Dissecting the Debut Album by Smart Objects
An insightful Q&A with lead singer Benjamin Harper
Purveyors of fine music, have you been yearning for an album that will not only quench your insatiable thirst for new music, but will also satisfy your ears, mind and soul? Then look no further than the genius debut by Nashville rock band, Smart Objects.
Now I know that many automatically conjure mental images of boots, hats, big hair and the Grand Ole Opry whenever Nashville is mentioned, but those of us in the know realize Music City is a haven for some of the world’s most talented songwriters and musicians of all genres. So, toss away those old notions and turn on and turn up Smart Objects, the magnificent debut from Nashville's modernizers of rock.
Although I’ve been writing about music for nearly 20 years, words to describe this delightfully refreshing record escape me. So, I reached out to Smart Objects’ frontman and mastermind Benjamin Harper (previously of The Comfies and Feable Weiner) who (along with some input from lead guitarist Jack Parsons), was gracious enough to explain the magic behind this remarkable debut.
ME: Can you explain a little about the dynamics of the band?
Benjamin Harper: As (Lead guitarist) Jack [Parsons] puts it: It’s a bit of a democratic monarchy. I write and arrange the songs and generally have a definitive vision for the material, and the guys add their flair. We put any band decisions to a vote. Jack kind of helps push things into action.
From Jack: “As far as my role goes, I feel like I’m sort of the facilitator. I try to make an environment happen where everyone can do their own thing and make something cool, while also putting my own stamp on what we’re putting out there.”
BH: I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for answer wise, but I sing and play the simple guitar parts, Jack plays the fancy guitar parts. Bryan Feece is on the drums, Blaise Gratton plays all the keys (which keeps him VERY busy during the live shows), Adam Sheaffer plays bass. Robert Gay sings LOTS of BGVs, and plays trumpet and percussion. Laura Mayo sings BGVs on most of the record and does as many shows as she can do with us.
ME: What can you say about the album’s recording process?
BH: This album definitely had a piecemeal recording process over the past 3 or 4 years. All of the tracks started as my demos from which I wanted to keep the vibe/general production values I’d created, so we’d start with that and go through it replacing the demo/scratch elements and adding parts that the band had been doing live. We changed lineups a couple of times throughout the first 2 tracks, but most of the album (9 of 11 tracks) was recorded with this lineup in a big series of overdub sessions. Production has become a huge part of my writing process. I end up adding production elements as I go when I’m creating/writing and I want to keep those production values. I was fortunate enough to work with some really good people who were willing to let me be there for mixing. It took a while for me to [become] satisfied, so I am VERY grateful for their patience. Thanks to Chris and Gavin at Handmade Productions and Jordan Lehning!
ME: What was it like finishing a record during a pandemic?
BH: We actually finished the record before the onslaught of Covid-19. We got the final masters back in March or April I think, so the whole thing was done before we went into lockdown. We were all set to shop the record and try and push this thing, but then, of course, all industry everywhere shut down. We were sitting on the record for a while, waiting for it all to end, but after a few months we didn’t want to wait any longer. Some of these songs are 5 years old, and after saying “full length coming soon!” for what seemed like an eternity, I think we were all ready to just push the baby out.
ME: Where did the songs come from?
BH: Most of the songs on the record are songs we’ve been playing live for years, but let’s see if I can remember. The first songs (“The Afterlife,” “Run Your Own Way,” “Astro Freak,” “Rich Man” and “White Under Blacklight”) were all written around the same time period in early 2015 I believe. There’s definitely a theme running through a lot of these. I went through a long process of unshackling my mind from the chains of dogmatic religion at one point in my life. It’s a topic I find fascinating and one that surfaces again and again in my writing. “The Afterlife” and “Astro Freak” are pretty specifically about that.
“Run Your Own Way” came from behind a busy desk at an unfulfilling corporate job. It’s about the cold, hard fact that we are all going to die. It’s about realizing you haven’t been present in your own reality, getting your brain back online and running as fast as you can from apathy and complacency.
I love having conversations about the nature of reality and consciousness. I want to hear all the existential theories! “Extracorporeality” comes straight out of that.
With “White Under Blacklight,” I just said “I want to write a rock song!”
Although “the Autumn Man” was the first Smart Objects single, it was one of the newer songs on the album. It was one of those songs that came quickly after a weird break up. It was actually a musical response to a poem of the same name written about me, which is why some of it can be a bit esoteric lyrically.
The last song written on the record was “Devastator.” It also came quickly after an experience where someone said they wouldn’t date me because I wasn’t religious. It’s about the divide that religion can cause between two people who could otherwise connect on a human level. I know this all doesn’t completely answer your question, but I hope there’s some decent information in there!
ME: Are you partial to one song more than the others?
BH: That’s tough to say. There are things I like about most of them. “Devastator” is one I will always come back to, but I love “Afterlife” and “Astro Freak.” “Autumn Man” was particularly meaningful to me when it came out of me. This is kind of a non-answer, I realize.
Jack really loves “Astro Freak.” From Jack: “It has that sort of classic psych rock vibe that I was raised on, plus it’s one of the few spots where I really get to jump into the spotlight. Self-obsessed guitarist, stop me if you’ve heard that one before.”
ME: Was one song more difficult to complete more than the others?
BH: Lyrics are ALWAYS the most difficult part for me. So, I would personally say that none of them writing wise were that much more stubborn than the others, but I did enlist some help to get the lyric train moving. My friend Liza Kawaller [helped] co-wrote lyrics on some of the songs and Robert co-wrote lyrics on “Whatcha Doin?”
From Jack: “I feel like “Run Your Own Way” had a bit of a tricky journey to get to where it is now. It’s so minimalistic and leaves no room for error. I think we went through several mixes before we ended up with the current product and I still think we could probably do different things with it!”
BH: As far as recording goes, again the tricky part for me was getting the mixes and production to where I was satisfied with them. (shout out again to Handmade and Jordan Lehning. Handmade recorded/mixed 9 of the 11 tracks. Jordan mixed “Autumn Man” and “Run Your Own Way.”)
ME: What’s next on the horizon for this album cycle?
BH: The next step right now is just getting it out there and raising awareness for the album. It’s of course impossible to do any sort of live promotion now with the current atmosphere, but we’re brainstorming some ideas for how to get the word out. There are also well over another album’s worth of demos ready. We are starting to rehearse this week and plan on starting to track some new material soon.
ME: Will there be a physical CD/vinyl release?
BH: That’s the plan! We all really want to make vinyl happen, it’s just a matter of raising the funds right now. We’re currently discussing a pre-order or a crowd funded vinyl campaign.
ME: How would you describe this album to someone who hasn’t discovered it yet?
BH: I’ve heard people describe us in a bunch of different ways. I’d say it sounds like all my major influences filtered through my little wormy brain. I just want to make music that’s interesting to me. Hopefully, it will be interesting to other people too! I’m always just trying to make my own version of something I love. I’m pretty sure that’s how most artists work. Jack says “If Interpol started playing My Morning Jacket covers while on psychedelics,” but I’ve never really listened to either of those bands and, believe it or not, I haven’t done any psychedelics...yet.
Smart Objects, the dynamic debut is available everywhere now.