What is your name and role within The Holy Gasp? My name’s Benjamin Hackman. I’m a Libra, and I believe wholeheartedly in telling cigar chomping Austrian fellows about my mother. I like to think of myself as the spirit quest captain of the cosmic vessel that is The Holy Gasp. I also write the music, sing lead vocals, and play congas and other percussion instruments.
Where are you currently based and what is the music scene like there?
I’m based in Toronto. The music scene is vibrant and diverse, both with regards to the people and their expressions. There really is something for everyone in this city. I feel fortunate to live here.
You’re considered a musician’s musician. What does this mean to you?
Am I considered a musician’s musician? First I’ve been told. Say more. I’m intrigued.
Please tell us what The Holy Gasp is all about?
What are you–the cops?
You’ll be performing with 27 musicians on stage. How did this come together, and how do you organize such a large group of musicians?
Excel sheets, my man. Just so many excel sheets. And a really competent staff.
Please tell us how you first started playing bongos and what it is about bongos that you love?
I had a best friend growing up, JJ. Our mums were pregnant at the same time. Sadly, JJ passed away last year. He was a real bossy kid, and whatever he said, I yielded to, and that’s just how it was. One day he got it into his head that we were were gonna start a band–we were perhaps 9 or so at the time. He said, “Benjy”–they called me Benjy in those days–“We’re gonna start a band, and you’re gonna play drums.” And so I went up to my parents and said “JJ says we’re starting a band and I’ve gotta play the drums, so can I learn drums please?” and they were gracious enough to accommodate me. One knew not to say no to JJ. That was true for my parents as well as me. So I learned the drums, and just as I was starting to get good, JJ got it into his head that the top of cool was to play guitar around a campfire, and I better get some bongos ‘cuz no one plays drums around a campfire. You starting to see how this all works? Anyways, I got myself a pair of bongos, and played Kumbaya for ma lord, and by the time I went away to university in Montreal, I didn’t have a place to play my drums, so I got really interested in those bongos, just for their size and volume. I guess they were a gateway drum to the congas, which I now play mainly in The Holy Gasp.
Black & white is an obvious visual aesthetic of your band. Is there a B&W aesthetic to the music?
That’s an interesting question. No one’s ever asked me that. The music is certainly informed by a B&W aesthetic, but it perhaps takes on a new meaning as the proverbial Dorothy enters Munchkin Land. That scene always tripped me out as a kid watching the Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t quite comprehend how she entered a coloured universe, but that threshold between black and white and colour stayed with me in an archetypal sense. Perhaps that threshold is where I seek to better understand the world through this project. I’m riding that tornado, you know?
Who are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve had Sam Cooke on the past few days while cooking dinner. I’m spying on his string arrangements, and last night I revisited Woody Guthrie’s “Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti.” I was aghast, after not listening to it for ten years, to hear how simple and beautiful his melodies and sentiments are. What a gorgeous record! The world has much to learn from it.
What or who influences your sound?
My musical influences are many and vast. The obvious ones (I think) are early Nick Cave for his broody sensualism, Tom Waits for his eccentric arrangements, Leonard Cohen for his divine poetic craftsmanship, and Dead Kennedys for their iconoclastic theatrics. But I read and watch a lot, and listen to less music than you might think. Listening to music is always a chore. I know how the engine works and I’m always striving to build the most efficient and beautiful car, so music always feels like work. Other art forms and disciplines are a pure pleasure, and penetrate my soul far more deeply. Comedic figures like Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx inform my rhythm and phrasing; time benders like Marcel Duchamp, John Berryman and Arthur Miller help me draw poetic road maps of my psyche; and literature like Sophocles’ Theban Plays, The Book of Job, and the works of Kafka guide me through the dark path of human suffering and shed light on escape routes and paths of personal redemption. All this ends up in the music and lyrics.
What do you have planned for the remainder of 2018 going into 2019?
I’m busy at work on a new record, which I hope to record early 2019, and am plotting a large choral piece I hope to gather the funding for to mount by spring.
Favourite food and place to hangout? There’s a great new club in Toronto called Drom Taberna, which hosts a ton of wonderful folk and jazz music. Great eastern European menu. You can’t go wrong with the goulasz. Tell ’em Benjamin Hackman sent you.