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Benjamin Booker Faces The Past

Benjamin Booker
David Goldman/Courtesy of the artist
Benjamin Booker
David Goldman/Courtesy of the artist

The guitar-wielding kids of the American South are in the midst of a full-fledged roots revival. What started amongst a few friends in towns throughout the region has blossomed into a community connecting New Orleans to Nashville to the rest of a nation eager to hear classic music reimagined by young rebels. There's a freshness about what bands like the Alabama Shakes, the Deslondes and Hurray For the Riff Raff are doing — an insistence on returning music too often designated to beer commercials and museum exhibits to the scuffed-up stages of dive bars and summer festivals, where it can be re-infused with sexiness, sweat and new ideas.

Benjamin Booker is a key player in the generational shift that's benefiting roots music so much right now. As a punk-loving teen growing up in north central Florida, he was turned on by that music's dread and bloody attitude along with its freedom. He moved to New Orleans after college, absorbing the history that's as unavoidable as humidity there. Soon he came up with his own blend, incorporating pretty much every rock and soul-related style a crate-digger would find in a dusty dollar bin at Euclid Records. Booker's 2014 debut saw him keeping a grip on disorder, as the critic Andy Beta put it, as he pulled all those old styles close to himself and demanded they prove relevant.

Now Booker and the noted video director James Lees have made a short film incorporating two songs from that debut — "Slow Coming" and "Wicked Waters" — and it places his work firmly in the realm of the political. The film, "The Future is Slow Coming" is a kind of mash-up of Selma and Beasts of the Southern Wild, with Booker as an unwilling time traveler drawn into an incident of racist violence recalling both the segregated Deep South and current controversial police actions. "I didn't know how to do a video for this song, honestly," Booker explained of "Slow Coming" in a recent email interview. "But James understood what I was trying to say perfectly and was able take that frustration and anger I was feeling and build a visual story around it."

Lees explained the film's structure in a separate email. The director is working on a larger project that incorporates magical realism to explore early 20th-century African-American lives in the rural Deep South, and this project refers to that work. He was also thinking of current events. "Contemporary issues that the video references are repetitions of events we have watched happen many times before," Lees wrote. "We seem unable, as a society, to break this loop. Benjamin gets pulled into the events because ultimately we have to face up to what is happening in front of us and the dangers that may come with it. History shows that real change only comes from those brave enough to make this sacrifice."

The cathartic emotions Booker's music invokes, and the witnessing that inspires them, are a crucial element of the current soul/roots scene. Like the version of "Driva Man" that the Alabama Shakes recorded for the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack or Alynda Lee Segarra's ballad "The Body Electric," this film demands that the injustices of the past also be faced when any of us celebrate its pleasures. These are the moments when revivalism becomes something else, something that matters — a connection between a history that remains unresolved and a future that musicians like Booker and his peers are still working to make better.

Booker, currenty on tour in Europe, answered some questions about "The Future is Slow Coming" and his music-making process in a recent email exchange.

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The new video — really a short film — places your songs "Slow Coming" and "Wicked Waters" within the history of the African-American struggle for civil rights. It's unmistakably evocative of both the events that happened in the South 50 years ago, and recent tragedies, like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Had you been contemplating ways to address these matters for a while? How did you come upon this way to do it?

The first song, "Slow Coming" was written before Eric Garner or Michael Brown were killed, when I first moved to New Orleans in 2012. I was seeing friends fight for gay rights. I was seeing people who immigrated to the States struggle for decent wages and a good education. I was seeing an astounding amount of gun violence and people marching on the streets of Central City for a stop to the crime.

I know the difference between right and wrong and I couldn't understand how these issues I was reading about in books about the 1950s, from people like James Baldwin, could still be unresolved. Of course gay marriage should be legal everywhere. Of course anyone who comes to this country for a better life, who has something to contribute, should be accepted. Of course there is no reason for a black kid growing up in Florida to get a cross burned in his yard or get pulled over nine times in a year for nothing.

The song was written out of that. We've all got iPhones and are talking about taking people to Mars, but look at how much we haven't changed. The "future," a time when all this violence and hatred is looked at as barbaric seemed so far away to me.

Your music blends many different elements and you've been vocal in positioning yourself outside of straight-up blues, particularly. You've been creating your own version of the roots music canon by combining gospel, blues, punk and soul in ways that stress the music's rawness and spontaneity. This has allowed you to not get mired in nostalgia. How do you avoid fetishizing the past when you're playing around with classic musical forms?

It wasn't a calculated decision. I was just a music lover who wondered what it would sound like if Otis Redding strapped on a guitar and played in a punk band. That's it.

I love the scene in the video where you go into the juke joint. Though juke joints are a kind of cliché commonly used when describing the blues, I think many people don't really know what they were — and are — like. They're not tourist traps; they're for the local community. When you tap into older musical styles, what scenes and communities inspire you?

I'm not looking at the past when I'm writing. I've grown up on gospel and blues music and now it's a huge part of who I am. I try to tap into what's happening in the present and look at what's happening around me. That's what's important to me. But history, my history, seeps into everything I do.

That scene also brings to mind one thing I've learned, studying up on gospel music, especially: Music hasn't simply been a matter of pleasure for African-Americans, it's a survival tool. I think this video powerfully reckons with that, even though the ending is ambiguous. The music is connecting you to the past but also freeing you in some way. I'm wondering how you connect what you do musically with the spirit of self and communal preservation.

Music helped me to get out of a rough period in my life when I really struggled to see any future for myself and was terrified about what was happening to the people around me.

I had a hard time communicating how I felt before playing music and needed to get a lot out. There were conversations I couldn't have with people I know, so I wrote friends and family songs as a way communicate and that's the first record really — an attempt at self and communal preservation.

Your music is also very personal and individualistic. Your lyrics get at sometimes difficult emotional states, and your performance style is very direct. The rawness connects with punk, which I know is a big love of yours. How does punk play into the different way in which you're approaching these older musical styles? Another way to say this is — punk is about the adage "rip it up and start again," but what you're doing rips things up and also preserves them. How do you balance those elements?

Growing up in Florida made this a lot easier for me. Folk-punk artists like This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb or Paul Baribeau were popular in the Florida punk community. I saw people early on combine roots music with more aggressive music.

I guess I balance it out by trying to not give people one genre at the same time. If I play a punk guitar part, I'll sing a gospel melody of the top of it. If I do a blues boogie song I'll throw in some shoegaze or noise elements.

You worked with [producer] Andrija Tokic on the last album, and he's connected to a Nashville scene that's combining Southern musical styles with punk in all kinds of interesting ways. Bands like Pujol and Jeff the Brotherhood, soloists like William Tyler — I feel like they're pointing the way to a roots revival that casts off the clichés of the baby boomer generation. And there's Alabama Shakes in Athens, and Hurray For the Riff Raff in New Orleans. Do you feel like these artists are your peers?

All of these bands have a very strong connection to the Nashville scene, which is very small. You could easily go out to the Stone Fox one day and see every band you've mentioned getting a drink. It's a tight community. Andrija has really played a huge part in building up this community. His studio is incredible and bands from the area would stop by all the time when we were recording the record.

I don't really feel connected to any music scene, but it is always nice to see bands your age cranking out some good rock and roll.

The first album was so immediate and explosive. I'm curious about what your goals are for your next recording. What are the challenges you're facing, as someone who made a big impression and also clearly has the vision to grow in ways your listeners might not expect?

The only thing I want to do with the next album is make a better record than the last one.