Interview: Benjamin James of Pluto Revolts!

Underneath This had the great experience of interviewing Benjamin James of the band, Pluto Revolts. Please read more about the band (from a bio sent to me by Benjamin) before checking out the following interview.

Pluto Revolts was conceived in early 2008, a time that marked a period of significant reawakening for Cincinnati, Ohio vocalist/songwriter Benjamin James. Up to that point, James spent a decade writing music for his previous band, an experience which afforded him the opportunity to perform as a touring musician in clubs as far away as Japan, and as high-profile as the Warped Tour. And that was before graduating high school. But unfortunately, even with an eventual major-label contract (Maverick Records), and a soon-to-follow recording experience with a platinum producer, the path that once seemed so promising was beginning to reveal its pitfalls. James realized the music he’d worked so hard to create for the group was wrought with artistic compromises in the end. Worst of all, the group’s final album was destined for release-date-limbo; bound for nothing more than to collect dust on a shelf.

James decided to reboot, and funnel energy into an entirely new project, one that would appeal to the instincts he was previously forced to ignore. This time, he would be equipped with assets most new artists lack: experience, humility, purpose, and a brand new surge of determination. Even down to the name itself signifying “rebirth,” with Pluto Revolts, James set out to shed his proverbial old skin and reveal a more raw, distinct version of himself.

James’ unique blend of influences (from The Beatles to Nine Inch Nails) is brought to life behind-the-scenes through a nearly solo effort: written, produced, and performed almost entirely by James. Now a growing roster of live musicians is expanding the excitement and vision to the stage what was once only possible for James to capture in the studio, and proving the evolution of Pluto Revolts is just beginning.

Photo credit: Jeremy Kramer

Photo credit: Jeremy Kramer

Photo credit:  Jeremy Kramer

Photo credit: Jeremy Kramer

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I am impressed that you have been recording music since before your high school graduation. What inspired your passion from a young age?

I’ve always had a love and appreciation for music – I suppose I’m just lucky that I encountered artists that inspired me throughout my life, starting at a young age. I really connected with the songs of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Billy Joel growing up, as my parents always were playing those records in the car and at home. I was listening to Nirvana and other modern rock bands of the 90’s by the age of 9. Soon after that, my parents got me a guitar for Christmas one year, and I started listening to punk rock in high school. That’s when I started really getting into songwriting and performing and taking my music seriously as a real possibility for a career.

Who and what have been most influential?

I could list hundreds of artists that have and continue to inspire and influence my music. I find new records every month that give me a new perspective. Hard to pinpoint the most influential things because there are so many. I believe my music is really such a melting pot of so many random things.

Please describe how Pluto Revolts formed.

I started recording music on my own, away from a band that I’d been a part of for 10 years. It was necessary for me to experiment with different styles of songwriting and different ways to record music on my own, using my own ideas, fixing my own problems. After 10 years of being in the same group, you start realizing that perhaps there are other aspects of your nature that aren’t being explored because they don’t align with your bandmates’ ideas. I just wanted to do something new and challenge myself to flex some new muscles. Now I’ve built something that has attracted some of my best friends (who are individually amazing and talented in their own right) to join me in playing the music live, and expanding on my initial ideas. I never intended to do it all solo, it just started that way. I want Pluto Revolts to be free from the limitations that my first 10 years in music had, but being a solo artist has its own limitations. So its only natural for this project to evolve by bringing in more creative spirits to make something even stronger than I began on my own.

How was the band named?

Pluto represents death and rebirth, and rebellion. I just heard someone say a sentence with “pluto” and “revolts” in it and wrote it down one time. I wanted to use it for so long – maybe 2 or 3 years, I tried to work it into songs or album names. But when I made the decision to splinter off from my old band, I certainly was in the mindset of rebelling against my past and starting over. It just seemed right at the time, and luckily it still makes sense to me now!

Your style has been described as ranging from electronic to pop to alternative rock. How do you characterize your sound?

That’s actually exactly how I would describe it! It’s hard to put labels on things sometimes, but I can say that I love rock music, I love pop and electronic music and I just try to marry all of my influences and inspirations into every composition.

What does the term “alternative rock” mean to you nowadays?

It’s certainly changed from what bands were considered “alternative” when I first heard the term. I heard bands like The Smashing Pumpkins as being an alternative rock band when I was growing up. Now The Lumineers are on the alt rock charts. I think it’s supposed to change, though, right? It’s “alternative” to other forms of music and rock. I think that alt rock should always evolve and challenge what else is happening in the world and challenge itself to evolve.

Photo credit: Jeremy Kramer

Photo credit: Jeremy Kramer

Among your live performances, which moments stand out most?

We are about to perform at Bunbury Festival here in our hometown of Cincinnati Ohio, and I’m hoping that our performance there just takes the cake. I’m living in the future for the sake of this answer!

Which song have you not yet covered but hope to?

I have a playlist in my iTunes library called “Wish I Wrote.” I’m sure one day a song from that playlist will make it into our live set, considering there are enough songs to fill a whole playlist that I wish I’d written!

Recently, I have become fascinated by Ohio. How has being in Cincinnati informed the music you have created?

Cincinnati’s music scene is relatively small, but it’s been steadily growing for years. There are more venues now than when I started playing live over a decade ago. I think it’s been fun to be somewhere “off the radar” of the music industry for the most part, because although it’s not Nashville or New York City or Los Angeles, you can always find a place to play; there are enough people to support you; there is enough variety of styles and venues. I’ve gone from being a kid playing songs that sounded like Blink-182, to an adult playing electronic-heavy pop rock, more like MUSE or Linkin Park than anything else on the charts now. I think my hometown has given me an opportunity to grow up as an artist and not feel like I’m going to be judged for it; I’ve been given freedoms that other scenes my not have afforded me.

I really enjoy your song, “Closure.” What was your perception of all of the remixes of this track?

Thank you! It’s one of my favorite productions ever. I loved each and every one of the remixes. I found a lot of those remix artists on Soundcloud and approached many of them to collaborate. I just wanted to see what could happen, like “how many other perspectives can I find, using this same melody?” I learned a lot from that experience. And Closure is still one of our most eclectic and fun songs to perform live.

The lyrics of”Good Fortune” intrigue me. What inspired this song?

That song is the story of an artist, desperate for acceptance. Desperate enough to make a deal with the devil to make it happen. I think I will always have a fond appreciation for this song, because no matter what you create, even if you initially only set out to satisfy your own curiosity and ambition – you want others to tell you that your effort was valuable. I think growing older and starting my career over again after 10 years in music, I was thinking, “what do I have to do to prove myself? Is there a secret formula I’ve missed that all these other successful people know about?” The song helped me realize my own character – that I’m not going to make decisions out of desperation. I essentially found out that I was feeling low and desperate, but luckily, not desperate enough to compromise my integrity and sell my soul just to finally get what I wanted. I just needed to grow, and move on, and keep working hard. I’ve found that many of my songs are just ways to help boost my own morale!

Overall, “Collisions” sounds softer and even more introspective than does “Suffer No Delusions.” How do you see the differences and similarities between the two albums? What was the recording process like for each?

Actually half of Suffer No Delusions was written for and intended to be used as songs for my last band. I recorded half of them with my bass player at the time as demos in his parents bedroom, believe it or not. When it was clear these were not going to work in the landscape of that band, I recorded the songs “Suffer No Delusions” and “Numb” with my cousin in another state just to tie them all together as an EP. That was my first time recording by myself with just one other person engineering and mixing the records with me. “Suffer No Delusions” the EP is very much about changing paths in life, when things you can see aren’t going the right direction. “Collisions” EP is living in the aftermath of that change, and being able to reflect on it in a more clear-headed manner, but not being completely over it yet. The recording process was different in that most of it was recorded at my house at the time and I was producing alone, tweaking things on my own turf, without anyone watching over me. The freedom to experiment led to songs like Closure, which, as I said above, I still celebrate as having some of my favorite moments of any recording I’ve done.

The most recent Pluto Revolts song I heard was 2012’s “Lightning.” What is next for you and the band?

We have a new single coming out within weeks – and another EP to follow. The single and the EP will both have more players on the recordings than just me. The single I recorded with my drummer, Cliff, last summer – and we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out and the direction it’s taking our new music.

What do you think the role newer technology has had on music production and promotion?

I’ve learned that not everything works for everybody. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve used quite a bit of technology to bring together ideas in the studio that wouldn’t have been possible on my budget ($0), recording all by myself. People get bent out of shape over things like Autotune or pitch correction on vocals in recordings. I use Autotune. Is it obvious? Hopefully not. Technology shouldn’t cheapen your sound. Look – I’ve taken vocal lessons for years and do warm ups and drink lots of water and don’t do destructive things to my voice purposefully, in the name of singing. But I don’t always hit the right notes at the right times, when it counts. I have a ton of respect for guys that sound amazing all the time, and revel in their imperfections, but I think technology has definitely helped me realize many performances that otherwise would have sounded less-than-great because I couldn’t get something to sound how I heard it in my head. The point is – I think technology ought to make our ideas better – not perfect – but better. If that’s what you want it to do for you as an artist, use the tools, just don’t abuse them.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Well I still consider myself an aspiring musician, but I have been doing this a while. So I guess to my fellow artists on this journey, my advice is: ALWAYS follow your gut. Take others’ opinions into consideration, but always do what you think is right for you!

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