Benjamin Finger: I’m trying to combine hip-hop, techno and pop elements in a very conservative genre that I think many tend to think ambient music is
Norway’s Benjamin Finger was educated at Oslo Photo Art School before he started to study fiction film to become a director at the Film and TV Academy (NISS) in Oslo. Since then he has done several short films, music videos and participated at various photo exhibitions, besides working for television, NRK. He is now a freelancer director and photographer and have by accident been composing music ‘with a healthy disregard for genres’. His new album ‘The Bet’ turned out to be Watery Starve Press’ first vinyl consisting of careful meditations deeply influenced by classical themes, musique concrète, oceans, clouds, whispers and wintry forest creatures. These compositions seem to be breathing exercises, but at the same time they could serve as pieces straight out of your eeriest dreams. We talked to Benjamin to find out more about him and his mysterious project, his influences, the possibilities of an independent Norwegian artist and of course the forest creatures.
Who is Benjamin Finger and how did he get in touch with music for the first time?
I got in touch with music when I was very young, being forced to take piano lessons by my dad. I strongly hated it and I could never learn my homework for the next lesson. Growing up with a father being a musician I guess I must have let him down deeply. Hopefully, I’ve been able to fix some of those damages – at least in the past few years. I also had some guitar lessons but that didn’t work out for me either. I just couldn’t get into learning the notes. Guess I was more interested in playing football and watching VHS films, but several things changed all of that during my teens. I was exposed to breakdancing and hip-hop (Boogie Down Productions, Mantronix, Original Concept, Beastie Boys etc…), which really triggered my fascination for music. Also growing up with Swedish television really gave me the chance to discover underground music, being lucky enough to catch documentaries like ‘Style Wars’ or watching a live David Bowie concert. For example, I think ‘Cat People’ really had an enormous impact on me as a kid. There’s something about that dark glowing atmosphere it seems to lull you into.
In your artist description on Facebook we can read that you’ve been composing music by accident and ‘with a healthy disregard for genres’. How should we imagine this accident?
That was kind of meant as an ironic or humorous statement (depending on my mood that particular day). My mother gave me a used Mac in 2005 and then suddenly things started to happen. I discovered how I could play around with Garage Band. This led me to slowly buying all sorts of different equipment, and after a while I found out how I could record music directly into my stationary machine. Then things just started to develop from then on. Meaning that I later got myself a laptop, learning Logic and getting my head around Ableton Live and so on. Today everything is getting more complicated having bought so much different gear and still trying to find out new and fresh methods of recording. Being fascinated by different filters, software programs etc. I still feel like a kid with new gloves every time I go into production on a new album. There are so many possibilities, I’m still learning. And that’s what makes sticking to music so worthwhile.
What I mean when it comes to ‘a healthy disregard for genres’ is simply that I try to change my musical expression on each of my albums. I don’t want any of them to sound the same, so I aim at different working methods. My first album ‘Woods of Broccoli’ (How Is Annie Records, 2009) was kind of an electronic folk record, I had no experience and was just trying to create my own sound with the little tools I had. ‘For You, Sleepsleeper’ (How Is Annie Records, 2010) was perhaps a bit more ambitious, trying to encapsulate many different expressions and styles in one album. My love for jazz, ambient, shoegaze and other styles were thrown in there. With ‘Listen To My Nerves Hum’ (Time Released Sound, 2013) I tried to go minimal, using only the piano compositions, tape loops and field recordings as my main tools. ‘The Bet’ (Watery Starve Press, 2014) is clearly a departure from that. I wanted a ‘bigger’ sound on this album. I wanted it to feel more orchestrated, mixing cellos, guitars, voices and throwing in understated beats etc. that didn’t necessarily fit into the music at first listen. For example, I’m trying to combine hip-hop, techno and pop elements in a very conservative genre that I think many tend to think ambient music is. It was kind of letting a monster run wild and see how I could tame it, and if I could manage that, then maybe some new musical expressions could come out of it. I’m always trying to create something slightly out of the norm. I don’t know if I fully succeeded in doing that, but I’m very satisfied with the way it turned out. It seems to live a life of its own and I’m glad that some reviewers have mentioned that they felt they never knew what was coming next while listening through the album. Nothing makes me happier than hearing views like that. Then I’m fulfilling my intentions with the album.
But even though I’m constantly trying to avoid repeating myself, I guess you can say that I’m always concerned with beauty versus darkness in most of my music. I may try to fool myself believing that I’m always creating something a bit different, but I think that dichotomy is always present in my music.
If you would have to name some of the musicians that kept you inspired throughout the years, who would you mention and why?
Puh! Oh man, there are so many. The first ones that come into mind today are (in no particular order): Alice Coltrane, Slayer, Spacemen 3, Arthur Russell, Butthole Surfers, Slint, Loop, Lee Scratch Perry, Charles Mingus, Disco Inferno, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Broadcast, Labradford, Laurie Anderson, Flying Lotus, Pharaoh Sanders, Fugazi, Panda Bear, Suicide, Flying Saucer Attack, The Frogs, Frank Zappa, early Jane’s Addiction, Bardo Pond, David Bowie, Autechre, Philippe Sarde, George Michael, Frédéric Chopin, Terry Riley, Gescom, John Zorn, Omar S, Morton Feldman, Mr. Bungle, Talk Talk, Vincent Gallo, Gas, Drexciya, Laurel Halo, Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never… Some labels that I used to follow for a long time are Kranky, Rephlex, Touch, Warp, Mego, and early Fat Cat and 4AD releases.
Why do they inspire me? If I choose Arthur Russell then my explanation would be that he dared to do different stuff, changing styles all the time, constantly looking for something new that was inspiring. The same goes for David Bowie. There are all this different musical époques that they have been through. Always searching for something different. That is something I cherish in an artist, being a musical restless soul myself.
In your case, when there is a wider time gap between two releases, is it mostly due to a natural slower creative process or there are also some financial issues involved? How does an independent Norwegian musician finance himself these days?
The reason why there is a small gap is because I’ve had some bad experiences with small labels promising to release an album and then all of a sudden (without any explanation) being told that it wasn’t going to happen. So I’ve learned some valuable lessons from that. That has led me to being a bit of a dictator when it comes to releasing stuff my own way. The good part of my bad experiences is that I now have many albums ready: I have given them a longer period to grow and make them perfect on my own terms. Financial issues are always an important factor being an independent artist. Luckily I have a night-time job so I have a safe income no matter what happens. So I don’t really worry about that. When I do earn money it’s usually from Bandcamp sale or playing gigs, especially festivals pay well.
What are your future plans?
My future plan is to release an album on Digitalis Recordings (US) later this year followed up by an album on Sellout! Records (NO). These are two very different releases. One being more experimental and the other containing more dance-related material, but both of them are more electronic than what I’ve released in a while. Also, I’m finishing up a couple of new albums. I haven’t looked for a home for them yet, but eventually I will get one (anyone interested who runs a label? Let me know!). There will also be a new album with my other band Beneva vs. Clark Nova out sometime next year. Jesus, we’ve been working ages with getting that album released!
‘The Bet’ has an impressive cover painted by Christer Karlstad. What’s going on with this painting and how did you choose this artwork for your album?
Christer Karlstad is an extremely gifted painter from Norway. I found some of his paintings a while back ago and was immediately touched by his motives and the surrealistic tendencies some of his paintings has. I tend to lean more towards abstract art but in this case it was the opposite. I could see everything clearly in the paintings yet there was something really special about them that drew me in. So I downloaded ‘The Bet’ and used it as a screensaver on my laptop for over a year. I kept looking at the painting every day. Then I gradually started to make up stories for all of the characters. The music was born out of this search for stories. I surely hope to work with him again. Thanks for letting me use the picture, Christer!
It would be indeed extremely hard (and useless) to define a genre for ‘The Bet’, but what surprised me already from the start is the strong cinematic atmosphere. You’ve studied film and you are working part-time as a director and photographer in Oslo. When it comes to cinema, which auteurs would you say that shaped your vision the most?
I’m very happy and psyched to hear that, thanks man! As I mentioned before, I’m constantly trying to break out of a perception of what a genre is. We live in fucking 2014, everything that tries to break new territories should be welcomed (with a huge smile). And yes, there is definitely a strong film score influence in there, which comes from – as you mentioned – my film background. I would say that ‘classic’ auteurs that have inspired me (in no particular order) must be; François Truffaut, Hal Ashby, Louis Malle, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Ettore Scola, Julio Medem, Jacques Audiard, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Paul Thomas Anderson, Roman Polanski and early Jim Jarmusch films.
What do you think about contemporary Norwegian cinema? Since you’re also part of it, have you been thinking about working on a feature film?
I don’t have a huge knowledge of Norwegian contemporary cinema these days, as I’ve mostly worked with TV, short films and music videos. My impression is that it’s really difficult being an auteur in Norwegian filmmaking (it’s a shame we don’t have a Roy Andersson or Ingmar Bergman here). But I would like to work on a feature film some day in the future if and when I have a script I feel very strongly for.
You are also working as a DJ. What type of music do you play for the crowds?
Yes, I’m constantly playing DJ sets in Oslo. I have a monthly club-night called ‘Protect Your Balance’ with DJ Indiana Ross. We spin all kinds of records and I try to mix different music styles in each mix. We usually invite lesser known and more established artists to play a gig in the middle, and hope to see some more of these acts in the future. The nights are getting popular and the crowd keeps growing, so that makes us very happy.
What’s next for Benjamin Finger? You are touring this fall, what are your expectations and what should people who visit your performances expect?
I have now played my first show at LeQuVive, Oakland, California. And that gig went really well! Really pleased with my performance that night. Next up will be the 1st of October at Valentines in Portland, Oregon. Can’t wait! My expectations are limited in the sense that I just hope to find a good crowd for my music. I will mainly play slow-core material this time around. There will be layers upon layers consisting of synths, piano-drones and field recordings. And maybe some understated techno beats in the background of the mix. We’ll see what happens!
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