Benjamin Booker‘s eponymous debut has been on shelves for just over two months, but the New Orleans based guitarist and singer has already opened shows for Jack White and Drive-By Truckers. The record was produced by one of Southern indie’s most notable tastemakers, Andrija Tokic, at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville, and Booker has already made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Booker spoke to Weld about a whirlwind 2014 and his rapid ascent before his Friday set at Bottletree.
Weld: You hit the festival scene really hard this year before the record had been released – did you find that beneficial to the record’s reception when it was released in August?
Benjamin Booker: I don’t know; I haven’t seen the numbers [Laughs]. It definitely helped to introduce new people to the music and that kind of stuff. It was great, I guess mostly to get some experience playing for people before the record came out. When the record comes out, that’s when the pressure is on.
Weld: Why was the decision made to drop the name Norton from the band name and present it as a solo project instead of a band?
BB: When we first started playing together in Florida, we had never told anyone a name of the band; it was never “Benjamin Booker/Max Norton.” We just played shows and the promoters knew the both of us so they put that on the bill and we never said anything differently [Laughs].
When it came time to do the record thing, I got signed to the label and I had written all the songs, so it was just one of those things.
Weld: So you had no real name for the band when you were performing, it was just assumed?
BB: Yeah, they just put it on the bill, and I didn’t care at the time. It didn’t matter to me. But then it ended up being – the songs are very personal and I can be protective of them, so I wanted to make sure that I had control of everything going in and out.
Weld: I spoke to Alynda Lee Segarra recently and she told me that if Andrija Tokic is recording something, I need to be listening to it. Why is he so good at what he does, and what was the experience of working with him like?
BB: I guess he’s so good because – none of us went in with any notes, really. I was supposed to write a bunch of stuff down and I didn’t do it. I went in and he had a piece of notebook paper with some scribbles on it. The whole time, he doesn’t really give any direction or anything. He’ll suggest, “Maybe you should use this pedal” or “maybe this would be a good amp or a good guitar to use.”
You record all of the songs, it’s basically live, it’s a very low pressure situation. And at the end you realize, “Ah! He has the bigger picture in mind.” He somehow makes it all cohesive and makes everything fit together. It’s one of those things where he’s the mastermind behind everything, but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re doing it.
It would have sounded very different if I had done it with someone else.
Weld: You were born in Virginia, and you’re based in New Orleans now. What was your journey from Virginia to New Orleans like?
BB: I was born in Virginia and when I was a kid, I moved to Florida. I grew up in Tampa and went to Gainesville for five years before I moved to New Orleans. I had gotten a job out here and came out a couple of years ago.
Weld: Were you in Gainesville for school or was that a coincidence?
BB: No, it was for school.
Weld: Did you finish at Florida? What was the degree in?
BB: Yeah, I did! It was journalism.
BB: ATO feels kind of great. You see these people around and say hey on the road. It’s a family vibe. Alynda has been nice enough to bring me on tour, to let me play some bigger shows early on, which helped a lot for down the road. And Brittany I’ve seen a couple of times. I don’t remember either time [Laughs], but they’re all nice folks. It does feel like family because it’s a small label and we all work with the same people.
Weld: Is this your first trip to Birmingham?
BB: No, I was actually at WorkPlay earlier this year. In the lounge. But nobody came to that show.
Weld: How did you find yourself supporting Jack White and Drive-By Truckers so early in your career?
BB: It’s been good. It’s exciting. Anytime a band is going on tour, you get a list of people that are available and can open for you and the band just picks something they think fits and that they like. That’s how I got those shows.
Weld: Did you spend any time around them?
BB: Oh definitely. The Drive-By Truckers were really great. They’ve been doing it for so long and could have easily been the type of band that is in the dressing room and doesn’t talk to the other band, but they weren’t like that at all. They hung out with us after the show and gave us advice about being on the road and performing – how to handle everything. It was very early on, and it was very helpful.
Jack White – the band and him, they were very helpful, too.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
BB: I’m sure this list would change if I had more time, but I’ll go with the Gun Club, TV on the Radio – this is probably going to be mostly punk bands – Black Flag, Otis Redding and Blind Willie Johnson.