Ben Lee w/ special guest Spring Summer

Ben Lee

Spring Summer

Ages 18+
Ben Lee w/ special guest Spring Summer at the High Watt



“Sonic Youth were my Grateful Dead,” declares Ben Lee. “J Mascis was my Jimmy Page. ‘Web in

Front’ by Archers of Loaf was ‘Be My Baby.’”

When he recorded an album of songs by these and other indie rock favorites, the

Sydney-born/Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter approached it both as a fan who long ago

memorized every lyric and as an artist who was an active participant in that scene, who saw

these bands up close, who even opened for a few of them. As a result, Quarter Century Classix

carries a lot more weight than your typical covers album. It’s an overview of a particularly

vibrant era in indie rock, but it’s also an endeavor of personal archaeology. Lee burrows deep

into these classix not only to see what makes them tick, but also to see how they make him tick.

The project started out of boredom and necessity. In January 2019, while touring with his duo

Radnor & Lee (featuring the actor Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame), he found

himself snowed in, trapped by the polar vortex in a lonely Chicago hotel room. Nothing to do,

nowhere to go. To pass the time, Lee thought about his first trip to the city twenty-five years

earlier: What was indie rock like at that time? What was he like? “Chicago plays such a key role

in my music history, because that’s where I went to make my first solo record, Grandpaw

Would, with Brad Wood (which was released via The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label). I met

incredible artists like Liz Phair and Rebecca Gates and all these people who were so important to

me at the time.” Lee was 15 years old, but already a seasoned music veteran in his native

Australia, where he had been fronting the alt-rock band Noise Addict (whos first ever show at 14

years old was supporting Sonic Youth. The band would go on to support Fugazi, Pavement,

Sebadoh, and more as well).

Among his fondest memories of that first trip to Chicago was spending hours and hours at the

city’s record stores. “Records were so expensive by the time they got imported to Australia, so I

spent a lot of time flipping through the crates. I remember buying the first Fugazi record on that

trip, a Superchunk singles compilation, Sebadoh Vs. Helmet. It was a time when being a fan of

music was the most dominant thing in my life, which is what happens when you’re that age.”

In 2019, the grown-up Ben Lee started working out the chords to “Web in Front” by the Archers

of Loaf—another prized piece of vinyl he picked up during that first trip. “I started thinking

about how incredible the songwriting was. Because the production could be a little aggressive or

chaotic—lo-fi, for lack of a better term—the songs didn’t always get recognized in terms of pop

craftsmanship. Also, a lot of indie rock songs from that era are quite opaque lyrically. They’re

not very literal, so maybe that complexity is part of them being underrated. Part of what makes

them exciting is that you don’t know what they’re fully about, but you can feel the intensity of

the yearning and the desire and the resistance in the songs.”

Using a small recording set-up he carries with him on the road, Lee recorded his own version of

“Web in Front,” slowing it down a bit and doing his best to foreground Eric Bachmann’s cagey

songwriting, which he describes as “a very refined pop sensibility mixed with dada lyrics that are

still really emotional and vulnerable.” As he sings about having a magnet in his head and

wanting to be your spine, Lee sounds like he’s thinking out a riddle or piecing together a

mystery. He knows the song is not a statement, but a question. After that song, he recorded

another. And then another. And then more. Fugazi’s “Blueprint” followed by Guided by Voices’

“Goldheart Mountain Top Queen Directory” followed by the Beat Happening’s “Godsend.” Soon,

something resembling a record emerged from Lee’s reminiscences, an album with a shape and a

thesis: Quarter Century Classix.

Once the temperatures rose and the streets were cleared, he took those hotel-room recordings

back to Los Angeles and gathered a small crew of friends to flesh them out. With a small backing

band that includes harpist Mary Lattimore and guitarist William Tyler, Lee adds a shaky

grandeur to Pavement’s “In the Mouth a Desert” and finds a shimmery longing in “Divine

Hammer,” sussing out the spiritual need in the Breeders’ sexual anthem. Mike Watt, Joey

Waronker, Petra Haden, and Maria Taylor all showed up to lend a hand as well. “Part of what

I’ve taken from indie rock is the freedom to capture a time and place. Who’s around when you’re

making a record? That’s your family. That’s your community.”

But Lee’s main collaborator—the Lou to his J, the Guy to his Ian, the Kim to his Thurston — was

Julianna Barwick, the innovative electronic artist who plays keyboards and provides harmony

vocals on some of the album’s most memorable moments. “We have an interesting relationship,”

he says, “because I actually met her when she babysat my daughter, a few years before she was

making music professionally. At the time I had no idea she was this incredible musical genius.

When we sang together on this record, it was such an ecstatic feeling.”

Says Barwick, “Ben means so much to me in different ways. My high school self knew every word

to every album he put out, and now we’ve been friends for years. When we got together at his

home studio, we had such an effortless vibe. We instantly got that music-making telepathy thing

going. The songs seemed to work out almost magically, with a lot of first takes, and he was able

to make these songs new and fresh without having to totally reinvent them.”

While Ben and his collaborators were experiencing the joy of working very much in the present

tense, at heart Quarter Century Classix is closer to a musical memoir: a mixtape as statement of

self, a means of connecting with his younger self. “Within the course of these 13 songs, I

discovered that the entire template for what I would explore musically was laid out at that time

in my life.” Of course, these songs mean very different things to the forty-something husband

and father than they did to the teenage kid. All those years have given him a new perspective on

these bands and their music. “Speeding Motorcycle” took on immense new significance after Lee

played a handful of shows with Daniel Johnston in 2017; getting some first-hand experience of

the troubled mind of an outsider-art hero behind one of your favorite songs will do that.

Recording and releasing Quarter Century Classix doesn’t mean he’s done with these songs, or

that he’s finally figured them out—or that he’s figured himself out. Rather, Lee understands that

these songs will be playing in his brain for years to come, that he’ll be trying to puzzle them out

for the next quarter century and beyond. “These songs truly touched me in the most profound

way, but their narratives continue to unfold over the years for me.”

Venue Information:
The High Watt
1 Cannery Row
Nashville, TN, 37203