We spoke with mixed media mastermind Otto Benson about what he's been working on, the internet, and his feelings.
RC: You have a split coming out with Ryan Wu?
Otto Benson: Yeah it's gonna be cool, it’s supposed to be 80s synth-pop but I kinda made more- I don't know, one of the songs is like breakbeat, and there’s more kind of almost like 8bit
RC: Yeah you seem to be really into cartoon-esque, Flying Lotus-esque stuff. Would you say cartoons are a big thing for your music?
OB: I mean not cartoons, but a lot of the stuff I do is very derivative, 8bit sounding. I grew up loving video games but I just had a DS. A lot of the games on that didn't have really crazy good music or anything, so it’s kind of like this weird novelty that I didn't really grow up with but it just sounds good. And then I was experimenting with synths a lot. Because all the 8bit stuff is really stripped down, straight square or sine waves or triangle waves, everything you make with those sounds will automatically sound 8bit.
RC: So it’s out of consequence.
OB: I don’t know, I feel like I'm drawn to that certain feeling of homeyness that comes with very basic stripped down, dry synth patches. It makes it sound like something that obviously came out of a bedroom. Kind of comforting. I found the whole bedroom producer scene very comforting.
RC: In relation to that, how much of your work would you say is intentional and how much is out of noodling? Do you have a really distinct plan?
OB: Sometimes. That song, “hell o tender” or whatever, there was one song, I had it in mind, I very much wanted to make something for myself. It was like a coping song, I needed to make something as pretty as possible, to use any cliche things that I thought were nice at the time and just mashed them all together pretty quickly. But other times I'll just noodle around and be like “Oh that sounds kinda cool” and I'll put it on Soundcloud. That song “the_olivman” - I hate that song so much, it's just the muddiest crap, and it's got like 5000 plays currently, it's ridiculous. It's all just very coincidental. Also like when I make hip hop, I don't really listen to that much hip hop it just kinda comes out. I'm not like “Ooh I wanna be a hip hop producer and make beats for people” I'll just be playing around with drum samples. That’s whats cool about making music; you never know whats gonna come out.
RC: So you're not making beats for anyone else currently, you’re not doing any collaborations right now, except for this Ryan Wu project?
OB: Yeah not really. Especially not for any particular vocalists. I haven't really worked with any vocalists at all, but it’d be cool to. It'd be interesting to produce for a rapper or singer. I just don't wanna get lost in the cliché producer-making-another-trap-beat for some rapper that’s gonna get lost on Soundcloud.
OB: Do you know NxWorries? It’s this really good combination of crazy good beats and this really good vocalist.
RC: I haven’t checked it out, no.
OB: I also wanna sing but I'm too shy. I'm slowly adapting to becoming less shy.
RC: Is that why you find this whole bedroom producer thing comforting, because there is this anonymous element?
OB: Yeah, it's like an excuse to not sing. But I've always loved instrumentals way more. There’s rarely any artist that I’m like “The vocals on this really make it” you know? I'll usually listen to something specifically for the instrumentals, the vocals are just like a complement. But there is something cool [about them]. You can actually turn it into more of a message or more a concrete way to communicate something. A lot of my beats are very specific to certain times or certain places. When you’re making something, you listen to it over and over again, so when you listen to it again it'll capture that time when you were making it. Then when you listen to it and be like “Wow, I remember summer of ’02” but when you actually make something it hurts, it's really good. or you'll make something and listen back to it, get really embarrassed, then delete it.
RC: Whenever I delete stuff it’s like-
OB: I feel really selfish
RC: What do you mean?
OB: It's like “Fuck everyone, this is mine. Nobody can listen to this.” I'm kind of a perfectionist in a weird way. In the moment I'll be very like “whatever,” and then later on I'll cringe at everything I do. I've made like 2 or 3 three albums and deleted all of them. I made a weird EP thing sophomore year, did you listen to it?
RC: Yeah, it was passed around.
OB: I hate that shit
OB: It’s really bad. I just don't like it any more.
RC: I have that too, I have very mixed feelings about stuff I've released, and I think we all kind of do, because you, obviously, progress.
OB: Yeah, everybody matures as an artist. But at the same time, I wanna keep a lot of the old stuff because when I look at other artists, I usually like their old stuff better, so what if my audience is looking at my stuff like “I hate all this new shit that he’s putting out”?
RC: It does kind of become about other people once it’s out there and once you're done. What gear are you using right now?
OB: My favorite synth is any of the Junos. I have a Juno TAL-U-No VST – I use that on everything. I'm trying to get away from it. I have a pocket piano I use a ton, and then I have a bunch of pedals that I’ll mess around with.
RC: Like what?
OB: I have a Boss, I think it’s the Super Chorus? It's one of the chorus ones that's not a ce2. I’d like to have a ce2 eventually. I got it for like 15 bucks on eBay, it was a really good deal and it sounds decent. I have a TC Electronic Flashback x4, I have a crappy T-Rex phaser that I use. I don’t really like it that much, but it's kinda cool. For some reason I used it a lot. For a while I was borrowing my friends TASCAM and I was recording a bunch of stuff on that, but I had to give it back. Most of the stuff that's on tape was on that. I like having things being molded away on a cassette tape, it gives it this softness, like melting a candle. It makes it something slightly broken in as opposed to this very crisp digital sound file.
RC: I’d remembered earlier when we were in Dolly Spartans together we were talking about this concept you had for a record where all the music would be free but there'd also be a VHS tape where you'd have to buy it.
OB: Yeah word. That was a goal I had for the end of the year, but it turned more into this sound-piece. I haven’t released it anywhere digitally, but I basically made these three video pieces, they were just animations, there was an orange, I had it for my schools art show, and I wanted to make this really long soundscape that was split up into three tracks, and at any given point it would all sound decent together, because they’re all just noise and the same chord. I had those all looped and playing together. I might eventually make some sort of album. I was gonna make a DVD. I haven’t done that yet. I'm probably not gonna do that until I learn how to make animations a lot better and I become more proficient. I want to learn 3D modeling, I only know basic stuff. I want to make 3D environments and have them correspond to my music. I'm very drawn to soundscapes and really minimal trance things, but it's kinda hard to listen to. When you put things online, people have to experience the maximum amount of enjoyment in the shortest amount of time or else it gets completely hidden from the rest of the world. So that's why I reserve my more ambient stuff for multimedia stuff I wanna make and pair with those compositions. I made a ton of ambient soundscapes that I've just scrapped or haven’t done anything with. That performance I did, having visuals with it, was kind of an excuse to do my thing and be more minimal.
RC: Your stage presence is really reserved.
OB: That was a weird experience, I felt really intimidated, kinda pathetic.
RC: Why? People loved you.
OB: Really? That's cool.
RC: Did you not get that vibe at all?
OB: I mean, I got a few compliments, but I'm always performing in a band setting, and you can kind of hide behind everyone else. There’s a certain comfort, everybody’s looking at you maybe a fourth or a fifth of the time, but during that performance, there was the video thing right there and I was right in front of it, and just felt like everybody was observing me dead on. I'm not used to that.
RC: What would your ideal performance set up be?
OB: As many projections as possible. A giant, giant room with tons of projections with different animations going on. I'll just hang out somewhere and make the soundtrack to it.
RC: So separate yourself as much as possible?
OB: Not necessarily, I'd still want to be viewable, there and present. I like the idea of being able to watch a movie with me making it while they’re watching it. Being active in the production of this experience that people are having.
RC: It seems like multimedia has been a really long tradition in the New York scene.
OB: Has it?
RC: Yeah, I mean people like Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, even happenings, you could say like John Cage pieces have used multimedia for a really long time. Where do you think you’re drawing inspiration from to do it?
OB: I think it's partially from social media and the way everything’s so digital. Everything has to have a certain amount of visual accompaniment that makes it this obvious way to continue or further the effects of whatever music I want to make, if that makes sense. I guess I'd say Oneohtrix Point Never made me click. I'd been making soundscape things similar to what he makes, especially his earlier work, for a very long time, but I'd never really known how to put it out there. There was a boiler room and he's got these crazy videos. There’s an animator that he was working with for a series of live performances, who makes all these really weird, really cool, - I don't even know what they are. Just like objects and planes, I don’t know how to describe them, but they go really well with the music, and I guess his work accompanied by those 3D environments made me realize the potential of paring such soundscapes with these kinds of visuals.
RC: That’s cool. Is he your biggest inspiration?
OB: Not really.
RC: Who else?
OB: Aphex Twin. I've been obsessed with him all year. I'd never really listened to him that closely, but now it's definitely influenced my music. A little too much – I've started making too many Squarepusher, Aphex Twin style glitch beats, and there’s something really nice about being able to make wacky beats that don’t really make sense. Otherwise, probably Neu!. I used to listen to Neu! so much. My dad had Neu! 2, so I would listen to that in the car, and that song Für Immer is the best, especially for long car rides when you just space out.
RC: Yeah, it really does make sense, this crossover, that a lot of people that are really into Krautrock have into this electronic drone music.
OB: Yeah, it’s just ambient right? I don’t know, what would you describe it as? Like drone-ambient-minimalism?
RC: Everyone comes up with a bunch of dumb ways to say the same thing.
OB: I mean, droning is like a single note and it’s more about textures, but meanwhile ambient can be a lot more-
OB: Yeah, there can be more percussion. Usually drone, I feel like, implies no percussion at all.
But yeah, I also feel like electronic music’s awesome. I felt like I would just generalize electronic music as EDM, gross, over-produced. but there’s bucketloads of really good, obscure electronic music. You can just skip around to different Soundclouds and find all this really wavy, crazy stuff. Especially with DAWS, you put these really expansive instruments and synthesizers into the hands of virtually everybody. There’s gonna be tons of kids who come across their… whatever, Garageband, and just start playing around with that and then move on to something more advanced, and then they make some weird bizarre stuff in their room. I find that aspect of electronic music really interesting.
RC: You’ve always used Ableton?
OB: No. I used to use pretty much just Garageband. I've made weird music since like 4th grade. I would make weird sounds and put tons of effects on them and fool around with that. I had this yamaha keyboard that I would just hold a giant chord and leave the sustain pedal on, so I'd have this massive drone, and I’d record that with my laptop microphone and put all these guitar processing presets on. And I used to make some really bad stuff back in 9th grade. It was totally un-quantized, terrible, off-tempo, two-chords. Then eventually I got a free demo of Ableton with one of those Scarlett interfaces, and I started playing around with that. What really got me into producing electronic music, or producing more often and tightening up my technique, was trap music. There were kids at school who would post like “Check out this beat!”, and I was like “Music’s my thing man! I'm gonna try and do that too!”
RC: It’s really weird that it's so inherent to be really possessive. I was talking to this girl and she said that the fact that so many people from New York are artists - she wasn't from New York- devalued it. I used to feel that way but now I find it really strange. How do you feel about the saturation of art here?
OB: There’s something beautiful about that. There’s something so cool about the fact that everybody makes something behind their backs. It’s kind of this universal coping mechanism that people have for getting stuff out. One of the best feelings out there is making something, especially music. But then the fact that there’s this mountain of obscure stuff is interesting, because you can go on these journeys where you just listen to things and look at things and consume and get tons of inspiration because so many people live such crazy different lives. You can really absorb all that through this art too. It’s really cool, I think.
RC: What do you think you’re looking for when you observe or experience someone else’s art that isn't your own?
OB: I'm never really looking for anything
RC: Not even subconsciously?
OB: Not really. I just listen to things. You can’t really expect anything out of anything when you find it. There are times when I’ll google “What are some good glitch musicians?” or whatever, and I’ll get a list of pioneers in glitch music, but otherwise, you have to listen to it, and then you’ll really- I don't really know what I’m saying. You can’t really get inspired by something until you actually hear it.
RC: What non-artistic things do you think you draw a lot from?
OB: The city. Riding the train to school. Especially in the winter, I get really inspired because everything’s cold outside, and it’s warm inside and I can hang out and make music. The miserableness of commuting to school– it’s really cold and you’re like “Oh my god, my life’s so hard” and you go home and write songs about that. Otherwise, it’s weird, I usually make the saddest, or really dark stuff when I’m happy, and then all my happier things are ways to drown out when I’m very sad. Everything that I’ve made that’s happy comes from a dark place in time and life. All my saddest stuff is me brushing off the bad stuff and getting it out so I can have this more pure form of happiness.
RC: I think even in your happier stuff there is this melancholy tint to it. Do you think that’s you, or do you that that’s part of the process and that’s kinda what happens when we work with these instruments and maybe there’s some element of electronic or digital music that gives things a certain lens?
OB: I wouldn’t say electronic music influences that, because I’ve always made slightly sad things. I’ll draw sad things and write sad things. I don’t know why, it just feels really good. It comes out that way and it feels really nice to listen to and make sad music. Maybe I’m more emotional than I think I am… nah, I’m pretty emotional.
RC: Why? Or about what?
OB: I don’t know. Probably just teenage angst. Everything sucks! I don’t know man, that’s just the way it comes out. This interview is so weird.
RC: Why? Are you uncomfortable?
OB: Not really. I just feel like I’m being really dumb.
RC: No! Why do you think you’re being dumb?
OB: I don’t know, I just feel like I’m not saying anything interesting.
RC: Is that a concern? Because I feel like a lot of kids in New York are really obsessed with being interesting. Do you think that you’re like that? Or maybe not kids in particular, I think there’s this weird “be the most interesting you can” motive in New York.
OB: It’s more I feel like I don’t have that much to say compared to other people, so I feel like I’m taking away from other people’s opportunities. It’s like I’m showing myself off, this Rare Candy interview, of me, this straight white boy. Other people maybe have more interesting lives, or things that need to be heard, and I’m just sitting around making music and talking about how it’s slightly sad.
[A fan starts rattling and Otto remembers something else]
Have you seen this video? There’s a dead-on camera of this fan, and there’s this guy behind the camera like “They don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore”, then the front lid just falls off, and he hits it and the blade comes completely off, it just comes straight off and just breaks. It’s in this tan room with a carpet, it’s really bare- it’s so good.
RC: (Laughs) You have to send me this video.
OB: The internet is so good.
RC: The internet is so good. What percent of your music is jokes?
OB: 40%- or like 50, I’d say 50% of it. Especially if things are retro, sound retro or whatever, it’s because I’m having fun and just fooling around. Everybody really likes 80’s culture, there was that Justin Bieber thing-
RC: That was so good, that was so funny.
OB: -stuff like that is just a joke.
RC: But then some people sincerely follow through with it.
OB: Those are the people I don’t trust. Just kidding. I never really cared for the 80’s that much, It’s just kind of something that's prevalent for some reason right now, and hip. I do have to say, electronic music from the 80s is prime, it’s the best.
RC: Like LinnDrum machines-
OB: Yeah man! Just any drum machine paired with any synth, DX7s, and any Juno, and all that sounds… fuego.
RC: Do you have an era that you particularly draw from, or particularly like?
OB: More recently- I don't know, I don't think there is. There’s not a specific one. I guess I get sentimental, I used to watch a bunch of VHS tapes, and it’s kind of an annoying, nostalgia, gimmick thing people do now. But in terms of time periods, no. It’s kind of contemporary, but lo-fi and I try to draw from things that sound nice, and usually that’s because they’re old, from the 80s or something, and because people’s ears are very attuned to certain synth sounds or certain drum machines it creates this niceness I guess. Pleasure, not niceness.
RC: Why do you make that distinction?
OB: Niceness isn’t a word.
RC: I mean, I guess that, but I thought you were-
OB: Nice is such a broad word. Pleasure is a little more specific to good sensation.
RC: Do you ever want to make something that’s unsettling though? Is dissonance appealing to you?
OB: Yeah, definitely. That goes back to what I was talking about with when I make sad, more angry things when I’m happy. Usually I want to irritate people slightly, or creep people out slightly. Or create an environment that’s spooky.
OB: I don’t know, some really deep, subconscious, emotional part of me is telling me to make something that’s bothersome. But not even bothersome, more like mysterious. Something unexplainable. It’s nice to make things that are really personal to you but nonsense to somebody else. It’s getting them out into the world but not having to tell people what they are.
RC: Do you think this has been a progression, or do you think you’ve always had these tendencies when you create?
OB: Yeah, I think I have. I think I’ve definitely always liked a certain degree of bizarreness. My parents used to take me to a lot of modern art museums, so I've always kind of known, or lusted for the more inexplainable.
RC: Like who? Or what?
OB: I remember my mom brought me to a Marina Abramović. People like Donald Judd. They took me to Marfa, Texas, and he has, I believe it was in an airplane hangar, he made these boxes that are, I think they're either aluminum or stainless steel boxes that have different angles and little nuances, there’s just a hundred of them in this airplane with floor to ceiling windows in the middle of the desert; that kind of stuff really impacted me a lot, and it made me realize how much I like that atmosphere and minimal aesthetic. I remember they took me to some weird performance art stuff. I don’t remember any of the artists.
RC: Are your parents artists?
OB: Yeah, they both went to Maryland Institute of Art.
RC: MICA, yeah. Is that where they met?
OB: Sort of. They knew each other, but then they re-met, after college.
RC: Wild. And they’re both still doing that, or no?
OB: No. My mom works for Barnes & Noble and buys art books, and my dad works freelance and does architectural drawings.
RC: That’s cool.
OB: My dad has a wall of architecture books, and there’s always been this presence of visual stuff. I’ve always been drawn to the visually appealing.
RC: That’s really apparent in your work.
OB: Yeah that’s definitely translated into music. In a lot of ways I make it very visually. I compose things with images in mind usually.
RC: What future projects are you working on and maybe incorporating that in?
OB: The Ryan Wu split.
RC: And that’s it?
OB: I’m gonna go to electrical engineering summer camp, well, a program, at Cooper Union, and I wanna learn how to make things. I want to make synths or also possibly ways to interact with physical spaces through MIDI. Like have a motorized arm that’ll ding a little bell or something, then connect that to MIDI and have that play my beats. I wanna build something like that eventually. those are big, larger ambitions. otherwise I'm probably just gonna produce stuff. Im working on FOAM’s album here and there, an EP.
RC: Ooh FOAM. You guys have been doing a lot of cool stuff lately.
OB: Yeah word. We played at the Intrepid, that was cool.
RC: That’s so wild, how’d that even happen?
OB: They emailed us. Well, it was cause we played at the Transit Museum.
RC: How’d that happen?
OB: There’s this teen organization that does these teen events, and one of them is one of my friends, so they knew that we were a band, and when the opportunity for performances came around, they probably had the idea that we could play and we got that opportunity, and then that led to us playing at the intrepid, which was a similar set up and event. But they’ve been cool.
RC: What’s the thing you’re looking forward to most in 2016, at this point?
OB: Probably being able to incorporate more advanced- like all the stuff I was talking about video installation and 3D modeling - I see a ton of potential in all sorts of mediums through technology. I wanna create better 3D soundscapes. Or maybe a really long movie of weird 3D things and spaces and animations all interconnected with electronic, MIDI controlled robot arms that hit percussive things. Then I’ll film it and put it on YouTube.
RC: What’s the best sandwich?
OB: I would say a BLT, but I don’t know if I really like BLTs that much any more. I’ve started to kind of hate meat. It’s not like I’m trying or dedicated to becoming a vegetarian, but I’ve just slowly started to get grossed out by it more and more. But I still like eggs and milk and stuff, so I'm probably not gonna become vegan, but currently I’m pretty vegetarian. I got these quinoa and black bean veggie burgers from Trader Joe’s. They’re pretty good. Put one on fresh tomato, some lettuce, some nice pickles, some ketchup, put that on a bun, that’s a pretty good sandwich. I think I had some mustard on there too.
RC: A+. instant classic.