Australian musician Ben Lee has been in a passionate relationship with music since he was a child. Now, at the age of 41, Lee has been reflecting on the music that shaped him in his formative years and has decided to celebrate it through his new album, Quarter Century Classix.
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The album is a collection of covers from artists who were the iconic pillars of the underground scene Lee grew from. Featuring songs from Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Daniel Johnston, Pavement and more, the album is a meaningful tribute honoring not only that scene, but the relationship that Lee has fostered with music for all of these years.
American Songwriter sat down with Lee earlier this week and we talked about how he made this record, the artist it tributes and the way music’s role in his life has evolved. We are also happy to be premiering Quarter Century Classix, which is available to stream just below. The record will be fully released on Friday, November 21 via New West Records.
Can you tell the story of how this record came to be? What made you want to make a full record of covers honoring these artists?
It wasn’t really premeditated. I have this duo, Radnor & Lee [with Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” fame] and we were playing Chicago when the polar vortex was happening. You could hardly leave the hotel during the day.
But, Chicago is where I made my first record Grandpaw Would in 1993, so it’s a place full of memories for me. It’s also a place that’s very connected to a time in my life and a certain relationship with music. It all sorta came back to me and I was listening to a lot of records from that period, and I had my guitar and I just started plugging out recordings of these songs, sketching them. I really had all of that done by the time I left Chicago three days later, I just went through it all in that hotel room. When I got back, I started pulling these great musicians who I knew appreciated it and we turned it into an album. It was a real side thing, an experiment. It’s been a really pleasant surprise to see how many people resonate with this.
Once you realized you were making a record of covers, what was your philosophy behind approaching arranging and presenting songs in an original way?
I was really just trying to make a cool record, make it sound good, make it sound like me paying tribute to them, but not imitation. There are things like on the Dinosaur Jr. song, Mary Lattimore was playing harp and she was like “you’ve gotta do a J Mascis guitar solo, you’ve gotta try.” Obviously there’s an absurdity in that because he is the greatest guitarist in a generation. But I set out to do the solo, and I worked so hard on it. It’s something he could do in like two minutes with his hands behind his back, but I spent two days actually piecing together a decent guitar solo. So, there are moments like that that are tributes.
But then there are things like when Joey Waronker came in and we did the Pavement song. I was like “ah, it’s not working” and I realized he was playing it too much like the original. I’m not Pavement, I’m not Stephen Malkmus, I have to play the song like a song of mine. Then Joey, because he’s such a brilliant drummer was like “oh okay” and played the song like it was a different thing. I think that moment sums up how you’ve got to treat covers.
Really, I just wanted to honor all of these artists. David Berman, Daniel Johnston… there are artists from the fringes of popular music who have died and you see the outpouring on social media from people who you never would’ve thought had been influenced by someone like them, and now you have so many people talking about it. Part of me thinks “why couldn’t that have happened while that artist was alive?” Why do we have to wait for an artist to die to honor them? Really the goal of this record was to honor all these people who, for the most part, are around the receive that honor.
How have the meaning and role of these songs in your life changed in the 25 years since your first trip to Chicago? How does it feel to listen to them all these years later?
It’s funny because these aren’t songs that I haven’t listened to for the past 25 years, I’ve often revisited them, repeatedly. They’ve stood the test of time for me. A song like “Speeding Motorcycle” I was playing with Daniel Johnston just two years ago. But deconstructing them, learning them, recording them and being inside them has been really fascinating because I’m reexamining them through the context of modern and popular music. One of the things I found really interesting is that in a way these are all “hit” songs from within the underground. Like, these are all songs that if you were into that kind of music you would know them and they were important songs—but they weren’t hit songs on the radio. It made me think about styles of songwriting and how many complex variations there can be on what a “hit” is. Even the title of the record examines what a “classic” is. We live in a time where everything has become so quantifiable. There are metrics and data on everything, and a hit is actually easily defined now because it’s done in terms of streams. But, what a hit is and what type of song could be a hit was a much more earnest concept in the ‘90s, and I believe it still is in people’s hearts. I think the stats on Spotify can only tell you so much about actual influence in terms of lives changed by a song, and how big the change was. There are no metrics for that on Spotify.
Obviously there’s so much to say about the era of indie music that you are celebrating on this record, but can you expand on what that scene was like and what it meant to you?
You could really define all these songs and artists as being really vibrant in the period right before and directly after Nirvana broke through. Nirvana came from a scene of loosely connected underground music happening in America and around the world, and it created a wave for all of these other artists to be heard. For me, I was in Australia, and I didn’t have CMJ, I didn’t have college radio, we barely had fan-zines making it over. What was allowed to happen when Nirvana broke through suddenly created international interest for all of these artists who otherwise would have been of nominal concern for the mainstream market. This music was a loose underground that came after punk and hardcore, and the bands were all different but also all kind of inherently anti-careerist. There were commercial ambitions in as much as “it’s nice to be able to pay the bills and have health insurance,” but the point of these artists when they started these bands was that none of them thought they’d become huge rock stars. This was about the fact that you had good taste, knew about cool music, listening to cool music and made cool music. That was its own value.
Do you see the influence of those artists in the modern indie scene? Any parallels?
The influence is undeniable. I hear a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s indie rock in current bands. But because of the internet, there’s been this equalizing force. Now, when you start doing music, you will find your audience—that didn’t use to be as much as a given. If you were in a small town and started making music you doubted the viability of that being able to sustain you. Now, in the streaming world, there is a much higher likelihood that you will be able to find your tribe or niche or audience. I think that the world of fixating, fan-zines and how hard it was to find out about new music is gone forever.
Daniel Johnston sadly passed away recently and you knew him, even performed with him. Can you talk about Johnston’s influence and what he represents to you? You recorded “Speeding Motorcycle” for this record before he passed, but does it feel especially poignant now?
It felt kinda funny because there was no desire to be opportunistic about Daniel’s death. It felt so weird to have that ready to release two weeks after he died. I was very conscious about not wanting people to think it was some kind of media play or way for me to get attention for the record or something. It really wasn’t that, the record was already finished and mastered. There was a moment when I first heard the version of that song that he did with Yo La Tengo and it was so innocent, and what’s kinda gorgeous about that is that if I had recorded that song after he died it wouldn’t have had the same innocence. When I listen to my cover, it has an innocence to it because it was from before we lost him. Paying tribute to someone after they’ve died has a different energy to it, it has a sadness to it. That song’s not heavy, it’s a good, simple rock’n’roll song and we’re playing it lightly with a light touch because we love it, and I think it would be very hard to do that the week after someone passes.
Part of what makes this cover record so exciting is that you were “an active participant” in the scene you’re celebrating and even opened for a few of the artists—such as Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Pavement, Sebadoh, etc.—can you talk about what those experiences were like? How did those shows influence your musical ethos / your life?
It’s like mythological. The role that Sonic Youth plays in my mind and personal history is far bigger than the role I play in theirs. I was young, I was 14 coming into that scene, and these guys all started their bands pretty much in the 1980s, and the momentum they had created in those five or ten years was just happening. They were kind of like the older, cool kids in school. I think you see this a lot in cross-generational art, but there’s this beautiful passing on of wisdom that is just osmosis. It’s not someone telling you “listen, these are things you need to watch out for,” it’s like just by being in the presence of people who have done it, you learn about how to do it. What these guys were doing—and I know I do something a little bit different now because I am from a different generation—but there is very much a sense of mission from independent music from the ‘80s and ‘90s that is part of my DNA and what I continue to do, what I look for in a project and how I identify what’s cool or exciting for me.
In your bio you are quoted saying “It was a time when being a fan of music was the most dominant thing in my life, which is what happens when you’re that age.” Could you expand on that and maybe shed some light on how your relationship with music has changed throughout the course of your career?
I think this goes for everyone, and in particular teenage boys—although it might be different now because of video games—music was tribal. Like, the kind of music you like was an identifier of who you were, what your values were, how you dress and what your politics were. It was so, so important. I think part of the nature of maturing in life and going through other highlights, successes, failure, grief and mortgages and all of it—your relationship with it evolves because you’re evolving. I can say that looking back on my life, music is the thing that’s stood by me the most until I met my wife. It’s lasted for me. I think one of the reasons I have a passion for music is music’s generosity to me, it keeps showing up. I pick up an instrument and there’s a melody there, and I take that for granted. To some degree, the friendship with music that I have has only been possible because I’ve allowed the relationship to mature. I don’t ask it to be a tribal identifier anymore. I don’t ask to dictate who my friends are, or what I’m allowed to wear, I don’t ask it to tell me what other music I should listen to, I don’t ask it any of that. But I honor that there was a time when that stuff was important. Now, music is more like a lover. We play hide and seek with each other. In a way, it’s more delicate and it’s more mature.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length