Take it from a writer who knows: being honest is tough. Do you risk exposing your weaknesses to an audience that could rip them asunder, or do you stick to what’s safe and fall back into the crowd? The challenge persists in music, where style and convention can drown out the artist’s voice. But for Ben Kinzer, Newark Wilder has always been a platform with a purpose. His first LP, the brooding Vanessa Atalanta, was a solo endeavor to both prove his worth and fight through depression. The next installment, A Winter and Spring, enlists guitarist Chava Flax and drummer Nadir Baaset to convey a period of hard-earned joy through sampled grooves and dimly lit clubs. “I want to capture the feeling of overwhelming happiness in a way that I don’t see done very much right now,” Kinzer elaborates in his band’s bio. “I’m not a person who should at all be asking people to listen to my thoughts on the current sociopolitical climate, so instead I just want to generate as much positivity as I possibly can.”
Intrigued by the stylistic shift of A Winter and Spring, we hailed Kinzer and his bandmates for a chat about the new album. Fortunately for us, the Newark gang were just as candid in this interview as they are on record — so read on to learn about how to write dance music without track loops, the trouble with expressing joy, conveying vulnerability as a man, and the beauty of pop music.
Ben, the new record was written during a very positive period in your life, and some of the dominant themes are joy and happiness. Coming out the dark and difficult Vanessa Atlanta, was this a natural transition for you? How did your new mood affect the way you approach songwriting?
Ben Kinzer: I wrote Vanessa Atalanta completely by myself. I felt like I needed to get that record out to prove myself as a really young musician, and those two things combined channeled into a really cathartic but pretty angsty record. This record we wrote while playing shows and workshopping stuff live. It also took a lot longer to write and record. We recorded the first record in about four days, and this one took about ten to do right. I had Nadir and Chava working on it with me the whole time. I’m lucky that my bandmates are also just really good friends of mine; they’re some of my favorite people to be around. So being surrounded by people I love in an inspiring space for a long time, it just created this positive atmosphere. And, at a certain point, I found I was writing a happy record about being happy while making a record. It was this cool weird cycle. You can hear a lot of the process of recording when you listen to it — there’s bits of in-studio demos and people laughing and messing up takes all over the place. It was really important to me that those bits of the process were left on there. It’s an important part of the theme.
Joy can be a tricky emotion to capture within art. Did you ever feel concerned about not hitting the mark or something not translating correctly?
BK: Absolutely. I didn’t want to make a “happy” record. That was just so not the mark I wanted to hit, because joy and grace is so much more complicated than just being happy — it comes with pain and difficulty, and its important to include all of that when talking about it. There’s some pretty emotionally heavy stuff on this record, but all that struggle ties in with the importance of kindness and gentleness, which is the real theme I wanted to express on this album. Especially as a man brought up in this society, I really wanted to make a record without any put-on ferocity, or shock value, or fake masculinity of any kind — just a palms up, vulnerable piece of work with no walls put up around it. I can’t think of many albums made by men that I can really say that about.
In your press bio you state that you don’t feel like you should be asking people to listen to your thoughts on the current sociopolitical climate. Can you expand on that thought?
BK: I’m a white guy. There’s just only so much I can say that’s important and doesn’t involve me talking over someone else, and there’s so many people, especially in Atlanta, that have really important things to say that people need to hear. We try and donate a lot of what money we make from this band when we can, because I think in this time we’re living in you have to use what you have of value to help make the world a better place, and my words preaching to the choir and saying things people already know don’t have that much value, but concrete things like money do. They always have the same value.
While we’re talking about it, if you pre-order our album all the proceeds go to ACLU, and if you come to our release show on March 18th all the money goes to help Mammal Gallery with their struggles after having their property bought out from under them by developers.
Musically, this album is a major curveball from you that embraces a wide new set of sounds and influences. I’m curious if there was a reason you initially felt locked into post-punk?
BK: A lot of it was just ignorance. I loved all this music but I didn’t have the materials or knowledge to create stuff like it; I just had a guitar. For this record I knew I wanted to branch out, so I bought Ableton and all that and just decided to cram and fill my brain with as much knowledge about sampling and electronics as I could. Despite all that, it still turned out to be a really live record. I don’t think I could get rid of that part of my songwriting if I tried. Like right now, I’m working on new stuff that’s even more sample-based and electronic than before, and even with that, I still write parts thinking about how this sample can’t be too rigid in a certain pattern cuz it’ll clash with Nadir’s drumming technique or Chava’s guitar parts. I hate having live loops that we have to play along to. I just won’t do it, whether that’s for better or for worse (laughs).
So what was the songwriting process like for this record? It seems like it was very collaborative and open-ended. Does that make things easier as artists?
BK: It does and it doesn’t. I can be pretty intent on what I want something to sound like and I have to check myself to not step on the others’ toes in order to control what they play too much. When I’m able to avoid that they always find something in the song that I never think to look at and turn it into something even better. That never fails to happen. But sometimes I just gotta have it my way…
Nadir Baaset: It takes a special trust to bring your art to the table and allow to ask other people to put their stamp on it. And it’s not just a one-way street — we all have to subsume our musical identity into the group. The chemistry we have is great, and I think our sound reflects that.
Chava, from a guitar playing perspective how does your approach in Newark Wilder differ from your work in Bitter or Loner?
Chava Flax: I like to make my writing style unique for each band. However, my initial approach and philosophy with every band I am in is pretty much the same. My position with everyone that I work with is that it is their music and my role is to complement it and fill up empty spaces within songs. Some songs that Ben writes call for the same lead-heavy guitar parts that Bitter needs with their songs. But there are other songs, especially the newer stuff that Ben has been writing, that call for a more controlled approach with guitar, similar to what Loner needs. One of the easiest things, in my opinion, for a lead guitarist to do, is to constantly play the heaviest lead parts that they can come up with and play as fast as they can for as long as they can. But holding back can be really hard. Playing alongside Ben has taught me how to hold back as a guitarist and listen to what guitar part will be best for each individual section of each song. I think the best example with Newark Wilder of this is on the track “Milk and Honey.” It is very controlled and my goal with that song was to highlight what Nadir was doing and make my guitar almost sound as if it was responding to what Ben was doing with the bass and synth parts.
Let’s talk about “Milk and Honey.” It’s got this unusual mix of a springy groove underneath this kind of hypnotic spoken word piece. How did that song come together?
BK: This song was one of the last ones we wrote for this record. I had this sample pad that I made that I was really into — it’s the smooth keys you can hear under everything, and I wrote the chords of the song using that sample. Then Nadir and Chava ran with it in a really cool way. I knew I wanted it to be a dance/house-inspired track, [and] Nadir kept that idea and fleshed it out with these really smooth and pretty lines that give it such a nice airiness. Chava really came through with her part on this song, the pick-scratching was her idea, and it’s hands-down my favorite part of the song now.
I had a really hard time writing a vocal melody to sing over this song. I kept writing stuff but it always sounded cheesy and forced because its such a groove-oriented track; not as focused on melody. Eventually I realized that I needed to record vocals on it, like, that day. The week before I had been to a bunch of shows at the Mammal Gallery, and had some peculiar and interesting experiences there, and so I just decided to just talk about going to shows and being young and two years sober, and the weird bemusing distance that can put between me and other people in those environments.
NB: Speaking of trust… I wasn’t that on board when Ben first brought “Milk and Honey” to us. I thought, “The chord changes are just too dissonant.” I knew the theory of it worked but I’m the one who’s always keeping an eye towards “is this accessible enough?” But I know that when Ben has an idea, when he believes in a song, it must be good. So we worked on it, played it in slightly different ways every time. I heard what Chava was doing with it. And then it clicked. I heard the song for what it really is… At this point, it may be my favorite song on the record.
Nadir, it’s interesting that you mention maintaining an eye on accessibility. Is that something that is especially important to you? In that sense, how has the band’s music evolved since you’ve joined?
NB: I always want someone who isn’t necessarily interested in our style to be able to enjoy our music. I think it’s too easy to do a thing musically just because you can, and not because it serves the song. That’s the beauty of pop music, to me. It’s always cohesive and thematically tight. I believe in music as high art, but I want to shy away from too much pretentiousness. Which, honestly, is a challenge for me and Ben, but we serve as checks on each other, so every song doesn’t become a demo for these awesome new pedals, or a drum solo disguised as a song. Chava can do anything she wants to do, because her creativity and musical sense is just the best.
You three are all very involved in the local scene — in going out to shows and supporting other artists and venues. Despite its history of division, Atlanta music, at least from the outside looking in, seems to be slowly coming together into something more cohesive. Would you agree with that thought?
CF: I have been involved in the Atlanta scene for about four years now and I have already noticed a change. When I started out, pretty much every show was dominated by straight white cis men. I got pretty used to being the only woman at shows or when there was more than one or two women playing a show, it was labeled as a “ladies night” that made it seem like being a woman that played an instrument had become its own genre. It happened because people started purposefully making space for people who are not white, cis, men, or straight. Punk Black and Southern Fried Queer Pride are both organizations that are wonderful in that they highlight people of color, queer, trans, women, etc.
You’ve turned your release show into a benefit for the Mammal Gallery. Talk a little about what that place means both on a personal and community level.
BK: Mammal is one of my favorite places in Atlanta. It’s run by such nice, kind, talented people that genuinely just want to see this city flourish. They deserve a happy future where they are doing the things they do. They’ve helped me and all my friends out so much since they’ve opened, and I think it’s the least we can do to help them back however much we can. I also am just there a lot, and went there a ton after days in the studio as I’ve said before. So the Mammal Gallery as a topic or reference point turns up a lot in the lyrics; both “Milk and Honey” and “Concert By the Sea” are written about experiences I’ve had there. I feel like I owe a lot to the space, as a living, breathing thing, as much as the people who run it.
Ben, you’ve been accepted into Berklee College of Music. Is that something you will be pursuing? What can we expect from Newark Wilder moving forward?
BK: Yep! I’m leaving in the fall. I’m super excited to go but I’m also very sad to be leaving my absolute favorite city for music. As much as Newark Wilder is centrally my material, it’s really entirely about the people I play with. I don’t want to make a Newark Wilder record without Nadir on drums and Chava on guitar. So we’re going to be having our formal last show at the end of the summer. We will definitely play shows if we can when I’m in town, but I want to be able to look back on these two albums with these two amazing musicians as a complete statement, and not try and drag a bastardized version to a different city. It’s not the same without Nadir, Chava, and Atlanta.
Newark Wilder will celebrate the release of A Winter and Spring on Sat., March 18 at the Mammal Gallery. They will be supported by We Roll Like Madmen, Dog Lover, and Moloq. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. All ages.