Photo by Byron Spencer
After thirty years, self-described troublemaker Ben Lee is releasing one of the best albums of his career, and having the time of his life in the process.
It’s morning in Melbourne when my phone alerts me to an incoming text message. It’s Ben Lee, who, from his home in Los Angeles, is sharing the list of cameos set to feature in the “Parents Get High” film clip. The list — which boasts actor Paul Scheer, comedian Margaret Cho, and Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes, to name a few — seems almost too eccentric for the video to be pulled off successfully.
“It seems like something that — on paper — shouldn’t work, but I’m sure it will,” I respond. Ben’s reply is short and succinct, and arrives only moments later: “That’s my whole career.”
It’s a little strange to imagine that at forty-three, Ben Lee has been a staple of the Australian music scene since his earliest teen years. In fact, as he and I connect over Zoom (though in LA, he’s dressed in a merch shirt of Melbourne’s Georgia Maq, of Camp Cope fame), we’re speaking exactly thirty years to the day that Nirvana played the inaugural Big Day Out festival in Sydney. As any Aussie music historian will tell you, it was witnessing the Seattle grunge icons on that very day in 1992 that inspired Lee to form his first band, Noise Addict.
Thirty years later, Lee has had an incredible run. He’s been mentored by and shared stages with iconic artists such as Sonic Youth and The Lemonheads, he was signed to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label, and by the time he was twenty-one, split with his first band and was already three solo albums deep into his illustrious — and prolific — career. However, Lee will be the first to tell you that, even as he gears up to release his twentieth album, the songwriting process still remains a mystery to him.
“Everyone’s got theories on creativity and no one’s figured it out. That’s why computers can’t do it yet,” Lee says, referring to one of his learned neighbours. “She’s convinced that the rate of development of creativity by technology means that inevitably technology will be able to be purely creative at some point. And I’m open to it, but I haven’t seen it yet.
“It just seems like this big mystery that if I have a career of writing songs and I still don’t understand it after 25-30 years, how is anyone going to program a computer to do it?”
Regardless of whether such technology is possible (“In order for technology to become creative, it will first actually have to learn how to suffer,” he quips), Lee has managed to curate an enviable discography. As we speak, he’s gearing up to release I’m Fun!, his first solo album of new material since 2015’s Freedom, Love and The Recuperation of the Human Mind. Bolstered by lead single “Born For This Bullshit”, it’s a record that sees Lee embracing life, having fun, and ultimately, making some of the best music of his career.
“I guess I was forty-one, and I was reflecting on my career and what I’d achieved and all this kind of stuff, and I just realised that I didn’t have a model in my mind of what this next chapter of my career would look like yet,” he explains. “I didn’t know why that was, but it struck me that I wasn’t listening to music that was made by people who were my age.”
Soon, Lee was taking to Twitter (he’s become something of a social media aficionado these days), and asking his legions of followers about their favourite records made by artists after the age of forty. Results came in thick and fast, naming the likes of Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, and more. Before long, Lee realised that these artists had created great bodies of work due to having lived full lives complete with victories, defeats, and humiliations.
It became clear that if he wasn’t entering his forties thinking he was going to make the best music of his career, he was doing himself a disservice. Thus, as he listened back to the records fans had suggested, he asked himself one question: “How do you most fully embrace making a record in your forties and have it be awesome?”
Well aware of the fact he’d never be competing with the likes of “Wet Leg, Amyl and The Sniffers, or even Ed Sheeran” on the charts, Lee realised that it was his own humour and honesty that would set him aside–concepts that had followed him ever since he wrote Noise Addict’s “I Wish I Was Him” about The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando.
“Humour for me has always been part of the way I process what I want to say,” he explains. “I’m just leaning back into that, and the songs just started coming.”
After playing some of the songs live while touring his Quarter Century Classix cover album, audience response made Lee realise that the songs which many fans called “the best songs [he’d] written in years” were in fact worthy of exploring further. Eager to record his next album with a full band, the impact of a global pandemic soon saw these plans halted and traded for remote completion. Producers such as Jon Brion, Shamir, Sadie Dupuis, and Darren Seltmann were recruited, as were musical guests like Zooey Deschanel, Money Mark, Megan Washington, Sally Seltmann, and Georgia Maq.
The result is an album which is indeed amongst some of Lee’s best work, and mixes in his trademark humour and titular fun with aspects of self-reflection, humility, and his own personal journey. Fittingly, “Born For This Bullshit” manages to encapsulate the entire Ben Lee journey and philosophy into one of his catchiest verses to date:
“Desires? You repressed them, I joined three cults and left them/You’ve come to sad conclusions, I’m looking for some new solutions/In love with your depression, I advocate rebellion/It’s your prerogative but I’m staying positive.”
When Lee references his history with cults, he’s not just using clever metaphors. He’ll gladly explain that life is nothing but a vast learning experience, and that he did indeed find himself involved in systems of belief which could fall under such categorisation.
“I’m someone who, when I do something, I do it one-hundred percent,” he explains. “So If I’m going to try out something, it’s like I’m throwing myself in.”
“I’m someone who, when I do something, I do it 100%.”
As he goes on, he looks back to two major tangents in his life that he describes as “spiritual explorations”, yet ultimately helped to deepen his sense of commitment to his own autonomy and free-thinking nature.
“There was an Indian guru who I got involved with, and we actually got married there,” he recalls, referring to his 2008 marriage to actress Ione Skye in India. “It was very like one of these types of Hindu mystics, and it’s very much part of that culture. That person was called Narayani Amma, and that was a journey that went through about five or six years.”
“The second bit was ayahuasca and working with a Peruvian shaman and psychedelics and everything,” he continues. “That led to me breaking free of that dynamic with the guru, but it trapped me in another dynamic.”
Ultimately, he explains that these are periods in his life that aren’t worth hiding from, but that he is embracing, given that they’re tantamount to bad relationships, and can ultimately serve as learning experiences. However, he notes it’s important to maintain a sense of awareness and to remain conscious that cults can manifest in countless forms of belief systems — regardless of their proximity to ‘typical’ cult-like topics such as politics, religion, or health.
“I thought it would be useful for me to be transparent about the fact there’s nothing shameful inherently about having been swept up in something, because it offered some answers in a confusing time,” Lee explains. “But also that you, as a human, are never out of chances to get your head into reality.”
However, while the record does indeed feature an overwhelming message of positivity, it’s not without self-reflection. One song, fittingly titled “Arsehole”, sees Lee reflecting on his younger behaviour: “When I was younger I was an arsehole,” he begins. “Burning down bridges, fighting with strangers, destroying everything I could, just because”.
While the track focuses on his rowdy, headstrong nature as a kid, it’s also something of a reflection on his youthful confidence, which many could misconstrue as arrogance. Famously, Lee described his 1998 album Breathing Tornados as the “greatest Australian album of all time”. The likes of Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning responded by calling him a “precocious little cunt”, a term which would later adorn T-shirts sold by Lee.
Likewise, even bands such as US outfit The Ataris and Melbourne group Klinger both released tracks called “Ben Lee” which attacked this perceived arrogance. While the former was more cutting (and later even covered by its namesake), the latter was more playful, and preceded Lee working with Klinger guitarist Dave Rogers.
“There’s so many levels to it,” Lee explains. “You try to psychoanalyse yourself and you want to understand why you do the things you do, and with a song like ‘Arsehole’, I’m reckoning with that. But it’s interesting because I think in that song there’s shame and there’s also pride.
“I think there aren’t enough troublemakers. I think that the reason the planet is in the shape it’s in is because there’s far too much acceptance of the status quo. And I think politically, environmentally, certainly in terms of activism, but artistically and politically, we need troublemakers. It’s the only way we learn to think differently about things.”
“I think there aren’t enough troublemakers.”
To this day, Lee still relishes the title of being a troublemaker. Just a month after we would last speak, he made headlines for getting a video removed from TikTok due to “harassment and bullying”. In the video, Lee set his sights on a feud with Murray Cook of The Wiggles, ending a three-minute story about eggplants, cupping exercises, and drum positioning by stating, “Fuck you Murray, you know exactly what you did!”
Received in good humour by Cook, the post once again showcased Lee’s fun-loving nature, his wicked humour, and his tendency to be misinterpreted by the public.
Ultimately though, Ben Lee has crafted a career that is almost explicitly underlined by the very notion of not being cohesive — at least not on paper. It’s a career that has seen him collaborate with actors and actresses (including two records with How I Met Your Mother actor Josh Radnor as Radnor & Lee), venture into acting himself with Tony McNamara’s The Rage in Placid Lake, focus on new-age music on Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, make the Islamic faith accessible to young children with Ben Lee Sings Songs about Islam for The Whole Family, perform a song-for-song cover of an entire Against Me! album, and even turn Tom Robbins’ B is For Beer into a musical (which will be adapted into a film this year).
But while there are so many things that shouldn’t work, it’s the confidence and tenacity that is so inextricably linked to Ben Lee that makes it work. It’s exactly why an album called I’m Fun! is bound to be remembered as one of his most accomplished and beloved works to date. But it’s also why it’s an album that manages to touch upon more serious topics, and in typical Ben Lee fashion, address them with a sense of levity that makes them easier to deal with.
“The future’s not bleak, because no one knows the future. The present is bleak. The future; we’re going to create,” he explains. “Simply imagining the possibility of positivity about the future completely changes our relationship to it.
“I’m not asking people to walk around with rose-tinted glasses, and the realism about human hurt and fallibility is really important to me. And I think that is a big part of this album–admitting that we make a lot of mistakes, and we hurt each other, and we look back on our past and go, ‘Why did I do that?’ But even that can be something to be embraced.”
It’s this type of thinking that sees I’m Fun! embrace topics such as lockdowns, parents experimenting with altered states of consciousness, fearlessness, and being a square peg in the round hole of life. And of course, true to his nature, he gladly admits that not everyone will resonate with his latest work, but as long as he’s gone all-in, that’s all that matters.
“That’s something I’ve earned through years of doing it my own way,” he explains. “Look, not everything I do is going to be genius, but it is going to be interesting.”
It might be more than thirty years since a teenage Ben Lee went to the inaugural Big Day Out and caught a rising grunge band called Nirvana. The experience may have changed his own life in the process, but even now, twenty albums in, we’re learning we’ve not even begun to see Lee at his peak.
This story features in the September 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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