Ben Lee blasts back to the past on his upcoming covers album Quarter Century Classix — quite literally in the case of the video for his new treatment of Sonic Youth’s Dirty single “Sugar Kane,” premiering exclusively below.
The clip, directed by old pal Jake Fogelnest, makes use of footage of Lee and Fogelnest shopping for music at New York’s Other Music store, as well as contemporary scenes of the two in Lee’s Laurel Canyon home and Lee performing the song with Julianna Barwick, who recorded it with him on the album. And if there’s any doubt, Lee acknowledges the video is totally meant to tug some heartstrings.
“It’s almost like a conversation about what it means to grow old and still be a fan of music and to love how it brings you together, still,” Lee tells Billboard. “Fogelnest started putting it together and we realized that part of the beauty in the story he was doing was a narrative about our friendship — almost like a High Fidelity quality. Music is that shared experience. We’re now men in our forties, professionals in the entertainment business living in L.A. on the other side of the country, but we can still get together and be bonded by that same music we loved as kids.”
Lee met Fogelnest during the early ’90s when both were teenagers and the director interviewed Lee, a member of the band Noise Addict at the time, for his public access show Squirt TV. “We spent our twenties together just running around New York, going to concerts and having adventures,” Lee recalls. As for what’s documented in the vintage footage, Lee laughs and says, “Omigosh, I’m so glad there’s no sound on it. Listening to yourself talk at 16, 17 years old is not that flattering a prospect. But it’s emotional and it’s funny. Something about this whole project has asked me to really embrace and honor who I was as a teenager, which was a time when I first started sharing my music with the world, and kind of just honor how special that whole period was — hopefully not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that still has actual heart.”
Due out Nov. 22, Quarter Century Classix features fresh and considerably more restrained versions of some of Lee’s favorite songs by Fugazi, Pavement, Superchunk, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., the Breeders, Daniel Johnston and others in addition to Sonic Youth. Lee is joined on the album by Mike Watt, Petra Haden, William Tyler, Maria Taylor, Joey Waronker, Mary Lattimore and others. He’ll play release shows for the set on Nov. 22 at Largo in Los Angeles and on Dec. 1 at City Vineyard in New York, and he’s planning a short run of shows for January.
Lee has already gotten a thumbs-up for the project from one important quarter — Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. “We sent the video to Thurston and he loved it and he said ‘Thank you for doing such a dignified cover of the song’,” Lee says. “That interesting word — that IS part of what I wanted to do with all of this.”
Besides the album, Lee is still working on a musical adaptation of Tom Robbins’ B is For Beer, which was published back in 2009 and released as an album during 2018. The two are working with Starburns Industries (Rick and Morty, Anomalisa, Community) on an animated feature film version of the book, which Lee says will include album voices such as Belinda Carlisle, Bijou Phillips, Jon Cryer, Rose Byrne and others. “It’s a big project for me,” says Lee, who also recently finished a new album with occasional musical partner Josh Radnor. “It’s such an odd project it needed a very particular partner. Some of the people we talked about it wanted to make it more conventional. We needed a particular partner who wanted it to be weirder and celebrate how unusual it is. With Starburnss we found the right partner.”