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Interview: Benjamin Booker 

Alex Woodward interviews the new New Orleans musician whose critically acclaimed debut album mixes punk, pop and blues

This is a good time for Netflix. It's also the only time for Netflix. It's one of those Saturdays in New Orleans that arrive only in late summer, when the clouds are dark and heavy and it's almost too hot to rain. Before he flies to Los Angeles to begin a tour with no end in sight, Benjamin Booker is indoors and catching up with his queue. After tomorrow, there are no weekends.

  "We were on the road for a few weeks. We just got back for a few days," he says. "To be honest, dude, I don't know the full schedule. It's hard to keep track of where you're going to be and when."

  This is a new routine for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter, whose spring from candlelit acoustic gigs upstairs at Mimi's in the Marigny to Jack White's opening act took less than two years. He also landed a record deal with ATO Records and appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman and Conan, while Rolling Stone and Spin have declared him a best new artist — all before his debut album even was released. The self-titled album is out Aug. 19.

  "Everything that happened has been a first," Booker says. "It's too many firsts at one time. There's no time to think about it or worry about what's happening or be scared too much, because you have to do it."

Booker grew up in a military family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. After his dad retired from the Navy, the family moved to Florida, where Booker lived for 12 years. He was a self-described skate kid, and he discovered punk rock at Tampa's Transitions Art Gallery, a warehouse space attached to the Skatepark of Tampa.

  "A bunch of kids from my school in punk bands would play there regularly," Booker says. "I tried to go as much as I could. It wasn't difficult to find at all. It seemed like everybody I knew was going there all the time, either playing or watching shows or hanging out."

  When he was 14, Booker received a guitar for Christmas.

  "I liked playing, I just didn't feel confident enough to take it out and play in front of people," he says. "I was just making stuff up and learning other people's songs and just learning to play guitar. I didn't really write any songs. When I was 19 I wrote the words to a couple songs, and maybe had parts of songs. I just never felt an urge to write."

  In 2012, Booker finished college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where punk fans have carved a scene severed from the college town. Gainesville is home to No Idea Records and its annual punk festival The Fest, when the crustiest, sweatiest bands take over while the town empties out during the Halloween weekend football game between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia. ("It's fun, but it's a little out of control," Booker says.) Booker was looking for work. He was tired of restaurant jobs and was hoping for a ticket out of town. He found a job at the nonprofit organization HandsOn New Orleans.

  "I was like, 'Yes, I really need to get out of Florida.' New Orleans was in the South, wasn't too far away from friends and family, so I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'll try that,'" he says. "It was a huge crash course in the city. The nature of the job was going to police meetings, City Hall meetings, meetings in schools, working on community gardens, running around town and meeting a bunch of people — seeing all these parts of the city and how they work together. It was hard to just do that and leave."


  At HandsOn, Booker kept the radio dialed to WWOZ-FM, his library of a previously unheard, undiscovered world of blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll.

  "The stuff they play on WWOZ is the stuff you would never hear anywhere else," he says. "In Florida it's usually local, regional one-hit wonders. Hearing that kind of stuff, combined with punk, it's like, 'Oh, this makes so much sense. I should do this.'"

  Booker scrapped together a handful of songs and recorded acoustic demos in his parents' bathroom during a visit to Florida. He quietly self-released the four-track EP Waiting Ones — low-fi blues-influenced folk-punk recordings of blown-out acoustic guitar and handclap percussion, all backing Booker's howling, smoke whisper vocals inspired by Robert Johnson. "Have You Seen My Son" — on which Booker sings, "all the way from Florida, down I came to New Orleans / I said God must love everyone even the ones the church loves the least" — sneaked onto Sirius FM radio after the popular music blog Aquarium Drunkard picked up the track. Booker had yet to play a gig.

  "The stress of coming and working for a nonprofit here, handling phone calls with people trying to get in their houses, like, 'Sorry, you have to be on a waiting list,' that stuff every day — I dunno. It's a lot all at the same time," Booker says. "But it also made me a stronger person. I don't know if I'd be able to do the music thing if I didn't have that year. I was really putting it all in and trying to do the nonprofit New Orleans thing."

  Sam Doores of the New Orleans band The Deslondes invited Booker to sing alongside Doores and Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Lee Segarra at a show at Mimi's.

  "When I saw Alynda play, it was like, coming from Florida where it's punk and a little sloppier, it was like, 'I can't believe she's not signed to a label. She's so good.'" Booker says. "This was the first place I'd ever played a show. I started playing here, and the people and music community were very nice to me, even though I was clearly just starting off. They kept offering me shows, you know? Like, 'Why don't you open for us here, open for me there?' It was nice to be brought in so easily."

  Booker spent the next year playing his songs at shows around town.

  "It was just acoustic stuff," he says. "I didn't enjoy playing acoustic. I wanted people dancing and having a good time."

  In 2013, Booker went back to Tampa, briefly, to begin what would become his electric ensemble. He met drummer Max Norton and the pair formed the glorified garage-gospel duo named Booker & Norton — named 2013's Best New Band by Creative Loafing in Tampa. In October, Jon Salter of ATO Records — home of Hurray for the Riff Raff as well as My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers — flew down to catch a show at Tampa's New World Brewery.

  "I was really interested in ATO because they had Hurray for the Riff Raff already from New Orleans," Booker says. "It seemed like a family kind of vibe, the label, and it is."

  Booker signed a record deal in the parking lot.

Booker had only six days booked to record his debut album. It was December 2013, the holidays were around the corner, and several months of touring were booked after the New Year.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MAX NORTON

  "After I quit my job, there was like a month going into recording where I could just work on the songs," he says. "I had thought the whole time I was going to add parts and do a bunch of stuff and I ended up not doing that at all. Every time I would add something and make it more complicated, it seemed wrong."

"Everything that happened has been a first. … It's too many firsts at one time. There's no time to think about it or worry about what's happening or be scared too much, because you have to do it.”

  Andrija Tokic (who helmed Hurray for the Riff Raff's acclaimed ATO Records debut Small Town Heroes) produced Booker's album. Tokic and Booker agreed what shouldn't be on the album — no frills, no overly produced overdubs — but the songs remained as they did onstage. The band recorded live.

  "We just wanted to hit record and play," Booker says. "I had written half the songs in Gainesville and half here. There's a little bit of a difference in the songs I wrote here. I was working a lot and listening to the radio and listening to WWOZ and hearing a lot of the rhythm and blues stuff they were playing and the turn-of-the-century and '20s and '30s stuff working its way into the songwriting."

  Booker parrots Chuck Berry on the opening riff of album opener "Violent Shiver," immediately recognizable as the album's breakout single and a track that earned Booker a slot on Rolling Stone's list of "artists you need to know." Booker's voice is raw, trying to climb out and shout and stay in control, from the spare "Spoon Out My Eyeballs," as it erupts into a soulful, organ-churning gospel and finds its groove as a foot-stomping New Orleans street folktale ("It's getting harder to be real," he sings) to the nose-diving, forward march that sounds like The Strokes' doing Bruce Springsteen on "Old Hearts."

  But Booker still is the skateboard-ing punk kid playing fuzzed out, speaker-busting riffs halfway through "Chippewa," which locks into a Booker T. & the MG's groove before Booker unleashes his inner Dinosaur Jr. The album's centerpiece is a fleshed-out and cleaned up "Have You Seen My Son," no longer the rusty blues track recorded on a laptop.

  "It's still the most representative song of what I want to do," Booker says, "that mixture of punk and gospel and R&B and all these things I grew up listening to."

Things were moving fast, to say the least. As a trio (Booker on guitar, Norton on drums and Alex Spoto on bass), the band's tour started in early 2014 with crowds in the low double digits. Then there was South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where the group played in front of 1,000 people. Then Jack White called.

  "I was in New York and they told me, 'You're opening for Jack White,' and I was like, 'Yeah, I'll take it.'" Booker says, laughing. "'Yeah, let me think about it.' ... It was a big deal to go on tour. It's a big deal to go on a Jack White tour."

  Booker joined White's tour in July, after opening for Drive-By Truckers at the Civic Theatre during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In Chicago, White invited Booker onstage for a guitar duel on the finale, a cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene."

  "We've just jumped into it," Booker says. "For a while there was this pressure, kind of, when you start playing bigger shows, to change the set, to make it more stable, you know, more static, and make it easier. I feel we've gone in the opposite direction, especially touring with Jack. You realize it's so much more fun when you take risks during shows for larger crowds. We have gone back to that, just playing shows like we did when we were in smaller rooms we used to play."

  Booker made Billboard headlines at the Newport Folk Festival where his show was dubbed one of the festival's 10 best performances. At Lollapalooza, Booker tossed his ripped-to-shreds guitar into the crowd. This month, he headlines FYF Festival in Los Angeles, and in September he performs across the U.K. In October, Booker plays at Austin City Limits. His whirlwind four-month tour wraps Nov. 1, when he performs at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans.

  He shivers at the thought of having to follow up the full-tilt circus — writing, recording, touring, press — with no time to slow down.

  "There's still 18 months before I can even start to think about that stuff," he says. "I'm still making changes to songs on the record. None of them live are the same as they are on the record. You just start playing them and change things. If I get an idea, I'll record something or write it down, but it's more about perfecting, or making the songs we have now better."

  For now, he's getting used to life in New Orleans while adjusting to life on the road.

  "The year I came here, it was kind of hard for me, I guess, to adjust at first because it was so different," Booker says. "Now I feel I've adjusted. I was gone for a few months, and it was really difficult to go somewhere else."

Out Aug. 19
Benjamin Booker
Benjamin Booker
ATO Records

click to enlarge albumcover.jpg


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