Interview: Benjy Ferree

benjy-ferree-1DC singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree is a regional gem, under-recognized and under-appreciated.  

I got a chance to pick his poetic brain, and romantic soul, for a while earlier this week.  Don’t miss his show this Saturday at DC’s the Black Cat.  It’s also the release party for his fantastic sophomore album, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee.

Aural States: You got started in music relatively late compared to most people.  Could you say a little about your experiences beforehand and what led you to writing music?

Benjy Ferree: Well I was raised in a gospel-singing family, but I didn’t want to play gospel.  I didn’t listen to Christian rock and thought it sucked, but you know, my parents didn’t even encourage me to listen to that shit.  Gospel music was always too entrenched.  I was raised on Mahalia Jackson and my mom could always sing really well like that.  Spiritual, you know?

I was listening to Chuck Brown, Soul Searchers, Fugazi, all that shit.  That’s what was around me and as I grew older I got into Jesus Lizard and Candy Machine and started to think.  I lived at Memory Lane from like the ages of 18-21.  I had a cool older brother who took me to the old 9:30 Club.  I saw shows all the time.  I sang in gospel choir and the pop choir when I was raised in the Baptist school.  In high school I was a closet musician, and sang in choir when I went to Eleanor Roosevelt.  I taught myself a few chords on guitar and I had a drum set but I was never in any bands.  I was into anything from Public Enemy to Shellac, Nick Cave, Tom Waits.

I studied theater in high school; that’s why I wanted to goto Eleanor Roosevelt.  To me that was the famed, “I’m gonna live forever” arts school.  And that school really saved my life.  I went to PG Communtiy College since I couldn’t get into any universities I wanted to and I went to Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory in Washington DC.  I guess until I was 21 I kind of screwed around in community college.  I really wanted to goto NYU since Kevin Kline went there and a bunch of other actors I thought were cool went there, but I didn’t have the skills in math and science to get in.

I didn’t really like Studio Theatre because I didn’t agree with some of their practices; thought it was kind of cultish.  But it was a really good experience for me.  I realized after that I needed to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star. I started writing music, just because I was so bored out there.  I didn’t have any work, any gigs; just in the service industry.  I never thought about singing before, but when you write your own songs you don’t need a caption director or anyone’s approval.  You just do it.

LA just stripped me down of every insecurity I ever had, by making me completely insecure.  So I tapped into them.  There’s a personal appearance thing out there that can make you feel really ugly.  And as soon as I started feeling that,  that’s when I started figuring things out.

AS: So was your first record, Leaving the Nest, about those experiences?

BF: That bull-shit bio that was written…they said the record was about Los Angeles…

That first record had a lot to do with 9-11.  If DC or other parts got blown up like how the towers were hit.  I kept thinking of the Virginian border, and how that might be untouched and a safe place to go.  It’s all about trying to survive and find heaven on Earth.  That was a really paranoid time; on the song “Why Bother,” I talk about people wearing hoods and they are supposed to represent the authority but they are also the bad guys.  I imagined hiding from everyone if the shit really hit the fan…oh wait, this is an interview…if the fit hit the shan…I imagined hiding out like a little boy on rooftops, trying to get to his girlfriend.

You know, the song “Hollywood Sign” was not written in Los Angeles.  That’s inspired by PT Anderson and Magnolia.  You know that scene, when that young boy tries to commit suicide and his mother accidentally shoots him out the window.  That song’s inspired by that movie.  Oh man, now I’m giving all my secrets away.

AS: I really loved that first album.  ”Dogkillers!” in particular.

Right on!  ”Dogkillers!” is all about Watership Down; another track about survival.  Watership Down is the story of my life, all about tapping into your weaknesses and your strengths.  Those rabbits in Watership Down, they were at the bottom of the food chain; but they had really good strengths: listening and speed.  And they found if they could listen, and run, they could survive.

That record is like Watership Down, and the world getting blown up like Mad Max since that was kind of the way I was looking at things.

AS: You mentioned a slew of different artists who you grew up listening to and the list is diverse, to say the least.  Do you feel like this helped open you to all the different instruments and vocal styles you seem to have no problems incorporating into your music?

BF: I only do what I know.  Just like everybody, you can’t really choose what you’re born into…what religion your family is…your skin color…what country your roots are from.  Music to me, there are all different bloodlines.  I think I’m really fortunate to come from Prince George’s County and you’re exposed to the punk music in DC and the music from Baltimore.  Baltimore’s not that far from PG County, and John Waters was my hero.  Divine was my hero, so not just the music.

Eva Cassidy…I even got to meet Chuck Brown when I was a kid working at this shipping company called API.  In the same park was the Funk University (which used to be Black Pond Studios), and I would take cigarette breaks and go over there.  That was Chris Biondo’s studio, you know, the bass player from the Soul Searchers.  He would record the Northeast Groovers, Chuck Brown, the Soul Searchers and a bunch of go-go bands and I got to meet Chuck (who always drove his own limousine).  I got to see Fugazi at the Washington Monument.  I saw a bunch of local bands, you remember 3 bands for 3 bucks at the old 9:30 Club.  I’ve been going to bars since I was 15; we used to goto Mr. Henry’s because they didn’t really card you.

So basically, I got really spoiled with culture and music, and absolutely every drop of my soul came from that stuff, those experiences.  And I think I’ve lived a very charmed life because of that.  I met some crazy…some amazing…some crazing people.  That’s crazy and amazing together.  You should never censor yourself, because to make good music you’ve gotta be open to all the spirits around you and tap into it.

AS: The new record you’ve based loosely on Bobby Driscoll, the child actor who played Peter Pan.  I thought it was interesting that your old album cover has this painting that bears some resemblance to Peter Pan.

BF: My fiancee actually painted that; it’s just some guy who wore an interesting hat and a lot of people thought it was me.  The fact that it kinda looks like Peter Pan, that’s just irony.  That wasn’t planned out at all, I just really liked the painting.

AS: How did you settle on the new record cover and the themes?

BF: Well I always really liked Bobby Driscoll’s eyebrows.  A lot.  They go down really sharply towards his nose.  If you look at the Walt Disney Peter Pan, he looks just like him; that’s because he dressed up like Peter Pan and was the model.  Just like Andy Serkis who was Gollum in Lord of the Rings.  They drew over that actor.  But when you look at that Disney Peter Pan, that is Bobby Driscoll.  So the cover is allll about the eyebrows.

AS: What about Bobby Driscoll’s story inspired the new record?  How did it influence the creation of the songs?

BF: I don’t know anything about Bobby Driscoll, I just knew his movies.  But about a year ago I found out he died and I got really sad and wrote a record really fast.  And I thought I was Peter Pan until I was 4.  And when I say I was Peter Pan, I was Peter Pan.

The record isn’t really about Bobby Driscoll though, it’s more about me and my life, and the people around me.  The song “Pisstopher Christopher” is about a friend of my who was dying of cancer; he died just a few months ago and I sang at his funeral.  But he, Bobby Driscoll, he jump-started my life and this chapter which is the Bobby Driscoll record.

There’s no book about Bobby Driscoll, and all I know about him is his movies, Wikipedia, and that he died at the age of 31.  Penniless.  I was heart-broken because the dude who represented my hopes and dreams as a child, died alone.  And I had to show respect, I had to honor that.  So this record is for myself more than anything.  It’s not a concept record; it’s not like I was thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if I got vintage” or anything like that.  It’s a tribute record to Bobby Driscoll and my friend Chris Hopson.  It’s a celebration of life and how precious it is.

I thought about all that stuff, and it’s just really honest and open.  I’ve never really written a song like “Pisstopher Christopher” before, but I needed to share that story of my friend.  You know, he also moved to Los Angeles and was in a band.  The singer of his band started dating the guitarist and he got kicked out of his band, got cancer and he died.  That’s why he’s Pisstopher Christopher because he never got a break.

AS: So this album was really about you working through the revelation about Bobby Driscoll’s death and the effects it had on your life.

BF: Yeah, absolutely baby. There’s another Disney child actor, Tommy Kirk.  He was the older brother in Old Yeller; he was in Swiss Family Robinson, The Hardy Boys when they were on the Mickey Mouse show in the late 50′s.  He was fired from Disney because he was gay; Bobby Driscoll was fired because he had acne.  Tommy Kirk apparently got into drugs, just like Bobby; he did a lot of bikini films.  But then, he lucked out.  He didn’t die, he cleaned up and got really successful with a carpet cleaning business.  He’s still alive.  You know, those two actors, I think they were two of the greatest in the 20th century.

But I know that if I ever had a problem like an addiction, I wouldn’t be alive.  There’s no way.  I don’t have that kind of strength.  Making this record, looking at my life, all my friends that I know and how lucky I am, I really learned a lot.  I would not be alive to this day without my friends.  You know, I’m 34, but even when I’m 54, if you’re alive and can get out of bed, there’s always another day and always another chance to make your life better and try to survive.  To live another day with your family and friends.  And playing music, I’ve got the most amazing life in the world; I get to play music and meet people.  Whether they like my music or not, fans of music are some of the greatest people in the world.  They’re just as cool as musicians are, because you can’t have one without the other.  I really hate bands that don’t entertain and are condescending to their fans.

AS: I think everything you’ve said makes a lot of sense. Listening to the new record, a lot of the material is intense, heavy.  But the music is bright, even brighter than Leaving the Nest.  Almost brimming with hope.

BF: Absolutely, absolutely.  I know I feel that way, my friends and my band feel that way too.  You just gotta believe.  What does that mean?  I dunno.  But everyone’s got that one thing that no one else in the world has.  I don’t want to be afraid of death, I don’t want to be afraid of drugs.  I don’t want to judge those things, I just want to acknowledge them for what they are.  I really believe that people can, and do change.  And hope, hope is such a crucial thing.  That’s how people survive in places like concentration camps, prisons…those people, those amazing, strong people are exactly who I want to be.  They are my heroes.

AS: I wanted to get some insight on a couple of my favorite tracks off the new album.  “The Grips” really hit me hard.

BF: I wrote that with my best friend Drew.  He was raised in the church too; his daddy was a preacher.  The melodies he sings are pretty similar to the melodies I was raised on.  We’re brothers, but we’re also musical, melodic brothers.  He sang me this line one day: “I’m comin’, I’m comin’, I am comin’ to grips with you.”  I totally got choked up.  

And I did something I’ve never done before in my life, I asked him if we could write a song together with it.  He said “Well, sure, but that’s just a little something I was singing.”  And I told him, “That little something really messes me up.  I don’t know what that means yet, but I really want to use it.”  

I always say it’s about Bobby Driscoll dying and going to heaven; it’s definitely about death.  But it’s a hopeful song in the fact that people that are judged or people who die…I think, you gotta believe that maybe they’re OK.  And I think it’s important to remember the people that have passed before us.

Whenever I play that song live, I dedicate it to anyone in the audience who has lost somebody.  It’s important to me to say that to anybody in the audience because I think people are feeling that.  And maybe people don’t think that’s entertainment, and maybe it isn’t.  But I really connect with people when we play that live…I guess I kinda don’t give them a choice.  

There are so many people that just need to get it out, I know I do.  And that’s what the song is about, the lost ones.  I still think those spirits might be in the room when I play that song.  That’s a very heavy song for me because I wrote it with my best friend, Drew; it means a lot to both of us.

AS: I think it’s a great song for that.  The gospel-infused melodies and vocals really give you a sense of closure and comfort.  The other song I was curious about was “I Get No Love.”  It begins with this crazy Wild West riff…almost like a non-sequitur that doesn’t really match the rest of the track’s style.

BF:  Yeah man, that’s Ennio Morricone.  I think I watched Once Upon A Time like 100 times last year.  There’s just something about that film.  He wrote the music before the film was even shot.  Every theme and every song was for a certain actor.  Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale all had their own theme.  Even Henry Fonda.  I’m not trying to say the song is as good as any of those themes, but those songs really had an impact on my life.  Every time those themes come up in that film, it’s like an entire generation went by.  And every time that you hear that songs over and over and over again, it’s almost like putting salt in your wounds.  It hurts, so much.  But it’s such a beautiful thing.  

You know, that song (“I Get No Love”) isn’t as heavy as “The Grips,” but it’s probably about Bobby Driscoll going through his divorce.  I don’t know exactly what that’s like; I haven’t been through one.  But I had a god-father who was a closet homosexual.  He passed away in ’92 of HIV-related illnesses.  He married his high school sweetheart and everybody in the church secretly judged him.  I learned a lot from the death of my god-father and knowing him.  I think the whole idea behind “I Get No Love” is how it feels waking up and not having anyone.

Mickey Rourke, he just did some interviews with Barbara Walters before the Oscars.  He was talking about how he hit rock-bottom.  He just bought really expensive house, he didn’t have any money.  His wife left him.  He didn’t have any problem with drugs, but he had a problem with anger.  His face was brutalized from boxing.  He looked at his dog and asked his dog if he was gonna take care of him.  And he got a look from his dog, that said “Well who’s gonna take care of me?”  The lucky thing for Mickey Rourke is that he can wake up, and he has somebody.  Even though it’s a dog, he still has somebody.  And I gotta think that Bobby Driscoll…he probably woke up and he didn’t have anybody.

I gotta say, I’ve felt hopeless before, but I don’t know what that’s like.  But of course I have friends all around me, and I know that I’m spoiled, wealthy with love.  But I can’t escape that feeling that people get.

AS: What do you hope people come away with after listening to your music, or seeing one of your shows?

BF: I just want to play shows and connect with the audience.  Tap into what the audience is giving us.  To try to channel what’s going on in the room, not just me but everybody.  

I want to be that kind of singer, that kind of musician.  I really like the Flaming Lips’ shows, because there’s a humor about death.  You know, because it’s gonna happen no matter what.  You’re gonna get hit walking the dog, people get cancer.  It’s a normal thing, and it may be sad, but it’s ok to talk about it.  I really respect like Bruce Springsteen, and how much he shares.  I think it’s an honorable way to be.  Wayne Coyne…I really look up to those people.  How honest they are.  Just like Otis Redding, when he would sing, he looks like a football player but he sang like my mother at a funeral.  Just really getting it out, like it’s your last day on Earth.

I don’t know what I want people to leave with.  But I want them to come away with some kind of experience.  Whatever the time is, whatever the day is.  I want people to laugh or cry or do whatever it is.  People pay money to see me, and that’s a big deal to me.  And not just money, but their time.  I want to give them something.  Some of the best times of my life have been crying, seeing a band.  Like most people that are into music, it has a big impact on me.  I just want everybody to be honest; I realize not every show is gonna be like that.  But I hope they are.    I hope that a few people in the audience, or more, want to connect too.

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2 Responses to “Interview: Benjy Ferree”

  1. Anya Gugliemotto says:

    Thanks for the interview with Ben Ferree. I think he is an extraordinary musician and deserves a much larger following.

    Staying tuned in Columbus, Ohio…..

  2. james says:

    this album is really honest and true. It is weird for me to listen to people sing like this, sometimes, but I can’t help being touched. If there is one thing I am afraid of it is death, I feel like i just hashed it out with my best friend.

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