Ben Jaffe is best known as one half (or sometimes third) of honeyhoney. With the band currently taking a hiatus, Ben has channeled his energy into creating Oh Wild Ocean of Love.
The album, upon which he plays every instrument, sees him indulge his more experimental side with fantastic results. We took a few minutes to chat with Ben Jaffe about going solo, his creative process and his plans for 2018.
LH: So you’re just off the first run of tour dates, how’s it gone? Have you enjoyed it?
Ben: It’s been great. I just finished last night in Philly.
LH: It must be a really different feel for you being front and center after being part of honeyhoney for so long. There’s nowhere to hide in that role once you are there.
Ben: Yeah, you can’t. It’s wild. I’m really glad I did this tour because it’s been with a lot of friends and kind of been weird places and it’s given me a chance to get my shit together a little bit. Because it’s a different beast for sure.
LH: Was it just you with the guitar or did you have a band with you?
Ben: I’ve played some shows like that but not on this run. It’s just been me, I’m playing electric. When I play in honeyhoney I do this bass combination, bass/guitar thing, so I’ve just been doing that.
LH: That was one of the things I picked up when we saw honeyhoney. We saw at the City Winery show in Chicago, and that was the first time we’d seen you live. That’s one of the things that stood out to me at the show was just how much space you fill. The kick drum was massive, but then your guitar just fills a lot of space and it’s just a great sound – reverb-laden guitar. Is that something you came up with to fill that space for honeyhoney?
Ben: Yeah, for sure. Sooz plays a lot …. Whether this is choice or circumstance, with honeyhoney I always would try to make the most with the least, because we didn’t want other jobs. So in the beginning, I was playing a lot of kick drum and guitar at the same time or whatever, you know, we just couldn’t take another member on the road so it’s like how can we cover this as well as possible? And that’s where it came from.
LH: These songs from the new album, I’ve seen you perform them all kinds of different ways. I saw you on one of the Joe Rogan interviews do “Everlasting Peace” on acoustic with Suzanne, I’ve seen you playing just acoustic on your own and then a session that you put up on Facebook recently with the band which was great. One of the things I really enjoyed was when you did those re-arranger versions. I loved “Dominator” with the synths. That was amazing!
Ben: With the synth! Wasn’t that crazy? I love those things so much.
LH: It feels to me like with the solo stuff it’s just given you the opportunity to have some fun with it and just express yourself however you want to. Was that part of it?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I can explore. I think about it, I get fascinated with these things, I mean everybody, well not everybody but music nerds I guess, you see something like a modular synthesizer and it’s mind-blowing. Then you think how, in order for this to make sense for my time, I guess, I have to incorporate it into my music or what I’m doing, you know. And the same with the string quartet. I’ve been listening to so much classical music and composed music lately that I just wanted to play with those tools, you know?
LH: It really comes through on the record. It’s sort of, I wouldn’t say eclectic, but there’s a real mix of styles in there which all come together nicely in the end, from everything I’ve heard so far.
Ben: Thanks! Yeah, it’s kind of all over the place and that’s kind of like my Kryptonite and my greatest strength. I’m trying to figure out how to make it my greatest strength. Because, especially with this, I remember thinking to myself, everyone’s given me shit over the years about my focus being all over the place, and I just thought I’m not going to fight it. I’m just going to do whatever I want to do and it’ll kind of settle out. I come from an area that doesn’t have a strong musical identity, or heritage. After living in Nashville, or I was just in south Louisiana a couple of days ago, and you go to those areas and there’s a tradition and a culture. That just wasn’t the case in western Massachusetts, so you just get this grab bag of stuff. And Napster came out when I was in Junior High, or whatever, and that just blew the doors open, you can just listen to anything.
LH: I remember when all those sites came out, and suddenly you could just download any piece of music you wanted, straight away.
Ben: Yeah, you could get anything.
LH: Which was awesome. I always think coming out of something that’s pretty regimented in terms of with honeyhoney you definitely had a certain style. And then just having the whole world opened up to you, I guess there’s a risk sometimes that you go down a rabbit hole if you’re looking at a thousand different things you could do on one song. Did that catch you at all?
Ben: No I don’t think it did because when it came to the record itself everything that was played on it I had to be able to play. So that kind of limited me, in that sense, to what am I actually capable of doing with instruments. And then with the re-arrange and stuff, I don’t know, maybe it’s just stupid and doesn’t make sense for an audience, but I figured it’s separate, so who cares. I could just put it under this heading and just do whatever I want and genre doesn’t have to exist in a constrictive way. But it’s funny, because I’m kind of on both sides of it now. I feel like I came from this place of genre doesn’t matter, everything is fluid, but then when you’re trying to communicate something with people, clarity is important, and focus. It’s funny doing these solo shows has really tightened that because it’s almost like theater in the sense that, ok you’re playing and that’s real, but you also have to communicate very clearly with the audience. This is what’s happening, hey, the song’s done now. And they’d be ok, now clap!
LH: Yes I heard you did a Prince and played all the instruments on the album yourself. Going right back to when you first started, what was your first instrument? Your gateway instrument?
Ben: The marijuana of the instruments you mean! I played violin first but I didn’t really, I was always kind of fascinated by it but I put it down and picked up the drums, and that got me going. That was my first real kind of obsession I guess.
LH: So when did guitar come into the picture? Was it a piece of music that you heard that made you want to go in that direction?
Ben: I remember I was getting progressively frustrated that I couldn’t write songs, or play melodies the way that I wanted to and all of that stuff. I remember I was paying in some jazz group and I heard the guitar player, and I was disappointed with how much I like it because I was like, shit I have to learn, now I have to do that. I have to put the drums down for a little bit.
LH: So did you start playing jazz guitar?
Ben: No, I just started writing songs. I didn’t really get into studying guitar until later. At first, I just like whacking around playing Nirvana and stuff like that.
LH: Just like everyone who starts on guitar, right?
LH: I’m a bit older. When I started playing it was Guns N Roses and all those guys were on the scene. A few guitarists I’ve spoken to have gone back and started learning jazz when they’ve never done it before. And every single one of them has said it’s improved them as a player, and improved their understanding of music.
Ben: Oh, wildly. That’s where the developmental side of music which ran through the classical tradition, composers just pushing it forward and pushing it forward, as opposed to folk music where people preserve it, keep it how it is. Or just mushing these things together and making these creoles, I guess. But jazz is where it picked up in the States. Impressionistic composition feels likes the last mainstream, there’s not a better word than classical music. And then jazz picked it up, as far as people who were actually playing music that a lot of people were listening to that had that harmonic sophistication. Anyway, I’m just babbling…
LH: No, it makes sense.
Ben: You get into that stuff and it pushes you away from guitar and towards music and that’s good for everybody, I think.
LH: One of the other things I’ve noticed with the stuff that you’ve put out, is the artwork. It looks like there’s a lot of effort gone into the artwork and the videos for the releases. Is that something that was important to you from the beginning?
Ben: Yeah, definitely. I guess I just love that side of it, I just love visual arts, I love all that stuff. I just started, in the last year and a half, to score short films and it got me a window into this world which I love. And this is just my hobbyist dude attempt at getting into it. This is me, just like with the re-arranger stuff, I just get to learn how to make films through these music videos. Just like how I learned how to do a string quartet by re-arranging my songs.
LH: There’s definitely a theme to it. Is it you who has done a lot of the artwork yourself?
Ben: Well, it depends on what it is. I’ve done some of it and then I collaborated on some of it. It’s all kind of a different thing. Most of the single art and the album art are collage type pieces. I did a photoshoot with one guy and took stuff from that, and then worked with another. It’s this whole kind of process.
LH: In terms of recording you worked with Howard Feibusch who produced. How did it compare to recording with honeyhoney? On Three you recorded with Americana royalty in Dave Cobb. Obviously, it’s a bit of a different situation. I read that you said that it was fairly intense. Did it compare favorably?
Ben: I loved it, I loved it. I actually loved working with Dave. When Dave and the other musicians came in and we played much more live. And also, Dave is a brilliant dude, especially when it comes to gear and equipment but for whatever reason, either in that session or in general, he seems like he creates a setting for these things to happen, or finds grooves and is much more an overall vibe creator. And Howard is like the dude in the lab, pouring the thing into the beaker and it explodes. But we use the studio and the gear much more as an instrumental voice as opposed to a setting for performances.
LH: When I was reading up on your stuff, I went back and listened to Religion and you can feel you and Howard are a little like kindred spirits, the way that album was and yours. It seems like a good match.
Ben: I love Howie. Isn’t that a great record? I think that Religion is such a good record. Religion is such a good record.
LH: It’s a fantastic record. I love speaking to musicians for NRR like this as it often leads me down paths to listen to different music. I feel like I’ve got a much broader musical vocabulary through doing stuff like this, it’s great.
Ben: That’s so cool. I used to read Spin or Rolling Stone or whatever, all the reviews in the back. I actually love the reviews because everybody would be name-checking all these people and all of a sudden you’d have this map to go explore.
LH: I love the idea that all musicians are fans of someone else, and that goes back to someone else and someone else. It goes back. I often wonder what the tip of the pyramid is. It must have started somewhere. Like the primordial slime crawling out of the lake and tapping on a rock or something.
Ben: Yeah, that rock monster has a beautiful voice!
LH: There’ll be some vinyl collector somewhere saying “I’ve found it! It sounds amazing!”
Ben: Oh man, what is it called. There’s a documentary I think it’s called “Desperate Man Blues” or something like that, but it’s this vinyl collector, he’s like a salvage dude, who’d be like fording a river to get to this shack where he finds these 1970s recordings, super rare stuff. I take it for granted, I just think, ok everything’s online now but that’s not true. There’s a lot that didn’t make it.
LH: There’s some awesome stuff, but I think people can get too far into it sometimes. I like buying records. There are a couple of boxsets which Third Man have done which are the history of Paramount Records, the rise and fall of Paramount Records I think they’re called. I got the first boxset and it goes right back. So there’s these dirty/scratchy recordings of finger-style blues players and gospel music, probably just recorded on some little basic mics, but it’s great. It’s really cool going and listening back to stuff like that.
Ben: There’s this book called “Cowboys and Indies” and you would love it I think. It’s the history of the recording industry but starting with literally the invention of the recording device. Oh my god, it’s so great.
LH: I will definitely give that a try. Back to your music, I read that you said it’s easier for you when you’re writing music to access your feelings by proxy. You were talking about the single “Susan The Cat” and how that was a metaphor for something else. Is that something that you consciously do to let people project what they want onto the song? Or does it just naturally come to you like that?
Ben: I kind of recognize it now, but it hasn’t really been conscious but I think it has to do with me as a person. People’s personalities come out in whatever work they do, I guess. And this is just like, oh shit… it’s hard for me to get into real feelings. They’re there, I just have to navigate, just kind of trick myself into them. I also love imagery in songs. I want it to feel like I’m watching a movie.
LH: Listening to the songs I’ve heard so far, your album has a poetic kind of feel to it as well. Rather than it being straight lyrics or story-telling, which I quite like because there is certainly a lot of imagery in that respect.
Ben: Hey, thanks.
LH: That definitely came through to me. In terms of your writing process, I read that some of these songs were already written with some totally fresh for the album.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. The song “Dominator” – so I had like a month to get my shit together, so I was pulling old songs, I re-wrote some… that song “Everlasting Peace” used to have totally different lyrics. But “Dominator”, “Blooming” and this song called “Pity”, I can’t remember if there was one more, but those, it was just kind of like boom in that month.
LH: Do you take yourself away to write or is it something you’re doing all the time if something comes to you?
Ben: It just kind of depends. It’s like when you’re, I don’t know, I can’t think of a metaphor. Sometimes, when momentum is going it’s like that, it hasn’t actually been like that for a bit. I kind of secluded myself at the beginning of this year for a couple of weeks and just slugged it out. It was really tough to get to that flow state. Sometimes I have it and sometimes I don’t.
LH: I always ask that and I get all sorts of different answers. Some people literally take themselves away from everything to some log cabin and just lock themselves away until songs are done. Then others are doing stuff all the time so are just writing stuff on the back of napkins and stuff like that and it all comes together.
Ben: Yeah, I don’t know. The seclusion thing is great, and it’s terrifying too because you’re all of a sudden like “Oh, shit, I can’t go backing on out.” I think most people I know, and me too, you just… iPhone memo has changed the songwriting game.
LH: Yeah, it’s crazy because you can just put anything down at any time.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So you have years of voice memos and you have to haul from that.
LH: Have you seen the Music Memos app that they’ve done?
LH: Music Memos – I think its free. You can download it and record a guitar part on it and then it will put drums and bass on there for you.
Ben: Come on!
LH: Yeah, it’s really cool. And it gets it totally wrong sometimes, it depends on what you’re recording. If you’re doing some polyrhythmic stuff it would be all over the place, but if you’re doing straight chord progression it’s nuts.
Ben: Damn! We have to learn how to play with robots now.
LH: Yeah absolutely the revolution is coming. In terms of plans for the rest of the year, are you going to tour some more?
Ben: Well, I randomly have another tour in ten days. I’m going to go up north. I’m playing in Milwaukee if you feel like making the drive, you’re invited.
LH: Yeah, definitely.
Ben: If you’re free you are welcome. I’m playing with a band called Dead Horses for a couple weeks in about ten days. Then Sooz and I do this television show, The Guest Book, so I’m going to go to LA for about two months and work on that. I somehow need to work out how to keep pumping my record, I might have blown it on this one. And then come back, do some more shows in June, and then honeyhoney goes on tour in July. I played in Philly last night, and I’ve never had a more weirdly guitar nerd reaction, not even to my playing. They were just obsessed with my guitar.
LH: Which one were you playing?
Ben: The white SG.
LH: That’s a nice guitar, though!
Ben: It is a nice guitar, but I was just like, damn! This guy wanted to take his picture with it. It was hilarious.
LH: I could nerd out for hours over guitars.
Ben: Me too
(Cue several minutes of guitar nerding – which had nothing to do with Ben’s new album……….)
LH: Coming back to you and musicians generally, I think one thing that shines out from musicians I’ve interviewed is the single-mindedness of their approach and it comes through in your attitude as well. You know, effectively going after a career in music and not accepting that there’s any other path you’re going to take. I think it has to be that way as well – because, while you can choose to get a job and do other stuff, priorities then change as you move on. It’s a cliche but that kind of “rich in money, poor in time or rich in time, poor in money” that really does apply. You can get a great job and buy all the guitars and gear you want but you never have the time to play them or create anything.
Ben: It’s like a fable. I know what you mean. But the persistence, I completely agree. Whenever you can see that someone’s not going to give up, great art can come out of that.
LH: I see it in so many musicians. There’s a guitarist called Phil X, who did session work for ages. I used to watch him on YouTube because he’s such a great guitarist and I like his band The Drills and his enthusiasm was infectious – he literally only wanted to play guitar. He ended up landing the job with Bon Jovi as their guitarist a couple of years ago. That guy is 52. I don’t know if you’ve seen him but he looks so young. People spend all this money on plastic surgery and face creams, but there’s the secret right there. Just be a guy whose done what he loves for his entire life. He’s worked through all these years where he’s had no money, and is painting houses and stuff to make ends meet but all he wanted to do was play guitar and, ultimately, he manages to land a job playing with Bon Jovi touring the world. I mean – I think he’d have been perfectly happy just playing with his own band and doing session work anyway but its nice when someone kind of hits the ‘big time’ in that way and gets rewarded for their persistence. Have you seen that documentary Hired Gun?
Ben: Yeah, he’s in that, right?
LH: Yeah, he’s in that.
Ben: Yeah, I remember, that’s cool.
LH: Anyway I digress yet again. In respect of music, I just wanted to close up by saying something which I also said to Suzanne when I spoke to her. The week that we saw you with honeyhoney in Chicago, on the Monday morning, I woke up to a notification on my phone about the Vegas shooting. I turned on CNN at 4am in the morning and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. It had got in my head, seeing all the people running with the gunshots. Then that same afternoon Tom Petty died, so I was in a really terrible mood that week. Then we came and saw honeyhoney on the Wednesday evening and you guys lifted me out of that mood. And I think that’s what music is about, that’s what it’s for. We saw you guys on the Wednesday and then Steve Van Zandt on the Sunday night. He came out on stage and he opened up with “Even the Losers” and it was really emotional. I was thinking that night, what would it be like if we didn’t have this? What would life be like if we didn’t have music? That’s what all of this is about, I think.
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.