“Music Is Still The Light Of My Life” Ben Gregory Interviewed

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When Clash first caught Blaenavon live, we were impressed. Baby-faced kids who looked for all the world as though they were bunking out of their GCSE revision lessons, the three-piece displayed incredible power and poise, melding together indie pop and prog aspects without even blinking.

A debut album followed, but by the time follow-up ‘Everything That Makes You Happy’ emerged in 2019 it was clear that all was not right. Blaenavon crumbled, with singer Ben Gregory enduring an incredibly difficult spell with his mental health. Going through a psychotic episode, he needed specialist help to overcome his issues.

Music, however, remained in his life. Re-emerging with a full solo album – the ambitious ‘Episode’ – Ben Gregory has found the courage to shine a light on some of his darkest moments, all while learning to engage with the future.

Out now on Transgressive, Ben kindly spoke to Clash about the making of the album, and his enduring passion for music.

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The end of Blaenavon must have been a huge period of emotional upheaval, what was it like to leave the band behind?

It was indeed difficult, but to be honest there were more serious issues going on in my life and with my health at that moment. The band’s dissolution acted rather as a nasty extension of that pain, as opposed to being its own monumental disaster. A supplement to a shitstorm.

You’ve been very open about your health issues following the band’s demise, did you relationship with music change during this? If so, how?

I definitely ranted sometimes about how I’d quit music forever, but I think I just wanted attention and for someone to tell me my music was valuable. I look back on that and find it laughable and sad. Music is still the light of my life. I write in the same way I always have. I just record differently now.

When did you begin to think about approaching a solo project?

I’ve been making music on my own my whole life. It was just about deciding if/how to release it. I finished up a demo album in the way I usually would and thought it was really something special. So, I got in touch with Transgressive and said ‘Do you want to put this out?’ and they said ‘Yes’, dollar signs brazenly in their eyes.

Did you feel an increased sense of risk working on your own? In what way did it differ from your previous experiences?

The demo process was very similar but when it came to the studio I had to up-my-game a little. Playing most of the instruments and, with the help of Blaine and Matt, having the bring the passion and excitement. I guess a sense of camaraderie is essential to the recording process whether you’re in a band or a solo artist. Luckily this time round we had bucketloads of the stuff.

You’ve said previously that ‘Episode’ was written in 10 days – that’s an incredible work rate! What was that period like? Did you feel particularly inspired? 

I wrote the bulk of the record over two weeks when I was staying at my mother’s house. Then I thought I had an album, but 0% of the songs had any kind of recognisable traditional structure. When I was back in Manchester I wrote a few more songs which complemented the record nicely on account of their more traditional, story-telling style. The record feels like a juxtaposition of the traditional and the experimental and, at least to me, the homely vs. the alien. 

‘storm of conversation’ opens the album, what was it like to write? Do you recall what sparked the song?

I was at a party, very sober, surrounded by lovable but drastically intoxicated friends. I remember sitting at the table, surrounded by four or five separate and equally in(s)ane conversations, none of which I could hear enough of to engage with. The centre of a storm of conversation…

‘manifest’ looks to the future, and arose from a dark period in your life. How has music and songwriting helped you bring your life back into focus? Is there a dual relationship here, perhaps?

Hmm. I feel lucky to have songwriting in my life as a centring force and sort of a ever-growing diary that I can add to as little or much as I like. I can map out all meaningful moments and relationships in my life across the music they spawned and I think that is a rare luxury. Also, it’s a creative outlet that you’re never done learning about. Whenever I feel stuck or stifled there’s a new approach or some impossible new technology that can sort of change the parameters of the game of composition. (lol) It brings me focus in that I have to distill my circumstances creatively and will, as a result of the meditative element thereof, usually feel clearer about things afterwards. Writing music is a gift and indeed a solution to a whole variety of life’s difficulties. I don’t think I’m entirely sure what you mean about a ‘dual relationship’? Maybe that music is both the end and the means?

‘blue sea blue’ is extraordinarily ambitious – how do you even begin to map out something like that? Did it require a lot of editing?

I didn’t really map it out – it just fell into place… I started with the bassline and then part after part, section after section, all flowed quite naturally with very little stress or effort. This is a very rare thing and leads me to the superstition that the song was sent to me by the prog-rock gods and I am but a vessel, forever in their debt: Thank You Rick Wakeman.

Part of it recalls an ambulance ride during a psychotic episode, which is an incredibly brave thing to share with the world. Did you flinch at some of these memories? What is it like to offer up something so personal to outsiders?

No, I didn’t flinch. The thing is that you establish so many layers of removal, of distance, in the long journey from writing to release. I’ve battled with those memories since the events occurred in my own thoughts and in my dreams, then through writing them down, then through singing them out, then through recording that performance. Then there’s the mixing and mastering processes which make you focus on the sounds and maybe lose touch of the sentiment, slightly. It’s a bit of a problem, I suppose, because I forget that listeners, and my family and friends, haven’t had such a period of becoming accustomed as I have. Sometimes, though, out of nowhere, it still hits hard when I hear it back. But for me, the choice wasn’t about sharing it with the public or not: it was about sublimating horrible memories so that that time was no longer lost.

The record ends with ‘god bless you’ which seems to point to something brighter. What lies behind this song?

That’s probably the most contemporarily referential track on the record. I guess it’s about all the ways I feel trapped and powerless, checking my phone even when I’m crossing the road.

‘Episode’ is an incredibly bold experience, one with an almost palpable sense of risk. How did you feel at its close? Was it cathartic?

I felt blessed and I felt worthy.

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‘Episode’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Xenia Owens