GRIZZNESS CASUAL: Ben Trickey. Photo by Chad Radford.
Ben Trickey and I recently made our way to El Myr in Little Five Points to talk about his latest album, We Are Not Lucky We Are Blessed, while knocking back a couple of Grizzes. What’s a Grizz, you ask? It’s a pony-sized bottle of Corona with a shot of well Tequila dropped in, and a lime placed atop so you don’t spill too much on the way back to your table … And to enhance the flavor, of course.
Chad Radford: We met years ago, when you were involved with the noise scene. Whenever we’ve done interviews I’ve brought that up: “How has working with noise music influenced your songwriting?” You always have a good answer, but I’ve been thinking, “Ben’s gonna get sick of me asking him about noise.”
Then I read on Facebook that most people ask you about country music. … I wouldn’t think to go there.
Ben Trickey: I wouldn’t either, but most people who don’t know country music naturally go there. Even the trumpet player on the record tweeted something recently that said it’s a record by this great country guy. People hear Southern and they hear acoustic guitar and think country.
… Whereas I look for the noise in your songwriting, and most people think I’m crazy.
But the noise influence is a big part of it. To me, it’s about intensity, buildup, and structure. Noise is like putting together a house or something. I see it as elements of building a structure.
People get away with a lot of bullshit in the name of noise. But a well-composed piece of noise music can be life-changing? It changed the way I engage with music.
Yes, and I was lucky that I went to art school when I did. Then going through grad school at Alfred University in western New York, about five or six hours away from the city. I got to attend a lot of noise and improv sessions with New York artists like Pauline Oliveros, Peer Bode, and Andrew Deutsch.
Is Alfred University known for having a badass music program?
It has a badass art program. It’s mainly a pottery school—ceramics and new ceramic engineering. They have an electronic integrated art program. That’s where a lot of New York video and sound artists went. I met them through Sara Hornbacher at the Atlanta College of Art, who used to hang out at The Kitchen in New York City.
I was sort of her apprentice when I went to Atlanta College of Art. She connected me with that scene.
Tell me about the sign on the cover of your record?
My parents live in the middle of nowhere Alabama, on Smith Lake. It’s about an hour-and-a-half north of Birmingham—between Huntsville and Birmingham on 65. Near Cullman.
My dad and mom built a small cabin there in the ’70s, and I grew up hanging out around there. It was like our lake house. Later, they built another house there, and they still live there. Both of my sisters live there with my nieces and nephews. I have one brother in Chicago.
It’s a fun, pretty place, and I like going there—just don’t spend too much time talking to some of the people around there, especially in the Trump era.
One day I was in the car with my dad, slightly before the pandemic. People were just starting to talk about it.
We drove by this deserted gas station that had been turned into a youth ministry in Trimble, Alabama. I saw that sign in front: “We are not lucky we are blessed.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh!” I had my dad pull over. He was like, “What are you doing? This is ridiculous!” It wasn’t a big deal to him, but I thought it was hilarious. It felt so cocky to say we are the blessed people, which, first of all, assumes there are people who aren’t blessed. So I took that picture with my phone.
When I was working on the record I started thinking about the multiple meanings of it, especially in the South. Saying, “We’re not lucky …” I am not lucky, and this record is about being not lucky. And in a Southern context, saying someone’s blessed, like “bless your heart” is usually a way of talking down to someone, or saying something’s wrong with them … They’re blessed. So I liked the duality of it for the title of a record that’s about an exhausted apocalyptic feeling.
When you’re working with language like this, and you put it out into the world, people will find meanings that you never intended.
I cannot control how my music exists in the world. So, like I commented on that Facebook post, I’m sitting back, eating boiled peanuts or whatever. I used to get frustrated about it. I’m okay with it, though. Once you listen to the record you can figure out what it’s about … Or not.
I was listening to the lyrics of “Glendalough or Chantilly,” and wondered if it’s autobiographical, or how much is thinly-veiled real life vs. fiction.
It’s a mix. There is an autobiographical element to it, but it’s a longing for escape, and feeling tired.
When I was practicing the song with Tiffany [Leigh Clark], she said, “This is about our phones.” I was like, “Really?”
I mention the phone in the beginning of the song: “We’re all children falling to pieces, blinded by light.” She says yeah, it’s the light of our phones. And I’m like, “Wow, what is that?”
I talk about burying the phone because I had a rough few years. I was thinking about escape. I had been to Glendalough in Ireland and to Chantilly in France. Both of them felt like fairytale worlds. So I’m asking: Give me blue skies, or a night on the town. Give me something, because I’m tired of feeling so exhausted. It’s asking for deliverance.
When I listen to it, I think about the pandemic.
Something happened … Most of this album was written before the pandemic. Then the pandemic happened while I was recording these songs, and somehow I fit all of that into the album. It made me realize that I’ve always written apocalyptic anxiety songs. It meant way more because a lot of what everyone was feeling fit perfectly with what was going on. Everyone was hanging out in their backyards. All they had was the news on their phone, and it was driving everyone crazy.
It all affected the album. Even though it was written before the pandemic, it was recorded and produced during the pandemic. It was all emailed, or I went to people’s houses and sat up socially distanced. That affected the sound. With all of my records I reach a point where I let noise take over. With this one, I wasn’t doing that. I wanted it to be structured, song oriented. There are still touches of noise here and there, but I didn’t scream. With some of the older records I get kind of loud with my redneck bark. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to sing sing, and make an easy going record about hard things. I didn’t want it to intensely attack you. With a lot of my older records I really wanted to punch you in the chest.
I can’t help but look for the confrontational elements of your music, but that’s what I bring to your music.
There’s also just a part of my personality where even if I try, I can’t not do that, because it’s just how I write. So even if I’m pulling back it’s still gonna be there. Like with the song “Burn It All” — where I’m like, “If you think I won’t do it, I will.” That’s confrontational. Maybe I tried to fight it with the organ to keep it a little more smooth.
Don’t undersell your redneck bark! In your voice, there is a naturally sad quality, or a naturally scared quality. So there are moments in songs where you say that you’re scared, and the sound of your voice pushes the words beyond what a lot of vocalists are capable of doing.
That is something that I am aware of, and I’ve played with that over the years. To me, that’s fragility, and by showing fragility the music and the message become stronger—by showing the weaknesses and exposing the cracks, you make it stronger. That’s the basis for a lot of my music.
On the drive here, I was thinking about how to phrase that: “Is there strength in showing vulnerability?
That’s been the conceit of most of my records. Hopefully I’m right [laughs]. A friend of mine recently played it for a woman he’s seeing. She said, “It’s alright, but this guy needs balls.”
I feel like I have them, they’re just deep thinking balls.
… My music is never going to sell a lot. Someone on that Facebook post said something like, “My friend was in a punk band and was into the Clash. He was trying to figure out how to do it. He realized that when he played country music more people came out. He started doing that and now he’s in Sugarland making millions of dollars …”
I’m never going to do that.
I’m less of a career musician than I am a poet, if I can be that pretentious. I don’t consider myself a musician because I’m not that good. So it’s more about poetry. And I can just see the sounds as words.
You do it for you, not for other people.
I came to that realization about music journalism as well. Over the years, different editors have said that I need to write about music that more people care about, more “big Atlanta.” Aside from the fact that I have always felt repulsed by mainstream culture, the music that I am genuinely drawn to doesn’t have many dedicated writers any more, or anyone else paying attention in any critical capacity.
And it would be disingenuous for you to fake it.
Yes, but in the era of social media, a shallow disingenuous voice is often rewarded and repeated way more often than an honest exploration of music.
Do you know what synesthesia is?
Yes. I think I have it to an extent, but It’s never the same for me. Sounds feel like chunks and they feel like colors and pictures. But they change depending on my mood, so it’s never consistent. I almost always visualize it like I want the music to sound like breaking wood. It’s definitely a visual thing in my head. This makes me think of Richard Buckner. Most of his stuff, especially the first few records always sound to me like cracking wood.
What is the first song that you wrote on the new record?
Probably the first song, “Big Empty.”
I had the beginning of the song a long time ago, and I could never finish it. Originally it had a different ending that went into these cliches about mankind, money, and bullshit. I didn’t like it, but I liked the chords. So I rewrote it and rewrote it. The first song that I played out besides that was “Petrified.”
Do you think of “Petrified” as being like a thesis for the album?
Originally, yes, but not any more. That’s a hard question because now that I’ve had time away from it. that song is just an intense little mediator. It is the catalyst where all of the other songs came from. That event or those feelings are what led to everything else being written. But I don’t know if it’s the thesis.
Ben Trickey plays the We Are Not Lucky We Are Blessed LP release party at the Earl on Saturday, September 25, with Evan Stepp.
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