Interview: Trace Mountains

by Philip Moss

Dave Benton takes us on a trip inside his expansive new record – Lost In The Country – as he steps out from his lo-fi beginnings, and learns to become more literal.

At the exact point on the horizon where lo-fi home recordings, and the wide screen panorama of Darkness on the Edge of Town meet, Trace Mountains’ new album, Lost In The Country, sits bleary eyed. Packed with sing-a-longs fit for a journey along a cactus lined, open highway, it is an expertly melodic and thoughtful collection from Kingston, NY, based songwriter, Dave Benton.

Like Harry Dean Stanton’s character, Travis Henderson, in Paris Texas, we roam the sun beaten landscape of Lost in the Country with the sun firmly beating into our eyes. Bordering on twee, Benton’s soft voice has no issues cutting through the hazy soundscapes. Opener, Rock & Roll initially lands like a scaled down cut from The War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, which Benton admits was an influence, but as it stretches and yawns, it awakens, falling into full throttle – as rollicking drums pave the way for sweeping guitars to light it up in full technicolour.

The album, which is his third as Trace Mountains, is immediately different in sound to Benton’s previous works under the alias – something he notes was a very conscious decision. ‘We went to Studio G in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to do the drums and the bass, which was something that I wanted to do – use a fancy studio – it meant I could still arrange the way I like to at home; sitting with it, and spending way too much time working on it. We actually got to use the Leslie speaker from It’s A Wonderful Life by Sparklehorse, which was pretty cool. I definitely wanted to go cleaner with less tape distortion.’

On a record packed with melodic nuggets, on early listens, songs such as Dog Country could lead to calls that Benton’s writing lacks the complexity to be anything more than throwaway indie pop. But underneath the sugarcoating, there is a balance between reflection and bite.

The title track ponders profoundly: ‘Been thinking about the old days more and more – the pettiness of my life and the way it was. If I speak to you through a dream would you hear me?’ Just one example of the world wariness of the former LVL UP frontman, and of the repetition of ‘dreams’ that thematically holds the collection together. ‘I used to do a dream journal, and then it transformed from being songs about the literal dreams that I have at night, to focusing on my life in music. Where I’m at with that, and how that feels. I had a moment after writing the first Trace Mountains’ record where my partner, Susannah, said, “I don’t really know what you’re writing about,” so that prompted me to go a little more literal. Which even though it’s still not, it’s an attempt at that. When I was writing this one, I didn’t consciously think of any particular lyricists, but I really like Neutral Milk Hotel and Judee Sill, and with Kurt Vile, I like the way he just spews it out; that was definitely something I’ve had in mind. I would do a little bit of revisions or changes afterwards, but I tend to stick with chunks of what I write.’

Lyrically, Benton is keen to be ‘true’ to himself. ‘I try not to judge whether the words are smart. Lyrics are a kind of poetry, but you have to take into consideration how you are going to sing them and the musical aspects. It’s more about how it feels to be saying it, than what they actually are. The words can be so informed by the delivery.’

Regardless, large sections of Lost in the Country does feel poetic – but right in the middle of Benton’s rambling, stream of consciousness comes cutting social commentary – with Benton singing on Fallin’ Rain, ‘fuck the world, it’s gone insane… I have lost it all. I found a word for this rolling country / to load it up and bathe in its twisted history.’ When asked, Benton openly admits, ‘I haven’t really thought about that juxtaposition before, and I don’t know if it was intentional. For that particular song, I was thinking about the Link Wray song – Fallin’ Rain – and I wanted to do an ode to it. And maybe that’s why it’s political.’ He also accepts that he is ‘definitely’ a social media addict, and that the current events and world issues have invariably seeped into his life and subconsciously into his writing.

This also semantically seeps into the album, as he references ‘wifi’ and his ‘phone signal’, and the choice of words places it in a 21st Century time capsule. He states this was influenced by Dear Nora’s Skulls Example LP, and that he ‘wanted to use those words because people can relate.’ He also references how relatable he found a recent KEXP interview with Aldous Harding. ‘She was asked, “how do you spend your time?” and responded with, “I sit on my phone in the dark,” which is so true!’

Before finishing our conversation, it would have been amiss not to briefly touch upon Benton’s time as co-founder of the Brooklyn based label, Double Double Whammy. Firstly, the US Postal Service’s shipping costs to the UK marks an about turn in Benton’s tone – ‘It’s ridiculous! Fucking Trump saying, “The Postal Service must make profit.” It’s a public service. It’s fucking shit!’ But then, modestly, responds that they were ‘blessed’ to come across great acts when starting the label. ‘It was good luck. We never aimed to be a tastemaker. We wanted to support our friends, and the community we had access to and were in. When we were doing the first vinyl records, it was important not to judge it too much. If I saw something that I liked, I didn’t think about it too hard. Some things are just bound to take off because they’re good. It was so cool to think, “I like this song they did; why not give them a chance?” We were so lucky to come across Frankie Cosmos, Liam Betson, and the Mitski record, which gave it the profile.’

As we come to the end of our hour long discussion, Benton notes that when Double Double Whammy involved ‘thinking more about the finance’, it marked the point where he had to make a decision, and the choice to follow and continue his songwriting was the path he had to take – such is his love for being creative. This decision has allowed the New York state resident to continue his work, post LVL UP,  as Trace Mountains, culminating with Lost in the Country. A record that is undoubtedly a great place to escape with wanderlust into – and one that will define this crazy, unforgettable year.

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