Ben Katzman and Juan Montoya Are Living Shred

The friends and collaborators talk KISS, first guitars, “Hall of Mirrors,” and much more.

Ben Katzman is the leader of the Miami-based rock band Ben Katzman’s DeGreaser; Juan Montoya is a guitarist and visual artist, who has played in the bands Killer Be Killed and Torche, and has created artwork for Mastodon, Orange amplifiers, and for many of Ben’s records. Juan plays guitar on the latest DeGreaser single — which also features contributions from Lucas Queiroz and Ben’s Wynwood School of Music student Deo Budnevitch, and was produced by Ryan Haft — so to celebrate the collaboration, the two friends hopped on the phone to talk obsessing over their first guitars, being real with yourself and in your art, loving KISS, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Juan Montoya: What does it all mean?

Ben Katzman: I don’t know what it all means. If you asked me when I was 25 and I was trying to be somebody, I would say it’s about making an impact on this world. But I think what it all means is subjective. And for me, what it all means is to write a sick riff, melt faces, and have a good time while doing it.

Juan: That sounds pretty good, man. So, what have you been working on?

Ben: Well, I’ve been working on this new album tentatively titled Transcendental Shreditation

Juan: Great title.

Ben: Thank you, thank you. And this album — which has a lot of songs on it that rock — is going to be pretty cool. But the main thing about this album is I feel like it’s been a grounding point for the last couple of years of my life. All the songs deal with being true to whatever your personal mission may be — mine is being surrounded by the ones you love and not selling your soul to MTV for a reality show, and just trying to keep it real 100% of the time.

Juan: MTV’s still exists? I thought they only played that show that plays all the internet videos.

Ben: Which one is that, Teen Mom? No, that’s the Rob Dyrdek show. Ridiculousness, I think. 

Juan: Yeah. 

Ben: What about you, Juan? What have you been up to?

Juan: Man, I just did a track with David Arquette — I played on a weird track with him and Brann [Dailor] from Mastodon.

Ben: Sick. Wait, David Arquette from Scream?

Juan: Yes. [Laughs.] 

Ben: So sick. But let me put this out there: Juan’s a pretty sick guitar player. He’s played in a bunch of dope bands. He’s kind of my neighbor — he lives like a few blocks away, and we try and hang out and talk about KISS all the time, and heavy metal and stuff. But Juan also plays a solo on my new single, “Hall of Mirrors,” and has been my longtime collaborator doing my single covers and album covers. Juan — I know this is a generic question, but I think it’s a good jumping point — what are some of your biggest influences when it comes to putting a painting together? Where do you get your ideas from? Yada, yada, yada. 

Juan: Well, I mean, most of my ideas come either from dreams or just, you know, my weird imagination. But influences: Frank Frazetta, Moebius, José Pepe González — this Spanish artist who did the Vampirella and Eerie comics back in the ‘70s. So anything from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, any sci-fi, fantasy art from those eras. 

I kind of pride myself as an analog artist. I like painting by hand. You know, digital seems fun and you could do a lot with digital, but I kind of like the old school. I like playing guitar, not pressing buttons on a turntable or a little computer. I like playing an actual instrument that you could bend and you could fucking use it as an axe, pretty much.

Ben: I think that’s one of the things that binds us together: Even though I’m younger than you and, yes, I like Blink 182 and you don’t like them, we both are suckers for old school platforms. We’re not fans of Photoshop. We’re not really big fans of Pro Tools. I feel like we both try to capture the essence of what the actual moment is when it comes to playing music. And I’m not hating on anybody that does use Pro Tools or Photoshop, but I feel like for me, I’ve spent so many hours practicing my guitar before I get to the studio or practicing my paintbrush and my color theory kind of things that when it comes time to do the actual job, I try and do it to the best of my ability. So whatever it is, whether it’s recording a solo or something, that take is that snapshot of all the hard work that I’ve put into it without the doctoring, or whatever that is.

Juan: The physicality, the emotion that you can convey — just the instrument itself, you feel like you’re doing something physical.

Ben: I would say your art definitely seems very physical, too. The thing that always stands out about Juan Montoya’s art, and one of the reasons I love working with him — besides the fact he’s the second biggest KISS fan after me — is that your use of colors is always over the top. They seem like kind of darker colors, but the brighter side of them. I know it sounds really stupid to explain over the phone, but you use lighter shades of a dark purple, lighter shades of a dark green, kind of almost like a Creature from the Black Lagoon vibe, or those old ‘50s movie posters.

Juan: Yeah. Because a lot of those old posters, when I finally have seen them in person, they’ve kind of faded with time. I like that they have history behind them, that you could tell they’ve existed throughout the ages. And that’s what I want my art to do.

Ben: Hell yeah. Well, I hope our art together exists throughout the ages. One thing I feel that’s definitely lost in modern art — and you hear this in recordings as well the album covers, too — those old covers like Conan the Barbarian or even Barbarella seem iconic. They seem like they could be attached to any movie at any time, and they wouldn’t be stuck in some shade of the past. Whereas, sometimes you see album covers now and it’s like there’s no identity to them.

Juan: Well, I mean, the hard part is that most people have to look at album art through their phones. I mean, right now people are straining their eyes to look at a small picture of something, when it doesn’t really capture the whole essence of it. Before, when I was a kid, I would get a 12-inch record, and with 12 inches you still have a lot to look at. 

Ben: I definitely agree with that. I remember being a kid, which was in the early 2000s, and clamoring to get CDs or getting my first 12-inch — and of course my first records were all KISS records — my favorite part would be to just analyze the art and then read the little liner notes. Just being immersed in a world, and having something in front of you and being able to notice all these little details — like on the KISS Destroyer album cover, where there’s a building on fire in the back, or even the Hotter Than Hell album cover where you have all these sick Japanese influences. 

What is a record you remember getting as a kid? And when you’re thinking of making new art and you’re calling back to those things, what is that defining experience for you?

Juan: Man, I think the first set of records I ever laid my hands on — I was probably seven years old, and I went over to a friend of my mom’s house, and he had a son that was 16 at the time. I heard music from his room and I just kind of peeked in, and he let me listen to music. I found a crate and he let me go through it, and the first records I saw were Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell — I saw a bunch of angels smoking — and then I saw the Ted Nugent one where he was pretty much naked with a loincloth, and then his arms were the necks of guitars [Scream Dream]. And of course I saw KISS records — which, when I was in South America, I remember I was walking through downtown with my mom and I noticed a poster, and it was KISS from the 1977 photo shoot. I didn’t know who KISS were at the time, but I just thought it was like, Holy shit, these people look fucking weird. They were cool. So then fast forward to the future when I’m looking at all these vinyl, I see a couple of KISS records and I’m like, Man, that’s that band! That’s those aliens that I saw.

Ben: Those are those Jewish aliens from the posters, dude!

Juan: [Laughs.] The guy was already sick of KISS probably, because he was already 16 or 17, and at that point KISS were starting to do their disco records. So he gave me four KISS records: Dressed to Kill, Rock and Roll Over, Love Gun, and Destroyer. Those were my first KISS records, and he gave them to me on the spot. He passed the torch down to me and, dude, I loved it. I would look at the album covers and I would just fantasize about what type of world they lived in.

Ben: Totally. I think one of the most interesting things about KISS is their ethos — even though they were on Casablanca, they were kind of a DIY band. You know, they had their manager pump all this money into them and they were trying out all these crazy tricks before other bands were, like breathing fire, having flash bombs. But they were a band that toured nonstop, like the first four or five years of their career.

Juan: And it wasn’t like they got in a tour bus—

Ben: They got in like a station wagon or a Volkswagen, and crammed in.

Juan: Like three or four of them laid in the like sardines.

Ben: Yeah. And I feel like that was definitely a big influence, because even though this band looks amazing and huge, they grind. And yes, their songs are all about partying and having a good time, but they work hard to have a good time. 

Juan: Yeah, they were going through hell. They were grinding away, their tours probably weren’t doing good. Their records were selling at a minimal level and they were hemorrhaging money. And it wasn’t until Alive! that it saved their careers — they were about to give up, I’m pretty sure.

Ben: See, even though KISS is this overrated band by most people, I think a lot of people forget that — they were pretty much hemorrhaging money, but they knew they had something. And if they didn’t make that live album and didn’t break through, I think they might have gone down in history as this dope cult bands people would have rediscovered like Big Star.

But let me ask you this: Do you remember the first time you got a heavy metal record — because we’re both metalheads — and it was so over-the-top overwhelming? Like, I remember when I got the second Mercyful Fate record, Don’t Break the Oath, and it had Satan reaching out on the cover — I was, like, scared to listen to it. I was like, Man, I gotta listen to this with the lights on, dude, or else Satan’s gonna be conjured from my record player. Do you have an experience like that?

Juan: Well, I mean, when I saw the Heaven & Hell record, I thought that was kind of weird. It was bizarre. And also, you know, Iron Maiden, Number of the Beast — that was in ‘82, I saw that early on. That was pretty wild. But then you played the music, and the music was pretty uplifting. It wasn’t as dark…

Ben: Yeah, it wasn’t dark. Definitely all those songs have those melodies and those choruses that make you feel like you’re one of the pack. And even if you’re a loner like I was in high school, you can count on putting on that record and feeling like you have a mission in life — which is to go and live it to the fullest.

Juan: Yeah. And then there was Ozzy, Diary of a Mad Man, but he looked like a hobo on that.

Ben: [Laughs.] Totally. I feel like we should shift and talk more about guitars and stuff. Juan and I are both super shredders and, yes, we’ve been talking about heavy metal. But when it comes to playing guitar — generic question, but I feel like because we are modern day guitar shredders, who would you say your top three guitar players are?

Juan: Well, my first favorite was always Ace.

Ben: From KISS.

Juan: Because that was the first records I owned. And of course, he looked cool, man. Even looking back at pictures of him from, like, ‘74 through ‘77, he looks like this Kabuki guy. You know, he’s androgynous, kind of like David Bowie. He’s got that mystery, kind of like George Harrison had. He was super tall, so he’s got that cool Buckethead weird thing, too. Also, he wasn’t really too outspoken back in the day, you know, but his solos were the most memorable.

Ben: Yeah.

Juan: He’s probably the most talented musician in the band. And then when he started singing, he just had this really cool Lou Reed type of voice. Getting to know more about him throughout the years, his influences were cool. He used to go to New York Doll parties back in the day, and he was the first one to come up with his concept — his makeup is still the same as when he first created it. The other guys were still working on their personas, but he already knew who he was from day one.

Ben: Let’s go back to that part about Ace’s solos being the most memorable. I feel like when it comes to guitar writing, I think I strive for a lot of the same things where, even though metal is known for being a genre that’s, like, super shredding, and all about showing off and having extreme bravado, there’s something about simple playing that makes you stick out. All the best guitar players — which, in my opinion, are Ace Frehley, Tony Iommi — they aren’t over complicated characters. All their parts are simple. Even Eddie Van Halen, who’s known to be the best guitar player in the world, when you listen to solos — except for, like, “Hot for Teacher” — they only usually last about 10 seconds and they’re the super simple melodies. What do you think about that has influenced your playing?

Juan: Just the aspect that you play something that you could hum along with. For instance, Jane’s Addiction just played in here in Miami this past weekend — and I heard that the guy from Queens of the Stone Age, Troy [Van Leeuwen] filled in for Dave Navarro, because I guess Dave Navarro has long COVID. So I watched a couple of videos of it, and I thought it was cool, but it was just so difficult because, as corny as Dave Navarro could be—

Ben: Perfect guitar player.

Juan: Yeah. Hot Topic guy, [but] his solos are kind of like Ace’s: They’re memorable, they’re they’re hummable, they have, like, the perfect, beautiful melody.

Ben: There’s something about being a master of your craft and being able to explode with all these insane parts — I think about how Metallica had …And Justice For All, and that’s the most technically proficient record ever, and they have a thousand riffs on each song and they’re exploding on all cylinders. But then they follow it up with the black album, where it’s like two of the most simple riffs per songs, and that record explodes. There’s something about simplicity that transcends over the… I mean, “masturbation” is kind of the word. It feels like sometimes guitar players masturbate with their ego and try and just cram a million notes into a little space. Versus when you get to take a seat back, kind of like John Frusciante in the Chili Peppers, the less you play, the more it transcends sometimes.

Juan: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s guys that balance it out pretty good, like Buckethead. Buckethead could do some crazy sounds, but then he writes beautiful songs like “I Love My Parents.” That guy’s got a good balance of everything, and I kind of like that too, just anything that’s that you could sing in your head that’s memorable. Even some of those Misfits solos—

Ben: “We Are 138” — that’s one of the best.

Juan: Yeah. Anything that holds just one note for a while that just drills into your head, I think that’s the type of stuff that I really like.

Ben: One story I really want to share that I feel like is the glue that holds this whole thing together is when I started hanging out with you, and you were making fun of me for being this character the whole time, being like “Oh, here’s another dude who loves KISS and Metallica.” And you had this super dope guitar. The company was Charvel, and Charvel is known for its work with Eddie Van Halen, Mick Mars, pretty much all the ‘80s bands like Ratt and stuff like that. And I remember playing your guitar and being like, Damn, this makes me want to shred more. And I was always being like, “Yo, how much would you sell that for? How much would you let me rock it for?” And as I was hanging out with you, I was like, Man, maybe Juan’s onto some point about being kind of a poser and playing up this character and not being real. And I just remember always wanting to play that Charvel, and then one time you picked me up to go to Guitar Center, right?

Juan: Yeah, dude, we looked at the wall and there was a fucking awesome Charvel there for you waiting for you. It was like the gates of heaven opened up — it’s beautiful and white.

Ben: Yeah. I just remember we rolled into this Guitar Center, and there under a shining light was another version of that guitar that I wanted. I got that guitar and it set me on a different path. All of a sudden it’s like, Man, I have this this shred stick. I really need to riff more, and I need to put way more of myself into my music. Do you think there’s something to that? That an instrument can be an access point or an activation point for an artist?

Juan: Hell yeah, man. It becomes part of your body, it becomes part of your persona. You wake up thinking about that guitar, you go to sleep thinking about that guitar. You put it next to your bed — you sleep with the guitar.

Ben: You wake up, you eat shred for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

Juan: It brings so much joy to your life.

Ben: What was the first guitar you had that you had an obsession with?

Juan: Man, I always wanted that Eddie Van Halen Kramer. There was an ad that came out in 1983 or 1984, right before the big record came out, and he’s holding this Kramer Baretta. It’s the same color as the guitar that I have now — that’s why I bought this guitar, because it’s this cream, vanilla milkshake color that’s so appealing.

Ben: So ‘80s. Miami Vice.

Juan: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why I fell in love with the guitar. I mean, I couldn’t afford that Eddie Van Halen one at the time, so I bought a black Kramer Focus 1000 and man, that guitar played every single backyard party I could imagine — it did the world tour of backyard parties. [Laughs.] It was just a really cool, reliable guitar. I loved it and I played it to death.

Ben: Yeah. I remember when I had my first guitar obsession, I would skip school all the time. I remember I would, like, say goodbye to my parents and walk to the bus stop and then hide in the bushes ‘til the bus left, and then would come back home and try and learn every KISS lick. Are there any fond memories you have of getting a new guitar and being like, “Man, this is the one I’m going to take to the top of Shred Mountain”?

Juan: Man, I think it was that guitar, the Kramer Focus 1000. It was a black, beautiful guitar, it had one pickup and it had a Floyd Rose, so I was able to make all those crazy sounds with it. I took it to every single backyard party and I just remember people gathering around me, wanting to touch the guitar while playing. It was the first time I ever mesmerized people. You know, I was a young kid, like 14 or 15, and it was just like I had this fucking secret weapon, the secret sauce. And I was able to play guitar because I dedicated my whole existence to learning this instrument.

Ben: Yeah. I remember being bullied as a kid and everybody being like, “Dude, you suck at guitar.” And I remember when I formed my first band and we started playing — it didn’t matter if you sucked ass or if you were the next Metallica, you had all eyes on you. And in that moment, you could get lost in the music. And after that, everybody was like, “Yo, can you play our party? Can you play this party?” And then I felt like I had something to contribute to my social circle as opposed to just being around. The guitar became part of my identity, but it also gave me a reason to go out into the world, you know? Rock & roll!

So on the subject of the new single, I feel like this song, maybe for me, could definitely be a bit of an artist anthem, about taking a deep look at yourself and seeing how you express yourself. Is this the best version of myself that I can be? Is this the way out? Now, the song itself was inspired by being screwed over by a couple of close collaborators, but has there been a time in your life where you felt like you were crushing it and then you had to reevaluate everything? 

Juan: Well, there are moments when you’re your worst critic. You know, you’re pretty good at something, but then you always feel that you could always strive to be better at it. And then sometimes you realize, man, you should you should always pace yourself. You know, nowadays, everybody wants instant gratification. But I think pacing yourself and taking it little by little is probably the best reward. You’ll have a better product, you’ll have a better understanding of yourself, you’ll have a better grasp. And in the long run, you’ll have something more to be proud of.

Ben: I think also today’s generation, too, when it comes to that instant gratification, we’re expected to be our own record label, we have to make video content, all this other crap. We’re expected to constantly be churning stuff out. You can’t make good art when you’re not taking a break. You burn out when it’s all about making posts and getting likes, you know? I feel like the best way for me to better myself is sometimes taking a break and making sure whatever I do is going to rock absolutely hard.

Somebody once told me that things of good quality are not affected by time. I think that was in response to maybe internal ageism about getting older — you know, realizing we’re older than KISS was when they made it. And maybe you don’t have to do things with the critic in your mind, but now the critic has been replaced with like, is this getting enough likes? Are people going to check this out? I feel like maybe the best way of bettering ourselves is taking a break from that outside world and focusing on just expressing ourselves and hopefully finding people that relate to whatever it is that we’re putting out there.

Juan: Exactly. I mean, that’s why people, when they write a novel, they go off to like a cabin in the middle of a frozen winter. Sometimes it’s better not to have an outside influence for when you’re doing your own work. I think Aphex Twin did that also — he never really listened to music while he was creating his own music, because he didn’t want anything to get into his subconscious and then have it be sounding like something else.

Ben: No, I definitely agree. I think that’s definitely a big motivator, because let’s say you’re somebody who gets to some level of any stature, right? We’re all fighting for bread crumbs in the music industry, but let’s say we do an album that gets reviewed well, or we get to do a big opening tour — there becomes this fork in the road where it’s like, Do I continue doing what I think is now expected of me because Pitchfork gave me a 6.9? Or do I go and try and make something that’s rewarding to me that maybe people won’t vibe with?

Juan: That’s probably the best thing.

Ben: Yeah. I think it’s better to take that fork in the road where you aren’t living with the critics in your head.

Juan: You know, nowadays people listen to a record, and there’s so much saturation that I feel that people will like something, but they’ll forget about it like a month later. When I was a kid, a record came out and dude, that record was your record, your heart, and you held on to it for years and years.

Ben: And now it’s like you get one song that goes viral on TikTok and you’re onto the next thing in a week. There’s no there’s no developing your relation with the art or the artist. And also as an artist, there’s no developing the long term thing, because you put it out and you’re already expected to follow it up. 

I feel like for me, when it comes to all these new songs — like “Hall of Mirrors,” which this article is based around — I definitely felt like I was going down this road where I was playing this Ben Katzman character. Which is definitely a real version of me, but when you make the astrology album and you’re getting off the heels of producing some other bands that have gotten some attention, it’s like, Am I being real with myself? I feel like I have a lot of anger and sadness and depression, and also motivation and happiness and joy, and my art can’t just be this one dimensional version of me. Obviously certain things, like being screwed over by people close to you or realizing some relationships must end, have inspired me to write a new song, but I definitely felt conflicted. It was like, Well, I could go down this one path where I’ve gotten attention from magazines and gotten to play sick shows for cartoonizing myself like a mid-’80s David Lee Roth. Or I could feel more rewarded and really put my heart on my sleeve and make these songs that are more of a path towards being real. Have you ever felt like there was pressure to be a personal sellout? 

Juan: I mean, just trying to survive with the pressures of life, you kind of have to put up a front. It’s hard sometimes to just even be yourself. But if you cut through all that fat and just stick to your guns, I think in the long run it’s going to pay off.

Ben: Yeah. And that’s exactly what this song is about!

Juan: So what does the future bring for you?

Ben: I would like to say it’s more goal oriented, like going on another tour of Europe or playing Japan or something. But I think for me, the future is to just fully immerse myself in the present. And that means writing songs about what I’m going through, enjoying my company more, not making some art and thinking all week about how many likes it’s going to get on Instagram or TikTok. I think the future for me holds more grounding — I know I sound like I’m in the Tulum-inati. I’m obviously going to try and tour and get myself out there, but I think it’s more about the journey for me now than it is goals. Before I was like, “We need to get into Pitchfork, we need to make it to London, we need to do this.” And, yeah, while I do want all those things, I feel like in the past I’ve definitely ignored the journey. I look back at my photo albums from the last seven years and I’m like, I wasn’t even enjoying all these amazing things I got to experience because I was worried about the breadcrumbs and what’s coming next. So now it’s just really living shred, as you will — which is, giving it 100% in the here and now. 

Juan: Excellent.

(Photo Credit: Leeanne Drucker)

Channeling 50 years of hard rock heritage, Ben Katzman’s DeGreaser deliver heavy shredding and posi vibes. Currently based out of Miami, they’re dedicated to spreading the shred worldwide.

Formed in 2014 amidst the dirt and frenzy of Boston’s electric DIY community, DeGreaser is the unruly lovechild of one Ben Katzman (previously of Guerilla Toss), a self-trained shredder with deep roots in Miami’s metal scene yielding an undying love for KISS, Van Halen and the Ramones. Playful yet earnest, DeGreaser celebrates the rock and roll ethos, but with a dedication to the core belief that you can only be cool by being yourself. Mix in an obsession with astrology, cults, soaring guitar solos, and all things John Travolta, and you have yourself a potent cocktail of rippin’ good times.

The band has toured and played shows across the U.S. with La Luz, Mannequin PussyColleen Green, Tall Juan and countless other fellow shredders. Their new album, Astrology 101, is out now on Starburns Industries Press.

(Photo Credit: Leeanne Drucker)