By Bianca Valentino
Ben Ely is by far one of my favourite Australian musicians. He’s played in some of my all-time favourite ever Australian bands: Pangaea, Regurgitator and latest musical adventure Pow Pow Wow, as well as an array of diverse projects from dub to punk rock: Jump 2 Light Speed, Broken Head, The Stalkers, Ben Ely’s Radio 5 … but wait there’s still more! He’s released his own solo work, experienced life as a totally DIY musician (he even does the art work for his bands releases) and experienced life on a major label. Ben never ceases to amaze me with his innovative and unique work, whether it’s writing and recording an album round the clock live on television in a ‘bubble‘; flying through the air for a contemporary dance-collaboration spectacular; or playing the live soundtrack to Japanese anime cult film Akira at Australia’s iconic Sydney Opera House, his work always reminds me that music is first and foremost meant to be fun!
I caught up with him recently while Pow Pow Wow were in town making their Brisbane debut. They played three shows in total, supported by my guy’s solo project lo-fi-electro-occult-pop-indie rock, Jhonny Russell & the Mystery School. If you missed them I wholeheartedly suggest you check them out next they’re in town, they’re the most exciting thing I’ve seen all year.
When did you discover your love of music?
When I was a little baby, we had a record player at home and a few Beatles albums in our collection. My mum had some Nana Mouskouri records and Simon & Garfunkel, stuff like that too. My parents were Christian but hippie. I always grabbed The Beatles records when I was able to walk. I scratched the hell out of mum’s records. She said, “I have to get him a new record player because he keeps wrecking our records ’cause he doesn’t know how to work the machine!” She brought me a little turntable that played seven inches. My first seven inch was ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ with the ‘Candy Man’ on the other side. I scratched the crap out of that listening to it all the time. My dad’s American – he’s from the mid-West – he played music and his dad played and his dad played. He came from this tradition of kind of hokey, country, piano accordion, banjo … kind of like redneck music [laughs]. My dad always played piano, accordion and upright bass. Music was around. I remember just loving records; loving vinyl!
You grew up in the (Moreton) Bay area?
I did. I was born in the city but I grew up in Mt Gravatt until I was two then we moved out to Cleveland near Straddie [Stradbroke Island].
What was growing up like for you?
Looking back on it – I have an old friend from school that I often get together with and talk about high school and all that and a lot of our friends are now in jail or had drug overdoses. We both feel really fortunate to have gotten through and to have had careers. It was a pretty tough area to grow up in at the time. There were a lot of awful drugs and people doing armed hold ups and stealing cars. It was a rough area in the 80s.
I grew up in that area as well, the Capalaba/Cleveland area. I went to Cleveland High.
So did I.
I know! Part of the reason I went there was from being inspired by seeing your bands. I heard they had a great music program there and I knew you did it so I figured I’d go there and do it too. I enrolled too late though and I wasn’t able to do music!
I know. I pretended I was in the music class for months when I was meant to be in geography class but then they eventually worked out I wasn’t meant to be there. Even though I’d been in the class for a while they wouldn’t let me stay in music.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
Ah it’s OK. I’m still a little funny in regards to making my own music now. I’ve had so many different things happen along the way that’s shaken my confidence in my ability to make music or that have seemed like a road block. Having watched pretty much all my friends perform and make music my whole life has definitely brought many tears of frustration and sadness to my eyes at times for wanting to do that myself. I’ve had a few ‘almost’ bands and with most of them, someone I’ve been working with has told me that the way I write songs isn’t right! I didn’t think there was a right or wrong way to expressing yourself. Meeting Jhonny, seeing him create, and with his support and encouragement, I’m slowly getting there though.
Don’t listen to people that tell you stuff like that. I think music is about having fun. If you’re not enjoying the process and feeling alive and spirited when you’re doing it … it took me a long time to realise that if you’re making music it has to come from your heart. You have to do it and feel like it’s almost like a release of your consciousness. People always tell me, “I wish I was famous” and stuff like that, I believe that they’re externalizing their thought process and saying, “I’d like to be like that guy” rather than just being in yourself and happy and just making music freely — just for the sake of being alive and celebrating that. That’s why I believe that anyone can do it and there shouldn’t be any restriction to it.