I’ve been known, in some cases, to be a fiercely loyal music fan. It’s only true with a handful of artists, and I’m sure Ben Cooper has no idea he’s one of them. Ever since stumbling upon some of his work as half of the electronic ghostfolk duo Electric President more than five years ago, I’ve kept an ear out for what Cooper’s been working on. The answer is: a lot.
Not only is he one half of EP, Cooper has handled nearly every aspect — from making the songs to helping get the CDs packaged and ready to go — of his solo project, called Radical Face, along with a handful of other projects. His first album under that Radical Face moniker, 2007’s Ghost, was a sneaky gem, one that flew under most people’s radars. Truth be told, I kind of like it that way. I want Cooper to have all the success he deserves, but it’s still fun to bestow his work on friends who have never heard him before and watch their diverse reactions to his brand of carefully crafted, sonically layered, expertly woven folk music.
Cooper has undertaken an ambitious task for his next output as Radical Face. He plans to release three albums over the next year or so, all devoted to a continuous storyline about a fictitious family and the events that unfold over its entire history. Cooper borrowed from his own experiences and found stories as well, and the result is sure to be both haunting and beautiful. The first volume is entitled Family Tree: The Roots, and it’s out October 4 on Bear Machine.
The man who is Radical Face was nice enough to respond to some of our questions recently via email, and a taste of Family Tree: The Roots is available for streaming below. The first three songs posted here make up an EP called The Bastards: Volume One. Check out Ben’s answers below!
If you had to describe your musical style to someone who had never heard any of your work, how would you do it?
I always have trouble with this one, but people seem the most satisfied when I say “weird folk music.” I don’t know if that’s very accurate, but it requires the least follow-up, so I use it the most.
This three-LP series you have planned for Family Tree seems like a giant, challenging undertaking. Can you explain if and how you’ve mapped out what each piece — The Roots, The Branches, and The Relatives — is going to be?
It’s definitely the biggest undertaking I’ve ever attempted, in terms of scope. The idea was to not just have the subject matter carry through all the records, but to tie them musically as well. For example: on the first record I wrote a song about a woman named “Victoria Northcoat”, and I used a certain set of chords and scales to tell her story. On record two, I take some of those same melodies and chords and work them into the song about her granddaughter. So certain elements, musically speaking, will be associated with that family line. Kind of like themes.
That’s just one example. I have a lot of little ideas like that running throughout the records, and a lot of notes on all the characters, their stories, and elements I’d like to include for each one. I’ve already mapped out what the albums will be, but it’s somewhat general. A lot can change once I sit down to record final versions.
I never have any idea if any of these things I’m talking about will show up to someone just listening, or whether anyone will care. But I have a lot of fun getting lost in details, so I’m fine with it either way.
You delved into the idea of “What if houses had memories?” for your previous full-length as Radical Face, Ghost. Do you like all your work to revolve around a concept? What inspires you to do that?
Yeah, I tend to use a concept to drive all the records. Some are more dominant than others, but I usually have one in mind, even on the Electric President albums. It helps me focus what I’m writing. When I have a specific concept I’m writing about, it gives me goals to achieve, and it really helps in decision making. Instead of debating whether a sound or song idea is cool or not, I can just weigh whether it’s helping make my point, or whether it’s adding to the this concept I’ve decided to write about. If it’s not, save the idea for something else. If it is, continue on.
And I’ve always been more of a “record” person than a “singles” person. A lot of my favorite records feel like one large piece, that they’re more than just a collection of tracks. I almost always aim to do that in what I write, so I use a theme to help keep everything coherent. I’d be all over the place otherwise.
You incorporate a lot of environmental and found-sound clips into your work, including people’s voices. What’s the importance of having those pieces included in the music you make?
I like field recordings a lot. I enjoy making them, and listening to them, and over time I incorporated them more and more into the songs. I like how they can give a song a “setting”. It can put an image in your head, or a sense of space, and I like to build on that.
But part of this also just necessity, and goes back to my outlook on making things. The shed I record in isn’t ideal. It’s noisy, it leaks when it rains, it’s around people and traffic, and since it’s not sound proofed, all those sounds can be heard pretty easily. Over the years, I’ve learned to just use them. The situation is what it is. Rather than wishing for something different, I just try to incorporate those things into whatever I’m working on. And I try to do that in general, with everything. I mean, I’m not really much of a singer. I don’t have a voice where it comes easy. I have to work at it. But instead of focusing on what my voice can’t do and getting frustrated with the limitations, I work with what it can do. I do my best to just get everything out of it, and as I sing more and slowly improve, I have more options.
I try to approach everything I can that way. I think it helps things feel a lot more optimistic. I think some of the field recording came from this.
Having a hand in so many different projects (Radical Face, Electric President, Patients), you must be making music day and night. What do you think it is inside you that has you constantly creating?
Yeah, I work on projects all the time. But I’m not really sure what it is, to be honest. I just know that I’m happiest when I’ve got projects going and I’m making something. And that once I have an idea for a song or something to write about, it nags at me until I get it out. The times when I try to get away from it and just relax have never worked out well. I get antsy after a couple days. I have a bad habit of going too far in the other direction, where I’ll have too many projects going at once and I start drowning in them, which can certainly be its own kind of stress. But better busy than bored.
“Wrapped In Piano Strings” might be my all-time favorite song of yours, and it seems like a great example of your ability to blend powerful imagery and strong narrative. Do most of your lyrics emerge as full stories you can build a song around, or does it take a lot of molding to get your words to fit what you’re trying to do musically?
Oh, it definitely takes a lot of molding. I usually know what I want to say and the mood I’m shooting for when I sit down to record, but getting all the elements to work together takes me a long time. Lyrics are by far the slowest part of making a record for me, and I usually go through a lot of rewrites and small tweaks before I feel finished. There are occasions when the words and music just kinda fall into place, and it’s all done with pretty quickly and I have no issues with it, but those are rare.
When does a song feel finished to you?
Either when I can’t think of anything else to do with it, or when I’m at a point where adding anything else is only making it worse. Those are the most common scenarios. It’d be nice to just feel totally satisfied with it and that’s why I stop, but that’s never been the case. Hahaha.
Which do you like better: telling a story or hearing someone else’s?
I enjoy both. Stories are great from both ends, and I love exchanging them. Just sitting around and swapping stories is one of my favorite ways to spend my free time. But if forced to pick between the two, I’d say hearing someone else’s. I get the most ideas that way, which inevitably leads to making things.
Where do you do your best work?
I do nearly all my work in my shed, so I’d say it wins by default. But I really enjoy working in there. It’s not always comfortable, in terms of temperature or space, but it doesn’t matter. I enjoy being out there in the middle of the night, just tinkering away.
What do you like to do when you’re not making music?
I have a lot of hobbies. I read a lot. I like to write short stories and scripts. I lift weights 3 nights a week. I swim every other afternoon during summer. I like playing Street Fighter (been playing since I was a kid and I never let it go). I enjoy painting and visual art. I work on short films and movies with my friends (we’ve all been working together on a film for over a year now). I love food and trying out random restaurants, and just spending time with my friends and family.
I don’t think I’ve ever had trouble filling my time, to be honest. I always wish there was more time in a day.