Ahead of their long-awaited debut album, Esser have been playing their biggest gigs yet as support to the Kaiser Chiefs‘ arena tour, after more than a year touring up and down the country.
Mega-quiffed Essex ska-pop troubadour and former Ladyfuzz drummer Ben Esser is the diminuitive and softly-spoken presence who writes and plays Esser’s songs and says the word “bizarre” a lot. Live, he’s joined by a band that includes his younger brother.
That debut album, called Braveface, has been a long time coming. “I was a bit apprehensive about the album being so far away,” Esser admits, “but I think it’s a really good thing, to really connect with people first. And get it on the radar of music journalists like you.”
We’re in Esser’s Hackney studio; sundry drums, guitars and electronic devices are scattered about. His band are having lunch downstairs while Ben gets to handle the unutterable joy that is promo duties.
“We’re in the process of changing things in the band around,” he says. “We have a brass section now, and a guy playing percussion. We’re going to work on as many different versions of the songs as possible, and make it more chaotic live. More bizarreness.”
Esser are signed to Transgressive, the stable responsible for Foals, Young Knives and Jeremy Warmsley. The label has released a string of limited edition singles – including I Love You and Headlock – ahead of Esser’s first single proper, Satisfied. If you want bizarreness with your pop, that song’s a good place to look for it.
In the process of making his records “Pop/Pop/Pop”, as Esser’s MySpace page proclaims their music to be, he collects samples on a grand scale. Satisfied, something of a music hall tango for Shoreditch that’s been hanging about for the best part of 18 months already, uses a snip of piano that underlines Esser’s wonky approach to assembling sounds, phrases and even eras to make something quite unique and of the now. But where does he find these things?
“That was like this old easy listening record that I found,” he remembers. “We tracked down the original guys that played on it; he sent me an email the other day, which was quite cool. It’s by these guys called Marek and Vacek; they’re French, I think.” In fact Marek Tomaszewski, the surviving member of the duo Marek i Vacek, was born in Krakow and now composes film scores. Waclaw Kisielewski was also Polish; their approach to piano was decidedly of its time and place, as this video shows. “They were a piano duo, like a proper cabaret act,” he continues, clearly enthused. “I’ve seen pictures of them in tails. But that’s just a snippet of what happens in that song. It speeds up and goes into a sort of Jools Holland boogie-woogie. It’s quite a bizarre record.”
On stage Esser triggers these samples – many of which are of his own voice – by a Roland device rather than a laptop. “When there’s a lot of samples going on, it’s easy to stick ‘em on backing tracks and play along to a click, but I thought that was a bit boring,” he explains. “So everything that is sampled is happening live, being triggered manually. We can speed up, slow down, start, stop. There’s no computer. We’ve got little KAOS pads as well now to make things a bit more insane.”
Lately the band have been playing with different arrangements. “When you get bored of the songs it translates to other people,” he says. “So we try to make it as interesting for ourselves as possible. We try to rehearse it so it can be different every time.” Accordingly, the piano sample from Satisfied is now played live by a brass section. “It sounded kinda Balkan… Greek. It was mental. So much fun as well. We’re taking the brass section on tour with us.”
Have Transgressive/Warner opened their purse strings for the endeavour? “It’s going to be quite expensive to go on tour, but I don’t care. I’ll pay it out of my own money,” he shrugs. If you’ve seen Esser play live a year ago, he says, you’ll see something different now.
In the studio the band haven’t used producers, as Ben Esser himself fulfils that role. “I’ve been doing it with this guy called Lexxx who used to be Spike Stent‘s engineer.” He looks quizzically at me for a response. “Spike’s done records with Madonna, Timbaland… He’s a mix engineer.” He helps “develop the songs sonically, the sounds, more than production,” he explains. “A lot of the songs are like demos I’ve had, that I made at home, with sounds you probably wouldn’t get in the studio. And we’ve managed to make them sound like a pop record.”
As a producer himself, there’s no doubt that Esser knows his producers. He’s especially reverent about the late Joe Meek. “What he was doing at the time, contextually, was quite bizarre. He was making pop music, yet he did it in such a warped way. He produced people’s records but you could hear his character on them. It’s just amazing to think he had a studio in his flat at a time when you just couldn’t do that, and he’d record in all these bizarre ways. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was experimental, it was that it was pop music. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to do.”
Esser grew up in a house full of musical instruments, with a music teacher for a father. Even before joining Ladyfuzz he knew he’d make music. “I went to college for a while and studied music. It was quite weird; it hadn’t even been built while we were there,” he remembers. “The roof was leaking; at some points there wasn’t a roof. It was like this warehouse type building in Bow that was more like an idea some guy had. Basically it was a shambles. All we did was play music and write stuff. But there were some really good people there – I learnt more from them, really. I tried in that time to listen to as much music as possible. I wanted to find out how records were made, and what was happening at the time they were made, and who was producing them.”
Fast forward to 2009 and, as the release of the album approaches, he reflects on the varied influences that brought him this far. “There are certain reference points, either from samples or from things that I wanted to kind of steal from other people, so the record is a bit of a pastiche of pop music, I suppose. A time line. You learn from other people’s music; you take things and eventually you come up with something that’s unique.”
Making something unique is important to him. He hears it in music made by others, citing Metronomy‘s album as one of his favourites of the last year. “I should speak to him about a remix,” he says. “We took Micachu on tour and she’s really good. I’m very into what she does. frYars as well; I worked with him for a while. And a band called The Golden Silvers. They’re recording their record with Lexxx, who did mine.”
Although he has a band of family and friends around him and his music, Esser is open to collaborations, seeing such link-ups as a means for further education. “I might try and worm my way into some people’s records,” he grins. “Go down when they have a day off and get something down without them realising.” What if his brother Matt follows his example and gives up playing drums for someone else to make his own music? “I’ll try and make sure he doesn’t develop,” he laughs. “Actually, that’s pretty dark…”
“At the moment I’m trying to be a pop star. I hope that through that I can do other things. I’d like to play in a band again (as opposed to fronting one). I might make a record with some other people quite soon.” So, like The Last Shadow Puppets as a side project to Arctic Monkeys? “Yeah! I’d just like to be with someone that makes music. If you set things up in the right way it’s really open to you to be able to do these things. Hopefully I’ll be in that position one day.”
Esser’s sound has been compared to his fellow countymen Blur. Maybe that’s because of the vocal delivery? “From the record, there’s guitar-based songs that do sound kind of Blur-ish,” he agrees. “There are similarities, not in what we’ve ended up doing but in what we’re interested in.” Take a listen to Long Arms and try not to think of Graham Coxon (Blur’s axeman is a recent Transgressive signing). It’s difficult.
He makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Damon Albarn. “He’s obviously interested in music in general and a lot of different music, in things he’s doing at the moment, and with Blur. I think we’d probably be interested in the same things.” He’s been mugging up on Albarn’s methods. “I was in his studio the other day and you get a feel for what he’s into. He’s got an organ room, and Chinese instruments, all types of things.”
Albarn’s approach to music making is, it’s fair to say, to never stand still. Esser sees himself in the same mould. “I’m always trying to make myself do different things and learn stuff. I play guitar really badly now. But that’s kind of good – I’m playing the guitar and I don’t know what the note’s going to sound like when it’s happening. When I get to a piano I feel like I’m limited because I know what’s going to happen with scales and chord structures a bit too much. I like the fact that I don’t know what happens when I play bass.”
It’s an experimental, wonky approach to making pop that would’ve made Joe Meek himself proud.