In the publicity blitz for my first album america’d I didn’t limit myself to music blogs. I also reached out to libertarian and anarchist websites and print journals, since my charming message of government/corporatist hatred wasn’t always coming off well with the pure music journalists.
Ron Moore was a Manhattan Libertarian Party member who got back to my request for a feature review. We struck up an acquaintance as well, meeting in person last year to talk business as well (our day jobs are similar). Below is a reprint of the interview that was published in the print edition of the MLP’s magazine Serf City.
Ron Moore: Do you or have you done any gigging? Where? Any stories?
Ben Sommer: Sure I have a story, and its an embarrassing one: I don’t gig. In fact I’ve never performed much. Even in high school band days, my buddies and I spent most time holed up in the garage thinking we were great vs. proving it to other people. In college and later in grad school – when I was more of a classical & jazz than rock player – it was more normal to space out performances. But even now that I’ve returned to my rock roots, I still don’t have immediate plans to gig and build a fan-base that way. Someday…
Sometimes I feel inadequate for not gigging – the old myth that says you have to drag your balls through a mile of glass on the road to prove your mettle is still persuasive. I have no stage fright or anything, I’ve just known since early days that there’s only so much time in the day and focusing on being a composer leaves little time for wood-shedding & practice – a pre-requisite for gigging.
Ron: What other artists do you like?
Ben: Who I “like” now has little to do with what artists I’ve been obsessed with over my career. “Obsessions” have included Rush, The Who, Steve Reich, Alan Holdsworth, The Police, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Elliot Carter.
Who I “like” these days can be extremely random and frankly embarrassing at times – for instance Paramore (chick-rock emo/metal band) has had my ear lately. I’ve been appreciating the songcraft of Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, as well as the utterly original mix of politics & thrash metal that System of a Down puts out. Through my podcast/music blogs BandsLikeRush.com and BandsLikeZappa.com I’ve met some amazing new artists that I very much like, for example Keith Horn.
Ron: What’s your thinking about art and politics? ( I was 6 to 16 during the 60’s )
Ben: They’re incredibly difficult to mix. Like oil & water they come apart and make for a crappy experience without a skilled composer mixing them like a fine vinaigrette. Especially in pop/rock music, its so hard to deliver poetic lyrics, memorable melody, and nut-crunching “groove” when your subject matter is, say, a former US Secretary of State’s war crimes (e.g. my song Henry Kissinger).
However, part of what energized me to work so hard on this album was the challenge of delivering a powerful message of liberty & individualism with a great set of rock songs. You see, I’m a trained composer, with some advanced ideas and a total grasp of technique. Although I’m sure the songs in america’d come off to most lay-listeners as pretty progressive, they were actually quite simple for me to conceive musically. But pairing them with my message and crafting lyrics that didn’t slide into pedantic, facile political metaphors was a challenge.
Ron: As a libertarian artist what are your thoughts about government support of the arts?
Ben: Of course I’m opposed to it. One of the songs that I cut from america’d – and that I will probably include in my next album – was titled “Karen Finley”. She’s a performance artist who gained infamy in the 1990s as one of the NEA Four – a group of artists who’s NEA grants were clawed back because some grand-standing congressmen realized their work was obscene. Karen eventually won her case in the supreme court.
Cases like Finley’s exemplify the kind of absurd and immature behavior government involvement in art encourages in artists. Karen thought she was righteously fighting censorship for all by fighting for her government grant. Of course, her freedom to perform naked was never challenged by any agent of the state – it was merely her “right” to collect government money for it. Government funding of the arts – and pretty much anything else – warps people’s sense of morality and creates social conflict where they needn’t be any.
Ron: How does your libertarianism affect your relationship with other artists? What I am getting at is what I perceive to be a lack of understanding or even caring about politics among the arts community aside from wanting a free ride. Though that’s only my opinion.
Ben: Actually, my message seems to be gaining not losing fans, even among other artists.
In the first place, interest in liberty and hatred of government is growing naturally. Its just a consequence of the times. When people en masse are resisting unlawful search at the airport, showing interest finally in what the Federal Reserve is up to, and failing to support the state’s endless wars of aggression – we have a ripe audience for libertarian rock music.
Of course, when it comes to cocktail party talk, I need to tame down the polemic and keep the sense of humor going to avoid putting people off. But times certainly are changing.
Ron: What do you think are the prospects for increased freedom in the short to medium term? Can you relate that to arts and music?
Ben: The future of “freedom in general” is a tough one to predict. I typically am more interested in what the leaders of the movement like Lew Rockwell or Ron Paul have to say about that.
But I do know one hugely positive thing happening to the music business, and its the same thing that has been so instrumental recently in spreading truth about the state and promoting liberty: the internet.
The mainstream media frequently spews a lot of bullshit about how the “music industry” is dying. All I can say is: though its true that there has never been a worse time to be in the record business, there’s never been a better time to be a musician. The internet, together with cheaper music technology, has destroyed the old, sclerotic model of music promotion & distribution and replaced it with a completely even playing field for all musicians. As a recent reviewer of my album put it: “America’d shows what serious songwriters can achieve on no budget but love”