An Interview With Ben O'Brien (Ben The Illustrator)

If you've been around Twitter at all over the past few months, odds are you might be familiar with a wonderful phenomenon known as Tim's Twitter Listening Party. For the uninitiated, these parties were started by Tim Burgess, fabulous frontgent of longtime FL favorites The Charlatans (and rather fantastic solo artist). The concept for the listening parties is brilliantly simple/simply brilliant: Choose an album, have people listen to said album at the same time, bring in the artist (and/or someone who worked on the record) to tweet about it, and encourage fans to share memories and thoughts on Twitter.

As someone who's partaken in quite a few, these parties are a fantastic way to get some serious warm fuzzies about records one has loved for a long time, as well as a great way to get acquainted with something new. Burgess has given music lovers a light in the middle of a whole lot of darkness. Without a doubt, TTLP has been one of the best things to come out of the COVID-19 lockdown period. 

Nostalgia and new records aren't all I've discovered through TTLP. Thanks to his collaboration with Tim's Twitter Listening Party, I've been introduced to the rather stunning work of Ben O'Brien, otherwise known as Ben The Illustrator. Ben's work is modern, minimal, playful, sleek...Ben's use of bold colors and a sense of whimsy make his works feel immediately familiar, not to mention uplifting. His work truly is the perfect companion for the TTLP experience.

Not only is he a hell of a talent in his own right, Ben also happens to be a huge music buff - you can find him hanging out at various listening parties himself. Ben graciously took some time to sit down and do a virtual Q + A, which you can enjoy below. Be sure to keep your eye on the schedule for TTLP, and keep an eye out for Ben's work in the months to come.

How the hell are you?

Not too bad thanks, generally making art and fighting the good fight.

What was the last song you listened to?

"Agility" by SickOnes, they're a punk band from around my way (Somerset, South West England), they've been around for a few years but changed singer and have recently been getting some good hype, it's been great hearing them on the radio.

Beatles or Stones?

Beatles, nothing against the Stones, but Beatles.

Top 5 albums (of now, of this month, or of ever):

Since we're halfway through 2020 I'm going for my top 5 of the year so far, in no particular order...

Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Run the Jewels - RTJ4

Tim Burgess - I Love The New Sky

Hayley Williams - Petals For Armor

Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

Favorite music-related movie?

There are so many! I really loved Beastie Boys Story just recently, it follows on perfectly from reading Beastie Boys Book. There's also School of Rock (a family favourite of ours) and Boyz n the Hood (I was 15 when this came out, learning about the world, and so much of my political foundations and understanding of the modern world was set down around that age, with films like Boyz n the Hood and Ice Cube's first 3 solo albums). BUT! I think my favourite music-related movie would be Scratch, the hip hop DJ documentary, it was so good to get that insight into the world of the DJ, after MCs getting so much attention through the '90s with Jay Z, Eminem, Dr. Dre etc. all becoming superstars. I was brought up on vinyl, my dad's Bowie collection and my mum's love of jazz, but as I became a teen and got into hip hop I could take that passion for vinyl into a different direction, never quite becoming a DJ myself but always loving and respecting the artform.

Half-full or half-empty?

Half-full of nothingness. (Sneaky lyric drop there, anyone know it?)

What’s the last record you bought?

RTJ4 by Run the Jewels.

Shaken or stirred?

Stirred, thanks.

What’s the first thing you think when you wake up in the morning?

"What does he want?!" (I have a 10 year old son and a dog, every morning one of them will wake me up).

The greatest record store in the world is:

Your local one.

What bands are most conducive to making great works of art whilst listening to? And do you listen to the particular album you’re doing a Cover Version of as you work?

I listen to music all day every day and there's plenty of bands I go to while working, I like things with a particular flow to them, nothing too intrusive and distracting or too minimal, so....The Chemical Brothers, Michael Kiwanuka, Oasis, Robyn, Haim, The Japanese House, Slowdive, The National, and CHVRCHES.

With the Cover Versions, I really do find it's best to listen to the album I'm illustrating! Really works to get into the vibe, especially if you have your own nostalgia for it

What was the very first Cover Version?

Blue Lines by Massive Attack, it was early on in lockdown (before I was doing any collaboration with Tim Burgess' Twitter Listening Party) and I was taking an early morning walk, listening to "Unfinished Sympathy" from Blue Lines, I've always loved that album cover (I even have the barcode from Blue Lines tattooed on my back!) and then the idea to do my own version of that album cover popped into my head, and Cover Versions were born.

Which Cover Version image is your favorite? And is your all-time favorite album a part of the collection?

I've been doing Cover Versions of quite a few of my own favourite albums, whether they've been TTLP's or not, so my favourite album ever has had the treatment already, De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising.

As for my favourite Cover Version of them all, that's a really hard one! There's plenty, Ride, The Streets, Ol Dirty Bastard, Kraftwerk, I'm happy with them all, but there's something about the Cover Version of Pulp's Different Class that I am still especially proud of. The tidy little layout, all those little people lined up like little wooden block toys, it makes me smile.

On your website you mention a “chance encounter” leading to your involvement with Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. It’s such a perfect fit, your work and those parties, but what was the encounter, and how did it evolve into your regular contributions?

After a few weeks of Tim hosting the Listening Parties, he tweeted that Twitter were giving him the chance to have his own hashtag emoji. I replied and offered to design one if he was interested (last year I worked with Elton John and designed the emoji to promote his autobiography, it was something I loved doing and wanted to do more of). Unfortunately for me Tim already had a brilliant emoji designed by Pete Fowler, but it led to a DM conversation with Tim on how we could collaborate. Initially I illustrated a set of scenes for the Listening Party website, they went down great, but it was the album covers you could see depicted in the scenes that people really loved. Tim suggested I pull them out of the scenes and we start playing with them, and so we did!

Which Cover Versions have proven the most challenging to give the Ben treatment?

There's actually a few I just couldn't get right, which won't be seeing the light of day, but I think the trickiest one that I did complete was Orbital's In Sides, there's so much going on, and I wanted to get it all in, but making it minimal was quite an exercise, if I put in too much it would lose the style and simplicity. You need just enough information to make it instantly recognisable, it's quite a balancing act!

In a blog post, you wrote that “Music, and art, and life should make people feel like that, part of something greater, all together now.” That essentially feels like what’s going on with the listening parties. Have you been surprised at the way they’ve exploded into this wonderful, celebratory phenomenon?

I think they're amazing. I wasn't involved from the start, I'd seen mention of them but until I followed one I hadn't quite realised how uniting they were for such a great music-loving community on Twitter. And there's so many sides to them. Firstly you have the artist themselves (and Tim) tweeting about it, I find it's similar to watching an interview about the album, telling little stories, emotions and nostalgia coming to the surface, or there's the other people who were involved chipping in, musicians, producers, sleeve designers, photographers, so you get a whole new picture on an album. Or you can see everyone else, the listeners sharing their own memories, connecting with new friends over a favourite album, and then there's people listening to an album for the first time. It's amazing, people getting excited over their new favourite songs. It's just such a whirlwind, such a beautiful whirlwind.

What’s been your favorite TTLP thus far? What album would you love to see featured, for your own pleasure and/or as part of TTLP?

I think it would have to be The Go! Team's Thunder Lightning Strike, it's a favourite album of mine for a start, but also my best buddy was listening along and tweeting too, so we could share our own stories of how we loved the album together, including a certain Go! Team gig in Brighton one Halloween. Three of us decided to go in fancy dress, there was Superman, Batman, and a giant rabbit (me), and when we got there we realised that fancy dress wasn't as popular a choice as we'd thought it might be, but we had an absolute blast anyway. For my Cover Versions, I HAVE to do some Beastie Boys covers, I think Licensed to Ill will come first, I stared at that artwork so much as I was growing up. For TTLP I would love to experience more hip hop albums via the Twitter community, I'd also love to listen along to some of my favourite singer songwriters of recent years including Courtney Barnett and Michael Kiwanuka.

Are you working on more covers for the listening parties as we speak? Any hints if so?

I've already shared a few for listening parties this week, CHVRCHES and Kate Nash, but I'm hoping to have artworks for Bowie's Aladdin Sane and Madness' One Step Beyond which are both coming up soon!

Some folks (including your humble blogette) might in future wish to purchase a print of the covers series. Will they be included in things you offer for sale?

I would LOVE to be selling prints, I've actually had some test prints done which are amazing, 12" size and on a really nice card stock. I've given some to friends, but as yet selling them is a little tricky, there are legalities involved and the last thing I want is to be in trouble with my favourite bands, sleeve designers, and record labels! We'd love there to be an exhibition some day, so maybe we could sell some prints then (more than likely for charity), as you'll see in Tim's tweet from a month ago..

Little-known Ben The Illustrator fact?

If you open up the 12" cover to Skid Row's 1991 single "Wasted Time" there's a huge photo of the band. If you look right at the back, top row, count along three blocks from the left you'll see two tiny little blurry blobs. I'm one of them.

Your boots were made for:

Bit of a cliché but... walking.

If you were so inclined, whom would you form a tribute band in honor of?

It would be easy to say some great band or singer from the past, but I think I'd go for something more underrated, so I'll say MC 900 Ft. Jesus. He was an early '90s American musician/rapper, he did a few great albums but his one song "If I Only Had a Brain" is still up there as one of my favourite songs of all-time! I may have rosy nostalgic glasses, but I remember seeing him at Phoenix Festival in 1995 and he and the band were great live too.

Best song ever written?

"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, especially as the world reflects on itself and brings about change at the moment. No song has ever stopped me in my tracks like that did. My mum was a big fan of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, so these greats were always playing in our kitchen at home, but I didn't knowingly hear this song until I was 17 or so, during my final year at school. Our art teacher played it to us as an example of politics meeting art. I did my final school art project based on that song before leaving school, leaving home, and moving to London to study.


[posted 6.24.20]


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