Ben Schurr is a wanderer.
Over the past eight years, he’s toured around the country some 25 times, performing at whatever venue or DIY space will have him. He’s lived in Philadelphia. He’s called Asheville, North Carolina home. And as the story goes, perhaps the only reason he’s settled in DC – for the moment – is that he hit a deer on the way to a Paperhaus show and never left.
Musically, his long-running project Br’er has been no less restless. It has shifted between avant-garde, ambient electronic and orchestral pop, even dabbing in the ukulele. While Schurr has remained at the core of the band, collaborators have come and gone. Speaking with him a few days ago, he told me that the door remains open to all of them.
Br’er’s latest release, Masking, falls somewhere between experimental pop and industrial noise-music. But instead of trying to nail down their complex sound on my own, I asked Schurr about the record, as well as what’s its like to be an artist in DC and how to properly destroy pop music from within.
Br’er is not easily genre-definable. In your words, how do you describe the sound on Masking?
I’ve always seen Br’er as very visceral electronic music. We’ve also been classified as “Blightwave,” which refers to Blight, the name of the record label I run. The logic behind that name is that we write pop songs and we use to pop format as a conduit for our message.
I see our music as a parasite on pop music that is gradually destroying it. I like the idea of finding a middle ground between something that’s falling apart and something that’s still functioning. In a way, we take the life out of pop music, leave it for dead, then take its corpse and grow a new thing. Its almost like we are making pop into fertilizer.
What’s been the reception towards taking the most beloved style of music and tearing it down?
If something is completely familiar, it becomes a bit boring and stale. We are into the idea of taking something familiar and changing it subtly in a way that peaks interest. I admit Br’er does this more than subtly.
We come from a noise background, and the first time I started hearing my own voice in music was when I started messing around with electronics. Your brain recognized patterns in noise, and so I decided to sing over it. I take the music I find most traditionally beautiful music and pair it with extreme noise and see where we fall.
Basically, if I write something that pretty, I want to fuck it up. And if I write something that’s ugly and abrasive, I want to make it pretty. That’s our formula.
How does that translate in the studio? How in-studio collaborative was the process of this record?
This was the most collaborative record we have every made. I used to do a lot of arranging with whichever musicians were in Br’er at the time.
This time around, it was me, Johnny Fantastic [vocalist in DC experimental pop band, Stronger Sex], Erik Sleight [Synths, Electronics] and Ben Usie [drums, percussion, electronics] making studio experiments between this record and the Stronger Sex record. The two records were happening concurrently, so we exchanged and wrote song for both bands.
But a lot of the music was just jams we put together by chopping up familiar sounds and making them nauseating with a lot of modular movement. It’s a record that supposed to get into the less pleasant headspaces.
Lyrically, there’s an inseparable social awareness component to Br’er. You focus on progressive gender issues and sex positivity (and often sex negativity), especially in the track “Chanel Divinity.” Where does that come from? At a certain point, did you start writing songs with in this theme or have you always done that?
Gender has always been a huge part of Br’er. When I started Br’er, I was going through a gender crisis at age 21 or 22. And I have a lot of friend who are trans and who have been oppressed by society just for being who they are. I have a lot of empathy for that. And music for me has always been a safe place and a crucial part of my life. I wanted to return the favor to the artists who helped me live my life and give me hope. When I started Br’er, it felt very holy.
It should be every artist’s responsibility to be as truthful as they can be in any given moment, even though I was a very different person when I started the band. At the same time, music has always been a weapon against depression. When I can write a song that reaches or touches a person or that meant something for them, the music is no longer for me but for a community of people.
Is this album more from your voice or other voices?
It’s more from other voices. My narrative is there on a few tracks but it feels more objective than other things I’ve worked on. Most of the songs are more empathic than self-reflective.
Writing music is not only a way for me to communicate my empathy by writing about it; hopefully it also proved some sort of thought and empathy in others.
Why have you stuck with Br’er as a cohesive identity when many other artists would have just started new bands?
I’ve wondered that myself. This record is the most radically different Br’er has felt. But all of the artists I’ve admired have had very long, evolving musical histories.
Br’er didn’t start as a band. It started as my songs with other people wanting to come in and help. In that sense, its always been a collective. Most of the people who have been in Br’er are always welcome back whenever they want and do what every they want. As the songwriter and singer, it still feels like Br’er whenever I make a song. I like that the band is constantly evolving.
In addition to Br’er, you are the brains behind Blight Records, What is the impetus behind starting a DIY label?
The label originally started when I was in the band releases tapes Eskimeaux, which has now become a very successful project of Gabby Smith in Brooklyn. We needed to put out releases tapes Eskimeaux’s first record before tour, so we did a run of their self-titled release and sold out of them pretty quickly. But the idea for a label comes back to the idea where I had a few friends making similar lyrically intense noise music and I suggested we should just label up and call this something.
If no one else can describe our music, lets just own it and call it something we believe in. So, we became Blight. Its almost like we are this virus on pop that is creating something new.
Is label just an umbrella term for a collaborative group of musicians?
Yeah, its mostly an approach. The approach where anything is music, the label has no meaning and we can make it whatever we want. It’s a label so we can be free. If everyone is going to label you anyway, you might as well do it yourself. We are just a collective of likeminded bands creating new, interesting, emotionally substantial music. Although, it’s slowly become more of a functioning label than even before.
What is it about DC’s scene that keeps you here?
Well, for as expensive as this city is, you can’t beat the sense of organization.
But to be honest, the only I’m here is because of the people I’m making music with. While I don’t think DC is worth the cost as far as what it can offer an artist, for some reason, we have a really wonderful collections of artist I love both as people and musicians. I couldn’t leave now because it feels like things are just beginning in that community. That’s not an everyday thing.
I’ve been on 25 tours around the country in eight years, and I could not find DC’s level of commitment in every infrastructural space. There are people who want to do photography and video and set design for bands and really try to get the music out there. Being in DC you have motivation and ambition.
If the right amount of people get together at the right time and gel, it can make something really positive. Its just luck, but I feel like that’s happening in DC.
Do you struggle being a DC band in a city that is historically punk and currently dominated by alt rock, shoegaze, pop-punk, etc.?
It’s a little too early to tell. I don’t necessarily feel at home musically with Br’er. Most of our musical contemporaries feel like they’re all within the Blight. label. But were doing fine because we’ve got good allies and friends.
But all of the lyrics are about DC this time around. Br’er has always reflected its environment. We’re a DC band at this point. There’s a lot of sounds and samples for Masking we made around DC.
Do you think you thrive being on the fringe, musically?
No, I’ve been in the fringe my entire adult life. I thrive on it, but I don’t find anything romantic about being the outsider anymore. I want our music to be able to touch people even if its not the most expected music.
When you say “Br’er makes electronic music,” the casual listener might expect something like EDM or synth-pop. There is such a strong electronic component in popular music today. How do you compare the creation and performance of your music to the stuff out there that’s mostly being done on a laptop? What does that bring to your performance?
We use a lot of new instruments. And live we don’t use a computer on stage. Nothing is sequenced. It brings a sense of spontaneity to the live show. Things can go wrong, which is exciting. There’s a loose improvisational feel and we create a lot of unpredictable noise throughout the set.
We specifically use chance as a composition tool. Sounds or songs are not gridlocked into what you hear on the album. This creates a lot more variation. We don’t press play and let go. Everything is played and being manipulated in real time.
The intention of the music is very punk in a lot of ways. It’s intense and aggressive and unpredictable. Electronics right now are simply the most exciting way to create new sounds. And that’s what we want to do.