Q&A: Ben Frost On Spending The Past Year Working With Brian Eno

Q&A: Ben Frost On Spending The Past Year Working With Brian Eno
Rolex/Kirsten Holst

Earlier this week, the Voice published a story about an improbably cool concert event pitting the alternately noisy and contemplative musician Ben Frost against the New York Public Library's Rose Reading Room—a grand, palatial space that will be the setting on Sunday for a performance of Frost's "Music for 6 Guitars." The concert is part of Rolex Arts Weekend, a series of events marking the end of the past year's Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for which Frost was paired with Brian Eno to basically spend a year talking, working, wandering—whatever they wanted, really. (The program includes similar pairings for the realms of dance, literature, film, visual arts, and theater.)

Mention of Eno didn't enter much into the story itself, but Frost talked a lot about his experience with the great interlocutor. Excerpts below.

After a year of being around and working with him, what have you learned from Brian Eno?

The thing I've probably come away most is a great sense of relief. He's a person who has been working three times as long as I have, and in a similar way that I do. We have so many similarities in the way we deal with the world and, as a young man, I'm still questioning a lot about the way I go about doing things. Spending time with Brian, he has demonstrated the way in which I perceive things to be and the way in which I've chosen to work is... a good way of working. There's no sort of moment when he slaps me on the back and says "You're on the right track, kid," but it's always very affirming to be around Brian. We share an insatiable curiosity for the way the world works, and we're very good friends because of that. We're not going to stop working together, there's no time frame on this and that was very clear from day one. I just really enjoy talking to him, and very little of it has to do with music.

Has anything about him surprised you?

I think the most interesting aspect of this whole thing is how similar we are. I never expected that. I definitely had suspicions about the whole [mentorship program] and, in many ways, at least up to the point when I was actually awarded it, I had taken the whole process with a huge handful of salt. To be perfectly honest I really didn't give a fuck. In hindsight, perhaps that helped a lot. I mean, my work appeals to the most infinitesimally small subgenre of subgenres of people in the world that I didn't expect to be taken seriously, I think, and I certainly didn't expect to win.

To generalize, your work tends to be dark and heavy and brooding, whereas his—in recent years especially—seems more concerned with lightness of touch and sustained states of grace. What do you think drew him to you, and have you guys spent time talking about such differences?

That's totally valid and there's an argument to be made there that's why he chose me. Brian is profoundly emotional and, as an artist, he's developed himself in the role of an observer. He's the ultimate watcher and voyeur. He has a better understanding of how music works than anybody I know.

What's also interesting is that the records he listens to, the records he'll put on over coffee, are not obscure Stockhausen recordings or academic explorations of sound or musique concrete. He'll listen to Aretha Franklin over that any day. If you look at his career, he's surrounded himself with people with big egos and big voices and big, physical music. Stuff like U2, their latter-day sins notwithstanding, those early records are fucking brutal. There's some serious shit going on there, and I don't think there's much difference—if you strip away the sonic fashion of my music and that of Talking Heads—I don't see a lot of difference. I'm not trying to compare myself to Talking Heads but am just trying to say that ultimately, the music he's attracted to has an underlying sort of darkness.

That culminates more than anywhere else in his love of gospel music. He's obsessed with gospel music and there's nothing more visceral than that. There is nothing darker than slave music from the South. It's all he'd listen to if he was stranded on a desert island—it would be him and 30 gospel records. I think he's attracted to the undeniable sense of power, of rage and loss. There's joy as well, but even the most joyful of gospel tunes is ultimately a cry for help. But I don't know, it's definitely something I've thought about. I've always questioned what it is about my music that he's into, because when I look at his other collaborators, I often feel like the black cloud in an otherwise sunny sky. But he seems to be drawn to it.


You've worked with him some in the studio. How has that gone?

We've done quite a bit. We've probably recorded five or six hours of music so far, but I don't know what we're going to do with it. To be honest, I'm sure that's even important. I never had any intention of making a record with Brian. Not that I'm averse to the idea at all, but it seems a little bit beside the point. It also seems, under the guise of this mentor/protégé program, it seems too easy to say the end result of all of this is this neat little packaged thing that you can buy for $9.99. The value for me is in the time we've spent together and the time we continue to spend together. He's become a very dear friend to me.

What has he made you do differently in the studio than you otherwise did on your own?

What's interesting about Brian in the studio is that I've never met a musician who's less interested or less concerned with "studio practices" and the pursuit of "excellent sound recordings." Brian's studio compared to mine is hilarious. His speakers are out of phase. There's no sound treatment at all in his room. There are places you can sit where there are bass frequencies eating up the whole room, with standing waves... It's a terrible place to listen to music, and Brian is oblivious to it for the most part, because ultimately he just cares about the process of making music. I don't want to speak out of turn here and tell you "The Brian Eno Philsophy," but in my experience, it's been the process of recording and working on music that has a thousand-fold more interest to him than the finished product. He can barely remember the things he's done. The only thing he's really concerned with is what he's doing at that actual moment in time. That's something I've thought about a lot. My work is all about detail, and my records take a long time to make. I don't release a lot of material, one record every three years or so. That doesn't make for a big catalog. Everything else I do I have very little interest in releasing because it doesn't feel important enough. There's way too much music in the world already. But Brian is far less precious about it. Maybe it's something that comes with age as well, but he has an ability to emotionally distance himself from his work at the point when it is completed. Once it's done, he's able to let it go and never give it a second thought. For me, my records are like my children: I constantly go back to check on them and make sure they're okay. It concerns me when someone wants to license one of them for a film. It concerns me when one is being downloaded in some shitty bitrate so people aren't going to hear it the right way. It concerns me when the track titles are all wrong. These things really bother me, and maybe they shouldn't. Maybe there's something to be said for letting go a little more.

Is there any stated endgame to the mentorship program at all?

No. But again, I can't speak for any of the other protégés, but it's definitely been my experience that... I certainly didn't sign on for this to devote a year of my life to some project that I would walk out on the other end of with a defined set of goals achieved and product produced. For me, it's just been an opportunity to get to know somebody who I greatly admire. I don't really see any end to it, to be honest. I have no idea how it will end up, but I would be very surprised if it's the last time we end up working together.

Anything else you'd like to mention before signing off?

I've actually been recording this week with Liturgy. We're working on some new stuff together that is really cool. They came over here for Iceland Airwaves [a music festival in Reykjavik], and I dragged them into the studio for a couple of days to work with me.

Is it Ben Frost music?

Yeah, it kind of is. I've quietly started working on a new record. I'm just kind of scratching at the surface of that. We'll see where it ends up. But I really enjoyed working with those guys. They're quite remarkable. Hunter [Hunt-Hendrix] is a really interesting guy, and all of them: I was quite surprised, actually, by how dedicated they are to what they're doing. There was an expectation on my part that they were much more of an archetypal metal band, where it was just about playing metal. But there's an entire universe of thought behind what they're doing.

Ben Frost performs "Music for 6 Guitars," with an additional brass sextet arranged by Nico Muhly and an introduction by Brian Eno, at the New York Public Library on Sunday.

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