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Tempesst-Music for Tempestuous Times

Oct 29, 2020

By Mossy Ross

Credit: Gyorgy Laszlo

Tempesst could be a band that’s one marijuana puff and a mushroom trip away from being a Ken Kesey novel. But they’re too smart for that. Maybe the rockstars of yore could stay up for days on end, free-lovin’ and festival-in,’ tripping balls for days on end. Or if we’re talking the 70s, snorting lines off of supermodels’ asses, and shooting up in the dingy downstairs bathrooms of, what are now, legendary music venues. But escapism is so last century Now, the music venues have been replaced with condos. Our planet is facing extinction. Political unrest is threatening democracies. Social media is taking over our lives. And for many of us, a future with job security and healthcare is unlikely. But that isn’t stopping Tempesst. They’ve realized there’s nowhere to run, so might as well face the future head on…while still hanging on to what seemed like a much fun-ner past. Their dreamy new album, appropriately titled “Must Be a Dream,” makes existential crises seem romantic. Their flavor of rock is one of my favorite kinds…pretty. Tempesst shows us that the shitty parts of life don’t always have to lead to screaming anger, but that something beautiful can come out of asking the hard questions. Their retro style gives the modern problems they sing about a feeling of comforting nostalgia. Showing us that we can still slip on a polyester suit, get behind a Hammond organ, and rock out; while being honest about the terrifying future we face. Tempesst reminds us that if all else fails, we always have an analog world to go back to. And that might not be such a bad thing.

Before you read my chat with lead singer, Toma Benjamin, start going down the rabbit hole with Tempesst by watching their video for “Mushroom Cloud.” It not only has addictive visuals, but three of my favorite things: kitschy decor, a man in makeup, and a slammin’ saxophone solo.

Mossy: What’s your band’s history?

TB: The four of us, Blake, Cain, Andy, and I are from the same town in Australia. It’s a collection of towns. But the closest, most famous of the towns, is called Noosa. It’s a little beach town. So Cain, Andy, and I grew up with each other. But Blake’s actually about five years younger, so I met Blake because he lived three houses down the road. But it wasn’t until we were all in London, that we were just part of two groups that happened to come together, and all of these sorts of coincidences. I suppose when you move to a new city, for us coming all the way from Australia, you tend to find other people who have done the same thing. And then you bond, because you’ve got this similar experience of leaving home behind, and coming to this new city.

Mossy: What brought you to London?

TB: We were in New York, and we would’ve loved to stay in America. We were trying to get a visa to come stay in the states. And we got this business visa through my dad’s film distribution company. He distributes all the really bad B-grade films before the internet. People would actually buy the rights for them and distribute them across Australasia, which is pretty hilarious. This was in the 90s and 2000s. So we got a business visa to stay in the U.S., but you had to renew it all the time. So we renewed it once, and we tried to renew it again, but they wouldn’t let us. So we had to pack up all of our shit in thirty days and go back to Australia. And after growing up and spending all this time in this little coastal town in Australia, and then going to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, living in New York and experiencing the city and the energy, it was just too hard to stay home. So we lasted about three months and then we were like, “Well if we can’t go to New York, where else can we go?” So, not so very romantic (Laughs). It was for practical reasons. We could easily get a visa to come to London, and then we fell in love with the place after coming here.

Mossy: I always have to ask people from England or Australia who their influences are. I feel like there’s always such refined musical tastes coming from those two countries. Who were you listening to growing up?

TB: I’m a little bit of a late bloomer, to be honest. We grew up in quite a sheltered environment. Our families are quite religious. Myself and Andy grew up playing music in church. So it wasn’t until I left that world when I was about eighteen, that I started to learn about other artists. And I was really lucky to have a close friend who was actually playing with us in the original Tempesst, when we first started the band. And he’s a music lover and would spend all of his time listening to music from all over the place, and would just introduce us to some really great art. And then when I moved to New York, he also moved with me to New York. And I would say moving to New York introduced me to a lot of DIY bands like Yeasayer and Darwin Deez. When I was there, they were really big, and it was kind of the first time for me listening to that. So getting into all the classic albums that I love now, that didn’t happen until well and truly in my twenties. And that was just because of my circumstance. But when I did start listening, it was just all the classics. I was just trying to catch up. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley was one of my initial favorites. I still feel sometimes like I’m catching up. There’s just so much great music to consume, and not enough time to do it. And sometimes when you’re making music all day, the last thing you feel like doing is listening to music. So it’s kind of strange, I find myself listening to Talkback radio. I feel like I’m a 70 year-old man. (Laughs)

Mossy: What religion?

TB: Like Pentacostal, Christian. So yeah, I had some R&B gospel influences. My dad used to listen to George Benson, so I would try and mimic George Benson by playing guitar like George Benson, and singing the melodies with the guitar line. He might have listened to the odd Beatles song. But yeah, it wasn’t like my dad was listening to, like, really cool obscure records and introducing me to his favorite artists. He didn’t give a shit. (Laughs) He was listening to Christian music.

Mossy: I’m always surprised at how many rock musicians I talk to who grew up religious. I always assumed they would have had the cool dad who listened to obscure records, but a lot of them were sheltered and didn’t get to hear any of that. It’s almost like that upbringing helps you create a really original sound, because you didn’t have those influences around you when you were growing up.

Credit: Gyorgy Laszlo

Your sonic landscape matches your aesthetic. The way you present yourselves. Is that life imitating art, or art imitating life?

TB: I wouldn’t say there was any intention. I think there’s certain music you feel inspired by, and there’s certain fashion that you like, and it tends to be that all of these things come from that same world for us. I would also say that sonically, a lot of the equipment we use is old, vintage equipment. We’ve got vintage synths and our desk is a 1979 Neve console, and it sounds like an old school desk. So I think it just so happens that that’s the kind of music we’re into. We’re influenced by the artists that led us to have a think about what kind of instruments or gear we want, and it just naturally creates this specific sound.

Mossy: Why the extra “s” in Tempesst?

TB: We originally spelled Tempesst with one “s.” But soon after, we found that there was a 20-year old Celtic rock band that had the name already. When we started releasing music, Spotify started listing our music on their band page.

Mossy: Where did you shoot the video for “Mushroom Cloud?”

TB: An old workmens hall here around the corner in Islington. It’s a little hall that you can hire out, and we just thought it was funky and fit the vibe of the song.

Mossy: Tell me about your album cover.

TB: That was done by a guy named Jose Mendez. We basically sent the record out to a bunch of artists, and asked them to send us back what the sound of the album would look like. And Jose sent us back this sketch. The ways he was describing the songs felt like he really understood what we were trying to say. And then when he sent us the sketch, we all felt like it was really cool and trippy, and quite bold. And we wanted the music to feel quite bold and unpredictable. So I guess what we loved about it, was that it felt very bold and sort of random. Some of the ways he personified the characters in the songs were really cool.

Mossy: How would you describe the Age of the Bored (the title of a song off their new album)?

TB: I would describe it as insular. I would describe it as a waste. It was actually Eric that came up with the lyrical concept, and we wrote the lyrics together. I think the frustration came from life caught in the vacuum of this device that sits by our bedside, and in our pocket, in a holder in the car. It’s literally your entire life is linked to this device, and all of the things that distract you, and pull your attention away from the things you should be doing. It’s like a loud voice just demanding your attention. Binging with messages and fucking emails, and everything just taking you off your focus. When I come in to the studio now, I leave my phone in my pocket, hang my jacket up behind the door, and it sits there all day. Because otherwise you find that your whole life is ruled by this device. As opposed to it being something that serves you, it actually takes over. So the idea of that song was just choosing to separate yourself from it at times, and not have this symbiotic relationship with your mobile phone. Everything comes from this idea of not wanting to waste. That life is precious and we only have limited time.

Credit: Gyorgy Laszlo

Mossy: I think it’s great when people who aren’t old, are telling people things that some people don’t realize unless they’re old. It takes a lot of self awareness to admit that this device gives you anxiety, and keeps you from being in the moment, and that you don’t have to have it by you all the time. I think it’s important for people to say that.

TB: One of my favorite lines in the whole record is in that song. It’s, “Offline, the new underground way to unwind.” How strange is it that, like, if you say to someone “I left my phone at home today,” they’re like, “What!? You have to go home!It’s this bizarre idea that if you wanna unwind, if you wanna feel free, if you don’t wanna feel anxious, you don’t want to be ruled by this device and you leave your phone at home, people just freak out.

Mossy: It’s like a form of rebellion to leave your phone behind.

TB: Yeah, because we have lived in both worlds. So it’s like, you have the contrast. And it’s terrifying to think that at some point, if you have kids or whatever, that they’re gonna live in the world, and they won’t have that contrast. They won’t know what it’s like not to live with a mobile phone. It really will be a very different thing for someone to have that separation from their phone.

Mossy: “Is That All There Is?” also seems to have a message that speaks to a lot of people.

TB: I think again, it’s just another chance to talk about something that feels a little bit silly. That we aren’t always the best stewards of our time. That song’s probably more focused on a time of reflection. What happens is every year, I go back home for Christmas. And it’s a really strange time, because I have this contrast of leaving my busy life in London, and going back to this little beach town, and sitting on the beach. And I’m in this new environment, observing the people in that environment, reflecting on my year. And then the contrast always brings up these questions. For example in that song, “Is this it? Is this all we do? Just work our asses off all year?” And sometimes questioning even the whole creative process, and the creative lifestyle. And even questioning if that’s something that has merit. Does the world need more music? Does the world need another person trying to share their ideas? You’re grappling with this tension as an artist, wondering if the world needs any more fucking artists. (Laughs) There’s so much amazing music, you couldn’t possibly consume it all in one lifetime. And it’s also about just working out and reconciling with just growing up. That we’re not young forever. And we’ll have to, at some point, accept our mortality. And it’s that time when I go back to Australia, and I stop the busy-ness, and I’m sitting on the beach…that I get tormented with all these ideas. (Laughs)

Listen to “Must Be a Dream” on all streaming platforms or, better yet, buy it on vinyl.

Follow Tempesst on IG @tempesstband

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