Tree stories: an interview with Radical Face's Ben Cooper
Wed. July 6, 2016 by Gregg Shapiro
It’s a name I actually got from a plastic surgery flier when I was 18. I saw it on a telephone pole, but it was torn.
Out singer/songwriter Radical Face talks about his musical trilogy.
After five years, spanning three full-length albums, Radical Face (aka Jacksonville, Florida-based out gay singer/songwriter Ben Cooper) brings his The Family Tree trilogy to a close with The Family Tree presents The Leaves (Nettwerk). Following The Roots and The Branches, this stunning and musically literary achievement is a multi-generational saga spanning from the 19th century to the present. While each disc can be enjoyed for its own musical merits, the sum total is simply breathtaking. I spoke with Cooper about Radical Face and much more in June 2016. [Radical Face performs on July 22 at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport RI.]
Gregg Shapiro: Ben, for those who might be unfamiliar, please say something about how you came up with the name Radical Face.
RF: It’s a name I actually got from a plastic surgery flier when I was 18. I saw it on a telephone pole, but it was torn. It had this smiling woman with “Radical face” over it. I thought that was funny and I wrote it in a notebook. Then I did a project with a guy – he was a poet and I wrote music (to his words). When we went to do a performance, he asked, “What’s your stage name?” I picked something out of my notebook. That was forever ago and it just stuck. There’s no real meaning behind it; I just thought it was funny.
GS: In addition to you as Radical Face, other one-person queer acts, including Car Seat Headrest, Perfume Genius and Soak, utilize unique monikers under which to perform. What do you think is behind this trend?
RF: In all honesty I think, sometimes with the LGBT community, if you look at anything else surrounding it, there’s always been this oddness and sense of humor. In the drag world, for example, with names such as Sharon Needles, there’s always been a flippant element to performance stuff. I really appreciate that. It’s kind of a hard world to take yourself too seriously. It’s a good balance check. It’s not serious all the time. I’m that way too, even though I write a lot of depressing music. A lot of times our shows are not very serious at all. We joke a lot and then we play a sad song and then we joke again.
GS: I’m sure the audience appreciates that.
RF: It’s also, I think, for me. [Laughs] the first tour I ever did, I took it way too seriously because I was way too young. By the end of the tour I was depressed. I tend to write songs about my problems. Then you think about the problems every night. If you don’t break it up, it chips away at you. By the end, I was a wreck. There’s always been a little irreverence in the whole thing. I like that and wouldn’t change it.
GS: No, don’t change it. As a member of the duo Electric President, you made use of electronic instrumentation, which made me think of John Grant, another gay musician. Is he someone you’d consider to be an influence?
RF: No, because I didn’t hear about him until way later. The reason I got into electronics was pretty much bumping into my friends who were in the rave scene in the `90s that bled into the weird stuff like Aphex Twin. I got really obsessed with it and started incorporating that into things. I found out about John Grant maybe two or three years ago. I was like, “How have I never heard this? Why didn’t I bump into this sooner?” Not an influence, but definitely, I think, a kindred spirit.
GS: One can also hear the impact of Sufjan Stevens on your work.
RF: Again, I actually heard him way later, too. I never heard his stuff until that Illinoise record came out. I love his stuff. He’s a great songwriter. There’s a similar sensibility. But, no, he wasn’t a direct influence. I’d already been evolving in a similar fashion. I never mind the comparison. I grew up on a lot of older music – Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Young, stuff like that. I always suspect that these people were pooling from the same place.
GS: I’m so glad you mentioned Simon & Garfunkel, because one of the things you do really well is write story songs. Paul Simons is the person that I think is still the best story songwriter to this day.
RF: The thing I always liked about people who incorporate storytelling – because I’m also a big fan of Tom Waits; he’s like an old rusty sailor but he tells these cool stories – I find it hard to write directly about myself. Autobiographical music – I always feel like I’m just bitching and complaining too much [laughs]. I thought it was kind of cool that you could put things into a story and use the core experience to set up the details. It’s a way of getting your baggage out, but not as a diary entry, which I always recoiled from for some reason. I also found that I had more empathy when I put it into something else, even for myself. It was kind of therapeutic. I was like, “Oh yeah, that really is shitty. I’m not just being a wuss about it. It is really bad” [laughs]. If I’m writing about myself, I’m like “Get over it!” In hindsight, I think it was more helpful psychologically.
GS: The first Radical Face album (from 2007) was titled Ghosts and the new Radical Face album The Family Tree presents The Roots has a song on it titled “Ghost Towns.”There’s also a “ghost” in the song “Mute,” from The Family Tree presents The Branches. What can you tell me about your interest in specters?
RF: [Laughs] I’ve always been a huge secret fantasy nerd. I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and I love Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was the first book I read. I always liked that kind of fantastic thing. I like the spooky side of it. I like ghost stories. I like it as a metaphor. The record Ghosts wasn’t about ghosts; people in sheets with the eyeholes cut out. I think we leave little images of ourselves everywhere we live. I’ve noticed when I’ve moved into houses that I find weird things that belonged to someone else in the attic. I (once) found an 80 year old letter. It was a piece of someone’s history that got stuck there. We leave little ghosts as we travel, everywhere we live. As an image and a word you can use it in so many contexts. Everyone is haunted by something. No matter what culture you go to, they all have their ghost stories. I like it. I still do use it. I’ve found myself editing ghost metaphors out of lyrics. I’m like, “Come on! You’ve used that enough [laughs]!”
GS: The Family Tree presents The Leaves is the conclusion of your album cycle that began with 2011’s The Family Tree presents The Roots and continued with 2013’s The Family Tree presents The Branches. When did you know that this ambitious project would be a trilogy?
RF: This is the project that ran away with itself. The original idea was tiny. I thought I was going to do three five-song EPs and each one was a generation. Then I tapped into the vein of family and I kept writing. I was working on Electric President records in 2007 and I was writing The Family Tree in the background. When I sat down to go through all of my demos and notes to decide on what I was going to record, even after throwing out stuff, I had 44 songs. Over about two years I kept writing and it grew. Stupidly I thought, “I can knock this out in a year or two.” That was eight years ago. I had no idea what I was signing up for. And every time you start a big project, life shows up. You plan for things in your current circumstances. So many things have happened in the last few years with family and personal life. If I had known it was going to take eight years, I think I would have done something different. But here we are.
GS: A musical saga such as The Family Tree also has a literary quality to it. For example, the project includes a mini-synopsis you created on your website. There’s a map, on which the songs are represented, that can be clicked to reveal the story behind the songs.
RF: When I finished high school I was dead set on being a writer. That’s what I thought I was going to do. I love to write. I was in bands all through high school. But bands become shitty relationships really quickly; poly-amorous shitty relationships. Too many personalities who want to express themselves. I noticed that we weren’t really talking about making anything. It was really just everyone being pissed off at each other and then it breaks. I got out of music, even though I kept playing. I was like, “I don’t think this is for me; the interpersonal side of it.” When I finished high school, I actually wrote two full-length novels and was going to look to have them published. It was on the first computer I ever owned and I didn’t know about backing up computers. This was 17 years ago, I guess. The hard drive crashed and I lost both of them. These weren’t small books either. They were 150,000 words a piece. I woke up one day and turned on the computer and it was destroyed. [Laughs] this is a clear memory in my head – when I realized that I couldn’t get them back, it was the first time that I really understood a laugh or cry moment. I started laughing and I broke the computer with a hammer. I didn’t know what to do. I was working in a book store. A friend of mine that I used to play music with, who was the only one I got along with easily in the band – that was Alex (Kane) of Electric President – called me. We hadn’t talked in a year or two. He said, “Hey, I’ve gotten the itch to play again. Do you want to record stuff and not be a band?” I said, “That sounds perfect.” I was doing it as a way to buy time until I could get another computer and maybe get back to writing. But the second time I really loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since.
GS: When you perform live, do you travel with a full band or do you perform solo versions of the songs?
RF: Every single tour changes. I would say that since me and my boyfriend Josh got together – he’s a string player, a full-time classical musician – now I have a live-in string section [laughs]. I can get him to play anything which is fantastic. That used to be a big hurdle. “Who am I going to get to play the strings?” I had to go and find people. We tour together a lot now. It makes us hate it a lot less [laughs]. It’s weird to go on the road and have creature comforts. I feel really spoiled, actually. If I’m going to play in Japan, it’s really expensive to get there and have a full band. The last tour was just me and Josh. We wrote totally different versions for guitar, strings and voices. The tour I just finished, I had five people with me, so I could do big versions with flutes and drum sets and samplers. So far, no two tours have been the same. I rewrite it based on who can go and what I can afford to bring. It really is all over the place. But that’s good because it keeps me from getting bored. That’s the downside of touring. You play the same shit every night and you get to where you hate your own songs [laughs].
GS: Have you performed or do you perform the trilogy in its entirety?
RF: The way I view touring and shows, for me, is that I really like playing, but that’s not the thing that fuels me. I am much happier writing and recording. For me, performing is exclusively for other people. I let people write me to tell me what they want to hear. I’ll even put stuff up on my website or on Facebook – “If there’s something you want to hear on this tour, let me know so I can teach the band and we’ll add it to the set list.” I tend to base it on what people would like to hear. I’ll play any of it. It’s not like there are songs that I have to play. The set is usually what people who are buying tickets would like to hear.
GS: After completing a project such as one of this scope, have you been able to think about what you will do next?
RF: Yes. It’s been kind of on the sidelines, but I can’t help but think about it. I’m a person who, if I don’t have the next plan lined up, I get anxious. Our home life has been kind of crazy. I had a huge falling out with family. I adopted my niece. There have been criminal trials against my parents; really bad stuff. Even with all that going on, I’m still thinking about what I’m going to do next. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. This last project was all scope, interconnectivity and size. I have zero interest in that now that I’ve gotten it out of my system [laughs]. I don’t think I want to do anything of that scale ever again. I would like the ambition to go directly into songwriting; individual songs. I want to see what I can do to push myself sonically with songwriting. I’m excited to have no parameters. When the idea shows up and I execute it to the best of my abilities and then I’m done. I want to put out small things and EPs. Things I can get out quickly that don’t take a year of figuring out how I’m going to manufacture it and explain it. “I want to write a song about this” sounds freeing and delightful. Everything I want now is immediate and small.
GS: In conclusion, I live in Fort Lauderdale and you are based in Jacksonville. We are speaking a few days after the Orlando attack. Would you mind sharing your thoughts?
RF: Every day I’ve had people writing me and calling me just to make sure I’m OK. (Saying) “I know you’re not in Orlando, but you’re nearby.” I was just talking to my niece. She’s 17. She came from a really bad situation. Now she’s living with two, fat, hairy, gay dudes. It’s a very different world for her. She doesn’t think anything of it. Then you hear about these attacks. I told her, “Gay marriage passed, but it’s not done. There are still plenty of people who absolutely despise you.” This is a really stark reminder. Josh and I were talking about one of the hardest things about this – even the guy who did it, part of me empathizes, not with the action itself, but I know what it’s like to spend years repressing yourself and how weird you get. I came out when I was kid and I got kicked out of my house. I didn’t tell anyone again for 10 years. None of my friends knew. I became very unhealthy in a lot of ways; mentally and physically. It started ruining everything. I chose a far more peaceful way of dealing with it. This whole thing draws up so many confusing emotions. I still have zero answers. I’m still sifting through everything. I was just in the grocery story buying milk and there was a magazine with all of the faces of everyone who was killed. I almost cried. This is hugely relatable in a bunch of ways to the point where I’m already in therapy with all of the stuff that happened with my family last year and dealing with a teenage girl. I thought, “I probably need to book more appointments just to get through this.” It’s so strange when something so ugly happens, but I’ve had people I haven’t talked to in 10 years writing me to check in with me. On the one hand, I’m reconnecting with people that I haven’t spoken to in years. On the other hand, I’m doing it for the worst possible reason. It feels like such an onslaught that I don’t even know what to make of it, other than the obvious thing that it’s just so terribly sad.
GS: We have a lot to process.
RF: Yes. I’ve been calling people in San Francisco and Portland and all over the country. I’ve noticed that we’re calling each other. These aren’t messages on Facebook or an email or a text. These things happen and suddenly I need to hear people’s voices. I need to connect on a more human level. It’s a reminder to me that I shouldn’t only do this around tragedy. It’s crazy how many things come up and how they can blindside you. In a weird way, I feel closer to friends. Growing up in Jacksonville there wasn’t a giant gay community. I have two friends here who are gay. But I know tons of (gay) people around the country. Sometimes I feel more connected in moments like this. Why is it only on the backs of something ugly? I’ve had a lot to think about.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.