The Rise & Fall & Rise Of Ben Lee
San Francisco Ben Lee is a beach bum from Australia, who radiates the organic charm that part of the world seems to imbue in its natives. Actually, he may look like a beach bum, but he's a veteran rock/pop star who, at age 24, has been in the music business for a decade, and who at just 14 was singled out for success by members of Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. His fourth solo album, Hey You. Yes You. (F2 music) has just been released in the U.S., where he's been touring.
When you talk to him, he looks at you shyly, but in the eye. He is respectful and engaging as polite as you would hope a boy would be when meeting your parents. Light-skinned, with curly gold hair, his grey green eyes light up animatedly as he talks.
He sees his life unfolding in the third person; witnessing Ben as well as being Ben. He says he tells himself, "if you do what you're purely meant to be doing, you'll be fine, you'll be healthy."
Lee is sitting in the upstairs lounge at The Fillmore, a few hours before the evening's performance. A few years back he had a near nervous breakdown, but he's since gotten his life on track. "I still get sick, I'm a little grumpy," he said. "I think the big decisions I am getting right, but at a more minute level I'm capable of a much higher degree of connecting, more generosity than I am able to give right now but that's like a lifetime's work."
His tone when saying this is one of acceptance, resigned that there are important things that happen in life that take a long time to learn. "Most of the time we get the opposite of what we want, but we get what we need," he said. "That's why our desires get us into trouble; they're not what we need. I'm fortunate enough to get really what I need. The fun I'm having now is because of that so it's cool."
Lee is an extremely busy 24-year-old trying to stay focused on not being focused. "I don't want to continue what I am doing," he said in between bites of grilled yellowtail and vegetarian ravioli. "I just want to see the arrows. I want to do what I have to do tomorrow, tomorrow. I want to be clear-headed and connected as much to that as I can be."
He still considers himself a singer/songwriter/musician, but he is also a photographer, movie star, and a committed student of Qigong philosophy. "Essentially it is about following your intuition. If you feel like a slice of pizza, eat a slice of pizza. That's the deepest Chinese philosophy you could ever learn," he told The Age.com earlier this year.
In 1992 Lee founded Noise Addict, audaciously making his first record at age 14. As the leader of Noise Addict, he recorded several singles/EPs, including one that was released in 1993 in the U.S. by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on his Ecstatic Peace label. Noise Addict then caught the eye of Beastie Boy Mike D., who signed them to the Beastie Boys' ultra-cool New York-based label, Grand Royal (which released albums for Atari Teenage Riot, Luscious Jackson, and Sean Lennon, among others, before folding in 2001); one Noise Addict album, 1996's Meet the Real You, was released before the group broke up.
Meanwhile, Lee had began a solo career and recorded two solo albums for Grand Royal: 1995's Grandpaw Would and 1997's Something to Remember Me By. Neither sold many copies (a few thousand), but they helped him become a national Australian pop idol. His third solo album, 1999's Breathing Tornadoes, was a critically acclaimed breakthrough pop record that went platinum in Australia (sales of over 70,000 copies), securing an even warmer place for him in the hearts of his countrymen and -women.
Recently he's been quite busy, starring in his first film, the comedy "The Rage at Placid Lake," which was voted "Best Feature Film" by the audiences at the Sydney Film Festival. He toured the U.S. as part of "The Bens" tour with Ben Folds and Ben Kweller, appeared on the 12-song Australian singer sampler CD Mixed Tape, wrote songs with childhood nemesis Evan Dando (formerly of The Lemonheads) that appeared on Dando's latest album, Baby, I'm Bored, and sang on a recording with Down Under diva Kylie Minogue. And then, of course, there's that new album.
"True artistry is creative and productive. It's evolutionary, not destructive," Lee said.
Lee speaks in a musical way, flowing from one idea to another smoothly and with rhythm. Our conversation was a chatty back-and-forth of theories and questions; trying to figure out how to describe who he is as a person and an artist, catching up on his projects, as well as general observations about the way of the world and what blows his mind. At one point he says his Qigong master is "trying to teach him to stop looking at things as objects, and instead view them as experiences."
Given the opportunity to discuss his philosophical leanings, which he relies on for creative inspiration and to help keep his complex life manageable, Lee became excited. He first and foremost considers himself a "student" of life, and the skills he is most interested in mastering are those that enable him to transform his creative meditations into action. "I believe in things that change," he said. "I believe in things that last a paradox. The most artistic things, the closest things to 'God' are always changing and never changing."
'One Disaster After Another'
Lee is one of those people who some would refer to as an "Old Soul," unusually calm and full of wisdom as if he has been through this all before, living a deja-vu life. Then you remember he is veteran of the music business, with 10 years of "pop star" behind him. He has had some time to experience and process the whole paranoia that comes with early success. "My sense of identity was so dependent on being a musician making records," he said. "I hadn't really been tested yet to see if I was really going to stand by it."
He says that at one point he began to wonder, "How strong is my resolve?" if he truly was a "real" musician, and what he would do if he didn't continue to get that "You're amazing!" reaction to everything that he did, as he had at the beginning of his career. Then in 2001 it all got to be too much. Grand Royal went bankrupt, and the record company he signed with after that was pressuring him to release a follow-up to capitalize on the momentum of Breathing Tornadoes. Additionally, the press was more interested in his relationship with actress Claire Danes than his music, and to top it off there was the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center. "9/11 felt like the perfect ending to a period in my life," he said. "It was just one disaster after another, and I thought 'what more could happen?'" Unfortunately, he has lost three close friends since, including his father last year, according to an interview with OnTap Online.
The stress of it all blocked him creatively, and he could not meet the record company's deadlines. "I've ruined everything!" he thought at the time. "I'm going to crumble if I don't have these things!"
Yet after several years and still no record to release, to his astonishment, the sky never fell. "I started realizing how important music was for me, [that] I wasn't going anywhere and it wasn't either."
He started to think that all his early success and the near nervous breakdown happened for a purpose. "I think people like me chose the situations we chose sorta like karma that at some point incarnated us to become the people we need to become in this life. I was 17 and having people tell me I was past my peak. Going through that, having that glass castle shattered so early, set me up for where I am now. All that fear was because of a superficial relationship with my work; being 'cool,' getting a good review in Rolling Stone. The music I'll end up doing, my life's work, will be pretty far removed from that [early music]."
He had discovered his core strength, that he'd survived the trials of growing up, and reached a turning point; he was still living with fear, but no longer afraid. He was off and running to the San Francisco studio of producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorillaz, Dr. Octagon, Deltron 3030, Handsome Boy Modeling School), and within a few months his fourth record was born.
'A Dirty, Soulful Album About Imperfection'
Hey You. Yes You., first released in Australia in 2002, but just being released now in the U.S., is a clearinghouse of perceptions, sensations, feelings, and the ideas of an extremely self-aware young man. He describes it as "a dirty, soulful album about imperfection."
The songs are experiments in acoustic fusion with trancy electronica, sharp samples, soft syncopations and electronic beats. The spirit is literally something borrowed, something blue traditional romantic themes and blue notes. His voice doesn't have a wide range, but it is solid, soothing, melodic and full of stoic emotion. His accent makes this album, when taken as a whole tactilely Australian.
Lee told me he has a hard time considering himself a "composer." He feels music is part of everyone, all a natural part of an ongoing process. In his eyes, creating music does not amount to composition, but a contribution to the body of music as a whole. "If you cut yourself, it heals, it's productive, a creative act," he said. "Art should be like that. Everything in nature follows the same cycles. Why do we try and be different? Why do we have to get competitive? Everyone has a theory and an opinion none of it matters. An artist makes the work they have to make."
Unapologetically a "pop" record, Hey You. Yes You. invokes the intangible sensation of youth culture convincingly. Most of the songs feel bright and hopeful. With young bravado, he dares those on the sidelines to take a risk ("Can't hear the song until you dance, we run with scissors in our hands" "Running With Scissors"), and comforts those nursing broken hearts with been there/done that assurance ("The hurt goes away, when I hear myself say/ You leave me, no room, to bleed" "No Room to Bleed"). When the tone turns serious, he does not reject his depressed thoughts, but he does not embrace them either.
By and large, the spirit of the record is one of determination, of finding a way to be better than the worst things that have happened to him. It suggests we might as well do the same, considering the alternative ("Misery is too depressing," he sings). It is an album which is neither complete protest nor complete acceptance; replete with the dignified pathos of a spiritual young artist brave enough to grow up exposing publicly, with intensity and depth of feeling, his personal mystique about what he believes about the world and his role in it.
His music albums are like photo albums, each song a snapshot of his unusual journey through adolescence. His music reflects a life conscious of the importance of nurturing freedom and independence of mind. He realizes freeing your inner life from chaos is not cumulative, it takes constant courage; trial after trial, error after error to learn. "We say we want to change, but not too much," Lee said. "We're conditioned in the way we want to interact with our lives. We get caught up in the minutia of social contracts like dividing things into 'good' and 'bad.' If we REALLY wake up, REALLY live in a pure way, we'll wake up to a different universe and won't be involved in life the same way. I look around and see every single person has the same issue that's being human, that's what it's all about."
Lee is a spiritual man, but he doesn't follow a particular religion. "I'm not Buddhist," he said. "I believe in 'God.' I believe in everything. I just want to be told what to do." He had written on his arm that night, "A Change Is Gonna Come," as a reminder to stay engaged in being open to "an unexpected change of direction."
'You Can't Just Destroy, Destroy, Destroy'
Ben Lee is a mellow and happy guy, constantly monitoring his choices and trying to choose positively and wisely. He does not want to self-destruct by turning negative feelings back on himself. (He told OnTap Online that a close friend had recently overdosed on heroin.) "I see people putting all their worries and negativity, a lot of ego, in their work, instead of just adding to the story," he said. "You can't just destroy, destroy, destroy eventually you have to be generating something. That was the basic problem of Punk Rock, it's why Punk had to destroy itself, its very premise could not survive."
With this idea in the forefront of his mind, he says he is trying to take his own advice; just listen to this internal voice and obey. He tells me this is sometimes scary, that "stress is my biggest vice."
He's interested in creative evolution. "If I see a performer who never evolves, I question their artistry," he said. "If they evolve too much, if they're totally chameleon-like no sense of self in their work, they can do 50 genres perfectly I'm not convinced. I need there to be both."
He is cool with letting his fans witness his evolution. He bashfully admits the relationship he has with his fans "is DEEP, and just getting DEEPER." He is reluctant to admit this too loudly, as if anticipating a rolling of the eyes but he is very sincere. "It's like a long-term relationship; a different kind of thrill. My music is not, has never been, and probably won't be about standing in a bar looking at a person you want to fuck. I'm starting to get into it psychically really the depths of what I have to give to the world and it is so not about that stuff."
One suspects that as he grows older his music will remain recognizable, but in a very subtle sense. Its primary features will be the same, but age will alter its appearance. In a culture in search of the definitive, Lee is in search of the tentative. He feels he is on a magical mystery tour of himself, with no idea where it will take him. "Whatever commercial success I am or am not destined for, it will never be The Strokes, never be the Sex Pistols, or The Vines. It's a different thing; a long path that is filled with clumsiness, mistakes, and tenderness."
He is trying to maintain the same hope that two new lovers share with a first trembling kiss: romantic whimsy tempered by experiences to the contrary, faith that his life will all add up to something meaningful and satisfying in the end.
Playing The Fillmore
For a young musician from a faraway land, playing The Fillmore falls in the category of "TOTALLY Cool!," a great story to awe the grandchildren with someday. Looking down into this baroque ballroom from my second-story seat, the gilded paint glistening from the light of the enormous crystal chandeliers hanging over the crowd like jeweled stars, it is clear why this venue elicits a sense of pride in everyone who play here. In the spirit of "contributing to the story of rock 'n' roll," to be invited to mingle with the ghosts of the past on this historic stage is something special.
Lee emerged from his dressing room eager to harmonize with this proud building's luster, keen to show his respects with an offering of song. He took the legendary stage that night with visible excitement, despite the distracted crowd, most of which were there to see the headlining monster guitar squad, Fountains of Wayne, fire away. (When I asked one of their members, hard partying in the dressing room before their set, why they named the band FOW, he said "because Bucket of Filth was taken").
Lee had changed from his scrappy T-shirt and jeans into formal wear for the show; a white shirt, tailored sleeveless navy jacket and jeans. His bandmate, American McGowan Southworth, wore a very Fillmoresque red velvet coat, and jeans. Together, even though their attitude was formidable, two guys just did not appear to be an adequate number to get this crowd's attention. Non-detered, they let it rip, opening the set with an inspired "Scissors in Our Hands," and the momentum built from there. Lee was an engaging and passionate host, determined to show us a good time, and by the end of the song he had everyone tuned into this night's episode of The Ben Lee Show.
He covered a half-dozen songs off his latest album, most memorably a very soulful rendition of "Dirty Mind" (his own song, not Prince's). The irresistibly energizing "Something Borrowed, Something Blue" kept the crowd dancing, and "No Room to Bleed" allowed for some time to breathe. The most surprising number came near the end of the set when he introduced "a new little thing I've been working on." When the mystery melody suddenly became clearly Christina Aguilera's "You Are Beautiful," most everyone reacted with a chuckle: Was he was kidding? No, he was not, and he proceeded to turn a manufactured cliché of a song into a inspiring ballad.
The entire performance was like that; not what one expected, yet tremendously satisfying.
At the end of his show, he dashed up the steps to my seat and told me to come with him, that he had "something very important to give me." I anticipated an autographed CD, but was instead presented a Dixie cup of water. He told me it was blessed by the Indian mystic Mother Meera, and that he carried bottles of it with him everywhere. I asked if there was any ritual I should perform before ingesting it, and he assured me with a wink that it was OK to just go ahead and drink it. It was not meant to be a cocktail from the fountain of youth, or a magic potion that would transform me or give me special powers, but simply a vital sip of energy that had been blessed by a true believer who attracts other believers a gentle reminder that the only people who see miracles are those who believe in them, or as he sings it: "Before you can see it, you've got to let yourself dream it."
There is a theory that the brain did not create consciousness, but consciousness created the brain. That we, everyone and everything, are the children of this phenomenon operating as vessels in which this life force flows through and engages the world in its unfathomable wisdom and strength. The founder of the martial art of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, put it this way, "My energy, my power, is not coming from me. I am empty, but through my body flows the energies of all the Universe. My power is not my power, it is the Universal power."
Ben Lee is totally down with that. He does not want his life to be ABOUT him, but THROUGH him. He has happily donated his élan vital to "a life of service," humble and hopeful. He is the center of the Universe, but so is everyone else. His practice is artistry; his life work is the challenge of allowing himself to be reborn in every moment however strange it may appear. "The more intuitively you live, the crazier you seem," he said with a perturbed smile during the interview. "Your choices become non-linear. The way other people see you, they are always getting mixed messages. They are never getting the whole picture."
Perhaps accepting the frustrations of being misunderstood, detaching himself with poetic inevitability from the judgment of others is his greatest display of artistic ability. "Everything is creative," he said. "but to raise it to a level of artistry; you have to pull yourself out of it a bit. That's being an artist; living artistically. In a song, you KNOW when you want that chorus to come, you KNOW when you have to sit back, and you KNOW when it's time for a solo. We all KNOW that intuitively when the rhythm should keep going, when it's time to end. I just want to live like that." Nicole Cohen [Monday, Sept. 15, 2003}