Exclusive Excerpt: Ben Lee Interviewed By Actress Rose Byrne

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

On the new Love Is The Great Rebellion, Ben Lee continues his spiritual journey toward enlightenment and happiness. MAGNET asked Emmy/Golden Globe-nominated actress (and fellow Australia native) Rose Byrne to sit down with Lee in his L.A. home to discuss love and death. And why everything is OK.

Ben Lee and I met when I was 19, standing on Broadway in New York City. It was summer. I had been hearing about him, his name, his music, his friends and his world for some time, and when we finally met, it was an immediate mutual and lovely recognition—of respect and friendship. We went on to act in a film together, to start a pop-up cover band, to share a New York Christmas together and an enduring friendship.

Ben Lee is a music prodigy. He spent his early teen years heading up Noise Addict, being discovered by Thurston Moore and the Beastie Boys, then being thrust into the spotlight with a celebrity relationship and a hit record. I feel protective of him. He has been provocative—with his music and his words—and as a result, he seems to be a divisive figure for people. They want to rip him apart, then put him back together when it suits.

From the raw and rough-hewn DEF and Grandpaw Would, to his embrace of pop on Breathing Tornados, to the wild success of Awake Is The New Sleep, to experimental album Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work, Ben is always seeking new frontiers. Of music, of love, of what it means to be alive. He is always striving.

We got to sit down in Laurel Canyon and talk about his new beautiful album, Love Is The Great Rebellion. We talked about philosophy, pop culture, a career and faith. About the idea of how having a great future does not require a great past. About rectification and reconciliation. This album is a love letter to his fans, to his music and to life. It is asking us back in and marrying his pop with his spirituality. We are in for a treat, ladies and gentlemen. —Rose Byrne

Rose Byrne: I was wondering when was the genesis of this whole thing?
Ben Lee: The Ayahuasca album, the last album, came out … I can’t remember [April 2013 —ed]. But it sort of was intended as a continuation of that. This record, when I went into it, it was going to be an even more abstract, dense, non-linear album. All of the thinking around the Ayahuasca record and the way music can reflect a shifting sense of consciousness—it got me interested in this music connection to death and dying. So, I started studying dead midwifery and hospice volunteered and all, and I started looking at how music interacts with that process. I was going down the road so that this record would really be a soundtrack to dying—I was going to call it Music To Die To. [Laughs] I thought, “That’s gonna be commercial—if you thought Ayahuasca was a flop, just wait.”
But I kind of realized at a certain point after a few songs came, the few songs I wrote with Jesse (Chapnik Kahn) at the beginning—“Body Of Love” and “Forgiveness,” those two basically—they came really spontaneously. And I was like, “They sound like radio songs, like singles.” It was really unexpected; there was no intention to write songs like that. It sort of opened up this idea that perhaps in my attempt to move into this abstract territory, I was kind of shooting myself in the foot. I’ve kind of realized more recently, when I looked back over my career, that I’ve had this impulse to move against my audience. I’ve sort of thought of them as the enemy, and I’ve always wondered why. And you know me—you know I’ve been through a lot of things. This feeling of “well, I’ll show them—they think I’m like this.” It was this sort of bratty impulse, and I think a lot of young artists go through that. I kind of realized more recently that I was really barking up the wrong tree in terms of where to put my rebellious energy. The people that understand my music, they’re on my side. And to put this energy into working against them and surprising them and working against their expectations, it’s really taking away from what I can do in the world in a larger system.
So, these early pop songs that came on the record, they made me think about re-exploring the idea I had some years ago of using the pop song form—talking about radical ideas and talking about dangerous ideas psychologically, but within a medium that kids like. And I always liked music that you don’t need to know before you go to the concert, and so much of modern music, it’s almost like you need an education in a band before you can appreciate them live. So, if you go with a friend that’s really into them, they’re just in ecstasy, and you’re like, “Ehhh” … After a few songs, you get bored. It’s not designed to engage you in that way, and I’ve always liked the idea that music should be like a pre-school teacher. Just going, “Come on, guys!” So, anyway, I got more and more down that road of, let me explore putting these ideas in a format that would be more accessible.

Byrne: Yeah, right. Wow, so you’re sort of leaning in a bit more.
Lee: Right, and I’m even embarrassed to say it—that’s the most radical thing about this record. It’s the first record, while I was making it, I did consider—and not in a compromising way—“What would a Ben Lee fan like on an album?” And I’ve never asked that. I think most artists probably ask that all the time, and then they make decisions. I am now 23 years into my career, and I never considered that. In a way it was, I hope, a beginning of a stage of generosity with my audience. I mean, I think you’ve gone through this, too, realizing that great achievement occurs because you embrace what’s actually here right now.

Byrne: Oh, absolutely.
Lee: You can have ideals all the way home, but you can’t build anything on ideals. You have to build it on the opportunities available. What can I do with them? And if people think of you as one type of artist, you don’t just throw that away. You say, “Let me start there and see what I can do with that,” and that’s the rule of alchemy. What have you got? What can you build? So, I’m just starting to think like that. And I look at a lot of my peers who have built, in a sense, a career that is much more stable than mine.

Byrne: Who do you consider your peers?
Lee: I’m not sure. Like Bright Eyes or Ben Folds—you know, singer/songwriters who have had long careers, but sort of worked in a medium where there’s a lot of reliability with their audience. And there’s been a dialogue. They haven’t constantly been going, “By the way, you can’t trust me,” to their audience, which is what I’ve been doing. Not that I necessarily want to go to another extreme, but I’m realizing that there’s been an absence of generosity on my part, or perhaps a fear of intimacy, with my audience. Instead of going, “Hey, these are my people—let me speak in them in a language we developed together and continue to bring in new ideas, but with a way that builds on trust and doesn’t dismantle it every time.”

Byrne: No, it felt like that with the songs, like a return to form. I suppose more of a classic pop and rock, but it did feel like it was with a different voice. Like it was trying to marry the two, almost. You reaching a different point personally in your life—I loved all the stuff about the past, and reconciling with it and kind of acknowledging it. I definitely feel like, as an artist, you can just look back at your past and just go, “Why did I do this, why did I do that?” All of these repetitive mistakes and you’ve just gotta reach a point where you love yourself for it, you know?
Lee: Yeah, and you’ve also gotta, like, truly move on. If you’re still punishing yourself over mistakes you made 10 or 20 years ago, how much energy do you have for the present moment? That’s kind of what I realized—undeniably, there were errors, personally and professionally. There were types of ignorance that I displayed in my relationships and in my professional life. They’re undeniable, they involved selfishness, and they were sometimes mean-spirited. It’s always like part of you in the future wants to find a way to defend it and reconcile it and go, “Well, that was where I was at the time.” We have this funny culture, too, of, “Well, I learned from that mistake, so I’m glad I made it.” Whereas I don’t really believe you learn from the mistake; I believe you learn from coming back to the truth after the mistake. You know, the mistake didn’t teach you; the mistake was an act of stupidity. But, we each have an inner voice, a conscience inside us that ignites whenever we’re making a mistake, and that’s what we’re grateful for. It’s dangerous to have too much gratitude for our mistakes. I think they were mistakes, I’d rather not have done them, but here we are now.
You know, someone said, “To have a great future doesn’t require a great past.” And I realized the courage that it takes, and that’s a lot of what the album is about. What does it mean to say—I’ll be 37 this year—to say I would have done things very differently had I the chance to do them again? Do I now just fall into a sort of bitterness and resentment, or do I go, “Well, let’s start today”? What are the values I wish I had then? Let me implement them now. I’m not gonna be anybody’s victim, I’m not gonna just spend my life apologizing; I’m just gonna change.

Byrne: Yeah, I loved also—which I could relate to—the ebb and flow of a career when you sort of work steadily and have incredible lives, and I definitely relate to that. Constantly being the next big thing or the comeback or the big break, and I guess every artist’s journey is so different. Some people obviously hit really hard, and then other people never do. So, I very much related to that idea of the ebb and flow.
Lee: If you spend your life considering, “Well, where am I in the scheme of things,” you realize you have no relationship to your craft yourself. It’s all based on validation and considering, “Well, what do they think of me, or what do they think of me?” It’s all based on considering others. Instead of realizing, “Oh, this is a craft.” To some degree, we are here to get better at something. It’s really nice if you’re given the fortune of it going well for you and having an income, but there’s responsibilities that come with that, too; you know suddenly you’re managing a business. It’s one of those things where I have to become a grown-up and say, “OK, we’re artists, we’re in it for the long haul. This isn’t just about that glamorous bit that started.” Do you remember when we went to see the Vines at the Troubadour?

Byrne: Yeah.
Lee: And I was on one of those down bits where I couldn’t get a record made, I couldn’t find a label to put it out. Me and you were standing there, and there’s like such a sense of excitement around this band we’re watching. And you know, they’re a good band, good rock ‘n’ roll band and everything. But I felt so envious, not of the band or the music, but just of the moment they were at, of that sexy, exciting early 20s—everyone wants to be a part of it, you know? And that has truly been resolved in me in a sense that I actually see that now as one of the most dangerous times for an artist. Because the seduction into a wrong valley system is so intense that, if you make it through that and still want to be an artist, you’re doing great. But at that point I was like, “Ah, if only I could recapture that!” And with one of the songs in the record, “Everything Is OK,” I say, “What a waste/I tried to turn back time instead of chasing my destiny.” Because I realized I spent so much time trying to recapture a moment with the public or with my craft or something instead of moving forward. And the most dangerous thing is to stop moving forward.