It’s not just Jordan Benjamin’s musical ambitions that set him apart in his role as alter ego and Fueled by Ramen artist, grandson. His thrilling genre bend — one described as being “riff-based,” but also playing in “subgenres of electronic production” — is accompanied by a raw intelligence and a fearless social consciousness. Or in his words, he both has “no intention of contributing to an existing space musically,” while also striving to know he “stood for something in this kind of time.”
With that balance in mind, listen in as he discusses his 2018 EP, details his creative partnership with producer Kevin Hissink (aka Boonn), and explains his responsibility in fostering those important political and cultural conversations.
Interviews: Jordan Benjamin (grandson), Mollie Lehman (Atlantic Records, Senior Director A&R), Johnny Minardi (Fueled by Ramen, Senior Director A&R), Kevin Hissink (producer).
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to trying to go deep and figure out what goes into making great records. I produced over a thousand records, written two books and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present to you Atlantic Records Inside the Album podcast, where we get to go deeper on how some of Atlantic’s artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the artist and the team behind them that helped craft these amazing records and get to know the little secrets that go into making an amazing album.
In this episode we’re going to talk about Grandson’s new EP, “A Modern Tragedy, Vol. 1.” Jordan Benjamin aka Grandson is a Los Angeles-based solo artist who’s been taking the world by storm with his politically charged message. When he descended upon the city he calls home today, he began to work with other songwriters, but found his voice along the way by combining the aggression of hip hop, rock, and EDM. With the release of his first EP, “A Modern Tragedy Vol. 1,” we get a good dose of what is to come from this strong voice. With the first single, “Blood // Water,” already climbing up viral charts, it seems imminent that this is a voice that will be shaping the discussion in the years to come.
One of the things that strikes you about Jordan once you meet him is he’s incredibly good at talking about politics and what exactly he thinks about each issue. He’s both concise and potent about what exactly his message is. As a lifelong political nerd, it truly took me back. And the fact that he’s able to merge this message with music that sounds as powerful as what he’s singing about, grabs your attention the second you hear his songs. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’m going to let the people involved tell you about it. Here’s Jordan himself to begin the story.
Jordan Benjamin: I’ve been writing music since I was in high school, acoustic guitar, ballads, hip hop, all sorts of shit. Can I curse?
Jesse Cannon: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jordan Benjamin: Fuck yeah. Yeah I was writing a lot of music, went to school, went to college, university rather, in Montreal where I started singing in an a cappella group. I started deejaying a weekly throwback hip hop night, started getting more into hip hop production, starting doing, yeah, a lot of writing, started to figure out my own voice. Really serendipitously linked up with a team that, on the Internet, after putting out one tiny little snippet of me rapping on a rooftop and ended up moving to Los Angeles right after my 20th birthday. Dropped out of school to write for other artists, figure out my own sound. Began working on what would become Grandson at end of 2015, spent most of 2016 kind of incubating, fleshing out the process, figuring out my writing style, the writing style of my writing partner. And then first song came out September 2016. Here we are.
Jesse Cannon: All right. Not so fast though. That’s not where we are. First, Jordan hooked up with Atlantic Records. I want to hear the story of how that happened from first Mollie Lehman, who’s A&R at Atlantic. I asked her how she first discovered Grandson’s music.
Mollie Lehman: Well, I can’t tell you the exact specifics but I can tell you that it was in the fall of 2016 and it was on SoundCloud. I remember being like, what is this? There’s so many parts of me that are responding to this. There’s almost like this old Rage Against the Machine era that was very new. The trap drums cut, I don’t know, the whole thing, and then also the messaging on it. It was really special. I emailed Amit. All we do is listen to music all day, so when something stands out, you notice it and it’s like a physical response. So I emailed Amit, the manager, and was just like, “I can’t stop listening to this. What is this? What’s going on?”
So we started emailing back and forth. He came in and met a couple times. I really liked the manager. He was very bright. But I didn’t meet Jordan actually for quite a while. As far as I know during that time, they were kind of percolating and working on music, but he hadn’t played any shows. There’s actually one show that he was booked on. I got a notification that the show was canceled and I hit up Amit and I said, “What’s going on with this? I wanted to see Grandson.” He was like, “Wait, what?” I actually told him that the show was canceled.
Finally, this winter is when there’s a Roxy show booked, and so finally we’re going to get a chance to see it. I think, especially in this day and age in this era and with this particular kind of music, for me, it is so important to see the live show. Not that the live show has to be perfect, but that to be able to really, truly deliver this kind of music, you need to have the energy. You need to vibrate those feelings and what you’re talking about and it really has to come through. It has to feel genuine and real. We’ve all seen this done poorly.
Anyways, seeing a live show is the next, natural step. It just took a long time for it to happen. They had put music up on Spotify. Allison Hagendorf, who is the head of rock over there, put her arms around it and was really loving it. So there was some stuff starting to go on, on the research side at this point with “Blood // Water,” which is the single. So people starting to perk their ears up and the Roxy show’s booked. We go and my cohort, Johnny Minardi from Fueled By Ramen, he comes with. We both head down to the show and it’s awesome. Like, awesome. We turned to each other and we’re like, “Oh, okay.” This is so far beyond our expectations of what seeing this show was going to be.
I think we were just hoping for it to be good and it was. There was men in dresses crawling on each other’s shoulders, screaming every word. Grandson is just going bananas onstage. The guitar player is insane. The whole energy is amazing. We were just like, this is the real deal and got really excited. He also played some new records that are going to come out in this next EP, which we’re like, whoa. The new stuff is as good as the other stuff, and it’s even better. It’s hitting so hard and it’s a good vibe.
A funny story about that show is another label who shall remain nameless, the A&R guy, I was talking to Grandson’s manager. He came and got physically between us and started pushing us apart and said, “Don’t talk to her. Don’t talk to her. I want this. This is mine.” It was another major also. It was all, I know him and we all had a laugh about it, but I was also like, that’s funny. We’ll see how that goes. But I think all of us that were there we, all of us label people, were so impressed with just what it was, what it felt like. It did end up being competitive. We brought them to New York. It’s one of those, they’re getting to know us, we getting to know them. We bring Jordan to meet Julie Greenwald and Julie is such an incredible feminist. I don’t know if she wants to call herself that, but she’s so, she took Atlantic down to the Women’s March and she’s done such incredible stuff. Jordan’s wearing this shirt that has a naked woman riding on a shark, like a drawing. I’m looking at this like, okay, how’s this going to go down? I’m just getting to know Jordan at this point also. He’s so bright and he’s so well-spoken and interesting. But I have no idea what this shirt is.
Julie’s like, “Jordan, that’s an interesting shirt. What’s that all about?” Just kind of feeling it out. Jordan just, you couldn’t have asked him to say something more right. But he basically was like, “This is one of my girlfriend’s. She drew it.” I forget. It was something like she raises money for a women’s charity. The most incredible, kind, cool, socially active, right on answer for a dude wearing a shirt with a naked woman riding on a shark. No one set that up. It was just that’s who he is. He’s just that dude who has all this consciousness around him. It was a funny, cool, interesting introduction into the Atlantic world.
Jesse Cannon: Now I’m going to have Johnny Minardi, who also handles A&R for Grandson, tell his part of the story.
Johnny Minardi: I heard Grandson a few different times throughout him releasing music for a few months prior to me being able to see him live. He had released five singles by the time we went to see him. Then went to the show with Mollie at Atlantic and the songs that I’d heard, I thought were great. And then when seeing it made it all come very full circle because the show is absolutely a rock show. It very much is just energy, connection with fans, and it was great to see just this crowd screaming back at him, every word of every released song, him getting down into the crowd, him just being so involved and energetic. There was just such a strong connection that you don’t see every day, especially the first time you’re seeing a band after only hearing a couple songs here and there.
Yes, I think he had four, no he had five. I think five. He had released five singles by the time we went to see him. Mollie and I both left that show very much just on a high from it, telling the entire building, especially the New York team, that it’s the real deal. This kid has just got it. He’s just so convicted to his message. This is a really important artist outside of just having hooks and big songs. There’s a message that needs to be boosted up. We need to provide a platform for him and help build this.
After the February show, I think we literally brought him in a few weeks later. We signed him, I think, a week after that, maybe two weeks, and then released the song, “Thoughts and Prayers” two weeks later. Everything was done in a two-month span, I would say. That’s sparing a week on either side maybe, at best. Every conversation I had he was dead serious with us. I mean, the first meeting we ever had, the first meeting after we signed we were slapping high fives, hugging, whatever, and he’s like, “Cool, now let’s get down to fucking business.” We’re like, “Holy shit.” Just pinpointed to the intensity of let’s get working. That’s when he played us the song and he’s like, “I want to record this next work. It’s gotta come out next Friday for the march and everything’s gotta be very specific.” Again, he is very clear and focused. We’re just putting gas on the fire.
Jesse Cannon: Okay. Now that we know how that happened, Grandson mentioned this whole songwriting thing. I’m really convinced that when artists are songwriting for others, they get really frustrated because they want to be out there pursuing their vision and they just can’t stop thinking about that vision. Because they’re learning all the tools to help someone else express themselves, while they want to be expressing themselves. I asked Grandson about that and here’s what he had to say.
Jordan Benjamin: It was kind of like music consultation, basically. I would have sessions lined up for me through a publisher. I would meet that person. But at the time, beggars can’t be choosers. But I preferred to work directly with artists. At first, I was doing some pitch stuff where I’d be working with three other writers in a room trying to write some big pop song, R&B song, and I hated that process. Just the audacity to be trying to put someone’s words in their mouth and going, “Well, I think she would want to say this.” It’s like what the fuck do I know? What do you know? I felt like I was trying to, I spent a lot of time when I first moved to Los Angeles, writing what I thought people wanted to hear instead of writing what I wanted to hear. I think that that’s a really easy thing to lose sight of when you’re wrapped up in the behind the scenes kind of microcosm. I think it’s really easy to imagine what going to the club would sound like or something, but I was in a more introverted, dark period in my own life, so it wasn’t really translating and I wasn’t getting any placements. I wasn’t getting cuts. I wasn’t getting paid. So I started doing more sessions with artists. I would ghostwrite for some rappers. I was writing folk, country, pop.
Literally, I would just meet someone, try to get a sense of who they are and what they wanted to talk about. I would prefer coming in on the back end of a project where they had already cut a lot of songs for the album, because it was more realistic for me to actually get the cut. I had a couple times where I would write a song, the artist liked it. They would cut the song. I would call all my friends and family and go, “I got this placement. Holy shit.” And then the song wouldn’t make the album, and that was really, really deflating for me. What I learned was, if I come in at the end of a project and if I ask them, “Well, what haven’t we covered?” Especially if I could get a little more personal with them where maybe the whole album was about turning up, but secretly they just quit drinking.
Maybe it was all about womanizing, but they’re actually happily in love with their partner. A lot of the time, I would find if I did a little bit of digging and I got them to be more vulnerable, that I would actually write a song that they were more personally attached to. And it wasn’t all just the intention of getting a placement. I didn’t really even care. I knew in the back of my head I wanted to be a solo artist, but I was interested in that process and it ended up sharpening my kind of toolkit for when I came to work on my own project when I was finally ready to figure out my own voice. But yeah, I still do some writing for some other artists and it’s something that is a fun exercise for me to keep my skills. But yeah, that was predominantly what I was up to and also working on a couple different iterations of what would become my solo project.
Jesse Cannon: So inevitably after you hear about their experience writing with other artists, you come to wonder, do they hate having that in their own life? Or do they see the value in it from all the time they’ve spent doing it?
Jordan Benjamin: Occasionally, it’s definitely something that I do relatively infrequently and I don’t work with other people unless I have a clear sense of what I want to talk about. Sometimes I like working with other people because they might challenge me. They might hear a chord progression and just be able to come up with melodies I might not otherwise have thought of. Or I would get really attached to one melody and then not know how to diverge from it. Maybe I would have this great verse and all I would think of when it was time to write the hook was to make it a continuation of that verse melody or vice versa. Or I would get the verse chorus, verse chorus, and then I’d hit the bridge and not know what to do.
There are a handful of people that I have an intimate enough and comfortable enough relationship where we can challenge one another in that way, but from a conceptual standpoint, I personally think that it’s important for it to come from me. I’ve gone through different phases. Sometimes I want to write every day and be churning out content. A lot of times, especially recently and for this project, I actually took it upon myself to just slow down, live my life, read more, listen to more music, be living a life that allowed for more inspiration to come, and then when I had a clear sense of okay, this is a subject matter I want to tackle in my song, be it an external subject matter about the times that we’re living in or something internal about how I’m feeling or my relationship.
Those are the sorts of things that I would then feel comfortable bringing to a collaborative place and being willing to dissect. But I felt like it had to come from me. But I write every, pretty much I write every song with an incredibly talented guitarist and producer by the name of Boonn, who plays guitar on the records and has come up with most of the riffs that you hear. We’ve been working together basically since the inception of Grandson, when I first started going as Grandson. Yeah, different songs we approach different ways. I like starting from a place of knowing what I want to talk about.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him about his collaboration with Boonn and why he chose to work with him so closely.
Jordan Benjamin: Yeah, we linked up through my manager. We had a couple different mutual collaborators within the industry. He definitely came from a more traditional rock space, was in a couple projects, was in a relatively big band back in the Netherlands where he’s from. I come from a hip hop space and an R&B space, but I was a fan of rock and roll, but I never really had the chops. I always kind of felt that that was a precursor for me not being able to contribute to rock and roll. I had never actually been in a band or never worked with a band like that.
So we kind of pushed each other. He would push me to go heavier, more rock and roll. I would push him to add more synthetic, low end, more trap production, whatever it might be. We both, I think, came from feeling relatively boxed in creatively. He had been doing a lot of pop and EDM work as a producer. I had been doing a lot of that kind of stuff as writer. Both of us, I think, were looking for a kind of cathartic outlet that my artist project provided for both of us. Originally, I anticipated it being even more hip hop. I pictured The Roots when I first stepped into this space. I actually, when I was in university, I had worked a little bit with a band called Busty and the Bass. They’re a nine-piece jazz, funk, soul, hip hop, brass collective. I would hop onstage and do a couple songs with them. I always knew that I wanted to be surrounded by talented musicians in a live setting and when I had been doing hip hop stuff, that always bothered me, just having it be me and a DJ. It kind of felt like karaoke almost. I knew that I wanted to do a live set that felt more raw, that felt like an element of spontaneity, an element of vulnerability that I was missing. I pictured it being more soul, more hip hop. We just started writing. We just didn’t really have any particular agenda. It grew over the course of the first six months or whatever pretty exponentially in terms of we would work on a demo and something would change, be it cutting the vocals and more lo-fi, tuning the guitars to B and using a baritone guitar was a huge change, instead of just a traditional electrical guitar tuned to E.
Those were little adjustments that would happen demo by demo that we would then take and every time we would start a new one, we had a more clear sense of okay, what does Grandson sound like? When it became time to do a new song, we would already have certain presets for how we would treat the vocals, how we would treat the guitar. Then we did a song called “Bills,” which was really the first one that was like a real moment of okay, we think we know what we doing now. The whole time we always knew that we were going to involve a third collaborator, a third producer in the mix. We’ve had the good fortune of working with a couple really talented ones including Krupa, Tim Suby, Taylor Byrd, Hyland.
We would typically get these songs to about 75 percent done. We would get the live bass, get the live guitar. We would program some live drum samples and we would structure the song out with the live vocals, have a clear sense of what we wanted to do with it, and then we would stem the song out and then we would send it to another producer, very rarely are we even in the room. We’re more just providing very specific feedback. But I would always co-produce to get it to a point where I was comfortable sending it off. Then they would almost do essentially a remix, just kind of adding sprinkles of electronic and hip hop production on top of what these demos were, which was essentially like a band. Then those remixes, those new versions would end up being that which we put out.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him to elaborate a little bit on what he wanted from his sound.
Jordan Benjamin: One thing that I think was important for me was I wanted it to be riff-based. I think that that was where Boonn’s ear went naturally and for me, that was always something that was important and I don’t think was really being addressed. I think that people in music were beginning to throw a guitar and an 808 together. I don’t think we reinvented the wheel by doing that, but I do think a lot of the types of guitar that would come over top was kind of strummy. A lot of it would be more acoustic or 12-string. I always wanted there to be iconic, badass guitar riffs throughout the project and throughout the process.
But beyond that, it’s like I try and be receptive to different things. We touch on a lot of different subgenres of electronic production. Some songs might not always have trap drums or whatever you want to call it. So I try and remain open to pushing forward creatively while not losing sight of what it is that Grandson means and stands for and sounds like to the people that are fans of what I’m working on. In our creative space, we kind of have this mentality that I think is really important where if you have a better idea, then let’s go with that idea. I try to keep the ego out of the studio and just be like, beat it.
If you aren’t feeling something, make sure the feedback has some specificity and I challenge myself as a writer to dabble in places like production and engineering, not because I intend on being the one with my hand on the most, but I want to be able to articulate my opinions with a certain amount of clarity, specificity, so that I can have an active conversation with the producers I’m working with, with the mixing engineers. I think that those kind of things are really important. Two people might hear a song and want it to be bigger, but their versions of big might be different. Whatever their influences were that led them to that space might create certain riffs creatively that can really exhausting. So I try and always challenge myself to have very specific opinions.
Beyond that, nothing’s off limits. I’ve written a lot of shit songs. I’m not scared to fail. I think that you have to have that vulnerability to make some shit that sounds differently. If you’re just going to do what feels safe, that’s not what the studio’s for. Maybe onstage, we’re not going to be writing a new song on the spot, but when I’m alone in that space with myself and a piano, myself and a guitar, I want to actively be trying new things. So no, nothing’s really sacrosanct. Nothing is without challenge.
Jesse Cannon: Boonn had this to say about his first impressions of their collaboration.
Kevin Hissink: Super bright kid comes into my studio two and a half years ago. One of the most fun things about this whole thing was, I was just trying to create a cool sound around him and I immediately felt when I recorded his vocals and when I saw how decisive and how prolific he was lyrically, I was just grabbing guitars left and right, trying to figure out, hey, what suits this kid best. And then a week before that, I had bought this baritone off of Craigslist for 150 bucks that I kind of repaired myself. I plugged it in and I played. This is a guitar that basically has six strings like any other guitar, but it’s tuned really low. It’s got this low, growly, baritone sound basically. He was like, “That’s it.” We both knew it. When we started riffing and working together and doing these things and he was writing, where I’m getting at is when he was coming up with these lyrics, it was crazy how much those lyrics reflected also what I had gone through. There’s a couple of songs that you guys haven’t heard yet. So many things that he was writing about, I thought, “Holy shit. Is he writing this about me?”
Jesse Cannon: While we’re playing up the rock thing with Boonn and how he contributes that side to Grandson, we have to also remember he got his big break by approaching JR Rotem and becoming a co-writer on Rihanna and Nicki Minaj’s song, “Fly.” But he’s definitely a rock guy. This story is really good.
Kevin Hissink: I was a huge Rage nerd. When I bought the first Rage Against the Machine record that year I had to redo school, it made a huge impact on me. It feels karmic almost, to be able to make music with Jordan because he actually addresses these things that I want to write these powerful riffs to and that I want to facilitate. Not just for your own ego, just also for something that’s bigger than you.
Jesse Cannon: When you last heard me talking to Grandson, I interrupted to go off on this tangent and let him talk about Boonn. But he started talking about the song “Bills,” which was the song that established the sound for this project, so I wanted to get him to describe how he knew this was the direction for the project.
Jordan Benjamin: I would say one of the big things was the way that we differentiated the verse from the chorus, the way I felt that we had very specific parts of the song that satiated different, it checked different boxes of musical styles I wanted to infuse, so that one, I think, we really intended for the verses to be really rock and roll feeling, with a kind of stomp clap. It was almost like a gospely, blues kind of thing. Then we left all this open space and we had the idea to half-time the drums for the hook. We got in with Hyland and when he first threw the high hats together over top of the hook, and when we took out the live bass and decided to include 808s, I remember just feeling like fuck, this feels fucking really big.
Right from the onset of Grandson, the intention was we’re either going to be and I’m either going to be doing it best or we going to be doing it different. I had no intention of contributing to an existing space musically. I remember when I knew that I wanted to do something that was more influenced by rock and roll, one of my big problems was that rock and roll doesn’t sound that different to me from a production standpoint. I listen back to Rage Against the Machine’s first album, and that’s like 1992 and it still sounds relevant today, which is a testament to how well that music was recorded. Same with Nirvana. But it’s also a testament to how little rock has, in some ways, changed.
Keep in mind, this is 2016. This is the end of 2015. I think since then, more artists have been more receptive to infusing synthetic electronic production in a way that doesn’t feel too kitschy or too cheesy. But at the time it was like, I just don’t want to be a cover band. I don’t want to do this nostalgia kick because if my whole thing is sounding like Led Zeppelin or Rage or whatever, just go listen to those iconic bands that we grew up on. I had no interest in just contributing to something that already existed. I wanted to actively push it forward. Also, one of my reasonings was who’s to say that John Lennon or Kurt Cobain or whoever would have approached music the way they did if they had the access to a music technology that’s available now.
Who’s to say they wouldn’t have found an 808 cool. It’s just never that cool to listen to the music that your parents listened to. Since the history of time, people have found what their parents listened to kind of whack and whatever their parents rolled their eyes at feels fucking good. I think that a lot of people made the mistake of listening to trap production and turning their nose up at it and claiming that those kids that are making it aren’t real musicians. It’s like who the fuck are you to say that? I always wanted to infuse the kind of irreverence and ignorance that attracted me as a fan to those genres of music while still just having a badass guitar riff. There’s something really cool to that.
I also always wanted to have a kind of yin and yang. I always wanted there to be elements of the song that were very technically sound and also elements that were really, really accessible. I want there to be parts where you remember, fuck, this is some real badass shit. I want another part to make you want to pick up a guitar and play it. So with “Bills,” the riff itself was kind of busy, kind of complicated, but the solo was only two notes. Really, really, simple. Really, really easy for a kid to go, “Oh, I can do that. That feels honest.” Same with the way that we would approach how we recorded the vocals. We recorded everything on a $30 microphone.
It was like we always wanted people to feel like this is within reach. You can do this, too. Originally, all the vocals that we did for “Bills” and for every other song, we intended to be scratch vocals and we figured eventually when it became time to put these songs out that we would go into a nice studio and do everything again. But the more that we listened to it, the more that we just kind of liked the grittiness, the more I just wanted to keep things feeling that sort of familiarity that for some reason I found in approaching certain parts of the production and parts of the recording process. More lo-fi, more kind of DIY garage. We also recorded and continue to record out of Boonn’s living room. Always been something that has just felt natural, that’s felt organic. I don’t want to lose that DIY feel to the way that I approach making music.
Jesse Cannon: It’s funny because yeah, your reference to the first Rage and that first Rage record is an SM58 with the speakers cranked in the fucking control room.
Jordan Benjamin: Right. Exactly. There’s just something that… and you feel it. Something just is communicated in a way I think that you can kind of lose it if you get too cerebral with the recording process. Frankly, I’m just not really a gear head anyways. That’s just never been my wheelhouse. So I’m just receptive to whatever is badass, whatever doesn’t get too in the way between me writing the shit and recording the shit. I just want to be able to turn on the preamp, tap the microphone a couple times, put on the song and just let go.
Those are the sorts of things that over the course of 2016 I started really feeling more comfortable with in terms of I always envisioned, I wanted people to one day hear songs and go, “That sounds like Grandson.” So I really was like, if that’s what I want for other people, then I have to figure these things out now. We spent a lot of time slaving over the production process, the mix process, and continued to. Whenever it gets really, really frustrating or difficult, I try and remind myself that the reason that it is this difficult and the reason we don’t have very many references to go off of is because people aren’t really doing it like this. I’m proud of that.
Though it’s difficult, it’s always exciting for me to know that we’re trying to really do things differently and actively contribute to the evolution of rock and roll, making rock and roll more accessible, making rock and roll more relevant to what a 15 or 16-year-old kid is listening to today. And that’s all from a production standpoint. Nirvana, for a 15-year-old kid, Nirvana is a fucking T-shirt. That’s 25 years ago. I think that it’s crazy to think about that. It’s crazy to think about how bands like Blink 182 are so nostalgic for people now because I think that for a lot of people around our age it’s like, wait a second, that’s still relevant to me, dammit.
But yeah. It’s like okay, there’s this whole generation that’s, I think that music as a whole is shifting. I think that there are waves of a need for the push and pull of uniformity and artistic indulgence. I look at how the hair band, glam rock of the ’80s led way to Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and Rage and how those more left of center pop spaces created the conditions necessary for the NSYNCs and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys to usher in the Dr. Luke, Max Martin era of the early 2000s. I think that we are shifting back to a space where music is getting a little more, I don’t want to say unique or anything that would insinuate that those pop bangers aren’t still awesome and they all have their place.
I’ll still put on “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry and rock out. Don’t get me wrong. But I do think that music is flipping back to where music that is taking chances and that is vulnerable. I do think that there’s space for that. I also think that the conversations being had in culture now are a little more urgent, a little more confrontational. I don’t think having opinions as strong and vocalizing the way that I do has ever been more accepted in pop spaces. I think that being able to go put fucking Donald Trump with X’s over his eyes on a single artwork and have people not really bat their eyes at that, I think that that’s indicative of the conversation changing.
I really looked at the Bernie Sanders campaign and the way that young people were actually interested in really getting into the nitty gritty of, this is really what’s happening here. That really inspired me and I really wanted to challenge myself, as well as the people listening to the music I make, to have these kind of conversations with themselves, with their community leaders, with their parents, with their teachers, with their pastor. If I can play some small role in instigating those confrontations, that sort of contact, that to me was like a big win in something that I really wanted to be able to look back on and say that I stood for something in this kind of time.
Jesse Cannon: It’s pretty rare that you get to hear an artist talk that eloquently about how well thought out their music is. But the funny thing is, we haven’t even gotten to the lyrics yet.
Jordan Benjamin: From a lyric standpoint, wanted to make sure that we were touching on things, the concepts I was writing about were unapologetically very much reflective of the times that I’m writing in. I really didn’t want to be able to pick up and drop my music in any decade. There’s still songs that are about mental health, that are about relationships, about love, sure. But I wanted to talk about the sorts of things we talk about on this EP. I wanted to talk about police brutality. I want to talk about gun violence. I want to talk about climate change. I want to actively advance a progressive future forward for the predominantly young people that are listening to my music. I also know that a lot of rock and roll spaces and spaces in America that still listen to rock and roll, a lot of them might not necessarily have a voice in their playlist that is promoting these sorts of diverse, inclusive ideas. I really just wanted to approach everything from the lyrics to the production really unapologetically relevant right now and reflective of the times that I’m making this music in.
Jesse Cannon: Since his lyrics have such a strong message, I wanted to find out where he’s drawing inspiration from.
Jordan Benjamin: I’m on Reddit a lot. I try and stay away from CNN. I try to find places. It’s difficult to find spaces where you don’t feel like you’re being advertised to. It’s like watching political news coverage get metastasized and get turned into wrestling, really got me so fucking mad. I really just felt like I had no, there was no greater conversation about what do these people stand for. If you are an average American, what does voting for one over the other mean for you? I think that just got me so frustrated. The way that the left really did not address the very valid concerns about campaign finance transparency.
I think that the way that we made it purely just about one character versus the other character. I think that the sort of conditions in the public education system, in the renewable energy, the way that we failed to prepare large sections of America for this sort of change. The way that we created conditions for them to need change so desperately and be so dissatisfied with the way they had been represented in politics, our failure to address those sorts of things in an honest way, I think a lot of people hit the fucking self-destruct button and threw up their middle fingers to this whole system. I don’t think we’re doing enough to acknowledge that.
I don’t think that the DNC has really changed as much as I would have hoped. That something as insane as a reality TV show host becoming a president, you would think that that would change things a little bit more, but still completely dominated in politics by billionaire oligarchs. That kind of shit just pisses me the fuck off. It pissed me off back then. It pisses me off now. So I’m sitting down trying to write songs while I’m watching this shit. I’m bombarded with it every day. It just felt natural that I was going to make music that was fucking angry. For me, as an audience member, as a fan, I feel a sense of catharsis from a mosh pit. I remember listening to Audioslave, listening to Rage Against the Machine back when I was 13, 14.
I didn’t really understand the sort of Noam Chomsky, socialist ideals that Rage might have in some ways been promoting, but when he said, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” I was like, yes. I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, but I was a hormonal teenager and when I thought about my teachers, my parents, the cool chicks that wouldn’t talk to me in high school, it was like, fuck yeah. This is a space for me. So I wanted to create that space for other people. It’s been really interesting as we’ve begun to get busier with touring. Just a couple days ago, we were in Somerset, Wisconsin. This is Trump’s America.
People were getting down. People were rocking out. I try not to be patronizing. I try and have a little bit of empathy for the, as I said, the conditions that would lead someone to view these sorts of hotbed issues differently than me. I definitely surround myself in a bit of a silo in terms of I keep people around me that think like me. How am I going to look down on anyone else or claim to understand why people think the way they do, vote the way they do. I’m not necessarily going into these spaces to alienate or ostracize or patronize, I just really think that there is unity across the board in feeling disenfranchised and feeling fucking angry. I think that creating a space for everyone to come together and jump up and down and throw some elbows, creates an outlet for a lot of people. We don’t need to go fucking shoot up a school. Not everyone that voted one way is a bunch of liberal hippie elitists. Not everyone that voted the other way is racist, dumb. It’s like no. To put people in these boxes is exactly the sort of shortsighted, misguided mentality that led us to this clusterfuck in the first place.
Jesse Cannon: Now that we understand the ideas behind their songs, I wanted to talk to both Grandson and Boonn about how these songs actually get birthed.
Jordan Benjamin: “Blood // Water” was a song that was written pretty much over the course of a year, which for me is like a long-ass time to work on one three and a half minute song. I remember writing the idea of being a lamb to the slaughter. I felt very disenfranchised and I remember around the time the Trump Administration was taking over, their intent to basically dismantle the EPA and to remove science from how we addressed environmental policy. That was the sort of decision making and it transcends just that specific issue, but that for me was, I think, the starting point to begin to think about how people in charge of making these huge decisions with huge consequences, those types of people, wealthy, predominantly white, upper-class politicians are the absolutely last ones to feel the reverberations and impact of those decisions.
I basically wanted to write a song where I held those people accountable, where those people had to stand and watch the manifestations of karma come to them. I wanted to break down how many different ways that could be, be it an uprising of the people, be it a big earthquake or a big tsunami that made them finally admit their wrongdoing and try and squirm out of being held responsible in a way that I wanted to envision that. That was what that song was about. That was really where I started. We didn’t have melody. We didn’t have a chord progression, anything. That was why the song took so long to make because in the back of my mind I knew it was a really good, specific thing that I really wanted to talk about, and I didn’t want to waste it on the very first thing that came to my mind creatively.
It took a long time. We originally had, the whole thing was rapped but it didn’t feel like it fit. I wanted it to be melodic because it was such an esoteric, it’s a pretty specific topic. I wanted to contrast that with a really, really simple melody, like a nursery rhyme. I always loved that sort of contrast in my music that I mentioned earlier with the guitars. I want to do that melodically and lyrically as well. I want there to be sections that are the cadences might be really percussive and really busy and then other sections that are really, really simple, really, really mnemonic and getting stuck in your head.
We just tried. We just kept trying. I had maybe six different versions of what the verses were. Always kept the, “We’ll never get free, lamb to the slaughter, what are you gonna do when there’s blood in the water?” That was the one thing I was like, I feel really good about that. We’re not going to change that. Everything else, let’s see if we can beat it. We had different guitar riffs. We sat on what we were going to do for the drop forever. Eventually, I was just sitting down at a piano and I found a cool… (singing). And I originally wanted that to be the drop, but I was like, you know what? I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted as many hooky, catchy sections as I could.
I was like, let’s take this melody that very well could be the drop and make it the verses. I wanted the verses to be really catchy. Then I rewrote the verses to fit that melody while keeping a more specificity in what would it look like and feel like for that moment where that politician were to admit their wrongdoing. “Look me in my eyes. Tell me everything’s not fine. Admit the people ain’t happy. The river’s run dry. You thought you can go free, but the system is done for. If you listen real closely, there’s a knock at your front door.” It was just like diving into that karma. Do you hear how fucked you are now? Beg me for mercy. I really wanted to really tackle that.
I just pictured this flickering light bulb, this tied-up politician. I don’t even really know but that was really where we worked from. Boonn wrote a really gangster riff for not only the finger picking in the intro, but he also came up with a fire guitar melody that was originally going to be the drop that we ended up using for the bridge. And then when I got to the bridge, I realized that I hadn’t yet addressed who the me was in the song. I had been saying, “Beg me for mercy. Beg me for forgiveness.” But is me, Grandson? So I wanted to flesh [that] out. I made a list of all the different ways karma could come back and bite these people.
It was like, “I am the people. I am the storm. I am the riot. I am the swarm.” I had this idea. I wanted to have this animalistic concept because I think that there is a certain banality, a certain tribal mentality that gets revealed in conflict and in these moments. So I said, “When the last tree’s fallen the animal can’t hide,” which is kind of when you strip people of their ability to be civil, you will see the animal inside of all of us. When you put the people in a corner, we will bite that hand. Money won’t solve it. What’s your alibi? The song was originally called “Alibi.” I had two working ideas. The Blood // Water idea and a song called Alibi, and I realized that conceptually, they were really talking about the same thing. So I just took the alibi concept and I infused it.
I want every song to feel like a greatest hits of five different songs that I’m working on simultaneously. Sometimes that takes time, which is why this one just took months and months. So we kind of shipped it off to Krupa. We basically had a filler for the drop, but we basically said to him, “Change whatever you want if you think that there’s something that’s catchier or more iconic that we could do instead of the riff that we had written.” It was much more rock and roll on the drop and he, this guy Krupa, sent back a version that was much more minimal. He was the one that actually wrote the (singing). Which was actually an electric guitar riff but treated like a synth. All of the drums on the drop were really, really EDM, like the snare. We originally had a live snare and he made it a much more fat, kind of EDM snare and put a lot of the electronic sprinkles, some of the auxiliary productions, some of the stuff behind the scenes.
I’m really, really obsessed with textures behind my music. Sometimes we’ll sample a rainstorm or a lion roaring and EQ it in a weird, muffled way that you can’t even really hear it, but you just feel it. We went back and forth on a couple different versions. Threw some extra final touches on it, just Boonn and I. It was mixed by a guy named Taylor Byrd, who contributed production and mixing to my song, “Thoughts and Prayers,” also “6:00” and a bunch of other songs. It was cool. We all come from different spaces, but we all loved rock and roll growing up. Krupa comes much more from the electronics base. I come from the more hip hop-oriented space. Kevin comes from the rock space, Boonn.
I think that we all challenge each other and bring certain parts of our sounds together and it’s always taken a village. I’ve always been quick to admit how grateful I am for the contributions of the people around me. My manager, Amit, Primate Music, has a lot of really, really constructive feedback through the entire process. The mix was a whole other beast. Mixing is the most challenging thing for me. It’s so incredibly tedious in that we all get really… I definitely try and be a perfectionist, but at a certain point I just have nothing more to contribute. I can’t keep beating my head against a wall from a mixing standpoint. I wouldn’t say that a mix is done when I give up. But a mix is done when I give up, when I’m like, this is as good as I’m going to get this right now. It’s really easy to slip into analysis paralysis. It’s really easy to think your way out of getting it done. I think that you have to find that equilibrium of how cerebral you are and how much you just go off instinct. The mix process took a minute, but we got it done and Taylor did a great job and that was that.
Jesse Cannon: Boonn was kind enough to make us this voice recording of him explaining his contributions to the song.
Kevin Hissink: So initially “Blood // Water” started out as this riff we were just doing during rehearsals, which went like this (music playing). It’s kind of sloppy, but you get the idea. And then after a while, Jordan found a new melody for it. When I heard the melody and the lyrics, I thought it was cool to do (music playing) this guitar part around it. That’s the one you hear in the song. That’s what the bass does basically, and then I thought it was cooler to have the bass do that progression and have the guitar go (music playing). That was the beginning of the new and final direction for it.
Oh yeah, and then we also had for a while, we thought the best way to do the drop would be the (music playing) that part, which is right now in the bridge. For a while, we thought that was just the hardest part, which would be cool for the drop. But when Krupa made the drop the way he did, we all figured kill your darlings basically and just leave it as a bridge and use it as a cool buildup for the final drop. And that’s what we did. I don’t regret it.
Jesse Cannon: Next up, Grandson’s going to tell us how “Stick Up” was made.
Jordan Benjamin: Stick up was a song that actually happened really, really fast. I walked into this session and Boonn had already started the guitar riff that would be on the drop, and I really liked it immediately for some reason. It just felt like a bank robbery or something. And so I had the idea for it’s a stick up, get on the ground. But originally, it was more just a story about a bank robbery and I realized, number one, it wasn’t honest. It wasn’t vulnerable. It wasn’t telling any story that was something I honestly felt. Number two, there’s no reason to root for this character.
I realized as I was trying to tell this story about this guy who holds a stick up, why root for this guy? So I realized I wanted it to be, I wanted to humanize the bad guy. I’ve done that in a couple different songs. I have a fascination in movies, in plays, in books. I sometimes will judge how well the story is told by how much insight they share into the bad guy. I think that some stories do an excellent job and some, it’s too simple. He’s just too much of a dickhead. That’s just not real life. So I wanted to write a song about what kind of conditions would create somebody to go to some really drastic lengths.
It became a song about Washington DC. It became a song about a shooting in Washington DC. How would that story be told in a way that made you, I don’t want to say root for the shooter, far from it, but rather understand the conditions that so many Americans are facing where they feel like they are out of options and how this guy would essentially be a martyr to shed light on a situation. I just started writing that story. “Tom is a good father, two sons and a daughter. But he wakes up and asks himself, why even bother? Can’t feed his family, the wage he’s paid is insanity. Every day he’s dealing with a new calamity.” These were all just conditions that would lead someone to have their back against the wall and do some drastic shit.
“Lost his old occupation, but it wasn’t immigration.” I think that using immigration and using Mexicans, illegal immigrants, has been this trope that’s been trotted out, but I don’t think it’s an accurate depiction of what is happening in America, what happened to the auto industry. “Lost his old occupation, but it wasn’t immigration. It was a machine automation that replaced him.” I think that our inability to prepare for AI and for technology and the way that we’ve failed to hold companies accountable for training their workers for this new era. That was something I just wanted to sneak in. “Politicians left him, corruption since the recession. So he grabs his Smith and Wesson, says he’ll teach them all a lesson. Get down on the ground.”
I fleshed that out in the second verse as well. I reveal that he was in war and had PTSD and had his benefits taken from him and just was in this situation that felt so hopeless. He decided to go out in flames, let it rain over Washington. And then in the bridge, I just wanted to give you a kind of creepy feeling that this is real, that these sorts of things, be it technology, gun violence, that these are imminent issues. This is not sci-fi. This is not futurology. This is fucking now. “There’s a cold wind blowing. I’m just warning and preparing you. There’s a cold wind blowing, and it’s coming for America.” Boonn, we had been sitting with the song for a couple months and we weren’t sure where to go out of the bridge. Originally, we just went right back to the chorus, but it felt kind of anticlimactic. He came up with this badass, it reminded me of Hendrix with the kind of chord that he hit and made one of my favorite sections on the whole EP, is this instrumental space between the bridge and the final chorus. But the whole song was halftime for a long time. And it felt a little sluggish, like it just didn’t have the urgency and didn’t stand out from other songs, like “Overdose,” sonically.
A friend of mine, Alex, heard the song and suggested that we make the verses a shuffle. I had not done a single song in a shuffle. It was something that we had always joked about was going to inevitably need to happen. Any rock star that was worth anything had to have a good shuffle. We kept trying to make one, but it just always, for me, felt so derivative and I didn’t know how to infuse any of the electronic kind of stuff that I wanted to. It just felt like the only way to do it was make it sound like an AC/DC song or something. Because we already had the song done and the shuffle was the last thing, it ended up being pretty awesome.
Jesse Cannon: Hearing Jordan talk about all this, you really get the sense that he’s a special artist. I wanted to end this podcast with letting Mollie and Johnny talk about what they see that’s so unique about him, since they work so closely with him.
Mollie Lehman: Yeah, I mean, as a human he’s saying that he’s angry and he’s pointing out things that he’s angry about. But he’s not saying, “Go get the pitchforks,” necessarily. He’s saying, “Let’s all talk about this,” which I love because there’s anger, but it’s in a way where it’s welcoming and he’s saying, “You know what? I wanted to say something because I was feeling things and you know what? If you’re feeling things, say something, too.” I think that, for me, that something also really exciting, is that you can talk about things that are upsetting without aggression. Or with aggression, but that is proactive and welcoming. There’s a kindness to that, that I really think is really special.
Johnny Minardi: Jordan is this really special dude that I think anyone that’s been around him or had the pleasure of having a conversation with, feels a real connection with. There’s no bullshit. There’s no filter. If you ask him the right questions, he will explain everything thoroughly so you fully understand why and what he is doing, what is important to him. There’s just so much there that I feel like one, as an introvert, I feel like people like him that share my beliefs, that get loud and in people’s faces about it, I need to be around them more because he’s saying and doing the things that I feel. But it’s like, whoa, I found the guy that’s saying it. Great. Let’s run with that. I feel a connection with him on that level that it’s just, there’s so much sincerity within all that, to where he’s the sweetest guy and there’s a no bullshit filter on top of that.
Jesse Cannon: Thanks so much for listening. To find more of our podcasts, head to atlanticpodcasts.com. Grandson’s “A Modern Tragedy, Vol. 1” is streaming now.