Being different is not always a cool feeling. Sometime it hurts. Most of us, more or less often, have the experience of being isolated because of a certain degree of difference. You were the only one who failed the exam; you were the tallest among all the kids; when you felt that your sexuality might be ‘different’... It was these differences that makes you know yourself rather than the similarities. Sometimes acknowledging these things can be a tough time in your life because you don’t have any other choices apart from accepting the truth that you are who you are.
Being different is not easy. It’s definitely not as easy as picking up a unique jacket in an independent designer shop. You need to be brave enough to be the unique one; sometimes through tears and sometimes through laughter.
Ben Cooper, the voice of Radical Face is just such a one to help us understand what it is to be different. At Number Three, he’s always the top one on our play list. We love the way he tells stories in his music. His music is difficult to categorise. However, his pure honesty in expressing himself echoes with us.
Growing up in a big family in Florida, Ben had a far from perfect childhood - according to most people’s standards of ‘happy and loving’. He left his family at the age of 14 when he came out as gay to his parents. Like most artists, creativity and sensitivity were part of his growing up. He tried to be a writer and then an indie musician, eventually Ben found a world where he could express himself freely and safely —art.
Over in the Blues Kitchen in North London, met with Ben from the American indie band Radical Face, before their final European tour. We talked about how people from different cultural backgrounds, how they share similar emotional feelings through music, the relationship between personal experiences and art creation, as well as beautiful things in a sometimes ugly world.
Number Three (NT): It’s been said your music can be really depressing. Are you a depressive person?
Ben (B): What I think is, I mostly write when I don’t feel well. It comes to me when I’m not in a good place, so a lot of the subject matter is about depression. Not that I’m a depressive or anything like that. It’s just a feeling when you’re not having a nice day, and usually thinking “I’m gonna write a song and I just enjoy the day”. It’s my way of dealing with it I guess.
It’s this ‘coping method’ which makes it all come out a lot a darker. I’ve been trying to write happier music, I don’t even know if I can, but who knows? We’ll find out someday.
Even though it comes across as being a bit depressing, it’s weird that a lot of people I talk to tell me that it actually makes them feel better. Even though the subjects of my songs aren’t always the most optimistic, I like to take things that start out as ugly things, or just a bad feeling and then make them as pretty as possible. I think a lot of the time I take my bad stuff and try to make it beautiful instead of just staying in an ugly place.
NT: Do you like where you are now?
B: Overall yes. I think I love where I am right now. Warts and all. It’s not a perfect place. And it can be terribly ugly sometimes. Yesterday, my friend was telling me about when he was sitting in a café in Paris drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and writing in a notebook. A fly landed in his beer, and he helped it out of the beer and put it on the table. It shook itself off and flew away. He said that that’s more interesting to him than the fact that he was in Paris, writing in a notebook in a special place. What he said struck me and made me want to write more than where I am. And I think there are little bits of beauty everywhere, you just have to be there to see it. I think so much of this, just being open to experience. Beauty comes in all sizes, and sometimes sharing little moments that you have with people, are worth their weight in gold. So yes, I think this is a big messy horrible place that is full of beauty.
NT: We’re really interested in how people think about ‘being different’.
B: I think everyone is different, but that’s what makes us all the same. I think we are all naturally different. It’s funny. I think a good word for it to me is ‘otherness’; the things that are different. I think everyone bumps into it at some point where you realise that you’re not quite like this, or there’s stuff around where I don’t think I’d fit into this. And I actually think more people feel that way than not.
But I think for a lot of people it’s just easier to go with the flow and not disrupt it. When you get that shared experience, I think differences are mostly in the detail. If I’m writing something personal, I just take away the names. I take away the place, I just write about the core experience, and that’s something that shared among lots of people. I think everyone has been rejected at some point. People sometimes really put themselves out of there and then regret it. We have all dealt with that and I think some people like to pretend it never happened because it’s easier. But I really think most people, when you start to ask them, find out about their lives, everyone find very similar things dull.
So am I different from other people? Yes, but in the details. Like I come from different place, I come from a different culture, a different education, but I think those are the fascinating things that I write about; stories from a country I never visited, about the people there and their struggles. And their struggles are familiar. I know exactly what they are talking about. Maybe not what’s expected of them in their society, but I can relate to what is expected in my society and how it works. So that’s what I mean. So it’s like we are all snowflakes but we are in a blizzard. We are all unique but there is a giant storm and we are all part of that too, so I think it’s both.
NT: We think that sometimes we can be in a very lonely place when we want to express ourselves. Do you think so?
B: For a long time, I felt lonely. I think art was my safe haven. My family is very dysfunctional. In high school, when I was kicked out of my house, I was working 15 hours a week and going to school. I had a lot of problems with depression. I used to hurt myself, and other bad stuff. And then I found art is the one place I can do anything I want. It doesn’t have repercussions and I could be as strange as I needed to be. I could be as destructive as I needed to be, and it’s OK. So it was a lonely place, but for a long time, it was a castle. It was my lonely place and that was enough. And the funny thing was that when I got older, I got happier, and I wanted to collaborate more. I’ve got more and more people, they come to my room and we make things together. When I’m in a really bad place, I want to be by myself again. So it is lonely. When I was in a really bad place it was kind of comforting to think, yes it’s getting lonely but I want to learn from people more.
NT: Why music but not a writer?
B: Originally I wanted to be a writer. When I finished high school, I thought I was going to write novels and I wrote two. And then my hard drive crashed - I never backed it up and my books were gone. And I didn’t know what else to do with myself. So I went back to music.
I think a lot of things I learned over those two years from writing showed up in my music. I started to listen to lot of classical music and music that has a narrative. You find out that composers are trying to tell a story. When the music gets loud, this is where a war starts, for example; trying to use music to represent a narrative. I liked that idea a lot and wanted to try to use the instruments I know how to play to tell a story. So my writing is definitely affected. Because the music I made in high school, before I wrote books, those were very noisy, like sonic booms and destructive guitars. And when I got into writing, it all changed. So there wasn’t really an intention. I think I was just gathering things over the years and just trying to combine them all.
NT: The stories in your music are belong to the saga of a big family. What does family mean to you?
B: Family is a complicated one and a big one! I’m one of ten children. And then I have nine nieces and nephews. So my family is really really big and it has been really really complicated. When I was 14, I came out to my parents. I told them I was gay and they kicked me out of the house. So as a teenager, I had to take care of myself. I was around 19 when I kind of made up with them. Things were better for a while but then I got lost again.
And then last year, one of my nieces came to me and told me about a lot of abuse in my family, like sexual and physical. I adopted her around last September time. There was a criminal trial and I got called as a witness against my stepdad and my mum. So family - my family at least, is just messy and with a lot of dark history. More than ever, I understand the idea that the family you’re born with isn’t the family you could choose. Much more it’s about your friends and who you surround yourself with. My ‘chosen’ family means much more to me than my actual family.
After the court case, we didn’t (and still don’t) have contact with each other; at this point I’m rebuilding. But I know that my chosen family and my friends are wonderful, but as far as my biological family is concerned, I don’t really know them much.
I think there’s actually a lot of beauty in the world, but sometimes you go to the bad end. I think everyone goes though stuff at some point. Even in the bad times, there are people that show up that you never thought cared. Sometimes you don’t even know they are there until the bad things happen. Some of my best friends came out of some very ugly experiences. So I think it’s both. I think it’s fucked up and it’s beautiful, almost at the same time.
NT: Has it been difficult to give a definition of “good” or “bad” in the Family stories.
B: I think it’s more up to people. People are inherently good or bad. I think there are people that are destructive and there are people that build. But whether or not they are good or bad, I think the more things that happen in my life, the less I like to assume things about anyone. I don’t know where they are coming from. There have been so many times that I thought someone was a really awful person, and then I got to know them and I found out that they were just really hurt. They just didn’t know how to express it. When they found sympathy, a lot changed. So I think I’m a bit of a mixed bag. But I think at times everyone has an ugly face, but it passes. I just think that the idea that you can be firmly in one camp or another doesn’t really exist. Things are always mixed up.
NT: Are you trying to find out solutions to the questions you have in your life with music?
B: I think a lot of times about this; it’s mostly about the ‘how’. A lot of the time we don’t really understand the repercussions of our actions. Mostly we’re just coping and getting by as best we can. Even though you might not know it, you can affect things down the road even tho you have no concept that they even exist. I think it happens all the time with most parents bringing up young kids. They do their best, but most of the time they don’t really know what they are doing. They’re going on instinct. Sometimes, bad traits can keeping growing through a family and never get resolved. Other times we learn from them and change the course of our destiny.
I remember a while ago I heard a guy saying that you could either try to become the opposite of your parents or a mirror image - there’s almost no middle ground.
NT: Maybe you are a teacher to your parents.
B: Exactly. Sometimes things can go backwards and you end up teaching your parents, unintentionally on both sides - the person that’s affected changes them. I’ve been fascinated about those complicated relationships. I still really like that idea. That’s how I started, to show the generational differences and effects through song.
But as far as providing solutions, I don’t really have any. I’m just trying to observe as best as I can. I think most of the solutions we are looking for are not intrinsic. You can only find them in yourself. A lot of times solutions are really bound up in stories; it’s when people have personal revelations. It not usually someone else that makes you change. Sometimes the solutions just show up.
Radical Face originally got its name from an advert for plastic surgery, seen on a telephone pole somewhere in Jacksonville, Florida. The top right corner was torn off and it featured a smiling older woman. The full message actually read ‘Radical Face Lifts’, but Ben didn't discover that until later. It looked like it was an advert for a woman's face. He thought it was funny, and that weird little name stuck.