THE FAMOUS ELSEWHERE QUESTIONNAIRE: Ben Lemi of Congress of Animals

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THE FAMOUS ELSEWHERE QUESTIONNAIRE: Ben Lemi of Congress of Animals

The Congress of Animals is something of an alt.folk supergroup in that it includes Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra), Justin Firefly Clark (Fly My Pretties, the Woolshed Sessions), Age Pryor (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions, Wellington Internatinal Ukulele Orchestra) and Ben Lemi.

And for their current tour Bret McKenzie taking a break from writing award-winning songs and Flight of the Conchords duties, and Deanne Krieg.

Their self-titled 12-song debut album – to be released on December 7 – was recorded at Lee Prebble's studio features tracks written by all the members in a democratic division of duties.

But it is no dialed-down, finger-in-the-ear folk rock because Clarke's Astral Tumbleweed fairly sorts and sears with a furious rock guitar part. And elsewhere there is classy pop and power-pop. And dream-pop. It is impressive.

Wellington-based Ben Lemi may be best known for his drumming work with iconic New Zealand band Trinity Roots, but he is also a multi-genre instrumentalist, singer, record producer, soundtrack composer, multimedia artist and former turntablist, He is also a member of French for Rabbits, Dawn Diver and The Adults.

The album has been some while in gestation because of everyone's other commitments.

“Time is precious so we’ve all had to assume a very focused mindset for the sessions. I think it’s fair to say that the time spent tracking and mixing over the last 2 years has been necessary to allow for gestation on a few levels and it has been in the studio where we’ve learned a lot about each other’s qualities and quirks, which has only added positively to the end result.”

So as their closes (see dates below) and the album awaits release it was time to toss a questionnaire his way and . . .


The first piece of music which really affected you was . . . 

It’s a bit foggy to be honest but there was a Hank Williams song, might have been “Cold, Cold Heart” or “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry”  that really got me bawling when I was about 3 or 4 years old. I’m not entirely sure what caused such a reaction, as I would have been too young to appreciate the sentiment at the time, but my guess is that Hank Williams’ timbre and delivery in those types of songs had such an evocative quality that I must have picked up on something.

Dad being the old time blues, country, and bluegrass fanatic always had Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Kitty Wells, Lightnin’ Hopkins et al playing in the house. This one afternoon he had chucked on a Hank Williams record and all of a sudden these inexplicable feelings started building up, and my outburst must have been loud enough for mum to come through from the kitchen to ask what was wrong.

I wasn’t able to communicate properly between sobs, but I remember Dad saying something like “it’s the music… he’s crying at the music”… …upon 2nd thoughts it might have been Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” that set me off hahaha! just as likely!

Your first (possibly embarrassing) role models in music were . . . 

between 5 and 6 years of age I remember Dad started playing Paul Simon’s Graceland which has stuck with me from that time and I’m thankful for that. My older cousins Anna, Gina & Kim were besotted with David Bowie and his appearance in “The Labrynth”, so they would often re-enact musical scenes from that film with me as a human puppet.  Around 9 or 10 my step brothers started introducing me to contemporary bands such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers who had just released “Under the Bridge”. I’d have a fair amount of trouble listening to it now, but I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment at being able to play John Frusciante’s intro riff to my classmates at school. Thanks to my step brothers, I also became obsessed with Jimi Hendrix around about the same time. 

Lennon or Jagger, Ramones or Nirvana, Madonna or Gaga, Jacko or Jay-Z?

Although Dad had a lot of both Rolling Stones and Beatles in his collection, The White Album was for more affecting for me than any Stones album as a youngster. I pretty much internalised that album as primary school kid. 

Nirvana was more on the radar in my circles of friends when I was figuring out what music was about, but I couldn’t listen to it now. Ramones however…

I’m not much of a Pop guy these days, but I think I’d have to go with Gaga, I don’t really know why… even though there’s more nostalgia attached to Madonna. Growing up with my cousins thrashing “Like  Prayer”, I used to like some of Madonna’s ballads when I was a teenager “Take A Bow”… but when she released “Bitch, I’m Madonna” I was like “nah… sorry I’m out”

One Pound Fish does a great tribute song for Michael Jackson, it’s called “Michael Jackson”. Please check it out.

If music was denied you, your other career choice would be . . . 

- Sustainable Architecture

The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear are . . .

“Fluerette Africaine” by Duke Ellington, with Charles Mingus and Max Roach

“Yar Allahoo” by Dimi Mint Abba

“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush 

Any interesting, valuable or just plain strange musical memorabilia at home... 

no not really… I do have a little 4 by 6 inch flyer for a Magma show I went to see in Paris a few years ago. I thought I’d be one of the typical drummer nerds checking to see if the fills, odd time signature changes, and arrangements matched the recordings, but I ended up just being totally fascinated by the Father/Daughter combo standing in front of me. The Dad was that ‘nerd’, head banging away to frantic 7/8 grooves. His daughter would constantly check her instagram feed and he would occasionally notice and reprimand her and demand that she pay attention to the virtuosos on stage, what a laugh, what a night out! 

The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .

not necessarily Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” as it is not solely focused on music, but within a fairly wide array of subject matter and case studies through the lens of Epidemiology, it does talk about Sesame Street. Interestingly I found myself playing the Sesame Street theme song to a decent audience at the Michael Fowler Centre not too long ago. I’ve heard that “Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt” is a great read. 

If you could get on stage with anyone it would be?

Malala Yousafzai… or Laurie Anderson if Malala was busy.

The three films you'd insist anybody watch because they might understand you better are . . . 

“Manufacturing Consent” is a doco where Noam Chomsky shares his thoughts on how the mass media works against democracy’s best interests (maybe not for kids)

“The White Ribbon” by Micheal Haneke (not for kids)

“Holy Mountain” by Alejandro Jodorowsky (defo not for kids)

The last CD or vinyl album you bought was  . . . (And your most recent downloads include...)

It has been a long time since I’ve made a CD or Vinyl purchase, way too long… but recent downloads include;

“Crab Day” by Cate Le Bon

“(Please) Keep Breathing” by Flo Wilson

“Beat Yr Name” by Vera Ellen

“Room 25” by Noname

One song, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you in that case would be . . .

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

The poster, album cover or piece of art could you live with on your bedroom forever would be . . .

PJ Harvey’s album cover for “Is This Desire”

You are allowed just one tattoo, and it is of . . . 

PJ Harvey? but I’d want to speak to PJ about it first.

Screen_Shot_2018_11_29_at_2.32.47_PMDavid Bowie sang, “Five years, that's all we've got . . .” You would spend them where and doing what?

Walking the Heaphy, and the Milford Track (haven’t done the Milford yet) with close friends and family, and touring with great musical projects.

And finally, in the nature of press conferences in Japan, “Can you tell me please why this is your best album ever?” 

Because there is honesty here, and the music has been crafted with diligence and curiosity.

The Congress of Animals play Auckland's Hollywood Cinema, November 30 and Leigh's Sawmill on December 1. Their album Luxury Motel for Cats is released December 7.

Photos by Lee Gingold

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