A Conversation With Musician Ben Lear

by Chris Chafin

Last night at Le Poisson Rouge, Ben Lear was wearing a wetsuit that made him look like a Starfleet Medical Officer and shaking hands. The 23-year-old son of 89-year-old television mogul and activist Norman Lear (you might know him for producing “All in the Family” or founding progressive advocacy group People For The American Way) had just finished performing Lillian, a show that’s like an epic blend of Arcade Fire, Feist, a Muppet adventure and rock opera (although Lear prefers the term “folk opera,” for its lower pretentiousness quotient). The story, which is by turns touching and bizarre, follows a young man’s search for his lost love, which takes him to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a soup of plastic that’s about twice the size of Hawaii. While there, he meets a group of jellyfish (played by a gospel choir wearing shiny robes, plastic bottles, and Christmas lights) that attempts to baptize him in a pocket of air. Sample lyric from this section: “You little jellyfish, come to me/ You hold the key to a secret place/ With all the things/ That’ve gone to waste.” After an argument with a sea captain, the young man comes to accept that the past is “not lost, just plain dead.”

Lear’s voice has the husky sincerity of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, and his music the emotional bombast of Belle & Sebastian’s most extroverted songs. The show (and the album of the same name) feature a miniature orchestra of around ten players, and musically ranks with today’s best chamber pop, Owen Pallet’s Heartland — a record that Lear likes but says can be “too much all the time.” The whole thing is deeply silly, too, and at times felt like Jason Schwartzman (whom Lear sort of resembles a taller version of) reenacting Jason Segel’s vampire puppet opera from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In other words, it was amazing. Though the show has faded into the ether, with no additional performances planned for now, the music exists forever — and it’s well worth a listen.

I talked to Lear about the show, the environmental issues it alludes to, what it’s like to have a sister who’s 40-some years older than you are, and why he wants to dump his globe-trotting life to get a regular job.

Chris Chafin: Tell me about the show.

Ben Lear: Lillian began with an idea I had in my junior year of college, when I was kind of looking ahead to possible graduation recital (I was in music composition school).

It was your graduate project?

Everybody had to put on an hour-long concert. For a composer, that means you would find like a string quartet or something to play your original pieces. Obviously, it varied a lot more than that, because there were a lot of different types of composing going on. But, mainly it was like formal recitals in a school building. That wasn’t really going to light a fire for me.

So, you decided to do a make a rock opera? Are you a fan of them?

I’d never been into rock operas before. I’ve never seen Tommy. I’ve never even watched The Wall. I’ve never seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve never seen anything like that, because it’s never interested me. So a rock opera was always the last thing I was interested in, because I think the same reason that people would generally be turned off by that idea: seems a little cheesy and glamorous. In the same way that musical theater might be that, when these words are being fed to you because it’s so important to get this story across, but you’re also trying to maintain some allegiance to the music itself. That’s a really hard balance, and a balance I was trying to maintain. Because on the flip side, there’s the artsy conceptual narrative thing that makes no sense, and sounds like crap also. And there’s a lot of that, too. So, I thought, “I don’t want to make this pretentious high-concept album, but I don’t want to make this cheesy really straightforward rock opera with a silly story. I just want to have an awesome concert experience.” At the time, I was thinking that there was this huge opportunity for bands to do more with their live show. By that I don’t mean project video on top of them or have a lighting designer. I mean to create a narrative.

Something that happened while I was working on my show that was super-influential to me was Jonesy from Sigur Ros put out his debut solo record. He had this British production company do his live set — they built a set for him, and made these really immersive projections everywhere, with animals chasing each other, and everything was sequenced to the music. I was like, “This is what I want to do, exactly, but I want to be telling a story.”

Your show uses the Pacific Garbage Patch as a metaphor for… I don’t want to say the Island of Misfit Toys but —

Sort of that, yeah. The idea is, what if there was a place that held everything you ever lost: notes, harddrives, memories, and feelings? When you think back on the first person you ever loved, and how intense that feeling was, and now that feeling is completely… I have ex-girlfriends I’m friends with, and I can’t even possibly remember what that felt like. It’s crazy to me that that could have happened, and I have such little memory of it.

So, I was working with that idea: what would it look like? What would that place be like? This was in 2009, and that was when I first heard about the garbage patch, that’s when people were first talking about it. I was like, “That’s crazy! Where are the photos of it?” But that’s because there are no photos of it; it’s this soup of almost microscopic plastic that the fish are eating. So I also got really fascinated by that misconception, and I thought maybe my character, like everyone else, kind of romanticizes this place.

The idea is that it’s a very real journey, everything about it. Real within the logic of this world. I don’t have a scuba diving mask.

What have you been doing since you graduated?

I got invited to be on an expedition with this nonprofit that’s doing plastification research, to go from Chile to Easter Island, on a sailboat for three weeks. That was really wild. The same group of people flew me out to Burning Man to perform on their raft of plastic bottles.

Were you guys trying to raise awareness?

It was definitely to raise awareness, but the other pressing issue was to study the South Pacific Gyre. There are five main oceanic gyres, and eleven sub-gyres. This one organization has gone to all of them, and trawled a net in a very specific way to collect plastic debris. That’s the only way you’ll really see it. We would just cruise all day, and the autopilot was broken, so we were steering 24 hours a day, and drop these nets in and pull them out, clean off the plastic, label them, and when we eventually got to Easter Island, we shipped them off to this lab in California that tests them for different biotoxins. The idea is that plastic is not only inherently harmful to sea life, but something about it attracts other carcinogens that are in the water, so it becomes like a hub, and it’s three or four or more times more harmful. And then we’re eating all of that, of course.

Have you ever thought about being a scientist?

Never. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, actually. Then, music came along, and that kind of took over. Maybe I just never just fully exercised my… Is it my left brain? My science brain?

I don’t know.

Whichever one, I haven’t exercised it. If I sound science-y, I’m succeeding in bullshitting you with flying colors.

I think of myself of someone who’s pretty normal in my day-to-day life, and I just happen to have a heightened interest in this stuff, so I try to be a little better in my plastic consumption. I started a blog called “I Want to Be Good,” which was about me trying to be single-use plastic free. It only lasted like three days. And if I fucked up, I wrote about it.

So even within those three days, you fucked up?

Well, the second I went to get groceries, it was over. If you want to go to Trader Joe’s, forget about it. If you have any interest in deli meats, or any meat, forget about it.

Did you grow up having an awareness of issues like this? Both of your parents are very into progressive politics, right?

I grew up in a really political household. Not like screaming ideology, but a serious intention to stay informed. The paper was open every morning. My dad has been fighting right-wing religious America for, like, 30 years. And that’s always been a big influence.

I remember going to local Democratic headquarters on election night, or campaigning in my neighborhood. Did you do things like that as a kid?

No, and I probably would have liked that. It was more just indoors. There were definitely fundraisers in the house and stuff like that. Meeting really interesting people.

It must have been a little weird to have a bunch of people suddenly in your house.

There was a group that came to all that stuff, so I would be familiar with most of those people. Growing up in my household, at least in my own mind, I was always “the son,” and had a lot to accomplish. We have this one family friend, who helped fund the majority of my music video, and when he did that, I had a flashback to being six years old, and bringing my paintings down to my parents’ dinner parties, and trying to sell them to the people there. Everyone would say, “Oh, that’s cute.” But he bought one. For twenty bucks! When I was six years old. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he did that. I’ve met a lot of people like that through my parents, and I really appreciate it.

I have two brothers and a sister. And they’re not much older than me, but they’re like ten to 15 years older. I’m actually from my mother’s second marriage. When I grew up, there would be all these pictures in the house from the ’70s, and whenever there was a family gathering everyone would talk about things I hadn’t been around for, that were totally removed from my experience. I’m wondering if you had that experience growing up — almost like you’re knocking around someone else’s house?

Totally. I have three older sisters. My dad had three marriages, and had one daughter in his first marriage, two in his second, and then me and my sister in his third. And he did it over a long period of time, and they didn’t really overlap.

How old is your oldest sister?

My oldest sister is 65. My dad is turning 90 in July. So that’s what I mean. It literally was just like a family unit, and there happened to be another one almost in a previous life. I mean, I’m, like, insanely close to my older sisters.

It must be strange having a father who’s famous, but not famous in such a way that people on the street would recognize.

That’s the weirdest thing — he’s not this outward-facing celebrity where that would happen every day, and on top of that he’s just my dad. But only on very specific occasions would he become like a god. Like, literally a god. And everyone would come up to me and be like, “Do you know how much I love your father?” It was always far enough between those experiences that I would forget what that was like. Like, the other day, he just had a 30th birthday party for his organization People for the American Way here in New York. It’s this organization he started. And it’s become a very prominent thing. And as a surprise to everybody, President Clinton showed up. And he’s doing that to my dad. That’s the other thing, because of the generation gap, the people that I look up to look up to my dad.

Like, when I was about 8, we both fell in love with “South Park,” and watched it together every Wednesday. And of course Matt [Stone] & Trey [Parker] are big “All in the Family” fans, and, I mean, I think Cartman is very strongly influenced by Archie Bunker. So, they get a call from Norman Lear, and he’s like, “Hey, I’d love to meet you, and bring my son.” And they’re like “oh my God!” and meanwhile, I’m like “oh my GOD!” and he’s like “oh my God!” Because he loves everything that’s good. He’ll gawk at Matt & Trey the same way he would at… I dunno, whatever was super old. Fatty Arbuckle.

Have you had to get up to speed on the ‘business’ part of the music business?

Right now, I’m kind of actively my own marketing guy, PR guy, label executive, and on top of that, director of the show, producer of the show, composer, all these different things. And I love doing it. It’s not a problem; it just significantly cuts down on my time to just write. I think the real shift in direction I’m about to make is setting down all those hats and just getting a job. I would love to work in music in some capacity and write on the side. I’m kind of forcing it to be the work right now, but I’d like it to be a hobby again. And just write a lot more.

One last question: Do you eat fish?

I won’t touch tuna, because that’s over-fished. I try not to eat salmon, but salmon’s really great.

Chris Chafin writes for a few places about things you can listen to, play or consume. Here’s his Tumblr, which isn’t super compelling.

Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.