Radical…Face: An Interview with Ben Cooper at Newport Folk Fest

When an artist you just witnessed melt hearts and tear stages apart asks you to make his portrait in a port-potty…well, in this case I happily oblige. Ben Cooper and his project Radical Face is something of an enigma. An 8 year project of records that span the history of Cooper’s family. Deep and pensive writing, but an indie rock n’ roll attitude. I didn’t know what to expect in talking with Ben after his set. What I got was what felt like chatting with an old pal about music and good tunes. Ben is a funny and kind fella with a work ethic beyond most and what I imagine is the patience of a saint (did I mention his album project spanned 8 years?).

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The Radical Face website goes deep into the mythology of the project and you can really sink you teeth into what its all about…I suggest you do that. But for now, here’s our interview with Ben Cooper of Radical Face.

RLR: This whole project must have taken its toll and a significant amount of your patience. Its 8 years running. The website is fantastic in explaining and bringing folks through the story, but if you could sum it up. What was the purpose and your deeper reasoning behind it? 

Ben: Well it all started…probably the easiest thing to trace is that I wanted to be a writer when I got out of high school. Thats what I wanted to do. I wrote a couple of books and they were on my first computer and I didn’t back it up. I had a hard drive crash and I lost them both. So thats why I am a musician now…but I have always enjoyed storytelling and I wanted to write a family saga because I come from a very large, dysfunctional one. So, its always been interesting for me to read books like Steinbeck and Marquez and stuff. So yeah, the idea was really like what if I used that concept in music form. Have generations and those are records. Originally it was just going to be like 3 little EPS and it turned into like 44 songs because I guess I have a lot of baggage.

RLR: I got a little chuckle about the “bastards” concept. How about those tracks?

Ben: Yeah, yeah (laughs). I just really kind of thought that was funny. I mean whenever you are making a record, or when I am, I come up with excess.  I don’t know what is going to go on the album. I am really picky about how things flow into the next thing. I ended up doing songs I was really happy with but they just didn’t make it into the album, thematically. So, they were just kind of the family bastards.

RLR: I read on your site about how you feel in the music industry today, how distribution is easier and its easier to get stuff “out there”. Even now vinyl sales are up, so people are out there consuming music and arts. Do you feel that is liberating in any way as an artist or does it make it more difficult to kind of filter through the shit? Or be found amongst everything else that is now out there?

Ben: Hmmm, Both. In one way the thing that is cool is I have been getting a lot of ideas from, of all places, the rap world. Because they just put out whatever they want. Any collaboration, lets just do a song and then never do it again. Or theres no rhyme or reason and that to me is amazing. Like, just put up one song, thats is? I have been on this record track for so long that the idea of not being on it, allowing different ways to distribute it, and I am kind of thinking I could always press a vinyl. I can just collect things that happen over time. Like “heres a physical” if you want that. But, yeah I have been really into the idea of just running with things and seeing what happens. And there was a dude who put out three records in a year. I was like, what is that…this is great. If you write that much, just put it out.

RLR: So I guess going back to that collaboration aspect. Who would be a dream collaboration for you?

DSCF4082-EditBen: I am always a little funny about that idea because I like am a pessimist. So I figure that even if I really liked their stuff, who knows we might not get along. You get there and be like “oh man, I totally used to like your music but you’re an asshole, fuck this guy”. (laughs) It could totally shit on what I think of a person. So there is that part of me that is like “oh man, I love Tom Waits” but I probably couldn’t work with the dude. Right now I think I am just most excited to collaborate with friends. The guy who plays guitar with me live, we have never actually worked together. He always has his own bands and I have my own bands so we have never really written together. So I am really excited to try something with Jeremiah. Lets just make a song and see what happens and if its a horrible experience we will never do it again and stay friends.

RLR: So how about being at Newport. Who have you seen so far that really blew you away and who are you looking forward to seeing?

Ben: I was really bummed because the one I was most excited to see ended up playing at the same time. I really wanted to see The Violent Femmes. They are like you are going on at 3:10 and they are going on at 3:20. I didn’t get to see them. I was super bummed. I only got to see so far, like 2 sets. I got to see some of Flight of the Conchords and they are like almost one of those annoyingly natural performer types. I was all like “this is like no effort for you”. They just show up and kill it. And then, who was the other one.? She reminded me of Dolly Parton. Margo Price, that was really good.

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