by Philip Moss
Disarming sceptics and winning hearts. We chat to Ben Hall of Mr Ben & The Bens on the importance of being a good person, following your own path and holding friends close
Growing up in the North West of England, the idea of being friendly and approachable was not something you’d associate with the alternative music scene. The attitude associated with music from northern towns was, in some ways, a throwback to those presented by Manchester acts such as Oasis, and this ‘hardness’ linked back to the feelings represented in Loachian kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s, and the years of struggle and oppression caused by a Thatcher led Tory government.
But from being introduced to the music of Mr Ben & The Bens’ in a pub in Preston in September 2018, at a night of music showcasing artists on the Bingo Records label, the four piece’s blur of fuzzy alt-pop, paired with their Team Zissou-esque matching attire, screamed fun. And this, along with their latest release at the time, Happy Shopper, made it clear that the then Lancaster based quartet were clearly not interested in being part of a crowd.
‘Northern guitar music has a serious heritage,’ states songwriter and band leader, Ben Hall, ‘which is a zeitgeist thing – it ties back to the political landscape, the weather, the people; but I guess a lot of music from the north has a dry sense of humour to it. I don’t feel there should be a divide between the audience and the performer, and being “nice” is a disarming tactic. In essence, in presenting a massive ego, unless you are a huge talent, I don’t think that has a long life span. There’s a saying – everyone has to go to the toilet and do a poo – even the Queen!’
Hall is certainly a humble, down to earth chap – chipper in his outlook, it was the dry sense of humour found in the likes of Pulp and New Order that felt more in line with his own sensibilities. ‘Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics are amazing – and he’s a really interesting character. He’s a very academic guy – very astute in his observations, but also really funny. It’s a really nice set of attributes for someone to have.’
Despite describing the nineties music scene in Manchester as being like ‘a cloud that hangs over the city,’ Hall is keen to state the powerful presence that the scene had. ‘It is hard for me to comment, as I was only born in 1993, so didn’t experience it first hand. But it must have been amazing to have someone speaking up for where you live, and your lifestyle and culture, and on an international stage. So I can understand why people cling onto that.’
Despite standing apart from the seriousness of northern music from the past, one would not be advised to label Mr Ben & The Bens twee. ‘I think it’s lazy. I think people calling us that are just observing a surface level. If someone is smiling or wearing a certain type of clothing, then the opinion is formed just on that. And I know we have such a daft name, which sounds like it could be from that world, but we are not acting up, and we are not insincere in how we portray ourselves. The outfits that we’ve worn make me think of us as a gang. They were inspired by Talking Heads and the way they’d dress during the CBGB’s era – and they didn’t look like a post-punk band. In David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, he talks about how visuals work with music, and I have always been interested in that. I also love mid-century aesthetics – it was a great era for design, and there was post-war optimism. Wes Anderson’s films also have that 60’s utilitarian thing going on too. Wearing a costume means people see you aren’t taking yourself too seriously. It’s another tool for disarmament.’
The character of Mr Ben was created by Hall while at university in Brighton studying illustration. A time that had a profound impact on the way in which he thinks about all forms of art – including songwriting. ‘I was so lucky. My course taught me about thought processes, and becoming an artist in your thinking – rather than the practical skills involved. Great tutors teach these skills. A great art school teaches you how to think outside the box, and they form your practice – rather than just how to use Photoshop.’
Since leaving university, following a period of time back home in Lancaster, Hall and the collective Bingo Records team, including fellow Mr Ben band members, have swapped the Red Rose county for the Yorkshire city of Sheffield. This was particularly evident on his last LP, Who Knows Jenny Jones?, and there is also a very strong sense of location on new album, Life Drawing – especially on songs such as The Wind on Spittlehill and On The Beach. Though this time around, it is not so specifically set. ‘I have images of places in my head when I’m writing, but they never actually become the real place. And that’s the beauty of writing and creating art. They don’t have to be rooted in reality. When you live somewhere that’s got an atmosphere and a vibe – so northern towns like Lancaster and Sheffield – they feel old. You can sense the history. I do a lot of walking around, and it definitely permeates into the writing. The characters and stories play out in these places; the character’s stories have to happen somewhere – they have to live somewhere. The environment is often the exciting thing that happens – it moves the stories along. Weather and the streets – they always feel like they’re moving. These narratives weave throughout them. The northern feel is in there, but just not in the most obvious ways that are usually found in northern music.’
Despite previous releases coming out through Bingo Records, Life Drawing saw the songwriter sign to Bella Union. And while having the feel of being like a ‘best of’ his work to date – songs such as Watering Can, and the affable salutations of How Do You Do? are melodically his strongest work yet – there are some obvious turns, and overtly new influences. ‘Danny came about from me writing different types of music just to practise writing,’ Hall reflects. ‘So an exercise in writing in a style. And I wrote three songs that are more indie-pop. At first I thought they were throwaway, but that melody really stuck with me. And then in the studio we had lots of fun with it – making the drums really fast, and creating the baritone guitar, which is really like Bruce Springsteen – creating power pop – throwing xylophones on there. I love the Buzzcocks and The Undertones, and they resonate with the idea of being human and having fun with music,’ Hall enthuses. But despite the upbeat feel musically, it’s very melancholic in terms of the words. ‘Friendship is something that some people don’t have, and you can take it for granted. Some people would just love to hang out with people, or not having a friend, and I think that’s more sad than not having a romance.’
The mournful lyrical feel continues into Astral Plane – which as well as being the saddest song Hall has penned to date, also feels the most truly autobiographical, rather than from the character of Mr Ben. ‘I do sometimes write more personally, but in an abstract way. I feel weird about putting explicit personal experiences in. Like I could feel a bit too exposed. For the more melancholic songs, I look to the feel of Dylan Thomas’ poetry; I think he writes amazing, vivid descriptions of towns and people. I also love Richard Brautigan – his work from the sixties; it’s kind of a bit of a beat poet – he wrote really weird, surreal novels. And I also love magic realism – so writers from South America – someone like Gabriel García Márquez who writes very sad, but also very funny stories with strands of magic and folklore. I also love plays on words, and the idea that songs recall ideas and resolve themselves by the end of a song. Very interesting interplays by placing words next to each other that maybe shouldn’t work.’
Despite being very much rooted as a northern based songwriter in so many ways, Hall also defies the common traits of so many of his contemporaries. ‘It can be hell if you want it to be, but heaven on Sundays,’ he sings on Watering Can, and in many ways this sums the 27 year old up. Humanity is important. And despite understanding the difficulties that many people have to battle against in their daily lives, his version of the north – where he sets his songs and goes about his days – is one based in the allure of carving his own path, and always looking for glimmers of light.
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