Swimming and Touring: A Conversation with Radical Face

By Minimal Beat
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Picture it. A sunny yet chily San Francisco evening at The Chapel in its Mission district. I’m listening to soundcheck and waiting to interview Ben Cooper, who is also known as Radical Face. He’s just started the US portion of his tour after the release of the 5th installment of The Family Tree series which is titled The Family Tree: The Leaves, which was just released in March of this year. I am taken backstage by Tour Manager, Patrick, and I spot Ben on a couch strumming his acoustic guitar. We sit in what they call “the hot box” which is neither hot nor a box. But it is a very small room. The veggie tray is located on the other side of the wall.

TMB: How’s the tour going?

BEN: We just finished the European portion and then went home for a few days and then came out here and this is the 2nd US show. Europe went well. They really pay attention and are quiet so it’s hard to tell if they like you. They just sort of stare and then leave when they’re done.

TMB: Do they clap?

BEN: They do but they just, I don’t know, I can never tell if they actually enjoy it or if they’re miserable the whole time. (laughs).

TMB: Do you have any good stories from the road?

BEN: Yeah! I think this tour has been a really different sort of tour because everyone I’m here with is friends (at that exact moment, one of the talked about friends opens the door to grab backpack)….the way we work in Jacksonville, my live band changes every time on tour as I usually record everything by myself. This time (when I called upon a band to tour), there were a lot of people available. This time the opening act is made up of my friends and then they’re playing with me too. We’ve always made stuff together. We have this system where everyone is the head of their own bands and we all pitch in to help out. We just do everything that way and it’s pretty cool because sometimes bands start having shitty relationships really fast and they start yelling at each other and are trying to express themselves at the same time and it’s no fun. So yeah, this tour has been a ton of hanging out with friends. It’s not stressful at all.

TMB: When you first started writing your epic album The Family Tree, what was the original goal

BEN: Originally I was going to do these three little short EPs. Basically, a really small version of what actually happened. (laughs). Then it just exploded and it kinda kept going. I thought it’d be a year long project and, instead, it took eight.

TMB: At this point do you feel it’s complete?

BEN: It could keep going. I actually have a few songs I haven’t recorded but I need to work on something else. I need to think about other things. Another downside to it is the material is dark and depressing and when you go tour you think about it every night and I actually start getting bummed out. That’s why we usually joke a lot onstage, to lighten the mood.

TMB: What’s the first song you ever wrote?

BEN: I was probably 14. No wait, younger, summer of 8th grade. I had a 4 track, I made a tape and gave it to friends. They thought it was pretty cool and we started swapping tapes. The more your friends started writing cooler stuff, the more you didn’t want to be left behind so you did it too.

TMB: Instruments?

BEN: I first picked one up at probably around 12 or 13. I mowed lawns to buy an electric guitar.

TMB: What were you listening to at the time?

BEN: Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. We all thought they were cool and wanted to be that. A huge influence in town, too, there was an all ages dance club called Einstein A-Go-Go. Even though it was a dance club, they didn’t play dance music They played The Pixie’s and The Smiths. We grew up listening to that. We were really into underground music but we didn’t know the difference and thought that was really normal. I was really surprised when I got older when I found out no one knew who these bands were like Sebadoh or other bands we thought were the biggest bands in the world.

TMB: What’s a typical day like for you when not on tour?

BEN: Oh…um..depends. Depends where I’m at in my life in a record cycle because it can be anything as I do a lot of the stuff myself. If it’s like that and I’m in a record cycle like I just was before this release, I only took 1 day off in 3.5 months and everyday until midnight was work. So it can be like that. And if I have downtime, I probably spend as much as my day swimming as possible. I love going to the springs or beach or my friend’s pool. It’s probably that or reading a book. If I can, I’m usually just very quiet. I don’t ever really go out unless there’s good food or somebody I want to talk to.

TMB: The video for Road to Nowhere was shot at an abandoned dairy farm. Have you ever been to Wisconsin?

BEN: Haha! I’ve driven through it but did not stop. For the video, we were looking for the creepiest industrial location possible and then the guy that was shooting it got a tip from a friend who is an urban explorer. It was only 1.5 hours away from Jacksonville and we went there at night and everyone was creeped out. We were like oh it’s perfect! I had no idea it was even there.

TMB: Do you edit all your own videos?

BEN: I edited this one. (Road to Nowhere). Sometimes I do it with the guy that shoots them but because of timing he couldn’t be there. I just picked out which clips and order and duration. I love doing videos when I have the time. It’s super fun to me to come up with a screenplay and find actors. We shot two videos together so there’s actually another video where if you watch the other one there’s things that are happening in the Road to Nowhere video that are causing problems for someone in the other video. There’s also a mouse that wakes him up that is in the other video. It’s like a little interconnected idea. (The companion video is named Everything Costs).

TMB: You are way creative. Where do all these creative ideas come from? Every medium – it’s just amazing to watch it all…

BEN: Thank you. I think it’s because we grew up in a city where no one likes what we do. I haven’t played Jacksonville in a long time. We were all just misfit friends. We started out with drawing and someone would say hey do you want to get a camera and make a short film?  And we’d be like yeah that’s cool. We would do anything to pass time. I think over time I realized that they’re all pretty similar. I mean, the medium and the execution are what takes all the actual practice. The root of it doesn’t feel super different, like coming up with a video or a song or a short story. It seems like all the same place to me. If you have the time to nitpick and do it again, you can figure it out even if it’s not your strongest medium.

TMB: What’s something about being a musician that you didn’t know before you started everything?

BEN: I think one of the weirdest transitions in all of this as I’ve done it, was switching from it being purely a hobby and outlet to people are paying attention and then also when you actually pull the plug on other jobs that help you pay rent. For me it was one of those things I really had to work hard on. My definition of selling out is if you start changing your ideas or softening them for fear they won’t be accepted because you’re like if no one buys it then I won’t be able to pay my rent. That’s the thing that always scared me, it was connecting it because then i think you start playing it safe and repeating it till no one cares. So the part the surprises me the most was how much it messes with your head when it stops being a hobby and purely a good fun outlet. I have a lot of bands ask me how did you get to where you are and in all honesty I don’t really know I just did it a lot. I do it all the time. I have always believed that if you do something genuine, people will reach out and let you know.

TMB: What are your fans like?

BEN: One of my fav things happened in Europe…there were three generations there at my show…the kid, the mom and the grandma and they said to me “you’re the only music we agree on” and I took that as a huge compliment. I love it when it’s not a 19 year old who feels they have to listen to it because of their friends. I think the range has been really surprising to me. It’s not targeting anything that I’ve seen. I guess a lot of people like slow depressing storytelling music (laughs). It’s all very abstract until you go on tour and then there’s interaction which is cool.

Radical Face is currently at the start of their US tour and you can find tour dates and purchase music HERE. 
Interview by our S.F. Correspondent Molli Kreuser

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