6 takeaways from Ben Lee’s Artist Friendly interview
The latest guest on the Artist Friendly podcast is Australian alt-rock icon Ben Lee. The recording artist, who recently released his 11th studio album I'm Fun! last year and grew up in the band Noise Addict, joined host Joel Madden to talk about his career that spans three decades, how the music industry has changed over time, his creative philosophy, and more.
The episode is available now wherever you listen to podcasts, but before you dive in, we've rounded up essential takeaways. Here's what we learned.
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Seeing Nirvana live was what inspired Lee to start a band
Lee explains that he was a huge alternative music fan growing up, but it was seeing Nirvana live that inspired him that he could actually pursue music himself. It was on an Australian festival tour stop around the time of Nevermind's release, and then 13-year-old Lee was wowed not only by the grunge icons' music, but the fact that they were the biggest band in the world at the time and ultimately just a group of friends playing together. "It was that thing. That was my year zero moment," he says. "That thing you see that makes you think you can do it, that was that moment, and basically I started my band Noise Addict the next day."
Lee had a very '90s origin
Aside from Nirvana inspiring Lee to start a band, Noise Addict famously played one of the very first shows in their career opening for Sonic Youth. In telling the story, he puts into perspective how humble and very of the '90s the band's beginning was, though — explaining they sent out dozens of demos to record labels and called them up asking if they gave them a listen. Finally, he connected with Steve Pavlovic, or who he calls Pav and a great mentor of his, who was at the time founding Fellaheen Records. He says Pavlovic told him, "Your tape stood out like dog's balls," and even came out to one of Noise Addict's gigs in which it was "all seventh graders sitting on the floor cross-legged," but he thought they were cool regardless. Shortly after, he told Thurston Moore to give them a listen and the rest is history.
He values quality of fans over quantity
As an industry veteran, Lee says he's learned to appreciate the quality of fans over the quantity. It's always stuck with him that more niche communities have often connected with him and his art the most, and nowadays, he really appreciates that it's never been easier to "find your tribe" online. Although he explains that he's seized "mainstream" opportunities, like appearing as a mentor on The Voice Australia, he thinks it's valuable as an artist to be able to really connect with and influence people you respect. For him, it doesn't go overlooked that most of his followers are "people with good taste who are making cool shit themselves."
Lee likes to meet “his kind of freaks”
Lee is attracted to “brave, vulnerable, kind, ambitious, creative people,” which is reflected in his choice of collaborators over the years (Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq, Shamir, and Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, to name a few). Platonically or romantically, he surrounds himself with people who he can “vibrate with,” challenge him, and inspire him to be a better version of himself. “If you’re a cool person, I’m good with you. I’m so grateful that the world’s opened up because the snobbiness of [being tied to a certain scene] is the side of elitism that’s rubbed me the wrong way,” he says.
He wants to help the next generation
The culture was a lot different when Lee started his music career at the age of 14. As he’s gotten older, he’s started to find different ways of helping others — especially the artists he’s working with. “One of the things I’m really working on is looking out for their emotional well-being. That fundamental respect that you had for a younger artist is gonna be part of what [they] carry forward,” he explains. Whether it’s telling an artist to trust their gut or providing some other form of eye-opening advice, Lee has reached a point in his career where he’s paying it forward and helping the next generation find their way.
His favorite artist is Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers
It’s clear Lee has a deep respect for punk, as he cites the Modern Lovers bandleader Jonathan Richman as one of his favorite artists ever. “A lot of people don’t realize how integral the Modern Lovers were to punk. He ended up leaving the band because they were too loud. He only played in nursing homes and kindergartens for a long time, which is so punk,” he enthuses. Lee uses that thread to dig into playing live, where he explains that his favorite types of shows are like parties. “You should still be trying to communicate like a preschool teacher. That wholesomeness and that openness is built into my vision of what I think good art should be. It’s just there for you,” he says.