An interview with Ben from This Is Radio Silence

27 August 2010

As long time readers of this blog will know, I like to listen to music while I am writing, with variable results and degrees of success. In fact, the first thing that I do when I embark on any new writing project is work on the accompanying playlist in an attempt to set the mood of the ensuing WORK OF PURE GENIUS.

Earth Loop Recall and the follow up band This Is Radio Silence both feature very heavily in my writing playlists and I have been lucky enough to know their front man, fellow angsty redhead Ben for many years, ever since we were introduced in a boozer near Southwark Station and probably went for curry soon afterwards.

If you like synthy, vividly textured, gloomy but curiously uplifting, soundtrack like alternative music with a bittersweet edge then I reckon you’ll probably like This Is Radio Silence and here is Ben himself to explain why. It’s quite a long interview so you may want to furnish yourself with cake and gin before you start reading and read you must because Ben is pretty damn interesting when it comes to music, why working for investment banks is the BLACK ABYSS OF THE SOUL and why the Devonshire Arms in Camden should be turned into a football pub:

So, your new band This Is Radio Silence seems to incorporate many elements of Earth Loop Recall. Would you say that it is a progression forwards or something totally different?

Difficult one to start! I wrote the lyrics and the majority of the music in ELR, and TIRS has to now been a continuation of that songwriting. Coming from the same person and similar sonic palette, I guess it’s not a huge surprise that there’s going to be the impression of some continuity. It’s probably also an acceptance on my part that ELR was a good band, we had some good songs. I’ve reacted against previous projects a lot in the last 5 or 6 years, by joining completely different-sounding bands or by writing deliberately contrasting music. But I get drawn each time to what I do naturally. And this is what I do naturally. I’ve learned with time though that you can be diverse without sounding disjointed, that it’s okay to experiment or bring varying influences and ideas into the mix without being afraid. As a result, I’m creatively the happiest I’ve ever been right now.

I see that your live set includes a cover version of New Model Army’s ‘Lovesongs’. I didn’t realise that you are a NMA fan. Was there any particular reason why you chose that song? Can I make a request for a cover of Stupid Questions?

That was a one-off for the first TIRS show I played. Two very dear friends of mine had just got engaged, and given they are both huge NMA fans, I played the song at that gig for them. It’s a song I love, from an album I’m very fond of, but I wouldn’t say I’m a big NMA fan really. It had a lot of meaning for me at that particular gig, but the gig itself was also a one-off. It was both symbolic and important to me to do that gig solo. Surviving that show gave me the confidence to take TIRS further, that I could still do it.

I know that you really like PIL – did you set out to be the goth scene’s angsty, redheaded answer to John Lydon or was that incidental?

Haha, not at all! Yeah, I do love PiL, and I’ve a lot of time for Uncle Johnny these days. My parents gave me this hair colour, and the hairline they also gave me has dictated that there’s only so much I can do with it… any similarity is purely coincidental!

I do have to say though that PiL’s show at Brixton Academy in December was one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen. Nevermind the Pistols, PiL is where Lydon really thrives as a frontman in my opinion.

What other bands have been an influence on your work? Do you have different influences for ELR and TIRS? I have listened to your stuff a lot and have never, to my shame, been able to pick out any really stand out influences, which is probably a good thing but what music out there do you find inspiring?

It’s really difficult for me to pick out a ‘definitive list’ of bands… this probably sounds like an awful muso cliché but I’m influenced by practically everything I listen to.

My key influences have been consistent though – The Chameleons, NIN, Levitation, Joy Division, Wire, Darkstar, Therapy?, Smashing Pumpkins, PiL, The Clash, Alice In Chains, Tool, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, UNKLE… and lately I’ve been getting obsessed again with bands like Bark Psychosis, The Young Gods, Black Heart Procession, Swans, Loop…

I guess with TIRS, I’ve been able to be more comfortable with expressing wider influences – I love dub music, OLD dub music in particular… more in the new material than with what’s been released to date… then I’m listening to a lot of electro stuff like Trentemoller and Moderat right now… a lot of current guitar bands leave me cold right now, it’s almost as though guitarists have stopped putting any effort into making good sounds, there’s so much jingle-jangle crap about… that’s what I love about psychedelic music, using guitars like synths almost, layers and walls of sound – that’s something I’ve always been interested in and still like to do where appropriate. Infact, I consider TIRS to be more of a psychedelic rock band than anything else, certainly in how we sound live. The trick I guess is to translate that sound onto record better. I played fairly safe with ‘Now There’s Nothing’, but we’ve got some new tracks which are like cathartic trips. Levitation are probably my favourite band for doing that kind of thing.

Actually, I should apologise for linking you with the goth scene. When you first started out, was it your intention to be a goth band or did it happen by accident?

Yes, perhaps you should! ;)

When we started ELR, I don’t think we were even aware of there still being a goth ‘scene’. We all went to rock/indie/dance clubs at the time. I didn’t even equate bands like NIN, The Young Gods or Skinny Puppy as being ‘goth’ – to me the industrial bands were just an extension of the rock scene. It was only when we signed to Wasp Factory and I checked out a copy of Meltdown Magazine that I became aware of a ‘scene’, of things like WGW. Given Wasp Factory were steeped in that scene, we pretty much found ourselves there by association. But if our music appealed, I didn’t – and don’t – care about ‘scenes’, or whatever. Given my main influences come from the post-punk and industrial genres, it’s now bloody obvious that the huge umbrella of this ‘scene’ will cover us too.

Looking back now, I have to say I’m really embarrassed about the ELR gig at WGW… I certainly know that I had a lack of respect for the scene and therefore the audience that night. It’s the one gig I wish I could go back and do again. It’d stay sober and straight for starters. I was so obliterated I had no control over anything, including my larynx. The desk recording from that gig is fucking awful, I sound like a cross between Ian Brown and Darth Vader. Not my proudest moment.

All this said, I still don’t consider ELR or TIRS as being ‘goth’ bands, never will. I think it requires a bit more than a few minor chords and some disgruntled lyrics to qualify for that accolade…

Of course, one of the things that you are best known for in goth circles is the now infamous occasion when you were refused entry to the Devonshire Arms in Camden a week before you were due to do a gig there. I can’t remember the details but was it because you didn’t look goth enough to come in. Have you made your peace with them?

Haha! Aw, bless the Dev… Yeah, it was July 2003. Around that time I’d go there every other Sunday evening for shits & giggles with some friends. The week before ELR were booked to play there, me and one of my ex-bandmates went down there to flyer the gig. I’d previously had fairly unkempt hair, near enough nose-length, but that week I’d had it cut short. And with this new hairdo, it was deemed that my stock combo of DMs, black jeans, black t-shirt and leather jacket weren’t ‘goth enough’ to get me into the pub. Now, secretly I was delighted… but pissed off all the same. I asked the bouncing baby on the door what WAS ‘goth enough’, and he pointed at a couple of cybers out the front smoking. That made me laugh too. So I asked Tiny, “when I come to play my gig here on Friday, what will you say to me then?”. His response was the same… “this is a gothic venue, you can’t come in”.

So yeah, we pulled the gig. And I lost almost all respect I’d previously had for the ‘goth scene’ that night. Which was stupid, as my grievance was with Steroids Boy, not the scene. That lack of respect carried me angrily onstage at WGW 8 months later.

And no, I never made my peace with that pub. Had I won the lottery at the time, I’d have bought the owners out and turned that dump into a football-themed pub with a ‘no goths’ door policy…

I know that you are particularly proud of the ELR gig that you did at the Water Rats in London – have you had anything approaching that sort of feeling about a live performance since?

    I’m not sure, really. It was a unique night, the first time in my life I’d played to a venue so in tune with what we were doing. It was the first time I’d seen people in the audience I didn’t recognize singing our songs. We were on fire that night, we felt like a force of nature. The album came out that night too, so it was like we’d reached the summit of a mountain we’d been climbing for the previous two years. I didn’t want that gig to end.

    There have been some gigs since which I’ve loved – playing guitar for Naevus in Vilnius and Leipzig; SonVer at The Cube in Bristol and Edinburgh, probably the first time we played Latitude Festival too. But I don’t think anything has yet compared with that ELR gig. Every time I go to a gig at The Water Rats, the hairs on the back of my neck stick up. Sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

    What happened about the second ELR album ‘This Means Nothing To You’? Are you planning to release it or are the tracks forming part of the TIRS project?

    ELR mkII was a strange one… because mkI split when we’d just started work on album #2, I was desperate to achieve that goal second time around. As it was, while I was doing the best I could in terms of crafting that album, I knew deep down it wasn’t an ELR album. The music was pointed differently, and now I know it was in fact what could have been the first TIRS album. ‘Now There’s Nothing’ featured a few tracks that were originally intended for that album – ‘Adoration’, ‘Unbeautiful’ and ‘We Fall Apart’. Even ‘000000’ appeared around that time. The b-side to ‘The Heart Grows Fonder’ (‘TMNTY’) was going to be the title track. They were the tracks I didn’t want to lose to the sands of time. Then there were other tracks, like ‘Disconnected’ and ‘Juxta’, which I’m happy I threw out, because they were fucking crap.

    There’s a track which’ll be on the next TIRS release called ‘Swansong’ – it’s another song which was originally intended to be on that ELR 2nd album. It wasn’t finished at the time and in fact I’ve only in the last 2 months finished the lyrics. I had more living to do before I could pull that song off. I’ve done the necessary living now. It’s probably the most cathartic song I’ve written since ‘Mesh’. Hard work, but very fucking necessary. And I’m really proud of it.

    I wasn’t actually going to talk about Sonver, another project that you were a big part of, but I was always amazed by how different it is to ELR and TIRS, although it has the same melancholy, cinematic feel. Would you consider working on something like that again?

    There’ll always be part of me which loves the cinematic, soundtrack-type music. Behind the scenes I’m working on an album of instrumental music right now called ‘The Oneironaut’. The concept is to write a series of short soundtracks to various vivid dreams I’ve had over the years. The ones I remember, anyway. The first track from this is on the TIRS Myspace and is called ‘Sol Niger’ – a track about an apocalyptic nightmare I had as a kid. It fucked me up, that dream.

    SonVer *was* very different musically, and deliberately so. It started just after ELR split first time around, and SonVer felt like a reaction to ELR to some extent. In the end though, I lost touch with what SonVer was about. Even without lyrics, I need to feel connection with the music and the theme of that music. The themes were becoming so steeped in the spiritual world, I felt lost. I write from and about humans, emotions, archetypes. I have to confess, I still have no idea what the ‘Alchemy Of Man’ live AV show we did as SonVer was really about, or what it was really meant to get across.

    The music I was making as TIRS was calling me louder and louder in the end. I’d exhausted my post-rock capabilities. SonVer imploding chaotically after Latitude 2009 wasn’t such a bad thing. Though I helped Jo out with a few SonVer shows at the end of last year, Latitude was the last real SonVer gig in my opinion. The last few gigs were weird. There was this tension which held the band together. When The Truth came out, that tension wasn’t there anymore, the band fell apart. It never could have continued with that line-up. I couldn’t continue in SonVer. But that meant I could ultimately focus on TIRS. And having a full band for this project one year on makes me very proud. A lot has happened, a lot has changed. I’m happy now.

    Your songs with ELR and TIRS all seem to have very despondent lyrics about dysfunctional relationships, break ups and general woe. Was that intentional or am I actually misreading them totally? What made you first think ‘You know what, I think I am going to write a song about this!’ Do all your songs have personal meanings?

    It’s true. I write from myself, I’m happy to admit that. My life isn’t as doom-laden as the songs might suggest though, honest! Truth is, lyrics about a relationship break-up makes for a better song than a nice day by the seaside, wouldn’t you agree?

    I’ve been through no more shit than the average person, if not less. I’ve just been notoriously bad at internalizing too much over the years, and writing creatively has been, on the whole, my best method of self-therapy. (hence the name of the project)

    Having known you for a while now, I know that you are rather fond of your drink as are a lot of creative types, let’s face it. Do you find that it makes you more creative and honest in your lyric writing or do you read back stuff in the morning and think ‘Oh God NO’ and lock it away in a vault, never to be seen again.

    Funnily enough, I write VERY LITTLE when I’m out of it these days. If ever. I don’t have that ability to stay focused enough. That’s why I’ve fucked up onstage in the past so often, and why as a rule I’m really strict about being sober when I go onstage now.

    When ELR started I used to have a routine: 8 cans and a wrap. Write/demo a song. It worked for a while, it spawned tracks like ‘Optimism Creeping In’, ‘Reconnect’, ‘Slowly Going Under’ and ‘Mesh’… but there was also something kinda tragic about being a 21 year-old, holed up in a tiny bedroom on a Friday night with a multi-track, getting fucked up… I’d just come out of a long term relationship and my coping mechanism was that routine. Mark (Waterhouse) was brilliant for me, got me out of the house and into the bright lights, got me meeting people and having fun again. He was the best mate I could have asked for at the time. He was also great in encouraging me to channel my catharsis into the music, the band… until then it was all channeled inwardly. Not healthy.

    But yeah, I write stuff all the time which I read again, or listen to again later and go “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS DOGSHIT?!?. I’ve probably also thrown away a lot of good music too, just because I’ve not been in the right mood during playback. I just hope I’ve kept enough of the good ones to get away with it though!.

    I’ve often been alarmed by how angry you get with people in general and yet in person you are such a sweet, friendly guy. Do you channel this frustration with humanity into your music? Have you ever written a song so misanthropic that it will never see the light of day?

    There’s a lot to feel angry about. All you have to do is read the right papers to be made aware of that, in the global sense. Closer to home, I hate liars, cheaters. My childhood set me up in that respect.

    I spent two years working in corporate services for an Investment Bank. That place was full of scum. I woke up angry and went to sleep angry. The culture of those people disgusted me. I feel I had more reason than most to have a little laugh when the markets collapsed and those c+nts started to be exposed. But ultimately that culture will never change. People will always be obsessed by money to the extent that they dehumanize themselves and become pigs. That place was like Lord Of The Flies.

    But I’m not an angry person on the whole, not anymore. There are only so many times you can throw a rock in the air, miss the guilty one and hit someone innocent before you realise you have to change. A lot of anger came from my inability to externalize properly, but a few things happened in the last couple of years which have meant that I’m healthier in than respect.

    I still maintain my contempt for liars, for backstabbers, for cheats, for people who knowingly break promises, for people who knowingly abuse friendship. That won’t change. Ever. I’ve written a song called ‘You Are Not My Friends’ about two former acquaintances who can rightly be attributed with all of those things. It’s nasty as fuck, sounds like ‘Downward Spiral’ era NIN. I don’t know if I’ll ever put it out, it almost doesn’t seem relevant or musically correct in context to everything else I’ve done lately.

    Thing is, yeah- I’d like to think that I’m a regular kinda guy. I love my friends. I love my lady. I love cats. I love blue skies. I honestly do my best to see as much good in things and in people as I can. That’s a change to how I used to be. I feel I’m a better person now. Fitter? Probably not; but Happier? Definitely.

    One of my favourite ELR songs is Reconnect. Could you talk a bit about what it is about?

    It was coming out of a mutually destructive, unhealthy relationship. The proverbial ‘fuck you’ to the ex. I think of it as being a bit naïve now, looking back. It was part of a phase I went through of lyrically punching my way out of situations. A teenage sister-song to ‘Optimism Creeping In’, I suppose. There is optimism there, but I think tainted with too much bitterness to really make it genuine. A strange one.

    On the very rare occasion I’ve listened to ‘Compulsion’, I’ve always skipped that track. When I wrote it, it was method writing on my part. We needed something a bit more ‘up’ for the live set, and I came out with ‘Reconnect’ one night. I think we bollocksed up the album version, it sounds contrived, drums are awful, there’s neither the chaos nor energy of how we used to play it live. We argued over that fucking track so much… But it worked for other people. A lot of people seemed to latch onto it, so I can’t disown it. Especially as you like it too!

    Actually, what is your favourite ELR song? Not just the one you are most proud of, but maybe the one that you think of most fondly?

    Definitely ‘Like Machines’. Musically it’s my favourite, lyrically it’s my favourite, it was always my favourite to play live and it’s also the one song I’m most proud of. So many times we’d play it and I’d lose myself in the song completely. It’d probably be faux pas to do so, but it’d be the one ELR song I’d love to play live with TIRS.

    The Heart Grows Fonder by TIRS is one of my favourite songs. I think it is really quite beautiful and although it clearly comes from the same stable of regret as ELR, it has a different sound to it. Can you talk about what inspired it and why you decided to move in this new direction?

    When I wrote that song, it was genuinely an out-and-out love song. It just appeared. Written and recorded in 12 hours. I’d been trying to write a load of fairly complex ‘clever’ music, using jazz drum sounds, little samples, trip hop keyboard sounds, stuff like that. I think I just had enough one day, decided to write a straight-up, simple pop-rock song. The melody wrote itself, as did the lyrics. To me now, it almost sounds underwritten, but I’m proud of it. It was just expressing the all-conquering nature of love, a simple-yet-powerful sentiment. It’s the most optimistic, looking-towards-the-light song I’ve ever written.

    Once I’d finished it, I knew it was something which was re-pointing me, musically. That it was okay for me to write something… a bit more FM-friendly, y’know? I’d been bad at previously setting rules for myself musically which I was too scared of breaking, or discarding. ‘…Fonder’ was the moment I acknowledged the fact that I was not obliged to stick to those rules forever. In this case, I was chucking out the ‘no love song’ rule. And I’m glad, that song is both very important and very dear to me.

    Anyway, thanks so much Ben and finally, if you had to recommend one of your songs for a romantic evening in, which one would you choose?

    Haha! Depends on your idea of romance, but I think it’s easy to say that everything on ‘Now There’s Nothing’ would be out of the question! I honestly could NEVER imagine wining and dining by candlelight with ‘We Fall Apart’ droning away on the stereo, could you? Actually, I’m probably the wrong person to ask, as I can’t think of many things less sexy than my own music…

    I can though recommend UNKLE’s ‘Never Never Land’, anything by Trentemoller, and ‘UFOrb’ by The Orb. Oh, and Howling Bells. Her voice gets me every time… but maybe that’s better for a romantic evening in with myself… xxx

    If you fancy checking out some really awesome music:

    This Is Radio Silence website.

    This Is Radio Silence MySpace.

    Earth Loop Recall MySpace.

    Thanks again Ben! x

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