published: 12 /
In her series, 'A Life in Music', in which she speaks to Pennyblackmusic staff about how music has affected and influenced them, Cila Warncke talks to our writer Ben Howarth.
Ben Howarth is drinking a glass of beer. As too common of late, this indulgence takes place in the confines of his orderly Bexley Heath home. After a pandemic stint of work from home he itches to be away from screens; spends his leisure time running, cooking, reading and listening to music. Despite that, he graciously takes a video call to discuss with Pennyblackmusic the anachronistic delights of compilation albums, the perks of being Roddy Woomble and why Oasis “went off the boil.”
What musical culture(s) did you identify with most strongly as a young person?
My mum and dad were music fans. Dad liked R.E.M. and Paul McCartney’s ‘Flowers in the Dirt’. They pushed me towards being a big Beatles fan. I was also into ‘Top of the Pops’. When Oasis and Britpop happened, it was the main thing. Prior to that, I liked loads of novelty hits and chart rubbish. Then in 1995, the year I started secondary school, you had Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Elastica and Supergrass albums within months of each other. I bought ‘Morning Glory’ the day it came out.
How has your relationship with music evolved?
Getting into more and more bands over time. Once Britpop began to fade people at school were into more heavy music, reading ‘Kerrang!’ My friend Mark [Rowland] was a massive Nirvana fan). The other thing was the ‘Shine’ compilations. They were the ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ for indie. Garbage, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Eels – I used to buy all of those.
Through reading ‘NME’, I found stuff like Manic Street Preachers, Belle & Sebastian. CDs were about £15 so you had to be confident you’d like it. But a tape was a fiver, so I bought a Belle and Sebastian tape. I read the music press a lot, then started listening to John Peel.
What are the biggest differences in your musical taste between ‘then’ and ‘now’?
I wouldn’t have listened to folk or country at fifteen, but now I listen to them a lot. Also, Maidstone didn’t have a music scene [growing up] but from university onwards I went to lots of gigs. I got into many artists after seeing them support someone. Now, I’m less about the wider music scene; if I see someone live and like them, I’ll check them out.
What attracts you to an artist/band?
One thing I like is if a band isn’t associated with a particular style. The Beatles, my all time favourite, don’t have a genre. They could do something new but it still sounded like them.
Sleeve art is good, too. It’s one of the lost bits of music. Britpop was a good era – those bands had brilliant logos. I’d bring it back, make it mandatory for bands to have a logo and stick with it. Oasis went off the boil when they changed their logo.
What’s a band you used to love that makes you cringe now?
There are bands that still sound good but I can’t stand the people. The Smiths are in that category. I can’t stand Morrissey’s racism, even though the music is great. Then there is music that aged badly; the Prodigy is pretty cringeworthy now.
Who’s an artist you came to late but now love unreservedly?
The Divine Comedy. Around 2006 I bought an album and thought, “I’ve been missing something.” Then a friend took me to a gig and I became an obsessive, top-tier fan. Neil Hannon has written some perfect songs – not many people can write like that.
Three gigs that meant something extra-special?
Anais Mitchell – It was the night Obama was sworn in; she was quite emotional about what it might mean for America. There was a bit during the gig where she spotted a couple of people singing along and was like “you know the words?” and the whole crowd joined in.
The Frames – one of those weird bands that are massive in Ireland but nobody else knows about them. My dad found their album in a shop and we went to a gig at [the London] Scala. We didn’t realise they’re an arena band in Ireland, so it was packed with obsessive fans. The atmosphere was incredible.
Idlewild – my first gig after the pandemic, and their first show in nearly two years. It was their 25th anniversary tour, they had all the members on stage at some point.
When and how did you get involved with Pennyblackmusic?
Summer of 2000. When [my family] got a computer I was about fifteen. I started browsing for indie bands and stuff, buying CDs from the [Pennyblackmusic] shop. John posted an ad for writers and I got in touch. I was only sixteen, I think John thought, “I don’t want this random child wandering around.”
How would you characterise a) Pennyblackmusic and b) your contribution?
The site’s always been enthusiastic. It isn’t ranty reviews and slagging things off. It’s about giving a voice to people who make music. We take as much time and trouble to write about obscure bands as we do about household names. We celebrate unrecognised figures.
I’ve done loads of interviews. It’s a diary of the bands I’ve liked, an opportunity to get to know artists I like. It’s fun. It’s a chance to be an active music fan.
Tell us about a memorable Pennyblack interview?
My first in-person interview was a band called Rydell, which never got the acclaim it deserved. I gave the album a glowing review, made it my album of the year. It turned out they lived down the road in Tunbridge Wells so we met at a Chinese restaurant in Maidstone for an interview. They also ran a record label so turned up with all these records for me. I was this 17-year-old kid who didn’t know anything, meeting this cool band and being introduced to all this music. That interview still reverberates in my musical taste.
Why does music writing matter?
Part of the fun of it is, I don’t know. We like music, we find it endlessly fascinating, we want to hear more. But why we like it so much? There is no logical reason. Music writing adds to the context, conversation around that question – why do we like music? Who are these people and why do we care about them?
What image encapsulates your life in music?
My massive wall of CDs.
1. The first song you remember?
James, ‘Sit Down’. We saw that on kids’ TV in about 1991. Me and my brothers liked it so my dad bought us the tape.
2. The song you’d play at a wedding?
Richard Hawley, ‘Tonight the Streets are Ours’ was our first dance.
3. The one artist you’d most like to interview?
Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy. I wouldn’t say no to Paul McCartney, but I can’t imagine getting anything new out of him.
4. The artist you’d most like to be?
I quite like Roddy Woomble from Idlewild's lifestyle, mostly based on my jealousy of [him] living on a Scottish island and not seeming to have a real job. That would suit me.
5. The song you never, never get tired of?
Manic Street Preachers, ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.
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