Pop culture tends to have a romantic notion of the diligent solo artist toiling away at his or her art in tragic, typically substance-fueled solitude.
Relatively recent New Orleans transplant Benjamin Booker flirted with this narrative himself, recording his acoustic debut EP Waiting Ones alone in his parents’ Florida home.
However, Booker was exposed to punk music by going to shows with friends in his native Tampa. He found that social aspect of music just as prevalent as a newcomer in New Orleans, where Booker quickly immersed himself in the local punk scene, attending numerous shows at Siberia and the Allways Lounge.
This led to his friendship with many notable local musicians, particularly Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff.
“The bands in New Orleans really took me under their wing,” Booker reflects. “My first show was in New Orleans. People were really nice and offered me shows regularly so I could get some practice in because they knew I hadn’t been playing for very long.”
This chance to cut his teeth in a live setting is what led to Booker’s raw, vibrant, stellar self-titled debut: Benjamin Booker has the crackle of a band energetically knocking out tunes in a room with no slick studio trickery. To Booker, capturing that live energy was a necessary part of the process. “I didn’t want the record to feel different from the live shows,” he explains. “What’s most important to me are the shows where I’m with the audience and we’re having a good night. So when I made the record that was the sound I wanted.”
The notion of music as a good time shared with others has always been a part of Booker’s musical identity—even if he started playing nearly by accident. “When I was around 14, I got into a performing arts school,” Booker recalls, “but I didn’t have any focus. I picked orchestra as an elective I had to take, and I ended up enjoying it.”
He received a guitar for Christmas that year and never looked back, eventually attending punk shows with his skateboarding friends. Booker became absorbed in the subculture and began piecing together guitar chords to write punk songs.
Although his origins are in punk, Booker’s music today mixes early rock ’n’ roll, R&B, and blues into an invigorating palette. Album opener “Violent Shiver” features a Chuck Berry-lifted riff before exploding into a Tim-era Replacements punk romp, while “Kids Never Grow Older” builds a wobbly guitar into a melding of Motown ballad and country dirge. Genre jumping even takes place in the same song, as “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” starts as a delicate indie ballad before morphing into a rockabilly shuffle. Meanwhile, “Have You Seen My Son?” rides a Ramones groove before taking a psychedelic detour that sounds like Black Sabbath melting a Jimi Hendrix action-figure in a microwave.
However, Booker’s mix of disparate genres comes from a decidedly unsocial experience: listening to the radio while working in a cubicle. “When I moved to New Orleans, I had an office job,” he explains, “so I would listen to WWOZ all day long.” Where some may see a unique soundtrack for work, Booker saw an opportunity to create his own sound. “I listened to a lot of the Louisiana R&B stuff on those shows that I haven’t really heard before,” he remembers, “so that kind of thing worked its way into the songs I was writing.”
While the genres that influence Booker may seem unrelated, he sees a unifying thread in the social aspect of the music, particularly once he started playing with a band. “When we started playing electric shows, we played at Mimi’s, which is a smaller venue, but I loved the social aspect of it,” says Booker. “It can be a blues club or a punk club. It really just comes down to community and being close to the fans and getting to know people after the show, instead of playing on a 10-foot stage.”
Booker now has his share of experience playing on 10-foot stages, and it appears he will be performing on them for the foreseeable future. He recently toured with Jack White and has appeared as musical guest for David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. Having just wrapped up a U.K. tour, Booker will be touring for most of next year, with a spot at the Voodoo Music Experience along the way.
Yet, Booker is still on the lookout for new inspiration. “I like a lot of Afro-beat or music from the Bahamas or shoegaze,” Booker says. “If it’s weird stuff I enjoy, I always want to find a way to incorporate it into my music.”
With the days of recording alone in his parents’ bathroom behind him, Booker is taking his time with the music he’ll produce next. “Things come together slowly,” he explains. “You have some lyrics and some guitar parts and some melodies. When things feel right and I have time off from touring, I’ll start to put them together.”