Ben Lee is from Devon, got into guitar playing Blink 182 songs, studied at Exeter College and Birmingham Conservatoire, and graduated last year. Since then he has worked with his Quintet, with Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and other bands, on a cruise ship last winter, and on the streets of Birmingham and other cities as one half of Gorillabot. His music is influenced by Nirvana, climbing trees, addictions, sci-fi, educational trips to Malawi and skateboarding. The Ben Lee Quintet has a debut album out, called In The Tree, on Stoney Lane Records, and it is filled with thoroughly original, thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly absorbing contemporary jazz of the eclectic kind.
I have been a great fan of Ben’s music ever since I heard his States double-band at The Spotted Dog last year, and had a preview of the In The Tree album a few months ago at the George IV in Lichfield. Ben, who has recently moved to Brixton, London, was back in Birmingham last Saturday and we caught up over coffee and marmite on sourdough at Faculty, the hip little coffee bar in Piccadilly Arcade. Here is a fair chunk of our conversation.
PB Tell us about Folk Theme – is it about folk music or folk in the sense of people?
BL It was originally written for States – my double band thing – the idea was the push and pull of these two bands – one was drums, bass, cello and violin; the other was drums, organ, trombone, alto – and Folk Theme was the theme tune of the band with the strings and it was, in the point of the narrative in my head – everything is on the brink of war, and I was imagining, I’m not sure what country, but it was rural, fires on the horizon, and you can hear battle drums – the pieces starts (Ben sings a low drum tattoo) and it’s like a fantasy book, as opposed to a sci-fi book, it’s old, not modern technology, the brink of those tensions rising – it kind of partners with Beginning Of The End which is the other band’s more electric, sci-fi, technology-driven, theme – dystopian warfare.I was reading lots of dystopian novels at the time…
PB So, do you have images in your head that you are writing soundtracks for?
BL Yes, not so much films but more snapshot images or feelings – not like a moving thing but yes, I do have a clear picture – kind of like a GIF – a moving image but it’s stuck in time.
PB There are lots of strong melodies in your music and they lock in like parts of a big band arrangement.
BL A lot of the melodies are related, the riff to Folk Theme (sings it) and the melody to Beginning Of The End – it’s because they’re both from States. I think that was my apocalypse leitmotif. In the backings to the two pieces there’s a tone row that is common to both.
PB You list a few influences in the album cover which include Malawi. Is that present in the track In The Tree?
BL There isn’t a Malawian influence in that, no. I originally had words to In The Tree – I wrote it in the shower a couple of years ago – it was a bit allegorical, about going down a certain path and then getting stuck in a rut – you end up doing a certain thing or being a certain way and then you have to climb down. (Sings): If you want to come and see me/I’ll be up in the tree/I really think you should/cos it’s the place to be/If you want to come and see me/Climb the trunk/And be up in the tree with me. Then the last verse… I forget the last verse, but you get higher in the tree, the branches get thinner – and that’s where it goes all melodramatic and minor, where you’re stuck in the tree – you get so high that you have to fall down.
So In The Tree has nice connotations too – I don’t know why but I picture a monkey having fun. And the album’s called In The Tree and the cover shows all the instruments in the tree. I was originally thinking – because I lived at Five Ways – that it was going to be a tree from outside my house with a plastic bag hanging in it, a dystopian tree…
PB I think the cover you have is more appropriate – I pick up the dystopian references but it’s not a bleak or depressing album at all. It’s really happy a lot of the time… it has air in it. So, In The Tree isn’t about Malawi. But tell me about Malawi.
BL Kickin’ The Chicken is about Malawi. I’ve been there five times, first of all with a school trip. My teacher, who is now my friend, Andrew Hubbard – he lived out there for three years. The high school I went to (St Peter’s, Exeter) has strong links with the high school there (All Saints Community Day Secondary, in Mtunthuma). There’s a Malawian tune that I learnt – I can’t remember the exact title – and Kickin’ The Chicken has the same feeling. But then, although I hadn’t realised it, John Taylor (the late pianist) pointed out that the tune is like Wes Montgomery’s Four On Six. But I had inverted it. It was really late at The Dog and we had all had a bit to drink, and John – he had seen this band twice and he was really supportive – he tried to sing Kickin’ The Chicken to me but to the tune of Four On Six and that was when we both twigged! Ahhh – damn!
PB It also has a Caribbean flavour to it – reminiscent of St Thomas?
BL Yeah – totally. And I think that’s because I really like Sonny Rollins. I also really like ska and reggae. Recently – on the cruise – there was a band from Barbados as the party band, and they didn’t have a guitar player so when I wasn’t busy I played with them – and they were great.
But Kickin’ The Chicken is because a guy I was with in Malawi, when there was a chicken on the path, would just nudge it out of the way with his foot – with respect to the chicken – nicely! It wasn’t mean at all. And that image stuck.
PB Do you think it helps being a guitarist – I mean, you clearly like playing loads of different styles of music apart from the one they call jazz. Is that easier because you’re a guitarist?
BL I think that might be in the nature of the instrument as well. So much 20th century music has been guitar (dominated) and when I was studying… Mike Williams (Conservatoire tutor) was always encouraging us to check out what people do on our instrument – the vibe was check out the guitar as well as checking out jazz. What got me into music was Blink 182. And actually last night I was playing in The Dark Horse with Dr Linus which is Richard Foote, Tom Moore, Euan Palmer, Ash Trigg, with Richard singing and it was a ‘90s nostalgia pop-punk evening – and I haven’t played that stuff in ten years. And it was such fun!
PB So that was what got you started?
BL Yes, simple riffs. I started out playing bass, really simple bass lines, but I, you know, got it. I got a real buzz from it.
PB How long did you play bass for?
BL A year or so.
PB Do you think that influenced your guitar playing? Because you always have a very strong line running through your playing.
BL I don’t know; I don’t like to… My dad was saying – because you play bass you play melodies first rather than learning the chords.
PB And when you started, were you quite schooled? Did you have lessons?
BL I had violin lessons from seven. I did have a couple of bass lessons, but guitar was always like my hobby. It was what I did most of, but no-one said: You’ve got to practise the guitar. Whereas the violin was – my mum didn’t make me but she would say: Please practise for ten minutes before your next lesson… and I don’t really like being told what to do. But I wasn’t oppressed! I was quite stubbborn. But guitar was a social thing. I’d get together with friends, learn the tunes…
PB Presumably learning violin first helped you to read music. The guitarists I know who play rock – none of them read music on the stave – they read guitar tabs.
BL Well, I don’t think it did too much. I never could read music very well. At school playing violin – I would just learn it by ear. I only really cracked reading music in college. I thought, if I’m going to be studying music and being a professional musician…
PB Was that quite difficult?
BL I think the guitar is a really hard instrument to read music on. It’s much easier on violin or bass. Because there are a lot of position changes, there is so much information you need before you can just read. And I never used to think in letter names, I thought in numbers. But I found this great book which I now use to help others – it’s by William Leavitt, who I think was one of the first guitar teachers at Berklee. He starts you reading right from the start. I could already play most of the music but I forced myself to go back to the beginning. I got together with Alan Gilbert, a fellow guitar student, and he had loads of Bach two-part inventions but written out for two guitars, and we just used to read those. I’m not as good as a horn-player because they read all the time, but…
PB The Danish word Hygge is one of those great foreign words (another is the Portuguese Saudade) that doesn’t fully translate into English. It’s a track on the album and a real word of the moment!
BL Yes, I should have called the album Hygge really… I went to Denmark a few years ago with Hans Koller from Birmingham Conservatoire, for a winter jazz school in the first week of January. It was in this castle, by a lake – it was awesome. John Hollenbeck was the coach of our ensemble. The guitarist Marc Ducret was there.
PB Then there is the sci-fi content of your album. Some of it’s quite dark. There’s Drone – that’s topical too. Was it that kind of drone?
BL That is a coincidence. I called it Drone because I found this way to make a cool sound on my guitar by rubbing the slide half way between the first fret and the nuts, and I tune the guitar slightly down so that it makes it a perfect E, and then you get all these harmonics – when you get this effect on a guitar it’s really crazy. And then the notes of the melody are the harmonic notes I was hearing. I was listening to The Beatles quite a lot – there’s a song on Revolver, one of the George Harrison songs… Within You Without You on Sergeant Pepper’s as well. I was aware of the other drone connotation as well, but it’s not a specific meaning of drone, no.
PB I’ve always found these drone aircraft a bit spooky but there is a positive side to them I realise. I was listening to a news item about how they are using them in Africa to get urgent medical supplies to hard-to-reach places.
BL I saw a YouTube video with a defibrillator drone they could send out to someone suffering a heart attack. But I do like drones – I went to the drone show at the NEC – they had drone racing! I do have a few toy drones…
PB Among the influences you identify is “addictions”. Where do addictions come in?
BL Well, Scratching The Itch is about addictions. And I have quite an addictive personality – to good things and bad things. If I get into something I just overdose, it’s all I want to do. For a time. It’s been different things, like juggling, skateboarding, guitar. They have all been at the forefront – where I can think of nothing else. And chocolate…
PB They are healthier than the old traditional jazz addictions, anyway.
BL The good ones, like guitar and skateboarding. I’m not addicted… well, maybe I am but I’m a functioning addict.
PB Well, the guitar addiction is your livelihood.
BL Exactly, but you do need a balance – you do need to do other things otherwise you get stuck in the tree!
PB The instrumentation of this band is interesting. Is that a conscious thing or just people you wanted to play with?
BL It’s mainly about personalities, and it kind of evolved. I originally had a quartet with Chris Young on alto, James Banner on bass and Billy Weir on drums, and then I had a gig at The Yardbird and both Banner and Billy couldn’t make it, and so I got Dave Ferris on organ who I’ve always played funk stuff with, and I got Euan Palmer on drums, and we just had a really fun gig. It just clicked. Banner moved to Germany. And I really wanted to do something with Richard Foote, and trombone could fill a bit of that bass space. So that is how it evolved. All the people who are there are people I am inspired by. They all bring their different energies.
PB And the track Nirvana – is that the band or the Buddhist principle?
BL Yeah, it’s the band. I love some of it even more now than when I first got into it. I really liked a few tunes, but I was never that into the melancholy. Nirvana has a really heavy emotional tug and I wasn’t that attracted to that as a young boy, which was why I liked Blink 182. But then with time I got really into that heartfelt side of Nirvana.
PB Did you hear much guitar music in Malawi?
BL I didn’t really hear amazing guitar players – I heard great singing and drumming. The way the singers project emotionally – it’s so powerful.
PB Well, we’ve covered most of the album. But we haven’t covered Gorillabot. How did that come about.
BL When we were on the cruise ship, we stopped at Lisbon, it was a beautiful sunny day and I’d gone out for a skate and on the way back to the boat, on the main high street, and there was a cellist with an SM58 (microphone) jammed into the bridge, jamming with an African drummer on the floor, and he had some drums and a kitchen sink, and people were throwing in change. It was sick! It was like dance.
PB Did they have masks on?
BL No they didn’t.
PB Where did that come from, because it’s very effective.
BL I don’t know really. I just enjoyed the Lisbon experience. I thought I really want to do that on the streets in Birmingham. I had a dream that I was dressed as a robot, and I just happened to have a gorilla mask lying around, so it was, Jack, there you go. There is some new Quintet material that is inspired by Gorillabot, it’s a little story that goes through my head: I’m skateboarding round town and having a good time, and I try to do this trick down the handrail of a flight of stairs, and I fall backwards, hit my head, so the piece goes into slow motion, and I wake up and I’m robotic, and I go on some kind of mechanical rampage. I do love it – it’s so freeing to be in a mask – people hear you so differently.
PB How much of Gorillabot is jamming?
BL It started out like that – because I used to live with Jack James, the drummer, and we would always have jams. It was late at night but he had this practice kit that had no actual drums, just pads, and I would play acoustic guitar. So we already had our own jams but then we started doing our own versions of pop stuff. So people go: I know that – but that’s weird. But it’s always robot style. I saw a documentary about Dadaism recently and I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is that creative desire to do something absurd.
- The Ben Lee Quintet’s In The Tree is out today on Stoney Lane Records. You can buy it HERE.
- The band will be touring the land in the coming weeks. For details, as well as more about Ben and his music, go HERE.
- My review of the band playing in Lichfield is HERE.
- A CD review of In The Tree will be coming soon.