Interview: Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee On Their New Album, And Why They’re Not Sufjan Stevens

Web journalists – particularly those that specialize in music – are a very strange breed of people. Huddled into the large, yet shockingly small space known as the Internet, writers from all walks of life dish out their self-righteous opinions, hoping to echo louder than the next person. At its core, the goal of the music journalist’s job is to tell you what’s ‘good,’ and what’s ‘bad,’ what you need to listen to, and what you should avoid. And while things like this are quite subjective, when something sounds great, and I mean really great, almost every musical outlet is in agreement. This was the case with Mutual Benefits latest album Love’s Crushing Diamond: a stunningly positive ode to love and the human condition, and which made Pitchfork’s ‘Best New Music’ and Stereogum’s ‘Band to Watch.’

Led by Jordan Lee, Mutual Benefit’s creator and only steady member, the band is undoubtedly on the rise, even though Lee’s been around for quite some time. The band’s been releasing EPs digitally since 2009 – giving the world a taste of some experimental, soothing, baroque-meets-pop-meets-folk-meets-Americana music that just seems to work. However, Love’s Crushing Diamond, Mutual Benefit’s first LP has been receiving a whole lot of unexpected attention. “I’ve put out a lot of releases while performing as Mutual Benefit, but they’ve just had a modest level of success, which I’ve been totally fine with” says Lee over the phone, his voice friendly and crackling from the long distance, “I guess, having this weird approval from a website or a newspaper is a much stranger feeling, and I think it’s hard for me to get excited about it. I guess I try not to get too wrapped up in it.”

Lee, who was born in Ohio, began Mutual Benefit as a side project in Austin, Texas, where he was playing in a rock and roll band. He then slowly moved the band to Boston so he could keep working with a friend from Ohio who was moving there for school. From that point, he traveled to St. Louis, back to Boston, and has now settled down in Brooklyn – just in time to embark on a North American tour with 7 European stops. “I think St. Louis had a huge impact on the themes of the record, as well as my head space, he tells me, “all the other cities I’ve lived in are pretty bustling, especially Austin. It’s a very optimistic town – it’s growing, people are excited to be there…and St. Louis is kind of the opposite, where it’s heyday has come and gone, and a lot of people don’t have jobs.”

– – – – –

The Main: The songs on your album have been described in terms like ‘gorgeous,’ ‘warmhearted,’ and ‘positive.’ Was that the goal of the album, to make something warmhearted and positive? Or was there another reason entirely.

Jordan Lee: I think the goal was very selfish. I was in a really negative head space and I was trying to convince myself to be hopeful. I was trying to physically write these songs that weren’t sugary and you know, idiotic. I was trying to write songs that acknowledge the darkness, but that also try to navigate through it and still be positive. I think a lot of the lyrics are me processing feelings, and maybe giving myself a little pep-talk or something – and I’m glad that people are relating to it the way they are, but yeah, it was totally to make myself feel better. I wasn’t thinking about other things.

TM: One of the great things about your album is that it doesn’t fall into any specific genre. It’s not specifically folk, not specifically pop; it kind of blends into a bunch of genres.

J: Oh yeah, I’m petrified of being pigeonholed. In fact, when the record started to take off more than I was expecting there was a handful of bigger labels that were approaching me, saying they’d re-release it – a couple of them were Americana labels, that did a lot of blue grass stuff – like Mumford and Sons-sounding things – and a lot of the early reviews were all comparing me to Sufjan Stevens. A lot of people who come out of the gate who are known nationally for the first time go through these critical couple of weeks where the media decides the narrative of that band, and I was just petrified, I was like “oh man! I’m going to get compared to Sufjan Stevens for the rest of my life, and they’re just going to say that I’m an early 2000s revival band.” There’s no worst thing than for people to just be like “oh yeah this guy, he’s just basically doing this thing from like 10 years ago but all over again.”

TM: Love’s Crushing Diamond was released on [Brooklyn-based label] Soft Eyes, which I understand is run by your friends?

J: Oh yeah, in fact I’m walking to Marc [Merza]’s house right now. He’s a very good friend. Marc got some tax return money back right at the time that I showed him the record and said that I couldn’t find anyone to put it out, and he’s like ‘oh, I’ll put it out!’ And his partner Cory [Siegler] who is also a good friend, she’s an incredible artist, so she did all the design, and yeah, I couldn’t be happier with them as a team.

TM: It’s always interesting when albums are released on small labels as opposed to big ones that release albums like, 6 or 7 months after its finished – it seems like yours came out right away.

J: Oh yeah, it hadn’t been done for more than a couple weeks – no, it hadn’t been done for more than a couple days when we sent the masters over.

TM: On your bandcamp you describe yourself as ‘post-lunar Buddha turds,’ is there a story behind that?

J: Well I really like the author Tom Robbins – his writing style combines a lot of different religious ideas, humor, and just a kind of makes a collage of crazy words. There’s actually a paragraph in one of his stories that uses that as a descriptor, and I just thought it was totally hilarious. Also I think that my music can seem a bit serious, and in reality I’m just a really silly person. And I’m super intrigued by Eastern religion…so in a strange way these words that don’t make any sense together encapsulate what the music means to me?

TM: Your album contains a lot of field recordings – an example being ‘That Light That’s Blinding,’ when at the very beginning you can hear someone asking if you’re recording, and then the song begins. What kind of role do field recordings play on your album?

J: Well…I never went to school, but I have a lot of background in music theory, and I think it’s a real detriment to me. It makes me think about masks instead of feelings – its like “oh, well if you want it to sound like a 50s do-wop song you play this chord, to this chord, to this chord,” you know, and it’s hard for my brain to break out from archetypes and stuff like that, unless there’s some extra element that’s added into it. So the thing that was inspiring me this time around was just doing tons and tons of field recordings over the span of the three or four months that I was traveling. I just like to cut them up and manipulate them, and on that song specifically, the recording took place at an after-party at one of our house shows in Ann Arbor. There was this gorgeous old piano, and we’d been on tour for a couple of weeks at that point – I was just pretty sick of meeting strangers and getting drunk – so I just kind of went into this room and played piano, and eventually a couple of other people came in, and then we probably jammed for like an hour. And I’d be recording it the whole time. It sounded really pretty, and my eyes lit up, and that’s when my friend Cameron looks and saw that there was a microphone sitting there and he was like “oh! I didn’t know there was a field-recorder.” That moment was so cool to me, so I used it as the backbone for ‘That Light That’s Blinding.’ It’s maybe a 5 or 6 second moment that’s looped throughout the whole song. I think that if there’s one element that causes some chaos that you have to build on top of, it makes the whole song sound more human, and a little bit more interesting.

TM: On a final note, where do you see Mutual Benefit in the next 5, 10, 15 years?

J: Oh man, well I definitely think there’s a longevity to it, because my whole idea is that if you chase the feeling of inspiration, then everything else just kind of falls into line. The songs with be good, well at least will be good to me, because I’m inspired and I’ll always be able to find people to play with, and since the lineups are so fluid, you know, I can’t quit my own band. So I think I’ll just keep trying to follow my bliss, or whatever, and maybe that’s music, or maybe that’ll be writing, or maybe I’ll get really sick of doing interviews and just become a recluse – I don’t know! So I guess the real answer is that I have no idea.


[ Don’t miss Mutual Benefit with opener Sea Oleena tonight @ Il Motore. Doors open at 8:00, show starts at 9:00! ]