I was first introduced to Mutual Benefit in late 2009 through some mutual friends Jordan Lee and I shared in a small town in Ohio – the cassette I bought that year has played constantly throughout my life during the last five years. The songs act as a time machine, slowly whisking me away, taking me on a winding voyage back in time to hiking trails and rooftop beers with large groups of friends.
For anyone who’s listened to Mutual Benefit it’s easy to see that it’s not the just musical mind space of the prolific Jordan Lee, but a living, breathing musical entity that grows and evolves with each new experience. What started as a group of recordings done in a spider-filled basement, has blossomed into a full-blown lazer-folk dreamscape. With wondrous cameos of both people and instruments sprinkled throughout each song, the discography acts as a map of Mutual Benefit’s past and future, tiny clues that shed some light on the journey that Lee has embarked on as Mutual Benefit. I caught up with Jordan before his show at the Bottle to talk about how Mutual Benefit has grown, sources of inspiration, and what being on a larger label means to him.
ASHLEIGH DYE: Your earlier recordings, especially those cassettes you made and put out, were recorded on smaller, more toy-like equipment, which was a huge element to your sound. How has that morphed and grown as Mutual Benefit has grown?
JORDAN LEE: On all my recordings I try and just use what’s around, so on those earlier recordings I had a lot of stuff that I had picked up at garage sales and thrift stores. For Love’s Crushing Diamond I went back to this recording studio I had interned at in Texas, he had a Moog synth and all these old Korgs from the 80’s. It was fun to be able to use those. People can kind of be low-fi snobs, like they think if it’s a good piece of equipment they won’t use it, but that’s silly. It’s kind of funny, because in some environments when you’re playing a show every day and you have to do efficient sound checks you need things to work really well. So I have this Casio that I love the sound of, but it was giving us a lot of trouble on stage. Our drummer, Dylan, who’s so much smarter than me at most things, sampled the Casio onto a sampling keyboard. So we have this really high-tech keyboard on stage, but it’s just playing a reproduction of an 80’s Casio.
AD: Nice, I like the inventiveness! That seems pretty true to MUTUAL BENEFIT as a whole. You’ve traveled around and move so much that you rely on what’s around and what you can make happen. Have you released any other cassettes aside from the Spider Heaven/Drifting split?
JL: I did I Saw the Sea on cassette. It was tied into this Kickstarter that we did years ago. We got invited to do a bunch of stuff for SXSW, but we couldn’t afford to get there. We did the Kickstarter for $400 so we could buy a second ticket. I released I Saw the Sea around that time, so if you bought a cassette it just helped us get there. I did a pretty good job getting all the rewards and tapes out to people, but there was one guy named Ben and his cassette came back to me as undeliverable. At the time I was moving a lot and just forgot to resend it, and I guess he lives in DC. This happened three years ago, but he messaged me last week when we played DC and he had donated $50 and was supposed to get all this stuff. He said “you got that I Saw the Sea cassette for me? You’re two years late!” and I totally didn’t have it and he messaged me back saying “you owe me $50!” So I PayPaled him the money back. That’s the dark side to DIY.
AD: Have you put anything out on Kassette Klub in a while?
JL: It’s pretty much totally defunct. Running a label is the exact opposite of touring. You have to be in one spot for extended periods of time and really diligent. I think a lot of people start labels for the same reason, they have friends who are doing amazing things, but no one knows or cares about it. The older I got the more I realized that someone else would do a way better job with their stuff than I could. I started to feel like I was really fucking up the careers of these people that I cared about. It’s funny because Sam, who’s playing tonight, I put out his cassette tape and totally screwed it up. I sent a corrupted file to the pressing plant and got sent 250 cassettes where side B was blank. That was one of the defining moments where I realized I wasn’t very fit to do this. I had a really interesting conversation with a friend who runs a label called Crash Symbols, they put out a lot of interesting things and are very professional, I was visiting them in West Virginia and thinking that we’re all doing this tape thing, maybe we can all band together and make it a big thing and I told him about it and he said “I definitely don’t want to do that, it sounds awful.” He went on to explain that he didn’t want to get bigger and was more than happy doing runs of 100 tapes. Which was a really interesting thing to think about, that some people are happy and complacent at different levels of action.
AD: How often do you go back and listen to your earlier recordings? That Spider Heaven/Drifting cassette you made the year I met you has gotten an insane amount of playtime, it always takes me right back to that time in my life.
JL: The further away I get from them, the less I listen to them. I listen to them every six months. They evoke a really strange array of memories for me. Especially Spider Heaven. I had just moved back to Ohio and was bouncing between an apartment in Columbus and living in the basement of my parents’ house. It’s called Spider Heaven because the room I recorded in in my parent’s basement had spiders everywhere. When they have babies they shoot these balloons out that are filled with 100’s of spider babies. I think it’s actually called ballooning.
AD: Was MUTUAL BENEFIT your first musical project? Were you doing anything while growing up in Pickerington, Ohio?
JL: In Pickerington I had a shitty pop punk band, with a lot of people that I’m actually still friends with. It was kind of Christian pop punk.
AD: Where you literally singing about God, or was it just really posi?
JL: The vibes were subtle, they were subtle God vibes. My parents let us have shows in the basement, we used to play at this golf course cabin, but the shows got too weird and they stopped letting us book there. I remember my mom was a 5th grade teacher, so she was always using all this clipart, and she printed out this picture of a droopy police dog and it said “Don’t Do Any Drugs.” She hung them up everywhere. Later after that I was recording some pop songs under my name.
JL: Yeah, the songs started out as shitty demos, then I would end up meeting someone and we would spend three or four pretty intense days together recording and playing and I would take those and fit them into the songs.
AD: Did that have a lot to do with how often you moved around? What I really love about MUTUAL BENEFIT is that these cameos of musicians that are throughout the album can kind of pin point you to a certain geographical location.
JL: I was starting to feel like the songs would never get done, I had worked on them for over a year. It felt like a thing that I would always be working on. It was really nice to be able to bring in fresh influences. I definitely treated it like a hobby, at times. Like I’d be with a group of people already hanging out with a bunch of guitars around, so lets just play some chords over this and see what happens.
AD: You’re pretty stationed in New York right now, correct? You’ve been there about a year? How has that affected your sound, you’ve mentioned a few times that a big part of how you stay so inspired is constantly moving to new places and experiencing new people and things. Have you had to change what inspires you?
JL: I’ve been in New York about a year exactly. We’ve been on the road about 70% of this year, so I am still very enamored by New York, it almost feels like I’m visiting when I’m there. When I first got there my living situation was just the worst ever, I was sharing a room with my partner and our friend. We had to air mattresses and a bunch of blankets and just called it Mega Bed. So we just were all sleeping on Mega Bed, then Dylan helped us make a loft so it upgraded to a bunk bed, now we finally have the room to ourselves. I think for a long time I wasn’t very satisfied being in one spot, I would get ansty and if a situation got weird I would think “oh I need to get on the road and be free.” I think I’ve grown up a little bit, to where if I have conflicts or I feel bored or weird I actually want to work it out, instead of just moving to a new city. This is also the first time I’ve been in a long-term relationship, I’m an aspiring norm.
AD: Where do you think you’d want to go post new York?
JL: It might seem stereotypical, but I really loved Berlin. We got to stay there for a few days on tour and the people there were so interesting and I felt really at home. There are fun little towns like Portland, or Austin where you meet these great, interesting people. Berlin felt like that, only bigger and weirder.
AD: So, obviously the people that you’ve met and the experiences you’re having affect your sound, but do you think the literal geographic location you were in while writing or recording played a large role in the sound of your music?
JL: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s both subtle and not subtle. The best example is Statue of a Man is about being on a train, because I was literally on a train. A lot of that album was written in St. Louis and I basically had no idea what I was doing with my life in Boston, it was so expensive and I was starting to really not like it, so I took a break and was in St. Louis for a long time. I kind of didn’t make any friends and had some really cheap rent where I could record, but anytime I went outside, the part of St. Louis I was in was so bleak and desolate and used to be a certain type of way, I think some of the songs about destruction and rebuilding, in retrospect, had a lot to do with where I was living.
AD: You mentioned in an interview that being on a label where your requests, musically, can be really easily met is something that makes you feel anxious. Why does the addition of, nearly, limitless opportunity turn you off?
JL: The MO for this band forever has just been to let fate somewhat dictate. If there’s not a certain type of instrument around I won’t imagine incorporating it into the song. So, when I started talking to different labels about the next record and they were telling me “figure out what you want it to sound like and we’ll make it happen” it started to really freak me out, because it’s just a totally different way of doing things than I am used to. I think the biggest reason it’s scary is because what I like to do is really take my time on a group of songs, and let life experiences happen, and to have people come in and out of my life, and for this thing to be the product of that. That you can feel that time has passed through the songs, and I think a label wants almost the exact opposite of that. “Write some songs, take a week to record them, we’ll set the release date, hopefully it lines up with festival season so we can get the single out at the right time…” Just hearing all the phrases, makes me feel like “aw, I don’t know if I want to do this.” The people on the label were super nice and helpful, but they just accidentally set off all my anxiety alarms.
AD: How do you plan to keep a sense of spontaneity in your work?
JL: I have two ideas. One is to set a pretty good buffer time in between this tour and starting to write again. I want to take on some part time jobs and reincorporate into the human race. I think it really messes with your head, everyday playing a show, marketing people talking to you about how many presales there are for a show, and what blogs you should talk to, and what markets, that’s what they call cities, you need to hit. It can be dehumanizing. I definitely want to get out of that headspace. Another idea I have which started as a whim, which I have whims of ideas all the time, but this one I’ve had for over a year, which is to teach music lessons to kids. I’m not particularly good at any one instrument, but I think it could be great to meet kids and really talk with them about what they are trying to do and build a curriculum around what inspires them, make them do some really hippy stuff like write in a journal.