An encounter with Ben Montero’s work both unearths and soothes a melancholy you didn’t know was there to begin with. He unfolds small, somewhat common moments of human desire, need and instinct, always tethered together with heartbreaking warmth. Talking with me from his home in Athens, Greece, his nature was congruous with his art. He spoke passionately, warmly, honestly and at one point, held the receiver to his cat, allowing me to hear its motorboat purr.
Montero’s well-known for his comics, album covers and drawings that often feature a reoccuring set of charming and crushing anthropomorphic characters. Their impact lies in their specific breed of relatability—not in the modern #Relatable sense of the word (far from it), but in the way they’re able to portray facets of deep-seated human emptiness, and the ways in which we try to fill it. Montero has gathered an audience by sifting out the devastatingly beautiful parts of being, that are eternally felt, but rarely acknowledged.
The tracks on Performer are similarly on the nose. Their blend of psych-pop and soft rock is as strange as it is mellifluous and as warm, technicolor and jarring as his visual work. On every level, Performer is a work of discovery, newness, escape, searching, detour—one you can’t help but follow along with from beginning to end.
VMP: When did you write the songs on Performer?
Montero: About three years ago, when I left Melbourne. I escaped with just a bag, so they're all about traveling and leaving and moving and running away.
What were you running away from?
I was in a relationship, and I was engaged to someone ... and it got really heavy and intense, and it even got—one night I just had to pick up all my drum stuff and ran out the front door and got a plane ticket and I started writing songs around then.
It’s interesting that something that heavy was going on in your life at the time, because Performer seems a bit less melancholy to me than your last album, even joyful at times.
I was probably more hopeful. But it was a really heavy situation. I don't know. Compounded with everything, just needing to go away and not know where and find a new home, pretty much.
What was it like recording with Jay Watson [Tame Impala, Pond] and Ricardo Damian?
It was amazing, it was just a dream come true. It was perfect because I didn't have to play any instruments, first of all. They'd try to get me to play it and I'd just pawn it off to Jay because he's a master at every instrument, so I didn't need to waste any time doing that. We were just laughing and having a great time, and just completely focused. We'd already done a lot of pre-production groundwork like swapping ideas and track listing and everything, so we just went in there and it was a pleasure. It was such an amazing studio, too. I was freaking out how fancy it was.
It was Mark Ronson's London studio, right?
Yeah, it was amazing. There's gold records of Amy Winehouse on the wall and I'm like "Oh my god, I'm gonna get kicked out of here, aren't I?" [laughs] We did 10 days in there, and then I left and they kept working on it.
So you mentioned that you avoided instruments during recording. And in your interview with Noisey, you said “I like making up songs and I like when they’re finished … but I hate playing. I hate everything that goes with it.” Why is that?
It's like if you draw a comic or picture, and then you've got to draw it over and over again for people like every night. I don't see the point; it's already been done. I don't know, maybe it's laziness, too? I don't keep up the practice with instruments and I don't own any instruments, and I think it's not necessarily beneficial to writing for me. So that's in the sense of playing them on recordings or performing, but also I find it really important to—when it comes to performing—put myself into the most awkward position as I can possibly and not play anything. Because I don't wanna hide behind anything, I just want to be out there. And I think rehearsals are mind-numbingly boring. I hate them; I have a really short attention span [laughs].
There are a lot of aspects of being a musician that you obviously don't love, so what keeps you at it?
I love singing, and I love putting myself in a challenging position. I love making music. I love my band at the moment; they're just amazing. There's so much to love about music. I used to be a lot more cynical so if you're checking back on old interviews, you'll probably find a lot more cynicism there and a lot more defensiveness. I don't feel like that anymore.
You also told Noisey a while back that you’d like to find a way to act more “in an unselfconscious manner.” Do you feel like you’ve gotten better at that since then?
Since then, in terms of art, I'm definitely going that way and not being driven by my own hang-ups and insecurities. Music wise, I'd like to follow that path too, definitely. I'd like to be free of my own cynicism and hangups and just embrace something positive to give back to people.
You keep mentioning that you've grown out of cynicism in some ways, and that freedom from cynicism seems apparent to me on Performer. What do you attribute that to? Is it part of a conscious effort on your part not to be as cynical?
I think I went as far as I could with cynicism and parody. At one point, I kind of got into a bit of trouble with that back home in Melbourne, doing a cartoon that was offensive to some people. It made me really question my motives about why I'm doing it and where it's coming from, and where any anger or any need to prove or need show how clever I am is coming from.
So earlier this year I was hiking in Spain, and there was a stretch where I was by myself for a week. I really started just to peel away everything and just really look at what was driving me, and where the pain and hurt was coming from. It all just came back to loneliness. I think I just wanted to work with being honest and not playing any tricks on myself and not playing any tricks on anyone else, and just seeing if what was right at the core was something worthwhile to express. And I'm still working that out now, you know? I just don't want to play any tricks on anyone or myself. I'm not that smart, so it's better to be nice. And open.
There’s a real harmony between the extreme ends of both loneliness and comfort in both your art and music, which seem like two things that are inherently at odds. How do you find this balance with the dichotomy of these two ideas?
I don't think there's any dichotomy. If you feel extreme loneliness, you need to, or you learn to, build methods of comfort, a nest of comfort that you can sit in. A lot of it's based on nostalgia or things that have made you feel warm or some kind of subconscious returning to the womb. I think those two things are just natural partners, loneliness and comfort. I feel like it's been the main focus of my psyche for the past few years, just trying to find somewhere in the world where I can feel comfortable and warm, far away from home.
It seems natural to me. You want to find comfort and warmth when you feel alone. If there's no one else there, there's only you. That's all you've got. You have to retreat back into your imagination, I guess.
Along those lines, your stuff seems to trigger a pretty unique emotional response, at least in my experience. Has that been your experience in interacting with fans of yours?
Yeah, I get hundreds and hundreds of messages and emails—from all kinds of people, all around the world—telling me how they're feeling and what they're going through. And it's such a great honor, it's amazing, but it can be a bit taxing as well. There's a lot of sad stories out there, and it can hurt hearing about people who have been in the hospital because they've tried to kill themselves or something. I don't know what to say or do about this, except just say hello. They want to connect, and all I can do is just say, "Hey, hello," and connect too.
There's a lot of sad people around. Beautiful, sad people—not like sad in a bad way. Just, Jesus, there's a lot of emotion going around! And the internet isn't really representative of any of that, at all.
Can you elaborate a bit on that, regarding the internet and sadness?
It just seems like this place for lolz and memes, and that's all fine. But it's all empty calories—empty emotional calories, you know. There's zingers and you'll laugh at some picture, and everyone’s laughing at something because they're in on it. And it feels like everyone at high school is laughing, and you better be in on the joke or too bad, there's more isolation for you. I just feel like there's not much genuine warmth out there. And seems like a lot of people are feeling more and more isolated as they're feeling more and more connected.
There's an obvious connection between your visual stuff and music, like common themes and even more tangibly with things like the video for "Tokin' the Night Away." But do you compartmentalize making your visual art from making music?
It's coming together—I wanted to keep them separate, most of the time. But they're all kind of coming together, and I'm accepting that they're all one thing.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.