Q&A: Ben Frost On Spending The Past Year Working With Brian Eno

Rolex/Kirsten Holst
Earlier this week, the Voice published a story about an improbably cool concert event pitting the alternately noisy and contemplative musician Ben Frost against the New York Public Library's Rose Reading Room—a grand, palatial space that will be the setting on Sunday for a performance of Frost's "Music for 6 Guitars." The concert is part of Rolex Arts Weekend, a series of events marking the end of the past year's Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for which Frost was paired with Brian Eno to basically spend a year talking, working, wandering—whatever they wanted, really. (The program includes similar pairings for the realms of dance, literature, film, visual arts, and theater.)

Mention of Eno didn't enter much into the story itself, but Frost talked a lot about his experience with the great interlocutor. Excerpts below.

After a year of being around and working with him, what have you learned from Brian Eno?

The thing I've probably come away most is a great sense of relief. He's a person who has been working three times as long as I have, and in a similar way that I do. We have so many similarities in the way we deal with the world and, as a young man, I'm still questioning a lot about the way I go about doing things. Spending time with Brian, he has demonstrated the way in which I perceive things to be and the way in which I've chosen to work is... a good way of working. There's no sort of moment when he slaps me on the back and says "You're on the right track, kid," but it's always very affirming to be around Brian. We share an insatiable curiosity for the way the world works, and we're very good friends because of that. We're not going to stop working together, there's no time frame on this and that was very clear from day one. I just really enjoy talking to him, and very little of it has to do with music.

Has anything about him surprised you?

I think the most interesting aspect of this whole thing is how similar we are. I never expected that. I definitely had suspicions about the whole [mentorship program] and, in many ways, at least up to the point when I was actually awarded it, I had taken the whole process with a huge handful of salt. To be perfectly honest I really didn't give a fuck. In hindsight, perhaps that helped a lot. I mean, my work appeals to the most infinitesimally small subgenre of subgenres of people in the world that I didn't expect to be taken seriously, I think, and I certainly didn't expect to win.

To generalize, your work tends to be dark and heavy and brooding, whereas his—in recent years especially—seems more concerned with lightness of touch and sustained states of grace. What do you think drew him to you, and have you guys spent time talking about such differences?

That's totally valid and there's an argument to be made there that's why he chose me. Brian is profoundly emotional and, as an artist, he's developed himself in the role of an observer. He's the ultimate watcher and voyeur. He has a better understanding of how music works than anybody I know.

What's also interesting is that the records he listens to, the records he'll put on over coffee, are not obscure Stockhausen recordings or academic explorations of sound or musique concrete. He'll listen to Aretha Franklin over that any day. If you look at his career, he's surrounded himself with people with big egos and big voices and big, physical music. Stuff like U2, their latter-day sins notwithstanding, those early records are fucking brutal. There's some serious shit going on there, and I don't think there's much difference—if you strip away the sonic fashion of my music and that of Talking Heads—I don't see a lot of difference. I'm not trying to compare myself to Talking Heads but am just trying to say that ultimately, the music he's attracted to has an underlying sort of darkness.

That culminates more than anywhere else in his love of gospel music. He's obsessed with gospel music and there's nothing more visceral than that. There is nothing darker than slave music from the South. It's all he'd listen to if he was stranded on a desert island—it would be him and 30 gospel records. I think he's attracted to the undeniable sense of power, of rage and loss. There's joy as well, but even the most joyful of gospel tunes is ultimately a cry for help. But I don't know, it's definitely something I've thought about. I've always questioned what it is about my music that he's into, because when I look at his other collaborators, I often feel like the black cloud in an otherwise sunny sky. But he seems to be drawn to it.

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