If you’re gonna point the finger, aim it at Ben Wallers. After all, where would we be without him? He’s been polluting the waters of the U.K.’s music scene for some time now, keeping things murky and disturbed. Heavy laden in satirical sludge, his lyrics have influenced a cesspit of crooked scamps, including the likes of Fat White Family and Goat Girl. He’s a Pied Piper of sorts – but that’s not to say he doesn’t have influences of his own. Teething at the seams, his sound brags a well-nourished diet of Mark E. Smith and William S. Burroughs. Whether you’re unpinning Wallers’ solo act, The Rebel, or you’re studying his 1993-formed art-punk band, Country Teasers, you’ll hear glimpses of these influences throughout.
His back catalogue is tall. No two songs sound the same. Guitars and drums crank like the cogs of a worn out brain. They speed up and slow down. A crunching, unstable symphony. His lyrics unsettle and stir. Steeped in carnivorous irony, Wallers takes on taboos like misogyny, racism and fascist malevolence from first-person standpoints, with the intent to shock, disturb and raise awareness. You might expect, with this role, a disgruntled menace of a man. However, you’d be sorely mistaken. Perhaps most surprising of all is Ben Wallers’ grace.
He bares his soul. Gentle, kind, honest and unguarded, in person, he is soft-spoken and unapologetically himself. Perhaps this is what makes Wallers the great observer he is. While others look no further than their own unsure shadows, Wallers sees clear. Like any good writer, he’s sat two feet away, witnessing it all so you don’t have to.
Shot exclusively on medium format, Woody Cecilia and Amy Lidgett join Ben Wallers on a Tuesday to unveil what days off from The Rebel look like.
Country Teasers, Cas Rock – Edinburgh, 1994
What time do you usually get up on your days off?
I wake up at 6:15am. I don’t get straight out of bed – I lie there for a bit. But, pretty soon, I want to have fun on my day off, so I wouldn’t lie in much later than 7:30am. I would only ever have a really massive lie in if I’d been doing a gig the night before.
So, what’s a massive lie in?
And what's the first thing you do?
Make a cup of coffee! Especially at this time of year – it’s kind of warm and airless, so I wake up like a complete zombie. I can hardly walk – danger of falling down the stairs, so I go straight to the kettle. After two sips of coffee, I’ll be able to function. Then, I start making my porridge, which is a daily ritual. I’ve got a great porridge recipe, actually! Do you wanna hear it?
I make the coffee – and then, as soon as I’ve got that on the go, I put the pan on the gas hob and put it on low heat. Then, I get a knob of butter, put that on there. Melt the butter. Put a couple of teaspoons of brown sugar in (I’m a bit of a sugar addict) and then sprinkle some cinnamon, sprinkle some nutmeg, sprinkle some cardamon powder and a little bit of salt. In the winter, it’s particularly nice, as it all starts to heat up and smell sort of christmassy. It’s delicious! Onto that, I drop the porridge and sauté it.
Boom! What else do you usually get up to?
Let’s work methodically! Put the radio on, listen to the World Service. Listen to classical music on Radio 3. And then, at 9:45am, I listen to the Daily Service on Radio 4. Although I’m not really religious, I like the ‘Let’s be nice to everyone’ mellow vibe. I love hymns. Then, it’s looking like it’s nearly time for elevenses. Time for another coffee.
What do you do to relax?
I really like watching Star Trek and Star Wars. It’s a bit like a meditation. I’ve got A New Hope on a video – and, when I put it on, it’s like when you give a baby a dummy. So, I do that and I listen to music too – that’s very good fun. I love the ritual and the physicality of putting a record on. I’m very strongly against listening to music on a phone, or a computer – I just cannot get into it. Hmm, what else? Making music’s quite good fun. Relaxing, reading. I do a lot of reading, I go and buy the newspaper – The Guardian. Yes! That’s it.
You’re a Fall fan, aren’t you? Did you hear Mark E. Smith only had one chair in his house so he couldn’t have guests?
Did he really! [Laughs] I’ve got a nice photo of him here from the obituary [points to black and white cutting of Mark E. Smith by kitchen sink]. He’s quite young. And I’ve got another photo of him here... That was just from the newspaper when he died.
Would you have wanted to meet him?
Not really, because, unless I could have lived in Manchester and developed a long ten-year relationship with him, it would have been me being like, “UHHH, you’re Mark E. Smith” and him going, “Get out of my way, you dick!” So, no.
Which is probably what he would have said, knowing his reputation...
Well, I think it was a lottery. He was very ill and grumpy from being ill, and sort of speedy... But I know people that knew him that say he was really nice.
Have you ever tried to get into the headspace of another person when songwriting?
No! I can’t do it – I’m an egomaniac. Because, as soon as I start to try and get into the headspace of another person, it usually ends up being a little bit of me – and, usually, it’s something that I think’s wrong with me. Because, I come from a super privileged background. I’ve got this incredibly expensive education, I’m white, I’m male, I come from a Tory family… all of these aces that I hold! So, although I’ve managed to burn most of it out and rebel against it, a lot of it’s still in there – and I think that’s what comes out. So, if I adopt another persona, that stuff comes out.
Do you resent your upbringing?
Yes and no. I’m happy now and it’s good the way things have turned out, but I went to Harrow School. Of all the public schools, they’re the worst, in my opinion. They were horrible. I wasn’t bullied or anything, particularly – I was just made to feel like a weirdo. Everyone used to say I was on drugs, which I wasn’t. I was kind of straight edge! But I can’t really resent it, because my parents had spent all this money on it and I got a really good education. The teachers were really great, but Harrovians tend to be rich and thick... Some of them were nice, but the ones I was rolling with were quite bad.
Have you ever had fans come up to you, not knowing that your work is totally satirical?
At a gig, a young woman and a tall man both came up on stage after I was packing up. I was ready, as usual, to have a conversation and accept compliments – but this girl was definitely accusing me of doing something bad. She was saying, “How do you feel about guys singing along with the lyrics of Life is a Rehearsal?” She was saying that I should feel awkward that guys were chanting this line, because she was implying that the guys in the crowd weren’t singing it ironically, they’re singing it like a football chant. And I agree with that – I do feel uncomfortable when that happens, because I don’t know what they mean when they’re singing it. I know what I mean, but I don’t know what they mean. But I was thinking about this, and how dare I assume that they are incapable of irony themselves and are not just full bloodily enjoying the whole thing, knowing exactly what I mean and singing along with that? Until somebody presents to me a really good argument, explaining that the whole thing is misguided and dangerous and that I shouldn’t be doing it, I’ll carry on doing it.
I think you’d be the first person to know if it was dangerous though, surely…
I don’t know about that, because I don’t think very carefully about what I’m about to sing. I write it down as it occurs to me – if it’s good, I sing it. I don’t really do too much editing. It sort of comes automatically. If I ever try to deliberately write something out, it becomes kind of boring. Now, I’m reading about patriarchy, so I’m dying to write the ultimate song about that or what’s going on right now with Weinstein – but, if I try to do that, I find out very quickly that I don’t really know what’s going on. I get kind of clueless – so, instead of doing that, I don’t do anything. I wait until I’m at work and think of some funny line, write that down, string it out into a couple of verses which rhyme and I then hopefully will have dealt with the issue, if I do that enough.
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