I discovered Benn Jordan’s YouTube channel, Benn and Gear through the usual side panel recommendations on the platform. I quickly realized that he is one of the most interesting musicians around. A guitarist who plays upside down and makes extensive use of the Roland VG-99, he is into boxing and MMA, has toured for years as The Flashbulb, combining metal and jazz guitar stylings, electronics, and beats, done extensive music for advertising and museum installations, and has a wicked sense of humor.
As a bonus, shortly after our interview, Jordan did a great review of the. new Aeros Looper.
When did you start on guitar and why upside down?
I acquired my first guitar after having a successful tantrum at a state fair when I was about five years old. It was a small nylon string acoustic and I had absolutely no idea how to hold it. I didn’t even know I was playing it wrong until I had been playing for a few years.
Any advantages to playing like that? (Other than not needing a lefty-guitar)
I think it’d certainly be more difficult if I only played other people’s music, or even if I were glued to the particular chord inversions most guitarists learn at first. Also teaching or getting lessons is pretty much off the table entirely. As for advantages, I suppose it really does help pave a unique style in terms of phrasing or even when selecting notes. For example, it’s really easy to play chords and let the high E and/or B ring out above them, so if I can, I tend to avoid a G#MAJ7 or something that doesn’t let me compliment it with the E or B. I also tend to really like the higher frets in the lower strings, which is usually a less used area for most right-side-up guitarists.
What kind of music were you playing when you first got into bands?
I usually frame my early style as jazz, but I’m starting to admit to myself that it was probably more blues and gospel-oriented versions of that. This is a weird thing to say, but when I was 12 or 13 and got introduced to music like Metallica and Iron Maiden, I was really enthusiastic with how much other kids liked it because it was so highly regarded yet easily playable. Like 80% of Metallica’s music was just noodling around in E minor. I got to sound a lot better than I actually was.
Who were your guitar heroes?
Early on I really loved Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jaco, and Stanley Jordan. To this day I have this deep understanding that trying to emulate their style is futile.
Did you study guitar or music formally?
Never. I certainly would have when I was a kid, but those resources just weren’t available.
How did you start incorporating guitar into beats and electronic music or was it vice-versa?
I was a non-electronic musician first and started using a drum machine as more of a necessity than a genre-choice. But I was instinctively wanting to program Buddy Rich solos so I never really used them traditionally.
Oddly enough, DJ culture was so big in the ’90s that I had a hard time getting shows that weren’t at raves. There was this stupid rift between electronic music and rock that made me have to be a bit of a secret guitarist in the early days, as I was already turning the audience off by playing synths instead of spinning records. It was stupid, lol.
Did working with beats help improve your time?
Yes and no. I think it really did dull my swing quite a bit when picking, but at the same time trying to perform an acoustic instrument over a non-acoustic medium is always a lesson in humility for me. I’m extremely self-critical and start the entire take over if one note is slightly off time, or if a fret sounds a few cents to sharp, or something.
Who were your electronic music influences?
I was really into Future Sound Of London, Brian Eno, and Coil as a teenager. I feel like they were all equally oblivious to electronic “genres” and used whatever sounds, noises, or instruments they wanted to get their ideas out. Herbie Hancock is of course an early influence, but he transcends genres so it’s hard to pin him down to any category.
When did you get into modular and how does that relate to guitar?
I’ve been into node-based synth stuff for a long time (Reaktor, Max, Pure Data), but I officially dove into the hardware modular world in 2016 or so when writing the score for a documentary called Planet Nine.
I actually think it complements the guitar quite well because the way I write a song on a modular is by using Boolean logic or guided randomization. Sometimes those melodies get spacious or cold and a guitar or piano really glues it all together to sound meaningful or emotional.
How did you get the specific guitar sound that opens AMM.tv Presents: The Flashbulb – “Virtuous Cassette” (live at SXSW)?
I don’t remember exactly, but to me it sounds like an octave down/pseudo-bass through a ring modulator and slight auto-filter.
Are the sounds (outside of drums) on that tune all the VG-99?
I usually have a looper or two by my feet, but I honestly can’t remember what I was using off camera (that was 10+ years ago). The solo in the beginning is a time-stretched tornado siren with a cutup breakbeat behind the guitar. As for “The Virtuous Cassette” track itself, I would typically stem out between 2-4 tracks and then use a “remix-style” DJ rig to play them live. That’s about as close as I could get to playing album tracks live without having to hire 20 musicians and bring a truck full of hear (which I’d do if I was paid well enough to afford it!). Fortunately, these days things like the Akai Force and so on exist to make it feel a bit more “live” to me.
Are you running both the electronic sounds and the guitar sounds through the PA or do you ever use a “real” as opposed to “virtual” amp?
I typically run everything into a master mixer when performing, back then it’d be a Mackie 1402 or something, now it’s an Allen & Heath QU-16 so it can memorize scenes. Then that will have a control room output for the stage monitors and a main out for the PA/house. I don’t really trust sound engineers unless I’m bringing my own, lol.
I’m pretty ignorant regarding amps. I have a Roland Jazz Chorus here and that’s about it. I’ve never owned the classic Marshall rig or anything though. I think I’m just really into stereo or surround sound, reverbs and convolution, so maybe that’s why I never found the same value in a vintage cabinet that most guitarists do. Or I could just be missing out.
When you record do you sometimes sample guitar sounds?
A lot of times I’ll just play guitar for half an hour and record the output, then go back and cut out phrases that I like to either save as ideas to play later, or use the sample itself.
Do you use guitar to trigger synths, modular or otherwise?
I do on stage much more than I do in the studio. I have a robotic piano with MIDI input which Is fun to play through, although there’s a bit of latency as the solenoids need time to hammer the piano strings. Also, Polyend Percs https://polyend.com/perc-drumming-machine/ are a lot of fun to trigger with the guitar.
Your latest record Our Simulacra (as The Flashbulb) sounds great, but unlike the previous, lush, acoustic guitar heavy Dormant, or 2014’s Nothing is Real, there is not much that sounds like obvious guitar on it? Did you use guitar as a sound generator at all?
Aside from a few tracks, the album really is light on guitar. I don’t think that’s intentional or anything. I always seem to bounce between the guitar and piano as my favorite writing or practicing instruments these days, and piano was my top choice for most of 2019.
Do you use generative programs to help compose your music?
I’m not a fan of melody assistant program or anything. I actually oppose them since their very existence relies on the premise that there are “right” and “wrong” chords in progressions, and anyone with a jazz background will think that is a cute way of looking at music, lol.
I do however make my own generative sequences on the modular or something similar. It won’t be the foundation of a song but rather a specific scale or combination of scales that I then can guide into a song with a guitar or piano. It’s a bit like reharmonizing what the modular spits out.
Jordan’s gear reviews are informative, honest, and hilarious.
Why did you start your You Tube channel Benn and Gear?
To be totally candid and honest, at first it was because I was really isolated after making Piety Of Ashes and my speech was suffering a bit from lack of verbal communication. I figured the best and quickest way to solve that would be to finally try and make a channel. In the first few months I was sure that I would delete all the videos and move on from it, as I couldn’t really see how I fit into the already crowded world of music-production YouTubers, but after meeting a lot of them I realized that my niche is having been a professional musician for 20 years. I think that’s a perspective some people value alongside the others.
Your review of the SY-1000 was informative. Are you using it? Have you tried the Source Audio C4 or the Jam Origin MIDI Guitar software, and if so what did you think?
I just used it for a looper review and still felt like I needed to spend some serious time with the presets before it Is anywhere near ideal. I haven’t used Jam Origin in a while, but I don’t remember it being nearly as accurate as hardware. The C4 is a lot of fun actually. I think that it can make some really unique and beautiful things if it’s behind a powerful delay and reverb.
Are you going to stick with the VG-99 for now?
I think if I had a show this weekend I would, mostly because the MIDI configuration and presets are muscle memory at this point. But I suppose that the silver lining of not having any performances in the foreseeable future is that I could familiarize myself and dive deep into stuff like the Mod Duo X, Digit, and ZOIA. I think all of those things combined with one preset management pedal like the MIDI Maestro would be pretty incredible.
You have been involved in Mixed Martial Arts competition. How, if at all, does that relate to your music? For example: does it help you focus on keeping all the balls in the air during you solo shows?
Probably not. Boxing had always been my strongest suit in combat sports, and I’ve broken my hands well over a half-dozen times. But I think being a musician has helped a lot with combat sports. Things like boxing or MMA are very unintentionally rhythmic. Fighters typically engage, then step back to gather oxygen, then step back in to engage, and so on. It’s really easy to detect a rhythm and be able to read your opponent a bit better. I think it’s even more useful to play into that rhythm and then break it. For example, think of a beat in your head and strike on the first and second quarter notes. Then before dipping back to take a breath, follow up with a third strike on the 7th quarter note.
A good example of fighters who do this brilliantly are Nick and Nate Diaz (Nate being a household name after finishing Conor McGregor). An even flashier version of a rhythm-breaking striker would be Michael Page.
You have been able to tour as a musician for years. How do you promote your music and build your fanbase?
The odd thing is that I don’t actively promote my music that much, or think about building a fan base. It’s just something that comes naturally when you’re a musician long enough. I think that’s the best way to go about it too, because when you get a “big break”, it’s just a temporary boost that will likely be gone before you acclimate enough to take advantage of it.
If you never let yourself stop learning and creating, success will find you (and you’ll probably be too busy learning and creating to care).
You have done records, tours, museum installations, advertising work, video channels, and more. Are all these streams necessary for a musician to make a living in the modern world?
I don’t think so. I think most professional artists naturally have pretty diverse streams of revenue. I have my fingers in all of these pies but I’m usually prioritizing one of them in a given time period. For example, with the album being done and the pandemic clearing my tour schedule and keeping folks locked down and bored at home, I decided to increase my YouTube output for the bulk of the year.
But I didn’t get into this profession to make a living, I just wanted to be a musician and eventually was able to very gradually improve my quality of life financially. Over the years I’ve had friends who were very successful musicians and had jobs waiting tables simply so they didn’t have to depend on their success as artists to pay the bills. If you’re worried about how an album is going to sell, then you’re worried about what other people will think. If you worry too much about what other people think then you’re inching away from creating art and towards providing a service for your listeners. I think it’s always healthy to reaffirm that we chose to be artists because we love creating. Nothing more, nothing less.
What is next for you?
I have three things happening this year. Writing music as always, keeping the channel schedule rolling as long as I can before needing a few weeks off, and completely retraining myself to stop economy picking and start alternate picking. So far I’m alt-picking at 130bpm, so I have a ways to go.
I have a few other projects on the horizon, but I’ve signed non-disclosure agreements so my lips are unfortunately sealed.