Image: Byron Spencer (Press)

‘I Couldn’t Do a Bad Show If I Tried’: Ben Lee Is Leaning Into His Weirdness

Indie pop icon Ben Lee should be on every music lover’s gig bucket list for two reasons. Firstly, his proclivity to produce a bloody banger. Secondly, his live performance history is peppered with tales of injury, unplanned chaos and sonic spontaneity, ensuring that no two shows are the same.

The loveable Lee hits the road with his ‘Parents Get High’ tour this June, visiting six cities around Australia and promising a mix of old faves and fresh tunes from his forthcoming record I’M FUN!.

Lee’s 14th record is an introspective journey about growing up, leaning into your weirdness and having some fuckin’ fun. Due to drop on Friday, 19th August, the album includes collaborations with She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and Beastie Boys producer Money Mark as well as homegrown talent Megan Washington, Sally Seltmann and Georgia Maq.

Music Feeds caught up with Ben Lee to chat about the ‘Parents Get High’ tour, making space for all hell to break loose and leaving a legacy of fun.

Ben Lee – ‘Born For This Bullshit’

Music Feeds: In the trailer for the ‘Parents Get High’ tour, you described your live music career as full of mishaps and catastrophes. What’s your favourite chaotic live music moment?

Ben Lee: I think that moment on The Panel, when I was 21, is pretty iconic. I feel like for music fans of a certain age, if you mentioned that they know exactly what you’re talking about. And it’s summed up everything about being a young upstart full of piss and vinegar. But also it’s funny, because it also taps into the arrogance of young people who run before they can walk. But in a way, that’s what we love about music from young people and that’s what was so cool about that kind of moment. It should be a fuckup. If you’re not fucking up, you’re doing something wrong. At 21 we’re all fucking up everything. That’s what’s beautiful about it.

MF: For any of our readers who don’t know exactly what went down on The Panel, can you describe what happened?

BL: I was in the middle of playing the show The Panel, which was sort of like The Project or something. It was that type of show that had a really big reach. And obviously, this was pre-internet, so TV shows had much bigger audiences. In the middle of it, I was like, “I’m gonna jump up on the desk in the middle of the song and have this cool rock’n’roll moment”. I just jumped up, and my guitar became unplugged.

The thing I didn’t realise was that I was quite naive. You know when Phoebe Bridgers smashed a guitar on SNL? That was a highly choreographed moment that everyone was in on. I didn’t understand that at all about show business because I came from dirty punk rock all ages shows with the Hard-Ons. So everyone’s like, “Whoa, what’s happening to the cameras?!” and suddenly I’m unplugged and there’s no sound coming out of it. And I just remember walking off and my tech guy going, “If you’re gonna do something like that, just tell me.” [Laughs].

MF: So, is that what we can expect from the ‘Parents Get High’ tour? Lots of chaos?

BL: I mean, yeah. But at a certain point, you become a professional by virtue of repetition, despite your best efforts at maintaining your chaos. Now I’m at a point where I sort of couldn’t do a bad show if I tried because that’s what 30 years of doing something does. It’s almost like when actors pretend to be a bad singer in a movie but you can tell they’re doing it so perfectly, that they actually must be a good singer. It’s kind of like that. You can’t help it.

I still try to keep the atmosphere. I constantly undermine my own feeling of safety and security in order to keep it lively. The other night in Brisbane, I played this little festival and Megan Washington got up and we did ‘Parents Get High’ together. And I was like, “Oh my god, we need it to get bigger” and so I just changed the strumming pattern. She looked at me like “Whaaa?”, but then we had a moment and it became something. I think maintaining that spontaneity is really important.

MF: What can we expect from this tour in terms of music? Will it be a mix of old and new?

BL: It’s kind of a mix. I want to work on a medley of all the songs written about me. So it’s going to be like the Moldy Peaches’ ‘I Wish I was Ben Lee’, The Ataris’ ‘Ben Lee’ and The Chaser’s ‘Ben Lee’.  But basically, I just sort of play my songs.

There’s a great story about Laurence Olivier, when he was standing on the side of the stage in a play he was doing and he was probably on the 300th night of it and he used to pray and say, “Lord, grant me the power to surprise myself”. And I love that attitude. You don’t have to involve religion, but the idea that what you really want is something that you didn’t know was going to happen.

The Moldy Peaches – ‘I Wish I was Ben Lee’

MF: Do you feel like opportunities for spontaneity and the live music experience in general have changed since the pandemic?

BL: Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s taking it for granted. I think both performers and audience, everyone’s a bit like, “We’re at a gig!” I think people are really grateful but people are also cautious with buying tickets, because there’s so much that has been cancelled. What I’m hearing from a lot of friends is most people are buying their tickets that week of the show. So that’s kind of an interesting thing, rebuilding the confidence and the trust between audience and performer and promoter.

MF: Can we expect some sneak peeks from I’M FUN! on the tour?

BL: Yeah, I’m gonna do a handful of new songs. Part of my belief system about concerts is I’ve never been one to believe you have to know all the music. So, if I go see a band and I see the people that love them digging the show and know the music, but if I don’t know it, and it’s not connecting with me, to me that’s unsuccessful.

So, I think with my songs, the goal has always been that if you’ve never heard them before, you can still drop into the story, the melody, what they are, and have an experience where you understand them, whether or not it’s something you are familiar with.

MF: You’ve described the new record and this part of your career as balancing some of the life lessons and wisdom picked up from your very long career. What is the biggest life lesson or realisation that you’ve had in this process?

BL: Well, I think it’s summed up in the album title. I’m fun. There is no other compass for me than what is enjoyable. And obviously, that comes with all the caveats of it has to be consensual, you don’t want to be destructive to people around you. But in general, the vibe that is getting you off as an artist is what you have to do. Every single time I’ve done what you’re meant to do, it has never worked out. And I’ve tried it enough times.

You think, “What’s your legacy?” I hope that people look back and go, “Wow, that guy did what he wanted to do and that added some value to the world,” because we need people doing that to give us all courage.

Find out more about Ben Lee’s ‘Parents Get High’ tour.

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