Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Dialogue With: Bones (Ben Christensen)

Bones -is the musical moniker of Ben Christensen -
Local audiences will recognize him from various Scrummage collaborations and Just Boyz ~ His singature electro style is dazzled with his pure, somewhat fragile wafted voice and features flairs of spacey funk, dreamy drifitng dance, pensive pours of fuzz and meditative beats.

His songs and his perspective have come to be the sonic representation of that particular revelation gained from the synthesis of different people -as players and listeners of music. The Hamtramck-based songwriter has an ear for subtle melodies but, lately, began emphasizing instrumentation - particularly the unique blends rendered by inviting a large handful of friends into his recording space to, in essence, find sounds...together.

I spoke with Christensen on the eve of his latest album being re-released on cassette.


There’s mixed sentiments, in music, that I’ve been noticing. Local audiences have been responding to a return to straight forward music (however anticlimactically radical that sounds) and sort of turning their noses at music that is overcomplicated, or maybe overly impenetrable? Too esoteric? Perhaps even too electronic…

What’s your thoughts on that and can you tie it into how you approach music?

I actually do like a lot of straight forward music. My brothers and I grew up on Townes Van Zant and very singer-songwriter, lyrics-based music. I was talking to a friend today who’d said that art and music might not be so much about the end product, but what, instead, you’ve spent your time doing—how it fills your life and how it fulfills you. For some people, I think music gets complex—not as a means to confuse other people or be overly esoteric, but maybe because it comes from a desire to work on stuff, build and rebuild things up. I like that style of music, like Van Dyke Parks Song Cycle, where it reveals itself to you, new things every time. The funny thing is that dance music is simple and very straight forward but that can piss people off from being too straight forward.

You open with an instrumental track and there’s only three songs on this with lyrics…

I was teaching at Youthsville, for music technology and my life was just surrounded by instrumental elements. And I also started listening, more so than before, to Detroit techno

A genre that can be thought provoking without being over wrought in its construction

Completely. So…I wanted to tour and I wanted to make this album. I stopped working at Youthville in April and took on odd jobs. I had so much stuff that I was working on, writing so many songs for Bones, and two other bands, Just Boyz and Lord Scrummage…I was kinda stuck, not able to focus. I took a halt on everything. But this was the same time that a good friend, Kyle, passed away, in January. It was a huge wake up call to me, when it came to morality and how important it is to go after things. That’s what Kyle did, he went out and did it, he started his own theatre group. So that winter after, I made this album, with lots of friends coming in to collaborate on it. I wrote the song, “Kyle’s Song” the night he passed.

That’s just one thing that is so invigorating about music is that, potentially, 80 or 90% of the time, for an artist, there is this deep cathartic story behind just one song. And that song can be just one book off the packed shelves of a library of songs.

I had somebody tell me recently, this girl I’d dated for five years, that what really got her about Kyle’s Song was that it sounded like weeping. I have this sample, like 2 second sample and she said it sounded like voices weeping. It blew me away to realize what I was doing, I’d felt it and was feeling it but I just never put it into words.

The song did…

Lately, I’ve been working part time at this clothing warehouse and with all my free time I’ll write three songs a day, every other day. Onto my laptop, there, they sit until I reconfigure them, running in and out of amps or with the sampler. It’s something that one finds fulfilling, with their time. Then I’d invite my friends to come in and add parts over what I’ve been working over. You can feel these unique sounds, horns, synths, playing off each other in a new way, rather than if someone just played it all themselves. Interesting counterpoints materialize. I like to take samples of what they do and snip it together.

What is the creative process like... with Bones, compared to your other bands (Just Boyz, Lord Scrummage)

It might be a melding of the two... Just Boyz is about musicianship, playing with really talented musicians and Lord Scrummage, insanity. We'll (LS) have a show, practice for a couple days, intensely, but it's gonna be something brand new because it'll feel like mostly improv. That was difficult for me to do, at first, with electronics and with certain constraints of sequenced drums, it can almost feel, with the improv element, sorta jazz-like.

Jamming, or Jazz?~is that at all close to your musical background?

Yeah--no! I'd played with Connor Edwards since high school, in bands, since he was my next door neighbor. He went to Seaholm, I went to Lahser. We've always been playing in bands together, like no-wave rock kinds of things, but everyone in them always had their own solo stuff, to indulge their own interests and to keep themselves sharp. That's how I started calling myself Bones, for what I was doing.

What I've learned from Lord Scrummage is, especially with electronic music, to really trust the impact that the music is having on you. You can't just have a work ethic, you can't just go in and work on it. We would go into smaller shows where we'd have just a few ideas, harmonically, rhythmically, and we'd have sounds and patches and tones that we liked but we would not try to find anything that wasn't completely permanent. If something's not going your way, especially if it's electronic, ditch it--you can make something else. That sharpened me.

Ø - what does that symbol mean?

It's a Danish letter. I'm part danish. It, by itself, means 'Island.' (He moans a low bark, to demonstrate its Scandinavian pronunciation). I took time to myself for this album and felt like I was just on an island. I had friends come in, visit, collaborate. But, mentally I was on an island.

I've always been more so on my own island, even when working with (Scrummage, Scrummage University / Lord Scrummage / Scrummage Vision). When it comes to Scrummage, they're my family. But this is an old idea that's so fundamental to me. I love having a group and a group of friends, but I just don't like the idea of identities.

Identities are open to manipulation. Or, worse, identities can be adopted through waves of culture. People might think they're Smart Phones identify them. On another level, back to bemoaning songwriters who are accused of over-composing, whether its Panda Bear or Washed Out, or what... these two who had buzz going into their last albums and got ripped a bit for the end results. Did they both get too conscious of their own identity? Because, when I think of identity, I think of me sitting at home, wondering, what's my identity--that really, almost, means I'm asking-- how do people perceive me?

That's another thing. With musicians or artists, they feel comfort from being in that school of thought where: 'Oh, yeah, he's this, so you'll like it.' Or, 'He sounds like that...' There's a certain comfort provided by identities...

For me, for example Panda Bear's new album--I can still appreciate what the guy's done, because he's recorded himself and found innovative ways of recording that don't require a studio or a lot of money to do something amazing. There's merit in some things... I just like ideas. I don't like identities or want to assume one, I just like a whole lot of different music. I like ideas.

Is the song creation process a meditative one for you?

Yeah. That's a word for it. I just find so much pleasure out of something where I can really turn off chatter. Sometimes it can be hard to turn off the chatter, to where the meditation is the chatter. The stuff I've been making lately, after having a break up, trying to live, doing all these different things...

So much on your mind, all at once, plus with you being into so much different music... so it's like, what? -Why not open up all the windows?

Yeah. Exactly.

Your live process?

There's so many pages of samples and I'm building one song. I have different parts of beats on different loops, so I can build up a beat. It can be to a click- or to a midi--. It's a ridiculous amount of work for one song. Everything that somebody would hit with their hands or touch with their fingers, I have to build it (with synths, loops and samples). I can't do it the same way, even if I wanted to, it's not even possible. I have outputs, five outputs that go into different effects pedals (guitar fx pedals) that mix through, building different loops, going into a different function, playing them with certain samples. It's a lot of work just to do one song.

That's the thing, I feel like through the last five years, there was still a lingering leeriness from audiences, maybe just indie-rock audiences, when they see a laptop...they see button pressing and might scoff, but maybe they don't realize.

I think that's just an American thing. In the rest of the world, electronic music is a legitimate thing.

We had the Beach Boys; they had Kraftwerk.


Future plans?

Making music with my friends. Hoping to put out a Bones Live thing. Music, to me, is a really fantastic thing - just the ability to live and appreciate it in every way, every realm. Like, going through a break-up - I was thinking how funny it was, that I know that Townes Van Zant, if I'm in that spot, I'm gonna listen to Townes Van Zant and I'm gonna feel great. I'm gonna feel this great connection to love.

Bones (Bandcamp)
Lord Scrummage

Just Boyz

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