‘Ketamine – Von Universe 5’ by Von Wildenhaus | Interview
Exclusive premiere of ‘Ketamine – Von Universe 5’ by Seattle band Von Wildenhaus, a new EP out via Globos Records.
Ben von Wildenhaus has spent time in New York City and various cities around his current home in Tacoma, Washington. Since his DIY punk days, he has toured the world performing. He composes music for film, tv and games as well as performs, tour, and makes records with his Seattle, WA outfit Von Wildenhaus.
Von Wildenhaus, hailing from the fog-drenched Pacific Northwest, is an apocalyptic avant-pop lounge act, a bizarro rock and roll band as comfortable working in American folk idioms as covering Klaus Nomi. Ben Von Wildenhaus leads a cast of shadowy conspirators in conjuring this darkly sonorous music, most notably, the spectral presence of singer Billie Bloom, who delivers ecstatic melodies with fearless and riveting devotion that have found admirers in The Quietus and Iggy Pop.
“I really liked the idea of making a very chill and minimal soundscape, and then suddenly playing something really loud and scratchy over it to startle people out of the mellow zone”
You were growing up in Seattle? What was life like there? Tell us about your upbringing and what did you do as a young kid?
(Ben) Von Wildenhaus: I moved around the US a bit growing up – we followed my dad and his jobs. I reached the Seattle area around the age of eight. I was the youngest of four brothers. Being the 80s, me and my friends would just leave the house and go into the woods, build forts, explore, get into dangerous situations, that kind of thing. I was into skateboarding, but not as good as my friends. So when some of us found music we went that direction.
When did you first get interested in music? Was there a certain moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I took piano lessons with an elderly nun when I was six or seven. She taught me to play by ear. My mom made cassettes of the same track over and over again and I’d go to sleep listening to that. Then I’d be able to find the notes myself. It was a great way to train my ear, but I never got good at technique or sight reading. My big moment with music as a little kid was when I found my own song. I would practice the ones from the book and then play and develop this little simple song. It was a bit like a secret, and a lot like holding a kitten or a small bird. It’s still like that for me, holding a new song or even just the idea of a song or a melody fragment. The band is working on using that melody in a new piece.
If we would go back in time and visit your teenage room, what kind of records, singles, posters, books would we find there?
I had older brothers who sometimes got me on the cool shit. In elementary and middle school I loved Led Zeppelin. By the time I was twelve they had turned me on to the local Seattle stuff – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney. I saw Soundgarden and Sir Mix-a-Lot when I was eleven or twelve. I moved to Olympia, WA in 1991 and went to high school there. I pretty quickly got into what was going on there. I collected stuff from K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Estrus Records, Sub Pop, and then all the small label garage rock stuff I could find of Billy Childish, Jack O’Fire, and Man or Astroman? A year or two later I found Fugazi, Karp, and Unwound and I could go see these bands and they were normal, cool, supportive people. It really had an effect on me.
What was the local scene like for kids interested in music like back in your city? What clubs did you attend and what gigs did you see early on?
In Olympia in the early 90s the main venue was the backstage of the Capitol Theater. Every few months there would be a big show at the Capitol Theater like Fugazi and these K Records/Kill Rock Star focused festivals called Yoyo A Go Go. And then all the other days of the week there would be shows where you’d go in the backstage door and the band would play turned around on the stage, with the auditorium behind them, and the audience standing on the stage with them. It was an incredible time for Olympia and punk music, and my friends and I would be there twice a week. There was a thriving punk house scene happening too, and the adults were super inviting of us teenagers coming, so we’d go see (and also open with our band the Teamsters) shows with Unwound, Karp, Bikini Kill, Thrones, Fitz of Depression, Irving Klaw Trio, Lois, Some Velvet Sidewalk and touring bands like The Make-Up, The Champs, Blonde Redhead, Mecca Normal, Built to Spill/Halo Benders, and Rye Coalition. It was a perfect place at a perfect time. I had those flyers on my wall. Also a bunch of the collectables that Estrus Records would send out.
What led to the formation of Federation X?
Beau (the drummer) and I went to high school together and had a band called the Teamsters with Ian Vanek of Japanther and Howardian. We met Bill (the guitarist and singer) when we were teenagers through the Vanek family. Bill and a bunch of other punk teens would come to Olympia from Yakima (several hours inland from Olympia/Seattle) to see the shows that were happening. Out of high school all three of us ended up in Bellingham, WA a college town a couple hours north of Seattle by the Canadian border. We all loved Karp and shared what we considered an Olympia punk approach. We were interested in touring the US, so we wrote a set and drove to New York to play CBGBs in 1998. Then we just kept setting up more tours, putting out records, and playing as much as we could.
Were you in any other bands before that?
As teenagers, Beau and I were in the Teamsters with Ian from Japanther. We recorded with Calvin Johnson of K Records and Tim Green from Nation of Ulysses and the Fucking Champs. We put out a couple singles and tapes and toured to California with Karp when we were seventeen. I couldn’t have had a better scene to be a teenager in. We opened for Blonde Redhead and Unwound in a punk house basement.
‘We Do What We Must’ was released a decade ago and it’s your final album. Would love it if you could tell us the circumstances around it.
After we signed to Estrus in 2000, we released three albums and toured the US constantly and Europe, UK, and Israel. We toured non stop for years. After we returned from Israel and a second European tour we took a hiatus. Bill and I had moved to New York City and Beau was in Bellingham, WA. I played in a lot of other people’s bands at that time, playing piano, guitar, pedal steel, accordion, and then started doing the Ben von Wildenhaus thing. Around 2011, about 6 years after our last record we started jamming again, wrote a couple songs and eventually put together an album and started touring again. The idea was, if we were going to play shows we weren’t interested in playing only the old songs. As a band, we always believed in moving forward. So we recorded in Los Angeles with Deaf Nephews (Toshi Kasai and Dale Crover of the Melvins) producing. We did a lot of West Coast and East Coast touring around then, and then hung it up again. Bill is now based in LA and makes documentary films, shows and podcasts. I compose the scores for all of his films and projects. Beau is still a really good friend, and has put out unbelievable music as Zorbatron.
What initiated your solo career?
I was doing a series of recordings for an instrumental podcast in 2007-08, basically experimental recordings, melody fragments, improvisations. Soon I had put together the start of an album, which would be ‘Great Melodies From Around’. At the same time I was playing weekly at a tiny bar in my neighborhood. I would set up in a hidden corner and put the sound through the house stereo, and improvise for hours. No one knew I was there.
I was working on using a looper minimally, creating improvised but memorable melodies, and creating mellow soundscapes. At some point I moved that idea into some art gallery contexts. I really liked the idea of making a very chill and minimal soundscape, and then suddenly playing something really loud and scratchy over it to startle people out of the mellow zone. I love that contrast. It’s off-putting, but also pretty humorous and ultimately, I think, rewarding. There was a Neil Hamburger element to it, just coughing loudly into the mic and a lot of the melodies and noises were made by my mouth. But never lyrics. I did a US tour and a series of online videos with the artist collective House Plants, which are all online. I think those videos capture the humor.
How long did you work on your solo debut, ‘Great Melodies From Around’ from 2010?
Some of the recordings went back to 2007. I had a lot of cassettes filled with pianos from the music department at The Graduate Center – CUNY and random pianos throughout New York. Some of the tracks began as elements of the podcast, which was called Instrumental Quaalude (a lot of that material now lives on Free Music Archive). I used a bunch of the methods I tried out on the podcast and recorded the songs for GMFA in those ways.
Was there a certain concept you had in mind when working on it?
Yes, I wanted 2 seamless 22-minute sides to the record and cassette, where each song morphs into the next. I began with the concept that each side would begin with pure sine wave chords – totally pure in tone – and then the fidelity would degrade throughout each 22 minute side. So the sine waves become a decent recording of a piano, and then that is eventually replaced with a piano recording I made on a broken walkman, and then that is replaced by a recording I made by holding an even more busted tape player up to another one playing the piano recording. And for the songs, I had about a decade’s worth of instrumental melodies that each mean a lot to me. Especially the song ‘Benstrumental’. That was presented to me and I happened to catch it in the afternoon all at once in 2004. I’m very reverent of that particular melody. It’s timeless. My friend named it ‘Benstrumental’ because I wouldn’t name it. Very dumb name for what I think is my favorite song in this world. The overall concept was that these melodies are folk songs and I encourage anyone to play them. For the first 100 copies I included hand stamped sheet music for ‘Benstrumental’. We used ‘Only Fool’ as a basis for a Federation X song with the same name. Each side begins and ends with an identical chord created by layered sine-waves from a 1960s science room sine-square wave generator.
Would love it if you could share more details about the technical aspect of the record.
There were a lot of cassette decks and hand held tape recorders used. On ‘Cumberland Winter,’ for example, I recorded each chord used in the song a Wurlitzer 200, then overdubbed me pressing play, rewind, and fucking with the tape on a shitty walkman. I was looking for new ways to make pretty straight forward folk melodies. For the opening melody of ‘Benstrumental’ I recorded myself singing each note of the melody, then took those recordings and chopped them up. It sounds kind of like a flute. And yeah, I layered sine waves with an old science classroom sine wave generator I found at a stoop sale. I played with that thing live for years. Got pretty good at finding the notes and creating harmonies when looping it.
What are some of the differences in approach in comparison to your next album, ‘II’?
When ‘Great Melodies From Around’ came out on Riot Bear Recording Co, I put together a band we called Ben von Wildenhaus with Professional Band. It was Jude Webre on bass, Denise Fillion on Wurlitzer 200 and Anthony LaMarca on drums. Denise was finishing up her doctorate in piano performance, Jude, his doctorate in US History, and Anthony was playing with St. Vincent, Dean and Britta and (now, currently) War on Drugs, so the name seemed appropriate. So pro. So that album was capturing what that band could do. Such restraint and so tight, like a very very mellow Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Plus everyone could read sheet music, so I just wrote out all the parts.
The concept for the record was that each side would be a literal mirror image – like, when you look at the vinyl, the grooves look the same on each side. Each side has a signature melodic phrase repeated throughout. Side one features Clara Kennedy on vocals and she finishes with the Spanish language ballad, ‘Tú’. Scott Matthew does all the vocals on side two, which ends with the ballad ‘Two’. One is about the destructive force of love and the other is about the creative force of love. Both are way over the top melodramatic. Like a good 70s movie theme. We played out a lot around NYC at the time, especially within the scene that formed around the old Zebulon. Great band, love them all. Jude and I also played together in the great NYC psych-folk band Two Dark Birds.
I’ve been really enjoying ‘Everything in Flower’ and your recent release ‘World Best’ and would appreciate it if you could share some further words about it.
Thanks. Yeah, in 2012 I moved to Seattle, Washington with my family. It was a return, so I recruited old friends and started playing a lot. Jon Sampson is an amazing composer, guitarist and sax player. His excellent bummer jazz band Bar Tabac became my band too. Also, all of them are old friends. Andru Creature plays an amplified washboard. He used to play with my favorite instrumental weirdo band of all time, Reeks and Wrecks. Aaron Harmonson is a clutch bass player and multi-instrumentalist. He’s got an amazing ear. He recorded and produced ‘Everything In Flower’. Billie Bloom sat in at one show to sing ‘Tú’ and then promptly joined the band. The band has an incredible organic, fucked up-jazz, limping bag groove. All the songs start with a vamp so we can get settled before the lyrics come in. Andru gets a delay on his washboard rolling in time. For the recording sessions we often vamped for several minutes before what you hear as the start of the song comes in.
‘World Best’ is somewhat of a pandemic album. The basic trio tracks were recorded in 2014 with Jude Webre on bass and Dave Abramson from Diminished Men and Master Musicians of Bukakke on drums. In 2020 I edited these long vamp recordings the three of us made. I sliced one minute chunks out of it and sent them to friends and asked them to record a solo or anything they thought of and get it back to me in a week. So we have brilliant people like Dorian Wood, Ilyas Ahmad, Arrington de Dionyso and Sondra Sun-Odeon dropping in and out of the album. It’s a trip to listen to. I sold 100 cassettes and gave the cash away.
Are you involved in any other bands or do you have any active side-projects going on at this point?
I play guitar in the Seattle band Prom Queen, which is a beautiful contemporary take on 50s pop music. I write music for films, and am also involved in a group called Song Club Radio Hour, which is made of incredible songwriters and producers. We write and produce songs based on prompts on a weekly basis. It’s really done a lot for me to demystify song writing.
What are some future plans?
We’re releasing a series of extended EPs called the ‘Von Universe’. After ‘Everything in Flower’ (which came out during lockdown) we didn’t want another long build to an album release. So this time we are releasing 9 extended singles. The songs and recordings were done with different producers and each took different approaches. The first single which came out June 1, ‘Anna Sonata,’ was made on the grid with 90s indie pop hooks in mind. ‘Moon Rover’ is a middle eastern-style instrumental in a 5/8 time signature, tracked at a big, nice studio with a 7 piece band. ‘Ghost Moon’ is a Velvets-esque ballad recorded in a cramped living room. The B-sides for each single were selected to make each single a special mini-EP with a distinct vibe. We are super happy with all the sounds and songs we are releasing. Plus I always loved the old 90s maxi-cd singles, where you’d have not just a B-side but several increasingly weird tracks. I’m thinking of some bizarre Dinosaur Jr singles I had, and some of the early 90s Beastie Boys CD singles. The format gives us a chance to really stretch out and make 9 small and beautiful eps, each with their own vibe. And then starting September 7 we’re touring the UK for two weeks with the full 6 piece band. We’ll have a unique UK version of the Von Universe for sale at the shows.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favorite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
I’m often obsessed with what people I know and admire are putting out. The Diminished Men are truly Seattle’s treasure. ‘Damage Méchanique,’ which came out this year and was produced by Randall Dunn, is so damaged and beautiful. I really have no idea how they made it. Another Seattle treasure, Dean Johnson, released his debut album after remaining everyone’s favorite songwriter for 20 years. ‘Nothing For Me, Please’ is really timeless and is gaining listeners everywhere. One of those albums that redeems the entire singer-songwriter genre. His other band Sons of Rainier just put out a new record which is as good as their first. I have a friend who can’t remove the cassette from his truck. It’s become part of the truck. It’s just so damn good. We love songwriters Clyde Petersen and Kristin Allen Zito, both old friends from our days when we lived in a small town north of Seattle called Bellingham, WA. We also all really love Seattle bands, some surprises and Afterlife Giftshop.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Thanks, Klemen. I’ve gone on long enough. But, hey here are the tour dates.
07.09 • Ramsgate • Ramsgate Music Hall
09.09 • London • The Slaughtered Lamb
11.09 • Bath • The Bell Inn
12.09 • Bristol • The Ill Repute
14.09 • Birmingham • Kitchen Garden Café
15.09 • Liverpool • Jimmys
16.09 • Milton Keynes • The Craufurd Arms
17.09 • Winchester • The Railway Inn