ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: BEN ALLEN
We were lucky enough to chat with longtime Marmoset artist and composer Ben Allen. From his writing process to his favorite gear, Allen invited us in for a brief deep dive on what makes him tick.
M: When did you start composing music? What were your early influences?
BA: I would say I started composing long before I knew what composing was. I even still am not sure what the hell I'm doing. But as a kid, I recall sitting at the piano and just hitting all the white keys and being drawn in to the way the notes resonated and droned. However, I didn't really start actually playing music till about fourteen or so. I got a guitar, and eventually got into recording my ideas. That's where "composing" really started for me — the realization that I could layer things and make full songs without a band. It just developed from there. I hesitate to even use the word "composer", because it sounds so official. As if I actually know what I'm doing, but I don't really. I'm just making things up as I go.
As for early influences, Blink-182 was the big one. There was an embarrassing period there where I was really into prog and anything with guitar shredding. A lot of Rush, Dream Theater. It's a miracle I made it out.
M: Tell us about how you got connected to Marmoset and how long you’ve been working with us.
BA: So I actually got connected when I was still located in Kansas City. I applied for a job that I was nowhere near qualified for, but I got an email back regarding my music, then got signed on as an artist. I guess it's been like 4 or more years now. Maybe longer?
M: What do you usually start with when composing a new piece? Do you keep a collection of musical ideas and wait for the right opportunity, or do you often start from scratch?
BA: It really varies from song to song, but I rarely start with a preexisting idea. It usually starts with finding an interesting sound — a synth, or guitar patch, or weird sample or something. Just something to capture my attention. I do keep a back catalog of ideas in case, but the vast majority of the time, they just end up in Dropbox purgatory. So, I have found that starting from scratch and finishing the idea is best for my workflow. Unless it's pretty gold, it goes in the trash can.
M: What does improvisation and composition mean to you, and what are their respective merits?
BA: For me, as a non-classically trained musician, improvisation is everything. That's where all the ideas come from. For the way I work, composition is really the re-sorting and organization of improvised ideas. I've made a habit of always having things recording while I write for this reason. I think there is something special about improvisation. For me, it taps into that primal, almost spiritual side of music. You can get into a zone where your hands can play the notes faster than your brain can work to psych you out, and sometimes that's where the magic happens. I guess maybe composition is the more analytical, classical tool. And improvisation is the romantic part. Maybe? I dunno.
M: What’s one piece of gear (or plugin) you cannot live without?
BA: I would be lying if I didn't say autotune. Or quantization. But besides that, maybe my Strat. Generally, assloads of reverb. Not proud, just true.
M: You’re trapped on a desert island and can only bring three records (the desert island is equipped with a record player and infinite power). What three records do you choose?
BA: Just one. Thriller.
M: You create a lot of different genres of music. What’s it like to wear different stylistic hats as a composer and producer? Do you have strategies for switching gears in the studio?
BA: The key is wearing actual different hats. Cowboy hats. Bucket hats.
But really, I guess it's just for me actually feels the most natural to be spread across genres. It helps keep my interest alive. The only real strategy I have is just listening to a lot of a certain genre before I have to go into new territory. I'm also recently finding this to be a super useful tool, especially when I'm attempting to mix. Emphasis on "attempting" here.
M: Which classic sci-fi film do you prefer, Alien or Predator?
BA: I'm totally embarrassed to say I've never actually seen either movie in its entirety. But I can tell you Alien Vs. Predator is garbage.
M: You've placed a lot of music with us. Is there any specific spot/placement you're particularly proud of or excited about?
BA: Hmm. I'm pretty happy when anything from my Deadwater project places, because I never thought any of it ever would. The Cadillac spot for Travelist was fun. That was maybe my most prominent one so far.