Name: Ben Seretan
Occupation: Composer, field recorder, sound artist
Current release: Ben Seretan's new album Cicada Waves is out now on NNA Tapes.
Recommendations: I’ve been listening to the SUSS 24/7 Ambient Country stream while writing these responses, it’s extremely lovely.
I’d also like to recommend the work of Shanekia McIntosh, a poet/performer who has been sharing a lot of work in my town lately - her work on various marquees in Albany are super beautiful.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ben Seretan and would like to know more, visit his excellent website for more information and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Not sure I can really point at a particular moment when I *started* playing music - as far as I can remember, it’s always been a part of my life and part of what I do in the world. Upright all-white Yamaha piano in the family living room, lessons from the church accompanist in the choir loft, group singing and Sunday morning performances in Bible daycare. I remember singing about the ten commandments with sock puppets.
Singing and playing music was (and still is, through a different lens) such a powerful and hypnotizing tool for *feeling the spirit.* And organizing the chaos of existence into pretty little melodies. Camaraderie, fellowship, faith in the divine above, whatever you want to call it - voices lifted together in harmony, in organized movement, felt very good to be a part of, comfortable and reassuring. A feeling I’m still hunting, tbh. Definitely my biggest early passion and influence.
Later on I picked up the cello and was very dedicated to that for a while, but it turned out that playing my much-older brother’s hand-me-down punk band guitar equipment was way more fun, never looked back.
But my family likes to tell me that one summer I was obsessed with sitting naked at the piano and banging out a four-year-old’s interpretation of that Bryan Adams song from the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. Not that I recall doing that exactly, but maybe that’s the point of origin - makes a lot of sense for who I am currently, haha.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Well, I certainly haven’t left the phase of learning! Trying to learn all the time, especially as culturally there has been more of an open dialogue on things like white supremacy. I want to remain humble enough to learn, always.
But as far as emulation goes, it’s such an interesting idea. I have extremely vivid memories of learning the song “Miserable” by the band Lit and imagining myself playing it at parties for my friends in middle school. And I mean imagining all aspects of it, from what kind of outfit I would wear to the lighting, etc. I wanted to have the tattoos, the slicked hair, I wanted it all. A very deep desire to perform the role of being in the band Lit (what would you call this other than drag??).
I also recall in my earlier stages of playing music having this recurring fantasy anytime I saw a band I loved: that someone in the band would not be able to play the show last minute and that I would be pulled out of the audience to replace them, as if being pulled on stage was this miraculous boundary crossing.
There’s always an aspect of emulation / drag / performance when realizing music (or performing the marketing of music on social media, for instance). I also absolutely do imagine myself as all oiled up in assless chaps when I sing Prince karaoke. But at a certain point fans/friends/peers started to have a clear idea of what my “vibe” was - usually overly earnest, loud guitars, posi, and lately very up house-music type dance stuff - and once that I happened I often found that I was emulating myself! Performing a role as myself! Which is a bit of a head trip, but I’m happy to report that I no longer want to be in the band Lit.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
There is a lot to say on this topic! I certainly enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege that comes directly from my being a white person and historically my male perspective is overvalued. Nevertheless, despite my inherent privilege, I still struggle to prove that I’m worthy of anyone’s attention, or of cosmic love (the whole being raised in a church thing). I want to, through my creative work, be identified as a “good person,” as foolish of an endeavor as that may be. It has been a big motivation for me in the past, proving my worth! Less so these days - trying to really enact the true thought that all people have intrinsic worth, regardless of whether or not they make a good record.
Another thought on identity, though, one that I’m kind of obsessed with: we are all terribly individual people with infinitely myriad choices from moment to moment. The fact that anyone can pay attention to another human being - even in simply listening to a recording - is a small miracle, and I try to keep that inherent idea central in my work.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I touched a little on this in the previous question, but I have for most of my life been extremely hard on myself - never good enough, definitely always too fat (that’s an identity topic, actually!), a real sinner begging forgiveness mindset. I was very motivated by proving myself with creative endeavors for a long time! A huge hurdle to get over, but life pushing me into the pool a few times (so to speak) really assuaged that sinner’s mentality over time. I’ve gotten older, and wiser? Hopefully?
I think I also was really focused on making stuff that made sure that I myself experienced whatever was there to experience - fun, wonder, abandon - without much regard for what others might feel in those moments. It was very cool that I did a series of shows in NYC that took place at sunrise, for instance, but asking someone to schlep to a DIY venue at 5:30am to watch some music is a tremendous ask. I was really asking a lot.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
As I think about this prompt I realize that a huge part of everything I’ve ever done has been about encountering an instrument or a circumstance, accepting the hand of providence, and running with it. When my buddy and bandmate left his childhood guitar in my closet after he moved out of my apartment, I played it exclusively for eight or nine years. It wasn’t a particularly nice guitar - in fact it was hard to play and unreliably tuned - but the aura around it was really important to me.
Similarly I’m drawn to recording things under particularly strict deadlines - this is from a summer I spent in Alaska, we recorded this entire album in one weekend in Italy, I recorded this while locked in at my friend’s studio from sunset to sunrise. My latest record is all about the exact worldly conditions of a particular room with a piano in it in Georgia. So what I do is much less contingent on building the perfect studio or finding the perfect gear but rather narrativizing and cherishing the encounters of particular instruments or circumstances.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
This is maybe not exactly what is being asked of me but there is one piece of musical technology that absolutely changed not only my relationship to music but my life in general, and that is the gargantuan speaker array on the indoor dance floor at Nowadays in NYC. Hearing a wide array of electronic music out of those enormous cones and woofers absolutely reorganized my whole entire thing. A holy experience, really.
The other piece of technology I might consider is the treadmill, which is related to the dance music speakers of Nowadays. The catharsis of running to music that is good to run to also changed my life.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
A loaded question while we’re still experiencing COVID! Traditionally there was absolutely nothing better to me than getting a bunch of people in a room to make a riotous racket all together, however sloppily. The best form of collaboration. Lately, though, I’m all about looking over someone’s shoulder (or them sharing their screen) and talking about what exactly the heck they’re doing in their DAW. Those spaces are so deeply personalized and such a weird amalgam of knowing what to do and faking it! And I have so much to learn. I love seeing what weird bootleg plugins you use on your mix.