How literature and heavy metal led to Kerrville and gothic americana.
Ben De La Cour has been on a slow burn since leaving home at seventeen for various dead-end jobs before landing in Nashville in 2013 after playing in various heavy metal bands. He has released his fifth album, ‘Sweet Anhedonia’, which he recorded with singer-songwriter and visual artist Jim White and it may be his best album to date. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ben De La Cour at home as he was winding down from a recent tour to discuss what Jim White brought to ‘Sweet Anhedonia’ and how he manages to keep his gothic influences in the real world. He explains the influence his mom, a high school English teacher, had on his formative years with her love of literature and his parent’s appreciation of good music which drew him to Jimi Hendrix and the Everly Brothers. Hearing Townes Van Zandt was also another life-changing moment that led eventually to a win at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Given his particular take on the world, it is hardly surprising that Ben De La Cour is happy to say that a lot of folk and americana music leaves him cold while at the same time, the music of the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark is pure joy to him and that his Kerrville win was very validating for him.
How are you, and where are you?
I’ve just been back home for a week and I’m still discombobulated doing all those supposedly adult things like buying food what have you.
How do you avoid the pitfalls of making the material look comic if you don’t get it pitch-perfect?
Thank you for saying that, I absolutely agree. Anything that floats around the margins of decency, or whatever, can become comical really fast, like violent or salacious or supernatural, it is very easy for it to go over the waterfall right into parody and comedy. I go by my instincts, and I don’t do something for the sake of doing it, it is all part of the story. I’ve never been one to write about what is the saddest thing I can think about or the scariest fuckin’ thing I can imagine. I’ve never thought of it that way, I’m just like how can I describe what is happening in a way that will resonate with me and other people? A lot of the time it’s dark but that is just how the story goes, there is a lot of weird, dark, supernatural stuff out there in the world, right, and stuff that’s hard to believe and you’ve just got to follow that.
Who are your literary and musical heroes?
From a really young age, I was a big reader, my mom was a high school English teacher and she was very well-read, and I think she realised early on that school wasn’t going to be the thing for me so she was like you should read this stuff. My big literary heroes for a long time have been people like Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, my mom got me reading Shakespeare at a very young age and on the other side of the spectrum I always loved H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Then there’s Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, and a lot of people like that. Some Southern gothic and some not so much but all very atmospheric. I’m a big Emily Brontë fan too, I mean, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is one of the greatest novels ever written. I also think it is cool that she was like I’m going to write this greatest novel, and then I’m out of here. I’ve been up to that part of the country, and I was like this makes sense. I like ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and those Conan Doyle books. My mom is coming to visit today and we always trade books and give each other book recommendations, and reading has been a big part of my whole life. That seems to be something that is common with people like Nick Cave, not that I’m putting myself on the same plateau as him, but I saw him live recently so he is fresh in my mind and he is a big Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor type, and I think it is a right of passage for most of us songwriters of this kind.
My earliest formative musical experiences were Jimi Hendrix, The Everly Brothers, and Elvis, those are my three earliest musical memories. For some reason, I don’t have a lot of memories of the first 9 or 10 years of my life, but the few that I do have all kind of involve music. My earliest childhood memory is me at maybe 5 years old in the living room and my mom saying you have to listen to this, and putting a Jimi Hendrix CD in the CD player and All Along The Watchtower’ came on and it just blew my fucking mind. My brother and I had kind of a little band where I would just strum a guitar because I couldn’t play it, and he would like bang on pans with sticks, and we would sing Everly Brothers songs. Those were my formative musical things, and my parents had really good musical taste and they would listen to a lot of Dylan and Van Morrison, and then when I got in my teens I really got into metal music. My brother is a drummer and we would have our own dance, but you can never find anyone to play bass when you are around 11, so we would rope in some poor kid who couldn’t play at all or play as a two-piece. We would play at CGBG’s in New York, and any place that would let kids play, basically. We were big Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeath kind of fans, and then when I was 16 I somehow managed to discover Townes Van Zandt. I still don’t know how I did that, probably through the magic of file sharing on the internet, that was like a Jimi Hendrix moment for me, and I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard him. My brother and I kept playing in metal bands until our early 20s, but the whole time I was messing around learning acoustic guitar and writing acoustic stuff. I got into Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and stuff like Mark Lanegan. I guess that was the formative part of my life.
You have a new album, Sweet Anhedonia, what was it like working with Jim White?
Oh man, it was one of the few experiences in my life that was exactly like I hoped it would be. Jim White is Jim White, he is not hanging out in his house in sweatpants watching ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, and he then goes oh time to be Jim White, Jim White is Jim White, you know, for 24 hours a day 7 days a week. When you listen to his music or you hear him talk in interviews, that is who he is. He is a one-off, a singular individual, and I’ve never worked with someone like that who is an artist through and through who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. He is a really funny guy, and I learnt so much from working with him. At one point he was like I’ve never worked with someone who had so many ideas, and some of your ideas are even good. He also told me I was sitting behind him drinking water too loud. He was so patient with me, and I did a couple of things on my streaming Facebook page, like little interviews with him about the songwriting process, the recording process, and just stories about him because he is such a great raconteur. It was incredible to get to know him, it was incredible to see him work, it was super-validating in the sense that this guy whose music I love wanted to work together. Also just seeing that you can make records just anyway you want as long as you are really doing it and you are willing to put the work in, and you have the vision. He definitely has an amazing vision for sonic landscapes and seeing the world and music in a way that is singular to him.
Where did you get the title from?
I don’t know, like a lot of titles or words and ideas for songs, I just heard it in my head one day when I was doing the dishes or something. I have a lot of things like that for songs and things, I will just hear it when I’m falling asleep and I will just write it down. I think it was right after I came out of rehab or something, I’d learnt about anhedonia the word, and I remember thinking oh, sweet anhedonia. I had it as a song title and we went back and forth with lots of album titles and that was one I maybe thought fit best. I also like the way it sounds.
Though the lyrics may be gothic folk americana the music on ‘Sweet Anhedonia’ is varied. How deliberate was that?
The songs were already written but the sonic presentation of them wasn’t fully formed or set in stone, and when we went in a lot of that was Jim and me. There was definitely a lot of me coming in with a song and seeing it one way and Jim going, no I hear us recording it this way and giving it this sort of feel and changing up the whole rhythm and feel of the song, and ‘Shine on the Highway’ is a really good example of that. His interpretation of it was far beyond what I would have thought of, and it changed the whole song I guess. That’s why I wanted to work with him, the way he interprets, presents and records a song is so unique, and I was tired of doing it my way. Also, I always strive not to write the same song over and over again, I like a lot of variance and I’m not just a fan of folk and americana because I think most folk and americana music is incredibly boring, and that’s something Jim and I bonded on as well.
We come at this as a fan of storyteller stripped down kind of music, but I also love metal and doom metal, old punk rock, and I love a lot of weird stuff as well. I’ve got no desire to be like, here’s another folk record, or I’m making an americana record and so I’ve got to wear a stupid hat and sing songs about whiskey or whatever, and if I had I don’t think Jim would have wanted to work with me. So we definitely bonded on our distaste for americana music, of course, there are great americana artists but I think we both wanted to take it into weird sonic territory. As long as it served the song, get weird with it, and Jim had a lot of influence especially with like percussive stuff and soundscapes because he can see the whole picture long before it is there. He was just like, let’s do it this way, blah, blah, blah, pick up that jerry can and hit that jerry can on every eighth note. I’d be telling him that this sounds fucking horrible, and he would be telling me to get all that distortion on the guitar, and use this shotgun shell and rub it on the strings and play this open chord. It did sound terrible, but about an hour and a half later he would unmute all the tracks we’d been recording and play them simultaneously in the song, and somehow they fit together in this perfect way. There is no way I could foresee that they would work together in that way but Jim saw it. It was an amazing thing to be part of and he brought a lot of stuff like that to the record, and like I said, he also let me explore my own stuff and he really pushed me. It was great and definitely felt like a collaborative effort.
Tell me about the album opener ‘Appalachian Book Of The Dead’, the title certainly grabs people.
That’s what I hoped it would do. Titles are important, they are like songwriting because you want to do something unusual, but you don’t want it to be self-consciously so. It is the same thing as writing songs, it is a life or death highwire thing because one bad line or word will pull the listener right out of the song and you might as well put the song in neutral and roll it right into the river. Song titles and lyrics are always life or death, and I’m always trying to find that balance of creating something evocative and not necessarily shocking, but something like that, and the listener thinking this person is only doing that to be shocking, or this person is just trying to be obtuse or ironic, or something like that. It is nice when someone says they like what I’ve done, it’s cool, I did my job.
You were named a Kerrville New Folk Winner a while back, what did that mean for your career?
It met a lot to me, even though I’ve just spent five minutes shitting on folk music, a lot of those artists like Townes and Guy Clark are part of my DNA. Those guys being involved with that and the history of Texas music meant I’ve always been aware of that festival. I remember doing a tour across Texas in my early 20s and seeing a sign for Kerrville, and I remember thinking I’m going to come back and win the Kerrville Folk Festival and it was super validating because in the songwriting world, I feel you don’t get a lot of tangible Validation. I don’t really have any interest in songwriting competitions and things like that, but the Kerrville one felt different because there is such a great history of people who won it like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, James McMurtry and all those guys. Yeah, it was kind of cool to be a little stitch in the history of all that. It meant a lot to me.
By the sound of it your development has been pretty organic.
Yeah, I think you start out imitating the people you like, and then you realise you fall short of that and you find your own sound and start digging down deep until you find out what your sound is really like, but I definitely have never said I want to be this kind of songwriter. If I’d picked the sort of songwriter I wanted to be I would have picked something that would have made me a lot more money.
Any plans to visit the UK?
I moved to London in 2020 for a few years. I worked at a cool venue which was also a big part of my musical education, Green Note, and I was a bartender there. I do want to come over in 2024 and I’ve been talking to an agent over there, and hopefully, we’ll make it happen
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?
I’ve been listening to Mark Lanegan, Paula Abdul, I really love Paula Abdul, and Big Thief who are fantastic.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
Just thank you for the support. The UK has an amazing history of great art, music and literature, so thanks for that as well, and for listening to my music.
Ben De La Cour’s ‘Sweet Anhedonia’ is out now on Jullian Records.