notice that I'm weary. I still have this thing where I say, "This could disappear at any minute."
I feel like you captured a familiar feeling on the record: You need to break ties with people because they're unhealthy for you. You want to feel better but, at the same time, it's difficult because it's what you know.
It's something that's somewhat intrinsic to your world view. There's a piece of you that knows it's not good for you but this is where the 'The devil you know' concept comes from. Comfort is not actually about feeling good. It's just that you know what to expect. You're not as anxious. What you're talking about is removing something that's been there for so long. I definitely had some friendships and family members that I don't know I'll ever talk to again. For the most part, I shouldn't. But there's still that piece of me that almost feels guilty. Like I'm cutting out a piece of my own history. What does that mean? What is the void that that creates? [Laughs.]
The funny thing about working with a good therapist is that the initial phase of it is terrible. It's like a reframing of everything. There's a whiplash to that that I don't know how to explain unless someone's done it. At the same time, I wholeheartedly recommend it! [Laughs.]
It's weird. [With my family] they'd screw up sometimes and almost do the [good parent] thing on accident. "Oh, there it is! I just had to wait!" But in truth it was pretty negative. You start to understand why people use words like toxic.
There's also the worry that you'll change something so fundamental to yourself that you won't be the same person.
I was afraid that I would lose my sense of humor through therapy. I used it, in part, as a coping mechanism, but I was afraid that I wouldn't be funny after the process. "Is my therapist going to tell me that I can't be funny anymore?"
[Laughs.] I had this same thing. It's a deeply-held philosophy that the thing I can't laugh at is going to rule my life. If I can't laugh at it, it becomes a non-topic. It's like it takes as much energy to ignore something as it does to stare at something. I had this period where, honestly, I felt so bad for myself that nothing was funny anymore. That is what scared me, more than anything, into going to therapy. I'm perfectly fine with a dark sense of humor, I enjoy it. But when that went away, when I lost my gallows humor, I thought, "Oh no! What do I have left?" It was a relief when I found out in therapy that I could laugh about something horrible.
How often were you going to sessions?
Once a week, sometimes twice. For a while it was my only anchor, so I knew that Wednesday and sometimes Friday was going to be about that. It gave me a sense of a schedule. One of the things about making your living in music is that you just kind of cobble it together. I write music for ads, TV, whatever. But it's all chaos. There's no real comfort in it. You don't really know when you have work or if anyone likes it. It's all a giant question mark. I didn't know where I was going to live or what work I was going to do but I knew that I talked to my therapist on Wednesday. It became my center for about a year.
What about the music that you were making during that time? As you were working through questions of identity and so forth, was there ever any concern about the music not being the same?
Yes. But one thing with music is that I think being uncomfortable is a big part of it. Once I get to a point where I'm comfortable writing music it's because I've already written it and I can see the pattern. I always consider comfort a bad thing. I'm happiest when I step into something where I feel a little foolish or I feel like I might not be able to pull it off.
I knew that I couldn't go back to what I was doing because my head wasn't even there anymore. But a part of me was pretty excited about that. The last thing I did was eight years on the same topic. By the time I was done, I hated it anyway. [Laughs.] I don't like autobiographical music. I have no sympathy for myself as a character. I've tried to do it and I'll start making fun of myself. But I was such a mopey fuck for a year that it was fine. I didn't have anything else to think about.
So, new city. The family stuff was probably slowly receding. Did you have a support system? Was it easy to make friends?
[Laughs.] My boyfriend weathered all this shit with me. We'd only been together eight months when all this started.
I give him a lot of credit. I think a lot of people would have straight up run when all this started. "Hey, sorry. Can't come to dinner, I'm with the state attorney for three hours." And, "Oh, by the way, two kids are going to have to live in this house for a year-and-a-half." I give him a ton of credit for that. I knew one person in L.A., she was someone that I had grown up with. I really appreciated that she had not been in the city [during the trial]. She didn't know my family. I have the pleasure and displeasure of knowing some people for so long. A lot of my friends are people that I met in elementary school. They were almost enablers at times. During some of what went on, they'd say, "It can't be that bad [your family] are still nice people." I'd say, "No they're not. You don't know how dark this got." But the positive is that whatever social fears I used to have are totally eradicated. I'll talk to anyone. I don't care. I don't have that worry of embarrassment.
You mentioned a distaste for autobiographical music. Does that mean that the next thing you'll do will be some sort of fantasy-themed record or have you decided to embrace the autobiographical for now?
A bit of both. I've actually already sorted where it's headed. The record's going to be called Into The Woods. It came about from a therapy topic but not about myself. It's one that I'm completely fascinated by: The loneliness of knowledge. In developing your expertise in something you shrink your peer group. You write. You will develop an intimacy with language and an understanding of the uses of language so that your opinions get more pointed. The more sure you are of your viewpoint, you encounter fewer and fewer people who understand where you're coming from.
You'll be more personally fulfilled but likely a little lonelier. You'll see things that people are smitten with in the culture and probably think, "What fucking clown wrote this?"
I'm fascinated by this idea that once you go into the woods, even if you go back to where you came from, you're not the same. You can't return. And if you do you're likely to feel a true dissonance. Is it worth it?
After all the therapy and the experiences that led to it, have you thought about studying psychology more or have you considered it as a kind of alternative career path?
It's actually this weird backup plan. I have always enjoyed reading about brains. I like reading essays on neuroscience and about the physical machinations of empathy, what neurons go off? I find this stuff so fascinating. It's kind of this card in my back pocket. If I become so unpalatable that no one gives a shit what I'm making, I'll still make it. I like writing songs because of the process. You can never really conquer it. Answers are boring, I think. The endless question is why you can stay with something.
But I have psychology as a backup. If everyone says, "Fuck that guy" and blackballs me completely I would totally go and study psychology. You know how some countries have military conscription? I think we should have mandatory therapy from 18-20 and everyone has to deal with their bullshit. What would that society be like?