EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted on October 20th 2014
BY JONATHAN VALANIA It’s been quite a year for Benjamin Booker, hand-picked opener for the Jack White’s Lazaretto tour, going electric at Norfolk, going crazy on Letterman — not bad for a 25-year-old community gardener from New Orleans. Booker broke onto the scene earlier this year with his righteous, trance-inducing blooze hammering self-titled debut, shot thru with dizzyingly ecstatic Delta blues demolition and the most shiver-inducing lupine howl heard since the day Tom Waits gargled broken glass and washed it down with gasoline when he was, like, nine. Sounds like John Lee Hooker in the electric chair, and smells like victory. He’s in the midst of his first headlining tour, which brings him to World Cafe Live tomorrow night, so last week we got him on the horn last week, having roused him from bed at the crack of noon. Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the future of the past, and it is in good hands. DISCUSSED: LA punk; The Gun Club; how hip-hop killed the blues; Jack White; Jackie Shane, the legendary cross-dressing soul shouter from the ’60s; wearing a dress in Nashville just to fuck with the squares and why his Navy officer dad and Christian conservative mother do NOT approve.
PHAWKER: Tell me about your upbringing.
BENJAMIN BOOKER: I grew up in Virginia. My dad was in the Navy. We moved to Florida, where I mostly grew up, went to school in Gainesville, then eventually I moved to New Orleans.
PHAWKER: Why New Orleans?
PHAWKER: When/how did you discover the blues?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: When I was 14. I was originally very into punk, but when you keep tracing that back it leads you to the blues.
PHAWKER: Why do you think the audience for blues music, which was the hardcore gangsta rap of its day, is middle aged white men, not young or even middle-aged African American men?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: I think that hip-hop killed the blues, at least for young black men.
PHAWKER: You cite the Gun Club, that’s a pretty seminal but obscure influence for a 25-year-old to cite. By my count, you were seven years old when Jeffrey Lee Pierce passed away. How did you discover the Gun Club?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: When I was investigating LA punk I eventually came to them. I just really liked his voice and his lyrics, the things he sang about where unlike anything else going on in the LA punk scene.
PHAWKER: You have a one of the most remarkable and distinctive singing voices to come along in many years. How did you arrive at your singing style.
BENJAMIN BOOKER: It’s just the sound that came out when I opened my mouth and started singing
PHAWKER: Is it true that your parents are very conservative folk and don’t approve of your music or your decision to pursue it as a career or is that just part of your legend?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: No, it’s true, they don’t approve. It has caused me a lot strife in my family. Both my parents are very devout Christians. My mother doesn’t even really listen to music, so it’s less the music than the lifestyle, spending every night in dive bars, etc. They were starting to come around a bit, see that it is possible to make a living doing this, but then I dressed in drag when we played in Nashville [at Jack White’s Third Man Records], and they REALLY didn’t like that.
PHAWKER: Why did you do that? Was it a tribute to Jackie Shane, the legendary cross-dressing soul singer from the 1960s?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: I just thought it would be fun. We were in the Nashville, the Bible Belt so I thought I’d stir things up a little. Besides where I live in New Orleans, that kind of thing is no big deal. Men and women wear skirts all the time.
PHAWKER: Had you ever done that before?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: No, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. It caused me a lot of strife with my family.