Best of What's Next: Ben + Vesper

Music Features Ben + Vesper
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Best of What's Next: Ben + Vesper

School was closed for a snow storm and all four members of the Stamper family were home the February afternoon Paste sat down for lunch with the husband-wife duo that comprises Ben + Vesper. Tea steeped and homemade soup simmered on the stove; there were kids on laps and timers beeping and over-leavened loaves of bread spilling out of pans in the oven. Somehow, amid days just like this—and all while working other jobs—Ben and Vesper Stamper have had an exceptionally productive year. Last summer, they recorded their second full-length album with Daniel Smith of Sounds Familyre Records; just weeks later, a few days in the studio with longtime friend Sufjan Stevens yielded the EP LuvInIdleness (out now). As they await this month’s tour with label-mates Danielson and Ortolan, the Stampers discuss their young daughter’s psychedelic songwriting, their excitement to don the signature Danielson footwear and the centrality of relationships to their artistry—the joyful union of their music and friendship, music and children, music and marriage.

Paste: This year has been so productive for you guys creatively, with the EP and then a full-length coming out later this year. How does that kind of productivity happen in the midst of raising a family? In the midst of your work as an illustrator, Vesper, and your job with the church, Ben? Is it disciplined? Is it spontaneous?
Vesper: It’s not disciplined! There’s not enough structure, that’s for sure.
Ben: It really helps to have the support of the label as a catalyst, or a way to organize your creativity. If you have connections that are already established, you can work towards something. You can work towards a certain audience that you know is there and know that your work will eventually reach an audience, no matter how small it is or what the demographic is. That really helps because in the midst of all of the craziness of life and responsibilities, you have a channel that everything leaks down into, and if there’s enough fed into that, there can be a flow of output. For us it’s crucial. Both projects this year came about through relationships that we have, and it’s more organic, especially the EP. The way that LuvInIdleness came about was we were playing a show in [New York] after we had finished all of the sessions for the full-length. So we were playing a show and Sufjan was there, and we were talking after the show. He had asked Vesper to sing on something.
Vesper: Oh yeah, do you know that film that he just did? It was a documentary [Crooked River] with a friend of his [director Kaleo LaBelle], and he did the score for it and so he needed backup vocals. After our show—it was like 11 o’clock at night or something—we took a cab over to his studio and recorded background vocals. So we were talking at the studio that night and said, “Oh, we should do some more collaboration. I’m singing on your stuff; come sing on some of ours,” or whatever. So when we got back to the venue, we were just talking and were like, “Let’s just get together and play some stuff and record it and see what happens, just for our own enjoyment,” you know, expecting nothing out of it. He had been so busy with his music and we were doing our stuff too, and so it was nice to think of doing something with no consequences, just for pure creative enjoyment.

Paste: When was this?
Vesper: August.
Ben: Or like July or something. He had just been down with us recording on the full-length because he was a part of that as well, but it was for a very specific project. We knew exactly what we wanted to do with it. It wasn’t as collaborative. So we thought it would be fun to just do music. All of us were really craving that—something that wasn’t so connected to a project or product. So yeah, he invited us to do it in August. I wrote the songs—
Vesper: —in a week! He wrote five songs in a week.
Ben: And then we sent it to him and we worked out a date and then he just invited us over, and the first day we all tracked together, whatever we could live, all of us in a circle, press go and play. Then the proceeding days we took turns. Vesper would go and I’d watch the kids, or I’d go and Vesper would watch the kids, and then we started building the recording. I think it took a week.
Vesper: [Ben’s brother] Josh came up for a day and did some bass. He was the only other person on it.
Ben: It was so much fun to work this way because we would go home and Sufjan would stay and work on it and send us MP3s of the mixes, so we would get them in the morning—
Vesper: —and he would have done like 25 other things on it.
Ben: It was such a treat, such a treat, just to hear his ideas, and so it really became a collaboration, and that’s what was so enjoyable about it. Then we would respond to the things he did with other things. We were interested in his ear, and he did it in such a way that he was really trying to get at our aesthetic as well and not just paste his own on top. You can tell that it’s a collaboration with Sufjan Stevens, but he was really good about drawing things out of us that we didn’t know were there. In his role as a producer, he did an excellent job because he was always encouraging us to do things differently from the habits we fall into in singing and playing.
Vesper: He had me sing opera, for instance. I was like, “I’m a tenor!”
Ben: But he really got it out of you. And he really challenged me to sing with different approaches. And with my guitar playing, he really pushed that—like changing the sound of the guitar by shoving toilet paper in the strings and doing all these weird things to break me out of my habits and my lowest common denominator mode. He’d just throw things into the mix and say, “Work with this,” and it was really fun and stretching. So yeah, he worked on it another week after we tracked our stuff, and then it was done. The initial idea was just to make homemade copies—
Vesper: —we had this five-week residency at the Sycamore in the city—
Ben: —and after we were playing the shows, I sent a copy to Daniel [Smith, of Sounds Familyre Records] and he was interested, and he said, “Let’s put it out.” So it was great, because at the point where we decided to have Sounds Familyre release it, we had already realized the spirit of the project, and now it’s just like, “Hey, let’s pass it around so other people can get exposed to it.”
Vesper: Because it was so fun! I’m not supposed to say this, but I love listening to it. It’s just so fun. It makes me happy to listen to it because it’s so light-hearted.
Ben: And I think Sufjan really helped with that aspect of it. He helped us to sort of refocus where we wanted to go musically. The last full length, All This Could Kill You, it was sort of like, “I want to put into this the scope of my interests, musically and sonically,” and it was just sort of buckshot. Working with Sufjan helped us to focus in a bit on what Ben + Vesper is.
Vesper: We had a lot of that shaping, too, when we did the full-length.
Ben: Yeah, you’re right.
Vesper: We now have a regular band that we play with, so we’ve been able to hone it. But when we did the full length, Brian McTear was amazing as a producer. He could hear things and realize them in this really precise way. He really understood the spirit of the music. He understood things about our music that we didn’t, that we couldn’t articulate, so he could really draw it out and make it happen right there.
Ben: And then there were these bunny trails we were going down where he would say, “That’s kind of besides the point,” but we didn’t have the discernment to catch it ourselves. That’s what a producer’s for. They see what you’re trying to get at and they help you get there. So yeah, we were coming off of that experience, and then Sufjan just continued that. We understand ourselves better musically now.
Vesper: And now we’ve got a body of four records to be able to listen to and say, “Oh, these are the common threads that weave throughout, and this is where we gravitate in our sound.”
Ben: And what might just have been an infatuation for a moment but isn’t really going to stick.

Paste: Given your longstanding friendship with Sufjan and fact that he has contributed instrumentally to both of your full-length records, was your time in his studio very easy and comfortable? Did you all have your guard down from the beginning, or did it take some time to settle into your roles together?
Ben: I think that initially going into it, I was nervous, because all of the sudden we were on his turf. We had always invited him into what we were doing, but here he was inviting us into his creative mind. So right beforehand, I became really nervous and self-conscious. All of my weaknesses came to the surface. I realized, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t…” But upon getting there, once we started, it was fine. I was worried that he was going to start demanding skill out of me that I didn’t have, because he’s—
Vesper: He’s, like, a real musician.
Ben: Yeah, so I just had all these imaginations where he would be like, “Well, why don’t you try this one instead?” and I’d say, “OK, I’ll be back in five hours.” Being nervous was actually helpful because it just made me realize that I’m not a player; I’m a writer, and I play my guitar as a way to communicate the songs. It helped me come to terms with that.
Vesper: Yeah, and I was very quickly removed from playing the piano.
Ben: Although, he was perfectly cool with the parts that you played. I think you gave up.
Vesper: I was just kind of like, “You should play this.” I’m not an instrumentalist, either. I’m a singer—that’s what I do.
Ben: Any piano, really at all, is Sufjan.

Paste: How about the accordion? Is that you, Vesper?
Vesper: No, that’s Sufjan. I didn’t even think to put the accordion on there.
Ben: That was one of those things that he did and then sent us the mix. I play guitar, and you play electric guitar, and Sufjan does absolutely everything else except for Josh’s upright bass. So yeah, in the end, it was so enjoyable because it did just feel like friends making music together. There wasn’t that awkwardness or weirdness once we started recording. It was just enjoyable.

Paste: So LuvInIdleness happened outside of this home, in Sufjan’s studio. When you are working from home, though, what role do your kids play in all of this? Are they musical at all? Are they around for a lot of the creating?
Ben: Yeah. They’re usually just completely in the mix. Sometimes they love that and sometimes they just want our undivided attention. They love the excitement and they love the music and they love the people that we are associated with because of our music, but it’s a balance of including them and also being productive. It can be a hard balance to strike. I think the older they get, the more they can be included in playing and contributing to writing and being more and more in the process. We try to include them appropriate to their age, but all along we really try to give them a wide scope, exposing them to the music that we love, and just constantly giving their ears things to grab onto. All of the music we listen to is from people we know, through our relationships, so they can always put a face to the music. I love that. When we were watching the Daneilson movie with them, our son was like, “I didn’t know that Daniel is so famous! He’s on Netflix!” It wasn’t because he was in a movie—it was because he was on Neflix. And then he was just pointing out everyone that he knows in the movie, and it was just neat because I just want him to connect music to relationships. The importance of music is the art, yes, but it’s also the relationships that flow out of that. So they’re both very musical. Great singers and our son will probably play the drums, and our daughter completely blows us away at the piano. She is the songwriter. She sings these songs that you don’t know where they’re coming from. They’re awesome and psychedelic and strange. I try to periodically record the kids, to bring them over to the little home studio and record them. I try to communicate with them about my creative process. If I’m struggling with lyrics or songs, I’ll include them in the conversation, so they see beginning to end what is involved in writing a song. They really get into that.
Vesper: We say this all the time, that when friends without kids will ask, “Oh, how do you do it with kids?” we’re always like, “Our creative juices really started flowing when we had kids. That things really started taking off after that.” It depends on how you go about it, and it can be a self-fulfilling thing, this idea that your life has to stop once you have kids, but for us it’s been the opposite experience.
Ben: For us it’s like, “Oh, we better start really living. We have to start really striving for life’s richness so that we can provide that environment for our kids.” So she’s right—it’s only when we had kids that we started getting serious about it, whether it’s our visual art or music or film or whatever. They’ve been catalysts for us. It’s really a blessing. And watching their creativity is so inspiring and so humbling, because they are the freedom that we want. They have the freedom that we’re striving for and always falling short of. It’s like this thing that’s right in front of us: here is the goal.

Paste: When did you two start making music together?
Vesper: Late 2005.
Ben: Well, in a collaborative way. Before that, Vesper had her own sort of track that she was on, and I was certainly a part of that in accompanying her and helping her record. I’d do what I could.
Vesper: We tried to write a song together once. It was okay.
Ben: We hadn’t really found out how we worked together. We worked well together but it was definitely more Vesper’s vision. This project [Ben + Vesper] came about on the eve of having our second child. Well, you can tell this story—you’re good at talking about this.
Vesper: I was just about to have our daughter, and I think I was probably pretty overwhelmed. I was frustrated with not being able to work, because my illustration work means a lot to me, and because I never wanted to be a stay at home mom. So getting ready to have another baby, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what is this going to mean?” Ben had started writing these songs, and he felt this urgency to do something creative before she was born, like this one push. The week before our son was born, he just went out into the woods and painted in the snow and came back with all of these amazing paintings. So with our daughter, it was songwriting. His intention, also, was to carve out a place for me to be creative without having to work at it. So he wrote these songs and all he wanted me to do on the demos was sing wit him in unison. That’s it. So the demos are the songs from All This Could Kill You sung in unison with one guitar. We thought that’s where the project was going to go, this eerie kind of thing, but Ben felt so strongly about the songs that he said, “I’m submitting this to Daniel and I want to get on the label.” I mean he wasn’t ambitious about it in the sense that he was going to beat down Daniel’s door, but he was just like, “I really believe in this and I think it could go somewhere.” A week later our daughter was born, and Daniel called up and was like, “Let’s do it!” She was three months old when we did the record.

Paste: What kind of growth has happened since then? In 2005 you were coming from two different places, and now you’ve been working together musically for five years. What have the past five years been? You talked before about weeding out what is not authentically yours and realizing what is. Are there other ways in which you feel like Ben + Vesper is growing?
Ben: Musically?
Paste: Well, I’m sure that there are some things in your marriage and personal lives that pour into this, too.
Vesper: It’s been the best. It’s been awesome.
Ben: Yeah. In terms of the music, I think it’s just been about finding a pattern that enables us to capitalize on our strengths and doing it in a way where our creative voices can come through in partnership. I do all of the initial writing for all of the songs, but Vesper is hugely important. She comes up with everything that she sings and much more, so it’s a real collaboration for us in that way. At first she was very uneasy about her role, because she did feel like it was so male-dominated, and because I was doing all of the writing—
Vesper: —and he was singing all the leads—
Ben: —and she felt like, “Geez, where do I fit in? How do I make this work and still be myself, expressing creatively and authentically?” So it’s taken a while to hit upon that, but in the last two albums we feel like it’s working. Our musical relationship has gotten to the point where we both feel equally comfortable with it and like it’s equally us, not just me pulling her along. Gradually, she’s singing more and more and taking on more responsibilities than singing, with instrumentation and creative decisions, and I’ve become more trusting and comfortable through doing that.
Vesper: Did that take you a while?
Ben: Yeah, because at first I was very protective over this project because I really did want to carve out a space for Vesper where she doesn’t have to carry the burden of the writing or responsibility and she could just have fun. I was scared for that to change. It took me a while to trust that you weren’t going to take on too much and become weighed down. I didn’t want to create a monster—a project that was going to wind up being more worry or more stress in her life. That wasn’t the original intention, but now it’s clear that you draw life from it and it’s stimulating to you, and as I’ve seen that happen, we share more in it.
Vesper: It was good for me to have to struggle with it. I learned, I think even in my personal life, that it’s OK to be who I am and bring to the table what I have, in many more ways than just the music. I’m created the way I’m created for a reason. We were just listening to All This Could Kill You, and I love that record—it’s so fun to listen to, it’s really enjoyable—but I noticed that my vocals were not as confident as they are now. I felt like I had to fit into Ben’s—
Ben: —version of you, or something?
Vesper: Yeah. Not that I was scared to be myself around Ben, but it was like, “Oh, well now we’re on a label, and there’s more riding on it and I have to conform to this idea. In one sense, when Sufjan had me sing Opera, it was a stretch. But at the same time, I love Opera. I come from a background where that’s a really important influence and I know how to sing that way, so I could do it. It never would have dawned on me to even try that four years ago.
Ben: I think it’s just about gaining freedom, and for us, not taking ourselves so seriously. Just because a reviewer takes you too seriously doesn’t mean you have to take yourself seriously. We take music really seriously but taking ourselves seriously is a mistake. That’s when you get self-conscious and you start making bad musical decisions. That’s the journey it’s been—a journey to freedom. And in honing down on what our music is about, it is really about the relationships that we’re surrounded by.
Vesper: I’m glad you brought that up. A couple of time when people have written about the music, it trips them up that we’re playing with Sufjan or Daniel, and they’re like, “Oh, this just sounds like they’re trying to sound like them,” or whatever, and that’s a little offensive. Because our music is so about relationship, of course we want them to be themselves on the recording! We’re not trying to make them play in some kind of Ben + Vesper way. We want them to be themselves. On every recording we’ve ever done, the collaboration is very important to us. We don’t write ahead of time, arrangement-wise. We just let everybody bring what they have to the table. We send them demos of just the voice and guitar.
Ben: The point is for them to bring to the table what their strengths are and what they hear. If that was not the case, it would be so boring. It would be such a drag to dictate, “This is what you play; this is how I want it,” because that’s not how I write. I write thinking, “I wonder how Josh is going to interpret this. I wonder what in the world my friend who I’m going to ask is going to do with this.” On every recording, the people that we’ve chosen to contribute have been really important to the project, and that’s the point. We got a blog review on LuvInIdleness and it was a little offensive because the writer was accusing us of making a record with Sufjan Stevens that sounds like a record made with Sufjan Stevens. Somehow that was a negative thing—that we would allow it to sound like too much like him. It was really confusing. It was like, “Well, that’s why we played with Sufjan—because we like what he does.” So it’s just weird stuff like that that we don’t really understand, because it is for us about relationships. That’s the joy of it. That’s the point.

Paste: Speaking of relationships, are you so excited for this tour?
Ben: Yes. I don’t even know how to talk about it. The prospect of not only touring with Danielson, but playing in the band—because we’re both going to be playing in Danielson—and the idea that we can wear those shoes is just the biggest honor. I am a shameless Danielson fan and have been ever since I first heard him. So I just have all of the gushy feelings, all of the high school gushy feelings about it, and that’s just how it is. We’re super excited for the chance to hang out with Ortolan, too. We love what they do and they’re so much fun.