Benjamin Finger‘s album packaging is always creative. The cover and title of Woods of Broccoli caught our attention, as did the bird mobile made of piano innards that accompanied Listen to My Nerves Hum. The Bet has a fine cover as well, but this time, the music is the lead story. We’ve asked a few questions of the artist as well; be sure to scroll to the bottom to read the interview!
The Bet is meant to be played in full. Usually preview tracks provide an indication of what to expect from an album, but in this case they offer only glimpses of the whole. No single cut is representative of the whole; these ten pieces flow over the boundaries of their allotted time, cutting into the territories of the rest. Perhaps the best comparison might be to the type of chapter novel that one must keep reading, despite the breaks in prose. Imaginative journeys come to mind, ranging from the obvious (Alice in Wonderland) to the less so (the magical realism of Jan Kjærstad, from the artist’s native Norway). Dropping all pretext of verse-chorus-verse, the album swims in micro-melodies, snatches of texture and shifts of timbre. Field recordings, wordless vocals, and occasional beats all have their places, but the album is sequenced for a smooth flow. The album is also awash in complexity; the more one listens, the more one notices. Hidden voices come to the fore. Humble instruments peek from behind trees. Although it’s not from Iceland, it’s the best huldufólk recording in years.
The largest difference between The Bet and Listen to My Nerves Hum is density. Listening again to Listen to My Nerves Hum, one is struck by the dominance of the piano. At most points in the recording, one can separate the components of the mix: piano, fireworks, drums. In contrast, The Bet allows no single instrument to rule the roost. It’s as if a piano album were created, painted over, covered in glitter, dragged through the dust, half-scraped, partially drowned, rescued by otters and left on a rack to dry. Consistently imaginative and often playful, the album creates a sense of curiosity: what just happened, and what will happen next? Enveloped in the mix, one loses any desire to return home.
What colors did you hear when you were recording this record?
Not sure if I heard too many colours while making it, but I guess my first instinctive answer would be that I heard pretty dark colors, since I started recording the album in the fall when it gets quite dark up here in Norway…Having said that, I feel like the record opened up for more brighter colours the longer I worked on it. It´s an album I spent quite some time with, in the sense that I went a couple of rounds in the ring with each of the tracks. And things changed during the process, elements were deleted or added, vocal ideas popping up, etc.. After having recorded the skeleton I kept trying different things to see how I could incorporate new elements that would somewhat lift or change the track in an interesting direction. I guess you could call it sound painting in a weird kind of way.
In terms of this album, what is the significance of the painting on the cover?
The significance of the cover in terms of the album is a very private one. I downloaded the painting a long time ago simply because it appealed to me from the very first time I discovered it, as with a lot of the other paintings by the Norwegian painter Christer Karlstad (www.christerkarlstad.com). I had the painting lying on my computer for over a year before I started recording the album. Then one day I looked at it again and decided to put it on my desktop. And that´s when things started to happen. I made up my own story after observing it every day. And ideas started to come to me. There´s no point going into the details since I´m a strong believer in that each individual should make up their own stories, or analyses. I originally had intended another title for the album, but after having contacted Christer and spoken with him about getting the rights etc…I came to the conclusion that the name of the painting (The Bet) would be the best title. I was also afraid of destroying his vision of the painting. So i thought it would be fair to him to keep the original title. A funny fact about the painting is that only one copy exists and that it was sold to a private collector a long time ago. So Christer was very helpful and contacted the buyer and a photographer and sent me the photography in high resolution later on.
Were you influenced by magical realism, and if so, what particular works were most influential?
I don´t believe I was inspired by magic realism on this album (although I have read a lot of magic realism in my younger days). I think I tend to drift more towards surrealism, modernism and abstract ideas, but placed in some sort of a system (Witold Gombrowizc, Thomas Pynchon and Julio Cortázar are some of my favourite authors). I kind of wanted to break away from the way I think an ambient/modern classical (or whatever we call it these days) record should sound like today. I´m a big admirer of so many different types of music and I somehow wanted many of those influences to shine through. Like there are elements of techno, hip hop and pop music there. At least that is what I´m hearing, but I´m not sure if the listener catches that, but I do hope so. It´s my firm belief that we still could do so many things with the concept of what a genre is.
Did you toy with different sequencing before placing the songs in their final order?
No, I didn´t really toy much around with sequencing on the album. This was one of those rare occasions where I really felt that the songs came to me in a way that felt right and natural. So the tracks were pretty much made in the order that you hear them. But what I did was to record some of the vocals later on (like the track “Nasal Breakdown” featuring Lynn Fister aka Aloonaluna). I think she did an amazing work layering her soft voice upon the piano chords. I hope to collaborate with her again on some on my future releases. Also, not to forget Inga-Lill Farstad who is always contributing with her very personal way of singing. I am very grateful having had the privilege to collaborate with her on most of my records. She never stops to amaze me with her vocal range. Some of the beats/rhythms were also created afterwards, I had to work a lot to make them fit into the compositions. Not sure if it works all the time on the album, but I like the raw, naked and underrepresented sound on some of them.
What sound on the album are you most pleased with?
Hm, that´s a really tricky and complicated question. That can really change from day to day, depending on my mood and all sorts of different things that affect me. But if I had to choose one; Today I feel really psyched and positive about the ending of the album. I like that the last song changes character in the end and glides over into another territory, a more electro and dubby feel I guess…I am thrilled about the sound of that passage. Can´t quite remember how I got there to be honest, haha. This ending is also in a way complimentary to the painting the way I see it. Because you choose different characters to focus on in the picture, and I made up small stories for each one of them. But whomever your focus is on, the character (boy or animals) sees something new, or something opens up. Meeting a new world perhaps? Or like an electric revelation in some sort of bizarre way. At least that´s how I like to think of that specific sound and passage. It is also a hint of what is to come next year when I will release a sequel to the album (with the working title: “Pleasurably Lost”). But I will be releasing a cassette at the great Digitalis (US) and a vinyl/cd album with Sellout! Records (NO) before that happens.
At the end of the video for “Nasal Breakdown”, the protagonist stares at a watery divide (nice reference to the label’s name, by the way), but it is not clear if she crosses or goes back the way she came. Is this open ending intentional? Given the choice of crossing or turning back, what would (or did) you do?
As for the open ending, it really corresponds with what I mentioned earlier about keeping things open to interpretations. Also to be quite honest, working with Super 8mm film as I mostly do (because I simply love the format) is an expensive affair so I have to plan all the shots in advance not to spill any tape on unnecessary footage. So yes, the open ending is intentional. Would I cross or turn back? Hm, I think I would cross actually, I would consider myself a coward turning back (feeling very brave today!). It would be just like trying to make the same record over and over again which is what I´m constantly trying to avoid.
A Closer Listen thanks the artist for his time and well-thought answers!