Benjamin Booker, the 28-year-old guitar player originally hailing from Virginia Beach, VA, has a new outlook on life with the release of his recent album, Witness. With a diverse backing band and unique style, his blues guitar riffs and soulful lyrics are a pleasant change from your radio rock dial. A journalism graduate from the University of Florida, Booker now calls Los Angeles home.
We spoke recently as he prepares to hit the road again and found out which book stimulated his creative side, how Southern culture can create positive change, and what his favorite band is.
OC Weekly (Michael Silver): You recently concluded an opening slot supporting Portugal, The Man. What is it like creating a set list for the earlier crowds?
Benjamin Booker: Oh man, it’s a straight rock set list. When you play festivals or an opening slot you may have like 30-minutes to do your rock set. During a normal show you have the ups-and-downs, you know, with songs in the middle, mid-tempo songs, more of a journey. If I’m opening I’m playing all the fast ones! It’s honestly pretty fun; playing your own show is fun because you get to try different things with people and see how the crowd reacts.
The new album, Witness, has been earning high praise. I read in a previous interview that you felt stuck attempting to write this record. What helped you get over the hurdle?
I don’t know if there was anything I did in particular to help me get over. Usually the thing that helps me is just something I’m doing at the time. At this particular time I was reading a book and it inspired me to work on the record and it all came together. I don’t think there is a solution; you have to step away from it for a little bit and put it out of your head. If you’ve been thinking about something for a long time and then you stop thinking about it, your brain still works on it for a little bit. Usually it will come together and something will click.
Which book were you reading that put you in that right mindset?
It’s called White Noise by Don DeLillo. I was on the plane and one sentence read, ‘What we are reluctant to touch often includes the fabric of our salvation.’ I made an outline of the album right after that and made the record a month later. It just came from that one sentence, that’s all I needed. I had been trying, I think, for a year to write. It’s a strange process. It’s a great book, definitely something worth reading and will change your perspective on the world.
I watched you perform on Conan not long ago. Do you enjoy the promotional aspect of the music biz? Does playing music on stage feel cathartic?
Everyone in the band enjoys it. For a lot of us, our parents are like ‘Oh they’re actually good’ (laughs). So that part is nice. It really depends on the show, Conan happens to be a really relaxed, fun show. He’s got massage chairs and drinks in the back with guitar amps and pedals everywhere to play with, it’s so welcomed.
Tell me about your time living in New Orleans. The South has been in the news of late with the racial divide. I’m wondering if this has influenced you growing up and the songs you’ve written?
The album I have this time is not a political album, but I did feel for one song I had to say something. It was cool because I have Mavis Staples on the song “Witness” from the album. I think of her when I was younger, and still recently, her family was very involved in making music to help people, to hopefully inspire to act decent through music. That was important to me. I could just write songs and entertain people but I thought at least for a little bit I wanted to be happy with myself.
Do you think these conflicts that are happening will inspire you and fellow musicians to make new music about our current times?
I hope so. I think it’s good for people too, talking to each other you know? Music is an easier way to connect with people then talking. That’s how my first album the whole thing came about. I wrote of some things I couldn’t talk about.
Who are some of your musical influences early on in life?
Growing up I listened to a lot of punk stuff. There’s one band in particular named This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb from Florida. If you listened to the first record that I made, that is the number one influence on there. I also listen to a ton of Otis Redding and soul stuff.
If you could record with any musician, past or present, who would be on your bucket list?
My favorite band of all time is TV On The Radio. Right now there is a singer from New York who goes by the name serpentwithfeet. He’s my favorite singer around right now; I’d love to write songs for him. That would be really cool.
Your headlining tour is underway. What can fans look forward to from these new shows? Who will be opening?
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They can look forward to a better show I think. The players that I’m playing with are incredible musicians and the set is more dynamic. There’s going to be Mississippi fast step to dance to, emotional stuff. That’s some of the most exciting things about going out (on the road), we have a second album so there’s more to share and go on a journey together. Especially with the politics and what’s happening, I want people to forget about them for a while. So that’s the point of the show, to just have fun. The opening band I met here in Los Angeles, I saw them play and asked them to come on tour with us. They’re called She Keeps Bees. It’s a two-piece from Brooklyn, featuring a drummer and a singer named Jessica. They were incredible in person and I immediately asked them afterwards to join me.
What is your favorite venue to play here in the States, or where would you like to play coming up?
Oh man, there are a lot of great venues out there. In Boston there’s a place called The Sinclair that is always really nice that we ended up playing a few times. This guy from Solana Beach was telling me about the spot were playing coming up, named the Belly Up Tavern that sounds incredible. I’m looking forward to that one a lot. It’s right next to the beach so I’m bringing my trunks.
You can catch Benjamin Booker on the road this week as he hits the El Rey Theatre in LA Sept. 27th, and the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Sept. 29th.