Interview: Talking Time, Beauty, Fear and Philosophy with Mutual Benefit
Over the past few years Jordan Lee, aka Mutual Benefit, has seen his musical project evolve from a one man lo-fi project into a lush, orchestral affair. This year his insightful and tender musings on life, love and everything inbetween reached a new peak, both critically and personally with the release of Love's Crushing Diamond. The record seemingly propelled Lee from dusty art collectives to the precipice of indie darling status overnight. After recieving a "Best NewAlbum" review from Pitchfork earlier this year, Lee and his band, which saw the arrival of classically trained violinist Jake Falby (formerly of the Argentine National Orchestra), were invited to play Pitchfork Music Festival this past weekend. Lee was not only kind enough to speak with me at length, while we leaned against a tree, but he also was a pleasure to just be around; oozing sincerity and intelligence Lee spoke with me about his life philosophies, his fears moving forward and the somewhat subconscious role of time in his music.
MD: I've read that you have lived in many cities, has there been anything unique you've taken away from each place?
Jordan Lee: Yes, absolutely. I feel like I've split my time between small and large cities. (In the distance Wild Beasts begin their set) Oh, wait, sorry this is the band I've been touring with. Yesterday was our last show together and it makes me very sad to hear them now. But anyways, I'm living in New York right now, which I know is super cliché, but I really love it. I've been exploring Chinatown a lot lately because my partner works around there. I'll get up and take the train early and explore the little buddhist temples that are next to these little Hong Kong restaurants; just the culture shock everywhere. Oh and I've also found this little park where there are always people dancing. But in Boston, before that, they had great lectures to go to all the time, even though Berkeley kids can be insufferable sometimes, they're also incredible at music.
MD: You were in Allston too (a lovely area of Boston)?
JL: Yeah Allston and Jamaica Plain. Often times when I think about a place that I've lived I have one thing that I found really, really special. In Jamaica Plain, outside of Allston, I lived right next to Jamaica Pond, where there was a one mile walk that went around it; I feel like half the lyrics on Love's Crushing Diamond are about walking around there. When I was mixing the record I would put it on my phone and listen to it at night, just walking around. Then Austin and Ohio are special in different ways too. There is so much to take away. One of the biggest ones was St. Louis, because that was the first town I lived in that felt like it was on the decline.
MD: How so? Artistically?
JL: Artistically it was amazing because everything was so cheap and you could just play a warehouse. But I think a lot of their big industries are leaving, I don't think we have a lot of manufacturing jobs still in the states and I don't think that the Mississippi River is as big of a deal as before for transportation. So there were just huge pockets of a whole population of people that are unemployed; it was the first time where I was living on a side of town where things were a little bit scary for me, where there were murders that happened a lot. I remember a friend texting me about how the street I went down everyday to a coffee shop was having problems with people being mugged for their laptops everyday, because it was near a college. I was only there for six months but it was kind of weird feeling unsafe, which was sort of a new thing (for me). Sorry that was sort of a long-winded answer.
MD: No, thats fine, I appreciate it. So your most recent record, Love's Crushing Diamond, has very emotional edge to it, but there is also a tangible optimism or lightness to the record that prevails throughout. Do you agree with that take on the record? If so was that intentional and does that in any way reflect your personal philosophy on how you approach life.
JL: Well I can definitely say that that was intentional. It's funny because the album took so long to write because it started off being a very sad album and I kept changing and cutting songs and lyrics as I started to feel better and started to realize that the world, at least for me, doesn't need a really sad album to say that life is shitty. Basically I went to St. Louis for six months to get my head straight again, so I had a lot of time by myself and a lot of time to write and what I came to the conclusion of was that life isn't supposed to be good, you know awful things happen, there is systematic violence and poverty and there is no way you can have your eyes all the way open and be psyched about the world. But at the same time, this is so cliché and I hate what's coming out of my mouth, but then there is this moment of beauty you can only have if you keep your eyes all the way open. I think a lot of people's ways of coping is to not think about things too hard or to distract themselves or something like that. But I think that if you can get yourself to stare head-on at the bad stuff in the world, and the bad things about yourself, you can then have the ability to experience these beautiful moments that will shake you to the core. And I think traveling brings out those moments a lot more because you are broken out of your routines and forced to meet new people every day. So I think I was trying to convey that if you acknowledge both sides fully then you can walk out of it with optimism.
MD: Right, like if you see all the badness then all the really beautiful and great moments are then that much more profound. I don't that's cliché at all, I don't think many people think about it that way. It's a bit Nietzschean, in a will to power sort of way.
JL: Yeah absolutely.
MD: So you're very itinerant, is that challenging part of traveling you spoke of why you seem to have a sort of reluctance to staying in one place?
JL: I think that is part of it. For a long time I would get real wanderlust when staying in one place for too long. Little things would annoy me and I'd feel like “I can't be here anymore!” but this year I've been in my first long-term relationship ever and it makes staying in one place a lot more attractive. It's funny but part of writing this album was a self-healing process and now that I'm on the other-side of it, when I have breaks from tour I'm so excited about organizing my room, cooking and having people over for dinner. Somebody asked what one of the worst parts of being on tour was and I said it was not being able to take care of a garden, which is so weird because people would kill to go on tour and I'm worried about a garden!
MD: So you've discussed before how prior to this most recent album you were unable to fully express everything that was in your mind or what you had envisioned and how the addition of Jake Falby changed that. What do you think inhibited you in the past and where do you think you will go now that you have, what I assume to be, a lot more new doors in front of you?
JL: Well I guess in the past it wasn't that I felt particularly limited...(pause) My band makes fun of me so hard because when the record came out we got a write-up in Guitar World and, first off I'm not good at guitar at all and at the time I didn't own a guitar or an amp, I was borrowing someones guitar and plugging into whatever I could. I've never had a lot of stuff around, but I'll always have a microphone on me, and I used to intern at recording studio in Austin so sometimes I'll go back and play on those. But I guess in the past I thought of myself as making lo-fi or tape music, but songs are songs, some of my favorite records ever are Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake or Ys by Joanna Newsom. So I just couldn't imagine a scenario where I'd ever have access to a symphony, so thats why meeting Jake was so great because he's got a classical background but is so down to do experimental music. If you see him play he gets so into the music and is so emotive; we wrote and recorded all the violin parts in less than a week and it was such a great process where sometimes I'd know exactly what I wanted but other times I would just say I wanted it to get really powerful here and he'd be like “Okay, here is what needs to happen. Do you want me to bow this dramatically or as a fiddle?” Working together and learning each others languages was incredible and both of us were totally in shock that it sounded good afterwards, we were like “This sounds like some of our favorite records!” we were so ecstatic about it.
MD: So how does that carry over to the next record?
JL: As far as the next one I'm a little overwhelmed because I think if I asked the label for a children's choir to sing on the next record they'd probably be able to help me hook it up, so for me to be no longer limited by anything it makes me afraid to start writing the next record.
MD: So then what is your biggest fear in that regard?
JL: Um, well I guess it's something that is also talked about commonly, but I've never really had an audience to think about before. It has always been that I have a thing I want to say, then I say it and then as a byproduct people hear it, some like it and some don't. Then with this one, not only do I know that thousands of people will hear it, but I also know that the company or label will have invested money into the project and are going to be really hoping to make it back. It's only in the very back of my mind but it's there, commercial viability. I've been talking to my partner a lot about it and I think, maybe, we need to make a really silly record and get it out of my system, not even call it Mutual Benefit but Little Doggy’s or something, make some Moldy Peaches pop album and then I think I'll be able to be serious about music again.
MD: Listening to your catalog I found myself thinking about time a lot and while listening to Love's Crushing Diamond again before coming here I was thinking of time as just a narrative tool used to individualize or distinguish yourself. So do you believe in time?
JL: Yeah! (Laughs) It's funny cause thats a word and a concept that I didn't think about at all throughout the album. There is one lyric about time “the tyranny of the minute hand” but then Devon Welsch of Majical Clouds, on a website where artists write about other artists records, wrote this really long, also kind of Nietzschean essay about Love's Crushing Diamond and it was all about time and about how my love of talking about rivers was really about the ebb and flow of time. He made a really compelling argument for it and I was like “shit, maybe I am doing that but just didn't know it.” So that caught me totally off guard, but I do think that is something that I think about a lot. Sometimes I think people like you and I, who run from city to city, I think part of it is because when I'm in a spot for too long then moments are less significant and a week will go by and I don't know what even happened. Where as if you're having new experiences and meeting new people time will feel really full and your life feels really rich for a while. I guess I do think about time a lot.