In Conversation with Ben Tyree
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: When did music feel right, as a path? Even if you didn’t know what it was going to look like.
Ben: Well that’s the thing, what gets you excited is you know what it’ll look like, you know exactly how it’s gonna turn out. But it doesn’t!
I don’t know that I was musically inclined other than I loved music, I was exposed to a lot of it, I reacted strongly to it, and thought it was like home.
The thing that has driven me throughout is I want people to feel how I feel when I listen to music, and especially how I felt when it was new. Every song blew my mind. Every song was the greatest song I had ever heard. I couldn’t believe it.
Ioana: It sounds very visceral.
Ben: Yeah. It was awesome. And when I was in elementary school, we had this art program in D.C. We would go half-day per week. So I took ceramics, printmaking, and violin lessons. Violin wasn’t going to be the tool of my identity as a young adult. I got stimulated to get into guitar and songwriting.
Ioana: What did it feel like when you started playing guitar? How did you know it was the right fit for you?
Ben: I didn’t know. I still don’t know if it is. There was no evidence that I had any talent for it for years. I could say there’s some now, sure. I didn’t ever practice. I didn’t understand it. I just knew I wanted to do it.
Ioana: Tell me about your practice. How did it prime you for the years to come?
Ben: My teachers told me that I had talent, but I needed to practice more. Ability is no good unless you develop it, which I think is true with anything. You can have a propensity to learn new languages, but if you don’t sit down and do it, it doesn’t matter.
I started reading about guitar players who I liked. I read about their processes. A lot of them practiced eight hours a day, and I thought, “Okay, that’s what I have to do.” And that’s objectively foolish. Because you have to be well-rounded, and you have to graduate high school, and pursue a respectable vocation, and be an adult, right?
Ioana: Respectable, according to whom?
Ben: Anybody. You have to not be homeless, right? In the very least. Just the idea that you’re going to sit and work on a craft, independent of somebody paying you to play guitar all day long, is self-absorbed. But that’s what it takes. So there’s no way around that.
Part of me was questioning, “Who am I to do this? Who do I think I am?” Some people who have more talent than I do, don’t get to do that, for whatever reason.
Ioana: Did you feel like you needed permission?
Ben: Maybe a little bit. I mean, it’s tough to justify at any point.
Ioana: You’ve been doing this for about twenty years, and you’ve sustained yourself creating music.
Ben: With lots of help from lots of people!
Ioana: Yeah. Let’s talk about the myth of making it on your own.
Ben: Nobody makes it on their own. We all have help. Even if it’s just living with your family and they make sure you don’t die so that you can finish school. Or you have friends who encourage you and give you opportunities.
Ioana: People need people.
Ben: Absolutely. I wouldn’t be here without my wife, my parents, my friends, and my teachers. If it’s a success, it’s not all mine. It’s ours.
Ioana: That’s a good thing. It’s the antithesis of the self-made artist.
Ben: Yeah. I don’t believe in that at all. I’ve never seen it.
There’s a movie about Van Gogh, called At Eternity’s Gate. It’s really good, and I think somewhat accurate. Apparently, the only person to give a shit about his art was his brother who supported him, sent him money and tried to sell his paintings. And everyone else thought his work sucked and told him he was crazy. And he did have a lot of mental health issues.
But within that story, if you were in his life, or you were him, you would think the situation was hopeless. In the movie, he’s in a mental asylum. And a priest comes to counsel him and holds up a painting and basically tells him “This is ugly. You have problems if you think anyone’s going to like this.” And he didn’t become famous until well after he died.
Ioana: Now he’s a symbol of the tortured artist.
Ben: Which is a problematic archetype. Mental health and mental illness are complex, really tough to grasp and manage in society. Sometimes people can be very creative. It can fuel your creativity if you’re a little off. Not always, but you hear about this in history. And then there’s this romanticization that you have to be a little bit kooky to be brilliant. I don’t buy that. I think that’s destructive.
Some people have real issues and are making great things, but we should want to help them. And we shouldn’t want to exacerbate our mental unease thinking that our art will be better.
I think some people can be in states where all sort of externally imposed convention is just not even understood or perceived, and so everything falls away, and it’s just them and their world. That is something that can stimulate a creative person, for sure.
It also begs the question — would you stay committed to your art knowing that you’d receive no recognition in your lifetime? If somebody said to you, “You have to paint every day. You’re going to really get into it. But nobody’s gonna give a shit.” Would you keep doing it? And maybe after you die, you’ll be famous and have a museum?
Ioana: But is fame and money the goal? Because then, of course not. Why would anybody do it?
Ben: Right, exactly.
Ioana: There has to be a higher purpose to it. It has to heal you, bring people together, somehow make you whole in a way that not creating wouldn’t.
Ben: Right. Essentially, I think artists create not because they have to — because they don’t have to. You have to drink water. You have to eat. You have to sleep. You don’t have to make art, but you are really compelled to. It’s a serious drive for you. But you know, our culture doesn’t support it.
Ioana: American culture.
Ben: Yeah, when we grew up, there were programs. There was an environment that was nurturing in regards to the arts. That’s becoming more and more of a rarity.
Plus, you need to make time for it. Right now, our culture is about immediate gratification. Art is not about instant gratification. The arc of your life as an artist is long. I’m becoming gratified now, based on shit I’ve been doing for years. You might not cash in on things emotionally for years.
Ioana: Let’s talk about your move from D.C. to New York. You came up here in 2002 with Miscellaneous Flux, your band at the time. Paint the picture a little bit.
Ben: As much as we moved up as a band, I knew I was also moving as an individual. So we moved up as a band. Some people were ambivalent about it. Some people thought of it as a thing to try. It was very much a personal thing for me.
I wanted my band to move up here because there were a lot of opportunities. I’m somebody who always when I see a green light, I hit the gas. And when you’re in your early twenties, you don’t have as many responsibilities and as many things keeping you from doing impractical things.
Ioana: The impractical things that get you through.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. But going back to our first point — I had a lot of help. I stayed with friends at first. I got a job at a club as the door guy. And that was enough of a start.
The whole band got an apartment in Midwood, and then it all fell apart. Not everyone wanted that as much as I did. So people left. We tried to keep the band going for another three years, but eventually, it completed its course. And I feel good about that.
Ioana: Take us through what happened next. You’ve collaborated with many people and played music across more genres than one could imagine one person being able to do. Jazz, funk, blues. What is it like to blur lines and fluidly move from one sound to another?
Ben: In school and early on, I laid a foundation by which I could have a fundamental grasp of different types of music. As far as actually being able to do them, it was very much trial by fire. I had many experiences where I could not do a lot of the things that you’re saying I can do. I would fall flat on my ass, but I wanted to keep doing it because I could feel that I could do it.
I don’t draw much of a distinction between those types of music because they all have the same foundation of blues. That’s all American blues-based black music. The roots and DNA are the same. So it’s just a little bit of a tweak. If I’m playing country and funk, you wouldn’t think it, but it feels very similar.
So imagine a little knob and one quick turn to the left, and you’re playing funk. One quick spin over to the right and you’re playing something else. I see it as a spectrum. I have to, or I wouldn’t be able to play this way.
My approach is seeing how things are more alike than different. The fluidity is just a byproduct. That only comes from experience, and you can’t read about how to do that.
Ioana: You practice it until it’s in your muscle memory.
Ben: And you can never take it for granted and think, “Well, I figured that out.” Because as soon as you do that, you’re back to square one.
Ioana: You respect music as a craft.
Ben: Yes, and if you think you’ve arrived and mastered it, you’re fucked. You should never believe that. You never arrive. You’re always emerging. We think we’re going to get to this place where it’s all going to gel and we’re going to be masters. That’s bullshit. It’s a trap, and it’s not real. You’re growing, you always should be building, and if you’re not, you’re atrophying.
Ioana: What are you struggling with now to learn and to stretch yourself?
Ben: The business of it is a struggle. As far as my craft — I almost want to say that I’m not struggling in that regard, but I have a different relationship with it. I’m not fighting, I’m not pushing too hard, but I am still always putting in work and trying to get better, and trying new things.
I want the music experience to be as fluid as possible, more so than having a verbal conversation. I want to tell you a story, to show you something, and I want it to be articulate.
There was a time when my playing, especially my improvising, was more brainy than visceral and I think because of that, listeners’ response was “What is that? It’s just a bunch of notes.” And they were right; it was just a bunch of notes. So what good was that?
I had to retool my whole approach because I don’t want to spray notes on people. I want them to feel something. I want to feel something. I want to paint a picture. And you can’t do that with technique alone. But that had been an important place, where I was accumulating technique. Now, I’m trying to make that technique more intuitive and integrated but elicit a visceral and emotional response.
Ioana: The audience completes the experience. So we’re not making art for ourselves only. It’s more about interconnectedness.
Ben: Totally. You hear people say things like that and think that’s just platitudes. But really, the audience is just as influential as the performer. And I’ve been finding that the audience shows me where to go. I’m an improviser, and when I take solos I tune in, I cast out one idea and see how that changes the room, if at all, or how people respond. I pick up on the response like in any conversation.
Ioana: It sounds like you have to be very open and vulnerable in front of an audience to receive people properly.
Ben: So scary. And then you give them back to themselves, but with you attached. But then everybody comes out of that feeling like…
Ioana: …they were part of something magical.
Ben: Yeah! And you feel nourished from that. You have to be open and vulnerable, and it’s scary. But that’s the real work. That’s the service of it. If you want to affect the world, that’s what you have to do. And even if you’ve become good at opening up, you can’t just assume you’ll always be good at it. Every time requires you to access that experience fully, without credentials.
And people wonder why artists and musicians are so sensitive to everything. It’s because we’re practicing being open to people. And some people are going to hurt you, and some situations are going to be dangerous. So you also have to protect yourself. But when you’re on stage, you have to be completely vulnerable, or it doesn’t work.
Ioana: Do you meditate?
Ben: Yeah, I have a yoga practice, so it involves meditation.
Ioana: Is that something you use to deal with any blockage before you perform?
Ben: Yeah. I also see performance as a meditation. My practice is meditation. And I see when I drive as a meditation. I’m of this mind that I think everything can be a meditation. If you practice that, it’s easier to get into that mental place. I’m preparing for every gig all the time in every way — technically, emotionally, mentally. That’s my whole life.
And hopefully, when I get up there, I can remember to be present one hundred percent. If I can say yes to everything that’s happening — even if shit is fucked up or the sound is crappy — then that makes way for the art to happen.
Ioana: Because it’s bigger than you.
Ben: It totally is. This all sounds silly, but it’s the real stuff.
Ioana: You’re using music to ignite emotion and help people feel transformed. It takes mindfulness and courage to be vulnerable and facilitate such an experience. Of course, it can sound esoteric.
Ben: Maybe the courage is in trusting strangers. To not laugh at you, or to not hurt you, or boo, or walk out.
Ioana: Also, not everybody has to be our audience.
Ben: Exactly. Somebody can look at a painting and say, “Wow, that’s amazing. I can taste it.” And someone else can think it’s dumb. And who’s wrong or right?
Ioana: It’s all subjective.
Ben: So, music is the same. Maybe even more so. There are studies now about how sound is the art form that affects you emotionally the deepest because sound waves touch your eardrums and vibrate bones in your body. So when you hear an unpleasant sound, the vibrations are physically doing something to you that makes you angry.
Ioana: What are you working on these days?
Ben: Activator Trio. I’m taking some older music and working it into this because it’s different instrumentation. It’s guitar, keyboard — and the keyboard player plays the bass and harmony parts. He also invented an instrument called the Samchillian. Do you know about it?
Ioana: No, teach me.
Ben: Leon Gruenbaum invented this instrument. He was in Vernon Reid from Living Colour’s first solo band in the ’90s, and I know him through Burnt Sugar.
So he invented a musical instrument digital interface. It’s a binary trigger with a sound bank, and it triggers whether a note is off, on, and the pitch. You can have it trigger any sound so that you can play trumpet for example. You can set it to a different key signature. You have plus keys and minus keys. And so wherever you are, you can go up and down. You’re not locked on one scale. I couldn’t play it; he can play it. And he has all these cool sounds that he designed. And he’s very patient and can learn my crazy music.
And the drummer Chris Eddleton is the same way. He’s really fun, cool to be around, and a great player.
Ioana: Where can people hear you?
Ben: We don’t have any recordings because we’re still very new. Our third gig is coming up August 8th at NuBlu in New York. There are YouTube videos of the group, and the long-term plan is to record. There will probably be a CD for people like us who still need to touch the music.
Streaming is no good. The sound quality is inferior, and your listening habits are monitored and cataloged. The artists are not getting paid. Spotify CEOs are getting paid.
Ioana: The business model has dramatically shifted since you came up. Let’s pretend you’re debating somebody who’s saying that it’s better than it’s ever been. What’s your point of view?
Ben: On one end, you have people like me and even hobbyists. They want to get their music out there and 20–30 years ago it was a lot harder. There was no internet, and if you wanted to make a CD, you had to cough up the money or record independently and finance your project. Then still, who knew if anyone would care?
Now, you can record anything on your phone, publish it, and millions of people could hear it. It’s interesting this is the case. The playing field is leveled, and anybody can get in the game. Because of that, there’s an oversaturation. Whatever is out has less impact.
Ioana: Across mediums.
Ben: Not in video content. It seems like they figured out a profitable streaming model because companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even networks like CBS are doing an on-demand model. They have budgets to create content, and somehow that’s working.
Companies like Spotify and Pandora are not creating content. They’re just receiving existing content, selling ad space, and keeping most of the money. And there is a lot of money in it for them.
Ioana: For Spotify and Pandora.
Ben: Absolutely. Peter Frampton is a platinum-selling artist; he sold tens of millions of albums. I mean, just stupid money. He Tweeted a year or two ago something like “‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ had tens of millions of plays, and I got a check for 2,000 dollars.”
And you might think, well Peter Frampton has made his money. He has nothing to cry about. But you’ll find that a lot of artists who were millionaires are not always in the positions we think they’re in.
Ioana: So what’s the recourse?
Ben: I don’t know that there is any because Pandora’s Box is open. Once something becomes free, you can’t make it unfree.
Ioana: No, you can’t. However, you are a working musician sustaining yourself. What ways have you figured out around this issue?
Ben: I have a lower standard of what sustaining means. I don’t have a mortgage, for example. I don’t rely on sales as being a thing. You know, that’s why bands like the Rolling Stones are still touring. But some people would rather be retired.
Maybe in the history of music-making which is thousands of years, you have this tiny sliver of time from about 1915 until very recently when people were putting sound onto objects that other people were buying. This little flash in time.
Ioana: An exception.
Ben: Yeah, so maybe that’s the deal. Recorded music as a product, an object, and a commodity was an exception. People will still hit the stage and teach music and make it.
I would like to live in a world where I could put out an album and people like it and buy it. I don’t need to be a millionaire or have a mansion, but I would like music to be able to do more things for me.
Ioana: Much like a writer can publish a book of essays or a novel and make passive income from it.
Ben: Yeah. I like to avoid hyperbole with this issue because there’s a lot of that going around. Some musicians compare it with another scenario, like running a catering company and dealing with someone who doesn’t want to pay money because they think the exposure alone is payment in and of itself. To that, I’d say you can’t compare music to food, because without food you will die.
Another is comparing Napster to shoplifting. I don’t know that it’s a fair comparison. Now, I don’t like that people were ripping CDs and sharing them online, because that is like stealing. However, the data was being reproduced. So if you put money down for a CD, you own it. But if the information on that CD can be copied infinitely, it’s different than shoplifting a unique object.
Because of my position, I should say that it’s theft and it’s wrong. Yet it’s happening. I’m hoping that I’ll still be able to buy physical music. But you also can’t force the world to stay one way.
Ioana: That’s part of saying yes.
Ben: There will always be music and people who are making amazing music and performing, and you can go to their shows. There will be radio and the internet, and there will be music everywhere. But it’s hard to survive off of it.
Ioana: You teach guitar, have gigs with many other artists, play live, tour. You don’t rely on record sales. Any other things that you’re incorporating into your professional life to round it out?
Ben: I don’t have a real estate license or walk dogs.
Ioana: So it’s all music-related.
What have you’ve learned about yourself throughout your career?
Ben: Oh, so many things! Everything I’ve learned about myself has been through music. That there’s always more and no matter how good you are, you can still be better. There’s always more to you to discover that it’s never too late to feel new and fresh. That every moment of your life is as important as any other that if you perform for one person or a thousand, it should be treated as very special and you shouldn’t downplay any of it. You never know what will come from it. You never know who you’ll affect. Some of this seems obvious, but I didn’t know this at one point. And there’s more.
I’ve learned to trust myself, my abilities, and my intuition. I’ve learned how to learn things. Music has taught me that I can learn and integrate ideas very quickly if I take it a little bit at a time rather than looking at the whole thing at once.
That translates to any other work you do, especially if you are involved in any activism or social justice. The problems are huge and daunting, and you can’t affect things on a huge level as an individual. But you can change things locally and in small baby steps in your immediate world, which can have huge reverberations.
Ioana: Right. Looking for the next adjacent possible is a more realistic approach to affect change in the world.
Ben: Also, your energy is limited. Imagine pushing a boulder up a hill. You can’t alone push a huge rock uphill. But you can inspire ten or fifteen people to help you, or you can push up a smaller boulder. Music has taught me that it’s the little things that matter.
Say I have to learn forty pages of music for a show. If I sit there and look at the whole book, I’m going to lose my mind. I have to take it page by page. One page every day and after forty days I got it.
Ioana: That’s patience, which is a skill and a practice.
Ben: It’s what it takes to grow. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for people who don’t value patience or who don’t see the value of delayed gratification in favor of building a larger picture.
In my experience, the most lasting change is always slow and incremental. That’s probably the most important thing for people to know.
You might want to be a painter. So you paint one thing, and you don’t like it, nobody likes it, and you feel like you failed. If you keep doing it all the time, eventually you’re going to like it, and people are going to like it. You might be successful in twenty years and be glad you didn’t give it up. But how would you have known that?
The only difference between you and Van Gogh is that he just did it all the time, every day. No matter what. Whether he was broke, hallucinating, or cutting his ear off. People who have resilient careers are the ones who create regularly and don’t stop.
Ioana: It’s the persistence of showing up.
Ben: Yes. My message is — do it every day.
Read Ben’s essay on creative sustainability and the creative ways artists could collaborate and exchange capital.