"I’m not sat here listening to joyous music to get me through, it’s quite the opposite really" - Ben Langford-Biss
World, meet Bleak Soul.
Six months on from when he played his last chord in As It Is, Ben Langford-Biss is back with a new solo project. Written, played and recorded solely by Ben, debut release 'existential meditation.', released in full on May 22, is a collection of musings on the darker side of life, coated in plenty of distortion and dissonance.
We chatted to Ben about how Bleak Soul came to life and what his ambitions for the future are...
How long has the idea of a project like this been in your mind?
"I’ve been trying to do some sort of solo thing since I was about 14 years old when I saved up and bought an old 8-track recorder. Then I moved to uni and got swept into the band world, and doing anything remotely on my own got put on the backburner. All my writing contributions then would obviously go to the band.
"Ironically I think that all of this would have taken much longer if the whole world hadn’t shut down. It’s given me the time to really focus and finish this. I did have the concept of the project before the Coronavirus happened, but then it suddenly felt even more appropriate. Initially I thought that people weren’t going to want this super pessimistic, existentially questioning sort of record when everyone wants a bit of positivity. But I don’t think that’s right. I’m not sat here listening to joyous music to get me through, it’s quite the opposite really.
"Someone pointed out to me that I’m actually launching this 6 months to the day since my last As It Is show. That’s not intentional but it does feel nice and well-rounded. It’s quite a quick amount of time to turn something around the way that I have. I’ve had a couple of these songs written since I was in As It Is but I kept them for the future. I loved writing for the band, but it was nice to be able to write without having to think whether it was appropriate or whether somebody else liked it or not. Because the band was our career and the way that we sustained ourselves at that point, you had to take in to consideration what other people would think. It’s been nice to do something with zero pressure. I’ve done this for myself."
So what was the original vision for Bleak Soul and how did it develop?
"Well the first song I wrote for this ‘hangmedownhead’, which is essentially a song that’s about the running theme of dementia in my family. I have this dread and fear that I’m going to end up with it, as bleak as that sounds, and this was my way of writing about it,. Then that led to questions like ‘Well if I don’t have anyone to share my memories with, I don't really plan on having kids, what does any of this actually mean?’ Then that led to greater questions. In terms of existential thinking, I think it’s a bad idea to let teenagers read Albert Camus at school and I think it was a bad idea for my uncle to give me every Nick Cave album at 14, because it really affects the way that you think about the world. Then in recent times, you have the regression of things politically and the fact you can’t see any of the people trying to do something positive for all the noise. So everything just started falling together.
"At one point I didn’t even think I would ever actually release music. I was just happy writing songs but then when I had four or so together it became easier to flesh out the rest of it. The rest fell into place when I had the time when the world started falling apart."
So with how these songs are influenced by your surroundings, are they very personal or are they more conceptual?
"It’s a bit of both. A lot of the record is a collection of my darkest thoughts, whether those thoughts are tongue in cheek or satirical or not. When you’re working with an audience in mind, it’s easy to think that something could offend someone. There are a few lines that I was dubious to leave in, even on the artwork side of things too. It took a lot for me to say to myself ‘This is ok’.
"When I showed the record to my dad, he said ‘I just want to check that you are ok? These aren’t things that you are thinking?’ These are things that I have thought, whether seriously or not, but it’s a mixture of personal and observation."
What was it like working on these songs, in terms of writing, playing and recording, on your own then? What was it like watching these ideas and words come to life?
"It was pretty daunting. It was an ongoing process really. I’ve always been competent at self-recording. I got stuck in a rut for a while with my capabilities, but then I took a step back and told myself to just keep on learning. So every day I would be recording I would take the time to learn a new skill or a new scale.
"What was most interesting for me was things like when you look at a song like ‘Death Of A Stranger’, it fades out pretty abruptly. In the conventional sense if we were in with a producer, they would be saying ‘This song needs to go somewhere’. That song in particular is about seeing death via a pool of blood on Sunset Boulevard in LA and how that person’s life abruptly ended. So I was able to make the call myself to say how that song doesn’t need to actually go anywhere because of that. It can abruptly end too. Being able to make structural decisions was a really nice freedom to have."
In many ways that inconsistency within structure is very much similar to life. There’s no right or wrong way to go about existence, so there’s no right or wrong way to go about writing songs about it…
"Completely. I’ve done three records with three different producers and each one had a very different style and different working ethic. It was just amazing to me seeing the similarities that did span across all of them. Things like wanting a song to get a little bit of radio play so not being able to just do a fadeout. Though you have a band like the Smiths where every song on an album had a fadeout. I’m bringing the fadeout back!"
You mention The Smiths, and it’s clear how bands such as them have had a certain influence on you with how this project looks and feels. Where else have you been drawing inspiration from?
"I feel like one of my main points of reference has been Eels. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for a long time. A lot of people are like “Oh they did that song for the Shrek soundtrack’ but they’ve got 11 albums. Then there’s being really into Beck. Also a lot of this came from Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’. I think it’s been quite a while that I’ve listened to anything remotely pop-punk, or whatever you want to call it. My tastes have evolved in that way. You know, whenever someone asks me to describe what this project actually sounds like I just say ‘A kid who grew up on emo music and now just really likes Nick Cave’. The morbidity of all those artists, there’s something about it that I’m just attracted to. I don’t know what that says about my personality traits!"
"Also, the reason I love Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ so much is the storytelling, and that’s something that I really want to explore even more in the future. It’s something that we attempted when we wrote ‘The Great Depression’ as we essentially wrote a story. I really want to elaborate on those things further."
So what effect has having this project there to work on had on you after coming out of the fast pace of band life?
"I think it’s the feeling of that first time you ever write something and you’re proud of it when you’re younger. With the band I mainly grew tired of touring, and a lot of that stemmed from the fact I missed that initial aspect of it all. It became about sustaining the business and going out on tour to just survive, especially with a band of our size it was the only way you can stay afloat. Though when everything started, it was just me making music in my bedroom on my own and I started to miss that. It’s been a really refreshing feeling.
"I am finding it quite daunting putting something out that is just on me rather than sharing the weight of it with four other people. It’s this new level of anxiety, which is why I didn’t want to do some long roll-out. Just put it out when it’s ready, and that’s the ethic I’m going to have moving forwards."
So what does Bleak Soul look like as you move forwards? Is it a case of scratching the itch as and when you feel the need to?
"Yeah, I doubt that this will be the only thing that I put out this year. There will be things that I save for an album and there will be things that I want to put out immidietely in small two song collections. Not having to wait five months to put out a record after you’ve finished it and still feel that excitement is another part of this freedom."
And with the way that circumstance has dictated that you make this record, how has that influenced you in terms of what future recordings look like? Will you always do everything yourself? Is there possibility for collaborations with producers or other artists?
"I think that the bedroom grit really suited these songs and I think it was important for me to do something that was 100% me. The only thing that I haven’t done on this record is the horn part because I can’t play trumpet. I think moving forwards I’ll stick it out alone. A lot of it will depend on how things go and what the support is like. There are so many people I’d love to work with though. I do see Bleak Soul being this thing similar to Eels where it’s just Mark Oliver Everett but people come in and out. I’m not strict on it just being me being the only person who does anything in this project."
You can pre-order 'existential meditation.' on vinyl from HERE