by Chris Liberato
(Cover photo credit: Dalton Patton)
Finding what matters: Ben Jones on the power of slowing down in an attempt to find fulfilment
There are two kinds of addicts: the ones who turn outward—the life of the party types—and the ones who retreat inward, seeking something they perceive as unreachable without the drug. Ben Jones is the latter type.
Photo credit: Lauren Davis
The 33-year-old Martha’s Vineyard native is the creative force behind prolific dream pop collective, Constant Smiles, the latest act to sign with Sacred Bones Records. The group makes their label debut with Paragons, their fourteenth album, which finds Jones reckoning with his ‘destructive creative drive.’ That is, his obsessive focus on writing new music, which, compounded by drug and alcohol addiction, came to a head in 2019.
‘When I crashed and burned, I realised that music—I needed so much of it, it became like a drug—and it is like a form of escapism, you know?’ Jones tells me via Zoom from his Ridgewood apartment, where several cassette racks frame his shaggy-haired silhouette. He’s wearing an unbuttoned navy blue chamois shirt with a band t-shirt (Rose McDowall) underneath it, a uniform that hasn’t changed since I met him almost fifteen years ago.
‘I would always be thinking about music. I’d be out with my girlfriend and in the back of my head, it was just like wanting to drink. I’d be thinking: “I just need to be alone and do more drugs, and make more music, and only do music all the time.” And thinking back to that now it’s, like, that’s insane! That’s fucking crazy!’
During our call, a bell dings and Jones gets up to retrieve a red ceramic bowl from his toaster oven. He’s curbing a chocolate cake habit he’s developed with a more reasonable substitute: a half-bar of Lindt 85% dark chocolate (‘the dank stuff’) that he melts until it’s the consistency of pudding, and which he eats with a spoon.
‘Right off the bat, it was addictive,’ Jones continues. While living in Chicago in 2006, he started leaning into songwriting as a way to process a traumatic event. He describes feeling lost, angry, depressed, and above all, really missing someone. ‘It was really so helpful. I wrote like five albums in a month. I mean none of them were any good but ….’
Jones was a photography major at Columbia College at the time, but his heart was back on the island where he was raised. During school breaks, he would travel home to the Vineyard to play in friends’ bands and pick up hours at the community record store, Aboveground Records. In 2008, he ended up taking a year off from the program to focus exclusively on music, which led him to launch Constant Smiles, or as he called the project at the time, Constant Sickness.
‘I needed that scene when I was in school,’ Jones says. ‘The island is so closed off, music was like a portal to infinity.’
The experience wasn’t without its shortcomings, however. He addresses some of the negative patterns that originated during this period on Paragons. On the kraut-influenced Please Don’t Be Late, a driving beat dissolves to a low throb in the background, and spidery threads of guitar precipitate Jones’ ominous words: ‘I see the faces of my handlers / They’ve been around me for so long / They seem to think they have become my teachers / I shiver in the wake of what went wrong.’ And when the instrumentation reemerges fully back into the mix, it punctuates his conclusion: ‘And believe me / The thoughts can be wrong.’
Jones explains that these ‘faces’ are like critical voices that he hears in his head, which he’s long had a tendency of catering to. ‘I remember [the MV scene] being pretty brutal, pretty cut-throat, Doug especially.’ Doug Marcella and Mikey Gunn, two of Jones’ peers, seemed like they had arrived into the musical world fully formed. ‘I felt like they were more confident. They just found their voices really quickly and just had it so down.’ In response, Jones withdrew as a songwriter, feeling the need to ‘incubate’ until he had something good enough to offer. He’s felt driven to catch up to them creatively ever since.
It’s easy to lose perspective on where you stand in the scheme of things when you’re as focused on your art as Jones. I remind him that he’s objectively outpacing both of his peers: Marcella hasn’t been making music for over a decade, having withdrawn from the community after burning too many bridges. And Gunn’s own prolific tendencies eventually caught up with him: He went radio silent almost five years ago, before reemerging with a new project earlier this year.
After more than a decade of home recording, Constant Smiles had a minor breakthrough with 2019’s synthwave effort, John Waters. Thanks to a featured post on a popular Youtube channel, and the enthusiastic reception of a few music blogs, the group was starting to reach a wider audience. Another well-received full-length, Control, followed as did a compilation on Box Bedroom Rebels (UK) collecting ten tracks from the group’s extensive catalog: A total of 26 releases, featuring more than 50 musicians, are currently available on Constant Smiles’ Bandcamp page, including a slew of recordings that document the band’s unique approach to live performances.
‘I really don’t like re-learning songs I already wrote. It just seems like a waste of time. So if I’m going to do it, at least I get something out of it,’ Jones says, referring to his preference of crafting a whole new set’s worth of material for every live performance. Constant Smiles’ high-output approach aligns them with artists like Car Seat Headrest and Alex G, who have similarly managed to connect with fans and big indie labels despite the overwhelming digital wall of output they present to the casual passerby.
Jones reminds me that I once told him it sounded like he was racing to the end of his songs. He describes how a similar problem with pace had carried over into his writing process in general. ‘I get anxious that I’ll lose a song if I don’t get it down right away. After I get a new song recorded—get the essence of it down—I just start on the next one.’ He’s also afraid of running out of new ideas: ‘I always feel like it’s going to go away at some point, the ability to write anything good. Kind of like what happened with Ariel Pink. Ever since he went to the next level, a lot of his songs were just old ones that he redid.’
Ariel Pink, who’s in hot water after attending the Capitol Riot protests last year, has bigger problems to worry about at the moment. ‘It’s a shame that happened, man. I can’t believe he did that,’ says Jones, before making it clear that he doesn’t agree with Pink’s politics. The popular lo-fi musician was one of the first artists with which Jones fell in love. He talks excitedly about the effect that House Arrest, in particular, had on him, and some of the ideas that Pink first exposed him to, like championing your friend’s art and involving them in your own. ‘He’s so into art and artists… Geneva Jacuzzi, R. Stevie Moore, Weyes Blood. He opened up a whole new world for me!’ This kind of communal spirit is evident in everything Constant Smiles produces – from their song titles to their album art to the music itself.
Jones’ approach to recording vocals reflects Pink’s influence as well: ‘My natural inclination is to layer my vocals and make them more abstract like this washed-out painting. It’s my defense against criticism.’ With the vocal delay that Constant Smiles employs on previous efforts, it often sounds like Jones is singing into an empty well, which lends the songs a haunting and mysterious quality. It’s a technique that has served him admirably on many songs, like the ethereal fan-favorite Floating, but has the potential to grow tiresome for the listener over the course of an album, or a discography.
When Jones moved to New York in 2013, he took a job as warehouse manager at Sacred Bones. This environment provided him with new supporters, collaborators, and a community from which to pool artistic advice. The individual who inspired him to start stripping the protective layers away musically was Katie Garcia of Bayonet Records. When he played her Constant Smiles’ 2018 album, Lost, ‘she said something like “I wish those vocals were clearer.” But she said it in a way that made it sound like it was easy and I could do it.’
Fast forward a few years to Paragons and the transition to clarity is complete. Thanks to producer Ben Greenberg—who used Silver Sail by proto-grunge punks The Wipers as a template—Jones’ voice comes through more clearly than ever. ‘He was very opposed to vocal layering,’ Jones says of working with Greenberg. ‘He thought it should just be me alone at the forefront. I think it was smart of him to strip it back because it is a very raw record.’
Anyone paying attention to the lyrics will be able to discern that Paragons is a breakup record. ‘I got sober mostly because of the breakup. The last night I drank was the Purple Mountains show,’ he says, referencing the infamous night that was supposed to herald David Berman’s return to the stage. ‘I thought, the way things were heading, that could’ve been me.’
Jones is the first to admit that his addictions have caused him a lot of problems. But since getting sober almost two years ago, he’s dedicated to staying on track. On With Death In Mind, a slow, shimmering stomper that closes side one of Paragons, Jones meditates on the path forward: ‘I need to find what matters most to me / So I can come back new and not be / bogged down / with all these extra thoughts.‘
In regards to the types of changes he’s making, he shares, ‘I’m trying to slow down and not work like my life depends on it.’ But mostly he talks about wanting to be a better friend, and about being a better person in general. ‘It’s like Step 1 in AA. I’ve acknowledged I’m an alcoholic and now I’m doing the rest.’ The new album’s title is a reference to this.
A change in Jones’ working pace was already evident the last time I saw Constant Smiles perform. Opening for experimental rock veterans Oneida in May of 2019, the group did something that I’d never seen them do before: They played a set of music in the standard fashion of an indie-pop band (i.e. mostly catalog tracks and a couple of new ones) instead of their usual performance’s worth of all-exclusive material.
The group still found ways to keep things unique, though. It was the first time that Jones’ main creative partner, Mike Mackey, had ever joined the group live. Meanwhile, Jai Berger, a foley sound engineer by trade and longtime Constant Smiles contributor, was tapped to execute a midi keyboard introduction. Finally, things concluded with Jones handing the mic over to guitarist Bridget Collins to play a couple of her own band’s (Absolutely Yours) songs.
And as far as nontraditional contributions to the group go, definitely don’t rule those out for Constant Smiles’ future. ‘I think of you in the band too,’ Jones tells me at the end of our call. ‘I wrote you in as a band member in the credits on the new album.’
Connection is, after all, the opposite of addiction.
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