Under The Covers: Ben Montero

I’M midway through a phone call with Athens-based musician and artist Ben Montero when I hear the sound of scribbling in the background.

“Are you drawing something?” I ask.
“Um.” He pauses. “Yeah, always. Just doodling.”
“What are you doodling?”
“Now?”
“Yeah.”

Another pause.

“Um, there’s some creatures, and there’s a little bird with a microphone going, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’”

I’m the little bird.

•••

BORN in Melbourne, Ben (or Bjenny or Benny) has lived in Athens for the past few years now.

I first met him in the early-2000s when he co-fronted a band called Treetops, who were making buoyant Teenage Fanclub-esque pop at a time when double-denim nu-rock was pouring out of places like Ding Dong Lounge, The Duke Of Windsor, 161, and Cherry Bar.

Ben was an outlier even then – a lover of soft rock long before acts such as Mild High Club, Toro y Moi, Ariel Pink, and even Thundercat were making it cool again. When everyone else was devouring Interpol and The Strokes, he was championing The Zombies, The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, and Frank Valli’s The Genuine Imitation of Life Gazette, a forgotten psych concept album conveniently left off Jersey Boys.

“I’m just always in my own world and I’m lucky people say hi and jump in.”

After Treetops disbanded, Ben spent three years making a solo album, The Loving Gaze, and started a new outfit called Early Woman with Spider Vomit’s Hannah Brooks. Around that time his online collection of doodles, Ben Montero Sketchbook, developed a cult following that’s swelled to nearly 90,000 followers. It’s not hard to see why.

His cartoons are honest, vulnerable, funny, real, and deeply relatable, especially for anyone that’s ever felt socially anxious or unsure about the place in the world (ie. most people).

In one panel, two birds ponder one of life’s great mysteries in bed: where did the boys actually go in Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’. In another, he perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to feel out of place at a cool party.

“I’m just always in my own world and I’m lucky people say hi and jump in,” he says.

Ben’s art has appeared on posters and record covers for the likes of Kurt Vile; POND; Ariel Pink; Mac DeMarco; and GUM, aka Tame Impala touring member Jay Watson, who co-produced the second Montero record Performer. The album is as triumphant, busy and colourful as its cover; full of personality, zany touches, huge pop moments and more talkbox than Frampton Comes Alive. (OK, maybe not.)

I reach Ben on a beautiful weekday morning in Athens. The sun is shining and he’s thinking about heading down to his local taverna later for some octopus.

So what prompted the move to Athens in the first place?

I was just travelling and living out of a backpack. It sounds really hippie, but I was in Morocco … I actually hated it, and it gave me major panic attacks. So I was like, “What else do I want to do? Let’s go to the islands”, and I went off with my uncle. I never made it past the islands. Got here, met a couple people at this gallery and moved into someone’s place. As soon as I got off the bus from the airport I was just like, “This is amazing.”

What is the [arts] community like there? Or are you quite separate from it and just do your own thing?

I don’t think I’ve ever even gone to an art gallery since the first night I came here three years ago. I keep to myself pretty much, and my friends and my taverna. And that’s about it.

What’s your local taverna like?

Amazing, it’s called Ouzeri Lesvos. It’s so good. I have wormed my way in.

Tell me the story about the cover art [for Performer]. There’s a lot going on.

Yeah, I found this kids’ book, this Greek kids’ book on the Olympics here. It’s a picture book from the ’60s and it had all these great colours and all these people doing their ancient Greek Olympic stuff … So I used that as a sort of springboard to tie into the whole Performer theme and the whole Greek thing. I did that like a year ago, I think. That’s all I remember. I didn’t even think the album was going to come out anyway, so it was just for fun.

What came first, the art or the album?

Oh, the album. Definitely. That was like two years ago or something … It took so long to keep working on and mixing, and adding things, and doing this and that. It took ages. Then we wanted to get it mastered properly … It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. [Laughs]

Going back to the cover. It initially didn’t strike me as obviously Montero. Maybe the colour palette that you were working with?

I use the same colour palette all the time. I use watercolours and I only use like seven colours ever. You know, and I hate purple. So I use pink and blue and green – how many colours do you actually need?

It looks to me like there are Greek gods on there?

They’re all my band members, most of them. I got them to model for me. Wrestling poses.

Do you have photos from those sessions?

Yeah, for the private collection. [Laughs] I feel like maybe it’s too busy or something, looking at it now.

It’s busy, but I think when you look at it, you don’t initially see all the detail. That’s what I really like about it. Your eyes are focused on that central figure. Is that you?

It’s what I’d like to be. It’s not me, it’s just a figure of triumph.

So you work mostly in watercolour?

Yeah. I had to get the ones from Deans Arts [in Melbourne]. I have to get them imported, because I haven’t even touched any other watercolours, ever.

Don’t they have watercolours there in Greece?

I don’t want to upset the balance. [Laughs]

This may seem like a bit of dumb question, but were you always going to do your own cover for the record?

Well actually, I never wanted to. To be honest I was ever really been a big fan of the “musician doing their own artwork” thing. t’s just too much of a whole package sometimes for me. I always just wanted a photo or something. That’s the kind of album covers I like: just some kind of simple photo or something.

It just kind of happened because [pauses] it had to happen. Maybe it felt like a tie-in, a visual with the music. You have to face that at some point: I do both, and they both tie into each other. Might as well just get the package going, for better or for worse.

And I do love that it’s got quite a triumphant feel. It really kind of matches the record.

Yeah, triumphant vibes.

How long did it take you to put it together? Do you work quickly?

Probably 24 hours … I did it when I was in Texas, in Austin. I was staying at this house, and I had a big giant house all to myself in the middle of nowhere. Got a big giant piece of paper out and just went, “Oh, shit. I’ve worked out what needs to be done now.” And I smashed it out.

Were you on a deadline?

I was on something. [Laughs]

There is this great quote in a Noisey article where you described your art as “therapeutic”, and the music as “hell”.

[Laughs] Well, yeah, music is a necessity that needs to be done, but art is definitely more therapeutic … Lately I’ve been doing the music stuff more. That’s taken the central focus in the past few months. I haven’t done any good artwork in months. I’ve barely been able to draw. I just can’t. I don’t know. I’m too exhausted or something, and I’ve got no ideas. It all feels depleted, so I’m dying to have some music time off and just draw again.

Do you feel like you switch from one to the other when you’re in those patches where you feel uninspired?

Obviously I love music, but drawing’s something I need to do every day. It’s therapy for me. It helps. If I don’t do that then everything is unbalanced.

You did describe music before as a necessity too. In the same sense, in a therapeutic sense, or is it just a compulsion?

It can get like that, it really can. It isn’t hell anymore for me. It’s enjoyable, and I actually really love it. I’ve been really enjoying myself. And the bigger challenges I have, the better I feel. So I don’t think it’s hell anymore at all. Honestly it’s good. I’m sort of just realising that. I think it’s an honour, and it’s joyous.

Did you enjoy the experience of touring [with Mac DeMarco]?

Yeah, I did. But it was really overwhelming and exhausting. I just wanted to do the whole thing and do my best job and not fuck up and stay focused. That’s all I was doing. I didn’t really go crazy too much or anything. I don’t know. I felt like I really got an opportunity to do a really good job.

Were you drawing much on the road?

No I couldn’t. I drew like two pictures or something. I couldn’t do anything. Not at all. The only time I was drawing and when I do like drawing on the road, is when I go to the merch desk or something. Just hang out and say “hi” to everyone, meet all those people are fans of the artwork. And they come along and go “Hey, cool.” Hanging out and talking and I always draw, just for anyone. I love that, because it’s like the only time I can doodle again.

What came first with you: was it the music or the doodles?

[Laughs] Doodles always come first. Drawing always. Everyone draws as soon as they can. Some just follow other things and want to do other activities and not draw so much.

What comes easier to you? What are you most prolific at?

Oh, they’re both easy. I don’t mean that in like “Ah, everything I do is amazing.” It’s just whatever I do, is just easy. Writing music is really easy for me. Really easy.

And so it was the production that you got caught up in for two years?

Yeah, I was giving Jay demos for a long time. He was assembling them, and trying out different ideas. Pre-production went on for a while.

I was interested to find out what your working relationship is like with Jay.

Yeah, it’s amazing. He’s good friend, he’s an old housemate. We just had fun. I just made him play basically everything … He can knock it down in two seconds, and it sounds great. I don’t need to waste any time. It’s an expensive studio.

Mark Ronson’s studio in London [Tileyard Studios]?

Yeah, I didn’t pay for it, so that’s cool.

Did Mark drop in on the sessions ever?

No, no. I was waiting for him to come through and kick me out. “What are you doing here?” [Laughs] I got excited for a few weeks, because I thought Jay meant Mick Ronson. I don’t know who Mark Ronson is. And I was like, “Oh right, the guy from [David Bowie’s] the Spiders from Mars?” I was so excited. I told my family and everything. [Laughs] Then I was like, “Mark Ronson who?” I was disappointed. [Laughs]

Jay’s such an incredible drummer. It’s so sad that he doesn’t really do it anymore, but apparently he’s some freak classical pianist as well?

Ah yeah, he’s a total music nerd. I mean he was a total music nerd when he was in high school. Played like fucking trombones and shit. He it did it all. He knows it all. Natural.

I love the talkbox on the record.

It’s so Jay. [Laughs]

What was it inspired by, other than Frampton?

There’s nothing else but Frampton. [Laughs] What else could it be?

[Aerosmith’s] ‘Sweet Emotion’ maybe?

Optimus Prime. [Laughs] I actually tried to get more of it, but he had to rein me in a lot on my ideas. I was trying to make a reggae song, but he wouldn’t do it … I think the best thing about Jay is that every time I’d be nervous or self-conscious about a song, and then tried to make it a bit funny, he’d just go, “No, don’t do it. Just do it straight.” So that’s an amazing thing. He kept me from not being so self-conscious and trying to make everything a little bit ironical or something. I’m really glad for that.

Tell me about your work on the Pond cover [Man It Feels Like Space Again].

It wasn’t even going to be the cover. It was going to be the back cover, or something. We were just sitting around laughing at the house, and I thought it would be a really good idea to go all out and pay homage to the Robert Crumb cover [of Cheap Thrills by Big Brother & The Holding Company], because why not? My mum used to have that and I used to just stare at it.

Can you see your career going in this direction, more album covers?

No. At this stage right now, I don’t want to just hack things out. I don’t want to just have artwork everywhere … I need to go back and work on drawing for myself for a while. The idea of doing another album cover doesn’t really excite me.

I guess part of this series is trying to uncover what makes a great album cover. What are some of your favourites of all time?

I love Smiley Smile by the Beach Boys. I love that artwork. That’s beautiful. That’s a really big influence. I’m not usually a fan of drawing ones. I like a good classic photo to be honest with plain text. It’s always a sign of a good album.

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