There’s a lot to tackle when you record an album. First and foremost, there’s the music, a side of creative work that you want to sound as perfect and succinct as the songs do in your head. Then come the lyrics, which should not only be phrased as succinctly as possible, but deliver so that the listener can interpret them as you please. For artists like Benjamin Booker, the New Orleans-based musician who’s been carving his name in the blues rock scene since 2012, it takes time.
After finishing his self-titled debut LP in 2014, Booker took a brief break to focus on writing new material. Usually, he tries to jot it all down with an acoustic guitar in hand. This time around, he could tweak the lyrics, rewrite sections, and deepen the economic process of writing a record by trying new moves in the studio. Then he brought on Shawn Everett, the Grammy-winning music engineer known for his work with everyone from Alabama Shakes to Perfume Genius, to handle mixing. Booker’s follow-up record, this year’s Witness, finds his modern take on vintage blues rock reflecting on a not so vintage reality of life: racism in America. Everett’s mixing manages to bring that darkness to a new level.
“I’m proud that it’s a cohesive album. It really is. We went in with the idea of telling a story with the album. That’s why at the beginning you have songs working into other songs. Even lyrically, it’s set up in a linear fashion,” Booker says of Witness. “On top of that, [Everett] is a whiz kid. Really, he makes everything sound cool, but I had to work with a sound guy to figure out how to do that live [laughs]. I didn’t know how to translate that live. It’s been a lot of taking songs apart and figuring out the best way to replicate it live.”
To dig deeper into the album’s themes before Booker unveils them in their live formation at the Sinclair, we interviewed him for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask bands questions inspired by their song titles. Of course, he was just as chill as the casually cool ’tude his music gives off.
1) “Right On You”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the best description of you a friend has ever summed you up with?
BOOKER: Oh, people call me a young black Larry David. I think I can be a grumpy man. That’s the one that I get the most, because I get ostentatious. I’m a bit too Curb Your Enthusiasm. I watched it before, and I’m really excited it’s back.
DIGBOSTON: When you’re feeling particularly down or exhausted, what do you do to cheer yourself up?
BOOKER: Occasionally I’ll smoke weed [laughs]. I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to figure that out. I like to read or just go out into nature. Me and my girlfriend have been taking more trips. We went to Yosemite and got a cabin there. I’m living in a bigger city now—Los Angeles, you know—so it’s nice to get out to the quiet and go on hikes. Nothing too crazy.
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever witnessed a miracle, however you want to define that?
BOOKER: I don’t know if I have. I’ve seen a lot of probably fake miracles growing up in the church. There’s a lot of people laying hands on other people and them automatically feeling better. Southern evangelical vibe. It’s strange—I took part in it then—but it’s weird to look back on now because I don’t believe in that much. It seems like nonsense. I definitely believe that the world is probably more than we think it is. But yeah, I believe in things hidden behind the scenes.
4) “The Slow Drag Under”
DIGBOSTON: Do you have trouble falling asleep?
BOOKER: I do have insomnia problems. That’s how I also got my medical marijuana card in California. That has its perks. I usually stay up pretty late, though, but it’s nice because it’s the best time for me to work. I don’t mind it too much. Luckily if you’re a musician, then you’re free to do that thing late at night. I’m usually in my head a lot and anxious, so it’s hard for me to get out. I’m thinking about meditating actually.
5) “Truth Is Heavy”
DIGBOSTON: Name two truths about yourself that were, or still are, hard to accept.
BOOKER: Nelly just got accused of sexual assault. I was arguing with the band about it because I refuse to believe that’s true. I’m taking Nelly’s side on this one. I don’t know. He seems like a stand-up guy! But I’m waiting for all the evidence to come out because obviously that drastically changes things when there’s facts.
DIGBOSTON: Is there anything you believe in that most people don’t?
BOOKER: There’s things that make life easier but I don’t really believe in anything. So maybe that makes me different? Last year, I really started getting into philosophy and literature. The more I think about it, the more I realize we have rules in life but that they’re all made up. People are just wandering around. I don’t really believe in anything. It could be a bummer place to be at, thinking that way, but I find it to be freeing. You realize you don’t have to do anything. Getting great success? After a while you just realize why bother. Or maybe I’m just becoming an old man. This is the Larry David thing kicking in [laughs].
DIGBOSTON: What was your first job?
BOOKER: My first job was at a science museum in Florida called the Museum of Science and Industry. I worked there for probably four years. I was not about it towards the end, but they refused to fire me. It was insane. They would call me three hours after I was supposed to show up. I remember once I finally just said, “Guys, just fire me.” The lady responded saying, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” They refused to get rid of me! I love that place, though. I think it was because we were all really close. Even if you’re in love with the museum, you’re dealing with 5-year-olds all day. There’s no pressing issues to get to, so me being late didn’t matter.
8) “Off the Ground”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever gone on a hot air balloon before?
BOOKER: I haven’t. I’m not very good with heights. Definitely not my thing. But I think I would try an air balloon maybe. Sometime? Probably not. Nevermind, it’s too much [laughs]. I had a problem with planes for a very, very long time. I think only this year have I gotten better at flying. Usually if I have one glass of wine, I’ll feel better, but now I stopped drinking. You also can’t have wine every time you get on a plane. I had to deal with it and accept it’s going to happen. It just seems like the worst way you could possibly die. Maybe worse than in a hot air balloon because you fall quickly. How long does it take a plane from 35,000 feet to hit the ground? Forever! That’s too long. I want to go quick, so that’s not for me.
DIGBOSTON: What’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?
BOOKER: My answer is so boring: a couch in college. Those couches are terrible. Really, the worst. But yeah, I hit the gym for a little bit and then stopped going. They have gyms at the hotel, but then you end up with a bunch of sweaty gym clothes and I don’t want to deal with that [laughs].
10) “All Was Well”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your happiest moment of this year so far and when was it?
BOOKER: Earlier this year, I did a benefit show for the Dakota Access Pipeline in Los Angeles. Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio was hosting the benefit. That’s my favorite band! It was great. Stuff like that is cool because you get to meet your heroes, which is always nice. It was a very happy moment indeed.
BENJAMIN BOOKER, SHE KEEPS BEES. FRI 10.20. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/ALL AGES/$22. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM