Muscles vs Ben Lee
MUSCLES lies down on the therapist’s couch with Aussie pop icon BEN LEE.
On paper, it seemed like a good idea. An electro pin-up boy playing journo to Australia’s enduring prince of earnest indie-pop. But, as that old football cliche goes, the game isn’t played on paper.
When this interview was conducted, Ben Lee had just released ‘I Love Pop Music’, the celebratory new single from his forthcoming LP The Rebirth of Venus (out February on Dew Process). He was also about to tie the knot with Ione Skye – actor, filmmaker and the daughter of ’60s folk singer Donovan – in the south of India. Muscles, for his part, had a month of mixed fortunes. He played an impressive set at the Meredith Music Festival, but spent the majority of December slagging off his record label Modular and making bizarre statements about quitting the music biz on his blog.
A known admirer of Lee, Muscles spent three days remixing ‘I Love Pop Music’ into a minimalist techno track that bore almost no resemblance to the original. It was rejected, of course, by Lee’s label, but eventually saw the light of day on Muscles’ MySpace page.
While the pair ostensibly had a lot to talk about, Muscles was more interested in venting, and the interview quickly descended into a sparring match between two contrasting egos. In the one corner there was Lee, the former enfant terrible of the Australian music scene, who has transformed himself into an enlightened being under the guidance of guru Sakthi Narayani Amma. In the other, Muscles, whose meteoric rise has turned him into a jaded label-bashing self-promoter after a mere two years.
The “precocious little cunt” baton has officially been passed.
Muscles: So are you planning a buck’s party or something?
Lee: I had a bachelor dinner. It was pretty mellow, but it was nice. A lot of what the record is about leads directly into reasons why a bachelor party would be somewhat uncomfortable for me. I’m not someone who traditionally has fitted into bloke’s night out type mode.
Muscles: I’m exactly the same … I had a cousin’s bachelor party, buck’s party, is that the same thing?
Lee: Yeah, bachelor night, buck’s night.
Muscles: Yeah, I really didn’t want to go but at the same time I had to finish a song. So that was my excuse for not going: “I got work to do.”
Lee: But you can’t skimp out on your own! [Laughs]
Muscles: So what are you up to? How’s the album going? New single’s out on December 20 I see.
Lee: People kind of dig it. You know I work on so much stuff for me it’s kind of like …
Muscles: What’s the next single after ‘I Love Pop Music’?
Lee: ‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’
Muscles: ‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’. Sorry, I’m just writing that down because it’s a great title. ‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’. I think I’ll write a song, ‘What’s So Good About Feeling Bad?’, and it can be a collaboration or something. Nah, I’m joking I can’t do that … I’ve got 10,000 other things to do at the moment.
Lee: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Muscles: That includes relaxing and watching America’s Next Top Model.
Lee: Watching that is your priority? [Laughs]
Muscles: That’s the number one priority at the moment. I’ve done my work for the year. I’m doing a show with Tim Rogers next Monday. That’s my last gig.
“I just like good people and that’s why I like the idea of pop music, because it includes everything. It can include you, it can include me, it can include MGMT, Kate Miller-Heidke, anyone.”
Lee: What gig?
Muscles: Me and Tim Rogers wrote a song together two weeks ago in my studio. I said, “Hey, why don’t we do a gig? I’ll ring the guy from the Corner, let’s lock it in, let’s book it in. I’ll promote it on my blog and they’ll [the bookers] put it in streetpress.”
Lee: That sounds fun. It’s all about just playing and making music. It’s interesting, the whole promo thing … That’s the time I get insecure. When I have to go to radio and have to talk about it. It’s a constant creative flow. You go from making this to making that to making the next thing. To take too much time reflecting on it, it kinds of freaks me out a little bit. [Laughs]
Muscles: That’s why the last six months I’ve completely stayed away from my record label [Modular]. Just locked myself up to write the album. Now the album’s 90 percent done. Okay, so now I’m in promo business mode … Because I don’t have a manager and if I’m not out promoting, no one else is going to do it for me.
Lee: Shit. You’re doing everything yourself?
Muscles: I’m self managed, self booked as of two weeks ago. I don’t have a publishing agreement so I guess you could say I’m self-published … All I wanna do now is party. Stuff all this, I don’t care, the music industry is dying. Whatever, let them die.
Lee: It’s interesting. Now everyone has studios at home and all that, it just seems like the whole way that we measure success is changing.
Muscles: Yeah, I remember the record label saying to me, “If your record was released in March, it would’ve gone to number one.” It’s all like when you finish VCE, it’s all in relation.
Lee: It’s all in a curve. [Laughs]
Muscles: The system is based on how many records are sold.
Lee: And that’s why more than ever, you have to decide for yourself what success means.
Muscles: My point is that in Australia, especially, the second they decided they need a mobile phone to sponsor the official ARIA charts. If they need a sponsor to give them money to be able to do this chart thing, there must be something going on with the global economic crisis. It’s probably 10 times worse now.
Lee: People don’t have the same disposable income now. It’s weird because the musicians are actually digging the changes. The industry’s sort of flipped out, but for us it’s like, “Wow”.
Muscles: It’s just like the remix I did for you … I sent it to John Mullen at Dew Process saying, “Hey, here’s the remix. I did it in three days.” And then he comes back to me with two paragraphs of all his thoughts on how I should change the remix. Then I realise that all these people who work at record labels are failed musicians. They’re wannabe rock stars. And I’m like, “We’re the rock stars. Maybe you should listen to us!”.
Lee: But the thing is, it only became an issue because you needed the label in that case to cooperate. That’s the great thing about stepping outside of them and going, “Hey, fuck it! We’ve got MySpace now.” You’ve got [other] places to put your music … It takes the power away from labels when you can just have a direct connection with your fans.
Muscles: And even just me doing the remix, sending you a beat and a few basic lyrics and you writing that song, all in the space of 24 hours – that’s the future of the music industry right there.
Lee: It is, it is.
Muscles: No more 100-page contracts with ridiculous clauses saying you’re not allowed to wear jumpers of a certain colour during press interviews and we officially own all of your recordings for the entirety of your life in the universe. The first time I saw my record contract I laughed my head off …
Lee: Totally. And that’s the cool thing about there being less money than ever in music. A lot of the people who got into it for money are getting out of it, and you’re actually left with more cool creative people in the industry than there were 10 years ago when there was more money.
Muscles: I agree with you completely.
Lee: It’s not a business you get into for money. If you want to do that, you go start a website or you go do something else … Do you find when you play live that, whatever the numbers are in terms of sales or radio, they don’t have anything to do with the amount of people that know your music anymore? When I do a gig, there are so many people there singing along. I’m like, “There’s more people here than [those who] bought the record.”
Muscles: Exactly. My label is selling T-shirts for $80. My record costs $20 in the shops. If people prefer to pay $80 for a T-shirt than $20 for a record that takes years and hours and hours of work, why are they not protecting the work? It’s insane. But going back to playing live, I just played the Meredith Festival.
Lee: I’ve never done that. Is it good?
Muscles: It’s the best festival in Australia … It’s amazing, there’s 20,000 people all in one amphitheatre. It was pouring rain. You know that band MGMT?
Lee: Oh yeah, they’re great.
Muscles: Er, they’re okay. I wouldn’t say they’re great. They played and pretty much dampened [the vibe]. Everyone sang along to their three big hits and the rest of the set was so boring. Their entourage were the rudest people backstage …
Lee: I love that you’ve created a hobby of making enemies of people. [Laughs] You’re just chalking them up.
Muscles: I’m not making enemies though. Every decision that I’ve made in my business and personal life comes from a positive place. Which is why I wanted to do a remix for you because the lyrics in your song [‘I Love Pop Music’], I identify with 100 percent because it’s in line with all the songs I’m writing at the moment. Change needs to happen. Barack Obama is becoming president of America, so it’s not just a music thing. It’s an entire world lifestyle thing.
Lee: I had this total realisation that a lot of people our age …
Muscles: Well, I don’t know how old you are. How old are you?
Lee: I’ve just turned 30. How old are you?
Muscles: I’m 24.
Lee: Well, we’re the same generation. You hear more young people thinking they can make a difference than previously. When I was 14 I became a vegetarian, and I remember the biggest insult you could get was being called a “Greenie” … But now, environmental issues are part of the mainstream discussion, so it is happening on a mass level. It’s really amazing to be part of and to watch.
Muscles: We’re coming across as revolutionaries now, but I’m not like that at all. I’m just living and doing what I love. Whatever happens, happens. I said in an interview two weeks ago that my music career isn’t like Amy Winehouse’s … because every time you hear a story about her she sells another 200 records. I’m the complete opposite of that. Nothing that comes from Muscles’ camp is negative in the slightest, it’s just honest. There are people out there, who are dishonest and disrespectful, and they’re going to get caught out.
Lee: It’s like the saying, “You see the same people on the way down.” It’s been interesting, because I’ve been making records for 16 years …
Muscles: You’ve been making records for 16 years! I’ve only been doing it for two years and I feel like I’ve aged 20 years … The amount of pressure, emotional stress and the physical aspect of playing live, most people don’t realise how hard it is to do that everyday non-stop and then going back to being a normal person.
Lee: It’s intense.
Muscles: It’s incredibly intense. I saw you play at the Prince of Wales ages ago and I was inspired by you when I played at Meredith … It was two or three years ago, it might’ve been Patience [Hodgson] from The Grates there or someone else. You’re always with someone. Like going to the ARIAs with Kate Midler-Heidke (sic). Why the hell would you do that?
Lee: I didn’t go with her, I just took a photo with her on the red carpet.
Muscles: Well, you’re a celebrity player.
Lee: You know what? For me, you know how you were saying your attitude to music is not contrived? I’ve always felt that first and foremost, I’m a human being, and a musician second. My attitude has always been, “I want to have a good quality life surrounded by good people.” I think she’s a very nice person. I’ve toured with everyone from Cat Power to Fugazi to Vanessa Carlton to Mandy Moore. I just like good people and that’s why I like the idea of pop music, because it includes everything. It can include you, it can include me, it can include MGMT, Kate Miller-Heidke, anyone.
Muscles: Tim Rogers? Josh Pyke? Patience from The Grates?
Lee: If you write interesting catchy songs and they spread to the world, then good on you. That’s why I’ve found it very important in my journey not to be snobby. I’ve learned from everyone. Even people you’d never expect, there’s some lesson you can learn as a musician and as a person.
Muscles: The thing is, the Australian music industry in general is so small that screwing over anyone, everyone’s going to know. And I’m exactly the same way. A lot of people say, “Oh, Muscles is brutal, he’s so harsh.” But I’m just telling the truth … The second that I got the slightest bit of success, all of a sudden the sharks start circling around you. And it’s not being an arsehole for just being an arsehole, it’s me protecting what I’ve created, making sure that I’m not getting taken advantage of by people who have bad intentions.
Lee: I’ve met a lot of people that have continued to make money and have success, but they’re not happy because they’ve been dishonest. I do believe that your happiness is related to how well you can sleep at night because of your integrity.
Muscles: I sleep like a rock every night … You know the guys from PNAU?
Lee: I’ve never met them, but I really like them.
Muscles: They had an album 10 years ago. They got really successful unexpectedly. They won an ARIA and then the album had to be taken off the shelves a week later because they had heaps of samples that weren’t cleared. And PNAU have come back like last year and all of a sudden they’re big again. From my point of view it’s like, I could take a break for five or 10 years as well, come back and hopefully there’ll still be an audience for me because I’ve already done all the hard work … They know I’m out there. It’s completely up to me whether I decide to make music or not in the future.
Lee: Well the more you worry about it …
Muscles: I have no intention of creating any music or being part of the 50-year old record label model, because it’s so stupid. It’s just silly.
Lee: If you make music from, like you were saying, a positive place that’s just for you and your friends and you like it, it’ll find its way to its audience whatever the model is.
Muscles: Always. I’m not ashamed to say that I love my music and I listen to it in the car all the time. I wish there were more people out there making music like me, taking risks and confusing people and not being able to figure out what it is. Is it shouty music? Is it electronic music?
Lee: But that’s the thing. The same thing you said to me – I know you were joking – about why play with this person or that person.
Muscles: I was playing, I was tugging your chain. It just came out wrong.
Lee: I know, I know, but that is an attitude that people have very earnestly. And I think it is the job of artists to go, “Hey, those boxes and those rules – that exists in your world, it doesn’t exist in my world.” In my world, if you show up and you’re ready to play, I’m there man. Let’s do it. That’s part of all the stuff we were talking about in the world. The barriers are coming down between genres too.
Muscles: The amount of people that are just exposed to so many different genres within one day, it’s just amazing.
Lee: But there’s still going to be hipsters and snobs and 50-year-old dinosaurs who are going to say, “It has to be this way or it has to be that way."
Muscles: I believe there’s good in everyone and some people have lost their way right now, but there’s hope that they can change as long as they’re not stubborn. We can all move forward together and there’s place for every kind of artist and every genre in every distribution channel in the world. And we can all coexist peacefully and happily in this musical utopia.
Lee: It’s like that great Dylan lyric: "You better start swimming or you sink like a stone."
Muscles: I came up with a really good quote that’ll make me famous one day, but I forgot what it is.