LA: The first time I heard your music was because I heard you were opening for Frank Turner on his most recent US tour. How did you meet Frank in the first place?
Ben: Me and Frank met wayyyy way back in the mists of time. It feels like a lifetime ago. It was probably only April 2006. From what I remember he was on his first proper tour of the UK since his split from Million Dead and a friend booked me and him on the same bill. We were on a few more bills by chance and then I guess I must have brainwashed the poor guy. He’s really good at keeping in touch so eventually we did more shows together on purpose this time and since then I’ve been hiding in his suitcase every so often. It’s all good fun. He’s one of the most genuine and down-to-earth people you could hope to meet in this industry and he has a lot of incredibly keen fans.
LA: How did the tour go? Were you surprised by the amount of Marwood fans at the shows? Are there any plans for an American invasion any time in the future?
Ben: The tour was astonishing. I was really surprised by how keen everyone was to get down to the shows in time for doors and how far a lot of people traveled. I live on an island where some people complain about having to drive to the next town over to see a show (20, 30 miles), so to meet people who think nothing of driving four, five, six hours in one direction just to catch a gig was an eye-opener. The support was very touching, and as I genuinely had no expectations going into the tour as it was my first in the USA, to have it pan out the way it did was really special. It definitely helps to be out on the road with such a professional and friendly bunch of people. FT’s band and crew are great, Off With Their Heads [main support] were excellent night after night and we also had my hometown hero Ben Morse out there to do photography and video stuff for Frank. It quickly became like a home away from home and it sucked to be over so soon. It’s something I’d like to do again, so I wouldn’t rule out an American invasion in the future, but it won’t happen for a while. Touring your country is, sad to say, probably one of the most expensive things any musician could ever do, so it’s something that needs careful planning and deep pockets. Otherwise I’d be on a plane tomorrow.
LA: Do you get homesick while you’re on tour? If so, is there anything you bring with you on the road to help you be less homesick?
Ben: I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, and whilst mentally I don’t miss home when I’m away, my body does go kinda crazy very quickly. Away from the schedule of day-to-day life, I forget to eat, and I don’t sleep enough, and that takes its toll quite quickly. Before any show, I’m normally a bag of nerves, so after three or four days of not looking after myself I can get pretty ill and whilst as such there’s nothing I can really take with me from home that’ll make me feel better, I know by now that I just need to power through any panic attacks, safe in the knowledge that it’s always fine in the end. And remember to GO TO BED.
LA: Traveling means a lot of down time (stuck in a car, a bus, a train, etc). What do you like to do to fill that time?
Ben: Well, it depends on how you get from show to show. The last tour I did in the UK to launch the album in June, I did the travelling mostly by train. That might sound nuts to someone who lives in a place with no real public transport (Florida, I’m looking at you..) but it’s cheaper than taking a car. When that’s your method of getting around there’s not a lot of downtime, but what time there is I like to listen to music and stare at the scenery. I’d recommend anyone take the train from York to Dundee via Edinburgh. The scenery on the way through is spectacular. Any time that I don’t spend listening to music, though, is normally spent in a daydream. It wasn’t until I sat down the other day and actually really thought about what I do with my time, that I realized I spend at least 50% of any given day thinking about stuff which plain doesn’t exist. I’m a grown man, you know.
LA: What kind of guitar do you play?
Ben: I currently have two guitars on the go: my lovely Simon & Patrick GT cutaway and a Saigon DM100e which they essentially gave me to take to the States, the idea of which (getting stuff for free) is crazy and something I’m not used to. It’s a really tough decision choosing between the two as they both have their quirks. The Saigon’s really easy to play all styles on, and the S&P sounds impeccable turned up loud, so I couldn’t part with either of them. I also have a Gibson SG Voodoo for if I need an electric guitar, but sightings of this in public are very rare. Having two acoustic guitars is a new and weird sensation for me – before this summer I’d only owned one acoustic ever, an Art & Lutherie, but that was retired in June after more than a decade of loyal service and now sits in a corner of my house wondering what it did wrong. Chin up, little buddy.
LA: Do you prefer to play acoustically (like you did on the US tour) or is that more of a practical decision?
Ben: I much prefer to play acoustic. It’s how I write all my songs and, for just one guy on a stage, you can fill all frequencies much easier and have it sound much better. Really, playing an electric guitar would only be worthwhile if I was in a rock band and it’s not often that that happens.
LA: Would you mind explaining what the recording process was for your latest album? You said in an interview that it took you something like 18 months from start to finish. Are you happy with the final result?
Ben: I like to think of Back Down as that difficult child that you have to love because otherwise you’d abandon it on someone’s doorstep. Writing it was a nightmare, recording it was like throwing money down a hole but somehow it all came together. About halfway through the writing process I moved into a new flat/apartment (delete per whatever side of the Atlantic you’re reading this on) and found myself surrounded by some of the noisiest people yet, at the same time, people the least tolerant of noise ever. I couldn’t play guitar without invoking some kind of complaint from somewhere so the album writing had to be finished off in my head, without touching the guitar. Add to that, I (maybe foolishly) tried some new recording techniques right at the start that didn’t work, and rather than going “well, that didn’t work” I decided to stick it out. Turns out recording a song is like building a house. What’s on the bottom has to be right, otherwise the whole thing’s going to fall over when you get to the top. Me and Matt (Bew, the poor guy who had to engineer the mess) spent many Saturday mornings poring over takes and tracks making changes here and there, headbutting the walls and going “why, baby Jesus, why?“, but in the end it worked out okay. I’m as proud of Back Down as I am the first album but it was much more stress than it needed to be. But hey, you live and learn. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve said after every trip to the studio ever, though. Uh oh.
LA: What’s next for you? I saw you just announced a UK tour with several house shows? Any long term plans to come back to the US in the next few years?
Ben: Next for me is to play some shows in the UK in November/December, and then I’m also starting to book more shows in the UK for February to May 2014, at which point I’ll put Back Down to bed and focus on some new things. I couldn’t rule out a third album one day but starting it is the hardest part. I won’t be moving house in the middle of writing next time.
LA: Have you seen any good shows this past year? Any you were upset to have missed?
Ben: I saw a good show this past week, in fact. A couple of days ago I traveled to London where, after many years of waiting, I saw Mountain Goats for the first time at the Union Chapel. I’ve been a massive fan since Sunset Tree (which is, for my money, one of the best albums ever recorded both in terms of its musical field and its narrative/ability to turn a personal tragedy into a tool for recovery) but whenever MG come to this country, I’m always off doing shows elsewhere. Still, I finally got the job done and it was worth the wait. The thing about Mountain Goats is that they’ve been going for, I don’t know, 672 years and they feel under no obligation to play any of their obviously popular stuff, so you go into the show as likely to hear a song from 1995 that was only ever released on cassette as, say, anything from their latest album. Actually I don’t think they played a song from their newest record at all.
Other than that, I’m looking forward to They Might Be Giants in November. Amongst the other great shows I’ve seen in the past year have been the return of Jetplane Landing (a rock band from Northern Ireland recently reunited), and also Colin Meloy of Decemberists who put on a great show at Newport Folk Festival. Who am I kidding, I must have seen loads of great shows this year but my memory is not so good. Basically after the summer I’ve had I go to every show expecting it to be a Frank Turner show. Those shows with FT and Off With Their Heads were some of the best times I could ever have, so I think show of the year probably ends up going to the final night of the tour in Madison, WI. I wish I had a prize to give, but my own personal prize was the look on the server’s face when I walked into a catering outlet at 2pm and asked if they were still doing breakfast. Her face let me know there’s no such thing as a late breakfast in Madison. I had to look down and check I’d remembered to put clothes on.
LA: What’s on your mp3 player right now? Any guilty pleasures on there?
Ben: Aha! I can honestly say there are no guilty pleasures currently on my mp3 player. I regularly clear it out and restock it with new stuff – there’s probably only about 50 or 60 songs on there at any one time. Recently I’ve been listening to the new album by my friend Mark McCabe (recommended) and the recent albums from Jetplane Landing and Off With Their Heads. There’ve been some great albums out recently though, including a new one from Jason Isbell which you should all crawl over your own mothers to hear.
LA: If you could do anything else for the rest of your life what would it be and why?
Ben: What, like, a collection of things? Or do I have to just pick one? Because to be honest I think if you could only choose one thing to do for all eternity, you’re going to get bored of it. “Oh man, I have to get up and wander around this perfect utopia AGAIN?! Sighhhhh I wish I didn’t choose to abolish Facebook.”
I think I’m going to choose.. actually, you know what? It doesn’t matter. I can do anything, and collections of anythings, as long as I’m at peace with whatever I’m doing. There are people who go out of their way every week to do as much as possible and still get this sense of unease that they’re not doing enough, and next door to me my brother is shouting at people down the internet and shooting zombies and he seems perfectly happy about it.