Back when I was on my mission in New Mexico, 2005, I received a CD in the mail of very interesting home recordings. Bending the mission rules just a bit, I gave it a listen and was floored by how unique the songs were. Off the record, I put that CD into heavy rotation throughout my mission. Now I admit, when you’re separated from most art forms for two years, your standards for enjoying music drop dramatically (one time I heard “The Reason” by Hoobastank at a supermarket and actually thought it was okay), but I was relieved that these tunes still hold up after six years. This year I got another link of this musician’s music. His name is Benjamin Zabriskie, and his latest album, b. Report an Emergency, got a fair number of votes in the 2010 Linescratchers Awards. Benjamin is now at BYU, and has agreed to speak with us about his latest album, his recording process, and his take on faith and music in Utah.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How does that influence your songs now?
A: I grew up in a little town in central Kentucky. The thing about this town is it is kind of a difficult place in which to find things to do–especially if you’re an alcohol-abstaining young Mormon. So it was pretty easy to fit music into my schedule, I guess. More than anything, I think that town allowed me to be lonely enough to become a songwriter. I also used music to immortalize my adolescence into mp3 format. Moreover–and perhaps this goes without saying–I used music as a means of charming potential romantic partners.
What musicians and bands inspire you?
A: To me, the most important criterion for a good song is its ability to move me from one place to another. Whether that place is pristine and ethereal or absolutely horrifying, transcendentality is what I look for. Post-rock bands like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono, and This Will Destroy You do can do that for me. I am also a movie soundtrack guy for the same reason. I’ve also been influenced largely by avant-garde and experimental musicians; Mr. Bungle’s California has probably impacted my music-writing process more than anything else. I am a big fan of interesting harmonies. I listen to Grizzly Bear, Simon and Gfunk, The Beatles, Low, Pink Floyd’s middle years, Fleet Foxes, The Beach Boys, etc. I will spare you by stopping here. I could go on for a very long time.
I remember getting a burned CD of your songs on my mission and really enjoying them. That was in 2005. Tell us about your songwriting then and what has changed since.
A: Lots has changed since 2005. I was seventeen then and in the thick of teenage rebellion. Instead of breaking rules with drugs and promiscuity though, I had to settle with breaking musical rules by using irregular time signatures and weird instrument and blending genres and all that stuff. Those songs tended to be much more progressive rock-ish and heavy. These are actually the kind of songs I love to make but I didn’t really have the proper equipment/personnel to record something I was really satisfied with. I still don’t have the needed equipment/personnel, so I usually shoot for more organic sounding songs now.
You served a mission in Seoul in 2007. In 2009 you released a song on your Bandcamp page called Seoul so you seem to have at least borrowed a little influence there.
A: My mission in Seoul plays a large role in shaping my psyche, for sure. Korean music is painfully-yet-irresistibly poppy, so (un?)fortunately it doesn’t really influence me on an artistic level. On the other hand, I often try to convert imagery/feelings into textural music and the images and feelings I got from walking the streets of Seoul as a missionary are wildly beautiful and unique.
Your album, b. Report an Emergency, received some strong voting at the Linescratchers Awards. Is this the result of shows or word-of-mouth?
A: I’m pretty sure it’s because I have a stellar last name.
Tell us about the recording process. Do you use studios or do you record at home?
A: I usually steal my roommate’s portable recorder and find the quietest spot in the house (sometimes the car) and try to record my ideas before I forget them or lose confidence in their intrinsic goodness. As far as the process goes, I typically just put down one simple track and start building off that. I actually don’t like writing lyrics so the vocals tend to work merely as another instrument.
Here’s the controversial part of the interview. What is the music scene like in Provo?
A: I’m actually not so much of an expert on local music here in Provo, but to me it seems to be somewhat confined to indie-folk stuff. There are a couple good venues and some musicians that have acquired some national attention, but I would definitely like to see some diversification when it comes to sound. One can only handle a certain amount of flip-flopped Mormons singing Banana Pancakes-inspired soft folk.
Do you find that religion plays a part in the music scene, and if so, is that influence positive or negative?
A: I really don’t notice much religious influence other than I rarely hear the “f-word” on stage. I think many musicians here fear religious influence on their music/image. It seems like they try really hard to strip any religious or cultural influences from Mormonism in efforts not to seem “churchy”. Of course we are initially grateful to Mormon musicians for these efforts, for understanding that the last thing we want to hear is a song about your mission in the key of “EFY”. However, we probably avoid spirituality so much that we miss out on addressing really cool and diversifying themes, themes that in some way make up who we are. I recently saw Richard Dutcher’s film, “States of Grace” and was reminded how spiritual themes are not artistically off-limits. I was so impressed that I sent him a Facebook message asking if I could intern at his company, but after I few weeks without a response from Dutcher, I decided that he really isn’t that cool after all and my current telemarketing job is really pretty okay if I really think about it hard enough.
Do you find it difficult to express spiritual ideas in your music, or do they naturally seep in?
A: Of course, as a life-long Mormon going to BYU, just about everything I do is molded in some way by the Mormon experience. The song “The Color White”, for example, is largely a response to living in the very culturally monolithic community of Provo. It is definitely a challenge to write transparently about spiritual themes, though. Actually, for me it’s challenging to write transparently about anything. Lyrics, to me, are like pages from my secret diary written in code. If anyone can crack the code, then you’ve probably been listening to the song too much and should really get out and socialize with loved ones.
Where can interested readers learn more about your music?
A: For now it’s just http://shallowpeter.bandcamp.com.