Ben Lee: “I’ve always been interested in being a cheeky bastard and stirring the pot”

Ben Lee. Credit: Byron Spencer
(Image credit: Byron Spencer)

For the better part of the past half-decade, Ben Lee has been in his “passion project” era. In the five years that followed his 11th album – 2016’s Freedom, Love And The Recuperation Of The Human Mind – the Sydney-native indie-pop hero (and shitposting pioneer) released an album of children’s music about Islam (Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam For The Whole Family), a musical epic about beer (B Is For Beer: The Musical), a covers record of songs that inspired Lee in his teens (Quarter Century Classix), and two records as one half of Radnor & Lee with How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor. 

Now, Lee has returned to his roots for I’m Fun! – an album of quirky, folk-tinged indie-rock and pop bangers that sees him come to terms with the fact he’s hit his 40s, but with the energy and effervescence of a 13-year-old after one too many red cordials. And in the spirit of making a party record, Lee’s filled up the guest-list with bonafide icons, recruiting the likes of Sadie Dupuis (aka Sad13), Sally Seltmann, Washington, Eric D. Johnson, Zooey Deschanel, Georgia Maq and Shamir. 

So begs the question: how the f*** did he do it? Thankfully for us, Lee’s phone number leaked on the dark web, and our editor had some Bitcoin lying around…

As far as a straightforward, traditional “studio album” goes, it’s been a hot minute! Had you kind of started to miss that format?
I always try to abide by what Neil Young once said: “Don’t write a song until you have something to say.” I’ve never wanted to make music that felt like it was made for the sake of it. So before I started making this record, what started crystallising in my head were the types of artists that not only made records in their 40s, but made their best records in their 40s. 

I was thinking about Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits, and all these songwriters I admire – and I realised that there was this embracing of adulthood, and embracing all the ways you’d have f***ed up, all the successes and failures and wounds. I wanted to mix that idea with the approach that I had the energy of being a teenager. And once I really understood that idea, it was like all these songs just suddenly started spilling out.

One thing I’ve always loved about you as an artist is how ready you are to take the piss out of yourself. Is the MO just to go in and have as much fun as possible?
Yeah, I’ve always been interested in being a cheeky bastard and stirring the pot a little bit. I think with this album, it was just about leaning into that, and being like, “Y’know what? Yeah, that’s my role.” I want to be the person that actually contributes something of value when I’m invited to a dinner party, y’know what I mean? The worst crime is being boring – especially in pop culture, but also at a dinner party. It’s fun to look back at my own history with this type of sobriety, being clear-headed about it and being able to playfully embrace even my own mistakes.

Speaking of parties, this album is jam-packed with incredible guests. Where did all of these wild collaborations come from?
I’ve always been interested in the concept. I started playing music because I wanted to hang out with geniuses – I wanted to be around all the creative people that lit my candle – and the most beautiful thing about building any kind of notoriety is that you get to meet the people behind all the things that invigorate you. Even on my first solo record, like having Liz Phair and Rebecca Gates on it – it’s almost like being a party host, saying, “What would happen if I put these different personalities in a room together?” 

And then with the pandemic, and the enforced isolation, and the way this album was recorded, it led to me pushing that idea even further and just being like, “Well, everyone I’ve ever wanted to work with is just sitting at home – let me throw ‘em a few hundred bucks and see if they want to lay some shit down.”

How do you feel about young creatives approaching you, being the one that they want to collaborate with?
I don’t know if I have any particular insight, but some of it is just stamina and perseverance – there’s a courage you get, as a young person, by meeting someone a little older, who’s walked the path you want to walk, and has survived it. I literally wake up most days and think, 30 years into my career as a leftist indie-rocker, and I’ve still got a career!? That is bananas! Let alone that it’s kind of thriving! But in some ways, I feel more of a kinship with these younger people. They’re operating with less rules. 

When I was coming up as an artist, the tribalism around music was way more intense. When I had like Mandy Moore sing on ‘Ripe’, critics were going, “Ooh, Ben Lee’s gone pop, he’s betrayed his indie roots!” That was in 2007, and that conversation literally does not exist anymore. If you’re cool and you’re interesting, you can do whatever the f*** you want. And that’s how it should be! And I think younger people now are more in that mindset, so I relate to it.

God, imagine the shit you would’ve gotten up to if TikTok was around 20 years ago.
No thanks [laughs]. TikTok is obviously its own thing, but it’s also part of a much larger trend, which has to do with seeing creators as a vessel for much more than the medium they’re working in. And I’m on board with that. It might just be because I’m not a prodigal “musician”, but I’ve always viewed it like my mind, my outlook, my psyche… I want to share the whole thing. If music is the vehicle, music is the vehicle – but I want to just be in the conversation and contribute.

In a recent TikTok of your own, you said your favourite guitar was a Gibson J-45. What’s the story behind that little monster?
I’ve always played vintage J-45s, but a couple of years ago I played at the Opera House and I played a new J-45 that I’d rented, and I was like, “Damn, this feels so sturdy!” I wasn’t used to having the J-45 experience with a new one, and it was such a unique experience. So I tracked one down, and then after I made the ‘Born For This Bullshit’ video with Byron Spencer, I took a swatch of that neon pink paint to Wheeler Guitars and got them to match it. And then I just slapped some stickers on it! And now it’s got this giant crack in it.

What happened?
So we’ve got this puppy, Cooper – I mean, I call him a puppy, but he’s a f***ing moose, he’s enormous. I had the guitar up on a table behind the couch, so it felt very safe to me – but then someone came into the backyard and Cooper jumped off the couch, and with all his weight, landed in the middle of the guitar and caved the top of it in. I was freaked out. Because this whole thing has not been cheap – from getting a brand new J-45, to getting it custom painted – but I took it to this great place called Old Style Guitars, which Mike Viola recommended, and for like $150, they reinforced the bracing. And now it’s got a story!  

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…