Posted May 7th, 2009 (2:59 am) by Katherine Parks

Electric President, Radical Face, Iron Orchestra, Mother’s Basement, and the Patients Project…you name it, and chances are, Ben Cooper, one-half of Electric President, is in it. The twenty-four-year-old Florida native has an inescapable tendency to dip his feet into various pools within the music realm, without ever biting off more than he can chew. As one part of Electric President (the other, Alex Kane), Ben provides an incredible wealth of musical knowledge—not to mention downright talent—for the indie rock/electronic duo. Luckily enough, Ben graciously took the time out of his hectic schedule to sit down and chat with us at Inyourspeakers about everything from John Steinbeck to dirty sneakers, and even pitching remedies for the currently distressed music industry.

IYS: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with Inyourspeakers, we really appreciate it!

Ben Cooper: No problem.

IYS: I’d like to start out with some questions regarding your involvement with Electric President.

BC: Sure.

IYS: For those of us out there who are not acquainted with Electric President, how would you describe it?

BC: Let me think. I have a little trouble with this question. I would say we’re not exactly a band; we kind of formed under the idea of being more of a music project and we were just sort of experimenting with a certain style of music. We were just having fun with it. Musically, I don’t know what to call it.

IYS: I kind of get this vibe that Electric President reminds me a bit of Depeche Mode meets Death Cab for Cutie. Would you agree with that, or has any band or musical style influenced you, or even Alex’s, playing or overall sound?

BC: One of the things that’s kind of interesting about me and Alex is that we listen to very different music. Alex likes more pop-driven stuff, and music from former eras - maybe the seventies or eighties. I listen to a lot of classical music and movie soundtracks and composers. Structurally speaking, I get way more from composers than anyone else. But then, as far as the elements we use, pop tends to prevail. So, I think it’s a combination of our influences just sort of smashed together; that said, I don’t know if there’s any band, physically, that either of us could cite as an influence.

IYS: That’s really interesting, and a really cool way of looking at it! You recorded your 2006 self-titled work, what you consider your first “official album”, in your tool shed and in Alex’s bedroom. What was that recording experience like, and how has the processed changed for you guys since then? Do you prefer one style of recording to another?

BC: Well, it hasn’t really changed much; we’re working in the same fashion. We add little pieces of gear as we go, so it gets easier and easier, but I really like recording at home. When we first started, we were just doing playing fun’s sake. The self-titled record (Electric President) was the first attempt to make an actual record. It was definitely a learning process; I could probably say that I learned more about music production over the course of that record than any other time. However, not much has changed since the S/T days - we’re still working in a very similar fashion, albeit with slightly nicer equipment.

IYS: It’s quite a cool recording style for you guys.

BC: It’s funny because I’ve gotten to the point where I prefer it. I’ve actually had the chance to work in nicer studios with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but I just wasn’t into it. I recorded a bunch of stuff at the studio, came home, and just deleted it all because it didn’t sound right. I’ve pretty much been working in the shed ever since.

IYS: Moving to Radical Face now, how would you describe Radical Face’s style, compared to that of Electric President?

BC: There is definitely a dividing factor between the two because I’m generally the songwriter for both projects. The major difference is that Radical Face is my project; essentially, when I go to record something for RF, I already know exactly how I want it to sound. And then, when working with Alex [on Electric President], it’ sort of a collaborative project; we both share our ideas and work from there. I’ve also found that when I work alone, I tend to like using just guitar and piano as the source of most songs, whereas when I work with other people, I’ll use any instrument that’s lying around.

IYS: Have you thought about touring as Radical Face, and if so, how would that be different from a show with you and Alex as Electric President?

BC: Well, I did tour in Japan last year for a week or so, but I just did it with a guitar and a laptop. To be honest the biggest issue with getting shows together is that neither project has a band attached at the time being. The shed I work in isn’t really big enough to work as a full rehearsal space, and keeping a band together has been unsuccessful so far (and that’s with four years of trying). So, touring and shows basically consist of whatever I have available at the time; if I have a friend that can play some shows or if someone lets us borrow a practice space for a few months then great! As you can tell, both of them are pretty ramshackle arrangements, and it would be nice if I could get something more consistent.

Unfortunately, the last few situations haven’t worked out especially well, so I’m not holding my breath just yet. On the other hand, I recently hooked up with a multi-instrumentalist who will probably tour with me regularly. Right now, Alex is a full-time student, and he can only tour during the summer, which doesn’t bode too well for Europe and Japan shows (as summer is a bad time to tour because of soccer season and festivals). So, on that end, I’m kind of up shit’s creek until he gets done with his studies, but I’m determined to figure out some way to play more than once a year.

IYS: I’m sure you will, and those multi-instrumentalists are always good to have around.

BC: Yeah, yeah, cause they can do all the hard work. [laughs]

IYS: On your website, you refer loosely to the first Radical Face album as a "concept album", where one theme connects a series of short stories. Can you share why you chose to label the record as such?

BC: Well, I would say that everything I do is a concept record because I’m admittedly scatterbrained with my music. If I don’t pick a theme to start unifying what I’m doing, I just end up with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t click. I like the idea of a record being a larger piece of music, as opposed to just the last ten songs I wrote that were decent enough to publish. Fir instance, with Ghosts, I had both a mood and a lyrical idea before I started. If a song didn’t fit the mood of the lyric, I would toss it out. All in all, it kind of gives me some way to filter everything, and I feel like it just keeps me organized. It helps me to kind of get all the stories into something that I feel will make a coherent album, as opposed to just random songs.

IYS: That’s a really unique take on it.

BC: Yeah, there’s no real correct way of doing it. You just have to find some way that suits you, and I’ve found that the concept. On the other hand, I’ve heard records that were just thrown together, and somehow came out really coherent, so whatever works for the musician.

IYS: If you could, could you tell me a little bit about the upcoming Radical Face album? What can your fans expect to hear different about the music this time around?

BC: Well, I kind of have a rule with records: I’m never allowed to start the same way. I guess I’ve always found that if I ever do anything by habit, then I stop thinking about it completely; if I know it’ll work, I don’t pay as much attention because I already assume it’s going to work. I always try to remove the most comfortable elements of the last project; if I’m not focused on what I’m doing, the whole thing will probably blow up in my face. The creative process should never be “fill-in-the-blanks,” you should never actually know what’s going to happen.

I kind of like being unsure, but I’ve had this idea for a long time: I really like books (like East of Eden from Steinbeck) that lay out an entire world (a multi-generation family, a location, ect.), and I thought it’d be a really cool thing for a record. So, for this one, I developed a fictional family tree which ranges from the early 1800s to about the 1960s. That includes a chart of all the people and the stories that affect each generation. I’m going to tell those stories over the course of two records because I totally overwrote. As such, the first record will be about the earlier part of the family tree, and the second record will be about the later generation. I’m also trying to keep the production on the first one a little more old-sounding - old folk chords and stuff like that.

IYS: It seems like you prefer to play the part of the storyteller as opposed to telling maybe your own story. Is there any reason why you chose that perspective when making music?

BC: Well, I guess the simplest answer is that I’ve always felt I could invest in someone a lot more interesting than myself. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with autobiographical music too. That’s not to say that sometimes, my own personal stuff doesn’t slip in - sometimes I’ll use a character to tell something that’s happened to me. In general, I like fiction and I like storytelling though; people who can tell a good story get a thumbs up in my book.

IYS: That’s really cool! Moving to the Patients Project that you’ve written about on your website - can you elaborate on it a little bit?

BC: Sure. Well, the idea is that I write for a lot of projects; I have my solo stuff, and this thing I do with Alex, and then I have another record that I’m doing with a friend and my brother. So, I’ve ended up with a bunch of random songs that didn’t fit into any of these projects and basically, I realized a while back that I’m starting to have records-worth of material that I’ve just never done anything with. The whole idea with Patient was to try to invent an interesting way to get those out. Originally, I had no intention of releasing them, but I thought it would be fun—almost as a social experiment—to see what people would do if you removed money from the trade.

Generally, if you want a product, you provide money. So, you remove the default, and you to get creative. The idea was that you could trade me anything you wanted, as long as it wasn’t money. I was really surprised with the stuff people sent me.

IYS: It seems like you’ve received a lot of unique items through the project. In your opinion, what’s the best or most valuable item you’ve received from someone through the trade-off?

EP: Well, it’s hard to say - my favorite type of item was the little stories, bunches of little snippets; most people that sent something wanted to explain why they chose what they did. I was really happy about it. It gave me way more insight into how people value things. One person sent me this beat-up, dirty sneaker, but then he told me all the stories attached to it, and why it had sentimental value. Another one that always stood out to me was one girl sent me the first thing she ever shoplifted. I had a good chuckle at A. the fact that she kept it, and B. that she decided to trade it. Someone else sent me a home video of their town, just to show you where they lived and the things they did with their friends. I really enjoyed getting all these little windows into people’s lives.

And some people sent expensive stuff - like one guy actually mailed me a snare drum! I actually needed a snare drum, so I’ve already used it in my recordings. I almost felt guilty at that, I was using it…it was, like, $150!

Anyway, the stuff people sent was really all over the map. There were almost no repeats; people were really creative with the project.

IYS: Taking that into account, would you consider the Patients Project like a sort of catharsis, for you and for the person who’s sending their piece of—whatever—in to you?

BC: Yeah, that was the thing, people would tell me that they just wanted to participate, but they ended up really thinking about everything they owned and what it all means to them. I really wasn’t expecting it, like, I never set out thinking, “Cool, let’s all have a catharsis!” That said, I think it really worked out, from what I can tell, for both ends.

IYS: The first volume of the Patients Project was eleven tracks long. That’s basically an album’s worth of material. Is it the unusual style of the mix tape, meaning, there’s no running theme between the songs that influenced you to release it this way? I mean, why not just sell it or put it up for download on the Internet?

BC: To me, definitely wasn’t a record in the traditional sense. It was a record’s length, but, again, I’m really kind of particular about the process thereof, so it was really a sort of compilation. It felt like things I had done that were almost kind of like notes-on-a-bar-napkin kind of thing, and I just had a bunch of them. I’m not saying that the songs were throwaways; I sometimes like to write a song just for a song’s sake, for my own personal view. Then again, I’m not really an advocate of the single, so I’ve told everyone to share the songs. Use file-sharing networks, whatever. If you want it, it’s there.

IYS: Do you have any plans to continue with the project? I know you said it was over, but do anything similar in the future at all?

BC: Well, I’ve figured, in a year’s time, I’ll probably have another pile of songs lying around, so I’ll probably come up with some similar ways to distribute it. I don’t think I’ll do the exact same thing again because to be honest, it turned out to be a lot more work than I anticipated (A little expensive, too). All said and done, it took about a month and a half of me not getting much of anything else done, because the project was just so large. Next time, I think I’ll come up with something a little less labor-intensive, specifically on my end.

IYS: This is a totally random question for you: Regarding your music, do you have any literary or even poetic influences that have maybe influenced your or Alex’s work?

BC: I definitely do. I can say the two things I steal the most from aren’t very popular, so I feel like I can steal freely, and that’s composers and classical music and books. I read about a book a week, and I draw ideas from them constantly. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading a lot of Steinbeck. There’s just something about his particular wording that I keep coming back to. And I read a lot of modern fiction, too. McCarthy…he wrote that book, The Road. It was completely grim and terrifying and was one of the books that made me want to write.

And Alex, right now, he’s a full-time student, and I don’t know if he’s read a book on his own time in, like, a year and a half. He’s a math major, so all he does is basically calculus all day, and tries to find the math of diabetes or something. [laughs] It’s out of my league; I don’t know that stuff.

IYS: Do you have a favorite author at all? Would it be Steinbeck for classic literature?

BC: Yeah, Steinbeck is definitely one of my favorites. Of course, I tend to end up with a laundry list of authors…so I don’t know if I can pick out someone and say, “This is the one.” Usually, I get stuck on one author, and I read the whole catalogue for two or three months. Reading is kind of my favorite form of what I’d call “entertainment.” It’s what I do instead of television and movies.

IYS: I have one last question for you. If you could change one thing about the music or even the recording industry today, what would you change about it?

BC: Well, there’s definitely a lot wrong with it. On the major label front, you’re in the position where the label is at odds with the customer, which is never really a good thing (you don’t want to be suing your potential customers, it doesn’t make any sense!). I completely disagree with how they’ve handled everything regarding the Internet. This is where people land, and as far as I know, rule number one in business is that you go where the people go - you don’t tell them “no” if you know they’ll sue you. There are definitely a lot of issues between the two, and a lot of misconceptions, on the consumer’s end; people will say, “I don’t buy records or support artists that way, but I go to their shows, and touring is where they make all their money anyway.” Unfortunately, that’s totally not always the case. I can say, on my end, that I have never come back from a tour with money in my pocket. One tour, I came back even, but that’s the best I’ve ever done. Usually, it costs me to tour. So, I think there’s a bunch of stuff where it’s not just so much as misinformation, but just the two sides don’t necessarily understand each other.

And then, on the downloading front, I’m not against the idea of any of it, but I do find that people who download records that cost money don’t actually listen to records. How can you really sit down with five records in that short period of time and really get to know them? I really like the idea of albums, as a larger thing where I sit down and listen to a record, from one end to the other. I don’t usually skip and I don’t really pull out one song from this record and two from this one, and make a new record; I usually listen to the whole piece. Not listening to a whole record is like fast-forwarding through the slow parts of a movie, but oftentimes, they’re just as important as the fun parts.

I think a lot of people now just have a tendency to sing a Doomsday song whenever something changes. If one thing is for certain, music isn’t going anywhere. Right now, it’s changing, and no one really quite knows what to do with it. Even on the listener’s front, people don’t really know what to do with it. When I look online and see the thousands of records released within a single month, I honestly have no idea how to approach the situation. It’s all kind of overwhelming, so I guess my technique is to back off a little and not be too frantic or too judgmental until the situation sorts itself out some more.

The industry wasn’t necessarily so great before either. There was pretty much one avenue to get your music out, and that was through big labels; either you did what they told you or you were gone. I couldn’t have survived under that.

IYS: Definitely. We’ll see where it goes. Ben, those are all the questions I have for you today, but thank you so much for taking time to sit down and talk with me. All of us at Inyourspeakers really appreciate it!

BC: Thank you! No, thanks for having me!

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