Interview: Young Hunter’s Benjamin Blake
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“Sometimes I wonder which one’s home, the known or the unknown”
--Young Hunter, “In My Armor”
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Sometimes hearing a band for the first time is like falling in love. Its sound is instinctive yet complicated, sad yet inspiring, balm and irritant all in one. It explains something in you that you’ve been dying for the world to hear, something of which you are overjoyed, if vaguely frightened. Such an album for me was the Children of a Hungry World EP by Young Hunter, a septet from Tucson, Arizona. Its two haunting paeans to the magic and blood that wait in the dusty void of the desert were evocative and chilling, and seemed to touch upon a sound I’d been trying to remember for ages, like the music in a terribly beautiful dream.
On Stone Tools, their full-length debut, Young Hunter have opened up the floodgates and let their strange organic darkness into the world. That world is the desert, and we are shuffling, destination-less and dehydrated, towards its eventual end. With loads of obsidian seventies groove and sparse skeletal drumming, this album exudes a musical End of Days in which greed and corruption oozes along like black lava, scorching and suffocating the landscape. Yet through this, the band’s sound remains fresh and organic, calling upon the earthy stylings of everyone from Kyuss to Robert Johnson in the expression of hard-lined darkness.
Benjamin Blake is vocalist, guitarist, and mastermind of Young Hunter. Laid-back and conversational, he discusses Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with me for almost 20 minutes before we delve into the world of Young Hunter. Their debut full-length album, Stone Tools, will be free from their Bandcamp site through October 15.
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How did Young Hunter get together? Are you all from Tucson? Did you know each other before the band?
I moved to Tucson about two and a half years ago. Julia [DeConcini, co-vocalist and founding member] is from here. I met Julia in Washington, we both went to school there. I’m from Northern California originally. When we first got together, we started playing music together as a folk duo. We did that for a couple of years, and we did a couple of tours, and every time we’d come to Tucson; it was always really awesome. The music scene was really great here, and people were really welcoming. Every time we’d come into town, we’d have a huge band with us, people who’d just come in and sit with us. So after we moved here, I got an electric guitar—I hadn’t had one in years--and I started writing these songs. A couple of them were songs I’d written years ago, when I’d just borrowed a guitar and amp from people, and what would come out is the much heavier stuff. I had a batch of them, and we decided to form a band around it. Our drummers are our old friends Andrew and Adan, and they’ve been around here for forever. And our bassist Mike and our guitarist Michael I met living here. Our other guitar player Jeremy was an old friend of mine who moved out here last year. We started our first band together, and were in punk rock bands back in the day. So we had these songs and put this band together to make them happen. But they way that they were written, they needed three guitar players and two drummers. So it took us about six months to find the right people for it.
Is the Stone Tools lineup set, or are you still figuring it out as you go?
It’s as set as everyone’s availability will allow. I really like the group that we have now, and as long as everyone can keep doing it, I’d like to keep it with this lineup, but with seven people, I imagine we’ll have to keep it a bit flexible. Everyone’s gotten a lot better at it, but in the beginning it was definitely a lot of work, getting people whose schedules lined up and who showed up on time and could work as a large group together. But luckily, Tucson is pretty cheap to live in, so everyone in the band works part time. I think when we first got the band together, half the people in it didn’t have jobs.
I know nothing about Tucson, or Arizona. What is it like, and how does it inform your music?
Tucson is a really interesting place, because it’s . . . where to start? Cities in the desert grow outward, not upward. There’s a centralized downtown, and that used to be what Tucson was, but it’s just sprawled out for miles in the middle of this amazing desert. It’s a really unique desert, because it just has a lot of biodiversity. It’s a desert so there’s not a lot of water, but things adapt, and there’s just a lot of life here. The part of town Julia and I live in was once a fort for the cavalry. They’d fight off Apache invasions and defend Tucson, which was eight miles away, but then Tucson came to encompass it. But for a long time it was just a village outside of Tucson. Even before that, before the Europeans arrived, there was this group of people here called the Hohokam who reached a really high level of civilization. They built canals and things like that, multiple-story adobe structures. They were here for 1,200 years. So for me, living in this neighborhood, that’s a big part of it, these strata of civilization, where some of it has come and gone and some of it still exists, from the Hohokam to the tribes that came after them to the Mexicans to the Native Americans to the Europeans. There’s so much rich history here, and you can really feel it. But there’s also the other side of Arizona—the way the current civilization lives here in just an incredibly unsustainable way. There’s a serious water problem here. And the American culture exists here in a way that is so disconnected from the land. But then you take a step back, and you think, ‘Well, this could just be another one of these desert civilizations that just vanishes.’ There’s a real visceral awareness here. It’s so odd that that can happen, and will happen really. I mean, in at least the next hundred years.
That’s fascinating, because I assumed being surrounded by this vast, biodiverse landscape would make people more in touch with the land.
Yeah, and for some people, I think it does. But for the most part, the way the cities were built down here, it’s kind of about escaping reality. Phoenix especially. Phoenix is like this vast outdoor mall. A lot of people come here because it’s sunny all the time, and there are huge retirement communities and colleges. A lot of people don’t step outside the matrix of the city very often.
Do you get out into the desert a lot? Biodiverse, as a city guy, makes me think of highly poisonous things that terrify the shit out of you.
Oh yeah, there’s that. I go hiking and camping a lot around here, and you’re always a little afraid of it. I’ve almost stepped on rattlesnakes and had black widows walk across my hand. So far, I’ve been really lucky and had no more than cactus needles stuck in me. It’s harsh here. It’s been in the triple digits for weeks. But it just more informs your perspective on a place than, for me, stops me from engaging in it. Plus, rattlesnakes have rattles, you know? There’s a balance. Nothing wants to fuck with you.
Is that harshness what informs the inherent darkness in your music? Young Hunter is not a noisy or extreme band by metal standards, but it’s exceedingly dark and ominous.
Definitely. There’s an intensity to the place, but it’s a realistic one. It’s not some nihilistic darkness you feel inside, it’s just there. But I think I’ve always sort of written dark stuff, even when I was in the folk duo. It would be really pretty guitar, and Julia singing, but it’d be about very bleak subject matter a lot of the time. I feel we live in very dark times, and as a writer I try to get in and talk about that stuff in a way. It’s not a nihilistic darkness. In the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of dark forces around us. And I think a big one is that disconnect between humanity and the land. I’ve felt, for my entire life, that this won’t last. Some bad shit’s going to go down in my lifetime. And it’s more extreme and more obvious in Arizona, but it’s true pretty much everywhere, where people don’t live with the land, and that creates a sort of tension between people and the earth. It just keeps building and building until . . . there’s going to be some sort of catharsis. Or at least it feels that way.
On that note—a lot of Stone Tools seems to be about the end of the world.
That’s pretty accurate. But the end of the world doesn’t mean the world’s going to explode, or the end of human life or anything. It’s the end of a world. It’s the end of an individual, or a group of people. No one ever sees the entire world for what it is, so we develop these models of it individually, or as a group. To me, the end of the world is the crumbling of that. And the end of that could definitely mean the end of a large group of people. A certain type of people will have their world destroyed. Some people can survive that, and some can’t. And I think that’s a hugely dominant theme in our society right now. Everyone knows that something’s got to change. It’s like The Dark Knight—that’s why I love that movie, because it’s a director really going for that. It’s a big thing on peoples’ minds. It’s also the dominant myth of our culture—Armageddon! Whether you’re Christian or not, I think that myth is embedded in a lot of us. It’s within the DNA of our culture—to expect this destruction.
People have expected it for a while now. If you were alive during the Black Death, you probably thought that was the end of the world.
Right, or if you were alive during World War II. The end of the world’s a story, and we put that to the world when shit’s really intense. But there’s definitely a feeling that something’s going to change. You can feel it in a lot of ways, environmentally, economically, even culturally, there’s some big shift that’s going to happen. And it could be a lot more subtle than the Armageddon tale they’d have us believe . . . but it also might not be. We’ve been living a lie for a long time, and you can’t live that lie forever.
On Stone Tools, I’ve noticed on certain songs, especially “Black Candles,” that there’s a certain . . . I don’t want to say Satanic, but a spiritual darkness. We’ve been talking a lot about harsh realism and realistic apocalypse—is there an expression of spirituality on the record?
Absolutely. That song in particular . . . I think that was the first song I wrote, that was the beginning of Young Hunter, that song. It was sort of a song about being a healer, trying to be a force of good to heal all the insanity that surrounds us, and at the same time feeling overwhelmed by it, and trying to find some conclusion at the end. The lyrics are like, ‘I can’t find the songs I once heard in the stones and the flowers / These days, I’m just getting paid by the hour.’ Sometimes, you go off, and you try to make a positive impact on the world, and then you find yourself incorporated into this matrix, so to speak. But the song is, for me, a way of finding my way out of that. Shrugging that off. The title, for example—I called it “Black Candles” because it’s like something dark that is a force of light. It’s a dark offering. Not to Satan, but an offering to life. To really try to be effective in the world, you’ve got to get deep in this shit.
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HEAR STONE TOOLS
<a href="http://younghunter.bandcamp.com/album/stone-tools" mce_href="http://younghunter.bandcamp.com/album/stone-tools">Stone Tools by Young Hunter</a>
BUY STONE TOOLS
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