There are few musicians as dedicated to advancing Chicago’s DIY and experimental music efforts as Ben Baker Billington. From his multiple sonic collaborations to his solo endeavors to his omnipresent being at even the most obscure of shows in one of the Windy’s fleeting music venues, Billington’s refreshing energy can be seen as paralleling the dynamic spirit of the city’s fringe music. This week the COMP Magazine caught up with Billington at his Logan Square home and recording studio to discuss his introduction to music while growing up in Cleveland, his multiple partnerships, what he values most in his sonic process, and his numerous ongoing projects.
We’ve been at a number of shows together since your arrival in Chicago. However, I believe we really initially met at an Ono rehearsal down on the south side in Jeffrey Manor. Can we back up a bit? Lets begin with what piqued your interest in music and sonic investigations. Are there any early memories of you making noise that you’re willing to share?
My father is a musician/jazz drummer and music was always playing throughout my childhood home. Both of my parents knew the power of music as a healing force, which rubbed off on me at an early age. I started playing drums around 11 years old and never turned back. Consistent playing in my parent’s basement with local Cleveland youth musicians was the building block to where I am today. My parents let us “get away” with quite a bit down there— late night improvisations were happening almost nightly and we all learned how to LISTEN. This remains as my greatest strength today – much moreso than technical drumming proficiency. A lot of the music was rhythmic, but chaotic ala Sonic Youth, Can, etc. These were my earliest explorations of “weird”. I moved to Chicago for university at 18 and immediately jumped into Chicago’s music scene. It enveloped me and I don’t plan on escaping any time soon.
You came to Chicago initially for university (I believe) and decided to stay. Since 2006, you’ve worked with a fairly diverse set of musicians (e.g., Brett Naucke, Steve Krakow, Libby Ramer) and bands (e.g., Druids of Huge, Moonrises, Tiger Hatchery, ADT). What in your sonic approach allows you to think about and play with such a diverse group of artists attempting to define specifically different sounds?
I’m luckily surrounded by so many incredible artists in my life that are exploring every medium imaginable which allows me to absorb inspirations from every angle. These inspirations most often lead me to explore different aspects of my own craft — whether it’s my drumming, electronic music production, or even event/show curation. Playing with all different styles keeps my practice exciting and also allows me to perform at all types of events. This keeps my schedule interesting! I’d say that playing a certain style, i.e. tightly executed prog music directly influences my other styles, i.e. free jazz drumming, and vice versa.
Can you offer an introduction to the 2016 Quicksails LP “Mortal” released on Hausu Mountain? There’s a meditative layering of sounds that piques my interest. Where did you find the focus in this solo effort?
Quicksails has been mostly a bedroom production project for the last 9 years or so and while it’s surely progressed over that time, I’d still say I follow a lot of the same patterns/influences in my writing that I have since the beginning. Most songwriting is based on an initial sequence or progression played on an electric piano or synth, and then I multi-track within/around/on top of that initial idea until it forms into a fleshed out tune. Most of the time I finish a track and it gets saved to my hard drive, never to be heard again. Probably 90% of the music I ‘finish’ has been buried on a drive and most likely will never see the light of day. Just another testament that I’m writing this music for me, not you. “Mortal” was written during the first year or so of a debilitating daily headache condition that abruptly came into my life. I dove through the western medicine ‘game’ by seeing a neurologist monthly and going through trials of wild epilepsy drugs and others, just trying to chase down these debilitating headaches. Throughout these trials I tried to focus and write — it was an incredibly brutal experience, but through this process I slowly learned many coping mechanisms for the often-overwhelming headaches. The record ended up sounding relatively uplifting and emotional — but I can still listen to those tracks and be brought back to the depressed/scared days of the first year or two of my time with this condition. I still use a lot of those coping mechanisms today — so I’m thankful for that time spent in the studio for many reasons.
Can you share any updates on your current project with Tiger Hatchery that is set to release with famed Jazz label ESP Disk?
Tiger Hatchery has been on the backburner for the last 5 years or so since my bandmates both moved away (Andrew to Seattle and Mike to the Bay), but we’ve still managed to squeeze in a few tours and recording sessions. We did a “punk tour” at some point where we wrote 15 short 2-3 minute tracks and played the “set” each night of the tour. We recorded it at the end of the tour and that’ll be coming out on ESP Disk in early 2018. It’s called Breathing in the Walls. We played a couple shows this past summer and it felt great — hoping to play more often now that Andrew has moved back to Chicago. We’ll see!
What do you value most in your sonic explorations?
I value music as an anti-anxiety/anti-depressent/life-affirming tool more than most things. Without music I’d be a fucking wreck of a human. I also value the way it has connected me to so many humans that I love so deeply. There’s no way to describe the connections I’ve made with my close friends through creating with them.
You’re currently working toward an album with ADT on Hausu Mountain. Can you describe the process for creation of this LP? Who are you writing the material with? Do you have a specific aesthetic or sonic experience you are attempting to convey?
ADT is a group of best friends who improvise together. The music has progressed into a somewhat “psych/jazz/fusion” mess of sound and we really like it! There are no rules, other than to just have some fun. We achieve that goal pretty easily since we all just like hanging out regardless of the music we create that evening/day. The new record was recorded at our friend Cooper Crain’s (of CAVE, Bitchin’ Bajas) studio in Pilsen. We set up shop for the day and recorded a couple hours of music — we then sifted through the material and two of our bandmates each created a “side” of the LP. Jake Acosta produced the first side while Adam Tramposh produced the B Side. I think it turned out pretty well! The album is called Insecurities and will be out on Hausu Mountain in the Spring.
We’re heading into the final stretch of 2017. Are there any additional projects that you are wrapping up or looking forward to in 2018? Do you have any upcoming shows before the end of the year
ONO is in the middle of recording a new LP and I’m pretty excited about it. Just finished my tracking this past weekend, but there is a lot work ahead. ONO records often pack a LOT of sound/words into an album — I have no idea how this is going to sound until the finished product is wrapped. Cooper Crain is an honorary member of ONO since he knows the band well and has produced every modern ONO record. He takes a whole mess of recordings and whittles it down to where each song is a tightly executed piece. He’s a master at his craft and I honestly don’t know what ONO recordings would sound like without him (probably pretty messy/brutal). We’re touring out East in November with our friends Buck Gooter and I’m excited about that. Boston Hassle Fest invited ONO out to play for the second time and we’ll be headed up to Canada to play Montreal and Hamilton. Can’t wait to eat some Poutine with Travis (of ONO).
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Artist interview and photography by Chester Alamo-Costello