Name: John Also Bennett
Occupation: Composer, flautist, synthesist
Current Release: John Also Bennett's Out there in the middle of nowhere is out via Poole. Also available is his trio release with Christina Vantzou, and Michael Harrison and John Also Bennett on Seance Centre.
Recommendations: Film: Princess From The Moon (1987, Dir. Kon Ichikawa, Japan); Book: Freedom and Death aka Captain Michalis (1953, Nikos Kazantsakis, Greece)
[Read our Christina Vantzou interview]
[Read our Michael Harrison interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with John Also Bennett and would like to stay up to date with his music, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My parents insisted that my brother and I take music lessons from a very young age. I don’t recall them giving us any particular reason for them, just that “we’d thank them when we’re older”. So I started with piano and eventually switched to flute.
One of my first musical memories is sitting at the piano playing repetitive arpeggios, and my mother saying that I sounded like Philip Glass. Of course I had no idea who that was, and can remember feeling mildly confused to hear that what I was doing apparently sounded like an existing composer.
But I was exposed to a lot of different (and often avant-garde) music while growing up. My father has a voracious appetite for music and was always playing it in the house. It was just a constant presence, during breakfast, dinner, and in the afternoons … there were always CDs in the deck or a radio playing. I remember hearing a lot of Western choral and early music, but equally so a lot of traditional music from all kinds of different cultures around the world, jazz, avant garde.
I am pretty sure I was exposed to the sitar via the Beatles (I had a ‘greatest hits’ cassette), and eventually I found some deep CDs of the “Indian Classical Masters” variety in my dad’s collection which I played quite a bit - I loved the drones and the long, low, slow glissandos.
It took some years before I really found a strong personal drive to make my own music - having lessons imposed on me as a child made it something I had to do, not something I wanted to do, but as I grew up and wanted to express myself, it seemed to be the natural outlet. This started with playing in rock bands. My early bands were definitely not avant-garde but more reflective of popular alternative rock or pop punk (I loved Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and Blink 182).
This eventually gave way to making noise music as part of the American DIY scene of the time, which mutated into what I’m doing now after I moved to NYC.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I guess that I “see” abstract emotional or psychological spaces when I listen to music.
I’m usually trying to describe a space like that with my own music, one that I haven’t found yet or wish existed.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
It took some time for me to find something that I could really call my personal voice with a straight face. Sometimes you might find out that what you’re doing has already been done in the same way by someone else, and that can be disappointing if you’re looking to be totally original. But at that point it’s important to realize that music making and culture making in general does not occur in a vacuum … we are working in a continuum that is constantly building on itself.
I do believe that there is a larger human unconscious that we’re all connected to on some level. So this idea of coming up with something totally new and original isn’t always realistic … a lot of times similar ideas emerge at the same time seemingly completely independent of each other. Even so called ‘geniuses’ tend to emerge from communities, not in isolation.
So I’ve found it’s important to find a balance between trying to be completely original and incorporating ideas from your influences, a blend between the internal voice and external voices.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
Someone said that listening to Erg Herbe (my first solo album) [On Bartolomé Sanson & Félicia Atkinson's Shelter Press] was like experiencing the world through “JAB’s cerebral cortex”. So I think that’s an underlying force pushing me to be creative in this way - maybe I can give the rest of the world a slice of how I experience it.
[Read our Felicia Atkinson interview]
I also have a sense that we’re all ultimately part of the same chaos goo. But we can still lead interesting individual lives that distinguish us for a while, and that’s always been a big motivating factor for me, since before I started actively making my own music - just to live an interesting life that I can look back on and think ‘wow, this guy really went places’. So music has been a huge part of being able to live that life. I’ve met so many people and traveled so many places that I wouldn’t have without music.
But I look forward to incorporating other things beyond music making into this life as I get older. One big goal in the next 5-10 years is to start tending olives. Pursuing this goal will certainly have an influence on the music I’m making. I’ve just always been pretty obsessed with olives, even as a kid. My wife Christina and I are planning a long trip to her ancestral village in Epirus, Greece, which is most definitely going to influence both of our creative lives.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Vast fields of jiggling translucent lines, sunlight piercing through fog, tinnitus, ancient lizard meditation music, stasis and infinity.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
This question is a bit confusing because I don’t see that ‘originality and innovation’ and ‘perfection and timelessness’ are in opposition to each other.
I tend to strive for something like ‘timeless originality’, and especially with my solo work. I can’t say if I’ve been totally successful in that, time will tell. I definitely try!
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
The flute is certainly one instrument that’s at the core of my musical identity. Even if I divert in other directions / towards other instruments for years at a time, I have always eventually returned to the flute. It is one of our oldest instruments, it has a direct connection between breath and sound and so it usually feels like coming back to some kind of emotional center when I play it.
I’ve been gradually acquiring flutes that are lower and lower in range, currently I’m mostly playing a bass flute. The sound of a good bass flute is like a wise old man speaking gently. Trying to embody that old man has been a nice strategy as of late.
My most recent album used a lap steel guitar, though. I played guitar through my early 20s so it’s been nice to return to that instrument from a completely different angle (literally, as I didn’t previously play lap steel). I love the long sustains, and the ability to have such direct control over deep glissandos (something I had been doing using synthesizers already).
But the sustains just weren’t long enough. So I developed a strategy to extend them using audio to midi conversion and a synthesizer with extremely long attack and decay, to create what you hear on Out there in the middle of nowhere.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My life hasn’t followed much of a routine for the past few years until just recently, when I’ve actually been in the same city (Brussels) and apartment for more than a month. I’ve been traveling a lot for music and for life, dealing with my belongings, trying to figure out where I’m going to live, etc. So being able to sink into a little bit of a routine lately has truly been quite nice. This will naturally change but for the time being this is how I’m living:
I tend to wake up around sunrise, we have east facing windows and light curtains so the light will wake me up. I gaze out the window for a while, check notifications, and then take a shower. Then my wife Christina or I will make cappuccinos and, if it’s sunny, try and sit in the sun for a little while. Then I’ll dive into music or other projects for 3-4 hours.
I really like to compose during the morning hours - things are quieter in general and my mind is clearer. This morning I’m working on this interview, it’s about 9:00 AM right now. If I don’t have a strict deadline for anything I try to step out after the morning session: either to eat lunch, to buy produce at a street market, or walk around in the park and feed yesterday’s stale bread to the crows (I’m trying to do this often enough so that the crows will start to recognize me - they are ultra intelligent).
After lunch I will sometimes switch modes - I still manage production for a record label in NYC. So I’m listening to masters, emailing with pressing plants, setting up releases for distribution, etc. How much time I spend doing this changes depending on what’s on deck and if I have a music commision or deadline that will take priority. I’m getting better at setting boundaries between the time I spend on my own music vs. managing other people’s projects, and the balance is finally starting to tip in the direction of the former. But I still find it rewarding to put great music by others out into the world.
In the evenings I usually cook dinner for me and Christina. I also like to go out for a drink somewhere in the neighborhood. We’re lucky to live in quite a friendly area with cozy neighborhood bars and cafes, and like to drink a little glass of beer or wine and do some reading. Since I don’t have data on my phone anymore here in Europe (I haven’t yet got around to updating my phone plan) it really helps to get the hell out of the house and not be able to see my email or social media.
If I’m feeling inspired I will work on music into the night and have a smoke on the terrace. Night can also be a very exciting time to work on music if I still have the energy. If not, I sometimes watch NBA games as I fall asleep. Because I live in Europe now NBA games come on super late at night so if I’m still up … it’s a treat.