Interview – Breaking Benjamin

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On January 24th, Breaking Benjamin celebrated 20 years of hard rock by releasing Aurora, an album full of acoustic reimaginings of their catalogue with the help of some of their friends. 

We had an opportunity to catch up with guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Burnley (BB) and bassist Aaron Bruch (AB) before their Bell Centre gig in support of Korn on January 29th. We discussed life, love and the pursuit of longevity in the music business, as well as a few nuggets of lore from their hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Thanks for joining us, gentlemen. I like to kick things off with a lightning round of rapid-fire questions to get to know you a little better.

Beatles or Stones? 

BB & AB: Beatles

Favourite character from the Office?

AB: Definitely prison Mike

BB: I like the fat Mike. 

Best cheesesteak?

BB: Best cheesesteak believe or not isn’t from Philly for me, it’s a place in Ocean City called Express

AB: I can back that. Express makes a great bacon cheesesteak. If you’re in Wilkes-Barre there’s a place called Philly’s Finest that’s awesome. If you’re in Philadelphia I’ll take Tony Luke’s over the big two.

A band that most people haven’t heard of that you think they should know?

BB: Everyone should know Thrice

AB: There’s a lot. I don’t want to leave anyone out but Nothing More is amazing.

You’re big gamers, PS4, Xbox or PC?

AB: Yes to all. But PS4

BB: He’s more of a platform gamer. I’m strictly virtual reality stuff.

Favourite game?

AB: Bioshock. I have a giant Bioshock tattoo on my back.

BB: Modded, not vanilla and VR Skyrim, has to be modded.

Favourite Star Wars character?

BB: Darth Vader.

AB: Darth Revan from the Old Republic games. *Chewbacca roar*

On to music. Aurora is billed as an acoustic album, but it actually seems more full-bodied than the average acoustic album, with even orchestral layers added. Yet, the songs retain their aggression. Was that the plan all along?

BB: Yeah. The base of that record is acoustic instruments in a studio environment. Adding the orchestration just made sense after that. If you took the acoustic instruments and the orchestration away, the songs are exactly the same as how we play them live. 

AB: I play electric bass, even for our acoustic shows. Acoustic bass does not sound good and you’ve got to plug it in anyways. 

BB: We do acoustic tours every now and then. We like to scale everything down and play smaller, more intimate venues. That’s fine for us, but when we play acoustic, we don’t sit down with candles. We just play acoustic guitar like we would any other guitar. Because we were in a studio, we could add the orchestration and have guests. 

You did have quite a few guests on the album. What was it like having other people come in and sing your material with you?

BB: It started with just one. I just wanted to do it with Lacey (Sturm) in the beginning. She’s definitely my favourite female singer and probably one of my favourite singers of all time…period. That just turned out so well that I just started calling up all my friends and I just told them here, do this.

If you could have one guest dream collaborator, dead or alive, who would that be?

BB: Oh, Kurt Cobain by far. I used to idolize him

AB: That’s pretty good, but I’d go at the other end of the spectrum with Freddie Mercury. 

BB: I’m not saying it just because we’re on this tour, but Korn is up there too. I’m not kissing any ass, that’s just the truth. 

20 years in, a lot of bands are touring their greatest hits, but you’re still releasing new material that’s topping charts. How important is that to you?

BB: It’s just as much a surprise to us as it is to anyone else. I can’t believe that we’re so lucky to have such amazing fans that love us and support us and love what we do. I still wake up every morning in awe that I’m doing this. Sometimes when you’re living life, you don’t realize how much time has gone by. Fans will come up to me and say “I saw you in 2004 at this place or that” and then you think to yourself that was fucking fifteen years ago! What happened to the 2000’s? We’ve been doing this so long, but it’s gone by really quickly. It seems like it was just 2005!

AB: Now, the fan base is generational. Some parents have passed down Breaking Benjamin to their kids. We’ve met people whose first date was a Breaking Benjamin show. We met a couple whose now teenage son was conceived after a Breaking Benjamin show. There’s still kids discovering us through he internet.

BB: It’s so cool to be relevant after this long and it’s all thanks to this really awesome and genuine fanbase. We’re very grateful.

How has sobriety changed your writing and touring process?

BB: It’s more focused and intentional. Before, I felt like I just got lucky and now I can be more precise. With Ember, the other guys wrote most of that stuff and I just took a back seat, so you can talk to them about that. If you wanna talk about Diary of Jane, I’ll be right here. *laughs*

The songwriting did shift from Benjamin being the only songwriter to the whole band participating and even taking over. Was that intentional or did it just happen organically?

AB: I think it was intentional. When the band came back, it was because we were all friends, even previous to all of this.

BB: Friends first in this band, business last.

AB: We wanted to bring in people who could bring things that were missing, especially in the live performance. Before, it was just Ben singing. 

BB: Before, there were things missing. I was the only one singing. There were attempts that just didn’t match up very well. I’m not saying it was bad. It just didn’t match what I was doing, chemistry, tonality and style-wise. I never wanted to be the only writer in the band. I never wanted to be the only focal point. Most guys would add riffs or stuff like that. If all I had to do was write a riff and the song was done, that’s easy street. That’s not the hard part of writing a song, it’s the lyrics, the melody and the chorus…that’s the hard part. I could sit here and write 20 riffs right now, but that’s all I got in the past.

AB: Jason had contributed some stuff in the past before he was even in the band. And then when we got together, Ben basically looked at us and said: “Alright guys, I wrote 5 albums, figure this one out.”

BB: And it turned out fucking good. People always ask me what was it like to give up control. I never took control. There was no control to give up. I would always ask, beg sometimes, please write a song. Just write a hit. 

AB: *laughing* No pressure, just write a timeless piece of music. 

BB: I never got sent anything that moved me. I’m not saying it was bad. Nothing past band members did was bad, it just didn’t do it for me, it didn’t fit me. If I take a song that doesn’t move me and I perform it, then I’m faking it and I’m not gonna give it the effort it needs. These guys would send me things though and I’d think: Damn that’s awesome. You wrote Red Cold River.

AB: This was before we even had Jasen and Keith. We were working on stuff for Dark Before Dawn and it was just me, Ben and Shaun in a basement messing around. Ben started messing around with something. I just shouted: “Wait! I have a chorus.”

BB: Yeah, he said: “What you’re playing there, I wrote a song that has the exact same thing in it.” We wrote the same thing, but then he sang his part and I said: “That’s way better than what I had.” 

After 20 years, does the name Breaking Benjamin still mean the same thing to you?

BB: Yeah. I used to do solo stuff and open mics, ’cause in rural Pennsylvania it’s hard to find good musicians to play with. It’s not like Nashville or LA. So for a long time, I just did open mic night. Commonly, it’s not your equipment. It’s the host and it’s their gear. 

So I would do a Nirvana homage, like 5 songs together, and then I’d knock the mic over. Now a Shure microphone is made of metal and you can throw it up against the wall and it’s fine. But this guy had some cheap ass shit and the cone part came off of it.  At the end of the night he just came up to thank everybody that played and he just added at the end: “I’d just like to thank Benjamin for breaking my fucking microphone.” There’s no more to it than that. 

Interview – Richard Brunette

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