Booker plays Voodoo this Friday, touring behind his latest album, "Witness," a reinvention of his sound.
Benjamin Booker’s sound is tougher to pin down than it used to be. His first, self-titled album was a high-powered gut punch, 44 minutes of harsh, low-fi blues punk that blew the world away with its raw explosiveness. His latest project, Witness, which came out in June, is a different animal entirely. It’s tamer in terms of unchecked energy, but sonically, it’s much more adventurous. Booker is bringing his new songs to Voodoo, where he’ll play the South Course stage at 6 p.m. Friday.
“The first record we did was basically a live record,” Booker explains. “We went to Nashville and did most of the album in three days, and then mixed for a couple days. We just pressed play and recorded the songs.”
This high speed recording process is immediately apparent, from the first rushed notes of “Violent Shiver” to the reverb-soaked echoes of the album’s outro on “By the Evening.” The songs feel urgent, like they can’t get out of Booker’s body fast enough. Booker was fresh out of college when he wrote them and had only just started taking music seriously.
“I moved to New Orleans in 2012, and that’s when I started playing music around town,” he remembers. “I mean, I played guitar in my room in college, but that’s about it. It was a pretty quick turnaround.” That’s an understatement. Jumping from bedroom guitar noodling to a record deal and a critically acclaimed LP in two years is pretty much unheard of, especially in the relatively old school blues rock space Booker inhabits.
“It was weird, but it was also fun,” he says. “I got to do a lot of stuff that I wanted to do when I was a kid, so it was a good time.”
Booker quickly become an Internet darling, especially for those who felt his brand of unfiltered rock and roll was missing from the zeitgeist. On Witness, though, he wanted to try something different. The new album project feels polished, with much more complex arrangements and far fewer bluesy freak outs. The title track features soul legend Mavis Staples, and Motown-style strings are prominent on “Believe,” another lead single. If Booker’s first album pledged allegiance to the punk flag by way of the blues, these choices border on treasonous.
“It can be a trap sometimes, the blogs liking your sound,” he says. “You gotta do whatever you like to do, and I wanted to do something else. There are people who don’t like it. You lose some people, you gain some people. That’s how it goes. But if you’re not doing what you like to do, you’re going to be miserable.”
Booker has never been a straight-up punk rocker. Growing up in Florida, he immersed himself in the local folk punk scene, citing bands like This Bike is a Pipe Bomb and Against Me! as early influences. These groups taught him that genre was malleable, and that punk purity was not a sacred cow.
“It wasn’t weird to mix blues or soul or gospel with punk because these other people could do it with folk,” he remembers thinking. “And then when I moved to New Orleans, I listened to WWOZ a bunch, driving around town. And they play that old Rhythm and Blues stuff, so that was a big influence too.”
These traditions make brief appearances on the first album, but they are much more fully explored on Witness. Booker says the record’s producer, Sam Cohen, helped him fully realize this new sonic landscape.
“We just got nerdy with it,” Booker says. “Sam’s a music school guy, so we got nerdy with the gear, and with tones and that kind of thing. Even on the points of the record where it’s more aggressive, it’s soothing to the ears. We wanted something that would be more stimulating.”
It’s also important to note that Witness was recorded in multiple studio sessions, over the course of two weeks, not blasted out in a few live takes like Booker’s debut.
“I needed to get away from banging out songs, to really think about what I was making,” he says. “And I wanted to do stuff that would be more fun to play live, and for people to listen to. I mean, I love a lot of bands that play two, three-chord songs, but for me, you gotta mix it up.”
The one thing that's remained a constant between Booker’s releases is his raw, gravelly vocal style. On Witness, his voice sounds even rawer and more gravelly than it did the first time around, juxtaposed with the album’s lush production. It saves the project from becoming overly saccharine in its more uplifting moments, on songs like “Motivation” and “Believe,” and pushes punchier tracks like “Right on You” and “All Was Well” back into punk territory. It sounds almost nothing like his speaking voice, which is surprisingly soothing, but he swears it wasn’t a style he developed intentionally.
“When I started playing with a drummer, we were playing crappy bars,” he says. “And I was just trying to sing over the drums and the guitar on a crappy PA, so that probably had something to do with it.”
However it came to be, Booker’s endearingly abrasive voice has become his calling card, taking precedent over the fiery guitar licks that colored his first project. It adds an intangible depth to his lyrics, imbuing them with invisible weight. The excess poundage makes the album’s most serious songs extra heavy. The title track, an indictment of police violence, was instantly lauded as the protest song of the year. But the album is even darker on it’s more personal moments.
“Death is hard to imagine,” Booker repeats on the bridge of “Right On You,” before reminding us on the chorus that “it’s right on you, right on you, right on you.”
“That was pretty real for me in New Orleans,” he remembers. “I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was having a rough time there. Right before I went to Mexico, I was riding my bike down Burgundy and got shot at. So those things, of course they change the way you think about things.”
The Mexico trip, which Booker took last February, before moving from New Orleans to Los Angeles that summer, gave him the isolation he needed to write Witness, and the peace of mind to return to the states with newfound clarity and direction.
“I was turning 27, and you gotta start thinking about what you want out of life,” he says. “I’m past the years where I can have no responsibilities and do whatever I want.”