So, good things DO come to those who wait. When we spoke to Blaenavon’s Ben about their second album ‘Everything That Makes You Happy’ last year, it was showing all the signs of being an incredible record – and a timely one that dealt honestly with issues around mental health and anxiety. Now finally, after a painful delay due to a further hospital stay, it has been released and is even more exceptional than we dared dream about. Dork caught up with Ben for a no-holds-barred chat about what happened…
Hey Ben, congrats on such a beautiful record! When we spoke last year, you said how excited you were about it coming out. Loads has happened since then, what is it like now it’s out at last?
Here it is, it finally happened! It’s quite a weight off my shoulders because I’ve been so excited. I was super scared I was gonna spoil the release plan by just leaking info on Twitter because I was too excited. Everyone seems to love it, and everyone has a different favourite song which is always a good sign. It seems to be an emotional listen for a lot of the fans, but one that seems to be helping them out a bit which is kind of the intention I suppose.
Was it cathartic to write? Or was it painful?
No, it’s always cathartic – that’s how I’ve always dealt with my business emotionally, put it into songs. But these ones are a bit more extreme than anything I’ve written before, a lot of stuff about being intimidated by the prospect of sanity, or losing that a little bit. But it doesn’t make me feel sad.
What are your personal favourites?
‘Skin Scream’, ‘Quiet In Your Heart / Alone In Love’ and the title track. They’re awesome.
Can you tell us about what triggered these songs? Was it a build-up of events?
I don’t know. I struggled a lot with depression and stuff when I was growing up, and there are parts of that on our first album, but I wasn’t very blunt about it. This time, I kind of took away the unnecessary coded nature of things and was just quite expressive about how I was feeling. I wanted to be blunt and honest, but also fair on myself. And it was supposed to be a record about perseverance instead of about wallowing, so I hope that comes through. I think the tempo and the instrumentation of the songs brings that out.
There’s a real 90s feel to some of the songs, bits of The Verve and Spiritualized in there at times. The songs sound a lot bigger with the orchestration.
Wow, amazing. I love that band. I just wanted to make massive Britpop anthems with full orchestrations and huge choruses. I’ve always been the biggest Blur fan, and then my manager encouraged me to really get into The Verve. So there’s quite a lot of that that comes through, especially on ‘The Song’s Never Gonna Be The Same’. I feel like that chorus is as big as it could possibly be.
That song got passed around no end in our Dork group chat on release day…
That’s a really special song for me. I want to be in the Dork group chat.
No, you don’t. It’s mainly people asking what vegetable you would be if you could, and stuff like that.
I love random questions. What would you be?
I would go for a cauliflower.
Really? They’re kind of gross, man. I’d maybe be a cucumber.
A solid vegetable.
Yeah. Nice, crunchy. A liquid centre.
Fine choice. Back to that orchestra…
A good friend of ours Ed Harcourt, arranged it. It really brought something else. Ideally, the whole record would’ve had a full orchestra, but budget cuts y’ know?
You’d spoken about wanting the album to be an ‘optimistic response’, you really feel that on the title-track.
Bang on. Someone was paying attention (laughs). Yeah, it’s just about not taking things for granted because it could always be worse. Your situation could always be more difficult, and if you’re lucky enough, you have a good set of friends and family around you, and you can get through whatever trauma has overtaken you.
You talk about a sense of guilt on the likes of ‘Fucking Up My Friends’, it’s a really honest and brave record.
I just wanted to be honest about it, because I know I’ve been a bit of a handful to a number of people over the years. To the extent that you kind of feel to blame for putting them through unnecessarily hard times. And I’ve been on the receiving end of that too. So yeah, that song is about growing up within an entire community of amazingly talented young people and watching all of us, one by one, slowly suffering through different things. And feeling guilty about it. It’s the same with ‘Quiet In Your Heart / Alone In Love’, which people seem to have tapped into.
‘Catatonic Skinbag’ is another really honest moment, but one that you seem to deliver tongue in cheek?
If you read the lyrics, it is a really serious song. But I just did my very best to poke as much fun at myself as I could. I didn’t want it to be a sad-sack record with me complaining about stuff, I wanted it to be me overcoming stuff and making it fun. It’s about a phase I went through, and one I still go through at times, where I’m not in a great space. A lot of people have experienced it when you’re that depressed that you can’t really get out of bed and everyone calls you lazy. But it’s just, no, I physically can’t make myself move today.
What are your fans saying to you about these songs?
There’s a lot of people who’ve been like, “oh, that really hurts”. Which I guess was sort of the intention. That it’s beautiful, perfect, a masterpiece, lots of great stuff like that (laughs). There’s the genre ‘sad banger’ that we’re pretty good at now. Sad bangers work.
Were you apprehensive about the record coming out?
No. I’ve never doubted myself as a songwriter at all, I’m really good at that. I was just hoping that it would mean as much to them as the first one did, or more. And as much as it does to me. I’ve always wanted to make songs that you can cry to and dance to at the same time.
Are you able to talk about what happened last year?
Yeah. I got really, really ill. It’s happened twice now. And I’ve had two stints in the hospital for mental breakdowns from mainly stress and trauma. And that’s like a massive theme on the record. I say this all the time, but it’s just kind of scary how eerily prophetic the songs seem to be now on reflection. Because I look back at the lyrics and a lot of them are like cries for help. A lot of them are trying to alert people that I didn’t feel I was doing well. But when you send people music, they kind of focus on the quality of it rather than asking “look, are you okay?” And I think my mum found it difficult too because she remembered me playing her those songs while I was in hospital. So yeah, it’s a tough one.
How are you doing now?
Yeah, I’m good. Pretty good, can’t really complain. A shitty two years, and I’m pretty sad to have lost the ages 21 to 23, which should be a real high point in your life. I feel like I kind of lost that time, and I dwell on a bit sometimes and get quite upset. But… I’m moving on, and we’re all doing everything we can to make sure I don’t ever get ill again really. There’s a good team around me now, it’s all good.
You were really honest about it all online.
It was quite a relief to get it out, get all the information out and explain to people where I’d been and what the music was about. And if a few people would feel inspired to feel more comfortable in their own stories and talk about it… no-one’s going to judge me for being honest, and it’s going to help other people.
And now you’re working with CALM?
Yeah, how awesome is that? I worked with them a few years ago, and then my management let them know that there were some charities that I was really inspired by. I think they were quite touched by my story and my openness, so they got in touch with me. We’re gonna do some great stuff together, I’m gonna throw some sick fundraisers basically.
Men’s mental health awareness is something that more and more people are talking about now.
Well, so many men were dying, ARE dying and suffering. I think we’re getting there as an industry, people like IDLES and Sam Fender are definitely encouraging a lot of people to speak out. And I’m doing my best in that regards too, and I think it’s only gonna get better from here. We’ve taken that leap now, and we can just keep working together and building the process. But it’s such a terrible epidemic that it is going to take some time.
You must be really proud of this record and yourself.
I am. I’ve lived with it for such a long time now that it’s strange to have people finally hearing it. Now I just want to make music more regularly now because I write so frequently. I’ve got to do it.
Do you feel like you’ve grown as a songwriter?
I think I always had my style and it’s grown and adapted a little bit, but it’s still very much me. I’d imagine it all comes from the likes of Elliott Smith. He’s my guy. My hero.
Time for one last question. What are your thoughts on pigs in blankets?
It’s kind of a fucked-up thing to do when you think about it. It’s kind of a hate crime. I love it, but when you analyse it, it’s unacceptable [laughs]. Eat what you like, but don’t … don’t… don’t fuck with nature just for the sake of it.
Taken from the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Dork. Blaenavon’s album ‘Everything That Makes You Happy’ is out now.
Words: Jamie MacMillan