23 year-old Ben Thomas has made music under a number of guises during the past few years, but his finest moment arrived last month in the form of Plastic World, his debut album for Rush Hour’s Direct Current imprint. Released seemingly out of nowhere, it was a remarkably assured long player, deftly mixing a variety of styles to create something utterly unique.
At first listen BNJMN’s material stands aside from the garage leanings of the other artists on the same imprint (Cosmin TRG, FaltyDL, Policy, Aardvarck), but his material shares the same unmistakable warm melodic sheen that comes from the very roots of vintage Chicago house, and the same dark, skewed outlook on house styles as his label mates.
Winning comparisons to contemporaries such as Lone and Actress for his sound, that is both of the past (particularly the distinct early 90s sound that his music seems to have), yet distinctly futuristic (in places even sci-fi), Plastic World is an album that seems to exist in a vacuum, both in terms of genre and in the spacious nature of his all encompassing production style. So, with this in mind, we took the opportunity to ask him about his inspirations, processes, and whether the 90s really are important to his music…
First of all, could you describe your musical upbringing to us? How did you get into electronic music?
I was always surrounded by music when I was young. I picked up the guitar at about five years old and took it pretty seriously up until about 15. I then got exposed to music like Aphex Twin and Radiohead’s Kid A, which had a pretty big impact. I started producing music when I left school and since then it has been my main focus. I’ve done quite a lot of different kinds of music under different aliases. In fact, the material for Plastic World was made back in 2008 – since then I’ve made more guitar-based music amongst other things, but just recently have come back to making more house/techno inspired tracks. Everything goes in circles.
You’ve been producing music under various names for some time now, but one of the most impressive things about Plastic World is the unified sonic palette you’ve developed for the BNJMN moniker which doesn’t become diluted across the album. What kind of process did you go through when you were developing the BNJMN sound?
The process of making music is always a hard one to explain. Things happen in the moment and it’s always very spontaneous, so there is no set process that I go through when making tunes. However usually the BPM would be the first thing I decide on, and obviously when creating the material for this album it was mainly around 120 BPM so that was the focus. Loops are then created and arrangements made after an hour or two. I tend to work very quickly, if something isn’t working within an hour or two I usually leave it and start something else. The BNJMN project from the start was all about creating four to the floor house or techno music – there are some slight variations in BPM on the album, for example the title track is 140 BPM, however I wanted to keep that 4/4 rhythmic pulse on most of the tracks. I find it easier to narrow down what I’m doing if it’s within a certain BPM. After I’ve chosen the tempo I’m pretty much open to all possibilities.
Plastic World seems quite an introspective album – there’s a cavernous quality to your productions which give them a very dark and insular sound. “See Thru Stars” for instance employs an almost Alan Braxe & Fred Falke style combination of euphoric synths and bassline, but without that same sense of collective dancefloor euphoria necessarily being evoked. Is this a fair assessment?
The moods and emotions vary from track to track, and are usually reflective of moods I’m going through at the time, or moods of tracks I’m inspired by. I think its fair to say the sound is quite insular as I’ve never intentionally made music for the dancefloor, it’s more about emotions and moods than making something for people purely to dance to. The mood for each piece varies, and is very hard to put into words. I guess the music kind of speaks for itself, I don’t want to say how a particular track should make someone feel, it’s all open to interpretation. When I create I tend to sort of shut off outside influences and the outside world, and sort of go into hermit mode. Some people have said the tracks sound quite introspective so maybe this is why.
Your use of samples seems very minimal and used to accent the clockwork rhythms that you employ (especially in “Wheels in Motion” and “Depressure”). Are samples something you use primarily as a texture or do you find yourself building soundscapes and ideas around them?
It always varies, sometimes a sample will fit into a tune I’ve already started, other times the sample is the main focus and the track is built around it. Sometimes I sample from vinyl but mostly from cd’s or digital formats, it’s a much quicker process.
What kind of thing are you sampling from?
This varies quite a lot. Sometimes it’s things I’m listening to in the moment, and just decide to sample them. Other times it’s pretty random, I’ll often even just put iTunes in shuffle mode and when I hear something interesting will open up the WAV and start chopping it up.
So what kind of setup do you have for producing your music?
It’s all software. I would really like to get some old Roland drum machines, but for now I’m fairly happy to sample sounds and use software synths.
Do you find working with software a limitation, and if so do you embrace that limitation, or are you frustrated by it?
I’m using a really old version of Cubase, and I kind of like the limitation of it. I can’t produce music in a program like Ableton, there’s so much you can do with it – too much for me.
In what way is it too much? I was always under the impression that Ableton was reasonably intuitive…
There’s just so much you can do with it. I like the limitation of Cubase, I have a few VST synths and a VST sampler and that’s pretty much it. I would definitely like to expand my little studio and get a few bits of hardware, but I’m quite happy for now using a very basic setup. I’ve been using Ableton lately for mixes and to prepare for live shows though, it’s really good for that. It’s probably really good for producing too, but I’m too scared to get deeply into another program. There’s a massive learning curve, I’d be afraid of losing my sound or something!
There is of course a very firm line drawn in the sand with regards to opinions of hardware vs software – what are your opinions on the matter?
I don’t think it matters what equipment you use, when it comes to producing or even DJing. It’s what you do with it that counts.
I understand you don’t live in London, but by the sea on the south coast of England – would you say your surroundings inspire your music?
Yeah my surroundings definitely influence me, I like being by the sea and near nature. I lived in London for a while a few years back and had to get away if I spent too much time there. I mean, I don’t live in the middle of nowhere, so I still have the town which I’m influenced by. But I definitely like to escape to the sea or into the forest. It all finds its way into the music somehow. I’m sure if I lived in a city my music might sound quite different.
Do you think your distance from the London scene is a positive thing for you, or would you rather be more physically connected to what’s going on with the wider electronic music world?
I’m not too bothered about being connected to what else is going on in the musical world – when I’m making tracks I’m focused solely on that, and nothing else. However I think it’d be nice to be connected in a scene, or at least people giving you feedback. I have people that I send tracks to so I do get some feedback. One of them is Lukid. I respect his opinion, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be into something yourself, otherwise there’s no point in putting it out there.
Your music reminds me in places of Lone, who is quite obviously influenced by the early 90s rave sound. Rush Hour themselves describe your sound as “early 90s UK”, but also as a hybrid sound that is “very current, future even”. Would you say this is accurate?
It’s funny when people say it’s a throwback album, obviously I’m influenced by older music but it wasn’t my intention for the album to sound like it was from the early 90s. I do like a lot of music from that period though. I’m into music from all eras – when making this album I wasn’t thinking of that period.
“I like to escape to the sea or into the forest. It all finds its way into the music somehow”
Everything on the album has a dusty feel to it that evokes a kind of nostalgia in me for music of that era – “Blocks” for instance has quite a Selected Ambient Works 85-92 era Aphex Twin vibe about it…do feelings of nostalgia for old music influence your material?
Yeah I think it all makes it’s way into the music somehow, sometimes I hear something that I listened to when I was young and I’ll be surprised at how similar the aesthetic is to what I’m doing now. But I’m trying to stay current, and not be too influenced by the past. As I said, when I make music it’s all about the moment.
If that 90s sound isn’t quite where you’re coming from, then what kind of sounds are an influence?
I listen to all sorts of music, and have made all sorts of music. So my influences are constantly changing. Everything from old folk, Detroit techno, ambient music, shoegaze. In terms of Detroit techno things like Drexciya, Theo Parrish and Underground Resistance. In terms of ambient music obviously Brian Eno, but also someone like William Basinski. I get totally lost in his music.
So how did you get involved with Rush Hour? Had you previously been an admirer of their output?
I sent them a demo last year after failing to put out the material with another label. I was into stuff they had released in the past and they seemed like an ideal label to release this stuff with. I bought the Aardvarck album Cult Copy a few years ago which I really liked. And the reissue stuff they do is wicked.
You’re in some very esteemed company with their label – what do you think of the music of your labelmates on the Direct Current imprint (Cosmin TRG, FaltyDL, Policy, Aardvarck)?
Yeah, it’s all really impressive stuff. I like what those artists stand for, they’re all totally original and don’t follow any trends.
Given the different musical styles you’ve already experimented with, do you see yourself wanting to flirt with sounds more at the garage end of the spectrum like those guys?
I’ve actually got an EP coming out in a month or so on a label called Svetlana Industries which is much more 2 step/garage influenced. I was originally going to put that out under the name 141 but it’s gonna be coming out under the BNJMN name too, I sort of want to get people used to the idea that I make a lot of different stuff, and it isn’t too far from the Plastic World material so hopefully people won’t get thrown off.
“It’s funny when people say it’s a throwback album; obviously I’m influenced by older music but it wasn’t my intention for the album to sound like it was from the early 90s”
Are there any current producers that you are particularly excited by at the moment?
I really like Shackleton, he totally has his own sound. In terms of techno and house, Kassem Mosse is great, and I’ve just got round to checking the Portable/Bodycode stuff which I really like. I also love Kurt Vile’s older material, which is really spaced out folk music.
So what’s coming up next for you? As for the live show, will you be recomposing your own material on the fly, or will it be more DJ based?
Well I’ve got the EP coming out on Svetlana Industries soon. Other than that there are no plans. I’d really like to set up my own label at some point so I can just release whatever I like, that’s the goal. In terms of performing I am preparing to play more of a DJ set than a live set, I much prefer playing other people’s music than my own.
Finally, one of my favourite Rush Hour releases from last year was the Cosmin TRG/FaltyDL remix swap 12″ – if you could do a similar thing with anyone who would it be?
It’d probably be Panda Bear from Animal Collective, the guy’s a genius in my humble opinion!
Interview: Scott Wilson