To paraphrase the law of conservation of energy, energy never dies; it can only be transformed from one form to another. Craig Scott, a guitarist and vocalist in the band Benjamin Blue, is no doubt well acquainted with the concept, and not just because he recently read a book on physics. Scott and his fellow Aberdonians Peter Taylor and Thomas Emslie posses a collective fervor that needs an outlet, a combination of the latter pair’s enthusiasm for musical experimentation and Scott’s constant supply of angry passion. “I just have this bile, or this emotion” he admits. “I need to let the poison out.”
So when the trio’s previous act Lenin Death Mask came to an untimely demise, it was inevitable that their creative drive would take on a new form. And like, say, the conversion of electrostatic charge into light during a lightning strike, the transformation happened pretty quickly. When a founding member of Lenin Death Mask upped and left unexpectedly shortly after they released their first EP, the remaining members were left with a run of booked dates to fulfil, including a New Year’s Eve street party in Aberdeen.
“We just thought we should do it. For me anyway, spite was a motivator,” Scott explains. “So in two weeks we just cobbled together a set as a three piece. It wasn’t our best performance but we did kind of admirably in the circumstances and that’s when the first Benjamin Blue songs started to come about.”
Just over a month later, Beth Black (who also plays in Glasgow post-hardcore outfit Slowlight) started jamming with the band on bass and Benjamin Blue as we currently know it was formed. Besides the name, there are plenty of audible differences between Lenin Death Mask and this new incarnation. The most obvious is Black’s vocals, whose upper range naturally complements Scott and Taylor’s deeper registers in way that echoes Taylor’s nimble, interweaving guitar parts. In general, Benjamin Blue’s sound is brighter – less punk and more art-rock – with the mathy elements that’ve always undergirded the trio’s music brought to the fore. The compositions are more complex and yet entirely accessible thanks to a strong emphasis on melody.
Scott is keen to attribute much of that melodicism to Taylor. “Pete is a guy with an advanced sense of melody. He makes really beautiful pieces of music” he says. “Pete always been the main man with a lot of the music. Peter to me is like… I just read a book on physics. By a guy called Shaun Carroll called The Big Picture. It’s a book where he tries to argue for the meaning life in a sort of godless universe. And this guy’s a cosmologist and astrophysicist. The guy understands physics at such a profound level that I’m just kind of totally in awe. I’ll never get to that. Pete’s like that with music to me. It’s like he’s an alien.”
Taylor used to play alongside Emslie in the indie pop group Marionettes, and it was through that band that they both met Scott. “I used to be a promoter in Aberdeen” Scott explains. “I had a radio show, on student radio, and for the Christmas show I left a litre bottle of whiskey for 3 members of the Marionettes and they polished it all off in about half an hour before they came in.”
Emslie, who’s also a producer under the name T_A_M, has “an encyclopedic knowledge of music,” according to Scott. “The guy knows so much, from so many different genres. Like club-based and electronic music but also things like John Wizards, right through to weird instrumental music. He introduced me to Arthur Russell. If you were to do a Venn diagram with Pete, they overlap with melody and musical experimentation. Me and Pete overlap with math rock.”
As for Scott, one particular influence stands out above all others. “Titus Andronicus; greatest fucking rock and roll band in the world my friend! I think there just a kind of angry and hyper-literate Bruce Springsteen. Like a punk Bruce Springsteen. That’s what made me want to start a band.”
Since then Scott and co have drifted from the punk ideal somewhat, partly by proxy of their continually evolving sound, but also due to a loss of faith in the term. “I think that punk and DIY is used by a lot of people as a marketing tool now and it’s lost its meaning” he says. “It’s a bit like indie rock in the 80s, you know, when things kind of went away from Factory Records and independent labels to just, as you move into the 90s, sounding like Oasis.”
Yet, while their overall demeanor might be less acerbic than with Lenin Death Mask, their lyrics still convey a whole lot of angst and raw emotion – and with good reason, it turns out. “Between me, Beth and Tam, in the first three months of the band we had, I think it was eighteen years of relationships fall apart,” says Scott. “Tam was about 9 years, I was about 4 or 5 years, Beth was about 5 years, something like that.” It was in the wake of these severed ties that the band recorded their first two EPs (the second of which is due early next year) and that atmosphere of shared catharsis comes across in the music. “Is this the end, something that we can’t mend?” Black asks on Always a Balcony, while Scott sings “It’s a catastrophe, it’s too pitiful, it was a way of living without you here” in a candid outburst during Eliot.
“I kind of want to move past that. I don’t really want to write stuff like that anymore,” Scott admits. “I’ve been having writer’s block recently. It’s hard to write lyrics because I’m happier than I was.”
“I’ve recently got sober,” he continues. “About four months ago I got sober. I’m just kind of starting life again after that. Alcohol and drugs played quite a big part of my life. To the detriment of my personal relationships, my mental health, and it’s just sort of finding yourself as a person after that. Building life. How do you have fun? How do you deal with life as a sober person? How do you deal with things coming at you?”
Talking about addiction is difficult, Scott explains, because it’s hard for someone who’s never fully experienced it to truly appreciate the mental struggles of an addict. “You have to explain it to people who’ll never understand. You have to explain what it’s like, to explain how bad life can get. And you know, people forget this, because there’s no real objective reality I don’t think. You live inside your head, everyone lives inside their heads, and what is bad to you on that day or awful to you on that day is the worst thing in the world to happen to you. You can’t escape your own head.”
That same tendency towards self-examination manifests in Scott’s relationship with animals. “I skirt between vegan and vegetarian. A lot of it’s prompted by social things. If my dad makes me dinner I’m not going to be like ‘fuck you Dad’. I care a lot about animals. I love animals. Like not in a normal way, and not even an animal rights way – I mean I do, that comes with the territory – but I have like a childlike view towards animals. I still view every animal as beautiful and this miraculous thing that I just want to read about. I devour Wikipedia pages and nature documentaries of all animals.”
As well as the potential content of the lyrics, a significant impact on Benjamin Blue’s music going forward will be the departure of Black, who’s tied up with other commitments. “Beth’s leaving the band so we’re going to have to restructure a bit,” says Scott. “Us three will always write songs together but we don’t know what’s going to happen. [Glasgow-based songwriter] Chrissy Barnacle has been playing with us, so maybe we’ll have a rotating member.” While Scott has appreciated having someone in the band with an alternate perspective to break up the monotony of middle class white guys, he doesn’t want it to be seen as a tokenistic thing. “Hopefully we’ll get another member within feminine vocal range. It’s big part of the sound of the second EP as well [as the first], so we kind of need it for the tour!”
Whatever form Benjamin Blue take on next, there’s plenty on the horizon for the trio, who now travel between Aberdeen and Glasgow to rehearse. First up is their follow-up EP. “It’s a three track EP, it’s going to be released on vinyl and cassette at the beginning of next year, followed by several UK tours.” After that, Scott plans to put his white whale to bed – or whatever the equivalent ceremonial act is for a lifelong animal lover. “That’s the watermark just now; getting the LP done. Finally, for first time after being in bands for years that I’ll get an album written.”
Find Benjamin Blue’s music on Bandcamp here: benjaminblue.bandcamp.com