[Ben Greenberg performing at the Berkeley Art Museum of UC Berkeley - photo by Betty Nguyen]
By Matt Sullivan
One of the things that stuck out most to me when I first read Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life was how many of the artists, despite being historically lumped together in some way, actually seemed at odds with one other. I don't mean an adversarial position between the artists themselves-- just wildly different takes on artistry, even audiences. Azzerad had gathered the hip, the hardcore, and the hellbent alike into a single, multi-faceted scene.
Ben Greenberg, the very talented guitarist from Zs and Pygmy Shrews, has accomplished a similar feat of musical desegregation with his solo project Hubble. As a New School alumnus and thoroughly trained player in everything from jazz to G3-ready shredding, he is familiar with all the guitar culture stereotypes. Some play from the heart, but can't even read music; some play from the head, but can't even feel purpose; some play 64th notes, but can't even hold a whole note. And all of them think the others are stupid.
When I sat down with Greenberg at Life Cafe in Bushwick a little while back to talk about his upcoming debut full-length for Northern Spy, Hubble Drums, it became clear that he saw the project as being intentionally and blissfully ignorant of those preconceptions, employing every tool at his disposal to create something smart, accessible, and unique.
AZ: You've mentioned that you really love Michael Azzerad's work. Do you take a lot of inspiration from Our Band Could Be Your Life?
AZ: I haven't really been here all that long, but that's kind of surprising to me.
Ben: Yeah, there were no DIY shows when I was a kid because there wasn't any of that in Brooklyn yet. I grew up in Manhattan and my folks lived in the Bronx, and you could play a 16+ show at CBGB's, but you couldn't go to one unless you were 16. You could go to an all ages show at ABC No Rio, and occasionally you would hear about something about a band playing somewhere in Brooklyn, but most of the time it just wasn't around. It was just, all these Lower East Side venues that aren't even around anymore and would just book five bands that didn't know each other on the same night, every night.
AZ: That sounds kind of sad.
Ben: It was cool in its own way. You could go to a rave on Water St., and you can't do that anymore. There's always stuff around, there's always something to do. I'm bummed that I didn't have more developed taste when I was in my young teens because there was probably some cool stuff I could've seen-- Pussy Galore and Royal Trux were always coming through, just as examples-- but they probably wouldn't have let me into the shows.
AZ: How have enjoyed working solo? It seems to have taken off quite quickly.
Ben: Very excited; didn't expect to wind up with a solo project. It took a year, but I guess that's quickly. It definitely feels like it's time for this to be happening.
AZ: So you didn't see it becoming your focus, per se?
Ben: I was taking a minute back from focusing on Zs, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my time. It was really just timing, because Zs had just done a longish, European tour, and I just wanted to take a breather because whenever you get back from a tour you just need a minute. Then Pygmy Shrews hadn't really been doing anything for 4 months or so, because our drummer at the time was otherwise obligated. So, I just had this whole period of time where I was recording other people's music and was just like, "I want to play." I also thought I was moving to London because my girlfriend had gotten a job there, which ended up falling through at the last possible minute, so starting to work on solo music was almost a functional decision. I thought I was going to be in a foreign country, and I wasn't going to know anyone I could be in a band with.
AZ: It sounds like you were floating in limbo.
Ben: Yeah, I was little bit in limbo for sure. But I'm happy with the way it worked out.
AZ: Do you feel like your work with Hubble is almost like, an expression of or a reaction to that state in your life?
Ben: I think a little, because it does kind of have an amorphous vibe to it. But it was also incorporating things that I had been kicking around for awhile. The musical content was stuff that I had been playing to myself for 6-8 months prior, and that I didn't know what I was going to do with. I end up with little things like this all the time-- I write down little guitar riffs in a book-- and I didn't really have an outlet for a lot of them. I will say that Hubble, emotionally, has a little more in common with how Zs deals with epic forms, coupled with an intensity of execution that is also similar to Pygmy Shrews. Combined, those create a cerebral experience, and that's kind of what we shoot for with Zs because there are lots of bands that we kind of came up with that made just purely complicated music just for the sake of complexity, you know? That's never really been an interest of mine; people can't really relate to that. So we wanted to take what we were good at, which was playing this really complicated shit, and find a way to stretch it out and make it relatable. Like, because we had shared twenty minutes straight together, in this really intense acoustic environment, we shared something. That same idea is important to Hubble, because I'm dealing with long pieces of music while trying to make it intense and accessible.
AZ: It's like I'm listening to a guitar solo that does not play a lead role. It's just itself; it's the whole piece.
Ben: Yeah, I wanted to be wary of the circus vibe. Because the guitar has a lot of loaded connotations at this point. You see a guitar in every single band. It's rare when you don't, and when you don't, it's something noticeable. And if you're not playing chords and singing over them, that's even more noticeable. Guitar's been a part of my life for close to 20 years now. I've gone through lots of periods where I reckon with guitar culture and where I fit into that. People in general seem to be of an opinion that the guitar is over as a creative instrument, but fuck that. I want Hubble to be about guitar music, but not in like, a Steve Vai way, or a Lee Ranaldo way. I wanted to create something that was a guitar, but didn't have to be. Plus, there aren't too many people that just roll up with an electric guitar by itself, with no amps and few pedals.
AZ: Few and far between, And, I hate to say this, but I feel like a lot of the solo electric guitar performances that I've had to watch often came with a 20-minute explanation of each piece.
Ben: Yeah, and it's like some crescendo loop nightmare. Guitar culture has a lot of clichés, but the solo electric guitar player with a loop station is one of the most classic clichés, and that's definitely something that I want to avoid. People have a tendency to say, "It's just one guy and a loop pedal," but I'm not looping anything. That's the idea of the epic form, too; past the 8-minute mark, I want people to start questioning if they're actually listening to a guitar. I want it to kind of be like, "What is going on?" And then when I stop, it just snaps you back into reality.
AZ: Do you ever feel like you're consciously reacting to or confronting guitar cultural norms or techniques? You use a lot of tapping and that's kind of a stereotypically "shreddy" move.
Ben: Yeah, I mean a lot of my early education on the guitar were from guys who thought that stuff like Steve Vai, Satriani, etc. was really cool. And honestly, some of that stuff is really cool. There's something about listening to someone play 64th notes that's amazing; it doesn't sound like anything else. It would be awesome if Vai made a song that was just 15 minutes long of 64th notes; I would buy the shit out of that. Obviously, there are lots of aesthetic differences [between us], which is why I'm not just trying to do that, but I don't want to come across as some aloof, guitar shredder bro. That stuff is really intriguing to me because I do feel a relationship to it as someone who plays really fast on the guitar; there's obviously something fundamentally exciting about that to people, and to myself. From a really young age, I just said, "I want to play guitar for the rest of my life; that's all I want to do." So Hubble's really an extension of that feeling.
AZ: Do you ever feel like people bring up the guitar too much when they talk about your music?
Ben: I think people have a tendency to talk about it as guitar music and not really explore what it sounds like when you forget about that association. That's fine, because it totally is a guitar thing, but it takes time for things to sink in and for people to listen to it enough times to hear something else. I hear all sorts of shit in it; I hear all sorts of melodies and rhythms and I try and get into them-- to manipulate, in the moment, what I've set in motion by playing. I would hope that as time goes on, people will hear something else in it too.
AZ: Does the name of the album, Hubble Drums, have any relation to that?
Ben: Actually, yes. I wanted to kind of distract them from the prevalence of the guitar, and push people to listen to the percussive elements of it. Especially on Side A of the LP; it's all clean, direct guitar tapping, and there's an inherently percussive element. I tried to hype sub frequencies in the guitar tracks as much as possible on the record so that when I hit low strings, or low notes, it triggers the subwoofer. That way, when I get into patterns with those notes, it creates a train-in-the-distance effect. There is a lot of percussion going on even though it's mostly guitar on the record, but there's a very intense rhythm to it as well, and I didn't want that to get lost or for it to be, "Yeah, virtuosic guitar shredding, blah blah blah." People say that a lot and I don't know if they've ever really heard a virtuoso before.
AZ: Before coming up here the other day, I was like, "I wonder what other people have said about Hubble." I felt like the word "virtuosity" was everywhere, even in something I wrote…
Ben: It's definitely flattering, but the term virtuoso is usually reserved for people who can perform the Bach cello suites on guitar from memory perfectly. I can't do that. I mean, I can play lots of cool shit on the guitar that other people can't do, and I'm stoked on that, but it's really specific stuff. It's very personal.
Hubble Drums is out now on Northern Spy, and be sure to check out the upcoming NASA-produced music video for "Hubble's Hubble"