I recently met guitar virtuoso and stellar producer Ben Greenberg of Brooklyn-based punk rock band, The Men, for coffee next to his apartment in Williamsburg. Schooled in jazz, punk rock, and psychedelic rock, Greenberg splits his time between his solo experimental project, Hubble, and singing and playing guitar for The Men, which he joined three years ago.
The Men are gearing up to release their fourth record, Tomorrow’s Hits, on March 5 (the tour kicks off on March 2). When asked why I couldn’t “like” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, Ben wryly replied, “We’re a punk rock band.” Ain’t that the truth.
What were some of your musical influences growing up?
I grew up in Chelsea, in Manhattan, and our turntable didn’t work, but we had a small tape recorder and all these Billboard “Best of” 1950s tapes, so I grew up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Carl Perkins, from a really small age. I started playing drums when I was six, guitar when I was seven. And the guys that I was studying music with when I was young were mostly jazz players, but at the same time I started making friends with guys a bit older than me who were into punk music, so it was kind of a dual upbringing.
I read you once had a band named Emily’s Bat Mitzvah. Tell me a bit about that.
That’s really funny, I was just thinking about that the other day. We started that band when I was 13 and that name only stuck for a year before we changed it to The Fugue, which stayed a band for 8 years; way too long. My girlfriend at the time was named Emily, but it wasn’t named after her. I think it was a friend’s sister; basically a way to make fun of someone we knew. The band I was in before that was called The Dones, which was named after pain medication that people take for their backs because the guy we were recording with was taking lots of them at the time. But Emily’s Bat Mitzvah was a really noisy, confrontational band. We had a really large, intimidating singer who would take his clothes off and get in people’s faces and break stuff.
The Men has a pretty hard, punk rock sound, but with your most recent album, New Moon, there’s an incorporation of some newer psychedelic sounds and country melodies. Was that because you joined the band? Was that a natural progression?
No, it wasn’t me joining! It was very natural. Everybody’s getting older, I’m about to be 29, the other guys are in their early 30s, some people only want to play loud and fast for so long. The way that we approach writing music is all very natural and based on how people are feeling. We’ll try playing a song a number of different ways and go how it feels best at the end of it.
I know you recorded an album in the Catskills, where I’m from. Did you choose that area for any particular reason, or was it just to find somewhere cool and secluded?
Yes, we just wanted to get out of town and we had a hook up with a house out there in Big Indian, which is a really small side of a hill; it’s barely even a town, just past Phoenicia. Tom Abbs, who runs the label which put out the first Hubble LP (Northern Spy), has a vacation rental, and he was really stoked to have a band make a record there.
Do you find that where you record dictates your sound? Recording in a Bushwick studio versus the Catskills: how does that change things?
Yeah, I used to record in Bushwick in a basement and that was a really different experience for sure. It’s a nature vs. nurture thing; there’s a certain amount of every record that’s going turn out the way it’s going to turn out no matter where you do it, just based on the songs and attitude we bring in. And then there’s a certain amount of it that can change based on the scenery. We didn’t have cell phone service out there so nobody was checking their phones all the time and everyone was really engaged.
You also have your solo project, Hubble. What propelled you to go solo and how does it feel compared to working in a group?
I couldn’t imagine not having either. I started playing music so young and I was always the kid who was in five bands at once, always. I need to be in more than one band at a time or my brain gets overactive. Hubble started a couple years before I joined The Men and it started as an offshoot of a band I was playing called Zs, it was kind of a psychedelic music ensemble. I was in that band for six years and it was really good training for contemporary classical ideas, minimalist techniques, and how to string out simple ideas into really long structures.
And so the initial basis for Hubble was to take something really basic and simple, just me and a guitar. I wanted to create a situation where I could just plug in and play, and not have to step on a bunch of pedals or loop things. The structure could just come from slowing down, so there’s a really simple delay component to it that fills the space out, but it’s so fast it allows whatever changes I make in the moment to have a little bit of a longer catch. I just finished the next Hubble record a week ago—I live above the studio, so it’s so easy. It took like two hours.
Tell us about your Jewish background.
We celebrate Christmas. Both my parents are Jewish, they just don’t really identify that way. They just didn’t raise us with any religion. We celebrate Christmas because it’s an excuse for presents. God didn’t really enter into my childhood ever, and then I got into punk, so that kind of crossed out any possibility. My last name is Greenberg though, so I can’t really get away from it! I think Nick is half Jewish, but that’s it, that’s all we got.
Does playing multiple roles all the time take a toll on you?
Yeah, when you live in New York everything moves so fast, and if you don’t have one job that holds your life together you kind of have to have ten jobs. So it’s just sort of a way of making music apart of all of my jobs. So as a songwriter, guitar player, base player, as a singer, as a record producer, as a touring musician, all those things add up. On the one hand it’s a hustle, and on the other it’s a career. And definitely ever-changing.