It began with a literary spark. Novels like East of Eden, which explore the effects of choices and events over the course of several generations, gave Ben Cooper the musical inspiration he needed. At that point, the man behind Radical Face set out on a journey to document the lives of his own family tree. Eight years later, he’s still swimming in the “shitty subject matter.”
You can search high and low but you won’t find a single project as impressive in scope or intimate in nature. Ben Cooper’s “Family Tree” has become a journey of self-discovery, and yet it’s also a story within which we can all find ourselves.
Stereo Subversion: You’re mid-stream on this intensely personal project, and yet it’s held this incredible power to connect with so many people.
Ben Cooper: I think I learned a long time ago that if you can strip away the details, there’s something universal there. I think most people would think, ‘Oh, I’m writing a story about myself, therefore it’s selfish.’ But most of the time, you’re just writing about an experience. If you take away the names and the people and the places, a lot of people have run into those same things. They just have their own details about it.
I’ll start with things that are personal, but then I’ll strip away the people and try to get it back to the experience. Then I think it’s pretty relateable at that point. As much as we like to think we’re different, history has proven with all its literature that we’ve all had the same problems for forever. [Laughs]
Most of these songs are about shitty subject matter, so at some point you just have to stop.
SSv: I think I’m as curious about this project’s effect on you as I am about the music itself. Can you tell that this sort of exploration has done something to you personally? It almost feels like a psychological experiment in some way.
Ben: Yeah, I think it’s impossible to do something for this long and not have it change you. You take a particular lens, in this case I was looking at families through the generations, and it just started because I like those kinds of books, like East of Eden shows how generations affect each other. That was the original idea was to do something like that. I thought, ‘Maybe, I’ll do it as a record with melodies that mutate over time.’
The more you dig in, the more you look at your own history, your own life, your own interactions, your own family, they all end up under that same lens. It definitely changes things. Then I’ve had enough life events over the course of making this record that it’s become impossible to separate the two — the fact and the fiction very much got burned. It got to the point on this last record that there’s no character. I’m the narrator now.
It was definitely strange. I joke a lot that I use music as my therapist. [Laughs] You can work out a lot of stuff in this external way. You can also, as I said, strip back the details in this way where you can observe it without feeling like you’re throwing a tantrum or just saying, ‘Fuck you, dad.’ [Laughs] You can really sit down and look at it. It’s funny how quickly, even when you think you’re writing a story, it ends up being about you.
SSv: Was it a surprise when you became the narrator?
Ben: Yeah, that was not the plan at all. Last year, the big thing is that I had some of my own family events and family history show up in such a big, ugly way that I couldn’t not write about it. It was all I was thinking about now. I was not intending on it directly becoming a part of it, but last year was everything from… I adopted my niece out of a really bad situation, court cases against people I’d grown up with, I’d uncovered a whole lot of family sexual abuse — all types of that. After all of that, there was no way I could ignore it or even just put it into a character. I just knew that it was happening and I had to write about it.
Those songs I’ll probably never play live. [Laughs] There are a few where I’m like, ‘I’m never revisiting this.’ But yeah, this is all happening over the course of the last record, so half of it changed dramatically while I was making it. So it was not intentional, but life happens I guess.
SSv: Is that true of other aspects of this project, or has a lot of it lived up to what you envisioned in the first place?
Ben: The first record was very fresh, so it was close to the original idea. Every successive record and EP, I think musically was similar, but some of the mood and tone shifted. By the end, I had no idea that’s what I was making. I would say it was a gradual degradation of what I thought was going to happen. I think if you’re going to spend eight years on anything, it’s going to change under you. I can’t imagine things being consistent enough to just stick to that same plan.
SSv: Is that part of the joy of this? The discovery of what it becomes?
Ben: Yeah, it becomes your own Frankenstein. It starts running away with itself. I’ve always read that, but I’d never had it happen before. I’ve had people say, ‘If you work on something long enough, you stop directing and start following it.’ In a weird way, you start feeling as if you’re chasing after what happened instead of dictating it. I definitely started feeling like that.
I also realized that this thing just keeps going. I have to stop at some point, because there’s always something. Most of these songs are about shitty subject matter, so at some point you just have to stop.
SSv: What does your family think of this project?
Ben: I don’t know at this point, because I largely don’t have contact with them anymore, outside of a niece and a nephew. I’m one of 10 kids, and I have nine nieces and nephews. My family is huge, but after the falling out of last year, I only have contact with four people now. I have no idea. I doubt they listen to it anymore.
SSv: Did you have feedback before that?
Ben: Yeah, before that they really liked it. In some ways, that’s funny because I’ve always done a lot of hiding in plain sight, even when I was writing a lot of fictional songs or stories. My friends and boyfriend was saying, ‘How did they not know you were writing about them? Knowing your history now, so much of it is in plain sight.’ I was like, ‘I’m telling you, man, you change the names and you can write anything. No one suspects.’ I’ve been writing about my own personal stuff this whole time, but no one really noticed and I’m fine with that. It turned into such a strange project. I started this in 2008 with a little idea like, ‘That’d be neat.’ Now it’s consumed eight years of my life.
SSv: Had you ever considered a break, then? Is there a part of you that’s yearned for the light, so to speak?
Ben: Yes. It’s all kind of exhausting at this point. Even touring. Sometimes it’s cathartic to write it. You record it and you get it out and then it’s, ‘Okay, good. I did something.’ Then touring you get to think about that shit every night. You’re like, ‘Whoops, now I have to revisit it constantly.’ That’s part of why I don’t tour for long bursts. I tried to do longer ones and got depressed over the course of it. I thought I’d be fine. ‘Now, it’s already out. I can detach myself.’ But it turns out I can’t.
There’s a time limit on that, because it wears on you. At this point, I would like to write some nicer stuff, subject matter-wise. I think that’s probably a good idea.
SSv: We’ve talked about the dark side, but do you hear from people where the stories have any redemptive power? Are you helping people find a way through?
Ben: Absolutely. That’s one of the strangest things about writing music like this. Sometimes the song itself is somewhat ambiguous and vague. I didn’t give any details, just the tone, but I’ve had people write me and say, ‘I don’t even know what this song is about, but it reminds me of this.’ It turns out they’ve been through something similar. That’s always been funny to me that it can come across.
I’m not the most spiritual of people, but occasionally those things show up. That’s cool how it works. It’s funny because I’ll think I was writing a lot of this to get it off my chest and feel better about it, but people on the opposite end will tell me how it made them feel better about a situation. So there’s definitely been connections that have been surprising. It’s always such a nice little boost, because all of this can feel very self-serving.