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EXCLUSIVE: Ben Burnley interview transcript

Weekender: What was it like getting back in the studio with your bandmates for the first time in three years?

Burnley: It was pretty cool. I was prepared and just kind of the same old we’ve done this so many times before.

It was basically the time between the tour albums was the touring cycle which was two years and the writing cycle which was about eight months. A lot of people don’t take into consideration that the band is on tour for the last album, that’s what they’ve been doing. The more successful your album is, the more you have to stay out there to support it. So that’s why there wasn’t a lot of time between our first and our second album. Our first album did OK but it wasn’t that big of a success or anything, and I had material prepared for the second album immediately after the first, so that’s why it didn’t take that much time then. I mean it’s just it took about eight months to write too because I’m sober, it’s not really a creational environment, sobriety.

Weekender: Is this the first album you wrote sober?

Burnley: Yes, absolutely. I definitely want it to be known, and I want it definitely to be known even moreso that I’m not a preachy sober, because I love watching people get drunk.

Weekender: Is that more fun than drinking?

Burnley: I wouldn’t say that (laughs). But given my situation it’s the next best thing.

Weekender: How long have you been sober?

Burnley: Like two years and six months.

Weekender: How did you quit?

Burnley: I was just a major alcoholic for about 10 years, and I did severe damage to myself through that. My body can’t handle it anymore. I’m left with a couple of permanent debilitating things and it makes it easy not to drink because there’s things that are accelerated with alcohol.

Weekender: How did it get to the point where you needed to quit?

Burnley: The main motivator for drinking on the road is just sheer boredom because you only play like an hour or an hour and a half at night, and the rest of the time, for the most part, is downtime. You’d have your interviews and you’d have your radio and you’d do things like that, but that’s like four hours tops. So out of the 24 hours of the day, you’re only looking at working like five hours of that and the rest is just sitting around waiting to play or just getting done playing. For me it was a boredom thing, and an addiction thing as well.

Weekender: On the new album, a lot of the lyrics have a common thread of slipping away or being left behind but with a twist of persevering. Does that tie in with what you have been going through?

Burnley: Absolutely, it’s personal to a certain degree because I write it and it has to come from somewhere. I want it to be known I’ve been suffering with some debilitating things for years, and it’s become such an impedance on my life now that I can’t help but have it come through in the music that I write. It does affect me in some ways on a performance level and on an availability level and things like that, so I’m kind of glad that it’s finally coming to be known and that I can use the album as kind of a platform to let it be known, basically just trying myself to take a bad thing and make something useful out of it.

Weekender: Do you think it’s cathartic for you to get these feelings out there in the songs?

Burnley: I do, in the aspect that if the knowledge is known, it’s not necessarily cathartic to my symptoms, it’s cathartic to the backlash and the negative things that come with the ailment. Like if I can’t do something, now people will finally realize why I can’t do it, and it’s not just ‘He doesn’t want to do it.’ So that takes a huge weight of my shoulders and just makes me feel like kind of everybody’s on the same page with what’s going on.

Weekender: On “Dear Agony,” there seems to be a lot more effects and different guitar sounds and drum sounds. Did the band consciously try to add these new wrinkles to your sound and use the studio as another instrument in a way?

Burnley: I think it’s conscious and it’s unconscious. When you have a song that’s good at its core, which means that it’s basically good enough that you could sit there and play it with an acoustic and it would sound good, when you have songs like that, everything else is like embellishment and ear candy. We’ve always, I’ve always tried to experiment with different things and try to come as close to what I hear in my head as far as what technology is available to me to make that possible. Just being at the House of Loud, they have so many things at our disposal it would be easy to make a lot of those things a reality.

Weekender: How did you’re collaboration with Jasen Rauch from the band RED begin, and what did he contribute to “Dear Agony”?

Burnley: We had toured before, years ago, and he had given me a CD of early RED stuff. It was all just bits and pieces, it was really in the early stages. I loved it, I loved everything on it. Jasen and I are two of the same mind in a lot of ways, especially writing, and he just basically writes songs how I would like them to be written and writes songs that I would want to write myself. It started, and I did a song on the RED album, and we had, just in fun, worked on some other stuff and took it from there. Now, I consider him to be kind of my partner in crime and my writing partner and I definitely look forward to doing a lot more things with him in the future.

He and I did four together. He did the outro of “I Will Not Bow” after the last chorus, he and I equally wrote “Without You,” he wrote the riff and some other things in a song called “Lights Out,” and he and I wrote “Hopeless Together.”

Weekender: Is it valuable to get a perspective from someone outside of the band? I assume you’d want to collaborate with someone who comes up with things you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise?

Burnley: It’s interesting that you put it that way, and a lot of people would want to write with somebody because they think of stuff you wouldn’t have done, right? With Jasen it’s exactly the opposite. I love writing with him because he does stuff exactly like I would’ve done, and that’s what makes it such an awesome thing. The other guys in the band have definitely contributed in the past, and still do contribute, but it’s always left up to me to put all the pieces together and make it so that it’s even anything at all, which is a daunting task, even moreso than coming up with the parts, you know? With Jasen, he totally gets it through and through and I don’t really have to do those things. Like I said, writing-wise, we’re like the same person. It’s really, really relieving, because I never worked with anybody like that. I’ve never had the opportunity or the means to do that, because you’re in a band with guys that might not like the same things but you work together well because they’re all great performers and things like that. It just took a little while until I met Jasen, as far as the writing aspect goes. You know with Billy Corgan (note: the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan co-wrote songs with Burnley on Breaking Benjamin’s “We Are Not Alone album), obviously Breaking Benjamin doesn’t sound anything like Smashing Pumpkins or Zwan. That was one of those things where it was really cool to do what you were initially saying and work with someone who would do things in a way I would never imagine doing them. But I think that time for me or that kind of writing for me was more of a pain in the ass, and I don’t want to say working with Billy Corgan was a pain in the ass, but that was still doing the same thing where I had to kind of take the ideas that he had and apply them to my band. In my situation with Jasen, I don’t have to do that. It’s already that way when I get it.

Weekender: What was it like recording the video for “I Will Not Bow”?

Burnley: It was awesome, I had a great time. The director was a spot-on, brilliant guy. The whole crew. The location was awesome, it was in the new World Trade Center tower. It was just a great experience. We had kind of the whole building to ourselves, even though it wasn’t that way it seemed that way. And you know we’re up high and New York kind of looked like a model. I have issues with heights and stuff and when I first got up there I started to have a little bit of a panic attack and I got over it really, really quick because I put it in my mind that the city was fake, because you’re up so high it literally looks like a model, it looks like a scale model, so I just kept thinking that and I got through it. The windows go all the way down to the floor. In the very first shot of the video, where I’m standing looking over, I actually had my eyes shut, because you’re so close, and if you’re that close to the window, for me, then it kind of gets dizzying I guess? Nauseating? So I had to keep my eyes shut and I opened them up when I turned around and start singing.

Weekender: The album is an image of a brain scan. Whose?

Burnley: It’s my brain. And it’s just going along with these issues that I have to deal with. They’re mainly, besides like chronic fatigue syndrome, there’s a couple of neurological disorders that I have that stem from alcoholism. So that’s kind of the whole “Dear Agony” theme.

Weekender: Because of that, does this album feel more personal to you than the other albums?

Burnley: It does, but in a good way. I don’t mind things being personal if they’re personal for a reason and if there’s a grand scheme, a grand design for it. These things that I have to live with are a part of my life whether I like it or not. In that aspect, it makes sense to get as personal as possible with things. It’s a part of my being now, which is unfortunate, but it is the way it is.

Weekender: What’s it like to know that so many bands, especially in Northeastern Pa., look up to Breaking Benjamin?

Burnley: Well, of course I think that’s awesome. I have people that I look up to as well. I don’t want to say that I’m the most down-to-earth person in the world, but to me I am, you know? I don’t know any other way to be, so it’s kind of cool to hear of people looking up to my band like I looked up to other bands when I was starting out.

Weekender: Who were some of those bands?

Burnley: Well, Nirvana, that’s no secret, and like the Beatles and Tool and Korn, like old-school Korn when nobody else knew Korn I was jammin’ Korn. But everybody that’s a Korn fan says that.

Weekender: Do you think there could be another success story like Breaking Benjamin to come out of NEPA?

Burnley: That just depends on the determination, the quality, the luck. We were lucky. When we were doing our thing, that was thing to do: People would go out and see concerts every weekend, that’s what they would do, and we were very lucky and fortunate to be there at the right time. I think that that’s not half at least close to or maybe even more of what it takes to have success. The only thing that I think this band has done well is after that we managed to keep that success. I think the songs obviously helped, but that’s the trick. First you got to get your band out there, then you got to stay out there. I have a lot of friends that are in bands that are local, and I think that there’s a lot of talent in the area, and it really depends on whether they want to focus in on that or not.

Weekender: Of all the successes your band has had, what was it like coming back and playing the Wachovia Arena and Montage?

Burnley: Those things are great, obviously. Being able to do those things is great. But there’s a soft spot in my heart for the early days. Like the Voodoo Lounge, they used to cut the room in half and I’d play in the middle of the whole place. Like the Staircase, all the clubs around. I just have such fond memories, and it was just a simpler time and it was more fun-motivated. There really was no business side to it, per se, and that will ruin an experience completely, when things get business oriented. I look back fondly on a band I was in before Breaking Benjamin. I had so much fun but we never went anywhere obviously. Comparing this to that, I can’t say one was better because I have so many great memories tied to that old band and the old clubs and those people. It’s cool that those people are coming to see us, but the intimacy is kind of gone because you have to play to such a larger scale. Even doing this interview with you guys, I remember how excited I was when I had my band like even inside the Weekender, not even a page, just a little box on the left-hand corner of the page or something. I was ecstatic. I still have it, and it’s kind of like looking back on it, it’s awesome to be able to go so far in an area that’s supported us so much. We’re forever grateful.

Weekender: Will you be touring in support of the album?

Burnley: Yeah, we’re getting something together. I don’t want to say any dates or anything, but we’re going to hit the road for it for sure.

Weekender: Should we expect a local show?

Burnley: Well, I’ll just say we won’t forget about our diehard fans.

Weekender: You don’t fly. Would you take ship to play in Europe?

Burnley: Yeah, I’ve always been willing to go to Europe. We always had a few opportunities in the past. It’s definitely something I’d do.

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