October 8, 2008

A Dish Best Served Cold: The Clicky Clicky Interview With Ben Parker

Ben Parker of Superman Revenge Squad
As tempting as it is to view the songs of Ben Parker as heavily autobiographical, it is equally likely that he is making a pop reference even more obscure than those one can discern as the singer's words whiz by in a torrent. This Is My Own Personal Way Of Dealing With It All, the title to Mr. Parker's new collection from his latest project Superman Revenge Squad, would seem like a bald statement of purpose. And while it may be, the fact is the title is taken from an old Lou Reed interview. "The Angriest Dog In The World," one of the most affecting of the eleven recently recorded tracks, takes its title from a comic strip drawn by David Lynch. In another song Mr. Parker imagines he is Kevin Rowland of Dexy's Midnight Runners; in still another he pretends Will Oldham is singing directly to him. Clearly, Parker is a learned student of popular and underground culture.

And yet his music -- whether it is harrowingly urgent, morose and emotional or tongue-in-cheek and geeky -- transmits as deeply personal. Which is perhaps what first drew us into Parker's world two Augusts ago, after stumbling on to his prior duo Nosferatu D2 via the excellent blog Another Form Of Relief. In his songs, Parker can't escape social obligation, fan expectations or cultural homogenization -- although it is not for lack of imagination. In nearly every song on the Croydon, England-based songwriter's new collection he plots. The initial plan is to "write a song like Coldplay, we're gonna creep into the Top 40, we're gonna tour until we hate each other's guts." Another plan is to go to bed and somehow miraculously wake up as someone else. Elsewhere escape is revealed as a mirage: in "Women Hating Internet Pornography" Parker makes it as far as the tramway encircling his hometown, a ride that necessarily ends up right back where it began.

In still another scenario his narrator is the angriest dog in the world, tied up forever in the yard. This dog is hopeful, and dreams big -- in his small way. The dreams concern becoming the equal of his master; turning the tables on his master and tying him up for fifteen years; about biting his way through the lead some way, somehow. And this optimism is almost surprising, given the dark portraits Parker crafts. Of course, the music is not without its own humor, although it is humor of a particular stripe. For example, the final track on the new record, which can be bought directly from Parker at the Superman Revenge Squad MySpage garage right here, is titled "Joe Concedes Ultimate Defeat By Blowing His Face Skywards With A Shotgun." We wanted to learn more about This Is My Own Personal Way Of Dealing With It All and the man behind it, and happily Mr. Parker obliged us by answering our questions below.
We're continually fascinated to hear what our favorite musicians do for work. Based on your songs we'd guess you would make an excellent arts critic or record store employee. But what is that you actually do?

Well, I work 9-5 in an office for a publishing company, in a totally non-creative way. When I left university I thought I’d end up as a journalist or something. But I find it difficult being creative if it isn’t completely on my terms. And I did toy with the idea of working for a record shop for a long time, as I do spend a lot of my free time browsing records, but I thought it would just take the pleasure out of it all.

Have you always lived in Croydon? Can you describe it for a person whose never been there and has only experienced it through your music?

I was born in Croydon and lived there up until I went to university in York. I never thought I’d end up here again, but it’s cheaper than living in London and quite easy to escape into London if you want to. It’s okay, really, although it does generally only make the news because of people occasionally getting stabbed here. It’s just very suburban, and most of it could be anywhere in suburban Britain, with the same chains of shops, the same bored people wandering around and lots of parents swearing at their children. Certainly, on the surface it’s not very creative, but there is a small group of people that I know that are in bands that I can while away evenings talking about music and stuff to, and that play and watch each other in the venues. There’s an open mic night every Tuesday that I play occasionally, where I first played on my own, and where I can play new songs to a few supportive people. The music scene would maybe benefit from the town not being so near to London –- I know that as soon as I was into music I wouldn’t bother going to see local bands because I could go and see stuff in London; proper bands.

We're familiar with two of your prior bands thanks to Tempertwig and Nosferatu D2's music being available for free at Last.FM. I think Nosferatu D2's final gig was opening for Los Campesinos! Did Nosferatu D2 go out on a high note, so to speak, or were there other highlights? Was there a big moment for Tempertwig?

I think ND2 had stopped being fun by the time we played our last gig supporting Los Campesinos. And we always said we’d stop doing it if it stopped being fun. And I was starting to write some of the stuff that ended up as SRS songs and finding it easier to be productive and creative with this new stuff that Adam didn’t find so interesting to drum with. The great thing, for me, about ND2, was that it was always 50/50 with me and my brother so if one of us wasn’t happy with something it would never have worked. The highlights for me were always at smaller gigs when everything would just click and we’d be, I think, maybe quite briefly, pretty good and pretty intense. Obviously, SRS is a lot less intense live. I used to feel drained after ND2 gigs and all that shouting.

Pop stars sing to teens and pre-teens with hopes of a big payday. Your songs are often very critical of the pop music business (as well as the homegenization of consumer culture in general), and you certainly doesn't seem interested in compromising what you do for the sake of a commercial success. When you write songs do you ever consider who your audience is?

I always kind of imagine me listening to my music if I wasn’t me and make sure I’d like it. And then imagine, maybe wrongly, that if I like it then surely there must be other people that would like it too.

We're reluctant to embrace the term anti-folk, because, well, we struggle to relate those words with the meaning people seem to ascribe to them. They don't quite add up. Given the progression from Tempertwig (trio) to Nosferatu D2 (duo) to Superman Revenge Squad (solo) -- that steady reduction in personnel -- we'd argue that perhaps it is more apt to characterize your music as "anti-rock." That aside, why is it that you have chosen to be a solo performer? Why is voice and acoustic guitar the best vehicle for Ben Parker's songs now?

I dunno, a number of reasons really – firstly, I guess I might just be a control freak…. And I like the fact that people can actually hear my lyrics live now – previously I’d put quite a lot of effort into words that were hidden behind music at gigs. And I really like getting laughs when people hear the bits that are meant to be funny – it kind of gives me a very small taste of the satisfaction that a stand-up comedian might get maybe. I refused to use any guitar effects when we started ND2. It just seemed more "real" somehow, more raw. And this is like a continuation of that I suppose. I like music that’s stripped of production values and niceness but is still, at heart, pop music. The version of Burt Bacharach’s Make It Easy On Yourself, where he sings it in a not-terribly-strong voice just accompanied by a piano is great, for example.

Of course, you recently played a birthday show with a band, including your brother Adam, an exceptional drummer who played with you in your prior two projects. Have you ruled out ever being in a "full band" again?

I haven’t ruled it out. But, well, I keep thinking of Alisdair Roberts, who I love – he sounds nothing like me but I love his music – and he is much much better playing on his own than he is with a band. When I saw him last year he had a band and it was okay. Recently, I saw him on his own and I could have cried at points. I like the vulnerability. And the fact that I can muck up songs and make it look like I did it on purpose.

What inspired you to sing about the complicated power dynamic in "The Angriest Dog In The World?" The song reminds me of author Patricia Highsmith's "The Animal-Lover's Book Of Beastly Murder," which I recall was filled with short stories of murderous animals who turn on humans.

"The Angriest Dog In The World" was a David Lynch comic strip. I took the initial idea from there for about two lines, then I think it turned into something else – I don’t see it as being about a dog at all now, but about a certain type of dysfunctional relationship where the power rests with one person and the other person is stuck with this power dynamic and doesn’t know anything else anymore. It’s strange – some people find the song quite upsetting and sad, other people think it’s meant to be funny.

What about "This Is A Happy Song?" It seems like a bit of a piss-take poking fun at your reputation for being dour. It also seems like a way for you to acknowledge that you aren't terribly different from other people our age who once enjoyed pop hits like "Ice Ice Baby." The final line, of course doesn't seem like a piss-take at all: "I guess I'm learning to live with all this baggage that I've been living with so I thought I'd put it all in a song in a bid to forgive myself for all the things I never did." That lyric sounds like the thesis statement for the entire record.

A girl I work with commented that all my songs were depressing so I thought I’d try to write something happy for a change – originally the idea was to write something like Ian Dury’s "Reasons To Be Cheerful," like a big list of good things, but I got as far as Lambchop being on the telly and then ran out and by then the song had started to take shape and was self-consciously not-happy but quite gleefully not-happy. It took ages to come up with an ending and I played it unfinished for quite some time. But, yeah, the last few lines came quite spontaneously one night and I like them.

Would you say your music is realistic or fantastic? Your lyrics offer what strikes me as an extraordinarily honest representation of your own feelings and insights, as well as a strikingly realist consideration of how escapism works and doesn't work. Certainly there are elements of fantasy, in "Captain Non-Entity" and "Angriest Dog" for example, but often your lyrics are refreshingly open, blunt and even explanatory, as in Nosferatu D2's "A Footnote." Is this something you consciously strive for?

I think that most of the stuff I write is based on reality. It’s sometimes a really exaggerated reality, and it doesn’t always start off being about me, but there is generally always autobiography in there somewhere.

Even the album title This Is My Own Personal Way Of Dealing With It All, which is the first like from the stirring "I'm Gonna Go To Bed And When I Wake Up I'm Gonna Be Someone Else," seems refreshingly transparent. But is it? Is the title true? When we consider our favorite actors or musicians we all often wonder how much of what is communicated is real. Was writing these songs, or recording this album, a way of "dealing with it all?"

The title comes from an interview with Lou Reed that I’m paraphrasing because I can’t remember it exactly – but, basically, someone asked him why he writes stuff, created art, whatever, and he said something like "This is my own personal way of dealing with it all" – and at the time I was doing Tempertwig and I had a conversation with my brother where we talked about why we were doing this and I couldn’t really say why other than referring to what Lou said; I mean, we weren’t getting paid, not many people saw us play, we didn’t really drink, and I was pretty uptight at most of the gigs but I felt like it was something I had to do. And I’m still in the same position really!

What's next?

I’ll continue doing this until I don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve got about 30 completed songs that I’ve written so far, since I started doing this SRS stuff, and I keep writing more. I’ll record again when a bunch of songs seem to fit together again – possibly in a couple of months or so, as I have 11 that I think should work together. I love writing this stuff. When it dries up I’ll stop. I’ve always wanted to complete a novel. Maybe I’ll do that then...
Superman Revenge Squad -- "Idiot Food" -- This Is My Own Personal Way Of Dealing With It All
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Nosferatu D2 -- "A Footnote" -- Nosferatu D2
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Tempertwig -- "This Means Everything, This Don't Mean A Thing" -- Tempertwig
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Previous Ben Parker Coverage:
Logorrhea, Pathos and Superman Revenge Squad
Today's Hotness: Tempertwig, Naxos, Joy Division
Every Band I've Ever Loved Has Let Me Down Eventually

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