Beginning his career at age 13 with his band Noise Addict, Ben Lee has gone on to become a musical and cultural icon.
His career has been colourful and unpredictable, from releasing chart topping records to feuding on Tik Tok with Murray Cook from The Wiggles.
Feeling rested and rejuvenated, Ben Lee is back with his first album in 3 years.
We sat down with Ben at our Happy Studios to talk about everything from his new record “I’m Fun”, the time he completely embarrassed himself in front of Jerry Seinfeld, staying grounded in the public eye and his love of standup comedy.
HAPPY: Let’s chat!
BEN: Let’s do it
HAPPY: So to start I obviously wanted to say congratulations on your upcoming album
BEN: Thank you.
HAPPY: And the singles that have come out so far. They’re awesome. I read that you said that a lot of the great artists out there do their best work at this point in their career when they’re older and more experienced and honestly I’d say that you’ve nailed it.
BEN: Aw Thanks! There’s great artists like Brian Wilson and Kurt Cobain who do their best work in their twenties but the artists I was particularly interested in, because I am in my 40s, realising that, not that it has to be that way, but there is a possibility of doing your best work in your 40s, 50s, 60s. And that’s the thing that I think had to open up in my mind, and probably culturally has to open up in people’s minds.
HAPPY: Fully, couldn’t agree more. I think it is very impressive because I’ve heard your music most of my life and to see someone just continuing to get better is incredibly inspiring.
BEN: Thank you.
HAPPY: It’s very cool. Now the album is called I’m fun, (points to outfit) obviously you are. (Laughs) I guess I wanted to know if you wanted to tell the world that for any particular reason. Do you feel like your earlier work was more serious? Or..
BEN: I think I’m some ways, naturally my sense of humour about myself has gotten better as I’ve gotten older. I mean I’ve always had a sort of biting sense of humour but you start to be able to use it, I guess more turned inward as you get older. Cos you see the humour in your own life and so the tragedy of just being a human being becomes funny [laughs].
But also I think that one of things that stops artists growing older successfully and dynamically is that they stop reintroducing themselves to people. Like they take it for granted that the things they’ve achieved in the past are enough to coast on.
And so I thought, you know, it had been a very interesting time where like Catch My Disease and We’re All In This Together had resurfaced in culture during 2020 and it made me think ‘Okay I should reintroduce myself and what I’m about to people’ cos there’s a lot of people that, you know, you do have your hardcore fans that follow every Instagram story you post, but the bulk of people are just like ‘Oh yeah you’re a name or a song’.
And so I really like that sense of… like in rap they do that a lot, Like Jay-Z ‘Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is HOV. It’s a natural thing of realising that that’s part of the flow of dialogue with culture, reintroducing yourself. So I just thought like, ‘I’m Fun!’ [laughs] and that is like ‘allow me to reintroduce myself.
HAPPY: I love that! Yeah, It’s so important. I mean, you’ve got the listeners that have heard you even if they’re not diehard fans, but then there’s a whole generation of people who are just starting to get into what they like.
BEN: Yeah there’s people like, I keep having experiences like Abbie Chatfield, who’s like ‘Oh my gosh one of the only CDs my mum had in our car was the Gamble Everything For Love CD single, so we just listened to that all the time’ And you know, you have people who have grown up with your music but don’t even know… aren’t making the connection until you re-meet.
HAPPY: I love that, that’s awesome. So you’re quite often, and don’t think that I’m trying to suck up, but you’re often referred to as an Aussie legend, an icon, and you’ve been living with fame for at least a couple of decades, you had a 30 year career right. But 2 days ago I saw you walking in Newtown and it was so crazy because you feel approachable. But I kind of want to know what it’s like and. You had such a long career but you still seem humble. You’re incredible well known but you seem approachable [laughs]
BEN: Yeah, well thank you for saying that. A lot of it’s about… firstly, Australia is a great country to be famous in because it’s not a celebrity mad culture. As much as there’s been a shift towards the whole reality TV thing and tabloid press and but still for the most part, it’s like Australia and Ireland are kind of similar in that Bono will just go and sit in a pub. Like if you drive around Dublin and meet people, everyone’s hung out with Bono
And I think Australia has got a similar side to it where even the celebrities are sort of expected to be normal.
BEN: And kind of part of society, like you’re not up on a hill as a seperate kind of thing. So I think some of its that attidue and the other side of it is I guess primarily, I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I’m a musician and a husband and a friend and a father and Im all those things.
And there’s one aspect to it that ‘oh yeah, when press comes out you seem to get recognised a little more, but otherwise life goes on and you just do what you do, and I guess I’m not thinking about it that much so it doesn’t project outward.
But I remember reading an interview with Ian Brown from the Stone Roses in Q magazine where someone said ‘My friend saw you in a record shop and said you were giving off famous vibes. And he responded, he said ‘it’s called soul’ [laughs] that was good.
HAPPY: [laughs] I love that. I wonder if the whole Aussie tall poppy syndrome kind of comes into why we expect famous people to be our mates. It’s like ‘no no no, alright we’re all the same. [laughs]
BEN: Yeah, look very possibly. At the end of the day it’s sort of a healthier culture in that sense compared to somewhere like America or the UK.
HAPPY: Yeah, yeah. I guess continuing to talk about fame for a quick second, is there anyone that you’ve met in your long career that had you completely star struck?
BEN: Oh for sure. I mean not people that you would think. I guess my biggest humiliations were Jerry Seinfeld for sure, this was just after Seinfeld had ended and I was 18, 19, and completely starstruck. Jarvis Cocker from Pulp, it was just a band I loved.
HAPPY: Oh, yeah.
BEN: And Jonathan Richman, singer-songwriter. They’re the three people who I met and I did not come away feeling great about myself from [laughs]. But then probably my biggest hero, Bob Dylan, actually the night before my daughter was born, so my wife was nine months pregnant, and Nash Egerton, my friend was directing a Bob Dylan video downtown in LA.
And he said ‘Do you wanna come down?’ And we were like ‘Absolutely’ So we hung out there and Nash said ‘Do you want to meet Bob?’ and I said ‘Nope, no interest. What am I going to be? Just another guy going, ‘Hey Bob Dylan, your music means a lot to me’.
And so I just didn’t what to do it. So in some ways that was the best instance where we didn’t exchange words, I just observed him in a space. It should be left at that. [laughs]
HAPPY: Totally very smart. Can I ask you what happened with Jerry Seinfeld?
BEN: Ohhh I was just very drunk.
BEN: And we were in a club and it was when Seinfeld was single. It was after his show and he was looking for a wife. So he would kind of roll around the clubs with Rick Ruben and Lenny Kravitz, all these kind of single guys.
And so they were kind of like this gang of dudes on the prowl around New York. And I was just so drunk and I went up to them and I just told the worst joke. Even to repeat it now it’s humiliating because it wasn’t funny at the time and it’s not funny now [laughs].
But I was looking for anything to say. And almost I think I wanted to humiliate myself, because I find that funny too. So I just went up to him and I said ‘Jerry, have you heard about my idea for a charity album of comedians to benefit cancer victims?
You gotta see the tumour in it’. And he just looked at me like I was the most annoying person who he’d encountered that day, which I probably was. But it was probably a pretty regular occurrence and that was the end of that. And then I went out with this drummer I knew, Russel Simmons, and he said, ‘You know Seinfeld’s mum just died of cancer.
HAPPY: Oh shit!
BEN: And I went ‘Oh my god you’re kidding’ and he said ‘nah I’m fucking with ya.’ [laughs]
HAPPY: Oh my god [laughs] Far out that’s awesome. I actually have noticed that you are a fan of comedy right?
BEN: Yeah, yeah.
HAPPY: I’ve noticed you popping up on comedy podcasts a lot over the last 6, 12 months. I guess I wanted to know a bit about how that started. You’re telling us all now and we’re seeing it, you’re a funny guy humour’s important. I think that while making fun of yourself is amazing. But where did your love for comedy start?
BEN: Well I think there’s been a very long and intense relationship. I think for me I’ve always seen, being a public figure, there always like a performance element to it. So I love this comedian called Andy Coffman, he was my favourite when I was a teenager cos he just pushed people’s buttons.
So when I was doing the whole ‘I’m Australia’s greatest singer-songwriter, greatest album of all time,’ that was all Andy Coffman performance art in my mind. But then in LA from ‘96 I got involved in this venue called Lago, playing there a lot.
And that’s a real mix of music and comedy so from there I produced Margaret Cho’s musical comedy album and worked with Sarah Silverman and all these people and the music and comedy there is very integrated. So when I was coming out to Sydney again, more and more, and particular in 2021, for me it’s just natural.
I think musicians and comedians are a really good match. We look at things a little differently but there’s a great crossover and so I’m just a fan, I’m just exploring, meeting Cameron James and Alexei Toliopoulos, and Becky Lucas and all these incredible people and just making friends. And I don’t know, it’s all just natural bedfellows I think.
HAPPY: Yeah I love that, that’s so cool.
With Ben’s new single “Like This or Like That” out now, we asked him a few rapid fire questions.
HAPPY: Thai curry or Indian curry?
BEN: Ohhhh, Indian Curry.
HAPPY: Rollerblades or roller skates?
BEN: Ah, it pains me to say rollerblades… If I’m going to be honest with myself, its rollerblades.
HAPPY: Cats or dogs?
BEN: Dogs. I’m allergic to cats.
HAPPY: Pineapple on a pizza or not?
BEN: No way! (Laughs) to me its disgusting.
Happy: So nice to chat with you.
BEN: Nice to chat with you too.
STREAM / DOWNLOAD ‘LIKE THIS OR LIKE THAT’ HERE
PRE-SAVE / PRE-ORDER ‘I’M FUN’ HERE
Interview by Chloe Maddren