is an atypical interview subject for UG he's not in a famous band, he doesn't gig and hasn't got his albums in shops around the world. He works by himself, playing the guitar and bass, programming the rest of the "band", and then releases his albums on bandcamp for "Pay What You Want" with no minimum.
Segueing between huge riffs and ambient soundscapes, his Cloudkicker
project has slowly gathered a devoted fanbase with seven digital albums and EPs, with the most recent being "Let Yourself Be Huge"
, recorded on a Taylor acoustic guitar rather than a drop tuned Les Paul.
UG caught up with Ben as he puts the finishing touches on his 8th album, the release date still to be announced.
UG: Hello Ben, and thanks for taking the time to answer these questions - for the people that haven't heard Cloudkicker, could you give us a brief explanation of what the project is and how you got started?
I started writing music for what would become Cloudkicker in the middle of 2006 when I was 20 after being in numerous bands for the entirety of my mid-to-late-teens. Some former bandmates and I got together and played a few tiny but awesome garage shows and I thought it was pretty fun, so I kept writing. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, but at the end of 2007 I moved to Columbus, OH and obviously the band thing was out but I kept writing and pieced the first batch of songs together to make "The Discovery". I just kept writing and the project started gaining momentum and two years later I put out "Beacons" and it kind of blew up--I mean I'm not selling out stadiums and I don't have a bodyguard or anything, but for a guy who records music on a laptop in his apartment in Ohio it's really cool to get emails from people in Russia and Brazil telling me what big fans they are.
Have you ever considered doing a tour?
No I've never considered a full-blown tour. I've kind-of-but-not-really toured in previous bands and there's not a whole lot about the experience that appeals to me to be honest. I would consider putting on a show here or there if the opportunity presented itself but I would need a bunch more free time to really do it right.
Have you ever brought another musician in to record parts for you for a particular track?
No, not yet anyway. The guy who used to play drums in the early version of Cloudkicker is actually my downstairs neighbor now (it's a long story) and we got together a few times in June to jam some drum stuff out for the new thing and it actually made a big difference. But I don't know if that's what you meant.
Are there any tracks you've written that are favourites or special to you in some way?
"I'm still learning though, and a lot of my progress has just been from getting so much wrong for so long."
I'm incredibly satisfied with Beacons, the "message"--if you want to call it that--seems to have gotten through to a whole lot of people. Something has been communicated and it's what I intended, so that's about all I can ask for. (Listen here
I'm looking at all the albums or releases or whatever right now and there's just so much there. I enjoy the fact that music has kind of become a kind of diary for me. I can go back into any of these things and remember what was going on in my head in such a more meaningful way than written or spoken words could ever provide. And there's really cool ideas all over the place too. Mostly I enjoy the progression and how there's something different about each release I have put out.
I could list something that I like about every single track that I have but that might get boring.
Was there any difference in how the new album was recorded to the previous ones?
Yeah totally. I didn't worry about getting everything perfect the first time. I recorded each song in a "good enough" way that mainly focused on the structure and how each part was going to fit into the next. There was a lot of cutting and pasting of drums and guitars and a lot of rough transitions, but that was ok. Then when I had enough material I got serious about ironing things out. I got the song order down and listened to everything a bunch of times and made a lot of mental notes about things I wanted to change and how I wanted things to sound and then went back in and did all that--so on the second pass I really focused on making things "sound right" and not stopping until they did.
Do you have a particular method for writing your riffs, your ambient layers and drums? Is there any standard process?
Usually I fiddle around on guitar until a cool riff materializes, record that into my loop pedal, then record a basic ambient track underneath it. I'll either take that and record a couple bars into the computer and come up with drums or jam out a bass part and do the same thing. That's basically the standard process. Every now and then I'll start with bass or start with drums but not usually.
You do all your own mixing as well where did you learn the production techniques?
A friend of mine was The Guy Who Records Everyones Band and I learned a lot just from hanging out with him--I mean, enough to get me started. I'm still learning though, and a lot of my progress has just been from getting so much wrong for so long. I pick up little bits of information here and there from various websites and videos. But like, I go back into old Beacons files and look at some stuff and say "Why the hell did I think that was a good idea?" I think I've gotten a lot better between Let Yourself Be Huge and this newest thing, but I'm sure in two years I'll come back and shake my head a little at what I'm doing now too.
Speaking of techniques, how did you develop your guitar playing? Are there any tips you would give UG readers for improving their playing?
I think mostly it's just that I've been playing guitar for 16 years now. I don't have impeccable technique or mad chops or anything, and I haven't practiced in years so I don't know if I'm the best person to ask about that. I just noodle around and sometimes come up with stuff that I think is cool.
A UGer wanted me to ask you - what was your first guitar, do you still have it?
Just some crappy Squire that I put stickers all over because I was 11 and it was 1996 and I was way too into Green Day. It's in my parents' attic with no strings on it taking up space. Such a crappy guitar.
How do you feel about being lumped together with the djent scene? What do you think about the current popularity of low tunings and odd time signatures in metal?
"I'm incredibly satisfied with Beacons, the "message" - if you want to call it that - seems to have gotten through to a whole lot of people."
I think if I'm still lumped into that scene after this next release then it will be kind of curious. Not that it's something that bugs me, I just don't know if I'll retain that groups' interest any longer. As far as what I think about how popular those things are--ten years ago you couldn't tear me away from Between the Buried and Me and Poison the Well and Bleeding Through etc etc. I think what's popular now is a pretty logical extension of what I was really digging on when I was 17, so it makes sense. It's like we all started understanding Meshuggah at the same time.
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was that UG often features guitarists that made their careers by relentlessly touring and selling albums in real physical stores almost the opposite of what you're doing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your approach?
I honestly can't think of a disadvantage. Whatever this thing is that I have going on now, I enjoy it. It's not going to last forever and maybe that's because I'm not killing myself over it, but that's fine. I've gotten this far doing things only the way I want to do them and I'm certainly not going to stop now, so as long as people still think that the music I make is worth listening to I'm still going to put it out there.
How do you feel about the loss of album art inserts to the digital age?
Pretty indifferent. I don't know if anything's really been lost though. I can still put a .pdf file in with the .mp3s if I really want to. But people are buying CDs and records like crazy still--I mean I wasn't in the game a decade ago so maybe that scene is actually pretty dead, but for a guy who hasn't purchased a CD in 8 years I think any amount of physical sales is mind-blowing.
Do you find inspiration for your musicin film or art? Anything pieces in particular?
Oh all the time. I don't really have specifics but I would say that the music I write could be thought of as having cinematic qualities. I enjoy that kind of engrossing experience that a really good movie affords, the building and release of tension and really the absence of any feeling of time.
Is there anything you would like to say to UG or your fans?
I never know how to respond to these questions.
All of Cloudkicker is available at this location for whatever price you choose to pay. For news or info check the blog here.
Interview by Daniel Crawford