I’m not 100% certain when I first met today’s Featured Artist, John Also Bennett. We were both living in Columbus, Ohio back in the mid-2000’s. As I recall, John lived at a few of the DIY music venues at different points. I think he was living at the Legion of Doom when I first met him and then for many years after that, he lived at Skylab. The Legion of Doom is a longtime punk house and basement-show spot in the once musically thriving campus area. Over the years they hosted tons of DIY punk, noise, and metal shows. Skylab is a loft gallery space / music venue on the 5th floor of a building downtown. Lots of noise bands would come through Skylab. What a fucking amazing place and an amazing time that was! John Bennett was one of the main people booking gigs at Skylab, he was always just doing music and art stuff. John also had several bands. We eventually teamed up with Kevin Gaier to form the Fairy of Eagle Nebula and John and myself also created a short-lived small run cassette label called Celebrity Sex Tapes. We both moved to NYC around the same time in 2010 and funny enough, we’ve hardly ever seen each other or played music or hung out the entire time we’ve been here! These days he travels the world playing solo and with his band Forma, was a member of Jon Gibson’s Ensemble and often collaborates with his partner (Christina Vantzou) in Belgium. I am a huge fan of all of his work and highly recommend checking him out if you haven’t already!
*This Interview was conducted in early May 2020.
LT: So we’re in the middle of crazy times all over the world. The Coronavirus has shut down almost everything and everyone has been forced to self isolate. Last I heard from you, you left NYC and ended up in Belgium right before everything closed down. Are you still in Belgium? What’s it’s like there and how have you been doing during all of this?
JAB: Yeah, I’m currently still in Brussels. I had a flight booked here for late March for a solo tour in Europe (now cancelled) long before the pandemic started. Then in mid March when shit really started hitting the fan in the US, I had a sudden impulse to call the airline and move my flight up a few days. Turns out I did it at the last possible moment – I ended up arriving in Belgium a day before they officially closed off the EU borders. Since Christina and I live in different cities it was very important that I get here, otherwise I’d have been stuck in NYC for who knows how long. Anyways, we are very fortunate to be here together, and with all the cancellations we now have the time to finish a bunch of projects that had been piling up over the years. I released a new solo collection on Bandcamp called Music For Save Rooms, a sort of compilation album of recordings that worked together well, and Christina and I mixed and released a new CV & JAB album that we recorded back in 2018 but never had the time to properly finish. We’ve really turned this Brussels apartment into a production house – we’ve been manically cranking out music and sound projects and going for walks in the park.
LT: I saw you and Christina perform a while back at Ambient Church in Bushwick and I saw you with Forma at the Schoolhouse, also in Brooklyn, in more recent times. A lot of the music we did back in Columbus was very heavy and a bit more rude & crude. Your approach seems to be way more dialed-in now and super chill. How has your music evolved?
JAB: I can try to thread it all together… it’s a journey. Fortunately, my parents pressured me into taking piano lessons as a kid, and then at some point in elementary school I decided I’d rather play the flute. Relative to the other kids taking lessons, I was apparently talented, and ended up playing flute in some competitive contexts, as well as in the local marching band. I definitely caught flak for it, not from other boys, but from girls, who loved poking fun at me for playing the flute, a ‘girls’ instrument. So once I hit middle school I sold the flute to buy a guitar amp, and formed an “alternative rock” band with my best friends. We actually achieved some success within Ohio – opened up for Blue Oyster Cult and The Pogues, played a date on the Vans Warped Tour, won the city-wide high-school battle of the bands, and were on the cover of the local weekly – we really thought we were gonna make it big. We had a “manager” who used to tour-manage Van Halen (our rhythm guitar player’s dad used to play with the James Gang in the late 1970s, and knew this manager back from those days), who was talking a lot of big game about getting us signed to Warner Brothers. We never did get signed… but I’m actually quite grateful we never had much success beyond Ohio (and that it was only right at the beginning of social media!) Listening back to that music kind of makes me cringe now, despite the fond memories. So after high school the band members drifted in different directions, and we went our separate ways. Anyways, there’s the pre-history..
Personally I was gravitating towards experimental music and noise, mostly inspired by the midwestern noise scene. I bounced around punk houses, and as you mentioned I eventually moved into the artist loft / gallery Skylab, who were hosting touring artists from all around the international noise scene on a weekly basis, at one point sometimes 2-3 shows a week. That was an exciting time for Columbus and the Midwest. I think one of the first shows we played together, Tom, was as a duo at the Lambsden (Lambsbread’s house in Delaware, Ohio), opening for Emeralds and who knows who else. I don’t think we had ever played together before, it was just you calling me the day before or whatever and then somehow talking us into a spot on the bill. I found some of our emails back and forth from 2007, 2008, it’s amazing, like a different person is writing those. We were really kind of no holds barred back then. Although I was trained classically on flute, piano and saxophone when I was growing up, I really consider those noise years to be just as fundamental to my music education. I was a naive kid suddenly living in what I considered the epicenter of experimental music culture (though I’d never even been to New York City or Chicago at the time). Bands like Wolf Eyes, Nautical Almanac, Emeralds, Hair Police, Sword Heaven, Burning Star Core, Russian Tsarlag, Skaters (James Ferraro and Spencer Clark), Cock ESP, Weyes Bluhd, Laundry Room Squelchers… I mean there were just hundreds of shows over the years I lived there. It’s all a bit of a blur. Anyways, during that period of exploration, I had a lot of ‘musical’ projects that were really self-loathing and destructive. I guess I was working out some deep existential angst and of course the particular shade of dread that came (comes?) with living in the Rust Belt Midwest. I remember for some of those early [Fairy Of] Eagle Nebula shows I would actually strap a strobe light onto my face pointing inwards, so that I was blinded during the set and driven into a frenzied state of psychosis. I played drums in a noise-punk band called Biff Boff Barf, which was just one of the most disgusting projects you can imagine, and used to do solo (and collaborative) sets under the name Ginger Fetus, which involved digging out the most terrifying and dark parts of my psyche before each set and letting them out during the performance. My favorite band I was in during this time was maybe being a member of Aaron Hibbs’ (now Arrow Grey) project Rage Against The Cage, which was an all-acappella grunge / yarl band.
For me, most of these projects never really left Ohio (though I did do tours down to the Miami INC and Voice of the Valley). I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some point these self-destructive impulses started to be replaced with a desire for some kind of transcendence, and I began to at least aim upward and inward rather than directly down. I started doing solo sets during this time using my flute and a large exposed, rotating industrial fan as a sound source and manipulator. I was also making crude space music as Seabat, a project soon to be joined by my former high-school bandmate Forest Christenson (who I hadn’t seen for years, but had made his own roundabout journey towards electronic music). We got a few low-budget synthesizers and started recording and releasing albums on CDr and cassette. Around 2010 the scene in Columbus had started to change. Some people had moved on, some people hadn’t, but I started to feel a strong urge to get the fuck out of there. I spent a summer in New York City, and by 2011 I had moved there full-time after hastily finishing school. Tom, you got me an in on a full-time job at the record pressing plant Brooklynphono, which allowed me to survive in NYC at a moment when I was otherwise living on credit. I worked 9-5 for about three years at that sweaty record factory in Sunset Park, doing manual labor and eventually managing production. Various ‘noise’ projects and collaborations ensued, and while Seabat continued releasing albums, I had also been working on (but not releasing) on solo material. I feel like this may have been a certain golden period of Brooklyn DIY, slightly before Williamsburg proper had become the gentrified hellscape it is now. My shy midwestern brain was tenderized by the manic energy of NYC, and I resolved to stay. Then, sometime in 2013, I joined the band Forma. They had already released two synth albums on John Elliot’s Spectrum Spools label, but had split up with one of their core members Sophie Lam. Mark (Dwinell) asked me to come over to jam one day, and before I knew it we were playing shows in NYC and touring. Around this time a lot of the ‘noise’ scene had gradually started making dance music, which was somewhat bewildering but also at the time exciting and totally new to me, having mostly existed in punk and noise circles until then. This environment seeped into our jam sessions, and Forma ended up releasing a 12″ on an NYC techno label. We soon found ourselves setting up our massive noise tables full of synthesizers behind DJ booths in high-end clubs, which was a novelty for us, used to more dire conditions. We dove in, but over time the dance-music scene gradually stopped feeling so inspiring for us. We couldn’t see ourselves dedicating our energy to it for the long term, though it was exciting to step outside of our comfort zones. We started dialing in on minimalism, and I brought out my flute from cold storage. Over a few years we recorded and released two albums on Kranky that represent a shift towards an electro-acoustic synthesis. All the while I’d met and started collaborating with Christina Vantzou on her ambient-classical music, and we eventually recorded and released our first CV & JAB album which used an artwork by the artist Zin Taylor as a graphic score. A friend of mine, Britton Powell, put together an ensemble to tour with Jon Gibson, with whom I was asked to play flute and synthesizer. Through this time I had also developed a prolific collaborative relationship with the artist and animator Peter Burr, for whom I’ve done numerous soundtracks for both installation and film work. All along I had been working on my solo material during in-between moments, and then finally, I finished my first proper solo album Erg Herbe, which was released by Shelter Press in 2019. So anyways, here I am now, still cranking it out!
LT: Who are some of your favorite Brooklyn & NYC bands/artists right now?
JAB: LEYA, who’s new record I contributed flute and synthesizer to, is making some of the most unique music I’ve heard out there right now. Just absolutely heart-breaking microtonal harp music, with violin and falsetto voice. My brother Ben Bennett, who technically lives in Philly, blows my mind every time I see him perform – he’s what could best be described as an avant-garde percussionist, but is also perhaps more well-known for Sitting and Smiling. Deforrest Brown, Jr. aka Speaker Music has been releasing some pretty radical electronic music, and is a great intellect, always challenging the status quo in the ‘music industry’. I dig what Jack Callahan is doing with his Bahn-Mi Verlag label. And we had Keith Fullerton Whitman, who is now back in Brooklyn, play at the Schoolhouse last year and it was a real mind-melter…
LT: You’ve got an incredible back catalog of recordings and releases. Are there any recordings that you feel captured the true essence of what you are trying to do? Any favorites?
JAB: Thanks for saying that, Tom :-). At this point, the record that most captures the essence of me or what I’m trying to do is certainly Erg Herbe, which was my first proper solo album. It took about ten years to figure that one out (see above). I’m working on the next one now, hopefully it won’t take as long this time…
LT: You seem to be doing lots of music in Belgium and Europe these days. Are there inspirations that you bring from here to there and there to here when you are performing and recording?
JAB: The primary thing getting me over here is my partner Christina, who is a Greek citizen and lives in Brussels. We work together all the time, so I’m often coming over here to record or perform with her, and then I stay over longer. In Europe, artists are treated pretty well and aren’t as easily thrown to the wolves like in the US. In the past few years I’ve finally started doing regular solo shows, and there’s a great scene of odd-balls making music in Antwerp, I really love it here. But NYC rattles my bones and puts a flame under my ass, dosing me with a kind of manic creative energy that is hard to find elsewhere. I’m also incredibly lucky to have a beautiful live-work loft space in Brooklyn, the Schoolhouse, which is where Forma practices and where we host the occasional dream show with friends or artists we love.
LT: Do you have any upcoming releases/events or anything new online that you would like to tell our readers to keep an eye out for?
JAB: Check out Landscape Architecture, the new CV & JAB album we just released on my baby imprint editions basilic. I’m putting together an archival collection of my father John M. Bennett‘s sound poetry cassettes from the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s, look out for that on editions basilic later this year or early next :-). Several other projects are coming down the tubes too, including a new collection of field-recording based music that I commissioned from artists around the world for Freedom To Spend / RVNG Intl.
CV & JAB – Landscape Architecture (editions basilic, 2020)
JAB – Music For Save Rooms (editions basilic, 2020)
JAB – Indiana Blindfold – Track on “Field Works – Ultrasonic” Compilation (Temporary Residence, 2020)
Christina Vantzou – Siren III – Synthesizers (Deutsche Grammophon, 2020)
LEYA – Flood Dream – Flute & Synthesizers (NNA Tapes, 2020)
JAB – Erg Herbe – LP (Shelter Press, 2019)
JAB – The Gallop – 7″ Lathe Cut (In Context Music, 2019)
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Tracing Back The Radiance – Alto Flute – (Mexican Summer, 2019)
Forma – Semblance – LP / CD (Kranky, 2018)
CV & JAB – Zin Taylor’s Thoughts of a Dot as it Travels a Surface – LP (Shelter Press, 2018)
CV & JAB – Seeing Redness, Plastic Fingers – Track on “Don’t Look Now” Compilation (Geographic North, 2018)
Seabat – Outside The Disc – CD / CS (Vestibule, 2018)
Christina Vantzou – No. 4 – Synthesizers (Kranky, 2018)
CV & JAB – Chione – Track on “Disquiet, Vol. 1” Compilation (Unseen Music, 2017)
Jon Gibson – Jon Gibson’s Visitations – Flute & Electronics (Otoroku, 2017)
Pauline Anna Strom – Trans-Millenia Music – Compiled for RVNG Intl. (RVNG Intl, 2017)
Forma – Physicalist – LP / CD (Kranky, 2016)
Seabat – Synthus – CD (Beer On The Rug, 2015)
Seabat / Lucky Dragons – Peter Burr’s Special Effect – Split LP (Vestibule, 2015)
Christina Vantzou – No. 3 – Synthesizers (Kranky, 2015)
Forma – Cool Haptics – 12″ (The Bunker New York, 2014)
John Also Bennett – Talking Puddle – Track on “Ohio Volume One” Compilation (A Soundesign Recordings, 2014)
Seabat – Scattered Disc – LP / CS (Goldtimers / Seabat Worldwide, 2013)
Seabat – Crescent ParC – LP (Constellation Tatsu, 2012)
Seabat – Mountains Of Palawan – CS (Goldtimers, 2012)
Slime Detective – New Slime City – CS (Total Reality International, 2012)
Seabat – No Wake – CS (Hyperdelic, 2011)
Seabat – Rift Store – CS (S.B. Crypt, 2011)
Seabat – Understanding Holography – CDr (Celebrity Sex Tapes, 2010)
Eagle Nebula – Remnants – CS (Stochastic Releases, 2010)
Sword Heaven – Gone – Saxophone – (Load Records, 2010)
Eagle Nebula – s/t – CS (No Label, 2009)
Tuberculosis Ward – s/t – (Celebrity Sex Tapes, 2009)
Ginger Fetus – 3 Footer – Track on “Confluence Park” Compilation (Teen Action Records, 2009)
Out There Dudes / Biff Boff Barf – 2% Milf – Split 7” (Out There Home Entertainment, 2009)
Sinkane – s/t – Saxophone (Emergency Umbrella Records, 2009)
Eagle Nebula – Nebulosis – CS (Celebrity Sex Tapes, 2008)
Eagle Nebula / Wasteland Jazz Unit – Untitled Split – CS (Celebrity Sex Tapes, 2008)
John Bennett / Mike Vallera – Untitled Split – CS (Celebrity Sex Tapes, 2008)
Starving Goliath – s/t – CD (No Label, 2005)