It’s no secret that we are big admirers of Ben Seretan’s big bright brand of music. This month he put out his latest album, Bowl of Plums, and suffice to say it did not disappoint. We hope to get a full review up at some point, but in the meantime our description of the title track in our preview post is a pretty good summation of the record as a whole:
“The song is constructed from a multitude of small details, dreams and snapshots and sensations which knit together into a kind of abstract storyboard for good times. Or a vivid representation of life’s sunny side. A shiny plum indeed.”
Hi Ben, thanks for speaking with us! How is life now that Bowl of Plums is out in the world?
I honestly feel wonderful! The release show last week was really, really nice and putting this record out has been a really opportune moment to reconnect with people + talk to some new folks. I’m a little bit relieved, also – happy to finally cross the finish line. I’ve been walking around beaming!
The writing/recording process sounded like an interesting one, with a collection of very different songs coming into being pretty much right across America (from Alaska and California to Brooklyn and Queens), so much so that you’ve describe the album as a “greatest hits album”. Was this your intention from the beginning?
I never intended to write the album that way. After a few years of bopping around, through touring and visiting my family out west and doing some different artist residencies, I had a pretty big grab bag of different songs that weren’t necessarily part of one larger body of work. Thinking of the “greatest hits” helped me conceptualise everything, and helped me find the thread of humanity that was common to all these tracks.
I also liked how it’s a little tongue-in-cheek – greatest hits albums are for people like Tom Petty and the Eagles, goliath recording artists whose songs top the charts. Calling my tiny little campfire of an album anything grandiose is an almost-funny joke.
Also – “Yellow Roses,” an album-length song/jam I put out on tape in 2015 was partly about really embracing a classic rock vibe, just laying super hard into dominant chords and multiple guitars. We kept thinking of the tape design as something you’d pick up in the discount music bin of a car wash, a 50 cent tape of a band from the late 70s that nobody had ever heard of. I think maybe the “greatest hits” idea started creeping in there a little bit.
Do you think you’d like to go back to any of the tracks and write a more cohesive album around it? I mean, will we see any of the trees from which the plums fell?
It’s possible! But I don’t have any specific plans right now. The thing I’m working on now is based on my teenage years in California when I was just starting to outgrow religion – I’ve been listening to Everclear a lot for inspiration, haha, so who knows.
The thing that strikes me most about Bowl of Plums is how you manage to capture those transient moments of wonder and joy. Do the songs arrive in your brain like that, in little golden instances? Or do you work hard to conjure that feeling through trial and error?
I actually find that the harder I work on something – especially its words – the less resonance it has. The title track, for instance, went through a number of lyrical changes over the course of a few months that I was never happy with – I ended up using the very first draft of lyrics, the words I scrawled down in a beat-up notebook while I was hunched over a table still awkwardly wearing my guitar. Something like first thought, best thought. Revision and fine-tuning is something that I admire in a lot of other singers and writers but for me it just seems to dull my instincts and pull me out of the soft, human dreams I’m trying to live in with these songs.
The other thing that strikes me, as was the case with your self-titled album, is the sincerity of your writing. There are a million and one things I could ask about this but one thing I do wonder is how much of this is a concerted effort on your part? Does sincerity flow? Is it your default setting? Or does it require practice and patience and hard work?
I think the sincerity flows, dude! And I think it flows in most people, too, but for various reasons we learn over and over again to be cool, a little distant, intellectual, whatever. Maybe it takes hard work to overcome those impulses.
Without sounding like too much of a stoner – – you can’t aim for sincerity, I don’t think. You can’t say, “I would like this thing to be sincere.” With that thought, you have automatically disqualified the sentiment from ultimate sincereness…you know? You say something, make something, and if it’s an honest exploration of a compelling subject, done with tenderness and maybe, like, a lack of guile, then it might be resonant and might appear pure-of-heart. But you can’t aim to make something sincere.
Would you say you experience increased anxiety when sharing songs so vibrant and personal? Like, all artists suffer the will-people-like-it? thing but it must be more difficult when you put so much of yourself and your experiences down so clearly (as opposed to, say, masking it with irony or diluting it with fictitious characters and events)?
I have certainly been scared of people not liking what I make in the past, but I think I’ve outgrown that fear – – I’m pretty confident in what I do and, more importantly, I know that it’s for sure not everyone’s cup of tea. I’d hate to disappoint my regular listeners with a turd of an album, but I would also never put something out that I wasn’t stoked about and proud of personally. So, no!
The thing that I’m REALLY anxious about is the album and the songs just not making much of an impact, just kind of vanishing into the ever-growing content void. I recently called Bowl of Plums a paper sailboat, carrying my heart, set out to drift on the ocean. It’s also something like setting off a cherry bomb in a metal trash can – I’ve lit the fuse and I’m just hoping that the explosion is physical and loud and satisfying instead of anti-climactic – – mm, yes, haha. That is the thing that worries me right now.
Fortunately this interview will help!
You shared an Eileen Myles poem with the release. Did you have the poem in mind when forming the album, or did you discover it later and think it relevant? Does poetry and literature in general play a role in your creative process?
I was reading Eileen Myles’ semi-autobiographical poetic memoir kinda book Inferno (a poet’s novel) the summer I wrote a lot of this material. Such a great book, really hypnotic and steamy and smelly – – very accurately captures something about New York City, I think. And it’s just so direct and fearless – proud, too. I think her writing and her poems just made me want to sing about things that weren’t easy, to push through.
Later on, after I had been recording for a while, I came across the quote I ended up using as the epigraph – having written numerous songs name-checking flowers and, in one verse, just naming a few, it was too perfect – it concisely summed up the sheepish and outlandish presentation of a bouquet of flowers that I believe this album to be.
I love books, love getting lost in them, and find that the best ones allow you a totally reckless intimacy that’s extremely special and rare. I always think about that idea that Whitman had where, while you read Leaves of Grass and hold his work in your hands, you actually holding him himself. My big project in making music is finding, celebrating, and creating intimacy and tenderness and my notions of what that all means definitely comes from books. And I hope there’s something like that for people who hear my songs.
You’re releasing an EU version of the record through Italian label Love Boat Records (which is a great idea, speaking as a fan of North American music stuck the wrong side of the Atlantic), and plan to tour there this summer. Why Italy in particular?
It’s honestly “just one of those things” – I’ve happened to build an audience in Italy specifically, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of Andrea Pomini, a musician and music critic who downloaded my last album illegally when it came out in 2014 and ended up championing it as a good, if totally under-heard, record. Once he wrote about the self-titled album in a magazine called Rumore, I suddenly had a sizeable audience in a country I had never been to. Since then, I’ve just taken every opportunity possible to go there and play and do more.
Someone smarter than me might be able to figure out more specifically why my music is resonant there – I’m just happy that it happened.
Essentially, one person happened to hear my music there and believed in me.
If anyone in other countries would like to do the same, I am open to the idea! Would love to be able to tour Japan regularly, for instance.
On a semi-related note, do you ever think about your target audience when writing and recording? Like, aside from family/friends/enemies, do you have a hypothetical listener in mind? What do they look like?
There isn’t a specific person, I don’t think. At least not right now – there have been targeted individuals in the past. I might describe the audience I think of like this – – a crowded room, maybe 20% people I know and 80% strangers, as if I’m opening for someone (actually, I think I’m imagining the time I opened for Evan Dando). And I think about how to win them over, do something approaching beautiful, and ultimately be, um, of some help, I guess is how to say it. How to do right by a tiny sliver of humanity.
I do not currently imagine my many enemies but I think I would like to start doing that!!
Finally, could you suggest 4-5 bands you think we should be listening to? Feel free to name old classics or new buzz bands, whatever you find yourself returning to.
-I’m really into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith right now and, by extension, really feeling modular synth videos on YouTube.
-I just watched two Bill Callahan sets two nights in a row and I’m completely obsessed, once again, with “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” and his cover of Kath Bloom’s “The Breeze.”
-I’m really into Abdullah Ibrahim / Dollar Brand, specifically a track called “African Marketplace” that rules.
-The new Karl Blau country album wow, yes yes
-Looking forward to the Uni Ika Ai album coming out in the fall – this track is very good
-And like, just in case – if anyone hasn’t heard “New Day Rising” by Hüsker Dü it is pretty much the best song of all time
Bowl of Plums is out now and you can buy it from the Ben Seretan Bandcamp page, or on cassette from Hope For The Tape Deck. For those of you in Europe (and that includes us in the UK, at least for now), Italian label Love Boat is putting out vinyl and CD editions on the 8th July.
Cover photo by Dan Sullivan, main body photos by Sean Pierce