Embracing his influences helped grandson unlock a whole new world
Jordan Benjamin is at a point in his career where he can be honest about his influences. Yes, his debut full-length and conceptual introduction as grandson, Death Of An Optimist, gave the music industry a shake upon its arrival on Dec. 4. And surely a lot of it was born out of him searching deeper into himself.
But that search, he says, required some guidance from creatives who came before him. It required new and classic literature for him to lose himself in for hours. And it required music that took him deeper into what a concept album could convey about himself and the world around him.
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Death Of An Optimist follows the 27-year-old alt-rocker as he begins his quest to make a difference, copes with the album’s antagonist, X, and ultimately realizes that failure is inevitable. The antagonist—a culmination of all of grandson’s fears— follows him throughout. Like experiencing failure, X is unavoidable. And it’s a realization that there’s always so much more to fix in the world.
“I couldn't in good conscience make an album that was honest but didn't deal with my struggle,” grandson says. “What do I believe? While it is this concept album, it's pretty personal with what I'm struggling with. Am I about to get onstage and really believe those things?”
The record subtly nods to the art he’s been digesting over the last couple of years. There’s the “anger” of Foo Fighters’ debut album at points, there are similar lessons to those of Patrick Radden Keefe’s New York Times bestseller Say Nothing, there’s that level of introspectiveness he sees in Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. But there’s a reason grandson speaks so proudly of the things that helped guide him closer toward his debut, too.
“When I first started making music, I had this idea that everyone that I looked up to was in some closed room with no influences, that they just had it and I didn't,” grandson says. “I used to be tormented. I'd listen to Nevermind by Nirvana and go, ‘How the fuck am I ever going to be a musician when people are this good and I'm over here just trying to rip them off?’ I think as you get older and you read a bit more... Kurt [Cobain] was an example for me. I put him on such a pedestal when I first started writing alternative music. And then I found out that he was obsessed with John Lennon. He had his own neuroses and impostor syndrome. And Lennon would worship Chuck Berry and Little Richard and all these Black artists that they were inspired by.”
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Some of the material grandson consumed throughout 2019 and into 2020 has found its way onto a new project already. The creative says his next project—whether it ends up as a film or album—will be called God Is An Animal. The story takes inspiration from George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm, and grandson is still conceptualizing his next moves with it.
“It's only five songs, and it's about chickens on a farm,” grandson says. “So I've written a rock project about a farm. And so obviously, I had a lot of influence from George Orwell and from Animal Farm, and he does such a good job.”
For now, though, grandson is focused on Death Of An Optimist, and he caught up with Alternative Press to discuss the works he’s absorbed in the last couple of years that have helped him search deeper within himself for his debut LP.
[Photo by Jonathan Weiner][/caption]
Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album (1995)
One of the places that I started was actually—and I don't know if I've mentioned this before—with the Foo Fighters' debut album. I listened to "Weenie Beenie," and it was just so noisy, and it was so dark. grandson as a project, and as an identity for me, is such a gift because I came on the scene doing something really different and [am] speaking to some really serious concepts. And because of that, I started making this album of alt-pop songs. And I remember going to see a friend, and he was like, "Dude, everyone else has to go do that. You don't have to go make big alternative-radio songs. You're grandson. You're the guy who gets to make heavy dissonant music. Why don't you do that?"
And when I listen to that Foo Fighters debut album, there were a couple of songs on there that I just imagined the headspace that Dave Grohl must have been in to reinvent himself, having come off the most successful band in the world and choosing to go in and make a bunch of really indulgent rock music. Just angry. The riffs are heavy. Half of the vocals are so distorted you can't even hear them. So that was the headspace that I was in when I started writing "We Did It!!!" and a couple of the early songs. The angrier songs actually came first before the concept had really been fleshed out.
Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. (2017)
That's not my favorite Kendrick Lamar album. I think To Pimp A Butterfly probably is. But DAMN. is a really interesting creative exercise where he plays on these themes in each song: fear, loyalty, love. "FEAR." is probably one of my favorite songs on that project. He just really digs into one rhyme scheme, one thought process. Each song has its own tangent. So I actually unexpectedly found myself listening to that a lot.
Mac Miller’s Swimming (2018)
I was super influenced by Mac Miller, and I was embarrassed to admit that I didn't really listen to Swimming until he passed away. When he died, it recontextualized everything. I listened to that album and realized it was so special. And it was one of the most impactful albums of 2019 on me, and I wouldn't have even listened. So where does that leave me and the impact I want to make, the difference I want to make in the world? And struggling with this dark thought that if I were to go out in this blaze of glory, would the themes in my music be taken more seriously with this project?
All those questions were bubbling up for me while I was writing this project, and it really did serve as this crossroads for me. I'm just sitting here going, ‘If I'm not willing to do everything for the mission, give my whole body to change and sacrifice everything, then am I even really about the things that my music is about?’ Can I in good conscience spend the next 20 years singing "Blood // Water" and telling people "I am the people. I am the storm," all that shit? Am I really prepared to do that? Do I still have hope that that's even a realistic possibility?
George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)
That's one of those books that is only [about 130] pages long, but it could have been 800. It's so dense. Every single sentence carries this double meaning and is so packed with metaphors that are applicable to like any sort of corrupt egomaniac.
One of the things that really struck me about that book is the slow, inevitable procession. With each generation, they become more and more abstracted from what their goals were at the beginning. Where the commandments that are written on the wall slowly start changing. People can't even remember what things were like before. The book starts with a rebellion. It starts with seeking to make a difference. And they successfully eradicate all the humans from the farm.
And then there's this moment where anything could happen, and that was the promise that led them to cooperate at such a level that they were able to make this big change. It became about is it going to get filled with love, or is it going to get filled with fear? You have these two characters vying for head of the farm, vying for who's in control. And fear wins. They start pitting one another against each other. Anybody who is fighting for change is painted as working with the humans and the enemy and man. That book just fucked me up. I loved it.
Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing (2019)
It's a story about the youth movement in Ireland throughout the ’70s and the IRA. There was this conservative wing of Ireland who were sick of English occupation, mostly relegated to dive bars, just drinking and reminiscing on the good old days of Ireland. And a couple of young charismatic kids took that from their parents, and they went, "No, we are getting these motherfuckers out of our country. We are standing up and doing something different. And if nobody's going to listen, then we'll get their attention."
And you saw these increasingly dramatic gestures, acts of what would be considered domestic terrorism today. There were young, good-looking people at the front of this. They're in their 20s, somewhere as young as 19. And they've got their balaclavas and their anonymous masks. And it looks so badass. It just looks like an action movie playing out. You start seeing them grappling with progress, moving slowly and these different ideologies forming of "Do we make progress through compromising and actually by playing the game and actually engaging in diplomacy with the very side that we are fighting against? Or are we just going to not stop until that initial goal is accomplished?”
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It's just so interesting to watch because I looked at our generation. And I looked at the hope that we all have that we're going to be the generation to deal with problems like gun violence [and] climate change. You see these huge marches here in Los Angeles, in Washington around anything from women's rights to the Black Lives Matter movement. So many people are standing up and going, "We want change, and we want it right now." And change doesn't really work like that a lot of the time, historically. And so the characters in this book, those who kept getting older, start getting out of touch with the young people. And all of a sudden, you're seeing these old guys who look like their fathers talking about what could have been and what was.
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