Tastes Like Rock Magazine

Ben Kuzay, Multi-Talent Musician

Interviewed by Michael Meade on 8/2/14

Posted 8/15/14 - 11:58 PM ET

TLR editor, Mike Meade, caught up with multi-instrumentalist and bass player extraordinaire, Ben Kuzay for the first time since their 2009 interview and review of Ben's '09 album, Perpetual Reign.

TLR: Ben, it's good to chat again. It's been a few years since our previous interview for Tastes Like Rock. Before we get into your new album, A Celebration of Life, what else have you been up to between the last time we spoke at length and the release of your new CD?


Ben Kuzay: Well, let's see.... In 2010 I played bass on Mike Philippov's debut CD, Reflections.  He was great to work with, a total professional.  He's also a phenomenal guitarist and composer.  I enjoyed the immense challenge his compositions presented me, not only as the album's bassist, but also as the writer of the bass parts.  It was a lot of work, and in the end he and I were both extremely happy with my contribution to his project.

In 2011 I recorded and released my third CD, Beyond Black Mirrors. This album stands out as the only of my four solo CDs that features a drummer (the rest of my albums have programmed drums).  I did not submit the CD to TLR for review because it's not a rock CD- its primary genres are ambient, dark ambient, and classical, though there is some rock, as well. Throughout 2010 and 2011 I was playing live shows in Wisconsin with The Ben Kuzay Band, then at the end of 2011 Barry and Allen quit amicably, so in the beginning of 2012 Daniel and I began playing live as a two-piece.  It was during this period that I took my solo project on the road for the first time.  Daniel and I toured from late June through early July. 

This was our 'Beyond Black Mirrors' midwest mini-tour.  It went great, but unfortunately Daniel quit the duo at the end of that jaunt.  I took the next half year off from live activity, during which time I conceived and prepared a one-man show. In the beginning of 2013, I debuted my one-man show, and it was a big success!  I then went on my 'Introspection' U.S. tour, which went from late February through early April. In September I did my 'Bass Domination' mini-tour. I also recorded with two different local artists that year. This year, coinciding with the release of my new CD, A Celebration Of Life, The Ben Kuzay Band reassembled for a pair of shows, the first of which was the CD-release party that took place on the date of the album's release.  The next show was the following day.  Barry did not participate in this reunion; in his stead we welcomed Britta Kuzay into the band as a full member.  Then in mid-April I hit the road with my one-man show on my 'Celebration Of Life' U.S. tour, which took me through late May. Also, throughout the past few years I've been steadily playing local concerts during the times I'm not on the road, with the exception of the half-year between the end of the duo and the beginning of my one-man show.

Tastes Like Rock - Ben Kuzay - A Celebration Of Life Review
Tastes Like Rock - Ben Kuzay - A Celebration Of Life Review

"A Celebration of Life" Cover Art

TLR: Whoa, that's a pretty damn impressive work load over the last few years. I'm sure those were all amazing experiences. Now, let's dive into A Celebration of Life! The mood and atmosphere are very different from your last album that I reviewed, Perpetual Reign. Perpetual Reign was heavy and focused on shredding, it also had a dark tone to it at times, A Celebration of Life is a contrast to that in some ways for sure. You keep shred metal in the mix, but there's much more progressive and experimental aspects to this album as well as heavier taste of classical influences. Why the change in approach to your compositions?

BK: In my opinion, there's no metal on this CD, but my approach actually didn't change; rather, I try to make each album have continuity from beginning to end, while, of course, allowing it to be as musically diverse as possible without detracting from the continuity of the work. I am constantly writing music, and from the music I write, when I set forth to make an album, I select songs that can fit together in an album. If Perpetual Reign was all I wrote in 2008 and A Celebration Of Life all I wrote in 2013, then yes, that would mean my approach has changed; but since I compile songs that fit together to make an album, out of a vast pool of songs, the change really mostly lies in my choice I selected from material that existed already as a form of self-expression prior to the formation of the idea of assembling an album.

TLR: Interesting, I used to take a similar approach when putting together compilations of short stories and sketch comedy pieces I write in my late teens and very early 20s. Another, not so much contrast... I'll say expansion instead; expansion to your compositions on the new album is the cross section of emotions that each song brings. As I said in the review I wrote a few weeks ago, A Celebration of Life is truly a celebration of the human condition; your songs here emote a fuller gamut of emotion and experience this time around. For you, was this expansion to your sound an organic by-product, pardon the phrasing, of your experimentation with different sounds, genres, and instruments teamed self expression or was it a goal you aimed for while composing?

BK: Well, there is a strong element of the "now", so to speak, in each album. Whereas I do write a lot of material, some songs of which can be fit with each other on a CD and some of which can't, it's also true that each CD represents, to some extent, where I am in life during the process of the album's assembly, because of a variety of factors, not the least of which is that the spirit I have during the time in which I'm deciding which songs to put on the CD, I suspect plays a large role in my decision. This shift in sound is purely an organic by-product of where I was in life when I wrote these songs. Much of the material on A Celebration Of Life was written in 2013, and most of the rest in 2012, so the album really captures where I was in life then, which I'm happy to say is, for the most part, where I'm still at now.  Life is a complete mystery, and the more one understands about it, the more confused one gets- unless he's tricking himself, that is. People often try to believe things that they deep inside question. They do this in an attempt to feel safe and have inner peace. What I've found, however, is that inner peace cannot be built upon a foundation of dishonesty. Only through true self-knowledge, and proper release through self-expression, can a person ever even approach a feeling of inner peace. I've not come anywhere near attainment of that lofty goal...

But, I feel I'm closer than the people who are tricking themselves.


Photo Courtesy Ben Kuzay

TLR: Speaking of goals with music, what do you hope to convey to your listeners and fans? I'm talking overall/grand scheme of your career as a musician and composer when you're looking back far in the future.

BK: I don't know that an artist needs to have a goal, as such. I think art is self-expression. The ability to create and understand art is the defining point of the human condition. It is what elevates us above beasts; and I do not say that in a human supremacist sense, but rather in acknowledgement of the reality of man and beasts' respective cognitive conditions.  I don't think this greater state of awareness gives us any right to rule over, or maltreat other creatures, but this awareness must be acknowledged and appreciated, nonetheless. Most people seem to hold the ability to do scientific research as the defining point of our elevation above the animal kingdom. I disagree on the grounds that our scientific inquiry, as a species, is just an exaggerated and advanced version of the same interest all animals have in exploring the world around them. Art, on the other hand, is something that no other creature has ever made even the smallest-scale attempt at, nor shown any understanding of.

There is one other dynamic which, along with self-expression, comprises what I would like to convey, and that dynamic is the desire that exists in every human being to mold the world around him to be more to his liking than what it is. This desire has been crushed in most people, as we've all been taught to parrot the phrase "you can't change the world". Well, actually you can- unless, of course, you buy into the idea that you can't, in which case you will stop wholeheartedly trying. This second dynamic is actually a residual effect of the self-expressive product I put out, but one which I am fully aware of and which I take delight in. As I see all of the culture that I grew up loving, or at the very least feeling unthreatened by, being replaced by less aesthetic culture that makes no sense to me, and the entire system requires everybody to step in line and go with the program, I offer an alternative to the diluted and compromised politically correct art forms. I show the world that a musician can have a career in recording and touring without compromising the spirit of his work. I do not make an effort to insert genres that I'm unpassionate about into my music. My music and aesthetics are purity- an undiluted expression of my personality, interests, ambitions, and values. When people listen to and enjoy my music, they are appreciating a form of art that on a subconscious level encourages resistance to the ugly social and cultural trend that has been picking up speed now for the past fifty years.

TLR: A little nearer future question, is there anything you already have coming down the pike or do you take your focus one album at a time?

BK: I have a slew of songs I've written over the past seven years- the exact period during which my four solo CDs have been released- that need to be recorded and released eventually. There is some really great material, mostly instrumental music featuring lead bass. I also am playing bass in the death metal band Khazaddum for their debut show later this month as an opening act at Devolving Messiah's CD release party at The Metal Grill in Milwaukee.

TLR: Nice! I'm digging the Lord of the Rings reference with Khazaddum's name. For a lighter question, do you have any more solo live gigs and/or touring coming up in support of A Celebration Of Life?

BK: Yes, I will be hitting the road for another United States tour at the end of this month- and I'm announcing it right here!

TLR: Awesome! Now to play Devil's Advocate for a moment, and because I'm curious; your thoughts on collaborating with vocalists, or singing yourself, on future songs/albums? This really is Devil's Advocate, I understand why musicians work without vocalists both from creative and pragmatic viewpoints. Nothing against any of my friends that are vocalists, and speaking as a somewhat decently trained vocalist, Lead Singer Syndrome is real! And deadly! [Laughs]

BK: I have some songs I've written over the years that feature my vocals, and I plan on recording a few this year or next, and releasing them by the end of next year, probably under a different project name. I recorded several songs featuring my vocals ten to twelve years ago or so, but never released them. Actually, I did upload a couple of them to the internet under a different band name, but to minimal exposure. I intend to do a serious vocal project in the very near future; but like with any project, it takes money, and as an independent artist I have to come up with the funds and hope to recoup them once the cd is released. This very obstacle is what has delayed the recording of my vocal songs, as well as that slew of instrumental songs I mentioned earlier. So, I'm not promising a time-frame, but I assure you that it is in the works.
I do play music with vocalists from time to time, but as an accompaniment bassist in a band. I would like to, in the not-so-distant future, include a few vocalists in my own music, as a collaboration, like you said, where the vocalist and I are the two people who have joint creative control; but I'm not thinking of doing a full album with one vocalist. Rather, I would like to do one song with each vocalist, and collaborate in that fashion with several of my favorite singers.  We'll see what the future holds.

TLR:  An excellent plan, I look forward to hearing the fruition of your upcoming work. More Devil's Advocate, your thoughts on the state of the music industry as it stands right now in August of 2014. Be as uncensored as you want, I love asking this of all serious musicians... let 'er rip Ben!

BK: My entire life I've watched the television put out one grotesque fad after another, be it clothing, music, dialect, hairdo, or anything else. As soon as they put out t.v. shows displaying this or that revolting way of being, the population follows suit, because they think- as the t.v. show writers purposely deceive them into thinking- that television is a reflection of reality.  Actually, television, movies, and the rest of entertainment and media operate as programmers, as designers, for our culture, art, and aesthetics (or lack thereof). The music industry is just a part of that ugly machine: the major record companies and the t.v. shows decide to push this or that style of appearance and music, then all of the aspiring career musicians copy the "in" look and sound, and all of the young people mimick the appearance and attitudes of their favorite musicians. It's really sickening. It would be okay if respectable culture and attitudes were pushed, but instead we are bombarded with auto-tune, guitar hero, and political correctness. Guitar Hero, as a concept, reminds me of the push in grade schools to get every student to be a straight-A student. The modern world is conforming to the ideals and goals of communism. People who are incapable of logical thought should not get straight A's, and people who can't play guitar should not hit five buttons on an electronic control and experience the good feeling of being able to play guitar. These guitar hero braggarts are an insult to those of us who actually know how to play an instrument.
I am extremely grateful to get to, every day of my life, experience the joy of being able to play and understand music. The reason I reference gratitude is that I don't know how to create a person or instill musical talent in human genes, therefore I'd be a fool to take any of the pleasures of life for granted. I was created and so was my musical aptitude, so I am grateful.  In my opinion, consciousness minus ability to create oneself should equal gratitude. That's an equation I go by.

Regarding the state of the industry in 2014, there is a fine line to walk between the natural and noble tendency of each generation to forge its own artistic statement in terms of genre, style, culture, etc. on the one hand, while on the other hand resisting the influence of the people behind the scenes who aim to twist new and dynamic musical genres into culture-wrecking monstrosities. As I look back through the decades since the advent of mass-manufactured records, I see that there have been many, many musical trends, most of them displaying little artistic merit; and today's popular music is no exception. Each time-period, though, has also produced a massive amount of wonderful and great music, which has comprised a tiny percentage of the epoch's total output, and most of which assumably has remained underground.

TLR: While I respectfully disagree with some of your key stances on the current sociological evolution of the human condition, you do raise valid points worth discussing and diving deeply into. Now, what do you feel would help to fix the problems facing musicians today, from the labeled up bands and artists to the bands still jamming in their garages while dreaming big?

BK: Too many musicians value fame over anything else. This would be somewhat okay if they used that fame to start an independent career of their own, but the fact is that they rarely do that, and most of them have no aspirations to. A lot of those musicians on big labels are not making much money. Many label musicians are content being famous so that some fat cat can sit back in a padded chair in an air-conditioned office and collect money off of their sweat, toil, labor- and talent. A big problem that exists, then, is that musicians have resigned themselves to the role of beggars. Instead of begging to "get to" play "A markets" for no pay while daydreaming about getting "picked up" by a big label, they should get their heads out of the stars and focus on the following set of goals: a) How do I break even in my next year of musical activity? Then once that is achieved, b) How do I profit, say $1,000 off of music this next year? Once that's achieved, the goal should be $2,000 or $5,000- whatever is realistic and at the same time a step up from the previous year. If musicians take that attitude starting at age 20, then by 25 they can be making a living. I wasted a lot of years playing in bands with liars who claimed to be career-oriented like I was. Lesson learned. I still play in bands, but only as a session musician, whether for live or studio work. This way the management of their career is entirely up to them, and my participation is exclusively in the department of performing the service of playing my instrument, and in most cases, also writing my parts to compositions that are already created.

If all musicians would refuse to play concerts for free, it would be much easier to book paying gigs. Half of the venues out there, it seems- especially coffee houses- are accustomed to having musicians gratefully playing at their establishment with no compensation whatsoever, except tips- which usually amount to about $10. Good, decent venue owners offer pay whether there is a cover charge or not.  Bars and restaurants don't offer to come to your house and cater your party for free to "promote" their establishment, so why should you go to a bar and entertain their customers for free to "promote" yourself? While you are playing, the people watching and listening to you are consuming beverages and food that the bar is making money off of.  If other bands are stupid enough to do that for free, let them do it; don't be the stupid one. You can organize house shows, get several bands on the bill, and play to 50 people that way, for free, and no one's making money off you.  You can even charge a small cover at your house shows, and though fewer people will show up, each band will at least go home with a few bucks. There are all sorts of ways to buck the establishment, but the principal must be clear: If someone else in the building is getting paid for what they're doing, then you need to be, too, or you're the butt of the joke. The people are watching you play music; they're not watching the janitor mop up vomit off the bathroom floor.  There's no reason he should get paid and you not.  Charity gigs are another big scam.  Bands don't get paid because they want to do a good deed, which is noble of them.  However, the bar keeps 100% of liquor sales, so it's just another big scam on bands... And you hear about all of these inexperienced bands getting their feet wet at charity events. It's just a ladder of ass-kissing in which bands want to impress bar-owners, bar-owners enjoy entertainers performing in their establishment for free, and the bar-owners make a ton of money by the end of the night. But hey- you got "exposure", you got "noticed"- woo-hoo!

This beggar mentality, this less holy than thou attitude is stinking up the industry. It's not going to stop, though; it's human nature, and can be seen in every other aspect of society, too: the rental industry, the employment process, etc. We workers and renters should allow employers and landlords to fill out applications to try to attain our money or labor; but that will never happen because people are a bunch of ass-kissers who enjoy being enslaved. I worked one day of my life for a temporary agency, and they sent me to a factory, and at the end of the day we stood in line to sign out, and it took a long time. At 5:18 p.m. the guy in front of me, tail tucked firmly between his legs, whimpered to the boss "Five O'clock?" to which, predictably, the boss nodded "yes". I stepped forward next and wrote on the ledger "5:18 p.m." and walked out, because I'm a real person. It's as if the masses are not even fully conscious, much less dignified. Everyone says to each other "you need a job". That belief and attitude is why up until a hundred years ago, everyone around the world was working a hundred hours a week in factories or mines that caused them to breath in black soot all day, and many people died on the job or were severely maimed but no one cared, because "I need a job. If I don't work this hundred hours a week, my boss will fire me and my children will starve." One principal that is firmly rooted in my heart is that legality and morality have no connection, and are in fact often the opposite. The moral thing to do when faced with no dignified way of earning income is to commit crimes to earn income and punish an unjust society. Not only are the bosses bad, but the spineless workers are, too. Both are responsible for the situation in the workforce. Likewise, spineless musicians who have no self esteem share responsibility with greedy and ignorant venue owners for the state of the music industry. The concert circuit is actually just one part of the industry, but it's one of the main parts, possibly the main part.

I am very fortunate to be working with, tour after tour, year after year, wonderful venue owners, many of whom go above and beyond the call of duty to make my music career blossom. All of these people I work with are good, decent people who like to do fair business; and some of them are aesthetes who selflessly compromise their own business interests because they appreciate what I do. All of these venue owners are a pleasure to work with. I have a pruning process I do that very few musicians do, thus their unpleasant experiences with venue owners. One of the main features of my pruning process is the asking of direct questions. If I hear any wavering in their voice, or their language is ambiguous, I repeat the question over and over until they either commit solidly to paying me or they opt out. If you are afraid of venues opting out under your pressure for a guarantee, then don't complain when they don't pay you. Also, any questionable venues receive a call from me the day before the gig, in which I again get them to assure me of my next day's compensation. If no one can get on the phone and (for a second time) tell me I'm getting paid the amount or percentage agreed upon, then I don't show up to the gig. It's that simple. I let them know during said phone call that I'm not going to show up.

TLR: Well said, Ben! A bit fatalistic from my viewpoint in some points, not to be a Pollyanna, but I understand where you're coming from nonetheless. No one likes to answer this one, feel free in fact to say pass before we close this interview down... is there a regret or what you feel is a mistake from your musical career thus far you wish you could go back and rectify or try a different route on? If so, what is that regret and/or mistake?

BK: I would go back and write a bunch of solo bass songs through my teens. During my mid to late teens, I would record and release a CD of lead bass and solo bass music. I would book and perform local gigs in my mid through late teens, then in my late teens or early twenties start touring as a one-man show. I wasted a ton of my life dedicating myself to stupid bands that went nowhere, or were going somewhere but kicked me out. If you don't own the name of the band you're in, it's pointless to play in the band for free, because you're at the mercy of your fellow band members, and when they decide to quit or kick you out, then you don't have the band name anymore, and it's time to go back to the drawing board. Also, it's much more rewarding to have complete creative control and manage my project myself than it was back in those days to compromise all of the songwriting and band management. I was about ten years late in getting my recording and touring solo instrumental career off the ground.

Another thing I would do differently is fully pursue a career as a singer, alongside my bass career; the two together would be one music career. The problem is, the vocal chords are a biological mechanism, fashioned by genetics, so each person has a comparatively small window of potential to grow and cultivate their singing, unlike any other instrument- the bass guitar, in this case- which is not a biological mechanism, but rather a man-made one which we can cultivate our playing on to a great degree. That being said, my vocals, I'm afraid, are nowhere near as good as my bass-playing, but I believe that I'm equally a natural at both instruments, in terms of talent. It's the way in which my vocal chords are made, which includes the factor of the level of stamina, that holds me back. I love singing just as much as I love playing bass. Another factor that has kept me back from a singing career is that with singing there has to be lyrics, and there is a very narrow window of lyrical expression that one can make without being blacklisted in the music industry, and I refuse to compromise my lyrics. It's possible that I will even go by a fake name for my vocal project.

TLR: Thanks for your time Ben, it was great catching up man!

BK: Always a pleasure!

For more from Ben Kuzay check out http://www.benkuzay.com/.