Published October 4, 2017
Ben Frost stands on stage between huge speakers, behind a blinking array of gear. His set jolts to life with the near-deafening sound of a jet engine warming up. It’s a seemingly endless crescendo, delivered at bone-shaking volume—a raw, thrilling racket that sends endorphins rushing through my bloodstream. Ben appears completely engaged in the task of performing, staring manically at the various readouts as his set evolves gradually through waves of bassy distortion and pulses of searing, in-the-red noise. He appears to be almost battling his equipment, and even the room itself, in an attempt to push the sound beyond reason, to a point of transcendence.
“It’s true, it is a fight,” says Ben, a thoughtful and quiet conversationalist when he’s away from the stage. “But it’s a self-imposed one. The software I use isn’t narrative or time-based—the constituent parts are on their own loop, and they don’t pay heed to each other. It’s a chaotic ecosystem that I’m ultimately working to wrangle. And it can be unpredictable.”
Danger and overload
Ben’s will to push his sound to such a hard-to-reach peak, and the ensuing struggle, is compelling to watch. His performances are reminiscent of witnessing the test-flight of an experimental aircraft that could either smash a world speed record, or just as easily tumble back to earth as flaming debris.
“It’s a funny thing, particularly in a live situation—my perception of the way the sound and music is working is very determined by one or two centimetres on the faders,” he says. “There’s a spot where it’s okay, but a little movement, and then it’s really working. It’s about volume, but also pressure, and the way it’s physically hitting my body. The air becomes charged. There are elements of danger and overload, I guess—but it’s not measurable in decibels. It’s just a feeling. And it’s different in every space.”
It’s a process that Ben likens to the travails of contemporary dancers. “What I love about dance is the idea that the body is the limitation,” he says. “There’s a ceiling—you wanna bend a limb to a certain place, but you come up against facts of evolution. If it’s not physically possible, you can find an illusory technique to make it appear that way. Maybe in ways, as an artist, I expect that of myself. If there’s no struggle, it’s invalid, in a way.”
We speak on the eve of the release of Ben’s latest album, entitled ‘The Centre Cannot Hold.’ In contrast with his usually largely self-contained, Iceland-based working process, this record was made in the US, with iconic producer Steve Albini at the controls.
“He’s a strong presence to be around,” says Ben. “He’s a master of the art of recording. On a practical level, everything on the record existed inside a computer, fed out to a room full of speakers and amplifiers. I could have set up in the control room, but I made a decision to place myself in the live room. I made myself the performer. My experience of what I was doing was immediate, and what he was doing was on the other side of six inches of glass. There was a separation there—a dialogue, and a translation that occurred.”
Ben recalls seeing a Beach Boys documentary about the recording of ‘Pet Sounds,’ in which various singers had to literally move around the room to pre-placed marks on the floor, blending their voices in real time. “I found it fascinating,” he says. “I wanted to play with that. We set up many mics, but the primary mics were behind my head, to emulate what I was hearing. I stood in front of the array of speakers and amps, and we treated them almost like an ensemble. If I wanted something louder, I’d physically move it. I was making the sound work in the space, isolated from being able to control everything.”
Hellfire and brimstone
‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ is also Ben’s most overtly political album to date. During the recording, he found himself in the US on the night of the 2016 election. He recalls it as a frightening experience. “It wasn’t ‘him,’ per sé, but what it represented,” he says. “Maybe we’ve all been living in an illusory time period, thinking that somehow things head in right direction of their own volition. If there is a lesson, it’s that—as our dear friends told us—we have to fight for our right.”
He also had some first hand experiences of the American military that fed into the album. “I was recording with Richard Weaver, and we ended up with the US Navy on an aircraft carrier surrounded by bombs stacked like fucking milk crates. Watching these kids from Texas strapping a teacher’s salary onto the bottom of a plane so it could be flown into another country and dropped on some people—it’s a terrifying thought. It would be dishonest to deny that a part of me that wants to use that experience to say something about the state of the world. When I named the track ‘A Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000,’ it is something I want you to think about.”
Drones for lunch
While he’s is reluctant to say that the new album—with other song titles including ‘Healthcare’ and ‘Threshold of Belief’—is an expression of his own politics, Ben admits that the current realpolitik has made him question his work.
“It’s a strange time to be an artist,” he says, slowly. “This narrative we’ve all taken part in since post-war Europe—with values like free market capitalism, the idea of democracy for us and then drones for lunch for other parts of the world—they’ve been vaguely accepted by all of us. There are clearly alternatives that most people would prefer, but we’ve ended up with a literal minority rule. And as an artist, I find myself questioning the validity of what it is I’m doing.”
“I’ve found myself questioning the value of art for art’s sake, which is dangerous,” he continues. “Art shouldn’t need to be advocating something—it strengthens the roots of everything. So my resolve through this record is to re-emphasise that it’s not about my politics—it’s about this idea of having an awareness of the world, and being open to its effects, is enough. I don’t feel any need to push my beliefs on anybody else. It’s an accumulation of experience.”
Dealing with it
This level of engagement with all aspects of his creative process mirrors Ben’s committed approach to playing live. It’s perhaps what makes his creative output—and, particularly, ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’—so compelling.
“The title came from Yeats,” he finishes. “I’d read it in school, but it felt new when I read it again. It felt like a probing question. It was before the US election, and the five fucking hurricanes in a row, and the earthquakes. I wondered earlier this year if it was steering the record in a direction I didn’t want it to go. I don’t want it to feel like giving up, like normalising the idea [of destabilisation] and saying, ‘The world’s fucked, and our children will inherit a scorched earth.’ But I decided there’s resolve in this idea. It’s about having to deal with things.”
‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ is out now.