Now/It's: An Interview with Ben De La Cour

One of (but not the only, obviously) the most fulfilling things when it comes to these various conversations with people in Nashville are the moments of surprise. That surprise can come in an assortment of fashions, sometimes outrageous, other times enthralling, and almost always interesting. But every once and a while, there will be a revelatory moment of distinct surprise, such as someone being as big, if not a bigger Raymond Carver fan than yourself (oddly specific, right?), that leads into an entirely invigorating conversation. There's a reason for such seemingly random specificity, as Raymond Carver was the jumping off point into a fascinating conversation with Ben De La Cour. A true troubadour of Nashville's East Side, De La Cour maintains a realist perspective that few others are capable of producing. Such a fact is evidenced in talking about and listening to his brand new release, The High Cost of Living Strange. The record features varied perspectives of gritty realism, similar to the short fiction of Raymond Carver, all the while featuring moments of sanguine expectancy, borne out of years of road dogging. De La Cour is as wizened as they come in Nashville, and provide a whole bevy of insight and anecdotal experience well worth any American Epic.

Now/It's met with Ben De La Cour at Dose Coffee and Dram Bar located in the Riverside Village neighborhood of East Nashville.

N/I - Do you read a lot of Capote?

Ben - I like his stuff, yeah. I just went to McKay’s for the first time - I’ve been told all about it for four or five years - finally went to it last week, and kind of lost my mind in the two-dollar section. So I spent like $70 or something. It was worth it, too.

N/I - Well it’s funny, with second hand book stores, there are plenty of great books that I think most people would assume that since it’s a little yellowed, or frayed that it must be some D-list science fiction, but there’s almost always something worth pulling.

Ben - Absolutely. I agree. If anything, if the book is that old and it’s still around, it’s probably pretty good.

N/I - Well worn with good reason.

Ben - Otherwise it would have gone straight into the trash. People aren’t going toss a good book. It’s like the used record bin.

N/I - That’s another good point. Granted, sometimes the actual covers are tattered and worn, but…

Ben - The records themselves are usually still playable.

N/I - Right. The record itself lasts a lot longer.

Ben - But I’ve only ever read In Cold Blood before.

N/I - Same here.

Ben - This is only the second thing I’ve read by [Capote], but In Cold Blood was great.

N/I - It’s fantastic. But again, I read In Cold Blood because I figured I needed to read at least one book by Truman Capote, so why not start with arguably the most famous story he ever wrote?

Ben - Right. That’s the same reason I did.

N/I - But at the same time, it grab me to the point of which I needed to dive into every last thing he’s ever written. That person for me is Raymond Carver.

Ben - Dude! My favorite author. I’ve read probably everything. Raymond Carver is my favorite. As a songwriter, I feel like Raymond Carver could do no wrong. Every songwriter should study Raymond Carver.

N/I - Absolutely. I’m not a songwriter by any stretch of the imagination, but I do some fiction writing, and even if you’re not into Carver’s style of writing - whether it’s songwriting, poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, whatever - there’s something anyone can glean from his work. Every word serves a purpose, and it’s never long-winded or lengthy, so I can sort of see where with songwriting that it would fit in pretty seamlessly with that sort of sensibility. You need to get a single point across in roughly two and a half to four minutes.

Ben - And you kind of want to leave some holes in there, in terms of the questions you pose. Raymond Carver is so good at that. His writing leaves you with a haunting feeling. What’s the story…. “Tell the Women We’re Going.”

N/I - Yes! That’s the one I always tell people to read.

Ben - Oh man! The end of that one…. He’d taken a rock to first girl, and then he moves on to the second one. At first you’re so shocked and you’re like “What exactly happened?” and then you’re like “Holy shit! He just murdered these girls with a rock!”

N/I - Abosolutely. Thinking about it now, I still kind of get - not to sound cliche - but I still kind of get chills from it.

Ben - Oh yeah!

N/I - I remember that moment reading it and being like “Oh my gosh.” It’s a story where you kind of gather where you think it’s going, and then it just pivots so hard, like you’re saying, with the rock, bludgeoning someone to death. It’s so open ended to where your mind starts racing about the other guy being an unwilling accessory to murder, and they all will probably never mention anything of it to their wives.

Ben - And it doesn’t conclude or anything. That’s just the end of the story. And the way it wraps you up with tension - at first these guys are like “Ah yeah, let’s get out of here!” and then they meet these girls, and things get a little flirtatious, and then it gets a little weird, and the one guy is kind of like “Woah,” and the other guy is all in. There’s so much discomfort and unease in so many different ways, and it just gets tightened up all along the way, and at the end, it pivots, like you said, to where you’re just like “Holy shit, he’s bludgeoning these two poor strangers.”

N/I - Exactly. What you thought was going to be a poor outcome actually becomes worse.

Ben - Way worse. Man, I love him. I was in the Pacific Northwest last year, and I actually drove out to his grave in Port Angeles. I had a show in Seattle, and people were like “Wait, you’re driving out to Port Angeles just to see some guy’s grave?” And I was like, “You don’t understand, I drive 30,000 miles a year. What’s another 500 mile round trip if it means I’ll get to go see Raymond Carver’s grave?”

N/I - It’s one of those things where if you have the time, why not?

Ben - What else are you going to do?

N/I - Especially if you’re as into him as you are.

Ben - Have you read his poetry?

N/I - You know what, I’ve read some, but for as much as I love his short stories, I’m not super crazy about his poetry. I think it’s because I got in through the short stories, and was super invested in that - I read the transcripts for The Augustine Notebooks, which never got published - and I’ve tried to get in on the poetry on numerous occasions, but for me, it’s all about the short stories.

Ben - I agree. I feel about his poetry the same way I feel about Bukowski’s poetry. But what I like about poetry is the structure. You read someone like Dylan Thomas, or that more freeform poetry, and what’s so cool to me about Carver is how unshaped it is.

N/I - Definitely. And I think that’s the thing that I get hung up on when it comes to his poetry is that he’s already so succinct and purposeful that him operating under a pretense of structure to begin with kind of makes my head hurt [laughs].

Ben - And that’s because he’s kind of unstructured his poetry, it’s kind of freeform poetry. I’ve got a book of all his poems. It’s kind of nice, because you get to see everything. The short stories, what I like about them is the fact that they’re so mean, and that’s certain view on humanity. I don’t have a dim view towards humans at all - I actually think we’re pretty great - but humans are really mean a lot of the time when they’re interacting, and I think Carver perfectly captures that.

N/I - Absolutely. Not to get too technical with evolution and what not, but if we did in fact evolve from apes, they all exist through survival of the fittest, and there’s an extension of that in a lot of stories from Carver, like “They’re Not Your Husband.” The one with the waitress.

Ben - Right! Her husband makes her lose all the weight and then she’s all sick. God!
N/I - I know, right? It’s all messed up. It might not be the best way to ease into an interview, but I’m enjoying it.

Ben - No, I love it. It’s awesome.

N/I - Well I’ll exit the Raymond Carver love fest with this - I’m surprised Carver never blew up after - well, “blew up” is relative, I guess - but became more popular when that movie, Birdman, came out. Because it was centered on Michael Keaton wanting to produce this Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story.

Ben - That’s right. From What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

N/I - But he never did. I figure it’s some aspect of what we’ve been talking about - it’s so mean….

Ben - Well if you think of the movies that are based on his work - Short Cuts is bunch of different stories, and was hugely acclaimed, Birdman won an Oscar, and what was the other one? The one with Will Ferrell.

N/I - I knew Short Cuts and Birdman, but I don’t know one with Will Ferrell.

Ben - It’s not as critically acclaimed as the other movies, but I think it’s based on the story called Why Don’t You Dance?

N/I - Oh yeah! I love that one.

Ben - Yeah! But the movie wasn’t as popular as the others.

N/I - Was it called Everything Must Go?

Ben - I think that’s what it’s called, but it’s based on that.

N/I - That makes sense, because I’ve seen the movie, but I never made the connection.

Ben - I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie, and then I was like “Holy shit! This is the Raymond Carver story!”

N/I - And that whole story is so surreal in the fact that everything is out in the yard. There’s not so much specificity in the scene to where in my head, everything in the yard is set up as it would be inside of a house.

Ben - Me too.

N/I - And then this couple comes and they’re sitting there while this guy asks them to dance, and makes them drinks, and you don’t know how much time passes, and then the cops are there. And all they can say is there was some guy there, but not much else. It’s weird.

Ben - It’s so great, though. I don’t want to sidetrack this thing too much….

N/I - By all means! I’m always open to tangents. I don’t know how many other people are as deep into Raymond Carver, but if anything, I hope this will introduce more people to him.

Ben - Absolutely! I think you and I, by talking about him, maybe we’re doing a public service announcement for him.

N/I - I think so.

Ben - All songwriters and writers, or any kind of creative person, you can do no wrong by him. But that’s what’s good about his poetry - it’s more hopeful. It’s got this sense…. I don’t know how much you know about his relationship with Gordon Lish, his editor, but there was a little bit of a moralistic grey area. A lot of people question, “Well how much did Gordon Lish do?”

N/I - Well there was always a lot of debate about….

Ben - Hard editing.

N/I - Yeah. Who carried more weight in certain instances.

Ben - That was awesome [laughs].

N/I - Oh yeah. That does provide some insight into your work, now knowing how much you enjoy Raymond Carver. That makes more sense - not to say your music didn’t make sense prior to all this - because everything in your music is seemingly offertory. At least in the sense that it’s a lot of personal experience, but through a - I don’t want to say “fictitious” - but a more dramaticized lens.  

Ben - Yeah. Absolutely.

N/I - But there is a literary aspect to it. Which makes sense, because you’re obviously well versed in a lot of different written styles.

Ben - I wish I could write a novel, or short stories. That’s really what I feel like I would love, but I just don’t have… I don’t know what it is. You know when you talk to people who tell you they’d love to write a song or play an instrument, but they don’t have the talent? You probably do, but I don’t think I have any particular talent for it, it took me a ridiculously long time to learn how to play guitar, and I probably wrote a hundred serious songs that were absolute garbage before I wrote anything worthwhile. So it’s not like I had any sort of natural talent, I just had this succession with. And so, I realized that I don’t really have that with writing prose, or sitting down and locking myself in my room to write for three hours like Joseph Conrad, tearing my hair out. I’ll do it with a song, but I just don’t do it with prose.

N/I - Well your proclivity is more toward a song anyway. And again, there’s the initial inclination, but when you actually work towards it, you’ve got a hundred songs, and at this point, four albums worth of songs that are out in the world….

Ben - But so many hundred that are terrible, terrible songs.

N/I - If not thousands, but you’ve put in a proverbial “sweat equity” of “Well, at this point, the muscle memory is there.” So when you have an idea or theme present itself, you have the know how of what to do in order to turn that idea or theme into a two and a half to four minute song.

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Ben - And there’s an appeal to that. Putting a restriction on yourself, setting some hard parameters, I think maybe that’s one of the problems with writing prose for me. And I would imagine, with yourself, you’re a writer, you probably have those parameters in your head obviously, when you’re writing an article, but when you’re writing fiction, you probably have your own version of parameters that dictate where you’re putting this into that and not sneaking outside of it. I can’t visualize like that, so I’ll write, and it might start out like junk, but if I can find out where it’s going, I can find where it ends, but I also might write twenty pages of nonsense and get lost, or frustrated.

N/I - Again, part of the reason why I don’t read a lot of poetry is because I’m sort of the opposite of that. I like the open endedness, but that final parameter doesn’t always come. I just add, add, add, and then I come to realize that if anyone is going to read something like what I’ve written, I’ll have to cut it down somewhere, but I don’t always know if I’m capable of going back to it like that. So that’s where I think it’s interesting with your songwriting - I know your third album, Midnight in Havana, it’s like a noirish feel.

Ben - It’s really technically my second album. Or even my first. I know it looks like I have four albums, but I had these first two albums that were basically just bedroom records that I’d sell when I first started playing out and touring, so really, Midnight in Havana is the first real thing I put out.

N/I - It was your proper introduction, then?

Ben - Pretty much. Those others were sort of like collected nonsense.

N/I - But you’ve described it as sort of noirish, but is it from a vignette sense, or an overall narrative standpoint?

Ben - It’s vignettes, really. I think the themes kind of appear after your done. Like with any piece of work, people can draw parallels. Take Raymond Carver, you can draw parallels between the stories that I’m not so sure he wrote into the story to be seen. Those stories are though the filter of one person, but there’s bound to be a different view from another person.

N/I - For as much as someone would like to start out with the end in mind, you have to ask, “Is everyone going to realistically write their own version of ‘Hallelujah?” Or are they going to write something that might share some similar themes? So this new record….

Ben - The High Cost of Living Strange.

N/I - The High Cost of Living Strange. So what about that? Is that a continuation in practice from Midnight in Havana?

Ben - Not necessarily. I really like all sorts of noir stuff. That’s why I tongue in cheekishly describe my music like American noir. Midnight in Havana, I recorded right before I started touring full time, so that might have been a little more fantastical. Whereas this album, there are songs that revolve around dissolution and falling apart, and asking what people do after the fact. Some of them are stories about things falling apart in real time, but some of them are like “Alright, here’s a picture of someone where things have fallen apart. What do they do after the fact?”

N/I - But it’s not necessarily a fatalistic view?

Ben - No. But I do think it’s really easy to take a fatalistic view. That’s such a fucking cop out.

N/I - Well I didn’t mean to make it sound like that I was suggesting that it was.

Ben - No! I wasn’t suggesting that you were, either. I was just saying that I feel like when people say something like “Oh yeah! What we really need is a nuclear war to kill all the garbage people.” Sure, a lot of people can be bad, but most people are not. I find myself sometimes taking a pessimistic or fatalist view, and I have to check myself constantly to acknowledge that people are good, even when that might not seem like the case.

N/I - Right. I’m the same way. Especially if it’s someone who doesn’t mesh well with my own purview, I can just as easily be like “Screw you. You don’t matter.” which is not a good thing to do.

Ben - But I think you can do it to the individual sometimes. You don’t want to waste your time with people who are close minded or distressing.

N/I - Well there’s something to be said for being able to pick up on that stuff.

Ben - Absolutely. I just don’t want to fall down that path. I grew up in a super secular household, and I’m a liberal person, so it’s super easy for me to be like “Look at these people who voted for Trump. They suck.” But by nature of what I do, I spend a lot of time out in those parts of the country. Out there in the Middle.

N/I - The proverbial Heartland.

Ben - The Heartland. Or the Hinterlands [laughs]. You realize that there are some real sacks of shit out there, but for the most part, these are people who, by virtue of x-amount of factors, just want the same thing that you and everyone else in your circle wants, but their idea of how to get to that point is, by your view, completely skewed.

N/I - It’s a different environment. You’re an outsider in their world, so most of it could seem foreign, or a little crass to you.

Ben - Exactly. And you kind of just have to be like you say, you’re going to identify people who are eaten up by loathing and hate and avoid them, but most people it’s just like “Alright. I might totally disagree with what you’re saying, but I can see that you’re a human being.” We’re all products of circumstance. I’m not saying I’m endorsing or agreeing with them on anything, but I can at least see their perspective.

N/I - Right. There’s a little more empathy there.

Ben - And that’s what I’m trying to do with the songs on this album, is write them from perspectives that are not mine and try and take a humanist view. I’ll make them shocking or dramatized, but not cartoonish.

N/I - Sure. It’s not for shock value - in the sense of judgement or literal shock. Do you get a lot of people describing your music as murder ballads?

Ben - You know, I do. That’s fine. Everybody kind of has to be placed in some sort of category, at least in terms of music.

N/I - Sure. Again, this kind of goes back to that thought of having a generally fatalist view - at the end of the day, not everyone is going to be on the same level of perception, be it more so or less so, than you are. So that’s where something like that might come in handy, but it can just as easily become oversold.

Ben - Well I think those boxes are fine for other people to put you in. When you put yourself in those boxes, that’s where you run into problems. People draw parallels of Townes Van Zandt or Leonard Cohen, which is fine, because I’m huge fans of all those guys. But when you start thinking “Oh, would Townes write this song?” You might as well put down your guitar and fuck off.

N/I - That’s just plain imitation.

Ben - But as long as you’re not thinking in those terms, you’re good.

N/I - And for someone like you, that’s a detrimental line of thought, whereas, if I’m a country radio songwriter, that is what I have to think - is this a song person X would sing?

Ben - Absolutely.

N/I - So it’s kind of the opposite dynamic of a different type of songwriting. I don’t want to lump them into the same conversation, necessarily.

Ben - Well part of the same conversation, but different points on the spectrum. For example, there are some really talented, incredibly hard working people on music row, but that’s also where artistry can potentially go to die. When you’re thinking “I want to write a song for someone who loves to vent their extreme political opinions, whether their that realized or not.” You don’t want to write songs with ten dollar words and hundred dollar ideas. All the great writers - Townes, Guy Clark - you’ll never see them use a four syllable word.

N/I - Right. They’re not using grandiloquent language.

Ben - But in poetry, stuff like that is what makes it beautiful. So I stop myself when I sit down to write, because I’ve seen far more intelligent writers than myself fall into and swirl down the drain, at least in terms of artistry, because they’re so obsessed with a publishing deal, or a number one when they don’t even really like the music. But that’s the whole model. In the five years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen it shift from Music Row to this side of town. So now Music Row is trying to angle in on the Americana thing.

N/I - Well it’s funny. You talk to people in that realm, and they’ll readily admit that there’s more leaning into the broad genre of Americana than ever before. Since you moved here five years ago, how did you interpret that original Music Row format? Did you try to dive into it?

Ben - I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some sort of Nashville OG through being here for five years.

N/I - I don’t think you’ve done that.

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Ben - I’ve met people talking like that all the time, going “Back in the day….” and I’m just like “Y’all moved here a year ago!”

N/I - Well I think it’s important to highlight - no matter how long - granted, six months might be a little short. But if you’ve been here for one year, two years, three, five, ten, however many, there are all sorts of micro-shifts.

Ben - It’s changing so quickly.

N/I - It’s changing a ton. So five years for you could be the equivalent of a decade and a half in Phoenix or something?

Ben - [Laughs] I think you’re right. I think Nashville is dog years in comparison to most places.

N/I - It kind of seems that way.

Ben - I think there will always be the Music Row thing, I mean, it’s been here since the days of five, four, nine, and then there’s always this cool countercultural American roots music here. I just think that in the last decade, as Americana has gotten a lot of cultural cache to it, things have escalated rapidly. When I moved here, I had never been here before. I was living in New Orleans and I met this guy, Bud Tower, he and his wife Amy are kind of like my family, but I met him at this dive bar I was playing at once a week in New Orleans. My life was swirling down the drain, working in bars, overindulging….

N/I - Subsisting and existing at the same time.

Ben - Right. All that stuff. But he came up and played some songs at the open mic and it was great. He was like “This is a song that Hank Jr. cut, or this is a song that Lynyrd Skynyrd cut.” But I can’t listen to the incarnation of it all, because I think Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the two or three greatest American rock bands ever. The New York Dolls, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Stooges are the greatest rock n roll bands to ever come out of America. But once they got back together it became this right wing propaganda unit. But [Bud] wrote this song, “God and Guns,” that I was like “Holy shit, this guy wrote Skynyrd!” So he heard me play and told me that if I was really serious about playing, I needed to get out of New Orleans. Because I was literally dying there. His wife was from New Orleans, and they lived in New Orleans for decades, but he had just moved back up to Nashville. So I planned and then eight months later, I asked if I could stay with him and he was like “Sure.” Turns out, he lived in Goodlettsville. I didn’t know that. I didn’t have a car, and I got dropped off by - at the time - ex-girlfriend who’s now my wife. But I got dropped off here by her, I broke up with her, but got the ride from her, got dropped off on Bud’s doorstep and stayed with his wife and him for a month or so until I found my footing, found a car, and a job. First job I had was being the doorman at Red Door. I took it from there…. Sorry, this is very long.

N/I - No, not at all. By all means, I invite these types of deep dives.

Ben - Tangential? Cool. [Bud] was taking me around to music row song swaps and I just remember thinking I had made a terrible mistake.

N/I - Really?

Ben - Well, yeah. Everyone was writing these super…. All the “in the round” things seemed like the worst kind of songwriting.

N/I - Like the “champagne dreams” sort of songs?

Ben - Yeah! It was back when people were still doing the country rap stuff, and just really horrible cold Bud Light in the console nonsense. I remember being like “Jesus, I’m stuck here now. What have I done?” I remember banging my head against the wall for about a year and almost went back to New Orleans, but then my friend Chris Watts moved up here, and he brought this girl to an open mic. Her name was Becky Warren.

N/I - Yeah! She’s great.

Ben - Dude, Becky Warren is amazing. I met her during the first nine months that I was here, and she gave me this demo that she had been working on, and it was fucking incredible. We became really fast friends, and she’s basically the reason I stayed in Nashville. If Becky was here, hustling and doing it, then I’m going to do it to.

N/I - There was some reassurance there.

Ben - She was basically my human crutch for a year and a half. All the existential crisis, and she was writing these great songs, and then she won the Kerrville New Folk thing, and so I applied the next year and got in and I wound up winning. Then we did some touring together. But then we had a falling out - I stole her car and drove it to New Orleans one time in a fugue state basically - but now we’re friends again.

N/I - Well that’s a relief [laughs].

Ben - It took a while. And you know, it took me about two years to start finding people. I met Joe Lekkas, who co-produced my last two albums, and then a booking agent, which was super fortuitous, and then that’s when I started touring full-time. It all escalated from there.

N/I - Well that’s a whirlwind of a story, but ends up pretty positively.

Ben - I think there’s something to be said for sticking it out.

N/I - So how if you had to ballpark, how many days are you on the road?

Ben - Well luckily, I’m pretty good at keeping track of all that, so somewhere around one hundred fifty, one hundred sixty days a year.

N/I - Okay. That’s a healthy tour schedule.

Ben - And I think that some years - this will be the third year that I’ve consistently toured - this year it may be a little more because I have the new album.

N/I - Well you just came off the road somewhat recently.

Ben - Yeah. Like a week ago. I’ll be back out at least half of April and most of May, because the album’s out in April and then go from there.

N/I - So what does a tour look like for you? Is it just you?

Ben - It’s just me. There’s no way to make any money with a full band at this stage.

N/I - There’s a big jump in terms of all sorts of resources to go from singer songwriter to solo artist traveling with even one or two more band members.

Ben - Absolutely. There’s all kinds of things that become logistically different. Everything from the vehicle you use, to where you stay, and that’s not even getting to the payment.

N/I - Exactly. That’s a big thing that always amazes me - if somebody doesn’t take that into consideration, or the opposite. Learning how people operate in terms of their tour style is pretty indicative to their persona.

Ben - Right. And talking about parameters, I really like being on my own.

N/I - I’m the same way.

Ben - That’s what I’m romantically engaged with. When I was a kid and listened to Townes Van Zandt or Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne, I would imagine this troubadour type character. Walking down a dusty highway with a guitar. So for me, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a romantic notion, still. And playing hundreds and hundreds of shows on my own, some of which are absolutely horrendous is really an experience.

N/I - Oh, I’m sure.

Ben - A year and a half ago, I drove from Chilliwack, Canada to Yuma, Arizona in forty-eight hours, playing three shows on the way.

N/I - You’re kidding.

Ben - That’s like fourteen, fifteen hundred miles. But even that has some beatnik romance to it.

N/I -  Right. It’s very Kerouac-ish.

Ben - Exactly. I read On the Road, and that also kind of fucked my mind up. Absolutely. It is like that. You read that when you’re a teenager and you’d do anything to have that life.

N/I - Absolutely. There’s an appeal of doing stuff like that, especially in the name of self-realization.

Ben - Exactly. Why the fuck not?

N/I - Sometimes you need purpose, even if it’s just driving in one direction to reach a far away stopping point.

Ben - I think it gets to a point where just movement in general takes on its own momentum.

N/I - I think so.

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Ben - It’s one of Newton’s principles - An object in motion, stays in motion. For better or worse, you have to be careful, because what you put in motion could stay in motion whether you want it or not. That includes the human body [laughs].

N/I - Sure it does.

Ben - But I also have a theory that humans are not meant to travel faster than the speed of maybe a running horse.

N/I - I think that’s highly likely.

Ben - So I do think it does give you a particular feeling. Like when you come off the highway and you feel like you’re starting to trip on mushrooms or something. Things are starting to bend a little. Everything takes on a slightly anxiety inducing nightmare shade.

N/I - Talking to you might seem normal, but then something in the corner keeps catching my eye, even though it might not be there.

Ben - Exactly. And I think that’s because we went from traveling at one speed for millennia and then suddenly, in the last fifty years, we’re traveling at four hundred miles per hour.

N/I - Through the air, of all places. There’s something to be said for all that. The interstate highway system is very uniform - and there’s a reason for that - but we’re not necessarily accustomed to seeing the same general thing for five, six, seven, ten, twelve hours.

Ben - No. Not at all.

N/I - So I think there’s something to that as far as warping your perception.

Ben - And the whole combination of how the state routes had all these weird little mom and pop places, but now it’s like another fucking Subway.

N/I - There used to be plenty of stop offs, but now the stop offs are uniform.

Ben - Super uniform.

N/I - And it’s almost always a Subway.

Ben - It’s always a Subway.

N/I - It took hold in the early 2000s, and then after a very unfortunate PR thing….

Ben - Oh my god, yeah. But it survived it, somehow.

N/I - Anyway, let’s try not to spend too much time on that subject [laughs]. Probably just nip that in the bud.

Ben - [Laughs] That’s fine by me.

N/I - So how do you approach a new release?

Ben - With trepidation.

N/I - That’s fair.

Ben - I’m always pessimistically hopeful.

N/I - You say “pessimistically” - is that to try and keep yourself realistic about it?

Ben - Well it’s a combination. I’ve had disastrous outcomes before - not disastrous - but super “World ends in a whimper” kind of thing. You don’t want to have expectations, you know? I think expectations are the root of all human unhappiness. Both good and bad expectations.

N/I - Well that’s why I wanted to ask.

Ben - I have anticipation, but I don’t have expectation. Or I work to not have expectations. I don’t always succeed in that sense.

N/I - Well let’s steer clear of expectations then. You said “trepidation,” because you’ve had past experiences that have shown things going out with more of a blither rather than a bang.

Ben - Yeah. It’s that type of stuff that gives a lot of musicians anxiety, and they deal with it in not so healthy ways.

N/I - Like the drinking and drugs. Or just general excess.

Ben - Right. I drink very little now. I’ve had enough back and forth with it where now I basically try to get myself almost to zero in terms of drink allowance on the road. Also, when you’re the one doing all the driving….

N/I - Well you’re almost in a spot where you can’t over indulge.

Ben - Well, you can. You’d be amazed how much people do it. But you’re really rolling the dice.

N/I - It’s pretty terrifying.

Ben - And then you wound up burnt out at thirty five. It’s funny to me when people live like that - as musicians - and then call themselves entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur finds a niche need in the market and then serves it. Whereas we’re the opposite of that, we’re in a market that is grotesquely over served. So you could be really talented, but if you’re a total degenerate all the time, there’s going to come a point that people don’t want to deal with your shit, no matter how talented you are.

N/I - There are all sorts of margins to accidentally exceed, and then it’s really tough to come back.

Ben - It really is. And then you only get so many bridges to burn. So I want to try and minimize that as much as possible.

N/I - I’d say that’s pretty wise.

Ben - I hope so. But I got there from burning some bridges of my own. I don’t want to be that guy any more.

N/I - Well everyone burns bridges whether they mean to or not.

Ben - There’s a perverse romance to it.

N/I - You have the idea of romantic achievement, only to realize that it’s not, and you take what you can from that experience, and then you move on from it.

Ben - And the further on you get, you rub elbows with people who you consider to be your heroes - I opened some shows for Robert Earl Keen, and they’ve got parties and it’s fun after the show, but he and his band are on it. They show up, have a really good sound check, they head out, get some food, and whatever, then they play. That’s how you learn how Robert Earl Keen….

N/I - Became Robert Earl Keen.

Ben - Exactly. And there are people who are arguably just as talented who languished in obscurity forever, because they’re not able to check themselves. You have to learn to do that. That’s also part of the advantage of having lived a life before music. I’ve worked on farms, I’ve been a janitor in a mental hospital. I’ve had all sorts of horrible jobs, so when I’m feeling sorry for myself, or tempted to blow stuff off, I ask myself if I really want to go back to scrubbing toilets. Or getting cow shit all over me while milking some angry cow. Or bartending in some terrible dive bar. So it’s that way I realize I don’t want to, and that I’m super lucky to be doing this at all. I think it’s one of my mantras in all of this. It’s like a highlight reel of all the bad gigs that remind me to chill the fuck out.

N/I - It balances you.

Ben - Yeah. Whereas a lot of people who are in their early twenties that wind up with a record deal seem to warp a bit. That’s all they’ve known.

N/I - Oh yeah. Everyone I’ve talked to that’s been in that situation, they almost all are grateful for the experience, but at the same time seem to wish they could do things a little later in life. Having it happen to early sort of turns into “What do I do with all this access?”

Ben - And there’s really no place to go but down. Very few people turn into Bob Dylan at nineteen and they never leave. I’ve played with enough people who were supposed to be the next Ryan Adams to know that things don’t always go as expected. It’s like they say, if you can’t be a good example, you can be a terrible warning.

The High Cost of Living Strange is available across all streaming platforms.

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