It’s no secret that Ben Levin and the Bent Knee crew are some of our favorite prog musicians on the scene right now here at Proglodytes. Ben plays guitar and writes collaboratively with the brilliant art rock collective Bent Knee, which recently released a new album, Land Animal. He is also the mastermind behind the Ben Levin Group, and collaborator on many other musical projects, including Justice Cow, Mr. Gavin’s Meat Farm, and That One Eyed Kid. Ben also gives free music classes on Youtube as Fake Dr. Levin that are really awesome and informative. Ben approaches music and composition with a fearlessness and intensity that is rare, and his talent and work ethic are inspiring to musicians and fans alike.
Last time we chatted with Ben, he had a few interesting things in the pipeline. This time, we talked about touring, the new album, working with Mike Keneally (on a pretty awesome track- featured below), his new puppet musical, art and creation, O.J. Simpson, and the lamest Pokemon.
1.) You’re back from a lovely tour across the U S of A! Touring is weird. What are your favorite things about touring, and your least favorite things about touring?
My favorite thing about touring is feeling connected to the people who listen to our music. When we’re not on tour, it is impossible to comprehend the impact our music is making on people, but when we are onstage looking at people and feeling the music go through them and back at us, my place in the world feels less abstract. My least favorite thing about touring is how little I get to write new music. I end up sitting around looking at my phone way too much, and I don’t make a lot of creative progress.
2.) Bent Knee’s latest album is getting some GREAT reviews. What do you think about reviews in general? What is your favorite kind of review?
This guy messaged us today through our website and described the experience of finding our music and listening to it in a super sincere and short paragraph. It was really touching because he did a great job putting me in his shoes and explaining how it felt to find our music. I like stuff like that more than any other kinds of reviews because he didn’t try to define our music, but rather did a great job of describing how it made him feel.
3.) You recently released an AWESOME song that you did with Mike Keneally, called “The Gods Are All Right”. How did that come about? Did you both have an idea of the outcome going in, or was it relatively collaborative?
Thanks! I’m thrilled with that song and for the opportunity to work with Mike Keneally. My friends Jed Lingat and Ben Wallace-Ailsworth recorded a bunch of cool drum and bass loops with me a few years ago. I took a few of those loops and met up with Mike when he was in Rhode Island on tour. We improvised over them a bit and started forming some pretty wild ideas. Then, I songified the backing track and now we have this vicious train-tornado of a tune to enjoy. Neither of us had any idea what kind of song we would make together, but we both love hip hop and Mike played some riffs that really got my Death Grips side going.
4.) Last time we chatted, you were working on a puppet movie called Kid’s Table. How is that coming along?
That’s the truth! It’s going well, I just finished mixing the music for the film and we are shooting scenes. I think it will be done in a few months, but then it will probably take another year to release it because we are aiming to do a festival run. I’m getting a bit more used to working on long timelines, but I really wish I could show people the movie now.
5.) Your Youtube channel (Fake Dr. Levin) is so much fun to watch and learn from. Tell us about your channel- some things you’ve done on it since you started, what you’re working on lately, and maybe your goal with the channel.
My YouTube channel is pretty experimental. I try to surprise my audience while remaining useful to them. Half of my videos are instructional and the other half are just art projects. Sometimes the videos are both at once. For example, I have a series in which I screen capture my computer as I compose music and explain my thoughts out loud. Then, after 20 episodes, I’ve got a finished fully recorded piece of music that people have been following since the first note hit the page. That ends up being a really big psychological trip for me because I am facing the judgment of thousands of people while battling with my own inner insecurities as I compose. You know, it sounds like crap for most of the videos, and people let me know how bad it is in the comments. But eventually, I am able to pull things together and make a decent piece of music. It’s ego torture, I hate doing it half the time, but it’s so exciting. I just want to do stuff that no one else has done with a YouTube channel and teach lessons in unique ways.
6.) You’ve explored various genres in your music, from hip-hop to more folk-oriented stuff. When you begin the songwriting process, do you tend to create parameters by which you work (ex. “I’m going to try and write a folk song”), or is it more ephemeral/inspiration based (ex. “I am going to build a song around this melodic idea, and it just so happens to sound like a folk song”)?
I’m like, “what would be a cool album to make,” and then I’m like, “let’s make a puppet musical about middle school,” or, “time to make an acoustic album,” or “time to learn how to rap.” I like to think of album concepts in advance and after a few hours of work, I can usually tell if the concept is feasible or not. If you love a type of music, you can make it. So in order for me to make a folk album, there has to be folk music I love. When I got super into Nick Cave, my music started getting simpler and more lyric driven, then as Kendrick Lamar became my biggest influence, it was natural for me to make a hip hop album. Ultimately, I want to explore the stuff that inspires me and make a lot of music.
7.) The word “genius” is thrown around quite a bit in music press, to describe songwriters and musicians and artists. You have been described as such more than a few times. To you, what does “genius” mean, and how can one be characterized as such?
I think the term genius is super flattering, but also poisonous. When people talk about genius, it implies that people are born geniuses. That might be true, but it’s not really useful to think about things that way. I believe that in most cases genius is something that is drawn out of a person through habit. So it’s more constructive to focus on forming good habits than it is to wonder whether you are naturally gifted. Somedays I am a genius, and other days I watch 6 hours of Shark Tank clips on YouTube and feel like a waste of resources. It’s really a matter of what I do with myself rather than who I am.
8.) Whether you’re helping your brilliant other half Jessica in the Justice Cow videos, or writing April Fools Day albums of fake music (called Sup?– posted below for your viewing pleasure), you definitely have a good sense of humor about what you do. How would you describe your humor? What, in your opinion, is the funniest thing ever, in human history?
Haha, that’s nice of you! I think my sense of humor loses its effect on people over time. But there is a sweet spot where I interact with people just the right amount of time that they think I’m actually funny. I would describe my humor as surrealist and more about improvisation than about results. I don’t really think I’m good at being funny, so for me it’s more fun to just try stuff and see what sticks. I spew a large amount of unfunny crap which makes me a very unpleasant person to be around. My biggest comedy influences are Tim and Eric. I love their surrealist approach to humor and horror. To me the funniest comedy creates a distinct atmosphere or world. You can watch the intro to any episode of The Eric Andre Show to see a good example.
9.) I learned that you are somewhat of a connoisseur of esoterica. What is a super obscure song that you feel like the world should know?
Hehe that’s funny, I’m not that in touch with the really deep stuff, but I think the song “Happy Like Larry” by the Zip Code Rapists is beautiful and most people wouldn’t even give it a chance because of the name of the band and because the album is super rare. Jessica and I both lost loved ones named Larry, so the song has extra meaning for us.
10.) You said once in a song that “God invented gloves to make murder easy.” Was that quote based on the O.J. Simpson trial? (Writer’s note: My sincerest apologies to my blog readers, for this awful, awful, terrible, no good, very bad joke)
Oh jeez, no no, it’s “God invented LOVE to make murder easy,” and it’s one of those lines that puts a mirror up to your psyche. I have heard a few different interpretations of the line and I think it reflects whatever the listener’s religious and philosophical views are at the time. So I guess you’ve been thinking a lot about OJ. It’s a sad subject. I hope you’re OK.
(Check out the intense, brilliant song cycle I was cheekily referencing HERE: Ben Levin Group-Freak Machine)
BONUS QUESTION: Who is the worst Pokemon, and why is it Greninja?
I think right now Greninja is the worst Pokemon. I’m at Trader Joe’s trying to find vegan flour for my birthday cake and a kid goes up to me and punches me in the knees. I fall on the ground and drop two cans of tomato sauce. The kid says, “you are pathetic. You are the crusty shell of a dead sea urchin baking in the sun. You are an annoyance and a hazard, but also useless and incapable of accomplishing anything. You don’t deserve to live in this age of abundance. The glory of human innovation and agriculture is wasted on you. You are the spike in society’s foot, a constant reminder that we will never see a perfect world. I wish you pain.” I look at the kid and I says, “what do you want me to do?” The kid tells me, he says, “what do I want you to do? I want you to leave the city and never return. I want you to live in the wilderness and earn your crumb of the human cake. I want you to live a life that justifies our ever nebulous God’s decision to grant you a functional pair of testicles. Go now you piece of human garbage.” And the kid walks away, and what do I see tattooed on the back of his leg? A shiny blue Greninja. No thanks.
Thanks for stopping by, Ben! Make sure to check out Ben’s music and art!
Also, visit Ben Levin’s website for information about the various projects he is involved in.