Music from a Lost Empire: An Interview with Composer Benedict Edwards

From its earliest incarnations, BRASS has been fortunate to include the work of several contemporary composers, including Amanda Laven, Miriam Mayer and Cesar Belita, each of whom have brought a thrilling modern sensibility to the music and sounds of the 19th century. As we ready our new BRASS Serial “The Devil in Whitechapel” for release, we’re excited to announce our newest composer, London-born-and-bred Benedict Edwards. (Benedict’s music can already be heard as the theme of our new podcast, BRASS Stacks.)

We recently had a chance to conduct an interview with Benedict, reprinted below–and a brief warning for the young and the sensitive, some of the language is PG-13. (He did front a Heavy Metal band for a few years.)

JOHN: A little about you. Where are you from, where do you live, and how long have you been making music?

BENEDICT: I’m from East London in England, born and raised, and I’ve been making music ever since I was a kid. I’d sneak into the music rooms at school with my friends to use the pianos and guitars and things – I always thought it was amazing that you could sit in front of an instrument and not know what your fingers were going to play until you played it. I don’t think I’d play music if it lost its capacity to surprise me.

J: You were the lead singer of the heavy metal band Miocene, which seemed to be something of a critic’s pick for smart and well-crafted music (two qualities often lacking in heavy metal), and to me compares favorably with the American band Tool. Miocene toured and got good press for a trio of albums, but broke up after six years. What was the experience of being lead singer to this band like for you?

B: Thanks man, and yeah it was great. Before Miocene I always played drums or piano, I never thought of myself as a singer, so when Miocene formed and needed a vocalist I went for it mostly as a way of getting to hang out with my pals, and get some catharsis at the same time – playing stuff that intense is really good fun in a rehearsal room. We never really expected it to go anywhere. But then nu metal got vaguely hip for about three minutes and suddenly we’re off on tour with all these great bands and even got to make a sort of career out of it. We ended up going down a weird road with our music and not everyone along came with us, but I’m really proud of everything we did, and we never did anything we didn’t 100% believe in. I don’t think many bands from that time can say the same. When you get caught up in one of those industry excitement bubbles you either try to turn it to your advantage or kick against it. I was never charming enough to pull off the former, so the latter was all we had – besides, being perverse is more interesting, to me at least.

J: The music you’ve produced as a solo artist is very different. Was this a development in you as an artist, or was this sort of music a parallel interest during your Miocene career?

B: I always wrote sad songs but I never really had the cash or the confidence to record them. Now the digital revolution has happened, recording is a lot cheaper and more fun. And confidence isn’t an issue for me anymore – when you’ve sung in a nu metal band sporting dreadlocks and bead chains, you build up a healthy tolerance for being embarrassed – I’ve got nothing to lose by sharing them. Doing this stuff is the opposite process to Miocene – Miocene we deliberately pushed against our instincts and tried to do things dispassionately, always pushing slightly beyond our intellect and capability. The stuff I do under my own name is more or less by instinct, just feeling my way through different emotions and different sounds, keeping stuff in my comfort zone, having my records be a fairly honest and unvarnished representation of who I am, rather than who I’d like to be. I’d quite like to do something brave and post-modern again but I’m not sure I’ve got the imagination or the work ethic for it these days. I think the older you get the more comfortable you get with who you are.

J: I enjoy all your albums, but I’m particularly a fan of Barrack Room Ballads. When did you discover these poems by Kipling? What was your inspiration for writing your own music to them? And seeing how much the world has changed, how relevant do you find the lyrics?

B: Very kind. I picked up a copy of Barrack Room Ballads in a second hand shop four or five years ago, not really expecting to enjoy it, but I was blown away by how great it was and how contemporary it felt. I half-heartedly write a few chords to it at the time because they already felt so much like songs but it never quite clicked for me, I felt like I was trying to sing stories about a place I’d never been. There’s nothing wrong with that as a concept – I think a band like Decemberists can do that sort of thing beautifully, they manage to be emotionally honest within a fictional narrative, which is I think what Kipling did as well – but I just felt like a dilettante, trying this world on to see if it fit. It never felt honest.

Then a few years ago I went to visit a pal in the Philippines. I’ve never seen so much life – I spent the days surrounded by lizards and birds and fish and bugs, even saw little balls of bioluminescence on the beach. And I was missing my partner, who was in New York at the time, because I knew she’d have loved it and I spent a lot of time wishing she was there with me. And I’d watch the sun set into the South China Sea at night, and I made that connection to Mandalay, where the sun comes up like China across the bay, and it’s infused with him missing Supayalat and wondering what his life would’ve been like if he’d stayed with her.

And in that moment I suddenly got the melancholy at the heart of Kipling’s best (imo) work – it’s the melancholy of someone who yearns to go home to a place that no longer exists, and maybe never did exist. And that was it, it clicked, I wrote four songs out there and got the other two when I came back home. I didn’t even have a guitar, I sang all the melodies into my phone and transcribed them when I was back. (I am no fun on holidays.)

That’s why his best words remain relevant to me – they may be set in a very specific cultural milieu, but they’re about universals; love and loss and beauty.

J: Kipling was a jingoist, pretty definitely a racist, and certainly an apologist for the British Empire. Yet there’s no denying his ability as a writer, and some of his works remain popular classics. With a lot of artists from this period, enjoying their work can require some distance from their personalities and world views. What was it like working with such a “collaborator?”

B: Conflicting! Because he’s all those things, and arguably worse – Kipling not only held some repugnant views, he used his platform to promote those views internationally. And I’d find that easier to rationalise if he were ignorant of other cultures, but he really wasn’t. It’s unforgivable and its undeniable.

But in the same way better to be honest about his negative side, I’d be a hypocrite if I pretended I didn’t love much of his work. Like Orwell said, “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives”. I agree with that.

I think for me Kipling’s words survive because underneath all the Empire jingoism, there’s a sensitive, melancholy, perceptive person, who was almost certainly mindfucked horribly by his environment. People tend to forget he was born in India, was often mistaken for being ethnically Indian due to his dark complexion, and that his first language was Urdu (until his boarding school beat it out of him). I’m sure he internalised a lot of that racism. It’s no excuse, but I do think it’s context. When I read The Mother Lodge I see glimpses of that Kipling, the Kipling I really love. But then I read The White Man’s Burden, one of the most stupid and toxic things ever put to paper, and I wonder how the same guy could’ve written it.

Ultimately I try to think of him the way I think of pals who’ve gone alt-right. They’re not my friends for as long as they believe that nonsense, but I still like the person underneath it, and if they ever unfuck their minds I’d be happy to call them friends again. Unfortunately Kipling died before he ever had the chance to unfuck his mind; I wish he’d got to learn something from WW1 and his son’s death and the subsequent diminishment of Britain and our place in the world – I think we’d be discussing a very different Kipling today if he had, and I think our culture would be richer for it. I’d certainly feel happier declaring myself a fan.

J: Your website certainly suggests you might dig the Steampunk vibe. When did you become aware of neo-Victorian fashion?

B: I think I’m mostly into the aesthetic and zeitgeist of that age more than the fashion (though I do love a well crafted suit!). What I really adore is that collision of craft and science and art and adventure that seemed so prevalent in the 1800s. I went to see an exhibit at the British Museum last year on Victorian marine chronometers – they were ultimately navigational tools, designed for commerce, no reason for them to be beautiful at all. But they were beautiful, made with love by craftsmen, from design to execution, all polished brass and elegance. And I love that idea of science and technology and aesthetics marrying up, and I think that early Victorian period was the last time that really occurred in any mass cultural way.

J:  We hear from the outside that the collapse of the music industry has made it virtually impossible to make your living as a recording artist. Have things been that dire from your perspective?

B: I think you hear right for the average musician, and I think things would be fairly dire for me if I relied on music to pay my bills. I’m quite lucky in that I’ve got got a straight job so I don’t have to do anything creative that I don’t want to. I do think the rewards at the top of the game are still probably very generous, but the real change has been in how much harder it is to get to that point. The collapse has basically wiped out all those mid level bands who might once have comfortably made a living on 20,000 records a year on an independent label. So unless you’ve already got an audience, or you can afford to live on no money for years at a time, that tier of mid level musicians is just not there any more. And that means the smaller venues are all shutting down, which means fewer bands to start with. It’s a real shame.

In my experience musicians nowadays either tend to be rich enough that they can afford to take the risk of failing, or they just don’t give a fuck. Those guys are the ones I have admiration for. They make barely enough money to live but they make their music and they record in local studios, they go out on the road and bring a crowd for the local promoter, make friends, play the show, get in the van, and roll on to the next town, and they don’t give a wet slap about anything else. I love that pioneer spirit, the faith and the graft and bravery of it, and I admire the fuck out of those dudes. Good on you hairy bastards.

J:  We’re one of a couple of podcasts that you’re providing some music to, for which we’re deeply thankful. What was it about BRASS that made us seem like people you’d like to work with?

B: I think I initially felt a bit of a kinship with you guys because we both tend to set our work in times and places which no longer exist (and perhaps never existed); and I like the sense of strangeness and melancholy that inspires. If I ever wrote a story I’d want to set it in 1950s small town America – I’ve obviously never been there but I’m in love with the aesthetic, and that always provides a fertile place for the imagination. I really like how your characters are acted, and how well drawn they are, and how you guys mix up media with performing online, on the podcast, and on stage. We’d never have been able to do that 30 years ago, and I’m amazed more creatives aren’t taking advantage of that. Like I always say on stage: it’s 2018 – let’s party like its 1899.

Listen to Benedict’s music at his website here.

One Comment on “Music from a Lost Empire: An Interview with Composer Benedict Edwards”

  1. Hi Benedict,
    Greetings from Solomon, Bangalore, India
    happened to listen to few tamil songs that you have rendered and I must say: you nailed it
    the recent song that Maestro Ilaiyaraaja and Ananya Bhat duo who sang in the original movie Viduthalai was a neat replication from your end
    well done and all the best: you seem to have a liking to Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s composition

    He is a legend and every south Indian likes his works, he has followers across the Globe and as you might be aware he has composed for 1500 films

    Also my 2 elderly daughters have started liking your tamil song rendition

    Betting you a great day


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