Ben Gregory: “I had to start from scratch in working out how I wanted to be, how I wanted to live”

Former Blaenavon linchpin Ben Gregory is laying it all out with his much-anticipated solo debut.

Former Blaenavon linchpin Ben Gregory is laying it all out with his much-anticipated solo debut.

Words: Steven Loftin.
Photos: Neelam Khan Vela.

“I like lots of different types of music,” Ben Gregory deadpans, before chuckling. “That’ll be good for the magazine!”

This outrageous revelation comes as he’s dusting off the cobwebs of chatting to magazine scribblers. You see, the former Blaenavon frontman and Dork cover star has spent a bit of time out of the music game for various reasons – the most prominent being his search for calm and stability after going through the wringer during the past few years. With stressors coming to a head in 2019, having been in a touring band since he was 14, Ben took some much-needed time to heal.

Describing his time up until now as if he’s flicking through a quick montage in his mind, “it went from the hilarious and beautiful instability of the band, never really knowing where you’re going to be in maybe a month, or in a year,” he starts. “And from that into, like, being very ill. Then into Covid. It’s been a very, very bad three or four years. And I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but I did feel like I had to start from scratch in working out how I wanted to be, how I wanted to live, and what was good for me and what wasn’t.”

For Ben, this looked like upping sticks and heading to Manchester to study (German and English Literature, FYI). Finding himself rooted to a timetable, and focusing on something outside of music for the first time in over a decade, led Ben down the road of being able to reckon with returning. This respite led to the building blocks of his solo debut ‘Episode’ taking shape. 

“I managed to have some time to recover while learning a lot about my craft,” he explains. “Which was cool, [and] which meant that the songs ended up being a quite disparate bunch that reflect all the different things I was working on at that time, which is hours and hours and hours of music.”

“I wanted to make this big album with all these big statements”

Ben Gregory

‘Episode’ is a patchwork of all the music Ben loves. Aided in the process by Mystery Jets’ Blaine Harrison and engineer Matt Thwaites, it’s a staggeringly honest portrayal of self-reflection and inner turmoil while searching for hope. But perhaps more integral to this story, it was a necessity. Feeling as if this was an album he had to make, the path is a bit clearer now as he explains with a resoundingly positive tone. “Actually, that’s a very astute question. That’s exactly what happened; I think I wanted to make this big album with all these big statements. I wanted to get that all out there and be proud of an album as a whole,” he says. 

Mentioning how he wanted ‘Episode’ “to be big”, its main job was to contain all his self-professed “stupidest ideas” in their fully fleshed-out forms. “I tried to incorporate everything that I enjoy or find great or funny, and I’m surprised at how coherent I find it. When selecting the songs, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, which would make sense on a record together’. I just thought, this needs to come out. And then it so came to be the case that I think it has a coherent shape.” 

Now he’s back writing more songs, instead of being a cathartic necessity, he’s able to try “to hone the craft of songwriting,” he says. “It has taken that turn actually after making this thing. I’ve stopped making fat opuses… opi? I’ll say opi, because that’s really funny.”

One of the opuses in question is the project’s second track. ‘Blue Sea Blue’ – ‘Episode’’s supposed mid-point (but in actuality is track two) – is a vast, cinematic piece that tracks through multiple genres. Opening with a jungle-infused electro gambit before wandering into flamenco-backed guitars, it trips into a vacant acoustic number, finally erupting into a crescendo of swelling indie hope and glory. Not wanting to half-arse his musical return, the song is accompanied by a suitably grand visual – and why Dork’s chat with Ben had to initially be rescheduled. Regaling the video’s filming, “which was like 14 hours in a palace in Prague,” he explains. “With four members of the Prague ballet, one of whom was a really old school friend of mine… It was as amazing as it sounds.”

All in all, this entire process has led to a brand new open door for Ben. Gushing how “some moments I look back with fondness and great pride,” he says. “I think I’ve had a song like ‘Blue Sea Blue’ working away in my brain for years and years ever since I was a kid and had my dad playing 20-minute Yes songs in the car, and I was like, ‘What’s going on there when someone does that?’” It’s hard to not empathise with Ben. It’s brave enough returning to the ring for round two. But to do so with an album vast in its ideas and executed so marvellously that everything feels just right is a testament to Ben’s resilience. 

On returning to the musical fray, he offers up a pondering chortle before reckoning it to being “either great and the best thing ever, or just like the worst, most embarrassing joke of all time.” A lot of questions had to be answered before he could properly crack on and find his feet again. And it didn’t all come to a clear resolution until ‘Episode’ was physically in his hands. “I’d forgotten the feeling of something that you’ve put so much dedication in so many hours into finally being this cool-looking tangible thing. And yeah, it’s my one great joy in life, making albums.”

“It’s my one great joy in life, making albums”

Ben Gregory

It seems plain that not making music was never an option for Ben. Harking back to when he was a kid and began mucking around on any instrument he could get his hands on, “it was just something that I had to do, an outlet that I had to have.” Even as he refers to this notion as “sort of faux profound and cliched”; it’s the truth, and that’s what Ben is about now. Just facing up to the task at hand, music has been “a real stable place for me to put my energy and thoughts throughout my entire life that I really wouldn’t trade for anything.” Having been in a band that’s toured all over, swiftly becoming cult indie favourites, and garnering respect amongst fans and critics alike, this second chapter for Ben comes with the knowledge that once things get serious and you have to reevaluate what’s what, you most importantly have to know “how to keep it something that you keep the magic in it.”

At this point, it seems appropriate to ask the big question – does Ben miss being in a band at all? “I think about it all the time, like every day,” he says before taking a brief pause. “And then I see a touring band, and I think I don’t miss being in a band. I like being in the same place for a little while. I like making friends and relationships and having structure in my life.

“I’m glad that I got to do the not-having-any-structure to my life at a time when it’s the best time to do it, you know? Isn’t that your late teens and early 20s? When other people’s formative experiences were at uni going a bit mad? I’m glad that I did that with those guys, turning 21 in Texas and stuff like that. Now I just like watching University Challenge.” University Challenge? How many does he get right, then? “Max four, and then other episodes, it’s as if they’re speaking another language.”

As for the rest of the Blaenavon chaps, Ben confirms everyone’s “doing some really cool stuff.” But the most important factor, for now, is this step forward. One which he once again affirms “has given me a really great sense of purpose.” And that’s what ‘Episode’’ central idea is. Throughout his trials and tribulations, and by offering his own up as direction, Ben’s foundations are finally ready to be built upon. ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Ben Gregory’s album ‘Episode’ is out 7th April.

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