If Damien Chazelle’s recent film La La Land essentially uses its every frame to try and justify its pastiche nature, through a sense of disenchantment, then Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful is the kind of band that doesn’t really feel it necessary to make that kind of effort; they just let themselves be there for the audience that wants them to be. And if you’re with their freewheeling, kind of kookie frontman (who recalls Alan Cumming in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), then head to one of their gigs, grab a drink, and take it all in.
At the one that I attended (Thursday, Dec. 15th at the Slipper Room), the comparison to La La Land presented itself during the band’s lavish introduction. A wave of brass first signaled nostalgia as the “New York, New York” theme began to play. But before the end of the first verse, Benjamin came out on stage, stumbling a bit, and decisively declared, “We’re not doing that, I’m done with Sinatra covers.”
The frontman has informed me that traditional jazz scenes, both here and in Berlin (the New York-based composer was born in Germany), have been reticent to embrace his approach to the genre. And it’s really no wonder: What this band plays isn’t jazz, per se—at least it’s certainly not the rigid ideal of it that Chazelle’s La La Land proffered. Benjamin prefers a mix of swing, funk, and pop; at their best, his band, a Mighty Handful, has an aesthetic that resembles something like an orgiastic threesome between Sinatra, Stevie Wonder… and John Waters.
Benjamin’s originals sometimes struggle to wade through an intellectual experimentation within certain genres and styles; it’s his covers where verve and confidence meet for an almost seamless presentation of his ideas of both attempted innovation and homage. Benjamin reached euphoric heights, for instance, with a boa around his neck, bopping to a souped-up cover of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” unapologetic and enthralled to be in the spotlight.
I spoke at length with Benjamin about music (his and others’), sex, performance, art as politics, and what drives him weeks before his just-released debut album, Swing Migration.
Kyle Turner: How are you doing?
Joe Benjamin: Good. It’s 11, and we just came back from family dinner, and we’re drinking wine, so good. Things are good.
KT: So what was it like for you presenting [Swing Migration] in the way that you did? Like, you had a really great show, you had a really nice venue… this is really kicking it off for you.
JB: Yeah. I mean, in retrospect I think [The Slipper Room] really was the best venue we could have chosen. It was that, like, red, you know? That velvet-y looking, bougie, burlesque thing that definitely reminds of the swing and jazz that you can hear in what we do. I feel like this venue lets you be whoever you want to be. And I need that very desperately because Adam [Dishian, Joe’s boyfriend] and I both realized that jazz venues are not what we’re going for at all. The last jazz venue we played was in May and it was a disaster. I mean, the show was fine, and the turnout was okay, but people just don’t want to come to a jazz venue to see us, and in general, the kind of audience that I’m targeting is not going to come to a jazz venue. So this place had the exact right amount of jazz in it, and was open to what we do.
The turnout was fantastic, the audience was incredible. When I got off stage during that solo part to give my record to one, like, longtime fan who was sitting in the very back, I had to squeeze myself through all the way to the back, and I couldn’t believe that… That was towards the end of the show, and I couldn’t believe how many people there were. I didn’t see them because of the stage light! I think the ambience and just the feeling in the room was ignited. In that sense I’m super happy about the show. And when it comes to finally getting the album out, I think this is such a big relief. Artists are always already on the next project; I’m already working on the second album. This helps me move on, it keeps me going. And it was so necessary, because a couple weeks before, I was already almost kind of over it, you know. Like, I’ve heard it so much and I thought about it so much, so it being out now is really nice. And hey, I’m sitting at home and I’m getting all this money right now from people buying it, so it’s pretty sweet.
KT: What do you think is it about your persona, or your band’s persona and style, that doesn’t fit a traditional jazz venue, but does fit a place like the Slipper Room?
JB: The reason that one jazz show was so bad in May… It wasn’t so bad, but it didn’t work. And also, actually I just talked with my dad about this. We performed two years ago on our tour in Germany, we performed at a major jazz venue in Munich. I would say the biggest jazz venue in Munich. It’s the staple jazz venue called Unterfahrt. It’s been there for decades. We performed there, and I’ve asked them twice if we can come back and twice they said “no.” And I think the reason why is because at that venue in Munich, towards the end I performed the Spice Girls song “Wannabe,” and they were outraged.
There’s some sort of a conservatism and a little bit of an uptightness to the jazz scene, and that goes for New York especially, because there’s such a high expectation toward jazz there ‘cause that’s where it was kind of born. I don’t really fit into that realm, you know? I mean, you’ve heard it yourself. The music definitely draws from the genre, definitely. There’s such a heavy influence, no question. But it’s so much further beyond that, you know? In just so many ways, genre-wise.
KT: Jazz obviously has a kind of origin in New York. What was it like for you being someone not from New York, or the U.S., kind of experimenting with that genre, and experimenting with funk (which also has origins in the U.S., and a particular demographic)?
JB: You asking me that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is me being in a jazz history class at my college. I studied at the New School. And when I was sitting in class, there were all these kids who were American, who were from New York, or from Queens, who had parents who showed them Frank Sinatra… who showed them the real jazz musicians when they were kids. I didn’t even hear about people like Keith Jarrett. I didn’t even hear about him until I was 18 or 19. Many of the really big ones, Cole Porter, whatever, whoever, you know, Wayne Shorter, I didn’t know about these people until I was 19 or 20 years old. Because of the way I was brought up in Germany… I was brought up very un-musical, and when there was music in my house, it was never jazz. So I had some sort of a virgin approach to this genre, and I have learned it in my own ways, and I’ve picked whatever I liked, and I experienced a lot, a lot of arrogance. I don’t know what you would call it… misunderstanding? I’m so not jazz in so many of the eyes of so many other people. So, being in New York and doing my very own thing in that sense has definitely exposed me to a lot of arrogance.
I’ve asked them twice if we can come back and twice they said “no.” And I think the reason why is because at that venue in Munich, towards the end I performed the Spice Girls song “Wannabe,” and they were outraged.
KT: And what is your reply to them? Like, I just saw the film La La Land pretty recently. Are you aware of that film? It’s with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
KT: It’s a musical by the guy who did Whiplash. It’s about this guy who has a very particular idea of what artistry is and what jazz is, and he’s pretty conservative in terms of what he thinks jazz is. So, what is your response, or how do you deal with people who have this very conservative view of jazz and who encounter what you’re doing with the various genres you’re playing with?
JB: You know, honestly, in a way I’m happy that there is the, like, really hardcore jazz people out there. I’m happy that there’s all these people who care so very much about this particular genre ‘cause in a way it keeps it alive, it keeps the spirit alive of all these jazz musicians who, let’s face it, are all dead. I mean, there’s many great jazz musicians now, but you know, the ones that everyone is always trying… All the solos that people try to copy on their saxophone, it was always people who have long been dead or are dying right now. And so, there are people that try to keep them alive, and that’s a wonderful thing and I really don’t judge. I see the hardcore jazz community that has such a particular understanding for this very genre that sometimes I don’t even have. All these people are ecstatic about someone playing a solo and I’m not, and in these moments I realize, you know, I only understand so much about it.
So I absolutely have no resentment towards these people. The only thing that I do resent is not tolerating or not appreciating art in general. And if I go to the MOMA and I see an empty canvas in front of me, never, never will you see me walk into that room at the MOMA and say, ‘Ugh, what’s this? That’s not art.’ I always say, ‘I don’t get it, and I’m not feeling it, but somebody must have put a lot of fucking thought into this because it is here after all.’ You know, in art, I think the last thing you want to do is judge or make one look better than the other.
KT: I think the genre semantics is kind of a fun conversation to have, but sometimes it gets, like, a little anal-retentive, and people retreat into their camps and are super defensive about the way that they perceive art. I try to be a bit more open in most regards.
One thing I think was really fun about your show was when you opened it with “New York, New York”, and you… I think I heard you mention backstage that you were going to do that, and then kind of pull the rug from underneath people because you had spent so long doing those standards, and I was wondering what is your relationship to trying to reinvent the genres that you’re doing, but nod to them and pay homage to them prior? Does that make sense?
JB: Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. I’m happy that you noticed that because I was worried it would kind of get lost, but… So yes, I am incredibly fed up with it. I mean, not fed up, I’m just over-saturated and I’m so done with all this stuff that I did for a long time, especially when I was here in Germany. I sang with all these big bands who played the Sinatra repertoire up and down. I really have done it many times. I started doing it when I was 11. I was in my room everyday singing songs like “New York, New York.” So, for me, I’m so beyond it. But do I still listen to it? Hell yes. I definitely listen to the Sinatra recordings. Once in a while, once in a blue moon, usually I put that stuff on in those moments when you have many people over, and there’s a lot of drinking going on, and a lot of bottles of wine being opened and popped open, and you’re trying to create a playlist that gets people going, I put on “Come Fly With Me” because that stuff still totally pushes all my buttons and it gets me going, you know? But I have definitely learned from it so much that I’m done with it. I don’t… I no longer feel like I get so much inspiration from it. I already have, and I feel like I’ve moved on. It no longer fuels me and nourishes me.
Never will you see me walk into that room at the MOMA and say, ‘Ugh, what’s this? That’s not art.’ I always say, ‘I don’t get it, and I’m not feeling it, but somebody must have put a lot of fucking thought into this because it is here after all.’
KT: I want to talk about the different in your writing process for original material as compared to the covers you’re doing?
JB: So, for the covers, you know that I don’t have to write…
KT: Yeah, but you arrange.
JB: Good, good, okay, that’s what you mean. The process is shockingly similar. It’s actually the exact same process. When I arrange a cover like “Drops of Jupiter” or “Desafinado” or whatever you heard that night, when I arrange it, I take the song as I know it, I usually have it in my head ‘cause I’ve listened to it a million times, and I smoke it up, and I walk around my apartment and I just sing the melody however I want to sing it. So I assume that I came up with the melody, I assume that I came up with the lyrics, and I interpret it in front of me, in my room, the way that I would have put it onto paper. And when I write a song, and I try to arrange it, I do the same thing. I have the melody that I had already written, and I then interpret the melody or the lyrics however feels most fun to me. This comes back, by the way, to what we talked about at the show. It’s all just channeling. Sometimes I feel like I’m just opening up these two gates, and I just let it through. Because whatever sounds most fun to me, I don’t have a recipe for it, you know? It comes a certain way, and that’s what I like, in a certain way, when it’s, ‘Oh, this is how I like it.’
With arranging covers, I just open the flood gate and I take the cover, the lyrics or the melody or whatever I like most about the song, and I feel like, ‘How would I write the song? How would I change the song to make it interesting?’ And of course, sometimes you also make sure that you change things that are very fundamental. Things like the meter or the key or whatever. You try to change fundamental, basic elements of the song just so you make it your own, and you take it away from the original, to take it out of your comfort zone as much as possible. I certainly do that. But it’s all about interpreting it the way I would interpret an original.
KT: And why did you choose the songs that you covered?
JB: So, at the show, I covered “Virtual Insanity,” “Desafinado,” and “Drops of Jupiter.”
KT: “99 Red Balloons.”
JB: Oh, you’re right. I totally forgot.
KT: “Wannabe,” “Thriller,” “Ghostbusters”…
JB: True, true, true. Well, it’s a different reason for each one. “Drops of Jupiter,” it was Martin, my arranger, he’s the one who puts all this shit onto paper. Martin just said to me, “Listen, I have a wish.” He said to me, “I want to… I wanna… I have this one song I really want to do it. Trust me, people are going to love it.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he goes, ‘Drops of Jupiter.'” And I go, “‘Drops of Jupiter,’ what is that?” So he sang it to me, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I totally heard that on the radio before.’ And he said, “See! Everyone… trust me Joe, if we do this, everyone has heard it on the radio before.” So I said “fine.” I started listening to the song, and then I sent him a long, long email about how I want it arranged. And then with “Wannabe,” “Thriller,” and “Ghostbusters,” I mean… it’s pretty obvious. I just sat down with him and I said, ‘Listen, which covers are going to get the crowd most moving?’ And we have a list of at least 40 or 50 covers. We still have that list. And we really just picked the three songs that are the biggest crowd pleasers, and they just work so well. “Desafinado” I did because it’s one of my favorite jazz or latin standards that I’ve sung in my life. And “Desafinado” I believe is particularly interesting. Of all of these covers, that is the one that sticks out the most, in my eyes.
KT: There’s, like, 30 time signature changes?
JB: It’s unbelievable. That song is all over the fucking place. The time signature changes are insane. I mean, there’s probably 20 in there, or more. And the melody hits on different… it’s hard to explain to a non-musician, like, non-theory musician, if you know what I mean, but… I changed it up so drastically, it’s almost like reading a book backwards, you know? It’s really all over the place. Anyway, your question is why did I pick it? I picked “Desafinado” because it’s my most favorite jazz standard, and I wanted to do something of jazz merit, and then… other than that, “Virtual Insanity,” that’s the gateway to what I’m doing now. “Virtual Insanity” is one of the main reasons why I changed a little bit the style of this whole project. We started with “Virtual Insanity” about two years ago, and it was just such a funky, good-feeling tune. And I remember watching the music video to it, and saying to whoever was with me, ‘Listen, we need to do a cover of this. This is so good.’ And we did the cover, and it worked so well with people, it was always like the peak of every show, that I said, ‘I need to start writing music that falls into this atmosphere and feeling.’ And that’s what we’re doing for the second album.
He said to me, “I want to… I wanna… I have this one song I really want to do it. Trust me, people are going to love it.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he goes, ‘Drops of Jupiter.'”
KT: Your song “The American Dream” struck me as interesting, not only because of the current sociopolitical climate of the U.S., but because it reminded me of David Bowie’s “Young Americans”—particularly that song’s usage in the Lars von Trier film Dogville, which is this three-hour-long kind of melodrama about this woman who’s a refugee, who goes to this small town, and they protect her, but they protect her on the condition that she does things for them, like chores and whatnot. And as their sense of threat increases, the demands they make on the woman, played by Nicole Kidman, become increasingly more abusive, to the point where she’s physically and sexually abused, and raped, and it becomes like an examination and commentary on American society. It’s like this black box theatre, intentionally Brechtian. And at the end, there’s David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over these photographs of people in poverty in the United States, and it shows, obviously, that this American dream, as your song is called, is illusory. So what prompted you to write [“The American Dream”]?
JB: Well, it’s pretty easy. What prompted me to write the song is that, to me, it never felt like an American dream. If I look at my situation that I’m in, and the situation that I am and was in is one that is very fortunate—my grandmother has been able to support me with most or all of the things I’ve done. The only reason I don’t have college debt, is because someone in my family happened to have enough funds to pay for all of my studying. And I see everyone around me struggling so hard, and I see what the government wants—how much money they ask for, how much proof of income, and all these other things. So I sat in my bed, in my 2,500 dollar studio apartment on 84th street, a couple years ago, after I had a really expensive meal at a nice restaurant, and I’m lying there and I think to myself, ‘Where do I get the right to assume that this is me making this all happen? Isn’t that what the American dream is? Isn’t the American dream you making it on your own? And if you really want something, you can make it? And it’s all, you know… If you really want this dream to come true, you can make it happen?’ That is utter, utter bullshit. The only reason I’m able to make these things happen is because I have money. And if there’s people who don’t have money, and even people who are not immigrants like me, but people who actually live in that country and who are citizens and they don’t have money and they come from low income families, none of this is possible. Which is why, at the end of that song, I say, “Let’s save this dream for families who cannot leave but not me.” So, that’s what prompted it. Realizing that the American Dream has nothing to do with equal chances for people. It’s about financial power, and nothing but that.
KT: ‘American Dream’ is, I think, the only overtly political song in your set list? Do you have any plans to go further down that road in terms of using your art as a form of politics or resistance, especially with regard to the coming regime?
JB: Yeah… Ugh, I don’t know, Kyle. I really don’t know what’s going to happen with us and this country. All I know is that art in these kinds of moments has always been a great channel for people to express things. I also know from the history of my home country that art has been suppressed and forbidden in administrations and governments like this. Pussy Riot is a wonderful example. I don’t want to say that I would love to go to jail, but I am definitely inclined to be one ending up in jail ‘cause I do speak up and I do say things. My art so far has not been very political because, as an immigrant in America, I feel hesitant about being highly political because it is very easy for citizens of America to say, ‘Well, why are you here then? Go home. If you don’t like it here, go home and don’t make music here.’ Me being in America also… I have a certain humbleness because I am very thankful that I’m able to be here… it’s not my country, I was invited in. Not invited, but I was let in because I did pay a lot of money for it, but I still feel a certain humbleness where I’m trying to… If this was Germany, I’d be very different, I think.
But with whatever we’re facing now in the year 2017, I can’t wait for a good idea to write a really, really insane song or lyric about what’s going to happen. I just feel like I’m so in it. We are all so involved in it right now, and it’s so fresh, and it’s so hurtful, what happened, right now I don’t have the foresight yet. I need to step away from it really far, and I also need to settle down a little bit, and I need to arrive in this new situation, and once that happens, I feel like I’ll be able to really start writing stuff, and I would love to do that.
The only reason I’m able to make these things happen is because I have money. And if there’s people who don’t have money, and even people who are not immigrants like me, but people who actually live in that country and who are citizens and they don’t have money and they come from low income families, none of this is possible.
KT: In the political, ideological sense.… do you identify as, like, a gay artist, or a queer artist?
JB: Hmm. First of all, I know it would help me to do that, and I know that within the gay community of New York, and in general in the gay community, I think [this band] would be a very successful project, and I’m extremely open to exploring that community. I’m very open to that and I love the idea of it. However, I just have an issue with the terms “gay” and “homosexual.” They’re just terms that I’m not feeling very comfortable with.
KT: Which do you prefer to use?
JB: Being part of that community… hell yeah. Of course I am. I was wearing a feather boa. But I don’t like being… homosexuality feels limiting to me. It limits me. It puts a dead-end to one side of me, which means, ‘Oh you can’t be with women. That’s not a possibility.’ And I would like to have that possibility forever in my life, to be able to be with women… to hook up with them.
KT: Yes, I totally get that. I’m talking more in the political sense. Like Todd Haynes is a “queer” artist, John Waters is a “queer” artist because the art that they make is inherently anarchic, or in response to a certain social structure, or societal infrastructure. I identify as queer because I think it, for one, better encompasses my romantic and sexual proclivities, but also because it informs my political beliefs. So I’m asking, in that sense, do you identify as a queer artist?
JB: Right. I definitely… I feel good about what you’re saying, and I definitely identify as an artist that comes from the queer community, for sure. What I want to prevent in my career and in my life is becoming that and only that. I want to prevent being an artist that is only associated with the gay community. That’s what I want to prevent. But I love that, and I embrace that.
KT: Do you know the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder?
JB: Yes, I do.
KT: I don’t like to think of “queer” as limiting, necessarily, because I think it opens up a lot of avenues, and opens up a lot of possibilities and ideas and beliefs. Fassbinder is one of those, I guess, icons. So I was talking within in that context. Which leads me to—
JB: Yeah. Because he’s not regarded as a “gay” director.
KT: Right, he transcends that label—because he was actually bi. But he’s regarded as a queer artist in the sense that his work is explicitly political, it is a response and comments on a certain aspect of society. And that leads me to my next question. Do you see the United States at all mirroring what happened to the Weimar Republic in terms of, like, the art that was happening in Berlin and the crackdown that happened as the Third Reich extended its reach?
JB: So, you’re saying we’re going into the Third Reich kind of idea, right?
KT: Yes, in terms of what happened to artists, in terms of their ability to produce art that was explicitly political, that criticized or critiqued the current regime.
JB: You know, I have the fear that this is something that is going to happen very soon to press, to freedom of speech, to artistry. But the one thing that is different between 1933 and 2017 is, first of all, in 1933, 1933 hadn’t happened yet. But in 2017, this has happened before. And second of all, we live in an interconnected world of internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, messaging… Facetime-ing to America with someone for free. We live in a world where that’s possible. And at least, even if it happens, at least people at other places in the world will see it and condemn it. So, I think the comparison is weak. But it has strong similarities, for sure.
KT: I was wondering, like, what is going through your mind, and if there’s anything in particular that informs or helps inspire what you do on stage as opposed as to what you do off stage, when you’re performing in front of people?
JB: Right, I remember you asking me that question after the show, and it was really difficult for me to answer because I really, trust me, Kyle, before getting on stage, I never think to myself, ‘What am I going to say? How am I going to act? What am I going to do?’ I really don’t. I used to do that a long time ago when I started out as a performer, and it was a bad idea and it never worked. I have no plan, I really don’t. The only plan I have is it to relax, chill, feel out the energy in the room, and do my thing accordingly. And I have stories that are attached to all of the songs, and I want to tell them. But that stage persona… If you hang out with me at night with many people, many people are involved—let’s say a group of eight—and we go out all night… I usually don’t take the center stage. I try to… I definitely learned in my personal life to not always take the attention; I love it, but I definitely try to tame myself to not always take all the attention when I’m out. But when I do, it’s the same thing as when I’m on stage. It’s just who I am, you know? It’s something that lives within me, and I can’t tell you that it’s fabricated in any way. I just like to… I just feel comfortable when people listen, even if I upset them.
KT: So, are you at your most comfortable on stage?
KT: So the stage is your home. Are you born a performer?
JB: Yeah, for sure. Definitely. That’s a very fitting statement.
KT: When was the moment you knew that you wanted to do this?
JB: The moment I knew that I wanted to do this was when I was 11 years old, and my mother signed me up for an audition for a musical where they were looking for a child star; you had to be 14 to be able to participate, so she faked my birth date on the application, and at the audition they immediately accepted me, and then somehow we made it work with the age. And it was a really big production in Germany that was going on tour and everything, and there was all these old, like, mid-30s/late-20s musical theatre professional artists and performers who this is all they do with their lives. And I came from a little cow town somewhere in Bavaria never seeing anything like this before, and I remember the way all these people interacted with each other, at rehearsal, after rehearsal, the way they got drunk together, all the things they did together. That, to me, made me realize this is all I ever want. For the first time in my life, I felt a level of comfort and of being understood that I’ve never felt before. And I was 11, and that was enough. That’s all it took. I mean, it was so clear to me this is all I ever want.
KT: So, if you feel comfortable and happiest on stage, what do you do to find that same level of comfort and happiness and solace when you’re off stage?
JB: That balance… Of course I surround myself with people like Adam, and dear friends and loving people who understand me and appreciate me and tolerate me and hear me out. But I do yearn a little for it when I’m not on stage. It’s a little bit of an addiction, you know? I don’t know if I could do it every day of the week, probably I couldn’t, but I wish it would happen a little more in my life. And it will, it will. I’ll get there. But you can’t really compensate for it. On the weekend, I wait tables, and when I wait tables, many, many customers ask me, ‘Oh, are you a performer? You must be a performer.’ Because I guess I do perform, you know, at the table.
KT: Is the joy in performing, or is the joy in the validation you get from performing?
JB: No. The validation, it’s nice, no question. I mean, you could argue why did I really go to the exit right after the show [at the Slipper Room]? Did I go there to receive the validation? Or did I go there because I felt like I owe the people to show my face? And really, the reason I went there is because I wanted to create a liaison with my audience and put myself on the same level with them, and not make myself the superstar who doesn’t show his face. The validation came and it felt fantastic, and I would have been sad if I hadn’t gotten it, no question. But the validation really comes just by being on stage. But I guess that is something I do look for— feeling validated and happy and fulfilled in what I do. But not hearing it from other people.
KT: So as an artist, as a continually evolving, morphing artist, what has been the greatest obstacle for you?
JB: It’s always hard to single out one thing, but the greatest obstacle has always been myself… me putting all this pressure on myself. Me not being a great singer. A couple years ago I just technically was not as advanced and as good as I am striving to be. I’ve improved in the past years and I’m proud of that. I’ve worked very hard on that. But I was always the biggest obstacle. The way I thought about things, the goals I set for myself, the expectations I had…
The one thing that is different between 1933 and 2017 is, first of all, in 1933, 1933 hadn’t happened yet. But in 2017, this has happened before.
KT: What do you see in the future for Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful?
JB: I see the future of this band where the present is. Just keep doing what we do. I primarily want to tour, and that’s the most important thing for me. I really want to get out there and tour, and get this music out in the world A.S.A.P. In North America, Germany, France, Italy, Europe in general… China. I want to go out and tour the entire world. If I go out with it making eighty-thousand dollars a year, and not more, trust me I’m happy. I’m not looking primarily to become a millionaire. I don’t care about that. The only future that I want is us performing, and me having a solid financial background to make my art without being a waiter.
KT: OK. One, do you think you’ve carved out an identity for yourself as an artist, kind of like, what your art says about you? And two, what do you think that is?
JB: That’s a touchy subject that you bring up, and I think I’m still… I’m towards the end of figuring out, but still am figuring out what’s the exact image, who do I really want to be. What should the website look like? What should the music videos look like? What clothes should we all wear? I’m going to be honest with you, the image is something that I need help with, and I, like… because I’m only good at certain things. There’s a lot of things I’m really not good at. The show was on Thursday at night, and Thursday morning at 10:30 I wrote a message to Adam, saying, ‘Oh my god, what should I wear tonight?’ You know, where other people would think about it two weeks in advance. I don’t think of these things. They don’t come to my mind. And I understand they’re very important, so I’m being neglectful in this sense. So, I do need help a little bit with people who are better at that, and… What do I really look like or who am I on stage? I am definitely myself. But when you talk about image, you know, I mean, I don’t like the idea of having an image on stage, and then going off stage and doing ten lines of coke and being a total asshole. I would like to be myself, you know, I want the joy that I experience in my life to come out in stories on stage, so it’s being the same thing, going hand in hand. And in my personal life, I don’t have any image problems. I feel very confident about who I am. Obviously you always change and have often become better than people tell you, you know. You always understand that you make mistakes, and things are not how they’re supposed to be, and you try to change and you try to become a better person, but apart from all that, I think I’m doing fine.
KT: What role do you think sex has in the way that you write your music and—
JB: Ugh, so much.
KT: And craft your art…
JB: Sex is everything. Sex is so important. I’m a sexual person. I’m a very sexual person. Other people aren’t, and I don’t judge. It’s… you know, there’s nothing wrong. You shouldn’t strive to be a sexual person. Sexuality is just one of many things that are… that define people, and I happen to just be very sexual, and I talk about it all the time, and I make jokes about it all the time, and I make comparisons to it all the time, and I think about it so much. [laughs] So, consequently, I think sex will always be… or sexuality will always be a very big part of my art.
KT: In what way?
JB: Just in the wicked ways that sexuality fucks with you, and your brain, and how it clouds your thinking sometimes, and how it influences your life in such funny ways. How sometimes you’re so driven by your hormones, and you do stupid things ‘cause you can’t think straight. I find that so hilarious, and it’s such a pathetic and sad struggle that our reason and our common sense has with our crotch, you know? But sometimes it can also teach you so much about yourself and about life, and that’s kind of, I guess, what I’m trying to bring out.
KT: Do you think that the way that sex has informed your art has changed or evolved since you started writing music, or started performing?
JB: Yes, definitely, because I had one song that kind of touched on the subject of sex, and it was such a successful song. People loved it in particular, and they were so fond of it that many people in my band said to me, “Oh man, sex really sells. Sex does sell.” People said that so much to me, and I was like, ‘You know what, maybe I should write a song about sex?’ And then I wrote the song “Three Days No Sex,” which has the word “sex” in the title, so I mean, you can’t get more explicit than that.
Sex is everything. Sex is so important.
KT: So what do you find most erotic about music? Or about performing?
JB: The foreplay. [laughs] All the work that’s involved to get to the peak. That makes it very exhilarating work, you know? The show you saw on Thursday, that was the peak, and there was so much work involved in it, and that’s almost kind of erotic.
KT: That’s very interesting—and fun. Do you sense, like, a different approach to, I guess, the sexual atmosphere of your shows between the United States and then touring in Europe?
JB: People are very open and very open-minded in Europe, but the topic of sex, it feels to me like it’s a little bit easier to talk about in New York. But I’m talking New York. I haven’t performed somewhere in Ohio or Illinois yet, so I guess I need more performance experience.
KT: You’re working on a new album. How is that going?
JB: Incredible. You know, on [Swing Migration] I have three covers, and I had to obtain the rights to put them on an album. And as I obtained those rights, I had to go to the Harry Fox Agency website and I saw who was writing these songs, and I was so surprised to see that “Virtual Insanity” was not just Jason Kay—it was four other people. So I looked them all up, and I found out they were his rhythm section! I started looking through all these other songs by him, and everything he does, he writes it all with his rhythm section. So I decided to do the same instrumentation. Those are probably the biggest challenges for me. Vocally, I don’t think there are so many challenges, but I think working with instrumentation and with genre—and branching out in both of those realms—is going to help me keep myself challenged.
KT: What is it that drives you? What drives you to keep going? You said that you know that you’re not really going to make any money off this album, but what drives you to keep doing this art, and to keep telling these stories?
JB: So, I didn’t say that I think I’m not going to make money off this… I believe it’s the right expectation to say that I’m not going to make money off of it.
KT: Well, the cost-benefit ratio…
JB: We all have seen these cases where a small band brings out an album and it’s somehow picked up by someone. Norah Jones is a wonderful example. Her first album just hit it so fucking hard. So, you know, anything can happen. But what was your question? What drives me? The only thing that drives me is that when I go to bed at night and I fall asleep and I wake up, the first and last thing I think of is always music. So, I have to be a musician… I don’t do it for fame or anything, I just do it because I need to, because it’s all I want to do. And if I have to be a waiter for the rest of my life, I’m going to do that as long as I can make music. So, it’s just the same drive that you have to keep yourself alive. It’s a survival instinct, to me, in a way—or it’s very similar to that. Eating, surviving, and making music are all on the same level.
You can order Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful’s debut album Swing Migration from their website, or stream it on any of the major streaming music services.