Meet Mutual Benefit, Folk's Game Changer

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MutualBenefit_byWhitneyLee11Photo: Whitney Lee.
"We'd wake up really early in the morning and make these really intense green smoothies out of spinach and berries and stuff," says Mutual Benefit's Jordan Lee. "That was definitely the most intense recording situation I've ever been in." Considering the success of his band's most recent effort, Love's Crushing Diamond, it looks like Lee's healthy living has paid off. Mutual Benefit's latest release — the band's first LP — is made up of seven gorgeous, folk-tinged indie songs that have been compared to everyone from The Microphones to early Animal Collective.

Working with violinist Jake Falby and a host of other collaborators, Lee's band has swelled from what was basically a solo effort to one of the most compellingly orchestrated live acts around. "My earlier live performances were based around me having a loop pedal and building songs up with a small amount of people," he explains. "It's just been really cool to transition into having a more cohesive band." Talking to Lee, however, its clear that success hasn't gone to his head. "I'll probably have to do something shitty again, but I'm living it up while I can," he says. We caught up with Lee before two upcoming New York shows to talk making the record, learning to meditate, and what he really thinks about expensive weddings.

And if you're in the New York area, you can catch his band play at Mercury Lounge in NYC and Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.

A lot of people are treating Love's Crushing Diamond a bit like it's your first release. What's it like having people discover your music through this record?
"It doesn't feel too weird, because this is a piece of work that I'm really proud of. I feel lucky that it wasn't some one-off song different from my usual style that people somehow latched onto. Instead, I think it's a pretty good extension of what I'm about. It's pretty nice actually!"

Did you approach the LP in a different way than your previous outings?
"For most of the process it felt pretty similar to all the other stuff I had worked on — little bits of found sounds, collaborating with other people here and there. I was excited about it, but it seemed pretty normal. It wasn't until I had a week of recording with Jake Falby who did all the violin parts, and then it felt a lot more special to me. I spent the rest of the year making sure everything was perfect. Then I started to feel like maybe it was better than the stuff I did before."

What's your typical process like approaching a song?
"It's always a little different depending on the situation. I always come in really idealistically, like, 'This person makes this kind of music. This is going to be cool!' but very rarely does it go the way that it does in my head. I'm a lot more of a control freak than I'd like to think [laughs]. Often how it works is that we'll make a lot of sounds together, it'll be fun and casual, and then later on I'll take what a person did and cut it up, use parts of it, and manipulate it and have it fit into exactly what I'm trying to do. But, something that was really fun about recording with Jake — which I guess I actually haven't mentioned to anyone — was him visiting me in St. Louis. We had a really small amount of time to put violin parts over my record, which is pretty tough since violin is a strange instrument to record. We'd start recording and whenever we'd get frustrated, Jake would make us meditate for twenty minutes [laughs]. We'd do that to clear our minds and then go back to recording."

Had you ever done any meditation before?
"Um, I had dabbled in it, but I always felt I was doing it wrong. I was like 'I dunno, I'm still thinking about a bunch of stuff! I don't think think I'm meditating.' I think it's a lot easier with a partner — just having someone in the room. At that point Jake was meditating every day, so — not to get too far out — but I do think think people exude an energy. It was a really calming presence for him to get right into the zone. Like, 'OK!, I guess this is what I'm going to be doing for the next twenty minutes.'"

The record has so much going on, with strings and a lot of contributing musicians. What's the process been like translating the new songs to the stage?
"It's been a real learning process because, you know, I've been touring for the last two or three years. The setup depends on how big the car is that we're traveling, who's around that can play with me for the next couple of weeks, which instruments do I have that aren't broken. It's basically based on what I can not do and just making things work. This is the first time where I have a little bit of budget. One of my favorite things that's happened recently is that Jake was asking around to see if anyone would join him for the string section for a couple of New York shows without telling me. We had a band practice a couple of weeks ago and this girl walked in that I had never seen before. I was like, 'Oh, who are you?' and she was like 'I'm the violin player!'"
MutualBenefit_byDannyDorsa2Photo: Danny Dorsa.
Was there a specific way you envisioned people listening to the album? Like, did you see it as a headphones album, a chill-in-your-room album, a road trip album?
"The biggest thing to me was that I wanted people to listen to it in order as an album. I've been really pleased that a lot of reviews have mentioned that it feels cohesive. 'Cause when you put out something you have very little control — once you release it into the world it's kind of its own beast. I had all these kind of weird fears, like maybe people would only like 'Advanced Falconry' and disregard the rest of the record. But, I like the idea of it being a road trip album, because so much of the songs are inspired by traveling. The imagery of landscapes whirling by you as you listen to it."

In some ways the record sounds a little bit outside of the current music hype-cycle — like something that could have come out in the early or mid 2000s.
"I'm flattered by a majority of the comparisons. They're definitely all bands that I've listened to since high school and have been influenced by. I'm 25 going on 26, so I'm maybe a little bit older than the average buzzband putting out their debut album. Maybe the references that I'm drawing from — it would make sense for them to be five years older than what a 20-year-old would write about about. I think it also has a little bit to do with technology. Some of my younger friends are really good at making music, using samplers, and machines hooked into computers. When I've had people try to explain to me how to do some of that stuff, I just get really confused [laughs]. I'm mostly recording very linearly and using analog equipment."

Do you usually approach a song having already written the lyrics, or do you create the music and words at the same time?
"The lyrics and music often times influence each other. They develop somewhat organically. I try to put myself in situations that lead to feeling inspired. Maybe that means subletting my room and moving somewhere else for a couple of months. Maybe that means quitting a job that's putting me into a rut. Maybe that means doing a thing that makes me feel really uncomfortable. And, hopefully if enough of those things happen, ideas just start popping up. A lot of these songs were born from little phrases that would get stuck in my head — even the song 'Statue of a Man.' I wrote a majority of it when I was on a train from St. Louis to Texas. I had just moved from Boston, which was my home for a long time. The phrase that was stuck in my head was, 'There's always love.' And, it was like a mantra, it was really calming me down, and that I could always go back there."

I'm just curious, what was the last day job you had?
"Well, my favorite thing in the world is to be on tour. When I did my first tour, I was playing solo. Some friends were going on tour and they had this big van, so they were like, 'You can hop in and play some of the more unofficial shows.' I handmade some merch, crossed my fingers, and ended up breaking even. It made me realize that touring was not as scary as I thought it was. You're meeting inspiring people every day and seeing new bands and exciting landscapes. So I kind of rearranged my whole life so I could be on the road as much as possible. I would take the worst jobs ever. The longest running one I had was being a telemarketer in Boston. I was a political telemarketer for liberal causes. I would do six hour shifts of annoying people, trying to reach quotas, and getting yelled at every four or five calls.

At least you weren't seeing insurance or something.
"[Laughs] Yeah, there's definitely worse things than calling for Planned Parenthood or something. When I wrote the song 'Golden Wake' and talked about quitting my job, it was the telemarketing job. The one that I've had for the last four or five years, though, is helping sister with her wedding photography business. I never really planned on quitting it. It was a little 20-hour-a-week thing working with someone I like — doing administrative stuff and some creative visual stuff. But, after this record kind of blew up, I just didn't have time to help her anymore. This is the first time in my life that music is sustaining me."

Do you think looking at thousands of pictures of people getting married had any effect on your mental state when you were writing the record?
"It's funny, because I was interviewed by Pitchfork and they asked a similar question. My answer was that if you look at people getting married every day, it makes you really cynical about love — that it's commodifying a feeling. But, he misheard me and in the interview I say that it makes me believe in love. I was like, 'Nooooo! That's the opposite of what I said!' The wedding industry is so gross. Looking at people spending, you know, 50 thousand dollars to be really extravagant about how they feel about each other is the least romantic thing to me."

Listen to Love's Crushing Diamond below: