Jennifer Pickrell

YA Writer

Interview with Ben Deily

1 Comment

First of all, I want to mention Varsity Drag’s new album, “night owls,” that was released in November.  I’ve been listening to it and I particularly like your musical interpretation of Joseph Lease’s poem, “Hammer.” 

Thanks very much. Apparently, Joseph likes it, too, so we got that going for us. 🙂 That tune had an interesting path to the record, in that although we recorded a full-band version of it with Tom [Hamilton], we were never happy with it—even multiple-mixes in to the process. We ended up using the original demo I had done alone in our basement, with me playing all the instruments and recording on the laptop. Ha!

The music and the band:

You had a record release party on January 15, 2010 in Boston for “night owls.”  How did the party go?

Loads of fun. We had people coming in from all over, including one friend who flew all the way from San Francisco, so that was awesome. We also got a write-up in the Boston Globe the day of the show, which was a piece of good PR karma. (They called “night owls” “…a nervy, brisk bolt through a set of tunes whose crisp sound and bittersweet temperament pre-dates the alternative rock that would morph into ‘grunge’–but thankfully post-dates it, too.”)

We really tried to pull out all the stops—we made a bunch of gift bags that we gave away from stage, had cool little envelopes with cards and download codes and little owl stickers and the like. We even got the girl at the door to use an owl stamp when people came into the club. We also had a t-shirt giveaway to benefit a dog rescue organization, and some guy just walked up and wrote us a donation check for them. Nice crowd.

Varsity Drag recently finished up a U.K. tour – any plans for a U.S. tour?

Unfortunately, nothing concrete. Fact is, our label doesn’t even have US distribution at the moment, as far as I know, since Lumberjack Mordam went bust…I know in the internet age it shouldn’t make a difference, but it kinda does. Also, we’ve never done any real—OK, any at all—press or radio promotion anywhere outside of Boston. So we’d kinda have to get that rolling before we’d have any way of realistically trying to go cross country.

Also, of course, our dear Josh [Pickering, drummer] has told us that post-UK, he doesn’t plan on ever touring again. “I had a great time, and now I’m done.” Hrmph. So Lisa and I would have to either recruit fresh blood or rig up a machine, or something.

I dunno, I certainly wouldn’t rule out that last one.

I did a little digging to try to find the meaning behind the name “Varsity Drag,” but I didn’t have much luck.  Any chance it has anything to do with the dance from the 1920’s? 

Yeah, it’s a number from a musical called “Good News” from 1927…one of a bunch of collegiate “dance crazes” from the 20s. Let’s all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born!

Actually, its origin as a band name candidate was that at the time some of us were wracking our brains for a name—always a fun parlor game, as I’m sure you know…I was looking through a vintage black & white stock photography book that showed a dancing couple in 20s garb with the caption “Varsity Drag.” Two simple words. I took one look at it and, and thought, damn, that would make an awesome band name. Hope no one’s taken it yet!

It seemed to sum up both facility at/dedication to something, while acknowledging it as a pain-in-the-ass. Not just a drag: a varsity drag. Rock and roll is such a hassle, after all.

Mainly, though, I just thought it sounded like it would look cool on a t-shirt. Or announced during a segue on college radio: “Um…so…that was…Varsity Drag, with…a tune off their latest EP…”

(My grandma Natalie, of course, does know “the varsity drag.” We’ve sung it together a few times.)

You started out in the music industry in the mid 1980’s (as co-founder of The Lemonheads), but left to complete your college degree (at Harvard, no less).  You’ve had a successful, award-winning career in advertising.  When you started in the music business, you were essentially just a kid.  Now you are a self-proclaimed, “regular ol’ grown-up type, professional person.”  How has adulthood changed the way you view music – do you view it as a second career, hobby, calling…?

If anything, I guess, growing up has taught me the value of music. It’s a precious thing to have the opportunity to write and play songs that you enjoy, that feel like they really capture something that you couldn’t express any other way. And when they mean something to other people, well, that’s just gravy. It’s really incredibly fulfilling.

When I was younger—and waaaaaaaaay, way more (OK, too) serious—I used to think it was just sort of a silly thing. “Songs, music, punk rock—big deal.” People don’t always understand what I’m talking about, when I try to explain this…I guess because it had seemed relatively effortless to write and make music—compared to, say, writing a sonnet—and because I didn’t really come from a background that valued something ephemeral like pop music.

Becoming a poet, or a literary critic, or a scholar—now THAT was something worthy of a grown man’s time and attention. [Rolls his eyes at younger self.] Even a respectable and creatively fulfilling job like an advertising guy, or a journalist—that would be almost as good. (What can I say? I was young. Anyone who’s ever been around ‘em knows how teenage boys can be: sooooo earnest and humorless!)

But to be (or aspire to be) a “rock star”? How—what’s the word I want—embarrassing? 🙂

(This is typically the point at which I lose people. Sigh. All I can say is, I guess you’d have to have grown up as me, in my family, in my corner of the world, to know what I’m talking about.)

It just seemed so…I dunno…self-indulgent, also, like when people declare themselves an “artist,” start smoking cloves, and stop washing their hair. What, just ‘cause you slapped some paint on something and started wearing black, you’re an “ah-tist” now? Those kinda people always pissed me off—probably because I was jealous, frankly, of how free and un-selfconscious they seemed…and music as something pursued seriously (or, god forbid, professionally) had seemed like the same kinda deal to me.

Anyway, much of my life later, now I realize what a gift it has been—and continues to be—to write music at all. And what a genuine source of self-expression it truly is. Not only that, but I have come to understand in the last 20 years that even if I haven’t always valued my music, other people have. That matters to me, too.

It means so much to have had the opportunity—even just a few times, or just once, in a human lifetime—to actually touch people with something you created: something that didn’t exist before.  And these days I’m profoundly grateful for that.

I’ve been checking out the reviews of “night owls” and it’s been called a “significant sonic step forward for Deily” (Clicky Clicky Music Blog) and “pop punk for grown ups.” (Collective Zine).  Did you set out with the intention of producing a more “grown-up” sound or was this just a natural evolution?

Hmph, yes—I’d say it was a natural progression since “for crying out loud.” At a certain point, I assembled the material that I figured would be the next album, saw that it had a certain unifying tone and theme—and said, “Holy crap: we’re making Creator all over again!” 🙂

That is, like the Lemonheads’ second record, which was dark and moody and musically more experimental—and obviously, like most second albums, all the more overlooked for it—it follows an album that was upbeat, poppy, totally accessible. Creator was also conceptually coherent…at least I always thought so. Man, we sweated the selection and the order of songs, and that sorta thing.

Oh well. Maybe this is the nature of the first record-second record relationship for me. Of course, it’s inevitably a letdown to the fans—bless ‘em—who say, “we want a new record….y’know, just like the old record.”

And of course meeting our neighbor Aliah (across the back fence) was just a serendipitous bit of music fate. Here we are, about to work up the new record, and it turns out the guy living in the house behind us is a conservatory-trained cellist—and an awesome musician—not to mention a fun, zany, neurotic and thoroughly loveable fella. We’re lucky to have him on board.

But anyway, the chance to incorporate strings on the record provided me with the chance for all kinds of arrangements I could never get with only guitar, bass and drums.

On a slightly personal note:

Your wife, Lisa, is the bass player (self-taught, awesome!) for Varsity Drag and also part of Radio Sandwich, the creative services consulting agency that you started with your brother, Jonno, who was a member of PODS (you all played during the early to mid-nineties, if my timeline is correct).  I am guessing family is very important to you? 

Well, heaven knows they’re hard to get rid of. 🙂 But seriously, one reason I moved back east was to be able to be physically closer to, and spend more time with, my various family members, siblings and multiple parents. I’m lucky in having an amazing family, full of talented, kind people…the sort you’d wanna be friends with even if you weren’t related. I know that’s rare.

(Fact is that while I try, but I still don’t see everyone in person as often as I’d like to—especially Jonno. The four kids and his travelling for music kinda takes him out of circulation a great deal of the time.)

You said in a 2006 Luna Kafe interview that you go on “obsessive kicks of listening.”  Any bands/songs have your attention right now?

Aimee Mann. The American Analog Set. Morrissey. They Might Be Giants. And Ipanema (labelmates of ours, featuring the late and very much lamented Wiz, one of whose songs we’re covering for the Boss Tuneage 20th Anniversary comp).

Ask me again in a few weeks, it’ll probably have changed!

You’re known as a songwriter, musician, copywriter…how about a poet?  I see from your website that you’re a fan of Yeats.  Any plans for a volume of your own? 

Funny you should ask. 🙂 As I mentioned, reminiscing about my overly-serious youth, I used to take pretty seriously the idea that I would pursue poetry as, I dunno, a vocation. Y’know: I pictured teaching myself English by day in an Ivy-covered boarding school and by night, slaving over my slim volumes of poems….

In a way, I kinda pushed myself into a place in my 20s where I became creatively gridlocked and/or seized-up as regards writing poetry: nothing was ever quite good enough, I was obsessed with formal rigor to the exclusion of almost every other consideration (everything else was “lazy,” of course, oi vey), and I felt my instincts chafing at the need to find expression that was somehow more…organic. More authentic. Whatever that means.

Maybe that’s why—lo and behold, hah—I always return to writing songs…words and music…and much more rarely to poems as such. I guess since it always seemed—again, seemed to my younger self—that there was less “at stake” in writing songs…after all, hey, it’s only rock & roll, right? And so I look back on 25 years or so, and I have a body of songwriting that I’m pretty pleased with, and only a very, very few poems that I still enjoy.

That having been said, I do still write bits and pieces of what passes for poetry here and there. Given the time and space, I do plan to return to it. I mean, Yeats didn’t really hit his finest stride until he was in his 60s, for crying out loud!  🙂

Gives a man hope for the future.

Finally…anything else you’d like to add?

Just to say thanks—your questions were truly kind. And to plug, where you can stream anything we’ve ever done, and download a fair amount of exclusive web-type stuff for free!

We’re gonna take a quick trip back to Tom’s studio soon to finish up 4 bonus tracks from the night owls sessions, as well as recording a tune for our label’s 20th anniversary compilation—so hopefully all that will yield a 5-song EP, which we hope to get up on the site as a free download sometime in the next month or two. Stay tuned!

P.S.: Oh, and as you may or may not have heard, Evan and I just did a little mini-set of Lemonheads oldies at SXSW last week…hoping to do that again sometime before too long. Plus ça change!


Author: Jennifer Pickrell

I write YA contemporary filled w/ romance, angst & family drama. Things I like: cats, snacks, baseball, green tea, taking pictures of trees & movies so bad, they’re good.

One thought on “Interview with Ben Deily

  1. Pingback: I watched scenes from the Goonies to motivate myself this morning « A Can of Corn or Something

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