Cyclic Defrost

An Australian magazine focusing on interesting music

Mister Speed interview by Chris Downton

Mister Benjamin Speed is likely to be a familiar figure to many listeners of Australian independent electronic music, having made a name for himself as the vocal/lyrical half of Adelaide-based hiphop / electro duo The New Pollutants, who performed extensively around the country at events including the Big Day Out and Adelaide Fringe Festival prior to their recent amicable dissolution. In many senses, The New Pollutants’ musical explorations stood distinctly apart from the work of many other artists and groups working with hiphop elements in Australia, something that was as much the result of Ben Speed’ distinctly unconventional lyrical style and vocal delivery, as it was collaborator DJ Tr!p’ murky, cinematic and aged-sounding beats and rhythmic backings. With a lyrical focus eschewing the often macho and beer-drenched subject matter often common to a lot of Aussie hiphop, Speed’ lyrics were far more likely to resemble a stream-of-consciousness-like internal conversation, their distinctly positive and constructive slant intriguingly offsetting the degree of ominous menace generated by their whispered, processed and then KAOSS-pad scattered tones. Particularly apparent also was Speed’ emphasis upon cultivating an adept consciousness unmuddied by intoxicants or self-negation, a theme that certainly remains distinctly present amongst his more recent work.

While during their several years of operation The New Pollutants managed to record and release a fair amount of material, including 2002′ independently released Hygiene Atoms album and a smattering of 12” and CDR-only releases, it certainly seems like it’s been a while since listeners heard from Ben, but in reality he’ been keeping himself feverishly busy, just not in the musical areas fans of The New Pollutants might have immediately anticipated from him. In the time since The New Pollutants’ dissolution Speed has continued to work as an acclaimed film composer (his “day’ job) and music teacher, his efforts in these parallel fields being greeted with both an award for “best original score’ at the St. Kilda Film Festival and the South Australian Award for Excellence in Arts Education.

In many senses, Speed’ been so immersed in these consuming activities lately that he describes the recent local release of his debut solo album The Dreamer through Creative Vibes as “something that seems quite incidental.” While it may not exactly be the current dominant topic on Speed’ mind however, The Dreamer appears primed to take his compositions and productions to a new audience considerably broader than those previously familiar with his work as one half of The New Pollutants. Particular apparent upon even an initial listen is the diversity of musical touchstones and influences that have gone into its creation, with everything from Central European folk instrumentation (You Should Be Dancing) to 1950s-styled rock n’ roll (Ready For Action) / skiffle and jazz-tinged dub (Can’ Get Home) rearing its head over the album’ fourteen track running length. Also immediately noticeable is the newfound confidence and versatility inherent in Speed’ vocal delivery – rather than obscuring his lyrics in a wash of digital effects, the tracks show him comfortably assuming much more of the spotlight for a collection that comes across as considerably more extrovert than his past explorations. As a longtime New Pollutants listener myself, upon listening to The Dreamer, I was particularly keen to find out more about the sorts of thought processes and creative priorities that have gone into its making.

When I catch up with Ben via telephone, unseasonal summer rain is bucketing down on both of our respective locations in Canberra and Sydney, and Speed’ just made it home after a long day teaching students film composition at AFTRS. Though he’ clearly had a hefty working day, he’ more than keen to discuss The Dreamer and pretty soon into our lengthy conversation, I’m struck by both his enthusiasm and general passion for life, things that seem to form a constant muse and source of inspiration for someone whose agile mind seemingly never stops moving. First up, I’m keen to discuss the fact that so much of the material contained on The Dreamer deviates greatly from the sorts of murky electro/hiphop landscapes fans of the Pollutants might have previously associated with him, suggesting that its stylistic diversity must be the result of increased artistic confidence. Indeed, much of the album itself doesn’ appear to concern itself with what genre it’s operating in as long as it’s enjoying itself, much like Buck 65′ more recent ramshackle category-flauting expeditions. “I’ve been working on the album on and off over a period of several years, a period that’s certainly incorporated lots of musical changes for me personally,” responds Ben, “I guess I compare it to the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. My filmic background certainly plays into it. One thing that I was particularly conscious of was wanting to make an album that was not all one genre, and not necessarily “hiphop’. In fact, the phrase I’ve been using to describe it to people has been “1950s laptop hip-pop.’”

It’s particularly in regard to this last statement that I’m keen to find out whether Ben has given much thought or credence to the sorts of reactions The Dreamer might be met with by those accustomed to his past role in The New Pollutants, pointing towards the lyrics of track Art Is…, which certainly appears to advocate personal freedom to diverge and experiment. “Exactly,” he counters. “That specific track talks about what art is to me and everyone else, and how that reflects society as a whole. “[With regard to the album] I love the idea that someone will love it and someone will hate it, but that’s freedom of thought.” It’s this focus on freedom of individual thought that seems to manifest itself in a sense of compassion and respect that leaks through in the lyrical content of most of The Dreamer‘ fourteen tracks, and indeed even the title itself seems to allude to an optimistic hope for a more forgiving society. When I ask whether these sorts of social concerns were a conscious priority during its making, Ben’ response is one that’s distinctly affirmative.

“On the technical side, a lot of the music in New Pollutants was a lot darker – I don’ mean seriously dark stuff, but perhaps a bit darker than I wanted things to be,” he explains. “I was in a bit of a philosophical conundrum; at one point I was involved in an environmental science degree and determined to save the world…I don’ know if that gives some sort of indication as to my sorts of motivations. I wanted to get the part of people that changed the way they thought about themselves and their environment – that’s why I chose music and it wasn’ exactly what I could do with New Pollutants. I really wanted to emphasise the idea of “oneness’ and I particularly wanted to be both musically and lyrically more positive.”

When I ask whether this sense of positive lyrical focus is in any way a response to the sorts of aggressive stances sometimes in evidence amongst certain sections of the contemporary Australian hiphop scene, Ben responds in a manner that shows that it’s not really a central concern of his. “In regard to the more aggressive side of hiphop…it doesn’ really help things. I don’ really want to reinforce those sorts of attitudes and perceptions, but I don’ think that my music is really a reaction to that. For me, it’s really fun to see a person just be happy and enjoy who they are – if people draw something from my lyrics that they can use, it’s great to be a part of that.”

On that note, I mention album track ‘Repressive Society’, which certainly appears to deal with the idea that the modern consumerist world represents a source of deprivation of human emotion, material wealth in place of meaningful connection, if you will. “I wrote that track as a result of someone I knew telling me about a friend of hers who was working in a job that he hated, basically for the money, he said, and that made me feel kind of sad,” Ben explains. “I worry about people who are simply bill-payers…everyday should be an opportunity to live your life to the full.” If that seems like an idealistic and somewhat utopian hope, it’s certainly one borne from the proven adage that nothing comes to those who simply wait, as Ben’ hectic work schedule clearly indicates. He’ certainly amongst the lucky (perhaps) few who’ve managed to end up in a job that’s both creatively and spiritually fulfilling, but it’s come as the result of years of hard work and artistic dedication.

In particular, I’m keen to touch on Ben’ film scoring work and find out more about the events that led his creative efforts to become recognised with a coveted St. Kilda Film Festival Award. “That was with a collective named The Peoples Animation Republic; I’d previously scored a film for them called Errorism and it was the second one I’d done with them, Carnivore Reflux that won the St. Kilda Film Festival Award,” Ben recalls. “I’m also working on their new film, a third one, which I’ve finished all of the music for and in my opinion, this one rains down on the previous one. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done”, he enthuses. When I enquire about the sort of creative process he follows when preparing a film score, the answer is straightforward and perhaps also a pragmatic one. “I don’ so much score like Neil Young in Dead Man, you know, like sitting in front of the film jamming on a guitar and writing music…partially because I’m “electronic.’ No, it’s more a case of watching the film, having ideas come to me and then going away to work on them further in the studio.”

Given his relaxed manner, I get the impression that Ben’ time-consuming parallel activities in the fields of film scoring and music education are one of the main reasons why the release of his debut solo album hasn’ been the stressful experience that it often is for many other artists in his position, after the dissolution of The New Pollutants. It’s an impression he certainly validates with his answer. “In many senses, I’ve been doing so much film music that this album has been quite incidental to me,” he explains. “It wasn’ even like I went out of my way to get signed or set up a distribution deal. Creative Vibes simply found tracks on my Myspace page and approached me, asking whether I was interested in putting something out. They seem to be quite excited about the album and think it might do things,” he ventures, a statement I meet with the suggestion that my impression is of his music moving to a considerably broader audience of listeners, at the very least.

When I ask Ben about his plans for touring behind The Dreamer and launching the album, his thoughts about live presentation come across as undecided at time of writing. “I have no major touring plan as of yet, and I guess there are also questions as to how to perform it live. The predictable obvious thing would be to do a one-man show with a mic and everything coming off of the laptop, I suppose. But at the same time, I’ve also thought of some crazy ideas, like getting friends to dress up crazy and act as backing dancers, so that people would have something to look at.” It’s his next statement though, that offers a revealing glimpse into the sort of ambition that lurks in the heart of this outwardly non-ego fuelled figure as well as the degree of flow between his myriad different projects. “Actually, what I’d really love is specific visual elements for each different album track…” With a bit of luck, we’ll get the opportunity to find out what Ben’ finally settled on when and if he tours The Dreamer later this year…

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Cyclic Defrost is Australia’s only specialist electronic music magazine. We cover independent electronic music, avant-rock, experimental sound art and leftfield hip hop. Read more

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