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Saturday 7 March 2020

Mick Dillingham Interviews : Ben Eshbach About The Sugarplastic And Much More

When it came out Bang, The Earth Is Round was my first exposure to Los Angeles band The Sugarplastic (Ben Eshbach, Kiara Geller and Josh Laner). I was utterly smitten by it from the get go.  I was charmed by the melodies and the uniqueness of the songs, as well as the adventurous production and playing.  I will openly admit I had a major crush on the album, but like all crushes I thought the initial beguiling of the clever glamour that filled my ears would dim, as I became more familiar with the album… I would get over it. 

But no…the more I played it the greater the depths…there was something more here that kept bringing me back…the songs oh so sweet and pretty have a darker edge, lyrically We are in the realms of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman rather than Simon and Garfunkel. 

Musically Ben Eshbach had the same mysterious magical talent for simple complexity that E from the Eels had in abundance for a time.  Yes my crush faded but only to be replaced by an unending true love firstly for this album and then as time went on every gosh darn thing the band recorded before and after. I love The Sugarplastic….there I’ve said it. Don loves them just as much as I do. When he started talking to Ben and then secured this interview opportunity with the great man we were both boy oh boy cock a hoop with excitement and then some.  What a treat for all of us.  Anyway, hush now the curtain is about to rise.

What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?

"I was in the fourth grade, maybe nine years old,  when two big things happened. A substitute teacher brought in some records to play during the class rest time. One of them was the Water Music by Handel. I was transfixed by the horns in the Water Music. I couldn’t stop thinking about them for weeks. This was the music that “opened my ears.” I asked my grandmother for the record for Christmas and that was that.

Also, that same year, the film The Sting came out. It featured Scott Joplin’s music. I asked for that soundtrack record too and wore it out as well. Those two records and a 1976 recording of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performing Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade were my favourite records as a young person. They were key in developing how I listened to music. Also on that list would be Lerner and Loewe’s music for the 1967 musical film adaptation of Camelot and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Later I would stop listening to Handel when I discovered the Brandenburg Concertos and Bach’s motet’s.

The second thing that happened that year was that my father finally let me play his electric guitar. A 1959-60 Sears Silvertone. He'd had it since he was a kid but I’d never seen him play. That year he taught me how to play I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash), Rumble (Link Wray), and Torque (The Fireballs). Then he challenged me to teach myself the guitar solo from Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk Part 1. When I was finished with all that, I started writing my own stuff. The only other musical instrument I had access to as a child was a chord organ I got when I was maybe 5 years old. One of those little organs like this one."

"I wrote simple tunes on that as a kid. I learned to play “My Country ’Tis of Thee” from a songbook that came with the organ. I played that song so many times and it got ingrained in my brain so thoroughly. Even to this day I have to mentally hum the first six notes of that melody in order to mentally ground myself in the major chord of a given root note if the music around it is sufficiently confusing. I can still play the first thing I wrote for guitar and the first thing I wrote for organ, three years earlier. Very, very simple stuff, but so much fun to have done."

Which music artists made you sit up and take notice back then?

"I remember one summer when Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey first got played on the radio. I didn’t know, or care to know, who did the song. But I didn’t want to miss it if it played. I kept one ear on the radio at all times in case that song would come on. A few years later the same thing happened with a different song, Jet. Same thing — it was like the only interesting song on the radio. So it turned out that the same guy wrote both of those songs. That freaked me out a little.

But I had never really developed a taste for “artists” or the musical personalities behind the sound of music. I didn’t care about the names of the people making the music. That wouldn’t start to happen until my late teens and even then it turned out to be a phase. I did come to deeply respect the musical writers, but not so much the performers.

I knew the Beatles, of course. So I knew who McCartney was when I learned he’d written both of those songs. As a young teen I liked the Beatles’ Blue Album. I wouldn’t listen to a real Beatles album all the way through until I was almost thirty and it would be Kiara who played it for me. Another artist I liked were The Mamas and the Papas. My mother listened to them around the house. I loved their harmonies. I can’t think of any more artists that I remember having a reaction to back then."

Can you remember the day you first met Kiara?

"I had to ask Kiara to answer this one. He said that it was at summer camp (I knew that much.) He was looking for his assigned cabin and walked past my cabin and heard me playing guitar inside. I was playing Spellbound by Siouxsie and the Banshees and so he poked his head in and introduced himself. We were friends for a number of years before playing music together."

How did drummer Josh Laner became involved?

"Josh was an acquaintance of Kiara. I don’t know how they knew each other. But Kiara recruited him to play drums and me to play guitar. Kiara wanted the three of us to get together to see what would happen."

You spent a couple of years rehearsing, but it wasn’t until you started writing songs instead of tunes that things started to make sense creatively. What was the first song you wrote where you knew you had something?

"I think that a song called Brownly Corduroid was the first recording we made where I thought we’d succeeded. I didn’t feel like I “had something” in terms of commercial viability or that I possessed a skill for writing. I just felt like I’d exceeded my expectations and that felt really good. Plus a lot of that feeling might have been the new experience of studio recording. I’d never recorded before and it was pretty fantastic. So the magic of hearing a song I’d written coming out of stereo speakers was fresh and exciting. I guess I tied the song writing with the song recording back then."

What music were you into by this time?

"I got really into the Pixies when Doolittle came out in 1988. I think that they are the band I’ve been infatuated with more than any other band. They came along at a perfect time for me, because I had started making peace with the idea that maybe I had aged out of an ability to fall in love with a band.

The band I had loved before the Pixies had been Killing Joke (discovered in 1981) who had been making disappointing records for the last few years and so I stopped following their releases. When the Pixies came out it was like a musical miracle. They are the band that ultimately made me decide that The Sugarplastic could be something I wanted to do.

I’d also recently discovered Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain. I listened to XTC a lot in those days too, but I didn’t like any of their records as a whole. Later I’d learn to love English Settlement and Skylarking. But some of my favorite XTC songs are on some of their lesser records like Black Sea and Drums and Wires.

A lot of what I started listening to in those days were things that Kiara and Josh turned me on to. Josh was instrumental in getting me to listen to some XTC I’d never heard. He and his brother, Brad Laner, got me into The Kinks and Television. Kiara got me into Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I think it was playing in his apartment one day when I went over.

I’m probably forgetting a few but that’s most of it. Oh and The Beatles. I started listening to the Beatles in 1989-1990 because of Kiara — I mean really listening to whole records. I’d never heard Revolver or Rubber Soul until the 90s.

Outside of rock and pop, I had gotten really into this 1983 Phillips recording of Peter Schreier conducting Mozart’s Requiem and Isao Tomita’s 1974 synthesizer record, Snowflake’s Are Dancing. I was also listening to this recording of Bruno Walter conducting Beethoven’s Symphony #9 and Bernstein’s version of The Firebird Suite with the New York Philharmonic.

Another big one was Herbert von Karajan doing Strauss’s Tales From The Vienna Woods (Berlin Philharmonic.) I was also super happy to find that when compact discs came out, my worn out 1976 recording of Scheherazade was re-released on CD, so new listening-life had been breathed into that."

So its 1992 a year before any Sugarplastic releases and yet we have Head.  Ben Eshbach - g, Erik Denning - dr, voc, keyb Dean Opseth - sitar and if I recall correctly a mostly instrumental album released on Voxx. An album so obscure that there is only one fleeting mention on the whole of the internet. Tell us about Head.

"Eric and Dean were guys I knew from college parties. I remember Dean dressed like a Mod and Eric was a drummer who played like Keith Moon. They’d known each other forever and I was like the new guy. This was happening at the same time that The Sugarplastic were recording songs and rehearsing regularly. Head was mainly a jam band.

We played parties and played in the desert and stuff like that. Everyone in the audience was high. It was a fun way for me to experiment with a style of playing that wasn’t where my heart was. I enjoyed playing with those guys and recording that record, but I don’t think any of us thought that there was a trajectory for the band. I can’t remember why I stopped being in the band. Was I kicked out? Or did The Sugarplastic start to gain traction? I don’t remember."

You start playing live. Talk about the live experience for you. I read somewhere you were only doing half hour sets for fear of boring the audience.

"The Sugarplastic was supposed to be a studio band. At least that was my vision. I hated playing live, especially if I had to sing. I liked our music, but I didn’t think anyone else would like it, especially live. I wanted to get off stage as soon as possible, and for the first year it was truly because I didn’t want to bore the audience with our set. No one was here to see us. We were just the band that came on before the band that people had come to see. We were being tolerated.

Then something happened and suddenly we were the band that people came to see on purpose. Josh and Kiara loved playing live. The audience’s enthusiasm worked on them the way it’s supposed to work. I could never get it to work. I have to say, we started attracting an audience fairly rapidly. We were somehow “in demand” from local clubs. Between 1991-1995 I turned down far more shows than we played and for any reason I could think of."

1993 and the first Sugarplastic release, the Ottawa Bonesaw triple 45 on Pronto. Can you remember how you felt holding it in your hands for the first time ? How did you decide on which songs to record? I recall reading somewhere you had more than fifty demos in the archives. I assume you are the producer on these and the next two singles.

"That was a neat feeling, to be holding those 7” coloured vinyls. That was the project of Rush Riddle. He was a really enthusiastic supporter of local music. He also took me to watch our record being cut on a lathe, something I’d never seen before. I was really proud of the box set, the artwork, inserts and the vinyl. It was a magical feeling. I don’t remember how we decided what songs to release on the Pronto box set. They were probably the songs that we thought were our best sounding recordings at the time.

Next thing we knew it was getting played a lot on KXLU. Those are good memories. I produced those recordings, but soon Will Glenn, from the band Mazzy Star, would come along and volunteer to record/produce some tracks that would appear on the next release. Then Chris Apthorp would produce some tracks further down."

So tell me about the recording of the wonderful Radio Jejune.

"Radio Jejune was a really fun record to make. It was recorded in a unique way and with a specific philosophy. The philosophy goes like this: If you’re in a band and you write a song, rehearse the song, then record the song, then mix the song, then you know that by the time the song is released you’ve heard it a zillion times. You don’t get the pleasure of “hearing” the song the way your audience does.

For you, the song is a tail-end snapshot of a very long process that started in your head. The audience, on the other hand, gets to see the snapshot in one glorious reveal. For this reason I’ve always felt sorry for, say, The Beatles,  because they were the only four guys on the planet who never really got to “hear” a Beatles song.

So for Radio Jejune, this is how I chose to fix that problem: I had written all of the songs ahead of time but hadn’t  taught them to Josh or Kiara. For the recording session I would teach them a song and it would take about half an hour for them to learn to play the song. Then we’d press “record” and record the song. Then I’d teach them the next song, record it and so on. We did this for two sessions in the living room of Kiara’s cousin, Casey Neiditch.

Then I sent Josh and Kiara home and spent the next month or two overdubbing and mixing. They weren’t allowed to hear anything until I was finished with the record. By the time the record was finished, Josh and Kiara had forgotten what any of the songs even sounded like. So when we sat down for a final listening session, it all sounded completely new to them. They got to hear a Sugarplastic record the way an audience would hear it.

I still like that record a lot. There’s a lot I would do differently today, mixing choices that I can’t believe I made. But it’s a sincere record made at a time in my life when writing/recording was new and magical. I can still hear all of that in the recording. I’m as pleased with that record today as I was when it came out."

People often mention XTC as a sounds a bit like but for me, on some tracks, there more of a Talking Heads thing going on at times.

"Yeah, both of those bands were self-conscious influences. On Radio Jejune especially. I think it’s either Skinny Hotrod or Sun Goes Cold that I was trying to emulate a riff that I thought I heard the Talking Heads do a long time ago, but I’ve never been able to find the song that I thought I was copying. I’m sure I got it wrong. XTC was an obvious influence. I think I was listening, over and over, to a couple songs on Drums and Wires during that time."

How did the signed to Geffen thing come about?

"I can’t remember the details that led to us meeting with Todd Sullivan,our eventual A&R guy. I think that a DJ friend of Todd’s had alerted him to us. He called me at home one day, introduced himself and said he wanted to have lunch. We met at a restaurant in Burbank and he said he wanted to sign us. “I want to sign you,” he said during lunch. I didn’t understand at the time. I thought that he was expressing a wish, as in, “Boy oh boy, I sure do wish that I had the authority to sign you guys.”

So I think I just smiled and nodded and then talked about something else. But when I told Josh and Kiara about the lunch they reacted quite differently. They told me that this meant he can sign us and would sign us and that this was something they both wanted and that I should want it too. So I went out and bought the Donald Passman book, "All You Need to Know About the Music Business", to find out what this “signing” was really all about.

This is what I learned from the Passman book: A record label is a bank that will loan you money to record music and buy cool gear and ride around in limousines . You don’t have to pay back the loan if record sales fail to earn back the investment. Anything beyond that arrangement is fluff. The whole rock star success thing is a crap shoot and you shouldn’t expect it to happen. The Bank is buying you a really expensive, really fun lottery ticket. Wanna play?

The book didn’t come out and say that exactly, but that was my takeaway and so I couldn’t say “no.” So we got a good lawyer and signed on the dotted line. It turned out to be exactly as the book had said, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I remember at that time I had somehow become acquainted with Adam Jones from the band Tool. He came to one of our tiny shows, I forget why. He was the only rock star I knew. I ran into him at a video store in the San Fernando Valley just after we got signed and told him about it. He got really excited for me and then looked me square in the eye and said, “Okay. First, don’t listen to anyone who bitches about you “selling out” to a major label. That’s bullshit. Second, they’re going to give you money. Take as much as you can and spend every cent of it.” I mean, that was basically the Passman book in two sentences."

Tell me all about Bang! The Earth is Round and how you ended up with a Scottish co-producer in Colin Fairly. How was the recording? Did you get much in the way of label interference or did they mostly leave you alone?

"There wasn’t a lot of label interference with Bang! The Earth Is Round. I mean not enough to register as “interference.” Todd Sullivan chose Colin Fairly to engineer the record. I can’t remember having a say in that. He let me produce the record, though at the end of the day the overall “sheen” of its sound was determined by the engineer and the label. I was producer in the sense that I arranged and orchestrated everything, wrote the songs, chose the songs for the record and so on. I even wrote one of the songs in the studio.

Todd (Geffen) was very hands off from what I remember. He was a kind of Yoda; steering the record, but allowing the band to grow through making it. He had final say on everything, but I don’t remember him ever exercising his veto power. He had good positive suggestions. Colin was terrific to work with and I liked him as a person. Even though he’s credited as an engineer, he really did help produce it, especially when it came to getting better performances.

The song Soft Jingo would have sounded very different had he not made a secret mix of it and then had me sit down for a listen. His mix was better than mine. I think he was responsible for some of the best moments on the record. I remember some key pieces of advice he gave me about life in general. One of which involved a story about when he and John Bonham were out shopping for a car.

But overall, I don’t like the sound of Bang! The Earth is Round very much. It reminds me of how I felt about Another Green World after having acclimated to Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain. Something radically changed sonically. I mean, at the microphone level or the processing level on Another Green World that took it completely out of the universe built by the previous two records. Same with Bang!

It doesn’t sound like the band and I’m unable to hear it the way it’s supposed to be heard. I think that there are only three or four recordings I like on that record. I don’t get a clear sense of who the band is from that collection of songs. I get a kick out of people whose first exposure to The Sugarplastic was through Bang! and so, accordingly, think that’s who we were. They think that everything that came before was a development toward being who we were and everything that came afterwards was straying away from who we were.

Because Bang! was our largest exposure, I encountered this sentiment quite a bit. I think that, generally speaking, it’s hard to resist reading ourselves into an album that we love. I know that I fell for that fallacy with The Pixies. Doolittle was my introduction to The Pixies. So, for me, everything up to Doolittle was an “almost there” and everything after Doolittle was the band losing their grip on the magic.

That’s nonsense but it’s nonsense that’s hard to resist. To make matters worse, sometimes that actually is what happens with an artist and so we always have that consolation close at hand to help vindicate our judgement."

You toured more extensively on the back of the album. How was the big label experience. Judging by the fact you chose to leave the label I'm assuming you had issues.

"I don’t remember having issues with the label, personally. The label was going through a tough time. It was during that period in the late 90s when there were these weird label mergers and everything was being reorganized. I didn’t recognize the Geffen staff any more. It seemed that no one there knew who we were either. Bands were getting dropped left and right.

I kind of think that the only reason we weren’t dropped is because Todd Sullivan fought for us. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can’t think of any other reason Geffen would have wanted to hang on to us. There was a new head of A&R, who said that he wanted us to book a showcase for the label to attend, to determine whether or not we could stay with the label. It felt like we were auditioning for the label we were already signed to. That’s the only issue I really remember having with the label. But by then things seemed to be over for just about everyone anyway."

So we arrive at the magnificent Resin.How did you end up getting the Egyptian, Andy Metcalfe, in the production chair? How did the recording go? This was the first album that all the songs were written specifically for I believe.

"Resin was a pastiche of Tascam Porta One 4-track recordings, 8-track 1/2” recordings, old demos and expensive studio recordings. It was definitely not written as a record. But, to my ears, it sounds remarkably like one. There’s a coherence to it because, I think, the songs that were written for it tie together the songs that were not. It was recorded all over the place.

For instance, one of the songs (Little Ash Statue) began as a four track cassette all-guitar experiment recorded years earlier. I found the old cassette, transferred it onto 1/2” 8-track and then we added bass, wrote some lyrics, added drums, piano and made it into a song. That’s ass-backwards. But the final product hung together nicely. It sounds like a deliberate, unified thing.

We were introduced to Andy Metcalf when we were on Geffen. Andy had been in Squeeze and The Egyptians with Robyn Hitchcock (and The Soft Boys.) He had great sensibilities for what we were doing. He helped record some demos that Geffen was paying for. The one song on Resin that Andy produced (Tamarind Tree) was one of those songs. The drummer on that song was Pat Mastelotto from King Crimson.

It was during the end of our stay at Geffen that he worked with us. He’s one of maybe three or four people who’ve talked to me about music in a truly memorable way. You know, like half a dozen things he said off-handedly that were really quite brilliant and came from a very thoughtful place."

How does the song writing process work with you? Where do your lyrical ideas come from? How has your approach changed down the years?  Are you slow or prolific?

"I haven’t written a song (you know, with lyrics and stuff) in a number of years, so I don’t know if I’m still prolific, but I certainly used to be. I was always writing in my head. I always had a couple dozen stray choruses, stray verses, stray riffs that I could swap in and out with each other to make songs. I’ve forgotten almost all of them. When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to remember them all, I recorded most of them as guitar sketches and filed them away somewhere.

So writing songs, or song bits, was always happening. It always starts with music and the lyrics come at the end. One thing I never really did, in my real song writing days, was sit down with a guitar and try to come up with a song using the instrument. You know, noodling around and coming up with chords and a tune and whatever. I didn’t usually pick up the instrument until the song was done being written and I was ready to learn how to play it.

Frankly, the sound of a musical instrument is too distracting when I’m trying to write a song. So I was never good at collaborating with another artist. You know, sitting around with another musician with your instruments and saying things like, “What if we did this and then we did this!”  I just sit there like an idiot.

I don’t really like talking about my lyrics.  I will say this though, from a technical standpoint I’ve always paid attention to the syllables and the accents. I’ve always thought that the lyrics should punctuate rhythm. I particularly liked how Stan Ridgeway from Wall of Voodoo used his voice as a rhythm instrument in those early WOV recordings. Songs like The Passenger and almost all the songs on Dark Continent were an influence for me on how vocals should be timed."

You put together the Primitive Plastic comp. How was that listening back to those early days?

"I love listening back to that stuff. All that stuff was written before there was any expectation to reproduce the music live. It’s just pure recording imagination. There’s such a terrific freedom when writing without the slightest notion of later-arranging-a Live version. I wish that sound recording art was more like film-making in this regard. This is something I feel strongly about and so I’m going to pause to say something about it.

Think about the films that never would have been made, or how differently they would have been made, if their creators were expected to deliver additional stage versions of their films. Imagine George Lucas thinking, “We’re never going to get this space battle scene to work later on Broadway, so let’s dial it back, so that it can be done in string-suspended paper maché later.” Film began as mere stage acts filmed. But film didn’t stay married to Theater for very long.

Cinema and Theater quickly diverged into their own, respective institutions with almost nothing in common. Film and its technologies, have been free to develop along trajectories that would have never occurred to anyone had Cinema and Theater stayed married. That split never fully happened with music when sound recording came along. Sound recording is still married to Theater (live shows.)

Or if they aren’t married then they’re domestic partners with strong financial ties to each other and even stronger cultural expectations to stay shacked up. As songwriters, our compositional imaginations are hobbled by our willingness to keep it that way. If recording and Theater had fully split back in the day, then sound recording would have been free to develop along trajectories that we can’t imagine. Had this happened, typical musical sound recordings today, typical, not the outliers, might be as incommensurable with live music as Star Wars or Spirited Away is with Cats. How cool would that be?

Of course nothing this radical is on Primitive Plastic. I was trying to write relatively normal verse/chorus pop songs. But even within that narrow bandwidth, there’s a lot left to explore if you can manage to forget that you’re in something called a “band.”  I don’t know if Kiara feels the same way, but I know that he’s especially talented for making music that has no wish to go on stage."

So onto  7x7x7. Tell us the thought behind this approach. Did you write and record all the song first and then release them two at a time or did you write and record them as you went along?

"Kiara and I worked on 7x7x7 independently of each other, surprising each other with our contributions as we turned them in. Each track was written and recorded as we went along. Well, most of them were. A couple I think were older songs. I wrote most of my contributions “at the desk”, which I find to be a fun way to make a song. It’s more like building than “writing.” Digital Recording makes this easier, if for no other reason, the instant rewind time. I can’t remember whose idea it was to release an album’s worth of singles. It was probably Anna Borg’s (TallBoy) idea.

And finally we have the glorious Will. Tell us about it all and how it ended up being the last album …so far.

"Will was written and recorded as a tribute to a friend of mine, WIlliam Glenn, who had passed away.  One thing about that record which stands out to me: I don’t know if it was my state of mind at the time or what, but I recall having fully worked out every detail of that album in my head before I started working on it. All of the songs were finished and in their album order months before I started making them audible. So because of this, there was no care taken to ensure that the songs were possible for me to play.

Once I got to the tape recorder it was a matter of forcing the machine to spit out the sounds I’d been hearing in my head. So it was kind of like painting a forgery. I think that a lot of writers and maybe painters, sculptors work this way, but I never had before and I probably won’t ever again. I don’t think that I could. Will is my favourite Sugarplastic record by far. It ended up being the last album, so far, only by accident. Maybe there will be another record some day."

Looking back it’s an amazing body of work. How do you feel about it?

"I think that if you made a graph showing the quality of Sugarplastic music, laid out chronologically, it would look something like an inverted bell curve. The beginning and the end bits were magical, and the period in the middle, when we were our most well-known was mundane and sounds depressing to me. The early music was terrific. Some of those recordings are still my favourite recordings we ever did.

I’m reminded of reading somewhere that Pink Floyd’s song Bike was the only song that all the members of Pink Floyd agreed was done right. That’s sounds crazy. But I feel that way about the Sugarplastic song Dover (from the Pronto box set, our first release) and then again with The Bodice Of A Young French Girl (from Will, our last release). Most of the stuff in-between, including the Bang! era music and all of the songs written to support a live Sugarplastic act and all the demos written for our never-recorded second Geffen record, seem sadly restrained to me.

Even the interesting songs on Bang! (Don’t Sleep comes to mind) just lack something sonic wise. Luckily most of that stuff never made it to tape and so from a release perspective I think that the inverted bell curve appears to be a nice, interesting, fairly consistently flat line. Overall I’m proud of our body of releases."

What have you been up to since then? You WON AN EMMY in 2017!

"After the release of WIll I spent a few years trying to make orchestral music using notation programs like Sibelius and the awful sound sets that come with the software. It sounded horrible (in retrospect), but I was thrilled to be able to orchestrate for such a large palette, so the sonic limitations didn’t bother me personally. I also continued to use Pro Tools to record audio, but the audio sound sources were mostly synth sounds emulating acoustic instruments.

I had experimented with this before on Will (My Heart Lately, for example). I hadn’t yet been introduced to sound libraries, MIDI, digital audio workstations and software synths, technologies that were roaring forward, but would stay completely hidden from my view for another decade.

So during that decade, I began recording these multi-tracked guitar pieces for 100 guitars or whatever. They were like orchestral pieces, but played on a bunch of guitars. No vocals and no verse/chorus/bridge pattern. I also recorded dozens of instrumentals using a multi-track sequencer and somewhat generic synthesizer sounds. Those were fun. Some real gems in there. Then I moved on to a series of Debussy piano pieces all on guitars, faithful to the sheet music, not transcriptions.

This was a great experience. Because I could use as many guitars/tracks as I wanted (Yay Pro Tools!), I was able to sculpt each note, its panning, what pickup was used for that note, what string it was played on and how it was plucked, what amp it was playing through and so on. It took forever to do, but I finished ten Debussy pieces, a Bach piece, some Fauré, Satie and Grieg. These are some of the most sonically satisfying recordings I’ve made.

About the time I was finishing up these guitar recordings I discovered MIDI and the wonderful world of sample libraries and DAWs. I couldn’t believe that this technology had been out there all along. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I learned as much as I could as fast as I could, thanks to the help of some more-experienced media composer-mentors that my girlfriend, Alicen, introduced me to (Mateo Messina, Michael Tavera, John McCarthy thanks guys!) By 2014 I had my own Logic rig and a bunch of sample libraries. Two years later I won my first regional Emmy. I got a second Emmy in 2018.

I’d always wanted to make orchestral music but I never thought of scoring-to-picture. In 1996  a Sugarplastic fan named Michael Badami invited me and Kiara to the Sony scoring stage to watch Randy Newman conduct his score for Tim Burton’s James and the Giant Peach.  The whole experience was overwhelming.

That was the day I realized that much of what I wanted to do orchestrally could be realized via this occupation. This was something that I really wanted to do, but I didn’t know how. I can’t even read music which, from what I’d heard, meant that scoring films wasn’t an option for me. That may have even been mostly true, in 1996.

Michael was the first person to urge me to score films, after hearing Bang! Eighteen years later, as the owner of a production company, he was the first person to hire me to score to picture. Since then, I’ve been able to hear some of my work performed by studio orchestras (at Warner Brothers and Capitol Studios) and a live orchestra (Northwest Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.) But all of this was only because of the help I’ve received from those who’ve already worked to be in a position to help.

Last year I finished scoring my first feature film Precarious, for which I was allowed to compose exactly the kind of music I’ve always wanted to make. Last month I scored a documentary that will be premiering at SXSW this March and then screening at Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art. Currently I’m working on a short piece of personal music in the style of something you might hear in a Studio Ghibli film. It’ll probably go up on my Soundcloud when I’m happy with it."



  1. really enjoyed that. thanks. bring back sugarplastic. please.

  2. He's just as jaw-droppingly impressive as I thought he might be. What a treat to read this and supersugar thanks for making it a reality.

  3. This is Sugarplastic porn for the uber-fan - great job w/ the questions and leaving space for Ben to expand, Mick. Real insight to a deeply fascinating mind(and realizing we shared similar experiences and tastes in classical music at a young age).

    I've been a fan since 1994 when I picked up the Ottawa Bonesaw 7" box set(a beautiful piece still) and their body of work is something which not only do I not tire of but, increasingly, find mini-sonic-revelations inside repeated listens.

  4. Great Interview! I have been a Sugarplastic junkie for many years, their live shows at Spaceland were probably the happiest moments of my natural life. Ben and Kiara and Dave are cool cats. Such a joy, Thank You for this!!!

  5. wonderful wonderful! a true genius.

  6. Right on!!! Love his work.

  7. Okay Ben...Stop being humble :) I don't care what you say...Bang is one of the best record ever made in my opinion. Certainly one of the best recorded.