Interview: Benjy Ferree
Don't call Benjy Ferree's latest release, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee, a concept album. A tribute to Bobby Driscoll (the child actor who inspired Disney's animated Peter Pan) Ferree's new album celebrates life, reflects on death, and creates a brilliant sophomore LP in the process.
Black Plastic Bag had a chance to talk to Ferree (now touring) before he returns to D.C. this Saturday, Feb. 28, for his record release show at the Black Cat.
What was it like growing up around the D.C. music scene? Were you at all touched by it or influenced by what was going in D.C. at the time?
Yeah, I worked in this factory, and Funk University was the studio where Chuck Brown used to record at and his bass player from the Soul Searchers ran it, and yeah, I mean I’d go in the studio when I would–when I used to smoke cigarettes–I’d take a smoke break over there and hang out with Chris Biondo and listen to Northeast Groovers. Yeah, I mean Fugazi changed my life. Fugazi made me feel like I could be me times a thousand. I was absolutely touched by the music scene in Washington, D.C. I mean, I was raised on it, and I was raised on Gospel music and all that stuff, the church I was raised in. So, I was born into it. But I’m not from D.C. I’m from P.G. county, I’m a totally different–D.C.’s a totally different kind of experience, as far as living, than Maryland.
Where do you live now, do you still live in Maryland?
No, I live in Adams Morgan now.
So what do you think of the current music scene in D.C.?
I don’t know, I have a good time. I have a good time. I mean, my friends are good musicians and I like to play with them.
Well, I was just asking because some people have this perception that a lot of people in D.C. might be a little bit nostalgic for the times of Fugazi and when Dischord was really in its hey day.
I mean, the cool thing about Dischord is that, you know, Ian MacKaye started his own record label with some friends. And anybody else in the world, they can do the same thing if they want to. You can either bitch about it, or you can start your own label and live the dream. And they did.
Can you talk about how you got into the music business full-time? I read that you were bartending at the Black Cat and Brendan Canty sort of influenced you to take your music more seriously?
Well that’s the bio–and I didn’t bartend at the Black Cat, I was barback at the Black Cat, and I was making music for a while. And Brendan recorded, you know, Brendan did some demos with me and he mixed my first record and he mixed my second record. Brendan’s definitely encouraged me, he’s a dear friend of mine. But I was makin’ music for a while, I just didn’t have a record deal. And Brendan was helping me out during the time that I got the record deal–he definitely was a nurturer. He nurtured lots of his friends. That’s just the kind of spirit he is.
When did you start to get into music?
I moved to Los Angeles to be a movie star and then I got kind of burnt out on the whole idea of making other people's art. So I decided to make my own, and I didn't need an agent to do that. I just needed a guitar and a tape recorder. So, you know, but I guess it was important for me to get out–I mean, I love Los Angeles, but I was around so much business, I needed to get away from the business, and I moved back to the east coast. I've been in the service industry for years. I mean, I was 31 when the first record came out and I'm 34 now. This is just the way it's supposed to be for me. Things just take time. I don't know if I planned on getting a record deal,it just kind of happened. I'm just jumpin' on waves–I'm catching waves.
Is Benjy Ferree your legal name?
Benjamin Ferree is my legal name, I mean I was Benjy since I could walk, that's my name, yeah.
I was just curious because, in your music, I hear a lot of Brian Ferry and Marc Bolan, and I was just curious if it was an allusion to those influences. But I guess I was wrong.
Yeah, that's all right. I got into Marc Bolan when I was older. I definitely like T-Rex. But I don't just listen to T-Rex, I listen to all kinds of music. But I like T-Rex; I've been compared to him a few times, or Marc Bolan that is.
Well, it's kind of hard to characterize your music–do you have any specific influences you channel when recording?
I'll categorize my music, just because it's fun. I call it American pop, 'cause I'm American and, I don't know, I like pop music. I consider all kinds of music pop music–I guess that means popular to me. What am I trying to channel? I try to tap into whatever I'm feeling at the moment. I try not to censor myself, and I try not to worry about what it sounds like, as long as I like it. And I don't wanna censor myself and worry if it sounds like a certain kind of music or whatever–I don't wanna be closed-minded. I don't want to ever put any restrictions onto my art or my soul, 'cause I think that's kind of a weakness. And I don't want to tap into weakness, I want to–well, if there was a weakness, I'd want to use the weakness as a strength. But I just want to be as open as possible.
With the new album, first of all, how did you get interested in Bobby Driscoll, and what about his story did you find so compelling that you wanted to create this concept album?
It's not a concept album, it's a tribute album. I was obsessed with Peter Pan when I was a kid, and I was obsessed with Christopher Reeve, and I thought I was Peter Pan for a while. I jumped off my garage when I was four–I thought I could fly. I saw the R. Crumb documentary that came out [Crumb (1994)] and they talked about him in that, and I thought I knew a lot about Bobby Driscoll, but I didn't know that he'd died. And when I found out that he died, about a year ago, I got really sad. I was just kind of moved by it because I felt like it was a part of my childhood for some reason. I just didn't know about it. I felt like it was kind of like a piece of my soul because Peter Pan is like, the dreams of children. Those storybooks are dreams of kids. And it's just kind of sad that this guy that was Peter Pan–and he was, he was physically Peter Pan, because he was the model for Peter Pan. That's why I have those eyebrows on the cover of the record. My lady Laura Jean, we shaved my eyebrows and then she painted the Bobby Driscoll eyebrows on. And if you look at the Disney Peter Pan, he has those same eyebrows. Those are Bobby Driscoll's eyebrows.
And so I got really sad and wrote a record, but I didn't think about Bobby Driscoll the whole time; I thought about my friend Chris, he was dying of cancer. He just died a few months ago, and I sang at his funeral–the song "Pisstopher Chrisstopher" is all about him. His little sister is the general manager of the Black Cat, her name's Angie. So the record's about–I said this a million times, but it's true–it's about how precious life is. And Bobby Driscoll's more so the guy that jump-started the whole... He kind of jump-started my life, you know, this time around, this chapter in my life. Which is the Bobby Driscoll record.
So that's what it's about. I like movies, I like animation and there you go. The more you dig, the more you find out about stuff. But I don't know anything about Bobby Driscoll, I just know the movies that I've seen. There really isn't much information on Bobby Driscoll.
The mood of the album doesn't seem to be very sad at all–it's actually a really fun album. But when you read about Bobby Driscoll, it's just so tragic. When you were recording, what was your mood? What were you thinking of?
Like I said, I wanted to be open to everything. I wanted to be open to my friend who was dying. I thought a lot about death and I thought a lot about life. And I didn't plan out some weird thing just to be weird – it's not a concept album and I wasn't trying to be ironic or witty or whatever. I try to be as honest as possible, and I wanted to really be open to everything around me. And use everything around me: use my friends; use my band because they're amazing musicians, they're amazing friends; and I wanted to tap into their spirits and my friend Chris's spirit. And I also wanted to tap into Bobby Driscoll's spirit too. But I don't know what that means.
So, given that, how has this experience recording Bobby Dee been different from that of your first LP?
Well, hopefully every records going to be different, that I do, you know. All I'll say is that I'm livin' the dream. I mean, I'm just livin' the dream–I get to make music. That's pretty amazing.
This record's different in a sense that I recorded it really, really quickly. The first record I always said was two different sessions, like two EPs, and I didn't have a band. This time around, I did, and I got to produce a record and I wrote it, I raised it, I got to have amazing musicians and friends play the parts, play the music, and put life into it–make it come to life.
And would you say your, I guess, late success, has that made you appreciate it more? Or how has that influenced your outlook on what you're doing?
It just makes me appreciate life, no matter what I'm doing. I want to live an honest life. I just want to be like all those other people that I see that know the secret to life, and you see it in their eyes, you know.
Who would that be?
I meet people like that everyday. I just want to be like that. I talk to people, you know, I always learn from people. I just want to be like them.
Do you pay much attention to how the media are receiving Bobby Dee?
No, I don't read reviews. I think most reviews that I've read about any band, they've always been a bad book report. And I know that, because I've written plenty of bad book reports. And I think that a lot of people don't really know what they're talking about, 'cause they can describe a band–you know, they've probably read the lyrics, and listened to an MP3 really quick, but they never saw that band play live. I personally wouldn't write a review about a band that I didn't like. I'd only write a review about a band that I did. So a lot of people write reviews about bands that they don't like because it makes them feel better about themselves, which is feeble-mindedness. And I think most music lovers out there know exactly what I'm talking about, because–I mean, don't get me wrong. I think there are some music writers that are probably good at what they do, but it doesn't mean shit to me. Because I don't go to them to get their approval on what records to buy. I have freedom in this country; I can go to a record store, I can go to a club. I talk to my friends. So I don't read what –I think that just takes the fun out of it. I'd rather talk to my fiancee about what band's good, or my best friend, Drew. I wouldn't want to read, like, Pitchfork, you know? 'Cause nobody knows what they're talking about because, they're just kind of talking out of their rear end just to sound like they know what they're talkin' about. It's kind of like a bully who's in a room, who's the loudest person in the room, is really just a wimp, because he's insecure about who he is, you know, or the size of his whatever you wanna call it. And they just run their mouth the whole time, and they don't know what the hell they're talking about. And I think a lot of critics in general, they have a platform, they got a job describing other people's art. I'm not puttin' them down for havin' a job, I mean good for them for havin a job because the economy's pretty screwed right now, but I always get disappointed when I read reviews. Unless, even if I don't like the band, if someone actually listened to a record, you can kind of tell. But I'd rather read a comic book or watch CNN, or–not that that's all true, but I don't want someone else to tell me what to listen to or what to like. I'd rather go to a show and tap into the artist instead of read about should I like this artist or not. I just think it's boring. It's a boring way to live.
What bands have you seen or heard recently that you really like?
I haven't seen any shows recently. The last show I saw was Garland of Hours, that was really good. I'm trying to think, like, famous people–I like the Kanye West record. I never saw Kanye West live. I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. That was a religious experience. I saw him two nights in a row, those were the best shows I've ever seen in my entire life. You know, he's got a sense of humor, but he's still talking about life and death. But it's funny. And it's okay to laugh at life, and death, 'cause it's gonna happen no matter what. I really appreciated that experience. I was moved by it and emotionally touched by it, and I laughed my ass off. You couldn't ask for anything more. And Loretta Lynn. Loretta Lynn I saw that show at the 9:30 club. I cried, I laughed. A friend of mine, Paul, gave me that ticket, but had I payed for that ticket I would have absolutely got my money's worth. I think bands and artists that have a sense of humor, they really got it goin' on. They really know the secret to life. Especially if their music makes you feel, like, puts you in a serious mood, or – I don't know what serious means. Everybody that plays music's gotta be serious, or they wouldn't be doing it in the first place. But I think having a sense of humor's really important. I think Johnny Cash had a sense of humor. I think Marvin Gaye had a sense of humor. And Little Richard, the best singer that ever lived, absolutely had a sense of humor. I like music like that – makes me feel all the cylinders, and even if it's a style of music I've never heard before or wouldn't normally listen to, I just want to be open. When someone's on a stage, they want you to think that they're feeling a certain emotion, I don't think that means anything. I think, when you over think something, people just need to let go and ride a wave. Get a little lost in what they're doin'. Quit thinkin' so damn much and just go for it, because we could be dead. Just have fun. Even if you're crying, you can still have fun when you're cryin'.
So would you say that your live shows are your favorite part of what you do as a musician?
Yeah, live shows are absolutely my favorite part. But I love making records too. You don't get to do them as much, but I like them as much. But I think the live experience is the most important thing because you're tappin' into a bunch of different souls in the room. And they came to see you. And you gotta connect with them. A lot of musicians think it's beneath themselves to entertain. I don't understand that, I think it's kinda condescending of other people. They wouldn't be on a stage without the audience or without that person that drove 5 or 20 or whatever miles, or paid 5 bucks or 20 bucks. They came there to see you, and in a lot of ways, you came there to see them. And I wouldn't be who I am onstage without an audience. I live for playing. Best time of my life.
What can people who are going to see you this weekend at the Black Cat expect from your show?
Hopefully a mixed crowd, hopefully people from all over. But I don't know about that; D.C.'s lookin' a little weird these days. But that's alright, I'm not judgin'. Hopefully a bunch of people that just wanna have a good time. I'm hopin' there's gonna be a crowd of people that wanna connect. Whether they like my music or not, I don't care. What are they there for? If they're there, they better have a good time. If they're there to drink, or if they wanna dance, hey man, like I said, could be our last day on Earth. It better be a party. Whatever a party means, it's up to the individual.
What did you mean by "D.C.'s lookin' a little weird these days"?
Oh you know, it's just gentrified, that's all. It's expensive – beers cost a lot of money in bars. It's real bourge-y and, you know, it's just the way it is. When I jumped on the Metro to come to D.C. when I was a kid, it was a lot more wild, there was a lot more culture, but you know, this is what everybody bitches about nowadays. I think it's like that all over the country, everything's expensive, and I'm sure it's like that in every city too. It's just that D.C. used to be a little bit more wild. I think right now it's lookin' pretty tame. But what do I know, I'm a musician; I'm not a politician.
So your album's out now. What are you most looking forward to, now that Bobby Dee is out and that people can listen to it?
Well, I'm on tour right now, so I'm livin' the dream. I'm playin'. That's all I wanna do is play. Talk to people like you that are interested in music. And, I'm not really puttin' on a show right now, but I think it's pretty cool that a human being can give me a call on my phone just to talk about a record that I made. I think that's pretty amazing. So I'm doin' it. I'm doin' exactly what I always wanted to do. I always say that I'm livin' the dream, but that's 'cause I truly am.
What's your favorite city to play in?
My favorite city in the United States is New Orleans. I like to play the Black Cat just 'cause I used to work there and it's a home base for me. As far as a favorite place, I'm always lookin' for a favorite place. I think America is – I think it's a beautiful country. It's easy to complain about what's wrong with this and that in America, but Barack just got elected, you know, things are lookin' up. We have a lot of freedom, musicians have a lot of freedom in this country, even though people say it's a bad time to be a musician or to be in the recording industry. I don't really care about that because I never made money on it anyway, so I don't really know any better. So it doesn't matter to me 'cause I'm still gonna do it. And I think it's a lot of fun. I think it's great how much freedom you can have as a musician, just to be able to travel and play. So I'm always lookin' for a new favorite city. And if I connect with some people, and they connect with me, then they're all my favorite cities.