The Benefit of the Free Man are one of my favourite Toronto bands. They marry dark poetic meditations with the lush drama of acoustic strings. They employ deeply absorbing rhythms, haunting melodies, and intense dynamics, all combined with a certain stately grace. Their debut EP/mini-album is one of the most affecting listening experiences I’ve had during the last year.
I sat down with their lead singer, the one and only Lee Piazza, to talk about his early love of language and rhythm, the genesis of the band, and the inspirations behind the songs on their first release.
AR: One of the things I like to do with musicians is discuss their past, just to put the journey in context. Where are you from? How did music enter your life?
LP: I’m from Ottawa. I was always messing around sounds- I started out kind of as a drummer.
Are you from a musical family? Was there music around your house as a kid?
No, not at all. My parents did have a really nice piano in the house, though. But it never gets played. And now, for the past year, I’ve actually been teaching myself piano. But when I was younger, drumming was the first thing. I also got some turntables at one point, and my parents were supportive of that stuff.
Were you one of those classic hyperactive kids who liked to hit things?
Pretty much, yeah. It just kind of made sense to me at that time, when I was ten or whatever.
What kind of music was in your head as a kid?
Honestly, I went through all kinds of phases. It probably started with an Ace Of Base tape or something like that- I remember asking my sister to go get that for me. I was still too young to go to the mall on my own at that point. I was probably eight or nine. And then I got really into hip hop when I was in high school: Wu-Tang Clan, The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, stuff like that. I also listened to grunge, like everyone did at the time.
Your early interest in hip hop and percussion is interesting. You had an early connection to rhythm and language, it seems. Those things are both very much a part of the aesthetic of The Benefit of the Free Man.
Yeah, I guess so. And then at some point I started writing. And there were a few early shows that really impacted me. Ottawa got bypassed by a lot of bands, so the shows that I saw were always very special and meaningful.
I remember seeing Radiohead, on the “OK Computer” tour, when I was 13 or so. It was a small place, probably the size of Lee’s Palace [a famous mid-sized Toronto venue]. So I was within 20 feet of the band at that show, which was amazing.
That definitely was the defining moment for that band, so I can imagine that being very exciting to a young mind. It was to me.
That is still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. So after that and a few other key shows, it became clear to me that I wanted to perform. So at some point after that, probably in high school, I started writing. It was funny- I was doing hip hop shows, and cafeteria performances of things that I’d written.
Were you writing poetry or lyrics? Did you make that distinction at all, or were you just writing for its own sake?
It was more poetry at the time. And I had friends that I would write with, throughout high school. And towards the end of school we had a little band that we started. So I would just write the lyrics, and then the rest of the song would come afterwards. Phonetically, it didn’t always make sense once I added the music. Now, that kind of thing has been a real focus for me, just making the phonetics work. With all of the Benefit songs, none of the words were pre-written; they are all tied into the music. Sometimes the idea starts with just the vocal melody or something.
Like with “Ducats”, for example- we had this idea for a video, but we didn’t really know what to play. I remember coming up with that vocal melody, sort of on my own, so I just sang the melody to myself a lot and then the rest came.
So you’re saying that you used to start with just words, but now you let the musical elements guide the words more. One of the things that really interests me in your work is the poetic bent that it all has. One of the big focuses of your band is the lyrics, and the meter and the inherently rhythmic aspects of those lyrics. Those elements seem to define some aspect of what you guys do, and help to distinguish the songs. How did you know you had made a transition from poetry into songwriting?
I’m not sure. I’d been messing around with songwriting for a long time, when I was younger, but I don’t remember having a “eureka” moment or anything. It just sort of took shape and they started becoming songs. It’s really evolved a lot now, as the last five or six years I’ve been spending more time on music. I think my writing has changed dramatically in just the past few years. Being away from other distractions and just plunging into it has been really great.
What about your literary influences? Who has blown your mind as a writer?
Lately, I swear by Mordecai Richler- I think he’s phenomenal. I sort of can’t get enough of him. For a while I was trying to delve into another author, and it wasn’t happening because I was so into Richler. I like that the version of Canada that he portrays is sort of raw and coarse. It totally debunks the myths that so many people hold about Canada. It so much more honest than the popular image. And also, he’s just a hilarious writer. So he’s somebody that really speaks to me.
Do you read mostly authors, then? Or are you checking out poetry as well?
It’s a mix of both. But I’d say more of the time I’m focused on novels.
Is it the longer form of the novel that you’re more interested in?
Well, it’s interesting, because it’s only recently that I’ve started disregarding the concept of rhyme. I guess hip hop and spoken word had an influence on me in that way. But I’ve moved away from rhyme now, more particularly in my own poetry. So I’ve become more open to the possibilities of what you can create when you don’t restrict yourself in that way. But with songs, it just depends on what the song needs- sometimes they rhyme, sometimes not.
Let’s talk about your band. It’s an interesting and unusual musical entity, not only instrumentally, but in terms of the subject matter of the songs. It’s all very dark and moody, but there’s also this warped sense of humour. So I’m really curious- how did this band come together?
Greg and I were living together in this grimy little apartment- it actually burned down, a few months after we left. But yeah, we weren’t really planning it or anything. The band started with the creation of “Summer Moons”. Once we finished that one song, we realized that it was something that we wanted to keep doing.
Greg had already written the guitar part a few years earlier. And he played me a recording that he had made of it, one night when we were hanging out. It instantly gave me all these ideas, and I knew immediately that it was going to be about a road trip that we had taken.
So that whole summer, we were just writing things. We actually had a girl singing in the band for a little while, who ended up getting deported.
Yeah, she ended up returning to Latvia. So Anna, our cellist, was in a band called The Rest. I was in an electro-rock band at the time, and we met backstage at a show at Lee’s Palace. She was serving up caviar backstage, so we were hanging out and sharing caviar.
So we ended up doing this one-off show where I asked her to play. It was just meant to be for this one show. It’s funny how things line up, because we then lost the original singer. And Anna was living with Katie [violinist]- they’ve known each other forever. So once she came over, the strings started to really become a focus, as we now had a cello and a violin. We decided not to replace the female singer and to let my voice be alone. We still weren’t convinced we needed a drummer. The original idea was to keep it minimal. Greg and I really liked the simplicity of it.
Yeah- you just show up with your acoustic instruments and play your songs.
It was so easy! Whereas with other types of bands, things can move very slowly and it becomes frustrating.
So you liked the portability of being a primarily acoustic band?
Yeah. And we really didn’t have much of a desire to move beyond that. The rest just kind of happened, there was no plan. And then the strings, those two [Anna and Katie] are just phenomenal musicians. So it just kind of happened during jams on my balcony during the summer time. We’d be outside playing a song, and we’d stop playing and hear clapping coming from somewhere [laughs]! It happened time and time again. And by this time we had a drummer.
So you knew that the strings were going to be a focal point by this time?
Definitely. But a lot of the songs were still shaped and conceived by me and Greg. And sometimes we’ll come up with stuff in a jam, and mess with it, and it just comes. But mostly it was Greg and I collaborating. “Harbord” was by the two of us, in a park on Harbord Street. “Ducats” was written in the jam space. “Swans” was the two of us. So we start the songs, and it changes shape as you add in the other parts. But everyone in our band has a really good sense of what to add, so it works.
That’s one of the things I really like about your band. Because you aren’t playing in a traditional rock band format, everyone has more room to play with the space created inside the songs. I said this in my review, but I think the space in the arrangements is a very distinct characteristic of the band. The songs are dark, but they also breathe a lot.
Yeah, absolutely. I do think that now that we’ve been a band for a while, that those ideas are starting to influence the writing more. The songs are getting bigger now. So I think in the newer material will be more geared towards a five piece band.
I guess if you’re a really good band, things are continually evolving. I really like artists that are able to transform themselves. PJ Harvey is somebody who I really admire, and she’s transforming herself on every record. So I always find that the most interesting bands are the ones that kind of morph.
As an artist, you want to be evolving all the time?
Yeah absolutely. I always need different outlets, and the music needs to be changing and morphing.
Let’s go through the EP, song by song. What is “Ducets” about?
Well, it’s definitely sort of about hyper-consumerism. People who shop to make themselves feel better, things like that. The more things you think you need, the more difficult and petty life becomes. As we talked about earlier, we knew we wanted to do some kind of performance in the heart of the Eaton Centre, so we thought about that. I wrote it shortly after Black Friday. I read this article about a lady in the States, who had been the first in line to a sale or whatever, who actually brought pepper spray or mace with her to the store! So when the doors opened, she maced the people around her. It’s amazing to me that we’re so warped that we could get to a point where that is considered acceptable behavior.
Yeah, that’s pretty nuts. Good story though. You said “Summer Moons” is about a road trip?
There was big gang of us who went down to Bonnaroo in Tennessee. It was kind of absurd, because we only had so much time to get there- I think it was 5 days or something to go there and back. So there was this urgency to every moment of that trip. We had two cars, and we drove down, but there were only two drivers- I was one of them. At one point I drove for twenty-two hours straight. And then we went to the festival and then drove all the way back. It took me about a week to recover afterwards. It’s amazing what the human body is capable of- I didn’t sleep that whole week!
And Tennessee has these crazy lightning storms that fill up the whole sky. It’s actually really terrifying. And we got caught in a really fierce storm, and it was actually really scary. So that song is about that whole trip. I feel like the way the song moves is like a vehicle- it moves.
“Swans”- what’s that about?
“Swans” is about environmental destruction.
Are you an environmentalist?
It’s something that’s important to me, definitely. But I don’t just decide to write about an issue, it’s just what comes. You have to be careful…
Well, when you write about “issues” you don’t want to be preachy.
Yeah, that’s right. And you don’t want to make yourself bigger than you are. A lot of times when people do that, it’s actually about them singing about that issue, as opposed to the issue itself. If you approach it that way, it can be in bad taste. It depends on how you approach it- you don’t want to tell people what to think. So songs that relate to a specific issue, like “Swans”, it has to be driven by something that deeply resonates.
It has to be said with an authentic voice. And there’s a mournful quality to that song which underscores that it’s based in real emotions.
Yeah, exactly. It’s more of a lament than anything, it’s not preaching- it’s about taking it in and being very affected by it, emotionally. Rather than coming to it in a tasteless way, you motivate people with the issue more because they become emotionally invested in it.
“Toxic”- what’s the subject matter of that song? There’s a lot of anger in it.
That one is all about rumor-mongering. Actually, that song did start out as a poem. But yeah, I think that love of gossip is one of the worst features, and it’s really easy to get sucked into it. The idea of relishing in someone’s downfall.
It has some real rage. It feels as though you were really connecting to that feeling in that song.
Absolutely, I definitely have some real anger in me towards that kind of thing. I just have no patience or tolerance for it. But we’re always exposed to it. It’s easy to make judgments, and people are so eager to jump in to it. So that’s where that song came from.
“Harbord”- you’ve already alluded to that song having a specific geographical origin.
That one we wrote in Art Eggleton Park, on Harbord Street. It’s sort of about knowing that you’re very fortunate, but still being hungry and striving for something more.
That seems to be very much in line with your whole creative approach: striving for change.
Yeah, it about trying to be conscious of that fact that we’re very lucky, in that we have a blessed life. But at the same time, there’s still something gnawing at you. I don’t think that feeling will ever leave me, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that.
The Benefit of the Free Man are currently working on a follow-up recording, and plan to do a cross-country tour in 2014. Check out this unique and and exciting band!