You can read all about Dillinger Escape Plan's Ben Weinman's accomplishments and still know nothing about who he really is. He consistently ranks high on lists of metal's most important players - including Spin and Guitar World - but that doesn't tell you much other than he is one gifted musician. He has worked with Kimbra, Ivy Levan, Wyclef Jean and most recently the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra - with Mastodon's Brent Hinds, ex-Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery and Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore - and you have a sense he's a well-rounded guitar player who digs doing different projects. What you may not know about Weinman is he has a degree in psychology, which may explain why he likes to dig into stuff - everything from the sounds coming from a guitar to the reasons musicians get high. Here, we dig into Ben Weinman's brain to expose some of the things you may not have known about him.
Ultimate-Guitar: Getting into the creative headspace for writing and recording a new Dillinger Escape Plan record is both your greatest joy and your worst nightmare?
Ben Weinman: That's a good way to put it.
Do you rely on muscle memory and what you've done in the past or is it waiting for the muse?
Yeah, that's a good question. I have to say I think there's a big misconception that only certain people can be creative. I always find that interesting that we separate people into creative and non-creative types. The reality is I think everyone can be creative but they just have to have the right mindset. A lot of people who have been musicians for a long time and playing in these bands and not allowing themselves to quote unquote grow up into the norms of society, sometimes have an easier time doing this.
You think so?
Because it sounds funny for a metal guy to say this - it sounds like a little weird but it's the truth. The truth of it is the ability to just be playful is what keeps you creative. The ability not to let yourself grow up and take things too seriously and conform to certain rules or guidelines. When we're kinds we don't care - we throw stuff against the wall and we just see what sticks. We're not worried about the stresses of having to do something by a deadline or having to do something within a certain format or something like that. And that's when we're the most creative and if we can carry that into being an adult, that's when you're innovative. That's what makes innovators. You know what I mean?
I understand perfectly. Over the years has it become easier to tap into that child-like aspect of creativity?
Well, in some ways the good thing about Dillinger is we created this band without the intentions of making it and without thinking it would appeal to a large market. We weren't intending on having this be our career and the way we were making our living. So from the very start the intentions were right and conducive for creating that environment. Where we're just gonna be creative and try things and not worry about how it comes out specifically.
Have you been able to maintain that integrity?
As time goes on as you said it's like my greatest joy and it's also my biggest nightmare, hah hah hah. The reality is this is a career now and it is what I do for a living. It's how I make 100 percent of my money and if not Dillinger just music in general. So there are kinds of stresses that come along that can cloud your enjoyment a little bit or whatever. So really to balance this thing, we do deal with realities is I have to get thing done; there is deadlines; there are timeframes that are respectable. But I have to continue to allow myself to be creative and experiment and just have fun with it.
When we last spoke you said, "I don't even consider myself a guitar player - I consider myself a songwriter." Is that really your philosophy?
Definitely. When I am messing around with ideas, guitar was typically my main instrument to do that but it's not my only way of coming up with ideas for sure. The goal at the end is to create that song, create those ideas and create that album. And the way we get there isn't necessarily that important. I'm not sitting down practicing all kinds of weird arpeggios and things I have to try and squeeze into our next record. It's not guitar player first, songwriter second. It's like songs first and what tools are we gonna use and how much skill do we need to get it done. Do you know what I mean?
I do. But you were never going to have other guitar players play your music?
Well yeah. Obviously Dillinger wasn't a band that was formed where I was trying to write songs to sell off to the pop world or for other bands. I never wanted to be an assembly line of riffs or anything like that. We just wanted to make a great band that pushed things and was polarizing that made people pay attention.
But the guitar is still your main instrument?
I always loved guitar and guitar players. I never necessarily wanted to be a singer like the front person responsible for carrying that weight but at the same time I loved how guitar players were really personalities. I grew up in the '80s and the '90s and obviously that was a huge time for guitar players. Whether it be hair metal and even when I got into more underground death metal and punk and hardcore and fusion. Guitar was really leading the march of all of that.
If you could have been any of those guitar players, who did you want to be?
Well, it's hard. That's a really good question. There's so many guys I looked up to and I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of them and become friends with some of them. I recently spent some time with Marty Friedman originally from Megadeth and all the other projects he's doing and now he's in Japan and kind of doing his own thing.
What did you talk about?
It was really interesting to sit down and talk to him. It was kind of weird because he kind of had a similar philosophy to me as far the importance of technicality.
You mean he didn't put a premium on chops?
It was hard to believe though because he's such a virtuoso. There's no way he could be where he is today without really caring about all the details involved in sitting down and practicing for hours and hours and hours. But he claims he never pays attention to that stuff. He claims he just jams out and whatever happens, happens.
Marty Friedman is an astonishing player.
Either way, I thought listening to those early Megadeth records really gave me an idea you can be really eclectic and pull from different influences and cultures and all kinds of things and still play heavy and aggressive music. Also at that time, the kind of technical metal stuff was pulling a lot from classical. You had guys like Yngwie and all these technical guys pulling from classical things because obviously there was always virtuosity in classical music. But then there was guys like him [Friedman] who were pulling from eastern things.
What about the players Yngwie Malmsteen was listening to like Ritchie Blackmore?
Not so much. Again pretty quickly when I got into more technical guitar playing and things like that, I jumped right to fusion. So things like Crimson and stuff like that.
Who else were you listening to back in the day?
I was really heavily into Robert Fripp and also John McLaughlin who was pulling from a lot of Indian influences and stuff with the early Mahavishnu records and things like that. So for me, I was always attracted to the eclectic guys who were pulling from all different sources.
If you go back even further, were you into the classic rock blues players like Eric Clapton?
Yeah, the first song I ever learned was "Sunshine Of Your Love." That Clapton riff you know. I was really into Cream. Honestly the guitar playing I was first into was blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan and things like that. That's where I started learning guitar. I loved Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton.
Jimmy Page? I actually got into Jimmy Page a little later. I started appreciating him a little later. He was one of the things I started to understand more with age.
Now you're working on the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra project with Bret Hinds from Mastodon. You and Brent go way back?
The Hunter was an amazing record.
Yeah, it's a great record. I think they always take it up a notch those guys. There's very few bands who have their own sound - that really just have a sound of their own and their own culture in general that surrounds them. Like I said those days in the '90s and stuff when bands had personalities and they were just weren't songs on a playlist. There's a few bands out today that still have kind of a mythology around them even if it's just characters in the band or the style of things they're bringing into their music. When they come together they just sound different than every other band and they're one of those bands.
A lot of bands today have no character or personality.
You talk about a band like King Crimson - you can identity them when Robert Fripp plays one note.
Yeah, totally. Exactly.
I miss that in modern bands.
Yeah, me too. I really do. It's kind of the price we pay for all this access to information. It's like people want information constantly and they want content constantly. But with that comes a lack of mystique. Coming from a time before social networks, I think the biggest danger of having everyone experience all the information at the same time and in the same way it just how things get homogenized. The new bands have a blueprint of how they're supposed to do things in front of them at every second.
That's exactly what the Internet has done.
Which definitely creates a problem as far as culture goes in my opinion. Most of the bands we grew up loving - while they had many things in common - they had all these other aspects to them that were making them original. Whether it was geographic location, class and just the kind of bands that were coming up in the area and all those things just made it all have kind of a special feel to it and personality.
You are absolutely right.
Anything from the Chili Peppers being surfers and never wearing shirts and being wacky and coming from a place in California that had a vibe to it. Those guys had their thing and there was always these personalities in the band. I think when you find bands today that are still relevant and still have that kind of mystique it's really special.
Is it a different Ben Weinman working with Giraffe Tongue Orchestra that works with Dillinger?
I think the biggest change for me is just being more of collaboration leading the ship and steering the ship. Although it's kind of in my nature to steer the ship so I'm definitely the one who's often being like, "Alright guys, let's do this tomorrow. I've got an idea and I'm sending a riff." But at the same time the best thing for me is just the real collaboration. That hones different skills and different parts of your brain and it makes you almost a better person to be able to work with people creatively.
When collaboration works, it can be amazing.
Everybody in the band is a pretty strong, creative force. Even Jon Theodore the drummer who's in Queens of the Stone Age now and played in Mars Volta, his drumming has such a personality to it and he's got a sound. That dude will send me a beat he played on three drums in his garage with two microphones and it sounds like him - it sounds like a Mars Volta record. He's just got this Bonham thing where when he hits a drum, it sounds like him.
What about working with Eric Avery?
His bass lines were a huge part of what everyone grew up to love about Jane's Addiction. A lot of those songs were based around these melodic bass lines. Mixing that in with people like Brent and I who are typically playing with bass players who kind of do more of the metal thing and are obviously technically great but aren't writing songs on bass, hah hah hah. That creates a whole nother kind of interaction as well.
The combination of personalities sounds really intriguing.
I think we're all learning a lot from this. Number one, we're all just friends and we wanted to play in a non-stressful scenario where it's really just fun and it happens when it happens. It's been difficult with the schedules but we do have six or seven solid songs and a bunch of ideas laying around. So as soon as our schedules permit, we're gonna knock it out.
Stylistically can you fill us in on some of the parameters of the music? I know it's difficult describing your own music.
Yeah, it's the hardest thing.
Is it more melodic and maybe more structured than Dillinger Escape Plan?
It's really hard to say because it's one of those things where it doesn't sound like any one of our bands but you can hear all of us it for sure. It's very eclectic for sure. There's energy in it but it's certainly less...
Less frenetic than Dillinger?
Than Dillinger, yeah. That's a good word. It's kinda just eclectic. It goes anywhere from experimental and there's electronics but it's basically really definitely a band. It's drums, guitars, bass and we're still kinda seeing how it's gonna shape out. I think these last few songs are really gonna determine a lot with the direction. There's some kind of melodic moments like ballady moments and things maybe Brent couldn't have worked into a Mastodon record. A lot of more bluesy and rock moments that I haven't been able to work into Dillinger and saved for something like this.
You've done a number of other side gigs including playing with Nine Inch Nails?
Nine Inch Nails has always been one of my favorite bands. We did "Wish" on a cover albums called "Plagiarism" and then we became friends with him.
You worked with Kimbra on her first album?
Again, I love people that are just the best at what they do. Typically I love all kinds of music and when I came across her, she had done the collaboration with Gotye ["Somebody That I Used to Know"], which ended up being obviously a huge smash success. But before the U.S. heard of either them, I was traveling in Australia touring and someone shared their work with me and I started going down the rabbit hole and watching YouTube videos. I got really, really into her stuff. I was like, "Wow, what she's doing is really important for pop music." There hasn't been someone like this since Björk who has really been pushing the boundaries and who was just such a musical genius and then putting it into a pop scenario.
Kimbra is a very interesting artist.
This wasn't somebody who had people writing songs for her. This was someone who really understood and knew exactly what she was and what she wanted. So I was really interested in her stuff and playing it for people a lot. Then I found out she was a Dillinger fan. Somehow we got connected and it turns out she'd been listening to Dillinger forever and had to four of our shows. Her band she plays with used to be in a mathcore band that was heavily influenced and they would do Dillinger covers in New Zealand. They were like the only band in New Zealand doing anything like that and that's her backing band now.
It just kind of fell together and we started hanging out and making music together. I perform with her onstage and she's now one of my friends basically.
You also worked with Ivy Levan?
Yeah, I've known her for years, man. She's one of these people who when she was really young was this model. She's this impressive-looking creature. You know what I mean?
She is pretty astonishing.
She's been modeling since she was very young but she always this really, really impressive and strong voice. She got picked up by a manager and got thrown into the system and they were trying to develop her and figure out what she should be. It's like, "Should she be this Fiona Apple? Or should she be this goth person? What should we make her?" And it just was really stressful for me to see her going through that. Then finally she got through it all and she came out of it on the other side ready to say, "Get away from me. I'm just gonna make music I wanna make." Finally over the past few years, she's found her own identity and I think she's doing some great stuff.
You played drums with Wyclef Jean and appeared in his clip for Why I Vote 2012 Campaign?
Yeah, I don't know how I found myself doing that. I was hanging out in the studio with some mutual friends and ended up just throwing down some stuff for him. It was cool.
You did a soundtrack and wrote the music for The Morris Family Abduction?
Yeah. I think actually the title now is Alien Abduction. Everything changes back and forth all the time. It's coming out April 3rd or April 1st. But yeah, that was a really cool experience. When they asked me to work on music for that movie, I assumed they wanted me to do weird, crazy dissonant type stuff.
That's not what it was?
They're like, "Yeah, it's all bluegrass and it takes place in North Carolina in the mountains. We need everything to be bluegrass." I'm like, "Great. The only kind of music I've never even played or really listened to that much."
What did you do?
I bought a banjo, I bought some harmonicas and started watching YouTube and listening to bluegrass and got really into it actually. I still play my banjo now even after all those years from working on that. It was really cool and it kinda pushed me into different directions.
You were checking out Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck?
Yeah, yeah. I listened to all that stuff. I even find it interesting that Steve Martin is an amazing banjo player. I find it interesting to watch some of his stuff sometimes because he's legitimately like a really good banjo player.
Does that banjo technique get translated to your electric guitar playing?
Yeah, I'm definitely not afraid to use my fingers anymore.
Is it too early to talk about the next Dillinger record?
We're still touring on our last record. We finished a European headline tour for the record and we just got back. We came back for a little bit and then went to Australia for Soundwave for two weeks and did that. Now we're getting ready to do some festivals in Europe. We're still definitely pretty active with the record.
So it's way too premature to talk about a new record?
Interestingly enough for the first time in many, many years since the band was very young, we're putting out a limited-edition 7" vinyl with a new song on it. We haven't done that in a long time - we haven't released music in-between records in a really long time. We used to do EPs and things like that a lot. So that's kind of interesting. We did that for this April tour.
How will the song be made available?
The only way people are gonna be able to get this song is by purchasing the vinyl on tour or purchasing one of the VIP ticket packages. It's gonna come on actually a cassette tape, hah hah hah.
A cassette tape? Very cool.
So we have a cassette tape coming out and the vinyl and obviously it'll eventually be floating around digitally.
What is the name of the song?
"Happiness Is a Smile."
Might "Happiness Is a Smile" be a harbinger of what will be coming on the next Dillinger record?
I think for Dillinger that's a hard thing to say because it's hard to listen to any one song on a Dillinger and know what that record's gonna sound like. There's obviously the typical Dillinger songs that sound crazy and a little closer to what we're known for but then there's all this other stuff going on too. This definitely isn't necessarily that typical Dillinger song so I don't know how much of a determination for the future it would have.
It's just something you wanted to do.
Yeah, it's definitely something we just decided to make and it's cool because was again a no-pressure thing and, "Let's just make a song and trust our instincts and know it's gonna be good." Because we've been doing this a long time and not over think it. Just to get back to your first question you asked me, I think now as we write music it's a little more of like you've been practicing karate for 20 years and just let it happen now when someone throws a punch. Yeah, we're starting to just trust our instincts a little more and that I really feel is creating a much more honest output from us.
Certainly instinct is a huge part of creativity.
A lot of people say Greg, our singer, especially on this new record sounds like the next level. My answer to that is just that he has confidence in himself. Throughout the years, he's just gotten to the point where he doesn't have to think too much - he can really create without that barrier. That's a big part of what we're doing these days and just trusting our instincts and our experience in making music without thinking too hard about what the expectations are.
Are you always experimenting with new guitar sounds and does that aspect of the creative process intrigue you?
Yeah, definitely. I think any artist that's original and has their own kind of sound or vibe or whatever it is, to me it's just the ability to understand out of all the happy accidents, which ones are evolutionary and which ones are setting you back and incorporate those things that work into your curriculum. Then continue to play around and continually like I said be playful with what you do. Try things and not be afraid to make mistakes. Have the ability to say, "That thing was cool. I'm gonna turn that into something. That's gonna be part of the vocabulary now."
You mentioned "happy accidents" in our previous conversation.
Over the years, the Dillinger sound really is just an amalgamation of all these happy accidents we thought were special, hah hah hah. We still experiment all the time and it's an important part of evolving and continuing to be interested in what we do.
Certainly your ESP Signature Ben Weinman LTD BW-1FM/ET guitar is an important part of your evolution as a guitarist.
Yeah, definitely. I made the guitar as diverse as possible and it satisfies everything I need in a guitar. I've been playing a lot of different ESP guitars and I love the ESP guitars because I've always felt they have a quality to them. Even the cheaper level and the lower level guitars felt like they had a certain quality to 'em you couldn't find in other brands at that level. I just think for me the neck of an ESP guitar has a certain feel that no other guitar has.
What does an ESP neck feel like?
The spacing between the strings; the frets; everything. It's just something unique about it. But as far as my guitar goes, I tried to make a guitar that was usable by any guitar player for any scenario. So if I was playing, rock, jazz or metal or whatever, I really feel comfortable on that guitar playing any of that.
Your guitar is a semi-hollowbody, which is a bit different since most metal guitar players use solidbodies.
Yeah, definitely. It's funny because unlike the other hollowbodies ESP was making, which they're not really known for but they were making pretty nice semi-hollowbodies and hollowbodies, this one is neck-thru. So there is component of the guitar that is hollow but most of it is sold and like I said it's neck-thru so it's really solid with the neck and the body.
You use an Evertune bridge?
The Evertune bridge inside of it is a big piece of metal. So there's this really interesting combination of metal, wood and a little bit of hollowbody that creates a tone and a scenario that's just completely unique as far as the tone it produces. It's very solid and there's a lot of mass, let's just put it that way even with that little part that's hollow.
On an earlier album called "Option Paralysis," you were actually taking a poke at all the choices available to the modern day guitar player. Back in the day, you either played a Strat or a Les Paul and no two guitarists ever sounded the same.
Totally. Absolutely. I definitely think the options available it gets to the point where initially options create all kinds of creativity and experimentation and then it gets to the point where options just overwhelm people. And they're not creative anymore - they're playing around with presets. You know what I mean? They're not finding their own sound and they're not writing music. They're worrying about how the computers influence what they do as opposed to them taking computers and using them.
That is a very astute observation.
The best way I could say it is it's the difference between letting technology be your bitch or being technology's bitch. I love sound design and I play keyboards and program and create sounds and all kinds of stuff. Just as much as I play guitar if not more but I never let any of that stuff determine my creativity. We're never gonna be a band that can't perform because our computer goes down or our guitar simulation module isn't working so we can't actually play a show.
There are a lot of bands who dread that kind of a nightmare.
I saw a picture from a gig we did in 1998 at a VFW hall in Jersey. I just saw it last night and I was looking at the picture and I was like, "Man, that's not a guitar I ever owned or anything. We're not even playing our equipment." Then I realized that was a show where all the band happened to be there and one of the bands let us take their gear and play four songs. We could do that today. I was playing some guitar I never played through amps we'd never played through on a drumset we'd never seen before. Yeah, I think definitely these options can be a hindrance towards creating paradigms as opposed to having them.
What kind of guitar did you play way back in the day?
I've been using ESPs for a really long time. But to be honest with you when we first started, I broke so many guitars playing shows - and these were not free guitars or endorsement deals but guitars I had to work very hard to buy - I remember taking my pickups out of them and rolling to the next show and stopping in a guitar store and asking for the cheapest, used guitar they had and buying it, putting my pickups in it and playing another show. It wasn't uncommon during that time for me to be playing anything from some no-name guitar to some Washburn that said Michelob on the side of it that was hanging over a bar or something, hah hah hah.
In closing, there was a bit of a brouhaha over some of Greg Puciato's comments about drugs and stuff. You stepped up and made your feelings known, which was a very cool thing to do.
I mean it's interesting because most of the guys out there who tell me I would be more creative if I did drugs, are guys who've never produced anything original or creative in their lives.
There are a lot of those people in this world.
He's just some guy in the band who does whatever the dude who writes the songs tells him. You know what I mean? These aren't people who have ever really played anything inspiring. I always find that interesting. Not that people who don't do drugs don't make amazing things. To me, I'm not interested in how they got there. If you do drugs/you don't do drugs or you drink or don't drink, I really don't care.
That's an interesting attitude.
Some of my best friends do drugs or drink and people I play with and collaborate with do as well and some of them are extremely inspiring to me and some of them are not. I'm pretty confident with or without drugs they would probably be making amazing music. Whether it would be better or worse with or without the drugs, I can't determine that.
That's the hard question.
A lot of guys think they have to be in this state of dysfunction in order to create great music and especially the singers and lyricists and stuff like that. That is just complete bullsh-t - that's complete bullsh-t. And the fact is sometimes they might think it's cool because they are messed up. But the reality is whenever these guys look back, most of the work they've done that's actually really pushing the limits and interesting and stuff is when they were clearheaded and focused. Even me.
You have to find that focus when you're composing?
If I'm writing lyrics or making music in a state of distress, when I go back and look at it it just sounds like 16-year old gothic bullsh-t. It's not even good - it's horrible. It's just like crybaby bullsh-t. It's not good at all. It's trite and it's clouded by the fact that I'm not in a state of focus. So I think that whole thing is interesting and there's a lot of debate about whether or not drugs and alcohol can possibly influence your creative output and things like that. But hey man, Zappa didn't have to do it.
Neither did Ted Nugent.
You bring up a really interesting point - John Lennon was going to write those songs whether he dropped acid or not.
Yeah, I guarantee you.
A lot of bands seen to think it's hip or the fashion to be high.
The way a rock star is supposed to be and all that stuff. I see it all the time. It's interesting for me because I just observe it. I don't need to know if it's anyone's business - I don't care. It's not important to me. If they make something that inspires me, that's great.
You've inspired us.
Yeah, man. Thanks for the good questions. I appreciate it. Bye.
Interview by Steven Rosen