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Radical Face Releases New Album ‘The Roots’

Radical Face, Jacob Gaitan photography, Radical Face live, Ben Cooper

Photo by Jacob Gaitan

Roots will grow in any direction where the environment meets their needs.

For Ben Cooper, The Roots, his sophomore album under the name Radical Face, grew in a tool shed in his mother’s backyard in Jacksonville, Fla.

Alone, aside from the necessities for his craft, Cooper spent more than a year recording the album, which is the first of three installments in his series The Family Tree.

Radical Face album art, The Family Tree, The RootsCooper has a particular zest for concept albums. In 2007, his debut release, Ghost, mused on the idea that houses retain stories. On Oct. 4, he released The Roots, an album set to depict the life of a 19th-century family. In an almost method acting manner, Cooper limited himself to instruments that would only be accessible during the 1800s – a piano, floor tom, acoustic guitar and song.

Radical Face offers a sound that is much different from Cooper’s band Electric President with Alex Kane. The Roots calls to mind the music of Sufjan Stevens and The Shins. As a whole, the album is an emotional and powerful collection that doesn’t leave the listener drained but curious. Cooper recruits the sounds and cycles of nature, and juxtaposes dark lyrics and elevated music to offer layered storytelling.

The Spec had the opportunity to interview Ben Cooper about his newest release, read what he had to say below…

Your 2007 album, Ghost, was based on the concept that houses are inhabited by their history. This album also has a concept. How crucial, if at all, is it for you to have an album theme or concept before beginning the recording process?

Concepts are pretty big for me. It goes a long way in keeping me focused, and I like having some larger goal to achieve with the music. I still write songs on a whim if the itch shows up, but without some point to drive a project the songs never really gel into anything larger. A lot of my favorite records are ones where the songs are hard to remove from the whole, because they all help form the picture. I try to mimic that.

How much and in what ways do you think the environment you recorded in (alone in a tool shed) influenced the music?

It affects a lot. I’ve tried recording in studios in the past. I had free run of one for a while producing a friend’s record, and even though everything I brought home from recording there sounded better than anything I could do in my shed, in the end I scrapped it all and started over. I just didn’t like how it felt. I prefer working in spaces that are lived in and have some character. It’s more important to me than outright sound quality. Also, the shed forces me to work in the middle of the night due to being near a highway (the traffic doesn’t die down until after 11 p.m.), and it’s kind of creepy sometimes. I think all of that bleeds into the recordings.

The album revolves around a “strange, fictitious family from the 1800s,” but are any of the personalities/feelings/events modeled after your life? If not, how did you develop these stories, characters, events?

Yeah, I’m in there in bits and pieces. It always happens. I think storytelling is half informed by the storyteller’s experiences, and half by whims and imagination. But for it to have a ring of truth, you have to pull from things you know, things you’ve been through. And I’m definitely guilty of music as therapy. I just find it’s easier to be honest in a story. I’m a lot more sympathetic when writing about someone else, even if it’s just someone I invented. I realize that this probably sounds like a load of crap, but it works for me.

I also pull stories from books I read that have an effect on me, or even just news stories or fables. Some hit closer to home than others.

It took you four years to develop the concept of the album – What was that process like? Why the 19th century?

I was nervous to start. I’ve wanted to write a family saga for a long time. Family is a big topic for me. I’m one of ten kids, and my family has had a big impact on my life. Lots of life lessons, with both really high points and really low ones. As such, I was worried about screwing it up. So I spent a lot of time just shaping the stories and songs and researching. I didn’t want to begin recording until I had the big picture in mind. Funny thing was, once I started writing, it all just poured out. I wrote over 40 songs on the concept, which is why I divided it all up into a trilogy.

As for the time period, I wanted to cover multiple generations, and I like history. So I dug back until around 1800, then carried it on until about 1950. I get further into the time line with each record.

Did limiting your instruments and recording in a shed effect your creative process (in a positive or negative way)? If so, how?

Yeah, it did. Not so much working in the shed – I’ve done pretty much all my recording there for the past eight years – but keeping the instruments and production simple forced me to focus on the songwriting more. I had no real tricks to fall back on. So if I didn’t like the mood or how it felt, I just rewrote it. Taught me a lot. At times it was really frustrating, but I’m glad I did it.

Though, I’m working on record two now, and having more tools at my disposal (I’m using distortion and full drum kits again, for example) has been really nice. I missed them.

Tell us more about the Family Tree trilogy – theme, inspiration, etc.

I’m not sure how much to say. I’ve been building and shaping all of this for years, and I’m only half done. I didn’t realize the investment I was making when I started. But I never do.

One inspiration point I can directly mention, though, is the book East of Eden. It’s one of my favorites. Top five for sure, and I read a lot. Looking back, I think it was the trigger to finally begin writing for this idea. I’d had the idea for years before I read it, but it’s what got the ball rolling, I guess.

The music of Radical Face seems to carry the theme the past and history? Why is that?

It’s sort of how I divided the two main projects from the start. The Electric President albums I do with Alex are concerned with the future, and where things are headed, and are generally a lot more electronic. The Radical Face stuff was a way to dig into the past and history, where things come from, nostalgia. I guess I’ve never been too concerned with the present when writing.

Without any spoilers, can you tell us what we can expect from the two other parts of the trilogy? How do you anticipate them being different, or the same, as The Roots?

Well, The Roots is the simplest of the three. They’ll be getting a bit more diverse as it goes. The second record has been quite a bit darker and stranger so far. Sometimes a lot louder, too. But some themes carry over from record to record. For example: certain chords and notes from a character’s song The Roots show up again on The Branches in a piece about that person’s granddaughter. They’re just twisted into something a bit different, and played in different instruments, or just used as a small bridge between sections. But there’s a bunch of little ties like that, things I doubt anyone will really notice. Hahaha. I like getting lost in details, so I’m happy to do it either way.

But exactly how different the final recordings will shape up is hard to say. A lot can change over the course of making an album.

Listen to a couple tracks from The Roots:

Song: Black Eyes

Song: Ghost Towns

Purchase the full album on iTunes or Amazon.

Radical Face will be touring this fall in support of the new release.

Upcoming tour dates:

10/ 6 – San Francisco, CA – Brick and Mortar Music Hall (with Albatross Choir)
10/ 11 – Los Angeles, CA – Bootleg Theater (with Easterly Singers)
10/ 22 – Arlington, VA – Rock Spring Church (with Yorktown Vocal Ensemble)
10/ 25 – New York, NY – Webster Hall Studio (with Cloud Family Singers)


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