Mutual Benefit interview: Crossing the channel and running on tea

Henry Boon spoke to Mutual Benefit band leader Jordan Lee from the back of his touring van ahead of UK tour dates in Birmingham and Manchester.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 21st Nov 2016.
Originally published: 18th Nov 2016

Image: Mutual Benefit

In 2013, Jordan Lee and his ramshackle crew of ever-fluctuating bandmates released Love’s Crushing Diamond with little expectations other than making a beautiful record and hoping for the best. The resulting wave of love and critical acclaim for Mutual Benefit has since turned Jordan’s life on its head. Suddenly he finds himself on the road more than he is at any one of the places he calls home around America, he and his loosely formed band creating an alternative world for themselves on a global scale. 

Three years later Jordan’s toyed with the idea of putting together a more highly polished studio album before returning to his normal method of recording anywhere and everywhere he finds inspiration. The result is Skip a Sinking Stone, a record full of Mutual Benefit’s now trademark beauty and subtlety but also toying with a bigger sound, more akin to the global status sprung upon Lee almost out of nowhere.

As Mutual Benefit begin to wind up a year on the road, including dates in Manchester and Birmingham, we caught up with Jordan from the back of his van as he and his band head to the UK and talk life on the road, following up Love’s Crushing Diamond and the merits of tea over drugs and booze…

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How are you?

I’m doing well! We’re about to go into the Euro Tunnel so I dunno if there’s reception down there!

Well we’ll give it a go! So you’re in France?

Yeah, we’ve just been to France for probably forty minutes or so and we’ll be in the UK soon. 

Just passing through. Are you excited to play London?

Oh definitely, London’s one of my favorite cities to play in because people think that we’re a famous band so I get to live out a fantasy for a day or two!

You don’t get to do that anywhere else?

Shows are great all over but there’s a particular level of enthusiasm in London particularly.

Why do you think that is?

I dunno, when I hang out with people from London they seem pretty reserved until they’ve had a couple of drinks! So maybe there’s a certain concert or music culture where people get excited for bands in a way that doesn’t happen as much in the United States.

Or people just get drunker…

Yeah, could be that! Also, often times the places we play in London are gorgeous, they’ll put us in a chapel or a cathedral or something that so, certainly for the first couple of shows, we were excited about the acoustics *laughs* sorry, the rest of the band are making fun of my answers! 

Is it a fairly fixed line-up that you’re with at the moment?

Yeah, there’s a core group of us that’s very fixed, three of us have been touring since November last year; Noah on the bass and Mike on the guitar and then almost every show we play with Dylan on drums. So yeah, I got the music lifers with me right now.

You’ve been on the road since November?

Yeah, Noah and Mike both have solo projects and I was kidnapped from Ohio to play in Mike’s project so the three of us were kind of in the car traveling around the United States playing house shows. It was really fun! After that we started doing Mutual Benefit tours again.

Do you prefer house party shows or proper venues?

I think there are pros and cons to both. It’s nice to play in a venue that has a really nice sound system where you get to make sure it sounds good on stage, but it’s also nice to go to a house and get invited into someone’s community and get to learn a little more about the town.

When we play shows, even at venues, we try to make it feel really personally and hang out outside of the dressing room so that we actually get to meet people. We try to take some of the house show vibes and even if it’s a big show try to avoid the feeling of us being some mystical people.

What’s your touring life like at the moment? Is it quite hectic or are you able to spend time in the places you go to?

Well, like I said, this is the end of almost a full year of touring so in some ways it’s really hectic because when we come over to Europe we have to make all of our time count. We’re doing interviews, playing sessions, doing long drives but at the end of this tour we get to spend a little bit of time in Portugal and I think that’ll be the first time we’ve had some time to relax in a while.

Once you get towards the end of a tour like this are you waiting for it to end or dreading the end?

Well something weird has happened over the last couple of years where we spend as much or more time touring as we do at home, being in tour van surrounded by each other now feels a lot more normal than being at home trying to figure out how to be a person in the city again!

In some ways I’m excited for this tour to be over because we have a chance to write new songs and see a lot of friends that I’ve been missing and see my family but in other ways it feels really comfortable and nice to be playing shows every night and seeing a new city every day.

Do you find that you’re able to write while you’re on the road?

I can’t get myself to write a song properly while we’re traveling because it takes a bit too much concentration. It’s a nice place to get inspiration and take lots of pictures and write down phrases and little funny moments to weave into songs later though.

I feel like every day we’re on the road my IQ drops by ten or fifteen so lucky you caught me in the beginning.

Yeah, in a few years you won’t even be able to conduct interviews!

Yeah! I’m already feelin’ it!

Was the last album written and recorded all in one place?

It was pretty similar to how I’ve written other albums; doing some in New York, some in Boston, some in Texas and New Hampshire so it was written all around. The thing that was different about it was that it was started in a proper recording studio.

I thought that maybe I wanted this one to be the hi-fi one that I did in a studio just to see what that feels like. After a couple of weeks though we were like “ah, let’s just go back to what we’re used to”.

When you’re in a studio, it’s harder to explore and lose yourself because you don’t want to waste anyone’s time and money but at home and in different environments you feel inspired and it doesn’t matter if it takes five hours to get the keyboard just right! 

How important is location to your writing?

Oh it’s very very important. I’m a person who gets stuck in routines.

[At this point the band approach customs and we’re forced to put our conversation on hold while they prove that there is in fact a gaggle of adoring fans waiting for them on the other side of The Channel…]

Hello again! Sorry about that, I think we were on some sort of list and they didn’t want us to come into the UK, we had to win them over by talking about Nick Drake.

Did it work?

Yeah, we’re in!

So where were we?

Oh I was in the middle of saying something really profound…

Oh yeah, you were about to say the best thing that’s ever been said but it’s gone now, never mind! How does this tour feel different to the last one that was perhaps a little more unexpected?

Well, up until a couple of years ago I had never been outside of South America and in the US I sometimes get the feeling of routine but I’ve never had that feeling here yet. With things being slightly different and traveling a couple of hundred miles from where you were before, I hate to be naive but it’s all really magical to me! I don’t get any sort of familiarity.

Were bigger shows more in your mind with 'Skip a Sinking Stone'?

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I guess I actively tried to avoid that. I guess I didn’t want to be misinterpreted as the band being totally different because there’s some pressure on us now, I wanted it to feel very similar to the last record in terms of the vibe.

I enjoy just focusing on making recordings and arrangements that I like and then figuring out how to play them after. And usually it involves interpreting the songs based on who’s around to toy with me. So on this album the songs are a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll because we had two guitarists and drums and then other times when it’s a smaller band the songs feel more intimate.

How important do you feel outside collaboration is to the music you make?

Oh hugely important. I think especially in the early stages of working on a song, when people are working together the thing is better than the sum of its parts. Getting some different types of energy early on in a song opens up a lot of doors to making something different than if you were working on it by yourself.

The times that I’ve tried to do a whole song by myself without input from other people it turns out really poorly because I get a little too much in my own head about it. It’s definitely important to have talented people around.

Is it difficult to know when something’s finished when you’re writing in that way?

Yeah definitely, this time around it was helpful having people [labels etc.] around saying that this has to be finished! I find that deadlines are really helpful but also, I have these weird little rituals for when an album is done.

Usually when it starts to get close I have a pair of headphones that I’ve been using for a lot of years and I listen to it through headphones in different environments like walking round this pond that I really like in Boston or walking some city blocks in New York that I’m used to.

My test is that if the music takes me out of the situation because a note sounds bad or a sound is out of place then I know I need to fix it but if I can walk for the full forty minutes and just feel transported to a different place then I know that the record is done.

Are you one of these people that could tinker away forever if you didn’t have deadlines?

Oh absolutely, it took a long time to figure out how different my brain is from day to day. If it wasn’t for deadlines I’d just spend a couple of days thinking the song is great then a couple of days I would hate it and it would just ping-pong back and forth forever.

Once it is done do you still agonise over it or does it feel final?

Oh yeah well for the last number of records there’s usually a tour shortly thereafter, so it’s nice to imagine a thing as completely final and then the emphasis is on being able to re-purpose it live which is using a different part of your brain and being a lot more collaborative.

That’s a part of being a musician that I really enjoy, the solitary recording experience transitioning into being a little family that travels around and internalises the songs.

Do you think it’s important that the songs are put together in a different way live?

I think it’s really important for them to sound different. I was inspired as a young person with the idea behind folk music that there are songs that exist that can be constantly re-interpreted and put into different contexts.

My songs are really personal so I don’t expect a tonne of people to cover them or whatever but what I do enjoy is every tour approaching the songs all over again and figuring out how we want the set to sound and what we want to convey when we’re playing a show.

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Is there any improvisational stuff going on in your shows or is it the same every time?

We definitely leave some space in the set to improvise. I think we would all get pretty bored if we didn’t have some chances to do that. I think all four of us are people who like to have pedals and keyboards and twist knobs and make little soundscapes so to me it’s like a childlike feeling.

I remember playing in the playground and getting lost in my head and for some reason one of the few things that I can do that with as an adult is playing an synthesiser so we have a couple of times where we do that in a set. There was a very serious German man in Hamburg who told us that we need to do it longer; “these songs are too short!” he said, and I was like, okay!

Did you change your whole live show after this man told you off?

Yeah! He really struck a chord!

Do you find European shows differ a lot from US and UK?

It’s interesting, there are different cultures of watching concerts. The first time we played the Netherlands, I’m used to having a bit of joking around with the audience and being sarcastic and stuff like that and the crowd was just completely silent the entire show!

I was just sweating more and more and I felt like I had lost the audience and they were hating every moment of it and then we left the stage and there was this really long call for an encore and I was like, oh they’re just really polite! 

It’s funny to be flying in blind a lot of the time but the other difference is that in the US, so many of the venues are relatively new and they don’t have a lot of personality to them, it’s just a big black box that sells the same beers as everywhere else in the region. So many places in Europe are so much older and it feels interesting to walk into a space that has so many lifetimes of history to it. 

Is that something you like to do, talking to the audiences and building and relationship?

Yeah definitely, that’s very much the most fulfilling part of it for me, I don’t know how bands do it where they play a show and then just go back in their van and play video games or whatever, that seems like a very solitary experience.

Do you typically hang around after shows?

Yeah, it’s a mix. I’m also very introverted, I love my friends and I could hang out with them forever but once the music starts getting loud and people start getting drunk I usually try to find a quiet corner. I like talking to people when it actually feels like a conversation and you’re making a connection but I don’t really enjoy when it becomes a party.

You’re not living the wild rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?

[Laughs] I’ve definitely drank a lot more tea than booze and I haven’t done any drugs on this tour.

Well it’s been a whole year, if you were doing that you’d probably be dead!

Definitely! 

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