Former South Carolina native Ben Bostick meets with us at Spoke Bicycle Cafe to discuss his sophomore album Hellfire, starting his solo career through busking, and identifying as an ‘outlaw country’ musician.
So to start off, I wanted to say congratulations on the release of your sophomore album Hellfire.
Ben Bostick: Thank you! I really appreciate it.
I love the name so much! It reminds me of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Ben: Oh yeah! I remember that song.
Would you care to share with us the type of musical stories that you’ve included on the album?
Ben: Sure! So Hellfire is comprised of songs that I wrote during a residency that I had with my band at a bar downtown called The Escondite. We were there every Sunday night for a couple of years, and we ended up creating music that was geared towards the crowd that was there: hard drinking, rough, nothing ironic, nothing too cute, nothing too slow. We wrote a ton of songs during the year, year and a half that we were there, and these are the songs that seemed to go over the best with that crowd. Just straight, rockin’ honky tonk music about being in a real shitty place in life. *laughs*
While living in L.A. *laughs*
Ben: While living in L.A. *laughs*
No wonder it resonated with the crowd! *laughs*
Ben: Yeah! I mean, there’s a song in there called “Blow Off Some Steam,” but like, the whole album is about blowing off steam.
Sometimes we need that in life, and we tend to turn to music for that.
Ben: Yes, yes we do!
Which was your favorite song to write and record? And these can be two separate ones since they’re a different process.
Ben: Yeah, I was thinking about this, and I think my favorite to record was “It Ain’t Cheap Being Poor” because it transformed in the studio from one song to another. We’d been playing a completely different way in the club where it was more straight ahead. There was a sort of a consistent quarter note rhythm which was like *quarter note example* the whole time. When we recorded it just didn’t fit with the rest of the songs and it just seemed like too much of the same thing. Our drummer had this idea to do like a New Orleans version of it, and basically the first time we took it for a spin we were like, ‘That’s way better than how we’ve been doing it!’ So that’s what we got. The recording you hear on there is probably like our second take of doing it that way and it just worked for whatever reason.
It’s interesting when that happens. Like, you think that a song is supposed to be one way, but when you take the time to sit down and work on it you realize that maybe it should actually be a different way.
Ben: I found that when I was doing my first album, when you listen to songs in sequence with the other songs from the album some things just don’t seem to fit anymore. Like, maybe the song doesn’t seem to fit right in the in that particular album. But my favorite one to write was probably “Hellfire,” the title track, just because I had a really clear idea of what I wanted the song to be. I certainly had to figure out how to write all the different verses. So it was fun to write as much as it was sort of a puzzle to make this fun yet sort of dark song at the same time. A lot of it is fun to write, but they came from pretty quick and you can’t say, ‘Yeah, it was fun to write that song for fifteen minutes.’ *laughs*
How long would you say it normally takes for you to write songs?
Ben: It depends. There’s some songs that I’ll work on for weeks and weeks, not eight hours a day obviously, but if I’m not satisfied with the song I’ll come back to it for an hour or so a day just like to try to figure out what it is. I know there’s something worth writing and that the song is worth keeping, but sometime I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it. Like, if I feel that a line sucks, I’ll try to figure out what it is about that line and what line is going to make it work in context of what else I have to change. So those songs can be frustrating or fun, but then with other songs I’ll write it in a matter of minutes. Sometime when I’m jogging or something an idea will pop in my head, and by the time I get home I’ve got another song. *laughs* So it depends.
Understandble. How was the recording, songwriting and production process different for Hellfire than that of your past work? Or I guess between your first album and this album. *laughs*
Ben: The biggest difference in songwriting was writing for a specific band in this one. My first album was truly a solo project as the songs were all written before I even had the guys really in my band. Then once I started this residency, I sort of knew everybody’s playing style and their strengths so I was writing songs that would sound good with this ensemble. Lyrically I was writing more to a theme this time, whereas the debut album is sort of thematically more diverse than. The recording and production style on this one is similar to the first one, but even more extreme. I really like recording everything together with everybody in the room and not doing any overdubs or anything like that. On the first record we sort of did that, but we had the drums in another room so that it would be isolated from the vocal mics and then the piano was over there and the bass amp was in another room. That did allow us to punch in and change a few things, but for this one is I was insistent that we do it all in one room. So I was set up right in front of the drummer, and even though the symbols are super loud and you could barely hear my vocal mike and the piano, it gave it really awesome live feel. I mean it’s sort of a rough sounding record on purpose because there’s a bunch of bleed into all the different microphones and it was all done without any possibility of ever fixing anything. That’s how you get that as raw as it can be. I mean, you can do a record if you just put one mic in the room, but we didn’t go that far. We actually didn’t mic the guitar, we mic-ed the vocals and stuff.
You were just like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to try this with more than one mic.’ *laughs*
Ben: Yeah, we didn’t go quite early Elvis on it. *laughs*
One day maybe!
Ben: Maybe! Probably not though. *laughs*
I mean, it worked back then!
Ben: True! Maybe one day if I have time to experiment, that would be fun. I feel like Neil Young does stuff like that all the time. Did you hear that one he recorded on the old wax recording thing.
Yeah! It’s so crazy.
Ben: Just him in a booth, it’s so crazy. Yeah that would be fun and all, but I don’t think people would listen to my stuff as much as they would Neil Young’s experiments. *laughs* Neil Young gets more leeway at this point in his career.
He can do no wrong. *laughs*
Ben: No. *laughs*
So you’ve also found some success in doing professional street performing, AKA busking. When and how did you decide to start incorporating that into your live performances?
Ben: I have to say, I love the phrase “professional street performing!” *both laugh* Believe it or not that’s how I first started. I’ve been playing music for since I was a kid, but it never was a professional aspiration until later on. I didn’t even think about it as something to pursue and to have a career in. So I had all sorts of different random jobs all through my twenties, and then when I was thirty or so, I was in a band that started doing pretty well. But it just wasn’t my kind of music, so I decided I was going to try to do my own solo thing. I started going to open mics because it had been a long time since I’d performed my solo stuff in public, and honestly, I didn’t find open mics to be all that inspiring. With a lot of the ones in L.A., you pay five bucks and then you have to wait for like two hours through a lot of terrible acts. Nothing against them but, but they should really try to practice more before doing that. *laughs* Then you play your one song for like five or ten minutes, you go home, and that’s your only sort of ‘stage experience.’ I had seen buskers in Santa Monica before and had decided that would be a way better way for me to get my chops up. So I looked online, got a permit and everything, went down there, and ended up playing on the pier. It was great to get to play for three hours at a time with people paying you instead of the other way around. That was truly where my music career was born, and I still go out there a couple days a week or so.
Yeah! And I’m sure it was reassuring getting good feedback on your solo stuff!
Ben: Absolutely! I mean, with my first album a lot of it was the songs that had gotten a good response from while busking. When you’re busking, there’s a lot more latitude for what styles you can do as opposed to a club. A lot of the time clubs, especially with country music bars, they expect line dances and couples dances and all those sort of things when it comes to what music you play. On the street, nobody expects anything so you can do whatever you want and I was able to try out a lot of different styles of music. Through that I found that a lot of the songs on the first record are the ones that connected with people for whatever reason.
And with playing to strangers on the street, what are some challenges that you’ve faced while busking?
Ben: There’s several. One is what to do when nobody is paying attention. A lot of times you go out there and you immediately start getting a little crowd, so it would be great to be able use the whole time for your benefit. And then sometimes you go out there and it’s as if you are a nuisance to the people in the area. *laughs* Like for whatever reason the mood that you are in is just not doing it for the people who are around. So the challenge is how to turn that around, and it’s a strange trick where you have to play only for yourself and really feel passionately about what you’re playing that will literally change the mood of the crowd. Just play from your heart. It’s a great training ground for digging deep in adverse circumstances. Another challenge is finding fresh inspiration every time you go out because even if you’re in a different crowd every day it can feel like a lot of the same. So it’s good to update your repertoire once in a while, which is something that can help with trying out stuff because not everything is a good match for you no matter how great the song is. Sometimes I run into songs that are not a great match for me just because of the way my voice is or the way I’m singing it or maybe I just don’t connect with it at all, but I’m able to try out a lot of stuff out there and see what I can actually add to a future set.
It’s almost like if you’re listening to the radio and you kept hearing the same song on every station, or even the same artist on every station.
Ben: Yup, that’s exactly it. *laughs*
But at least you’re learning your words and stuff!
Ben: That’s huge, because it takes me a long time to learn words to songs for whatever reason. Even though I love writing words, memorizing other people’s words takes me forever! *laughs* Busking allows me to go out there and get the reps to memorize covers.
It’s a good practice.
Ben: Yeah exactly!
And what are some major differences that you see in regards to how people support musicians between playing on the street and playing at a music venue?
Ben: It’s interesting. I mean, the range is so broad that it’s hard to define. On the street you often can achieve a more intimate connection with somebody than you can in a club, unless you’re playing the listening room style because those are more for songwriter types. Those are always the best because people are literally sitting there quietly listening to your words. It’s amazing! But a lot of the kinds of places that I play solo or that I play with my band are bars and nightclubs and wineries and breweries, and with those kinds of places you’re more ambiance. Nobody is focusing on what you’re doing because it’s not a concert per se. And even when you do play a concert with a band, people are focused on you but they’re interested in having a good time more than they’re listening to the songs. It’s like, even though you’re an artist making music and singing your songs, you’re just a performer. When you’re on the street, people will actually stop and listen to you, and then you’re viewed as an artist strangely enough. Like, people will come up to talk to you. I mean I have a lot of fans who keep in touch with me from all over the world who just found me on the street. For whatever reason, it’s creates a more intimate connection a lot of times.
And that’s so cool that you’ve touched people who aren’t even in the U.S. with your music. It’s even more of an indicator that music is our connector.
So you’re a transplant from South Carolina.
Ben: Yes ma’am!
Were there any culture shock things that had occurred when you moved to L.A.?
Ben: Well, I didn’t move straight from the South to L.A. I moved from South Carolina to New York first, and that to me was extremely shocking. I just remember getting off the bus in Chinatown, and I was just like, ‘Holy shit!’ It was exactly like the movies where you get off the train or get out of the car and everyone is just bustling. It was the complete opposite of South Carolina. It just felt like a fantasy land. And I think maybe the biggest shock though was going to college in New York and meeting people who did things that seemed impossible. Like, meeting film students was the craziest thing for me because in South Carolina there’s just no such thing as a film student. I mean, saying that you want to be a director is like saying that you want to be a wizard or something. *both laugh* That was sort of opened my eyes when my world was to meet people my own age people who had aspirations to do things that I thought were impossible. And then L.A., I remember coming here for the first time. I was dating a girl from here, we came back for spring break or something like that, and the biggest shock was that the negative connotations were not all true. You think it’s going to be like in the movies where you’re in Beverly Hills and you see like all the fake boobs and plastic surgery on the people there, but that’s not the whole city.
Yeah it’s just a pocket.
Ben: Yeah! I was just shocked that the whole thing wasn’t the worst place in the world. *both laugh* I had such a good time here and met so many cool people, so I guess the biggest shock was coming to light with how much I loved this city. *laughs* So I moved here later on.
Well, I’m glad that we didn’t scare you off. *laughs*
Ben: Not at all! Quite the opposite actually. *both laugh* Traffic tried to scare me off, but I can deal with it.
I think traffic scares everybody, no matter how long you’ve lived here. *laughs* So how important do you think it is to support local venues and events?
Ben: I think it’s very important. I love supporting local events. I mean, I go out to see and play music all the time so I would say it’s very important to me. I mean even in a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, I think it’s important to go to the stuff that’s right by where you are because there’s just so much to do everywhere and it’s nice to become a part of a neighborhood. Again, even just for traffic sake going down to Long Beach takes two days.
I literally just came from Long Beach before this so that’s funny that you mentioned Long Beach specifically. *both laugh*
Ben: That’s funny! *laughs* But yeah, I really do love doing my best to support what’s around me. I live in Echo Park so the place we’re at right now is not too far from me. The owners of this place used to come down to the place that I had the residency in Downtown, so it just sort of became like a community thing.
So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Ben: I have a sort of an eclectic tour. I would go on tour with Bruce Springsteen, Keith Jarrett, and Dave Chappelle, and I would call it the ‘Humans Being Awesome’ tour. I would just love to watch all three of them go on every single night. Maybe be like the stage manager. *both laugh* The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen live was like a transformational moment for me. I saw him my freshman year of college, and I had never experienced any live event so powerful before. I was not a fan of his music before I saw him live and I was just like, ‘Whoa!’ It blew my mind! *laughs* So Bruce Springsteen because I’m a fan. And then Keith Jarrett because he’s just the most unbelievable musician. I would bring him as on tour as a solo performer. His solo improv shows are my favorite. And then Dave Chappelle because he’s so funny and always has something interesting, if not a little controversial, to say.
Sometimes we need that. We can’t just be ostriches with our heads in the sand.
Ben: This is true. And then I would open up for all of them. *laughs*
Telling jokes and playing music!
Ben: That’s right! *laughs*
And how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Ben: It’s not too hard right now. I still play five or six days a week. I’ll busk a few days, and then I dj usually once or twice a week, and then I’ll have usually two, maybe three, gigs a week. Nothing that I do lasts more than like four hours, so I generally am able to balance my personal life pretty easily because it’s not a crazy work schedule. I do practice a lot when I’m at home though, and I’m about to have a baby.
Ben: Thank you! It’s going to be a little more difficult to balance everything I think. Well, I guess I don’t know because it’s my first child so we shall see.
We’ll check in in a few months to see how much you’ve slept. *laughs*
Ben: Check in in November and I’ll give you the update. *laughs*
So with the rise of music streaming and social media, do you think that it’s made it easier or harder for independent artists to reach an audience?
Ben: I think it’s probably exactly the same to reach a mass audience because before the social media revolution, the big companies had to lock down marketing with the sheer amount of money they had. Now, they still have to lock down those huge marketing campaigns, but no independent artist can afford to do a $500,000 launch for their new single and have it run on Facebook ads for three months and all that stuff. But you can now maintain a legitimate mid-sized audience that grows slowly over time as independent artist, which was much harder before this age. So I think the mass audience stuff still belongs to the major labels just because of the money aspect. But there are so many smaller artists, smaller meaning ‘not major label indie artists,’ that can make a living now because of social media even if they’re not going to get rich, which is not the point anyway.
Yup, we’re passed the point in our lives where that shouldn’t really matter. Life experience is what we really want in the end.
Ben: Yeah, and I think one of the greatest things that happened with the so-called democratization of music where everybody’s able to get worldwide distribution through iTunes and Spotify is that people who are putting out music are people who really love music and not just people who are trying to get popular with music as the medium. That was a lot of the 90s and 2000s, like, music was just sort of an overall marketing strategy to become famous.
It’s better to have that passion than money.
If you could give your younger self some advice in regards to the music industry, what kind of advice would you give him?
Ben: I would just say, ‘Go for it! You can do it!’ Literally! *laughs* It’s hard to explain, but a musician has the same outcome as being a director but different. Being a musician in South Carolina is common, but it’s all just for fun and there’s no other place to take it. I moved to New York when I was 18, and it took me 12 years to get over that mental block. And so, if I was 18 again I would probably just be like, ‘Alright, I’m going to be a musician. I’m gonna do this.’ *laughs*
And if you could choose one word to describe as an artist, what word would you choose?
Ben: I think I would use the term ‘outsider.’ I have a song on the new record called this, and I’ve called my music in the past ‘outsider country’ as kind of like a sub-sub-genre. There’s just too many genres out there.
Yes! Too many! And all of them are starting to blend together.
Ben: Exactly! That’s what I always say. But I choose that word ‘outsider’ because I don’t feel like I fit any of the movements that are going on in terms of country music right now. Not because I’m not trying to just, but because I don’t care. *laughs* So I’m an outsider by disposition.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Ben: I hope my audience will be inspired in some way. Not Tony Robbins inspiration, but the same kind of inspiration that I get when I listen to just all-around great music. It makes life better just to hear music that you really like, it changes you somehow, and I hope that some people are getting that same feeling when they listen to my music.
And apart from riding the highs of Hellfire and the birth of your first child, what other big exciting things should we be expecting from you.
Ben: I have an idea to do a Serial style album where I release one song a month, and it’ll be the flip side of the Hellfire coin. You could say all the songs on Hellfire are from the perspective of a certain guy who’s like this down on his luck, blue collar dude blowing off some steam on the weekend. This new series of songs that I’ve been working on are songs about the rest of that guy’s life, the other five days of the week, and just the challenges of that kind of life. Those will be stripped down more acoustic stuff that I think could make an interesting record, but I don’t even know if I’m going to release it as an official record or just put it out there and maybe release it on Spotify or something like that.
Maybe eventually do a two-part album with one side as Hellfire and the other side is the rest of the story.
Ben: Exactly! We will see what the future holds!
About Spoke Bicycle Cafe:
Bicycles and coffee – something that you wouldn’t really think about a viable pair off the top of your head. However, carefully tucked away between Silverlake and Glassell Park you have Spoke Bicycle Cafe, and once you realize it’s there you will absolutely want to come back whether you’re a bike enthusiast or not. I mean, it even has its own trail entrance along the Los Angeles River so there is no reason to not to stop in to “Eat. Drink. Pedal. Repeat.” Extra atmosphere perks include plenty of bike parking, seating areas to fit any sized party, and colorful outdoor artwork. Did we mention they have an outdoor bar for something tall, cold, and foamy for you to consume while you’re waiting for your bike to get fixed?
Now, when you’re off riding around town you’re sure to work up an appetite. Well, Spoke Bicycle Cafe has got you covered on the menu department. Food-wise, it’s clear that health conscious individuals would absolutely love what is available as everything can be made vegetarian or vegan. Plus, they work with local companies to provide the ingredients that they use so that is a win for small businesses! Their coffee selection is comprised of standard classics with a few specialty offerings in the mix. For lunch, I had ordered myself a grilled cheese with roasted tomato chutney and tempeh, and got out of my coffee comfort zone with a charcoal latte. Yes it was an odd combo on my part, but both were absolutely delicious.