What’s most striking about Benjamin Cartel is his thoughtfulness. Not in any sort of courteous way, although the songwriter was certainly friendly enough. Rather, it’s found in his approach to his life and music, a level of important consideration that marks each decision along the way.
Money and Love is the not-so-new EP, a release that Cartel wanted to give a full year with audiences before thinking about the next piece. From the titular phrase to the strong melodic content within, Cartel’s attention to detail can be felt throughout. That’s not to say it’s slow, dull, or moody. Quite the opposite for a singer with a strong commitment to crafting catchy, memorable songs.
As he gears up for a performance at this year’s CMJ, we took some time to ask Benjamin about the year he’s had, what life is left in his former band KaiserCartel, and his upcoming release, Gothenburg.
Stereo Subversion: You’re getting ready to play CMJ. How has your experience been there in the past?
Benjamin Cartel: Before I did it last year, I was fortunate enough to get a nice write-up from CMJ. I was in the “songwriters to watch” category, so that was great. I had just put the first EP for my own release in a long time, since I hadn’t put out anything under my own name or in a band with my own name in it. This time around, I’ll be performing with my producer Kristoffer Ragnstam and his band, Kristoffer and the Harbour Heads. They’re a great band from Sweden who will be performing right before us. We’re going to do another show with them in Brooklyn. That’s just going to be so cool. I love that band and the people in it a lot.
I'm not some kind of provacateur necessarily, but I like the idea of people having to think about it for a second. Wait, why aren't you saying love first? If you have to think about it, that is attractive. That's where the literal Money and Love name comes into it.
SSv: How do you come together with Kristoffer in the first place?
Benjamin: That’s a good question. He was on a record label that’s now defunct, and KaiserCartel was on the same label. He basically had the same band that he does now and we met at South by Southwest way back in 2008 and kept in touch since then. We’ve been keeping tabs on each other. He helped get KaiserCartel to Sweden and later he helped me get over to Sweden.
He’s been such a great fan and support for me that I went over to Sweden to record a whole album with him. It hasn’t been released yet, but we also did an EP together where I recorded a bunch of the songs in Brooklyn and shipped them over to Sweden and then he added his own touches on it along with Joel Lundberg, who is his musical partner from that band.
SSv: And that EP is the Money and Love EP?
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s Money and Love. It was a mailbox style EP, e-mail box more specifically. [Laughs] This new one that we will probably put out next year was one I actually recorded in Sweden with him.
SSv: Do you have details or timeline on that, by the way?
Benjamin: I can tell you the title of it but there’s no date yet on that. It’s going to be called Gothenburg. That’s the city where it was recorded.
SSv: You’ve collaborated with Kristoffer and obviously for years with Courtney Kaiser. You’ve got enough experience that I’d love to hear from your perspective what makes for a great collaboration?
Benjamin: When you have a great collaboration, it’s always something that takes you by surprise, at least in my experience. You can’t really know beforehand. Sometimes it’s just people that you work well with, but I find that more times than not, those people become friends. So I think it’s about a level of respect and admiration for the people you’re working with.
Sometimes you work with people and you’re going to get paid a certain amount and they know it and there’s not enough room for the sort of mutual admiration society. I’ve worked with people who’ve gotten paid well working with me and there’s not this well-formed bond. I’m also a person who’s very loyal to my friends. It’s easy for me to collaborate with them.
Also, I’m not such a control freak that it’s hard to collaborate with me. My track record kind of says that. But it’s about people who have a similar temperament or taste in music. It’s not people who sound like your music necessarily, but it’s just people who have similar musical priorities. For me, I’m concerned with writing a catchy, memorable, two-to-three minute song. That’s something that’s very important to me and the people I often work with have a similar priority.
SSv: I wanted to ask about the title of that EP. Money and Love is an interesting clash of subjects and even that order.
Benjamin: Money and Love, the subject of that has made some people come to me and say, ‘You’re supposed to say ‘love and money’ not ‘money and love’. It makes it sound like you care more about money.’ If you listen to the EP, you know that’s not true. All of the songs are about relationships. I’m not some kind of provacateur necessarily, but I like the idea of people having to think about it for a second. Wait, why aren’t you saying love first? If you have to think about it, that is attractive. That’s where the literal Money and Love name comes into it.
The song and the reason why I wanted to reflect that is I was doing KaiserCartel — and I’m still involved with Courtney and we’ll still play here and there occasionally — but we got recognition and we did well and people were responsive and receptive. I’m happy for that. But even all of that, being an independent musician is not easy. You have to think about why you’re doing this, why people receive you as you’re doing it, and what the reality is. I guess I’m thinking about the life of a musician and how in some ways it looks glamorous and how it’s actually more challenging than people perceive.
SSv: How much life is left with KaiserCartel?
Benjamin: I think Courtney and I would both tell you that the door is still open for us to go back and get back into it — to record more, write more, create more. We haven’t picked it up in a while and gone for it. We’ve never said, ‘This is it’, I know we’ll revisit it in some shape or form. But I don’t know what that will be, so I’m just keeping the door open and trying to say as little as possible about it. I don’t want to put out any definitive statement that we’re not doing this anymore. I don’t think Courtney would either. That band meant so much to us and we want to respect that and leave that open for the future.
SSv: And there’s no reason to be definitive if you don’t have to be.
Benjamin: Absolutely. Sometimes people know there’s no way in hell they’re going to do something again, but I don’t feel that way. I don’t think she does.
SSv: By the way, I know you’ve worked with Matt Hales [Aqualung] quite a bit.
Benjamin: Oh man, Matt Hales was the third or fourth member of KaiserCartel. He was supportive and great at bringing out the best of our sound. When I started working on new music, I thought of him immediately and said, ‘Matt, you know I’d like to work with you on this.’ He’s very busy with his life. He’s got two kids. He’s in L.A. and does a lot of writing and producing, but I didn’t hear from him for a while. Then one day, months after I’d sent him some music, he said, “Check this out.”
I thought it was so cool. It was very him. If you know his music, the song that he produced, “Suspicion”, sounds like something he would do for himself. It’s got that Matt Hales sound and treatment. But yeah, he’s such a good friend and has been so supportive of KaiserCartel and my own music. I just can’t say enough good things about him. He’s like my family.
SSv: I know CMJ is coming up for you, but what else is on the way?
Benjamin: Yeah I have CMJ then I have a gig in Boston. I’m going to be pretty low-key. I’m going out to the Midwest, which I usually do in December, and do a run of shows there. After that, it’ll be pretty low-key. I’m not going on any great big tours right now. I’m working on putting out a new album and when I have that, I’ll become more busy and get myself out there a lot more.
Right now I just want people to know about the EP and give it a full year and give myself some time to crank up the machine to put out a full-length. That’s where my head is at and where my priorities are at. That said, I’ve put together a great band over the course of a year and I’m looking forward to getting out as much as possible with them.