Radical Face: The 13th Floor Interview

Radical Face is the nome de plume of Florida-based musician Ben Cooper. Having just completed his epic, 3-disc trilogy, The Family Tree, Radical Face has just released his latest EP, SunnMoonnEclippse. 

Now, for the very first time, Radical Face will perform in New Zealand, at Auckland’s Tuning Fork, on Saturday, June 3rd.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Ben Cooper recently and their discussion dug deep into Cooper’s creative process, particularly his collaboration with visual artist Gordon McBride.

Click here to listen to the interview with Radical Face:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You’re going to be making your way down to this part of the world, in the not too distant future. This is your first time down here, isn’t it?

BC: Yeah, I’ve never been; not on tour, or even just in person. That’s actually really fun for me: I don’t usually go to a new territory; it’s probably been five years.

MD: Oh, really?

BC: Yeah!

MD: Is there anything that you do to prepare for something like that? Do you do any research, or do you alter the music that you’re going to present, or how you present it?

BC: No, not too much. I actually like to fly by the seat of my pants on this stuff. I usually don’t plan the trips – or even off days – because you always bump into someone that knows something, and I think it’s fun to get shoved around and see where you end up.

MD: Go with the flow, huh?

BC: Yeah!

MD: There’ll be plenty of new experiences, because you’re going to Australia as well; is that right?

BC: Yep. Five days in Australia, and then we pop over to New Zealand. The whole band will take four days off afterwards, to just go sight see, because we’re all nature kids – love hiking, and stuff – so, this is actually really exciting.

MD: Very good! You’ll be in the right spot for it all…. Do you have a band with you? How do you present your music live?

BC: Yeah, live, I travel with… I have three friends from Jacksonville – that I’ve known for an incredibly long time – that help me out live, and I also my boyfriend, is a string player; so, it’s five of us. It’s almost that problem, where we’re so familiar with each other, that it’s almost hard to take it seriously, sometimes. We’ve just been friends forever; so, even onstage, we tend to mess with each other, and make each other laugh. We’re pretty casual; I’ll say that.

MD: Sounds very comfortable, anyway. It sounds like it’s an easygoing, non-stressful way to travel around; which isn’t always the case.

BC: Oh, totally! Trust me, a tour is a really quick way to find out if you don’t like someone; I’ll put it that way.

MD: I’ll bet! I was hoping we can talk a little bit about your most recent EP, the SunnMoonnEclippse, that you released a couple of months ago. I know this is the first thing you’ve done since The Family Tree Project, and I was wondering, because that went on for a few years, how you felt about moving on from that? Was it an easy thing to let go of; to leave behind? Was it a relief? How was your feeling about it?

BC: Definitely relief, because it’s one of those things that really, really got out of hand. I did not think, when I started, that I was signing up for eight years of one theme. It was originally just going to be three little EPs that were interconnected. I guess it just touched a nerve: it turned into  fifty songs, and it just kept going. I can say I felt relieved that I got all the way to the end, because I had some moments where I just felt totally overwhelmed and over my head, because outside, if you’re trying to write something, and it’s all connected, you don’t get to do any independent decisions; you have to think about what came before, and what comes after; It can be a headache. I’ve been really ecstatic to write something that doesn’t matter: it’s done, there’s no relationship after this, it’s just a song; I don’t have to think about it ever again if I don’t want to. It’s been a really nice shift, to the point where this year I’m only doing short form; to go back to experimenting and feeling free to change it if I get frustrated.

MD: How did you come up with the inspiration for the SunnMoonnEclippse? It’s still kind of a concept in and of itself, it seems: there are three interrelated tunes.

BC: Yeah, as much as try to get away from concept records – because this can almost be a dirty word to some people – I keep going back! It’s like something in me likes that structure, even if it’s really short. This one came about while I was… writing about things going on: I had a lot of life changes had been happening, I decided to write about them directly, instead of wrap them up into some form of fiction; but then, at the same time, I had a friend who does a lot of visual work, and we ended up doing a visual and audio side by side, which I’d never done before – normally you finish a song, go shoot a video, or if someone’s making a film, you  use that, but I’ve never done them together – so, it was fun to have someone present a visual, and then I’d go back to the drawing board. On one song, I changed the whole intro, because he showed me this idea he had, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s cooler than the intro I have; so, I’m going to scrap my intro, and rewrite it to the one that you just made,” and we pushed each other back and forth, and like all great collaborations, it turned into something I didn’t think I was even making. I’m happy when that happens: I love it when you work with someone, and I’m aware that I would never have made what I made, if I were on my own.

MD: This is Gordon McBride that you’re talking about, right?

BC: Yeah! He’s the one that I convinced to drop out of college…. He sent me his portfolio – and he was going to school for philosophy – and I was like, “You’re a little too good at this to not pursue it. I really recommend you, at least, try,” and he got hired two weeks later for a big firm, and he’s been doing visual stuff since. I don’t feel bad, because he got a job – that could have been really horrible advice – but we stayed in touch ever since…This was our first time collaborating really directly… it was really fun.

MD: What is it about his visual style that appeals to you, and you think goes along with what you’re doing, musically?

BC: We both like a little bit of the surreal. It’ll have something realistic in it, but like magic realism – take the world and you try to bend it – and he does that visually, and I usually try to do that with stories and themes; so, I think we just connected on the fact that we’re not totally sold on reality, I guess…. It was never that thing about one person trying to rein the other in; it’s always just shoving each other further.

MD: I’m curious as to how the collaboration works. You touched on it a little bit when you said that you saw something that he had created, and then changed the music accordingly; but it must go both ways. What happens first, and how do you guys react to each other?

BC: I think the thing that happened was were…he wasn’t intending for the visuals to be for me – he was just doing personal work, and he didn’t know what I was making – and I had already been recording some ideas, and I was like, “This kind of really goes with what I’ve been working on;” so, I showed him, when he was visiting me in Florida…. In the first two acts, he’d already been making these pictures, and then he was like, “What if I ripped these apart, then I could kind of make them into video form,” and he started showing me some sketches of it, and we merged them. The whole last act was, pretty much, a pure collaboration, where I had no idea and he had no idea…I was like, “Well, I know I want to end it with this idea of an eclipse,” and we were thinking of looking up from a cave. It was a lot of story boarding, and it was fun to not commit: none of the songs were finished until I saw what they were going to go with. Then sometimes he did some cool visual trick, so that it was like, “Hmm, I need a high sound in there to go with that little flare thing you did; so, I’m going to add some chimes.” I’d try to match the content, in some way, and vice versa; so, yeah, pretty fun! I’ve never had the visual stimulus; it’s always usually lyric or audio; it’s definitely never been visual for me….

MD: Even though it’s fifteen minutes long – as opposed to the previous project, which was over several LPs – it’s still a longer form, music wise, than a lot of people are used to experiencing these days: everybody takes things in bite sized portions. Do you think about that at all: how people are going to consume this?

BC: Actually, no; and I intentionally don’t. In my head, that’s what selling out is…if you tame your idea for fear that people won’t like you. Just go all the way. Not everyone is going to be your friend; not everyone’s going to like what you do. I think I also… grew up on Pink Floyd records, and all these big, expansive, concept driven monsters, and they’re not weird to me. I bump into that a lot, where “no one’s going to sit down for fifteen minutes”, and I’m like, “Some of my favourite tracks are fifteen minutes, and it’s just one song.” I think I have my foot too far in that deep end to be relatable. I’m sure my manager, sometimes, is just like, “Oh, God! Another seven minute song,” but that’s her problem, not mine.

MD: I can definitely hear the Pink Floyd. Did you listen to a lot of Radiohead as well?

BC: Oh, yeah! They were definitely one. I think, really, it was a lot of groups – like Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Young, and some other classic folk types – but I also just liked the psychedelic – I had a lot of Yes records…

MD: I was going to mention Yes!

BC: I’m not embarrassed as well. A lot of times, people are like, “Really? That band?” and I’m like, “I think it’s good. I like it. It’s cool to me.” I get that a lot of people[think that it’s kind of nerdy, but I like that stuff; how far they go, and how unashamed they are. I actually try to pull from that, even if it makes me uncomfortable; that’s alright.

MD: It’s an interesting juxtaposition between the two: the folk and the prog-rock, electronic stuff; and you get called electronic folk. When I saw that label, I was like, “Ahh! That sounds like something that somebody would push against,” but when you listen to it, it really describes what you’re doing, I think. Do you feel the same way?

BC: Yeah, because in all honesty, those are two things that I mine from, really hard. I think that the last piece of that trinity is I really like classical music and movie soundtracks. I get a lot of arrangement ideas from that. I play a lot of folk instruments, and I like a lot of electronic production; so, I think I just mash them all together, in various forms, and see what happens. I think that’s just how I work.

MD: When you’re creating your music, is it a solitary experience for you? Do you do much collaboration with other musicians? I know you do the collaboration with the visual, but I’m picturing in my mind, you sitting in front of a computer and a bunch of other electronic instruments, on your own, creating this stuff. Is that an apt way of looking at it?

BC: Absolutely, yeah. I lock myself away and, typically, don’t show anyone until I’m done. I’m pretty solitary about it, and that’s why it can get really personal and confessional at times. It almost acts like your little therapist session, or something; your diary. I think, really, the only person that hears it, sometimes, is my partner, Josh – he’s a string player; so, anytime I need strings, I can be like, “Hey, come play all of them.” – so, he hears it as it goes. But really, I don’t show usually show anyone – even the people I work with – until I’m pretty done. It’s definitely very isolated, and it sometimes makes it a little odd to tour, because you’re used to doing it… by yourself; and a lot of the time you almost think, “Oh, I’m getting this off my chest,” and then you go out on the road, and now you got to think about that shit ever day!

MD: And in front of people at the same time!

BC: Exactly! It doubles down. I’ve actually had – at the end of the tour – where I have songs, and I’m like, “I will never tour that song again! That was depressing…”

MD: Which leads me to my next question, which is: how do you present this in a live context; especially with the most recent stuff, which is also visually attached as well? What can we expect when you come around here?

BC: A lot of times, what I do is I find out how many people I can bring – because sometimes the tour just doesn’t afford me the full group – and I actually rewrite the set, every time I go out, based on what I have; so, the live versions mutate a lot, and they’re not always super similar to the recordings. Some of them, at this point, are very different; almost a new song…. There are five of us; so, we can do a lot of instruments at once. Everyone that plays, plays multiple instruments; so, they all shuffle around per song; and sometimes, in the middle, the drummer will start playing guitar – it’s kind of a mess, in that regard. I’ve never really tried to be that faithful to the records. It’s really just, “What do we have?” and, “Let’s make the best version with that.” Some of these recordings, I have over a hundred tracks on them; so, there’s no way I could play them how I recorded it; so, I was like, “Well, how do you get it down to five without redoing it?” and as far as I know, you can’t.

MD: From what I understand, you have promised more EPs coming throughout the year. Is that something that you’ve been working on, and will any new music rear its head when we come and see you?

BC: Maybe. A lot of times, when I’m building set lists, I actually ask people online or on my forum – the shows are for other people; they’re not for me – I just ask what people want to hear, and I usually build the set list out of that; so, sometimes the new stuff doesn’t end up on it; sometimes, I’ll play a totally new song; it just depends. If I’ve never been to a territory – like this – some people are like, “I’ve wanted you to come for eight years,” and I’m like, “Well, what do you want to hear? This is totally your show more than mine.” A lot of times people want to hear earlier material, and I’m fine; I’ll, really, play anything. I don’t have to play the newest cuts. I’ll probably build the set list next week – I haven’t even done it yet.

MD: How do you communicate with your fans? Are you big on social media? How does one find out what they want to hear?

BC: I usually ask through Facebook, and I’m starting to use Instagram. I’m not big on social media, in that I forget about it; so, I can sometimes disappear for weeks, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I forgot. I was supposed to tell people what I was doing.”

MD: I have the same problem!

BC: I know! Everyone else is really with it, and I just forget. I leave my phone in a drawer and leave the house, and don’t notice; I’m not good about that. I can always pretend that’s just some artist thing, but really, I’m just forgetful. But, yeah, I’m on Facebook, Instagram, or whatever.

Click here for info and tickets to see Radical Face at The Tuning Fork.