Ben Lee began his career as a young teenager in the early ’90s, in the Australian lo-fi punk band Noise Addict, who were discovered by taste-making artists Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. This began what is now an almost 25-year career of producing intelligent and spiritual indie-pop songs that have soundtracked Ben’s inner life in music.
Ben Lee: I’m excited about doing this. So I think the obvious place for us to start chatting is this new video we just released.
Jake Fogelnest: I think people should know about the entirely organic nature in which it came together. You sent me a text. Most of my Instagram can range from like, here’s a record of mine to me writing an essay about the costume designer of Shampoo, but it’s a lot of my turntable. And Ben got a test pressing his new album, Quarter Century Classix.
Ben: And my preamp was broken. It’s still in the shop. I was thinking, “Who do I know that has a reliable, high quality turntable?” And of course I thought of your Instagram. You’ve made it very clear how high quality and how functioning that sounds.
Jake: It is, and there might be a higher quality one on the way, as I have become a social media influencer.
Ben: I think we’re going to have to discuss this further into the interview.
Jake: But no, I have a good turntable. And when you’re checking a test pressing, you want to hear it on a good turntable. By the way, I don’t have one of those turntables that cost the price of a car. And I don’t think I ever will, as a Jewish person. Also I cannot tell the difference.
Ben: You’re not committing to that. You think there may possibly come a time when you’re open to that level of extravagance.
Jake: I’ve heard those systems, but you want to hear it on a system that’s good. But you also want to hear it on like, it’s your record. This was you hearing your album pressed on vinyl.
Ben: You want to hear an honest playback.
Jake: Exactly. So I was going to give you an honest playback and then I also got the great gift of hearing the album for the first time and hanging out with you.
Ben: And for people who don’t know, the album is a collection of songs from basically my early teens, like indie rock songs that I was super obsessed with and inspired by from the early ’90s. Also, our bond was cemented through the ’90s, in a similar scene.
Jake: We should let people know that we’ve known each other for 25 years, probably longer. As we were listening to the record, which was beautiful, I had just finished a project of digitizing all of my old tapes of when I was a teenager. I did a show on public access. A lot of people know the story: It became a cult phenomenon and then it became a show on MTV briefly, and I own all the masters of that show. And I got very nervous, like these tapes are eroding in a shelf in a closet, and I need to digitize them. And we were listening to the record and I swear this is true, it’s going to sound completely fabricated, but the last tape that I had to digitize was a tape of Ben and I, at a record store in New York City called Other Music, which was legendary. It was across the street from Tower Records. And Tower Records was a behemoth in the ’90s and into the early 2000s.
Ben: I never thought about that, like how geographically saturated that street was with…
Jake: it was like, basically, there’s a Starbucks right? And you’re going to open your small little boutique coffee shop directly across the street from a Starbucks. And what was amazing about Other Music is that Tower Records closed before Other Music did. Other Music recently closed. There’s actually an incredible documentary about it that friends of mine made. But the last tape I had to transfer was you and I literally shopping at Other Music and holding up some of the very records that you were covering on this album. It was so weird. And I was listening to the record and I said, “Ben, I just found this tape.” And then what happened next?
Ben: We were talking about the idea of it being a video, but it’s not the kind of record there’s like a single from. So I just asked what song were you inspired by? And you liked the version of Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” And what was also interesting was we went back and looked at the original video, which was sort of like found footage from the grunge fashion show. It had its own sense of nostalgia.
Jake: That’s a very cool video. It’s basically Sonic Youth crashing by invitation the Marc Jacobs fashion show, which is the most ’90s sentence that’s ever been said. And so we watched the original video and then we got this idea like, “Oh, we have this found footage. Half the video is already shot. If we take this and then we shoot you in a performance and make it look really beautiful, then we shoot us hanging out as adults I think it will tell a story of the long-lasting friendship and the power of music, and hopefully if we do it right it won’t be too sappy.”
Ben: It would be sappy if it weren’t authentic to the way male friendships develop and work. Male friendships are not known for being the most emotionally articulate friendships, and often the bonding over things like music.
Jake: Men don’t talk to each other, which I think is a bummer. I was actually texting somebody about this earlier this morning. And I think that we exude a certain type of masculinity in our own way. But when you’re younger, it’s a lot of like, “You heard that record, bro?”
Ben: I remember when we went to see Jerry Maguire together in like 1996, and you stood up and said, “That was a delightful movie.” And then we both started laughing because it was self-consciously uncool to do so. I mean, it was dope. It was totally dope.
Jake: It reminds me of the story of Patton Oswalt seeing it with his brother in Hollywood and like, there’s some line in the movie and they were seeing it at like some sort of $1 theater and they had a very different reaction to film. Like, they screamed “Fuck you!” at the screen.
Ben: Well, we were much more sensitive than them.
Jake: We were a little younger, and I think our irony level hadn’t built up.
Ben: I was so impressed with what you turned the video into. It was also the way you told the story, because it reminded me a bit of High Fidelity. It spoke to the way the music that we liked almost forms our personality.
Jake: I’m glad you brought up High Fidelity, because I re-read it not too long ago. When you read High Fidelity as a young man, or at least when I read High Fidelity as a young man, you look at the main character as a hero. And the minute that you become a man is when you look at the main character as a bit of a tragic figure.
Ben: How old is he in the book? Like almost 40?
Jake: Even if he’s 27, to be calling your ex-girlfriends… His relationship to music, that doesn’t change. I relate to that still. But him figuring out his relationship to women… The book, I think, holds up. I thought the film was always good and it’s going to be very interesting to see the series…
Ben: I didn’t know they were doing one.
Jake: Yes, they’re doing one with Zoe Kravitz. They’ve gender-swapped it, so I expect the internet to be very furious. And I wish all involved good luck.
Ben: So what was it about the indie rock and underground music of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that had the capacity to… I just made a whole album trying to articulate this.
Jake: Yeah, you tell me. I think of this very, very specific time period where we were existing, which was, like, 1994 to about 1998. Maybe I would extend it from like ’92 to ’98. It’s the year that punk broke until Britney Spears. I consider that sort of the last time that rock music had any sort of dominance in the mainstream.
Ben: What about the Strokes and the White Stripes? You showed your age there.
Jake: Here’s the thing, that gave me this glimpse of hope, like, Oh my god, it’s going to happen. Then it didn’t happen.
Ben: How do you see that as not happening? That’s interesting.
Jake: I don’t know. There’s the book Meet Me In The Bathroom, which covers that entire scene. And that book ends in 2011. That’s the year that I moved from New York City to Los Angeles. And that’s not to say it’s not going to come again, but there was a time where Beck’s “Loser” was a big hit song, or at least it felt that way.
Jake: I’m just talking about the hits, yes, absolutely. I’ve seen Jack White play Madison Square Garden and it’s a religious experience. The Foo Fighters are still out there. Music is so splintered now, but so is television. We’ve moved from an era of broadcasting to narrow casting, and that’s okay. And the part of this is what we’re doing right now. There’s only so many people who are interested in listening to us have a conversation, but there’s enough that it’s viable.
Ben: OK, so what you’re saying is the part of the power of that moment and why it touched our lives so profoundly and other people in our sort of age group and demographic was that it was this rise up from being an underground concern to being a mainstream concern. And we wee right there at the time.
Jake: Yeah. We were at the exact moment and time and place where it went from underground to mainstream. Like I remember you in 1997, you were making a record not just for Grand Royal, but for Grand Royal/Capitol. I think we were just at the right place, right time. We saw the Beastie Boys be the biggest band in the world, which was a band that transcended genre. And now we’re experiencing Bikini Kill playing night after night after night at the Palladium, bands that we saw at the Cooler can now sell out and that’s… I love it. I think that’s amazing.
Ben: A big part of me making this record was almost a desire to pay tribute and give back. Because for me indie-rock was both something that formed me and then something I had to push against. What I loved about indie rock also became somewhat imprisoning as you looked at some of the more confining rules and regulations about what was okay to do, what was not okay to do. So in some ways now I felt like part of making this record was like, putting all that aside now being 41.
Jake: And it comes across in the album so beautifully with each interpretation. You’re bringing your voice and honoring these records that essentially formed you.
Ben: OK, so let me ask you about this: One of the things that I think we have in common is that my first single was “I Wish I Was Him,” which was a song extensively about Evan Dando. I recorded an album of Against Me covers. I have done this record Quarter Century Classix. You started out essentially commentating on pop culture.
Jake: Yeah, I’m a fan.
Ben: I guess I wanted to talk about being a fan. We’re now both working within, to various degrees, the establishment of show business. Is there something that differentiates people that are actually proper fans from people that are just in the business?
Jake: Yeah, I think so. I think if you’re excited to drive on to the lot of a movie studio every day, and it’s still exciting to you, you’re still a fan. I knew I wanted to be in show business. But since I was six and very specifically, when I watched Saturday Night Live as a little boy, I did not want to be on the cast of Saturday Night Live. I knew who Lorne Michaels was, I knew it was his show, and I wanted his job. Like I wanted to be an executive producer and a writer and that is a real specific thing. I talk often about being pen pals with John Waters, when I was seven or eight years old. But the truth of that story is the reason he called me after I wrote him a letter is because the letter I wrote… It was, “I would like to release your underground films that are not available on video,” but it came out of fandom.
Man, I saw that dog. the other night — I was brought to tears. I won’t let that part of me die. I can be the most jaded person in the world, while also being the biggest fan in the world. I’m always a fan first.
Ben: My wife sort of makes fun of me because if someone sends me a link to their music, I always listen to it. And even if I don’t like it, I’ll at least give it a little chance. I keep my ears to the ground because there’s always lessons to be learned. And it’s like Malcolm McLaren said, “Speak the language of your generation.” And I always like that. Even if I don’t want to speak it. I want to know what’s being said. It’s like hearing teens using slang. Like, I’m not going to get on TikTok. I do want to know what it is.
Jake: Yeah, you will not catch me signing up for TikTok. I’m glad I know what it is. By the way, I think it’d be real weird if you and I got on TikTok. That’d be not OK. But yes, and I think you do a better job of this than than I do.
Ben: You probably do with comedy, and new writers and everything.
Jake: Absolutely, I always want to know who’s funny. A great example is Julio Torres. I don’t know however many years ago it was I saw Julio Torres do stand up comedy in New York and I just was like, “You are really funny. Tell me your story.” And he told me his story and he needed a visa. He needed people to give him letters of recommendation so that he could stay in the country. And I wrote one for him and Julio just went on to write for Saturday Night Live and do Los Espookys and I just was like, “Oh, you are amazing and original.” I love that, I love when I discover something fresh and new and exciting in comedy.
Ben: There’s a strategic element to certain people in pop culture with a desire to stay connected. Seems almost like you’re staying on top of trends. Like it’s like a fashion thing.
Ben: Whereas to me, it’s more like there’s an energy of when people in community connecting and vibing, like Juliana Barwick, who you met. She introduced me to William Tyler and Mary Lattimore and they’re both happening, creative, vibe-y, friendly, positive musicians operating at somewhat of like an underground level. I think there’s a way to do that. Going back to Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, you could tell they were getting nourished by staying in contact with ideas that were coming up from the underground.
Jake: One of my favorite Sonic Youth albums is the Ciccone Youth album, which is them doing Madonna covers like it’s the coolest thing in the world. I actually find myself a lot of times asking, what would Madonna do? Particularly with social media, because not everyone’s the nicest and I just take a very Madonna approach like, Would Madonna engage with this? Probably not, you know what I mean? But I do think she engages on the artist’s level that you’re talking about. I just think that she just happens to be Madonna who’s the biggest like superstar in the world, so it’s hard to reach her.
Ben: So you think it’s pretty legit with her?
Jake: I do think that there is still a part of Madonna who has to be doing it for the vibe. But would I describe Madonna as a fan, the way that I’m a fan? Probably not. But that’s OK. Because she’s Madonna. And I think we need those icons.
Ben: We’re now moving into just us philosophizing about pop culture. I wanted to ask you… I haven’t asked anyone about this. This is potentially a hot button. I have been somewhat disturbed by Taylor Swift’s strategy, her business strategy in terms of the… How do I put this? Did you see this whole thing, where she like…
Jake: I don’t know if anybody at 15 years old is smart enough to own their own masters. I do sympathize with her. She’s written the songs, they’re owned by somebody she doesn’t like, they’re owned by a corporation. As a songwriter, you would know more about how that business works than I do. That’s my smart answer.
Ben: The part that I was actually really confused by was she kind of sicced her fans on Scooter Braun, and that I found very hypocritical because she’s someone who has felt very attacked. And I thought the ability to move culture is a very precious power. These guys could be the most evil guys in the world. I don’t know them.
Jake: I’m guessing they’re not great.
Ben: True. But I was disturbed by telling 10 million people on social media: Tell these people to let me have my way.
Jake: It break one of my three rules of social media. My first rule of social media is, I will never use social media as a drug. I have in the past. I’ve cared about likes, I’ve cared about retweets. I think that social media has a very addictive quality and I think that we are going to see people have problems with, and people are having problems with it already. I think that a company like Twitter, its business model is to keep people addicted to arguing. Yes, they’re trying to implement safety and stuff, but there’s huge harassment problems on that site.
My second rule is I will not use it as a weapon. If I don’t like something, I don’t need to go online and trash it. I don’t have Taylor Swift followers, but I have some. And if somebody writes me something nasty. I’m not going to sic my followers on them.
And my third rule is, if I have an idea and it can be used for anything but a social media post, I am going to save it. Why am I going to give away an idea to a company whose ethics I don’t particularly like for free? And when I asked myself those three questions before I put something on social media, particularly Twitter, that’ll stop a lot of tweets from happening. And that’s something that I came to in 2017. I sort of reevaluated my relationship to social media. So I hear what you’re saying. But on the other side of the coin, Taylor Swift does not own her music. It’s that terrible thing that Paul McCartney went through. You’re rich but you’re not rich enough to own your music. And you really don’t like the people that own it. And at what point are you advocating for yourself? At what point is it a publicity stunt?
Ben: I admire her as a CEO essentially. I admire her as a businesswoman, more so than an artist, it’s just not my style of music. We use social media and the strategy. I guess the reason I bring it up was because it has to do with how do you maneuver through an industry. Like you said, we’re not operating at the highest upper echelons of show business. Yet we’ve both been concerned with longevity, and not unnecessarily burning bridges and repairing ones where there are damaged relationships. And it’s just been an interesting strategy to watch. But whereas you look at someone like Jon Bon Jovi as another extreme who you never heard one single thing going on about the businesses inside the Bon Jovi camp. It’s different strategies, you know what I mean? And it’s been interesting to watch. It’s like Succession almost. You watch these different players in the king’s court, angling in their different way for the type of power that they want to get.
Jake: Metallica’s therapists. I have only recently gotten to the point where I don’t wake up every morning going, “Am I going to be able to be in show business?” I don’t have that stress anymore. I feel like, OK, yeah, it may not be what I always want to do, but I’ll always be able to make a living as a writer, as a producer, as a broadcaster, as something.
Ben: Sooner or later, your peers and the people in power look at you and go, “Just let him stay.”
Jake: That’s what I say to people. It’s just about staying in the game.
Ben: Whatever it is you do, you can do the weirdest, most niche thing, but if you carve out a piece of territory that is uniquely yours and you defend it to your death…
Jake: You’ve grown your brand. A horrible phrase to invoke.
Ben: What I thought you were going to say — and we don’t need to delve too deeply into this — but I think part of the peace and the commitment comes from moving beyond the chapters in our lives where we are inherently antagonistic and self destructive. I think both of us sort of saw the world as our enemy.
Jake: Yeah, that’s just New York.
Ben: Exactly. But you know what it’s funny? I say, when I first came into this show business industry, I was like 15 years old, I looked around at these people, and I was like, “I’m never going to see these people again.” I’ll just be an asshole, be loud, be whatever. I’m like, “This is a passing moment.” And the weird thing is 25 years later, I’m like, “Oh, this is my community.” Like if I’ve damaged relationships and burn bridges, you’ve got to repair those. I think I didn’t have the self-esteem to realize I was being welcomed into a community. I saw it as a transient thing to burn down almost.
Jake: I had such a different reaction because it was 15 for me as well. And I distinctly remember one night that’s burned into my memory where I felt like I was basically invited into show business. The Beastie Boys were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, I was scheduled to interview Jeaneane Garofalo, who was doing her brief tenure on that show. I went up there early, met the Beastie Boys for the first time. Saw Janeane in the hallway and she says, “Hi Jake.” And then going to the after-party and meeting Adam Sandler and all of these people, and people that perhaps maybe you don’t know like John Silva, Shelby Meade. I had physical stomach pain, because I realized what was happening. I said, Oh, this is happening. I’m being welcomed into this community, and I feel sick. I don’t know if I’m ready for it. I don’t know if I deserve it. I don’t know if I belong here. I took it inward. And I think on my old television program, I projected this, making fun of Michael Stipe. But I just was very… I just remember the physical stomach pain of that night. Which was an otherwise great night, but it was just overwhelming.
So you’ve made this record, which I think is so essential. And you honored the Quarter Century Classix. I’ll ask the question that every artist doesn’t want asked: What are you doing next?
Ben: Yes. I wrote a musical with Tom Robbins called B Is For Beer.
Jake: You just casually wrote a musical with Tom Robbins.
Ben: Casually over 10 years. And I’m working at the moment with Starburns and we’re developing into a feature animated musical, which is exciting. And me and Josh Radnor, we’ve just finished an album. And I’m actually like writing my next solo album. It’s quite funny because this kind of comes full circle. I think when I was younger, I had a certain kind of bravado, but it wasn’t rooted in real confidence. But I wasn’t grounded enough.
Jake: We were children.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. So what I’m seeing is actually a resurfacing of ambition in a much more healthy way. The next record I’m making I think it’s funny. I keep saying songwriters are notoriously unreliable when they say this, but I think I’m writing the best songs I’ve ever written right now.
Jake: You played the song when we were shooting the video, some new song. And my ears perked up.
Ben: They’re feeling strong. And so what I’m kind of manifesting for myself is creating the circumstances to… I was thinking about albums like Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road or Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, records that were made by people in their 40s where they really recommitted to their craft. And the type of exciting, ambitious energy that comes from truly like a new level of mastery of your craft instead of being like, “I need to make the biggest splash I can.” What’s the beautiful thing I can make? Good will come from that.
Jake: The best thing that I am capable of making right now.
Ben: Exactly. And I feel that it’s almost like a fighter’s spirit in me. I’m ready to have another crack at making a defining work. That’s kind of where my head’s at the moment.
Jake: I completely feel the same way about what I’m doing. I’m working on a project, which is unfortunately just so top secret I can’t even talk about it here, but I am just like, I’m so ready for it. It’s so the right thing. And then the phone rings and I don’t know what’s going to come next. And when the phone rings, I’m not terrified. I’m excited. And I don’t have to get it perfect. Because there’s no such thing as perfect. And I want to collaborate. You have to collaborate.
It’s exciting and I wake up every day excited and thrilled and happy to be 40 because I feel like I’d been like trying to be 40 since I was six years old, and it looks weird on a six year old. It’s a little obnoxious as a teenager.
Ben: It’s so funny because I have had this experience with folk music. I always loved folk music. But there were certain idioms and external devices that were completely ridiculous when a 17 year old plays them on an acoustic guitar. You seem like the annoying guy. But as you get older if you stay with these interests, you grow into them. Now as a person in my 40s who’s been making music for over 25 years, when I play a folk song, I’ve been through my own headaches and successes and failures, and it’s almost like the costume fits you better, and it’s become part of who you actually are.
Jake: I take my ideas more seriously. I allow myself to take up a little bit more space in a right-sized way. I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’m going to take up space for myself in a right-sized way and I just think that that comes with doing a thing for 25 years.
Ben: I love it. That’s the perfect place to end it, don’t you think?
Jake: I think we came off sounding really smart.