Blessed with the guitar mauling talent of Black Lips and the blues heart of Blind Willie McTell (and a voice that speaks of too many nights on the Marlboro Reds), Benjamin Booker is an intriguing proposition.
Raised in Virginia Beach, musically enlightened in Florida and now based in New Orleans, Booker's self titled LP was one of the most filthy and furious debuts of 2014. Signed to Rough Trade and having recently supported Jack White, the 25 year old is now coming back to the UK this spring.
Here, he talks with Gigwise about his favourite New Orleans bars, what makes Jack White so special and why EDM is ruining festivals.
Describe the punk shows you used to watch growing up in Florida.
I saw this band Municipal Waste play one time and instead of crowd surfing by yourself, the crowd take boogie boards. It was mayhem, held in the car parking lot at the skate park. It was just the rowdiest bunch of drunk people - they are known for being a party band I guess. I remember being a pretty innocent kid and it looked like the end of the world to me: this crazy thrash metal band playing at this venue under a highway, 100s of kids dressed in black hanging out, clearly up to no good.
Apparently punk band The Bike Is A Pipe Bomb had a big impact.
I saw them when their bass player had broken their arm and they could only use one arm - so they played glockenspiel. I've never seen that before! The band don't play together any more, they snapped. When they first started playing, I think they were very underground for a while and I think things started getting bad towards the end. They seem like the kind of band who weren't fussed about playing bigger shows - but I think they did stop a little early.
Even after your album was released, you held off posting your lyrics for a while. Did a lot of fans get them wrong?
A lot of people at the shows were singing stuff back to me and I was like 'Ahh, that's not quite...' I would read articles and reviews as well [who would make mistakes]. I guess it is hard to understand but I really just didn't imagine people singing the songs. I wrote those songs in my bedroom, it's weird in my head. When it came time to do the album [sleevenotes], I just thought 'don't bother'. I didn't know, I guess, when we were doing this how far it would go.
The lyric that's got the most attention is "I would listen to the radio if I liked songs produced by 40 year olds..."
That one got me in some trouble. We played at a couple of radio stations where they give me a little shit for that. But there are a couple of different perspectives I guess on that song. When I was younger, growing up in the punk scene, it was more about kids saving up their allowance and recording themselves and doing that kind of thing. There are a lot of rules in the punk and DIY community. When I got older I realised that this was ridiculous. There are way more rules in punk and DIY stuff then there are outside of it. It's a lot easier to say fuck all that stuff and do your own thing.
You worked at volunteer organisation Americorps in New Orleans. What did it teach you?
The thing I took away from it I guess is that it's not enough to just want to help people. The way government and non profits work, there is so much bureaucracy and loopholes to jump through and things to get done. The reason you sign up is to go into neighbourhoods and make changes but a lot of that stuff takes more time than it needs to take. Because you have to go through all these loopholes to get something done. Which was a little bit disappointing: you realise working in that world, it's exactly like the corporate world. You have to treat it like that too.
Where would you recommend going to in New Orleans?
If I have friends in bands come to town, there are a couple of places. We did a residency at a place called Mimi's in the Marigny on Franklin. That's usually the spot I go to or I take people to when they're in town. It's my favourite bar probably. I was banned from there for a little bit... but now I can go back.
Why were you banned?
The main bartender at the bar... his ex-girlfriend... maybe we.... I don't know. [laughs] I was fooling around with his ex girlfriend so he refused to serve me drinks for a while. But I went back recently and he was OK. Finn McCool's is also great. I know that bar as when I was in Americorps, we'd have parties and stuff after work there. It's maybe the only Irish bar I've been to actually run by people from Ireland. Usually it's just some guy who is one fifth Irish or something behind the bar.
How do you feel about the Foo Fighters performing at New Orleans' instituion The Preservation Hall on Sonic Highways?
That's super cool. I did a photoshoot at Preservation Hall and they were telling me about that. If you'd seen the size of that room it must have been ridiculous - people just down the street watching through the window. Dave Grohl can do whatever he wants though. He was in Nirvana. Let's be honest. If I had done the things that he has done, I can't imagine I'd be that cool.
What did you make of Kanye West going to the Galatoire's restaurant?
I've never been there before. I don't know! When I was doing Americorps I was making $800 a month and spending $500 on rent... so I was like not going out a lot and eating a lot of fancy food.
What hip-hop do you love?
I like MF Doom particularly. He put out a record under King Geedorah that's great. I like the Clipse, the group from Virgina Beach which is the town I grew up in. I've never seen them live though. Other than local acts, Outkast is the only hip-hop show I've been to. Unless there's a live band, it's just not my thing. I guess The Roots were doing it really early and Jay Z did it but it's so much better [with a band]. It makes such a huge difference when they're not just playing the song through the PA.
In the autumn you visited 508 Park Avenue in Dallas for a pilgrimage to see where Robert Johnson recorded...
It was incredible. I had wanted to do that since I was 15 years old. The guys were really angry because we'd been driving a long time. We drove overnight to get there and had no sleep but I had to do it.' We showed up there and I made them take a picture of me. I was a huge Robert Johnson fan: I don't listen to him as much anymore - I got into some other blues guys more - but when I was younger that was my guy.
Who are you currently enjoying blues-wise?
My go to now if I'm going to put on a blues record is Blind Willie Johnson. He's surpassed Robert Johnson in my blues book. We also do a Furry Lewis cover at the shows now - so he's one of my favourites too. There's not really one particular album, with all those guys you just have compilations. Jack White put out some [on Third Man Records]: Charley Patton, The Mississippi Sheiks, that kind of stuff.
What’s the strangest thing you and Jack White have in common?
Maybe we don't have that much in common! He's a sports guy and he's also into taxidermy and weird stuff. Really the common interest comes in the music and old timey things: he has a recording booth at Third Man which I think is the coolest thing.
What’s the best thing you’ve bought from the Third Man store?
We recorded the record in Nashville, so in December last year I picked up a few things I wanted back then. The last time that I was there I got the Kelley Stoltz record - there was a cute girl working there and I asked 'Is there anything I should get?' I got told! The Kelley Stoltz record is really good though: he opened for Jack before I did!
What's the thing you notice after seeing Jack White perform night after night?
He’s a risk taker. The stuff that they do on stage? 99 per cent of bands would never think about doing it because it's just so terrifying. If you're playing to a crowd of 5000 people and you have no set list and you're calling things out after every song... I talked to the band afterwards and on one show he played six songs that the band had never played before. They're all such talented musicians that it always works out because they can just go along with it.
The majority of people can't do that - I can't do that! It's just impressive. It made me want to... even though the shows might be getting bigger and it's safer to not take any risks, it makes me keep things interesting and try and change it up a little every night. If he can do it to 5000, I can do it to 500 people.
Describe your worst ever gig.
We've had some rowdy gigs that maybe the promoters weren't happy but we haven't had any gigs that [were that bad]. As bad as it gets is usually weren't feeling it that night - the crowd are not really doing anything or moving. But people still enjoy it y'know? It's more fun for us when you can really see the crowd getting into it.
You mentioned on Facebook that “if you are homophobic, racist, or sexist don't bother coming to shows". What happened?
When we first started playing, the shows were small shows of fans and people like that. Since the music has been getting played on the radio and stuff you have a wider range of people coming out to shows. We'd just played a few shows where there were bros at the shows, frat guys pounding drinks and yelling at girls. I was like 'Get out of here. Why are you at this show? I don't want you to be here.' It's great that people like the music but they are not the kind of people I want to come to the shows. Please stay away.
What’s the strangest gift you’ve got from a fan?
Last night some girl bought me a blue wig. Will I be wearing it on tour? Maybe. I get in trouble - I usually get a phone call or a text message after I make an outfit choice. At the Third Man show I wore a dress and I got a text message the next day saying 'Dress?'
Have you bought anything on tour you've regretted?
Tonnes of stuff. We go into a lot of junk shops and look around and buy things. I get cassettes and random articles of clothing that I'll never wear. Usually it's just out of boredom. We have a couple of hours to kill and I'll go shopping and I'll buy something cheap... and never use it. Or lose it on tour. I bought some really ridiculous hats that I have been terrified to wear out in public.
Which band do you wish would get back together?
It's weird because with a lot of my favourite older bands now: someone in the band is either dead or recently every band that I like has reunited. I was going to say The Replacements - but then they just played at a festival we just played at! Actually I wouldn't want any [more] bands to get back together. It's usually horrible. I like it when bands do something, stop and then you never hear from them again. When they come back it's never as good as the first time. It's sad to see old man trying to rock out on guitars. I loved Black Flag and there's two Black Flag reincarnations touring - and I won't see any of those shows.
Who is the most exciting new band you've seen recently?
The band we toured with Blank Range from Nashville have really blown me away. The first time they played I was like 'Fuck: we really need to bring it tonight guys. The opening band are really really killing it." They got some music out but I don't think they've released a full length yet.
Otis Redding is a huge influence on you and you have covered ‘Shout Bamamlam’. What's your under appreciated Otis track?
I really like ‘You Left The Water Running’. I don't know if it's super rare but it's him and an accoustic guitar. I've basically watched every Youtube video of him. When I first watched him I had no idea of the energy of the live shows: it was so intense. Some of the songs are twice as fast as they are on the record - it's just out of control.
What musical trend needs to end right now?
EDM needs to stop. It's ruining festivals all over the world. It's terrible. We go to festivals here - I guess that's where they're getting the big numbers, that's where the huge crowds are usually but it's out of control. I used to listen to more electronic music when I was in college and then I realised it was more about drugs and partying than the actual music, y'know? It's not about going to go and listen to some music - it's about getting fucked up with your friends. So you go to a festival and there's 40,000 kids in neon clothes and they can barely stand. And you're just like 'What?' I don't know - it's not for me. I hope it's not for everyone.
Finally, you were on Ikey Owens final tour with Jack White. What’s your favourite memory of watching him perform?
I usually tried to go to his side of the stage. Everyone was pretty animated but he was the most fun to watch. Watching him perform: it looked like he wasn't playing the keyboards but he was dancing the whole time all over the place. He knew where everything was around him. He looked like a mad scientist behind these huge keysboards. It was awesome.
In your tribute to him you said he told you the most important thing was to ‘feed your family’...
He actually did feed us one time. No joke! We were backstage at a show and we were were like 'Ikey, we're starving man!' He said 'Whatever you need, I'll get it.' He went into the dressing room and brought us this tray of at least 100 tacos and just popped it on the table and said 'There you go.' And we feasted. It was the greatest night ever - we ate 12 tacos each.
Benjamin Booker's seld titled debut album is out now (Rough Trade). His UK tour begins in February including a date at London's Village Underground on 3 March. Buy tickets safely and securely with Seatwave.