Conversations With Mike Brun: Benjamin Scheuer
I’m going to paraphrase something Friedrich Nietzsche once said about poets. This is a rough way to start, I know. Stay with me, y’all. He said, they muddy their waters that they might appear deep. And you know what? Some days, when faced with taking in astronomical amounts of art being generated and shared these days, I can sometimes grow cynical - and then Nietzsche’s sentiment begins to resonate with my exasperated mood. Especially the more abstract so many 21st-century artists get. It can’t all be deep, can it?
Well, perhaps not all of it. I'll resist the low-hanging fruit of most Top-40 radio, here. But when it comes to the music of Benjamin Scheuer, it's utterly impossible to be so cynical. Benjamin Scheuer is an American composer who will warm that cold, hardened, New York heart of yours. He’s a singer with a bard’s delivery akin to Colin Meloy of The Decemberists (though less from a Portland bar and more from a London café); a guitarist with a crisp style and penchant for unorthodox tunings (reminiscent of Tommy Emmanuel and Duncan Sheik, respectively); and a lyricist who understands the value of narration via straightforward physical description (virtuosic in subtlety). But really, it’s just his earnestness that gets you. His performances always come off so genuine to me. Benjamin has great facility in sweeping you up into the world of a song. A given piece can in one listen feel familiar, mellifluous, and fun, while in the next come off experimental, incisive, and challenging. In live performance, these qualities are all amplified: he’s good-looking (handsome and ever sartorially classy); and he’s good-looking (always focused as he peers into the audience during a song). For me, this all adds up to a clarity in his work that will run just as deep as you let it.
I’m excited to announce that Benjamin and I will be sharing a night at Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s West Village on Tuesday, July 2nd. Benjamin will have a set starting at 8:45PM, and then I will have a set at 10PM.
Leading up to this show, Benjamin and I exchanged a few emails - here’s what we came up with.
: It's my understanding Escapist Papers exists really only on recording; but in previous conversations with you, I also get the impression it's more than a moniker. What exactly is Escapist Papers? Has some iteration of Escapist Papers ever performed live?
: I released Escapist Papers’ debut self-titled album in 2007. The album was recorded in my studio in Westchester, New York. I sang and played guitar. Josh Dion and Vinnie Sperraza (and I, on one track, called “Superhero of Christopher Street,”) played drums. Geoff Kraly, who produced the new Escapist Papers album, “The Bridge,” played bass. Guitarist Gerry Leonard played on the album. He’s done lots of work with David Bowie, and was Rufus Wainwright’s music director. Peter Denenberg and I engineered the album. Peter is a lovely man, and now runs the audio engineering department at SUNY Purchase, where he’s a professor. Escapist Papers has performed live. The first album was electric guitar driven radio-rock. Escapist Papers played regularly as a trio, at Arlene’s Grocery and other Lower East Side rock haunts. I’d sing and play electric guitar. Geoff Kraly played bass. Vinnie Sperrazza, and sometimes Josh Dion, played drums. We did a few out-of-town shows, and somewhere, floating around, is a recording of live-on-air performance on NY’s radio station 107.1 The Peak. This was in 2007 or 2008 right after I got back from Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I’d staged a piece of musical comedy of mine called Jihad! The Musical. I made the mistake of watching “Waiting for Guffman” and “Spinal Tap” in one day, while at the Fringe Festival, and my dual pursuits of musicals and rock-and-roll were taken apart piece by piece by Mr. Christopher Guest. The new album I've finished with Escapist Papers is called "The Bridge." I wrote the music, and played guitar and sang on the recordings, which we tracked in my studio, Escapist Studios. Geoff Kraly produced the album, played bass and modular synthesizers. Jacob Sacks played piano. Will Lee played electric bass. Yoon Sun Choi sang additional vocals, Jacob Garchik did some arranging and played accordion and trombone. Mike McGinnis played clarinet. Vinnie Sperrazza played marimba. Miranda Sielaff played viola. Shane Endley played trumpet. The record was mixed by Tom Schick at the Maids Room in NYC, and we mastered it at Sterling Sound with Greg Calbi.
: Where does the name of Escapist Papers come from? (Possible reference to the Federalist Papers? I just finished a Thomas Jefferson biography, so that's where my head is at.) B: When I started writing and recording the first (then still un-band-named) Escapist Papers project in 2006, it seemed to me that the group of songs I was putting together chronicled running away, escapism. And in realizing that most music is digitally available, I liked the contradiction of a contemporary music project referencing something actually tangible, something that you could hold in your hands; hence “Papers.” Also, if you’re escaping from something –breaking our of bonds of some kind – having your papers isn’t going to do you any good.
: You've pressed the new album on vinyl. What was the reasoning behind that? I would bet it has a bit to do with audio quality, as I know you're into that.
: On a Saturday in January 2011, the day after I was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, I went out and bought a beautiful turn-table, a new pair of speakers and a lovely stereo amplifier. Thinking being, “Either I’m going to die, in which case I might as well spend my money now; or, I’m going to be in bed a lot, recovering, and I’d better have a good system to listen to.” I have always loved, and since love even more, the sound of vinyl. It gives a glue to recordings. I’ve A/B’d back and forth between the digital files and the vinyl of “The Bridge.” I prefer the sound of vinyl, certainly in the acoustic guitars. The album artwork for “The Bridge” was put together by photographer Riya Lerner and graphic designer Lia Strasser, both of whom I’ve worked with on previous projects. They helped build a visual analogue to the sonics on the record. When I was a kid, I loved scouring album art for tiny details; I’d read all the names of everyone involved, all the thank-you’s, looking for clues that might give me an insight into the music or the artist.
: In an increasingly digitalized time, pressing vinyl is a decidedly pro-analog gesture. How much time would you say you've spent creating your internet presence as a musician? How much effort do your think is worth putting into that for the 21st-century artist?
: I teamed up with British animator/film-director Peter Baynton to make an animated music video for “The Lion,” a song on the new record. The video premiered at the 2013 Annecy Animated Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Best Commissioned Film. Later this summer, it will be released for all to see. Making this movie and pressing vinyl are, to me, two ways to do the same thing; to share stories with as much attention to detail as possible; to give deference to the audience, to know that they appreciate details.
: You mentioned your musical comedy Jihad! The Musical. This is a critically-lauded work - put up less than a decade after the events of September 11th, 2001 - that dealt with Islam-inspired terrorism. I have a quote I'd like to share, and then I want to ask you about the cultural atmosphere around putting up that production at Edinburgh Fringe. From a blog post by New York Times bestselling author and public intellectual Sam Harris: "
Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
" posted on September 19th, 2012.) Harris is pointing out the distinction between the mainstream image of a demure, private Mormon community, and sabre-rattling Muslims who, in action, are definitely in the minority of their overall religious demographic, but nevertheless get lots of media attention and are deemed serious threats to global society. In 2007 Scotland, did you have any trouble putting up this production? (More than the usual onerousness of theatre-making.) I know even in nearby England there are Sharia-law courts, so there is evidently a significant Muslim contingent in the United Kingdom. Tell us a little bit about how easy or difficult it was for JTM at the time.
: When General Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, came to see Jihad! The Musical in London in 2010, I got a call from a newspaper who asked me "Didn't you think that was strange, that General Musharraf came to see your show?" I told them I didn't entirely understand their question. "Well, General Musharraf is Muslim." I told the reporter I still didn't understand what point he was getting at. "Doesn't Jihad! The Musical make fun of Muslims?" he asked. "No," I said. "It makes fun of terrorists. Are you having trouble distinguishing between the two?" JTM made fun of extremism. Extremism in the media; sensationalism; the twisting of beliefs, be they religious, political, or otherwise, for (usually monetary) gain. Also, I thought that terrorists singing in a traditional-American-musical style about blowing up America was hilarious. We got some good currency out of a music video for a song called "I Wanna Be Like Osama," which we released onto Youtube the same day Osama Bin Laden released his new terrorist video. And for some algorithmic luck, our video became more popular than his. He must have been pissed. That made me happy.
: In light of the continued success of Book of Mormon right here in New York, do you have any plans for JTM moving forward? And what is at the top of your list in terms of your theatrical endeavors? I believe you mentioned a one-man show to me, recently.
: I'm working on a one-man show called "The Bridge." It's all about my family. I'll be performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, working with director Sean Daniels. I'd like to bring it back to the states in early 2014. If you'd like to know what the show looks like, have a look at the video for the song "The Lion," directed and animated by Peter Baynton.
: You've spent time in both theatre worlds and coffeehouse/club scenes. It seems to me that in theatre, because of the sheerly fewer performance opportunities, the gestation period of material (regardless of length of time) is generally more private. I'm wondering how this affects your work in Escapist Papers and everything beyond your more theatrical work... As a writer - composer, singer-songwriter, whatever term you prefer - do you place a lot of value on performing live as a way of "testing" material?
: Testing material, certainly material that has a larger narrative arc through an evening, but really testing any song that's being shared with an audience, is very important indeed. I'll regularly play a song live, and then go and rewrite it. Perform the revised version, and re-write it again. I'm watching the audience as closely as they're watching me. The monthly songwriter-series at the Cornelia Street Cafe has been a fantastic incubator for "The Bridge," the one-man show on which I've been working, and the show I'm taking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013. Every performance at the Cornelia Street Cafe has allowed me to try new things; before starting this series, I promised myself that I'd always have new material for each new show; new songs to see how they fit into the set, a revised script, new jokes to see which ones land and which fall totally flat. My favorite thing about the Cornelia Street Cafe series is, after I play my set, I get to hear a set by a writer that I admire; this Tuesday, July 2nd, it's you -- Mike Brun! I play at 8.45pm. You play at 10pm. And tickets are $10, with a $10 food/drink minimum. Since the series began late 2012, I've been joined by some really extraordinary writer/performers; Shaina Taub, Joe Kinosian, Caleb Hawley, Jean Rohe, Sam Willmott, Peter Lerman. The Cornelia Street Cafe was started 35 years ago by Robin Hirsch, who still runs the place. He's deeply supportive of artists. He's also hilarious.
Benjamin’s NYC Recommendations
- I wrote a great deal of "The Bridge" sitting on the outside benches of Joe Coffee, on the corner of Waverly Place and Gay street.
- The Vagabond Cafe, on Cornelia Street: The open mic there on Wednesday evening is marvelous. Great songwriters turn up. I'll often go and try brand new half-finished songs.
- Kati Roll on MacDougal and West 3rd. Indian street food. Order it "Indian spicy" and feel high for half an hour.
Benjamin Scheuer Performance dates and more
. The new Escapist Papers album THE BRIDGE can be downloaded for free
. Tickets and info to THE BRIDGE at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Check out Mike's website