Driving fast with a blindfold on
interview by Robert Pally
Happiless is the new project of Allen Keller (former member of The Falling Wallendas, Womens Liberace) and Mike Benign (The Mike Benign Compulsion; former member of Blue In The Face & Arms & Legs & Feet). On their self titled debut they offer outstanding and challenging Indie-Pop. In the interview they talk about writing songs via e-mail, giving up music, collaborations, different meanings of success and what qualities a good song must have.
PSF: Allen and Mike, tell me the important facts about your individual musical and artistic careers.
AK: I put out six albums with my former bands The Falling Wallendas and Womens Liberace. In 2000, I completely gave up music and began to pursue comedy writing. I wrote sketch comedy at the famed Second City Theater in Chicago. Then I moved out to Los Angeles to shop screenplays and TV shows. In 2017, they're filming a movie I wrote called "Walking Time Bomb" that is being produced by Elizabeth Banks for Netflix. I'm hoping to have some of Happiless' music in the film.
MB: I've been a songwriter and performer since the 80s. People in the Midwestern U.S. may know Blue In The Face (1991-1995) and Arms & Legs & Feet (1988-1991). I was the songwriter and singer in those bands. Since 2010, I've performed and recorded with my band, The Mike Benign Compulsion, which has released three full-length albums.
PSF: How did you meet and when did you decide to work together?
MB: We met back in the '90's in the Milwaukee music scene. Allen was heading up Womens Liberace and I was leading Arms & Legs & Feet. We would go see each other's band perform, and occasionally, our bands would play shows together. Sometime in 2013, I contacted Allen about the idea of writing and recording songs together. He was skeptical at first, since he hadn't been involved in music in more than a decade. Over time, he came around to the idea. I'm glad he did.
AK: We were in various Milwaukee bands in the early 1990's. Mike's band, Arms Legs and Feet put out an amazing album in 1989 that, in my mind, ranks with The Violent Femmes as the best album ever to come out of the city. We were rivals who became good friends.
PSF: You both are solo artists or have been solo artists. How easy or difficult was it to write songs together with your individual ideas about it?
MB: It was difficult at first in the sense that I wasn't used to collaborating with other writers. It took a while for me to be OK with the idea that Allen might have a completely different sense of where a song could go. As we started to finish some songs, I saw how Allen's ideas made mine better. From that point on, it became much easier to let the song go wherever and however it needed to.
AK: You never know if collaboration is going to work or not until you get deep into it. At first, even though we respected each other immensely, I think we were peeing around our respective territories. Mike or I would start a song and we'd be protective of where the other would take it, but at some point, it really clicked. And after a few months, we realized that we filled each other's gaps. Mike is far more prolific than I am. He comes up with great ideas REALLY QUICKLY, then is ready to move onto the next song. I'm much more "Wait, a second. Let's keep polishing." It takes me forever to come up with an idea I'm ready to share, but Mike would always be cranking out material and I really would have to get off my rock or get washed away by his production. It got me to work harder. Lyrically, I'm less dada than Mike. Mike likes to sketch out ideas and let the listener come to their own conclusion what the song means. I want the song to have an idea going in, and I want to convey that idea as clearly as possible. I'm not afraid of being metaphorical (like the song Pill Called Disaster is about the trade off in modern medicine between keeping people alive for the sake of it, and quality of life based on my mother-in-law's tortured existence as a person with Alzheimers Disease), but I want each song to have an overall theme. To be honest, if Mike hadn't been cranking out ideas and inundating me with them, I probably would never have finished a song. But he threw me in the deep end of the pool and I started swimming. Eventually, after about six months, I got back to where I was when I stopped writing in 1999.
PSF: What quality must a good song have for you? Maybe you can give me an example?
AK: I want songs to surprise me. If I can guess the chord structure of a song before even hearing it, I get bored. I also notice today that most music on the radio is the same section over and over. The only difference between verse and chorus is in the dynamics. I want more from a song. I want interesting lyrics from a unique perspective. And I want interesting music where the writer is always two steps ahead of me. A few that come to mind are: "Necessary Evil" by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, "Toe in the Ocean" by The Pixies, "Every Single Night" by Fiona Apple, "Black Skinhead" by Kanye, and "Black Star" by Bowie.
MB: Melodic. With lyrics and an arrangement that are challenging and perhaps unexpected in some way. And not a second longer than it needs to be. A tight two and a half minutes always tops four or five minutes of sprawl.
PSF: How did writing songs via e-mail work? Can you give me an example? Mike Benign (When I was living in Milwaukee), one of us would send a song fragment (a verse or chorus) to the other. Then the other would come up with the next part. And so on. We'd talk on the phone, via Skype or by email to say what we liked or didn't like about where the song was headed. In some cases, it went very quickly. In others, like Hopscotch Town, it took us a while to get the song to the point where we were both happy with it. Allen Keller (When I was Living in L.A.), it worked out well. Mike would send me a verse and it would be my job to add a verse, maybe a chorus. We'd go back and forth until the song was done. As we got more used to the process, I think each of us took our own songs further before passing them on.
PSF: Is the internet a curse or a blessing for a band like Happiless?
AK: Not sure. I don't feel very savvy about it. It's funny that it really wasn't very important back when I made Wuthering Depths. So I kind of feel like Rip Van Halen who fell asleep for 20 years only to find everything changed. The best way to spread your music if you're an indie used to be by touring and playing colleges. Since we're not doing that, we'd be in a real pickle if we didn't have Facebook and like to spread the news. The album is available for download on ITUNES, Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotify and CD Baby.
MB: A little of both. The nice thing is, anyone can find us online, and it's been fun seeing people around the world discover Happiless that way. The not so nice thing is, anyone can enjoy our music via streaming services without Allen and me receiving any compensation for it. For better or worse, that's the model these days. And it's something acts of all shapes and sizes are dealing with.
PSF: Allen, you have not written a song in quite a while. I guess the last time was for your last solo album, the fantastic Wuthering Depths (1999)? How different do you approach songwriting today?
AK: The biggest difference is probably thematic. Since giving up music, I've gotten married, had two kids, lost two members of my family, and had to struggle with typical issues like money and work. I'm not the hedonistic guy I was whose sole motivation was getting laid.
PSF: Allen, why did you quit music?
AK: In retrospect, I think it was because I lost both my sister and father within a two month period in 2000. And after I got married, I didn't really want to tour anymore. And oddly, I decided to start writing comedy in the midst of all the tragedy and I totally changed my focus. Now, I consider myself more of a comedy writer than a songwriter.
PSF: How come you called your band Happiless?
AK: I think it sums up the lyrical content perfectly. Songs like "Sleepyhead" are so over-the-top depressing that they're funny. Funny, but sad equals happiless. It's being devoid of joy, but not overwhelmed by sorrow.
PSF: Describe the sound of Happiless.
AK: It's the pop equivalent of driving fast with a blindfold on.
PSF: Regarding Happiless, what would mean success for you?
AK: Success was putting the record out. I honestly never thought I would write music again. And I'm really happy that a lot of people seem to have been waiting for me to put out an album. When Mike pitched the idea to me, he said he really wanted me to start writing again. That made me really happy.
MB: Listening to the album and liking it. They tell their friends. And maybe even buy it! (Sarcasm intended. It's remarkable and sad how many people believe they have no obligation to pay for music they enjoy).
PSF: Apparently the work of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo inspired you for Happiless. Can you tell me more?
MB: They have a project called The Both that released a terrific album a few years back. They're both solo artists and were touring together. For whatever reason, they decided to write together. Our understanding is they did that by sending song snippets back and forth to each other. We stole their approach to collaboration.
PSF: Happiless released a song called "Butterman" (from Wuthering Depths) on IPO vol. 12 in 2009. When did Happiless actually start?
AK: Butterman was actually from my last album, Wuthering Depths, in 1999. Someone wanted to re-release it under a new band name and that was supposed to be "Happiless." I liked the name so much and it fit the music so well that I resurrected it for Mike and my project.
PSF: The opening track "Some People" of your debut reminds me, especially the end, on XTCs "Dear God". Was the music of XTC an influence?
AK: Certainly not intentionally, but I'm a huge, huge fan.
MB: Not consciously, though Skylarking is one of my favorite albums by anyone ever. And by the way, I take your comparison to "Dear God" as the highest compliment. So thank you!
PSF: "Sleepyhead" is beside "Pill called The Disaster" and "Stranger To Yourself" my favourite song. Can you tell me more about how it was written?
MB: For "Sleepyhead," Allen sent me the first part of the verse: "Don't you realize you're not worth anything at all/everyone was right and you'll never mean a thing." I immediately loved it--maybe more than anything we had done to that point. I sent back the next part, which serves as the song's chorus: "Lie down, Sleepyhead, you've earned a little rest/If you don't awake again, it's probably for the best." From there, everything came together very quickly; culminating in Allen adding the vocal ascent at the very end of the song--which he says was inspired by the end of Bowie's "Life On Mars."
AK: "Pill Called the Disaster" was probably the first song I initiated. While Mike was inundating me with song ideas, I had about a thousand false starts trying to contribute a single one. When I finally came up with the Pill riff, I finally felt like I was getting back to where I'd been. It felt a lot like the stuff I wrote for The Falling Wallendas when I was at my peak. It also proved to me that Mike could write in my language. His chorus couldn't have been better. It blew me away.
PSF: Who beside you worked on your debut?
AK: We had some great people contribute to Happiless. Lyle Workman (Frank Black and the Catholics, Beck, Sting) played guitar. Brett Simons (Fiona Apple, Brian Wilson and Dwight Yoakam) played bass. Brian Young (Fountains of Wayne, The Posies and The Jesus and Mary Chain) was on drums. Wendy Wilson (Wilson Phillips) provided backgrounds. And Danny Shaffer, Chicago's best kept secret, played guitar and mixed the album.
MB: We can't say enough about the tireless work of Shane Soloski, who engineered the album at Blue Suede Studio in Van Nuys, CA and Danny Shaffer, who mixed most of the album. Those two guys were absolutely critical in making this record.
PSF: Will you go on tour with Happiless?
AK: Touring is not in the plans. Mike and I live 2,500 miles away from each other and have families. I'm also starting production on my movie later this year.
MB: No plans to at this time. But you never know.
The Happiless album is available from Amazon, Bandcamp and CD Baby. Also see their Facebook page
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