Ben Cooper Talks the Therapy of Radical Face's New Album 'Family Tree: The Leaves': Interview
"I just made this thing I had to and everything past that is a mystery to me," Ben Cooper, a.k.a. Radical Face, said.
On Friday (March 25), Radical Face will release the final part of its Family Tree trilogy, fittingly called The Family Tree: The Leaves. While it seems like a saga about the fantastical 19th century Northcotes family (which has witches, ghosts, water walkers, psychics and other mysterious beings in its bloodline) couldn't possibly be based in anything close to reality, the meat of the story is deeply personal to Cooper.
And The Leaves is the effort most rooted in his own life to date. In the process of recording The Leaves about a trouble fictional family, his own tumultuous family past came to the surface. And it caused Cooper not only to create some of his most personal music to date - almost uncomfortably so - but also led to his most lush arrangements.
Music Times: The Leaves is the last instillation of The Family Tree trilogy but I kind of want to go back to the beginning. What inspired you to tell this very elaborate story in the first place?
Ben Cooper: I think it kind of goes back to I kind of always really liked kind of family saga books like East of Eden from John Steinback and 100 Years of Solitude and all those kind of multi-generation sagas. I actually originally before getting into music wanted to be a writer and thought I would write one of those. When I was 19, I wrote two books, and I didn't know a lot about computers. I hadn't backed them up, and I had a hard drive crash and lost them both, so that's actually why I'm a musician. I think it was always lingering that I'd really like to write one -- and yeah it was 2007, and I just had this idea what if I did it as records instead of a book? And once I started writing for it, I ended up writing 45 songs and just kind of kept going. So, I think that. I also come from a huge family; I'm one of 10 kids. So, family was always kind of a big complicated topic anyways
MT: Would you ever want to branch out and maybe publish the genealogy of the Northcote family or translate this into a book or short stories? Is that something you are looking into doing?
BC: Yeah actually I already did. We're putting out a box set of the whole thing, and I made a guide book that explains how the songs are all interconnected. Then there's short stories of certain songs, and it actually kind of got me back into writing. After losing the books I haven't really wanted to write for a long time. Then, over the course of this I started writing and two of the songs I did for this were short stories first and then turned them into songs. It kind of got me into writing some again, and I think I want to do more of it, at least one day.
MT: How much of the family tree did you have written when The Roots came out? Did the story develop and change over time?
BC: I guess I actually did a whole lot preemptively, because I started writing it in 2008 and didn't start recording it until 2010. So, I had already amassed a ton of ideas, and I had kind of the basic map figured out. But, then a lot of times some things work on paper but when you sit down to make them, you have to change things because it's just not working. So, it just kind of evolved as it went.
Then, the most recent record, half of it is not at all what I intended to do. I just had a big falling out with a lot of my actual family; I wasn't planning to directly incorporate myself into the story the way I did. But, I don't know, just a bunch of things happened. I couldn't ignore them and had to write about them. So yeah, the last record changed the most for sure but I did have an overall big chart drawn up for what I was hoping to do.
MT: I wanted to touch on that. You had never written personally before. Was writing songs such as "Bad Blood," difficult or different for you? Or was it just cathartic in a way?
BC: More difficult, I would say. I guess there's some catharsis in it, but it's I think overall I've always written about personal stuff sort of, a lot of time I hide it in fiction. There's a character but some of that is an experience, which is kind of a safer less vulnerable way to do it.
This one -- I don't know - there are songs on this record that I will never play live. They're kind of done. I don't think I'm ever going to play them again, so it's an odd... it's almost like uncomfortably honest for me. But, I was doing this record among a bunch of things happening. I was a witness in a court case against family members and stuff. So, it was impossible for me to separate it. It came out really honest, but now it's like one of those things where I don't think I'm going to revisit it often at all
MT: Do you think it will be hard for you to listen to this record?
BC: Yeah, I doubt I will really. This one is definitely just going on the shelf -- or half of it. Half of it doesn't bug me and the other half is, like, so that was not a good spot.
MT: Despite being personal, it's still a relatable and gripping record.
BC: Oh good I couldn't tell if I had gone off some weird side path. I couldn't even tell you what I made when I was done, like, I was just kind of finished it and walked away. So I have no idea how it comes across, but hopefully it was still listenable.
MT: You have a lot of characters and storylines and specific blood lines throughout the saga of the Family Tree. Was there any particular lineage or stories that were your favorite to tell or characters you kept revisiting through their descendants?
BC: Yeah, there's definitely a few. The song that everything stems from, it's on the first record and it's called "Family Portrait," and there's a brother and a sister and they are the main two characters and the sister is much more of an independent woman at the time, but it's almost perceived as the witch and she's dangerous. But then, her bloodline has a bunch of weird fantastic things in it, so she kind of is a witch I guess. I really enjoyed writing all of those. I'm kind of a dork, and I like fantasy stuff and weird little stories and fairytales. So, those were kind of getting into those kind of things, and I had a lot of fun with that.
The two twins of the first record, Severus and Stone, they show up four times throughout the albums in different ways. I think I had a little bit of a fixation on those two, but yeah, I don't know. It just kind of this was one of those projects that sounded simple on paper but it turned into one of those it just ran away with itself. I just jinxed it, I guess.
CM: I'm surprised it ever seemed simple on paper. I've been listening to your records for a while, but I never really dug into it that much. But as I was researching for this interview, I realized everything going into these records is very detailed and fantastical.
BC: In all honesty, I think details are fun for me, but I always try to make it so they aren't necessary. So, if you would just like to hear a song, it would just exist like that. It's not completely dependent on context, but if you would like to dive in, there's a lot more. That was always kind of my hope with the whole project. I didn't want it to be totally self-serving and just be only what I found interesting. So, I always tell people even if you just like one song, you don't have to follow me down this rabbit hole but some people have and it's nice
MT: Do you have fans who are who have their own theories or fan fiction? Do you come across people who are really into the Northcotes family?
BC: Yeah, totally. I've had people write me and a song comes up, and they're like, "OK, so I'm hearing a melody that comes back from those songs. I'm assuming it's from that family line, but is it this person?" And some people are really surprisingly on the money. And you're like, "Yeah that was actually all correct." So, that's been actually fun to get emails from people theorizing about it and that's why I made this book. I think for some people, it's just as much frustrating as interesting, and I'm like don't worry it'll all be clear. I promise I'm not just making it up as I go.
MT: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned you took inspiration from family sagas but you also mentioned you like to pull from fairytales. Do you have any particular fairytales you drew from for some of the more fantastical parts of The Family Tree?
BC: Growing up, I really loved all of the Don Bluth movies like Secret of Nimh and The Last Unicorn and stuff like that, I used to watch obsessively. I still feel that way. I watch every Pixar movie that comes out, I read a lot of like cartoons. I think I've just always kind of liked that stuff a lot -- everything from cartoons to books. One of my favorite writers is Neil Gaiman, and he always has this really good kind of gothic kind of fairytale thing with all the stuff he does. I think I've always been drawn to it and it was just kind of fun to interject into what I do.
MT: For most of Radical Faces discography, you've spent a lot of time and energy on The Family Tree. Have you thought about where you go from here?
BC: I've definitely thought about it. I know for sure that the next bit of stuff I do will not be interconnected and will not be a huge concept. I really want a break from that, because when you're writing something like this, you aren't just writing a song. You're writing with an awareness of what comes before and what comes after. So, there's so many constraints on what you're working with to make sure it'll all make sense when it's all done. I really enjoyed the challenge, but I didn't think it would take eight years. So, at this point I would really love to do some stuff that's just sort of itself and it doesn't matter if it relates to anything else. I think I might end up doing just a bunch of really small EPs and release them as I go. I can say overall I'm just kind of exhausted with big concepts, but beyond that, I don't really know. It's hard to say I'm just now finishing the last of the artwork and production and setting up for tour so I'll probably really sit down and chew on the future come summer, but yeah nothing so long term, for sure.
MT: You do the music and the artwork and you said you were putting together a tour for and you play all the instruments yourself. It's a very DIY approach. Why are you so DIY? Is it an artistic control thing or is the way you've always done it?
BC: Both. I mean, I could probably talk to a therapist and relate it back to trust issues. But I think initially when I started doing this stuff, studios were just out of the question. They were too expensive. And when you're working by yourself and you're going to play all the instruments, it's not the same as working with a band where you can kind of test it all live and adjust it and get it to the shape you want it to be in. I have to sit down and lay it all down and sometimes redo it all because I get a better idea halfway through. So there's no way to go to a studio affordably and experiment. You kind of have to know what you're doing completely before you get there. So I got into home recording because of that. I could work without a time limit or money being the big issue. I could just get a few mics and start working.
Along the way, there were two times I worked in a studio, and I came home and deleted everything. I didn't like any of it. I got so used to just working in a living room or something. I mean, it sounded technically better, but it just wasn't the right mood or it didn't come across very well.
I really think the whole process of recording alone and working a piece of a time is also kind of part of song writing too. I think normally they're pretty separate processes for people -- there's writing and then there's recording. At this point everything is intertwined, even music videos. I just make them with my friends, and I'm sometimes writing out stories, and I might as well turn that story into a treatment and give it to my video friend and we'll figure out how to make it. I think the process now is one big ball I can't really separate it anymore. At this point I'm screwed.
MT: You have plans to tour. When you put together a setlist, do you think about the narrative or do you just play stuff that just sounds good or goes with the energy of the room?
BC: To be honest, with shows I see them completely for other people. I know a lot of other friends who touring and stages and stuff are very fulfilling for them. I don't mind touring, but I'm happy just tinkering at my house. So, pretty much the only reason I'm doing it at all is because people want to see it live. So, I really base setlists off exclusively from people who will just write me, "Hey when you tour, do you ever play these songs?" And if I ever get requests, I just work it in. I really think I build it much more with the audience in mind as opposed to it being terribly personal. The records are very personal but the shows are more like a service for other people. There's always a few songs that I'm putting in there that I know are more for me than other people, but the bulk of the set is the other way.