Radical Face, one of the many monikers of Ben Cooper, began as a small side project but has since evolved into Ben’s primary endeavor. We caught up with Ben to talk about some of the immense trials and tribulations he’s faced in the past year and how these hardships deeply influenced his new record The Family Tree: The Leaves. The Leaves is the third and final album in the Family Tree saga, a series of interconnected albums that follow a fictional family tree throughout its history and also contains some of the very real, personal struggles Ben has faced over the course of the project. The original idea of three short albums quickly grew to an immense project of 44 different songs which spanned across eight years.
The Leaves finds Ben experimenting with new sounds that we haven’t heard from Radical Face in the past such as synths, wind instruments, a heavier reliance on full drum kits and even the occasional section of electric guitar wrapped in heavy reverb. Full of spiraling strings, melancholic acoustic guitar melodies and choppy percussion, the new Radical Face album impresses on every front.
Indie Current: How does it feel to finally be completed with this massive project that spanned three albums and five EPs and eight years?
Ben Cooper: Probably just relieved. It’s funny, anytime you work on something for so long you don’t really end with fireworks and fanfare. Usually, if anything, you’re a little relieved and then sort of displaced. Like when you’ve been thinking about the same shit for eight years, now there’s just like this void (laughs). It’s kind of just like you don’t really know what to do with yourself. Luckily there’s a lot of other work to do so I’ve been focusing on that, but artistically speaking, yeah just kind of a void and I don’t really know where I’m headed now. It’s both exciting and also a bit weird.
IC: Yeah definitely, after 8 years it must be difficult to try and shift your mindset to something new.
BC: Yeah and at this point I just know I don’t want to do anything that takes 8 years or is interconnected (laughs). I’m pretty good with that one I think.
IC: How would you describe this new album to someone who isn’t familiar with your work and doesn’t know the story behind The Roots and The Branches?
BC: I would say, I don’t know. It’s actually a little hard for me to separate them at this point. Even just musically it’s been a real slow evolution of similar ideas so it’s one of those things where I don’t really know what it would sound like to someone just coming in now. I’ve always hoped the records can exist on their own or even the songs. I wanted them to all be interconnected, but you (the listener) don’t have to. It’s totally up to you. So my hope is that it just sounds like a nice record, you know, just with bummer lyrics.
IC: Well I think even though all the songs are all interconnected and tell this evolving story I think they take on their own meaning to each different listener.
BC: That’s good, that’s the hope. I’m not delusional enough to think that a lot of people are going to want to sit down and figure out how 44 songs relate to each other. That’s a particular listener that would find that interesting, I think most people just want something to add to a playlist and hopefully it works in both forms.
IC: The interactive map you created for the Family Tree is a great way of tying together each song and its corresponding story. Why did you decide to create a map as opposed to, say, a classic genealogical chart?
BC: I think partly because I’m a fantasy nerd. I like a lot of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones books and I used to play a ton of RPGs like the early Final Fantasies and stuff and it’s funny because it did originally start as a tree and it was going to be a big genealogy chart but it was going to get a little complicated when the songs have a bunch of cross material where one person was only loosely related to someone else and when I started drawing all the arrows over the genealogy chart it was just a mess. I thought it wasn’t going to read very well. So we started talking about it and we were like, well, [this is a] map of how the record would work and I took that literally and I think it just made more sense. So it started traditional, but wound up where it did.
IC: Does the path that’s followed through each song represent the moving families, or did you just think this was the most effective way to get the stories across to the listener?
BC: Originally I was trying to have it somewhat based on the real geography of like if people were really traveling to the west and stuff like that, and I did a few of those little things in there, but again when I tried to laid it out in a more literal way things were too clustered in one spot. My first draft was going to use a map of America and use the actual locations but I couldn’t find a way to display it that worked well. And then there’s the weird fantasy bullshit all throughout, so I was like ahh I don’t need a real map.
IC: Each album covers a distinct period of time in history and some of the themes and sounds from the album are reflective of this. For example you’ve said that The Roots covered 1800 to 1860 and the album is mainly made up of acoustic instruments. Moving into The Branches (1860-1910) where electricity was being introduced and the industrial revolution was taking place, your production featured more electric guitar and metal sounding percussion. What period does The Leaves cover, and how do you feel the themes and music of this album reflect that?
BC: Well it goes up until a little after World War II, so it pushes about 1950. And as far as using it for context, I think with this one you’re getting into photography and film and other forms of media. Another element to all this was the first record was trying to incorporate verbal story telling, you know, just like oral tradition and I tried to write with that in mind. Then the second record was mostly letters, people writing letters to each other in some form or diary entries. This last one I tried incorporating this cinematic thing, I wanted more sections that were just instrumental. Just trying to make it feel like a photograph or a little tiny picture where there is no singing so I tried to bring in more sonic story telling instead of just doing it so much lyrically. I always wonder if it’s even noticeable it’s just one of those things that help me organize ideas because you need to have some framework.
IC: You’ve often mentioned that music is like a form of therapy for you and that many of the songs from the Family Tree trilogy have parts of your life hidden in them as a way of coping with some of the hardships you’ve experienced. Now that the trilogy is complete, do you feel like you have some closure or at least have come to terms with some of these hardships in your life?
BC: Well the weird thing about this last record is that over the course of making it my own family reared its head in a big and ugly way. Without going into too many gory details, this last year while making the third record, I had family members come to me about some sexual abuse that had been hidden by other family members. I ended up adopting my niece and I was a witness in a court case against people who I grew up with. You know, just all really bad stuff. But it’s funny, because I was actually starting to feel like I was getting resolution on a lot of things and the original ending of this last record was actually much more optimistic, but it turned out the exact opposite. So the big change that happened while making it is that almost half of this last record is very much my own story. I am the narrator, there is no character. It’s just very, very direct about things that have been happening. So closure, no not yet. I’m working on that but initially I thought I was. I was like, yeah I’m feeling better about all this, but turns out it was way worse than I thought.
IC: That’s definitely not something you can prepare for.
BC: No. And it just happened in such a big and ugly way. At this point I don’t have contact with most of my family and I had to sell my house and move so no one knows where we are. Last year has just been really shitty, there’s no way around that but I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Before I was dealing with this through fiction and for the first time in my life things got to the point where something feels dishonest about putting it into something else. I need to address it directly, but now that I’m done with that there’s always a little catharsis in getting it out. I would say there’s some songs I will never play live. I don’t think I’ll touch them again. A little too uncomfortable. I can do it in [when recording], but touring you need to do it every night. So I was like, no I’m not thinking about that every night, I’m good.
IC: I’m really sorry to hear that. I know you mentioned you went through a dark and unusual period in your life, but I never quite imagined that, again I’m sorry to hear that.
BC: Yeah none of us did, but we’re getting to the other side where there’s a lot of shining moments. My niece/daughter is awesome. I’m not upset she came to me. And the people I still have contact with are great.
IC: It’s really good she has someone like you to come to.
BC: Oh yeah. I was just in the position to do it and you gotta do what you can. It’s one of those things though as time moves on, it’s not what she thought was going to happen. And it’s not where I thought I was headed, but it surprises you in all kinds of ways. It’s tough at times, but it’s also really awesome and fulfilling. I definitely never thought I was going to have kids. It was not in my plans at all. She’s 17 though so it’s not like she’s a little kid, I don’t know if I could handle that (laughs).
IC: How has the entire Family Tree evolved since you began the project?
BC: I did a lot of the writing in the first two years. And every record would always have at least two songs that were not planned, but the biggest surprise in all of it was that I didn’t expect it to become such a mirror. I just thought of it as a big form of story telling and I don’t think you can ever really write stories without putting yourself in to to some degree, but I just didn’t expect it to become such a consuming thing.
I didn’t think it would take eight years. I thought it would take 3 and I didn’t think I was going to write 40-something songs. I thought I was going to write three little short records, five to eight songs a piece. But it just kept going and then it became so personal. I guess there’s no real way to do all of this stuff without kind of reacting to life as you go. Then even my taste has changed as times gone on so I guess you just never really know what you’re signing up for. A lot of times you just go with an idea and see where it takes you and this one definitely ran away with itself. For better or for worse, though, I don’t regret it.
IC: So with that said, do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?
BC: Yes and no. I set out to do something a little different and I accomplished the general idea. I wanted to do this thing where you can show evolution through sounds or mutating melodies, like a lot of those multi-generational books where you can see the decisions of the former generation affecting everyone after. I think I got that element across, but the way it happened was not the original plan so yeah a bit of both. Yes and no.
IC: I’ve found many of your songs either deal with leaving home for good–whether by choice or through a consequence of action (“Winter is Coming”, “Wandering”, “A Pound of Flesh”)–or staying in one place for the majority of their lives (“Always Gold, “The Moon is Down”). Do you think this is a theme that has surfaced in your own life, or is it something you just enjoy writing about?
BC: It’s almost like the concept is one we are always reacting to. Even if you’re not sure where it is, I think you tend to yearn to find it. If you know where it is you’re responding either positively or negatively, but it’s always there. Even for myself, I got kicked out of my house when I was 14, and I worked full-time to get through high school and stuff. So I’ve had times both where I feel I stayed too long like my gut was telling me it was time to move on, but I didn’t. Then I’ve also had it forcefully removed and both of them were their own thing and both are sort of fascinating. I think I write about both a good bit because I guess they’re both personal.
IC: When you say you’ve stayed too long do you mean where you were living or where you work?
BC: Yeah all of it. Sometimes you’re in a spot that functions even though you don’t really believe in it or care about it anymore, but it’s comfortable and everything in you is telling you that you need to move from it, but you don’t because it functions well enough. A lot of times though those things tend to crash and burn, they don’t usually last anyways you just draw it out. I think you’re either surprised when it goes away or for me at least I always knew it wasn’t going to last anyways. I just didn’t want to deal with it yet. I think we all do it at some point. I think its part of being a person. It’s hard to know and you want to be sure, but then you look back and are like ‘I knew for years I just didn’t want to deal with it’. But that’s cool, we just try again and each time we get a little better at it in theory.
IC: Recently, you teased that you and Alex Kane have been working on new music again. Can we expect to hear some new material from Electric President anytime soon?
BC: Yeah. We’ve already started and we’ve recorded a lot of ideas, but we have a couple songs that are pretty sure. Then once I’m done with all the current stuff what we’d like to do is–I think I’m reacting to doing such a long term project but–we would like to work together and record a song and then when we’re done put it up immediately. We don’t want to sit on it until we have this big finished record. Just kind of show our work as we go and then down the road when we have enough material up we can press the vinyl of whatever people want material of. Almost like a mixtape, put ten up to a vote or something along those lines. We want to do something that’s immediate and I told him (Alex), I want to do something that is totally not interconnected, meaning let’s just make a song we want to make and then go to the next song and every song is fresh.
That’s our plan and once I have some free time again after the tours I’m going to get back into those projects. I would love to have less of a space between releases because when you finish a record, a lot of times it doesn’t come out for another six or twelve months. I would love to do something that does not have that space, like you can just finish it and get it off your plate. So that’s our goal and we’ll be self-releasing it through my own little record label (Bear Machine Records). It should be simpler and hopefully more fun. I think that’s where I want to get just back to having fun with everything and less planning.
IC: With that in mind, what do you think is next for Radical Face?
BC: I actually don’t know. I’d like to go back to the drawing board. Stylistically, even in terms of what I make release-wise. Right now, EPs seem a lot more fun than big albums that take years to sort, and again I’m reacting to what I just did, but I really think I’m going to try some smaller more exploratory things and have them out faster and more immediate. Then once I get all of that out of my system, I’ll probably be a little more balanced again, but yeah right now the most exciting thing to me sounds like writing an EP of three or four songs.
Stream the new Radical Face record, The Family Tree: The Leaves, below.