an interview with ben varian

May 17, 2012

Through pleasantries and passing handshakes, I got to know this Tallahassee-based multi-instrumentalist over the course of Total Bummer weekend but a few questions had alluded conversation so multi-instrumentalist Ben Varian took a moment to answer them, send over some tunes new and old, and give a glimpse into Tally’s music scene, the projects that take part, and the growing collective of musicians, artists, and writers: Werepossum.

Go ahead and introduce yourself, Ben.

Hi everyone, I’m Ben.

Wonderful. How did Werepossum come about?

It started as an enormous band that included all of our closest music-making friends. We would book a show and not practice until the day before, then try to put together an entire set in one day. There was a lot of instrument-hopping, semi-improvisation and general rowdiness. It was probably the most fun band I’ve ever been in. Of course it wasn’t very sustainable, and it only lasted for a few months before people wanted to put their energy into something more constructive. The name (which was invented by our own Kevin Mahoney aka Slough Louris to describe some kind of terrifying man/opossum amalgamation) stuck around in our heads after the band ended, and we decided to use it for the website. Werepossum in its current form began when we realized that we had so many interconnected musical and artistic projects that stemmed from that same group of seven or eight people, and it only made sense to unify them in one place so that people outside of our friend group could see what we had brewing without bouncing around between several soundclouds, bandcamps and what have you. We had also imagined it as a place for news about the Florida music scene, but we quickly realized that sites like yours, Tiny Waves, etc. were already doing a better job of that than we would. Now we’ve decided to focus our efforts on creating as many things as possible that are worth looking at and listening to.

Who’s all a part of it?

We don’t draw the line anywhere specifically, and there are a lot of people who can rightly be considered honorary Werepossumers, but here are the people who make up the core of the group as of now: myself, Jake (Fruit Flesh/Corrective Lenses), Kevin Mahoney (Slough Louris), Josh Saul (Wingsuit), Josh Sewell (the now-defunct but classic Walk and current poet) and Barrett White (poet). It’s also probably safe to say we have very close connections with Spirit Cat.

The new site design looks stellar, what’s your role in the group?

The site was built by Jake; I have no clue about that kind of thing. We worked together on the layout and functionality, but he did all the actual work. My role, like everyone involved, is to make interesting art for the site. We launched the site at a bad time, when Jake and I were both too busy to really keep up with it. Now that school is out and Total Bummer has passed, I should be recording a lot of music, drawing doodles, and writing articles about things that draw my attention. We’ll also be getting art and poetry from our other Tallahassee friends.

You, Jake Tobin [Fruit Flesh], and Josh Saul [Wingsuit] all have a unique, natural aura in each of your projects. How did this Tally-all-star collaboration, Dog Dreams, come to fruition?

We wanted to do something stripped-down, where the songs were able to come through as clearly as possible. We’ve had a lot of bad experiences with overly complicated setups, bad mixes, etc – where our music has been obscured by technical issues. Our setup now is just keyboard, guitar and drums, and we basically use the same settings and sounds the entire set. We don’t use any vocal effects or samples—not because we don’t like that sound (I use plentiful amounts of reverb, delay and samples in my own recordings) but because we want to make sure that our music comes across live the same way it does when we practice. We wanted to spend a lot of time writing and practicing each little piece of each song, so it was important that we had a small band and a basic setup. Josh basically put the wheels in motion, and Jake and I were eager to join along.

Who is Miracle Roy?

Miracle Roy is a baby duck that we found on the sidewalk in the wee hours of the morning in Winter Park during Total Bummer. He was abandoned and getting eaten by ants, so we picked him up and brought him back to where we were staying. He was looking really bad, and we didn’t expect him to make it through the night, but we put him in a bowl with a bit of water and hoped for the best. We woke up to Roy running around the house and chirping, seeming completely healthy. We took turns taking care of him for the rest of the festival, brought him back to Tallahassee and gave him to a wildlife shelter. He is truly a miracle and also the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

You mentioned ‘Surrounded By Beards’ was originally written back in high school. The eccentric lyricism stood out to me as a relatable, daydreamt thought process, do you remember the how it all came about?

Ben Varian – Surrounded By Beards

That song is about the first time I visited Tallahassee, when some of my older friends from high school had already moved here. A friend and I were walking around aimlessly at night, and we heard live music coming from a large shed behind someone’s house. We wandered in and found a punk show in progress. I felt so out of place as a young-looking seventeen-year-old kid among all these grown, bushy-faced men, and the entire night was full of surreal reminders that everyone there was much older and different from me. I later ended up playing shows at that house and knowing the people who lived there, but I always kept that bizarre first visit in my mind. That song is my attempt to capture the incoherence and absurdity that I’ve found to be characteristic of Tallahassee even to this day.

One of your more recent releases – ‘Reassurance Song For Jerry Martini’ – embodies so much and finishes off Potassium so well. From the soft lead-in, to the pitch-bent electronics, to the ambient drone, to the solid tribal finish, what went into creating something so diverse?

Ben Varian – Reassurance Song For Jerry Martini

I’ve been wanting to make something more ambitious, because I started off making minute-long ultra-concise nuggets of songs and I’ve only been very gradually moving upward from there. I tend to end a song as soon as I feel like it has enough interesting ideas to realistically be considered finished. With this one I decided that I would just keep going until I completely ran out of ideas. I wish I knew how many hours I put into that song, recording, arranging, mixing, deleting, rerecording, rearranging and so on. It’s a lot. I was listening to “Bay of Pigs” by Destroyer quite a bit for a long time, and that was definitely an inspiration for having a song with several distinct parts (including a drone section). But for a lot longer I’ve been in love with Brian Wilson’s method of writing several insulated compositions and stringing them into one song, mainly on the Beach Boys album “Smile”. They recently released the mastered version of that album for the first time, but I don’t think it does justice to what he was really doing when he was recording it. For a long time I had a bootleg version of the song “Heroes and Villains” that was about fifteen minutes long, and it’s literally the best song I’ve ever heard. There are so many different pieces, a wealth of musical ideas, but when they’re put all together in one song it feels entirely complete. That was something I wanted to attempt, obviously on a much smaller scale.

When did you become interested in music and did the change of cities [Jacksonville to Tallahassee] affect your creative process?

I first started making my own music when my brother downloaded the trial version of Fruity Loops (a really basic sequencing software), when I was thirteen. All I did was fill in boxes and drag notes around, and all of a sudden I was making rhythms and melodies. I was addicted to it for a long time, and I still have a trial version on my computer to this day. For a long time that was the only way I made music, and I actually became ridiculously adept at Fruity Loops. When I was seventeen, I decided that I should try to actually record my music, and I bought an interface. I was lucky enough to have a bunch of my friends’ music equipment at my house, because that’s where our band practiced. I spent a lot of time dicking around on instruments that I had no idea how to play, since I had always been a drummer, and that’s how the current incarnation of my music came about. The big difference in moving to Tallahassee was the beginning of collaboration on recordings, which has become an important part of how I record. Most of my songs have a little bit of someone else on them now, whether it’s vocals or a small guitar part, just something to diversify the sound.

Do you have one of your Fruity Loop creations on you?

Unfortunately, those Fruity experiments are hidden in the depths of my mom’s old computer in far-away Jacksonville. Most of them have probably been deleted by now. For some reason, the only song title I can remember from that era is “Theme For A Slightly Erotic Chess Game.”

Ben Varian – I’m With Vicky On The Strawberry Rhubarb

Here is the closest relative to those songs in terms of absolute silliness and lack of regard for any kind of musical convention, though it was made more recently and contains a lot more samples.

What does the future hold for Ben Varian?

I’m not completely sure. I’m recording with Aircraft this month and hopefully with Dog Dreams next month. I’m also hoping to play some shows around the South, with either band or both. I’ve been recording some new music of my own, which has turned out surprisingly alien and unsettling. It has a lot samples of warped self-help cassettes from Goodwill. I don’t know if anyone will like it. I’ve been listening to a lot of Steve Reich and a lot of Brian Eno’s 70’s albums, so I think I’m bound to make something that will make people uncomfortable.

“Music For 18 Musicians” is probably the album I have listened to more than any other, by any artist—it has put me to sleep, kept me awake, focused me in and zoomed me out hundreds of times over. I feel like almost any aspect I enjoy about music in general can be decoded from that piece.

What does your set-up at home look like?

Kind of pathetic. Squier Bullet electric guitar, Blue Snowball USB microphone, Microkorg, an amp called the “Laney Linebacker” that my brother’s friend left at our house when I was twelve years old. If I had a choice I would upgrade all of those things by several degrees. Luckily I have friends who are kind enough to let me borrow things—right now I have a nice glockenspiel that I borrowed from the band Young Adult and an acoustic guitar that I borrowed from my friend Dylan.

Ben Varian and Jake Tobin in Fruit Flesh’s surreal video for ‘Cocaine’

Best eats in Tallahassee?

I live across the street from Pitaria, a delicious Mediterranean restaurant. It takes a lot of discipline to not eat falafel for every meal.

Top venue in Tallahassee?

We’re in a bit of a venue crisis here, actually. The Engine Room was a good bar venue and The Farside was a fantastic DIY venue, but they both closed recently. I guess that leaves Club Downunder, which is run by FSU. It’s big, has good sound and you get free pizza when you play there.

Can you use ‘cray cray’ in a sentence?

If only it were that simple.

“This picture was taken in Asheville. I only know who one of these people is. Apologies to all of the other people.”

Describe Koyaanisqatsi in three emoticons.

😮 :0 😮  (I’ve only seen Baraka but I can assume. Love me some Phil Glass.)

Any book(s) you’re stoked about right now?

I have been rereading Numbers In The Dark by Italo Calvino. Very excellent surreal short stories.

Want to write a haiku using dialogue from Total Recall?

No, but I will write a haiku using my dialogue while I was watching Total Recall:

Mars is pretty cool
Oh my goodness look at that
This girl has three boobs


New Track: Ben Varian – Almost Always At Least A Little

Thanks Ben!

Ben Varian :: Bandcamp / Soundcloud / Twitter


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