The buzzed-about punk/blues singer is as surprised by his presence on the fast track as those who just heard of him this year.
[Updated] Recently, a member of the New Orleans music community told me in a conspiratorial hush, “You know, Benjamin Booker’s not really from New Orleans.”
Booker agrees. He’s from Florida, where he was part of Tampa’s punk scene, but he moved to New Orleans in 2013, and it was while here that he cut an EP that friends encouraged him to put online. Someone from the Los Angeles-based Aquarium Drunkard music blog heard his stuff online and played it on the blog’s Sirius satellite radio show.
After that exposure, management and booking agents came calling, as did ATO Records. He was signed last November, and recorded his self-titled debut album in December. Now he’s being getting a lot of national buzz as a New Orleans phenomenon, and he’s okay with that too since it’s home now. He hears the naysayers, but it’s a new phenomenon.
“I didn’t have any problems with that when I first moved here at all, not until things started to kick off a bit,” he says. “The musicians I met when I first moved here were so nice to me.”
The whole experience has been a surreally fast one. He went from having almost no local profile to opening for labelmates The Drive-By Truckers at the Civic Theatre during Jazz Fest to Voodoo, where he plays Le Flambeau at 8:30 p.m. It has been such a whirlwind that Booker played the Civic shows with only a drummer in his band.
“There was not enough time to get a bass player before the shows started coming around,” Booker says. He’d like a larger band, but who can you stand to be in a van with?
“If I had a friend who played organ or guitar and was maybe not that good, I’d take him along. It’s more about me having a good time.”
That attitude isn’t obvious on Booker’s self-titled debut album. Titles such as “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” and “I Thought I Heard You Screaming” are just the tip of the intense iceberg. Booker attacks his guitar to produce a lo-fi distorted rock ’n’ roll take on the blues. Booker doesn’t consider himself a blues guy—“I think it would upset a lot of blues purists if I called myself a blues guy”—and points to the early 1980s band The Gun Club as an inspiration. You can hear the connection clearest in the band’s 1981 debut, The Fire of Love, whether its a punk take on Robert Johnson, the haunted, frenzied “Sex Beat,” or the self-explanatory “She’s Like Heroin to Me.”
“They were doing what I am doing, combining blues and punk,” Booker says. “It’s been done several times, but no one’s done it better. The energy’s what got me. And the darkness.”
Darkness is part of the reason Booker moved to New Orleans. He becomes a little circumspect talking about it, but he admits that he was around a lot of self-destructive people, “including me,” he says.
“I was having a hard time with the people around me. I thought I was going insane and losing my mind. I started having visual hallucinations. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I thought I was going to die at any point.”
He came to town and started to work for the non-profit agency Hands On New Orleans. The pay left him with little after rent, but it was better than falling apart. And, it gave him a crash course in the city. He’s knocked on every door in the Treme, he says, and while working there, Booker also introduced himself to WWOZ. Listening to it affected the songs he wrote since moving here, including the album’s most immediate track, “Violent Shivers.”
“Those are a more aggressive rhythm and blues thing with more soul.”
When Booker talks, he seems as startled by the speed with which he seemed to go from nowhere to ATO as doubters are. He didn’t start with dreams of stardom; in Tampa, the punk scene was all about supporting each other. “It blew my mind as a kid that these 14 and 15-year-olds have saved their money and made these seven-inches,” he said. “That was very exciting—to have something your friend made and you can take it home. That’s all I wanted—to make a seven-inch. That was my dream.”
Updated Dec. 29, 8:57 a.m.
Booker moved to New Orleans in 2013, not 2003 as first reported. The text has been changed to reflect this.