The pioneering songwriter and producer talks Ween, Cubist Blues and his excellent new album
Ben Vaughn has the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll coursing through his veins.
Over the course of a staggeringly prolific decades-long career, Vaughn has belted out his own entirely unique brand of rock as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, radio show host and television sitcom and film score composer. The California-via-Philly tunesmith is an all-over-the-map force, first schooled on Duane Eddy before making his indelible mark in just about every musical landscape. The creatively omnivorous Vaughn dabbled in punk, but then found his voice in roots-rock, blues, twangy country, doo-wop, indie rock, folk and lo-fi, where he famously recorded an album in his car (check out his 1997 touchstone, Rambler ’65).
Around that same period, Vaughn played invaluable roles in two other records that rank way up there as the best of the ’90s: He produced Ween’s deliciously lewd and crude weirdo classic 12 Golden Country Greats and joined forces with his pals Alan Vega and Alex Chilton for the afterhours dirty blues trip, Cubist Blues. Like the late great and dearly-missed Chilton, Vaughn also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music history books—you can hear Vaughn play deep cuts pulled from its annals on his eclectic podcast/radio show he calls The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn.
Vaughn’s most recent album, called The World of Ben Vaughn, wholeheartedly welcomes the listener into his own little corner of his world and, on a similar spectrum as his syndicated radio show, the tunes cover his many moods in sublime fashion. Recorded at his home studio in the Mojave Desert and in Santa Monica, Vaughn’s strumming and fingerpicking songwriting chops on the acoustic-based cuts that make up The World of… vibe with a Jonathan Richman-esque loose and light feel. A 2022 Record Store Day exclusive that has since seen a wider release, The World of… as a whole fulfills Vaughn’s vision, meant for the needle to hit the wax, first side A spun then flipped over for side B and listened to from start to finish—as a record should.
The Globe had the pleasure of catching up with Vaughn on Zoom from his secluded residence in the Mojave Desert where he dished on his new record, where exactly he fits in, seeing Suicide live, making Cubist Blues with Chilton and Vega, working on 12 Golden Country Greats with Ween and the session legends who played on it and more.
You have a song on the new record called “New Jersey Rock ‘n’ Roll,” though. It seems like the NJ East coast vibe is ingrained in you although you’ve been living in California for nearly 30 years.
Yeah, that’s a song about being homesick. I love Bruce Springsteen but what I don’t like about his music are the saxophone solos. I’m like, “Okay, enough already, you know?” (Laughs)
Many years ago, this was before I lived in California, I was in California about 45 years ago and I was really homesick and I was walking in the rain and a car pulled up and I heard a Springsteen song coming out of the car with a sax solo and I thought to myself, “Man, I’m so homesick I even miss that.”
Are you inspired as much by your surroundings in California as you seem to be for the East coast?
I am. I’m inspired by the California desert where I live. I’ve always wanted to live in a desert since I was a kid. My dad, when he was in the Army or in the Air Force in World War Two, he went to gunnery school in Yuma, Arizona. He would tell me stories about how it would be 100 degrees during the day and then it would go down to 70 at night because there was no humidity to slow the temperature down and they were living in tents. As a kid, I was like, “That’s how I want to live. I want to be there.” So, I made it out. I bought a house in the Mojave Desert back in 1998. I still have a rent- controlled apartment in Santa Monica so I go back and forth. But I love California. I love the weather and I love the terrain. But I’m from New Jersey. My musical tastes, doo- wop and soul music and everything, all came from Philadelphia radio. I grew up going to dances and playing at dances. I’m definitely part of that Jersey bar-band kind of thing, whatever you call that.
And you recorded the new record in the desert where you live, right? Was it at your house in your home studio setup kind of thing?
Yeah. That’s where I do my radio show, too, The Relay Shack in Parts Unknown, USA.
With this specific record, you seemed like you had a goal in mind, seeing this recording solely in the LP format, not in the digital landscape.
That’s true. This is conceptual in that aspect because my first album in 1986…it’s a big deal making your first album because you’re hoping to be a career artist so you’re hoping to put your best foot forward. Back then the only format that existed was vinyl LP or cassette, which required a side A and side B intermission. All the records I had listened to up until I made my first record were that way, too. So there was a side A, a side B and it’s a really fascinating construction and an assemblage that has to happen at the very end. When you’re recording an album, you’re thinking about the selection of songs and how many up-tempo songs, how many mid-tempo, how many ballads you want and where to put them—on side A or side B. Well, that completely went away when the CD came out. And I never adjusted (laughs). I always thought, “Well, any artist after seven songs is going to sound a little samey, you know?” Whether your U2 or Springsteen or some indie rock band, after about seven songs, the audience gets the idea and there’s no intermission to give the audience a break and I love that intermission. It’s like a play without the intermission. If you watched a play all the way through without a break, you would get a little fuzzy about two thirds into it. You need that intermission and I love it. When Record Store Day asked me if I had anything to contribute this year, I did. I was working on my album.
It worked out serendipitously.
I was just getting started working on it and when I found out that I was going to be part of Record Store Day and that this would actually be an LP, I started thinking about that while I was picking the songs because I’m always writing so I had more than enough songs and they’re all new songs, though. I started writing like crazy and I don’t even know why. I don’t know if it was the pandemic or just it was time for the information that was gathering to be regurgitated.
Cars seem to play a role on your records and on the album art. What’s with that fascination?
When I was a kid, my brother, who was only a year and a half older than me, he was a motor head and from the time he was 10 or 11, we lived next door about three doors down from a Sunoco station in Jersey. This sounds like a Springsteen song now (laughing). But we lived a couple of doors down from this Sunoco station and my brother would go hang out there every day after school and on weekends and they finally put him to work. By the time he was 12, he was working as a mechanic in the gas station and I would hang out there, too. My brother was really funny because I was a rock ‘n’ roll fanatic from the time I was about eight years old or even younger and we shared a room so he was very aware of my obsession. He would go with me when I would go buy records and the only records he would buy were these instrumental records that had the sounds of cars. His favorite stuff was like “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys. Any song that had a car in it he was nuts about and instrumentals with actual sound effects of cars revving up while there was a guitar solo. So, I grew up automobile- adjacent because of him, like our worlds. When I was in high school, I bought a Rambler for $200 and it lasted about three years and then I bought another one, stripped down the old one as a parts car and got another one. I learned how to work on cars well enough to be able to fix a Rambler—it’s the the only car I can fix (laughs). I’ve had five Ramblers in my life so I’m obsessed with that car and I recorded an album in my car.
I love that record, Rambler ’65.
Yeah, I wanted to bring it all together, ya know (laughing)?
Do you have a Rambler now?
I have two but one doesn’t run. I still have the car that I recorded the album in and that’s kind of sinking into the ground, the tires are flat and I think there is a family of snakes living in it right now.
You really live out in the desert.
Oh, yeah. You can’t see my nearest neighbor. I’m really way out there. I have well water. I’m almost off the grid and the Rambler is still out there. I opened the door once I heard something moving in there so I slammed it real quick (laughs). Something’s going on in there.
The cover of The World of Ben Vaughn is of a car, too.
What’s interesting is I took that photograph that’s on the album cover about two years ago and that was my screensaver on my computer that I was working with and every time that picture would show up, I would be like, “Oh, I think that’s my album cover.” The music was created kind of toward that photograph in some ways. It’s pretty striking on a 12-inch LP and that was like Record Store Day when I realized that I was going to be part of it—that’s when that photograph became a real contender for the front cover because I was thinking, “Well, how do you get anything better than that, really?” (Laughs) I could try but why bother?
You also were inspired by early Paul McCartney and Emmett Rhodes records. Was that the stuff you were listening to when putting your record together, taking cues from one-man show type of albums where they play all the instruments as you crafted and pieced together these songs?
When I was about 16 years old, I started out as a drummer and then I learned how to play guitar because I wanted to write songs. Then I learned how to play bass because if a band needed a bass player they handed me a bass and it only had four strings so I figured, how hard can this be, you know? A friend of mine got a reel-to-reel recorder when I was 16 and he was not a musician and he set this stuff up. He was kind of a gear fanatic and he set up a reel-to-reel and some microphones in his bedroom and to experiment, he would have me play all the instruments. So my earliest recording experience is actually one-man-band type recordings.
Something I wanted to hit on is that you’ve had your foot in many different scenes: the indie scene, punk scene, you have records on major-adjacent labels and indie labels like Bar/None. Where do you think you fit in?
You know I never fit in. Record companies were always struggling to figure out how to market me for that reason.
Back in the mid-80s, Warner Brothers wanted to sign me because Marshall Crenshaw had recorded one of my songs. The song that he recorded is called “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” and it’s only one side of who I am, that type of writing. They heard that song and based on that song, they thought I was the next Randy Newman and they signed me to a demo deal. I went in with my band, the Ben Vaughn Combo and what I delivered sounded more like Paul Revere & the Raiders or the Monkees or something. I don’t know what it sounded like and they were like, “Look. You have to choose one style and you have to choose an image or we can’t work with you.” So it didn’t work out because I I don’t know how to do that. I would be really bad. There are certain jobs you’re not qualified for and I knew that that was a job I was not qualified for. I could not stay in one genre and create a look to go with it or anything like that. I don’t have any animosity towards the record business at all; I have sympathy for them when it comes to my career because if I was a marketing person, I wouldn’t know what to do with that money! “What do you do with this guy? He’s going to do whatever he wants and he’s going to be jumping genres from song to song. Is he punk? Is he alternative? Is he mainstream? Is he traditional? Is he breaking rules or is he celebrating? I really can’t tell.”
You couldn’t be pigeonholed anywhere.
I don’t have an answer for that myself. I love all types of music. I remember back in the 70’s, my friends decided when punk came out that you had to choose. You were either a punk rocker or you were into disco or you were into the Grateful Dead or you were into outlaw country, or something like that. And I equally loved all those genres. I remember I would get into these fierce arguments where people were trying to tell me you need to choose. Like, I can’t do it. Not only that, but Waylon Jennings just recorded “MacArthur Park” the same year that Donna Summer did so I think I’m right, which of course, just got a shrug (laughs). I thought it was brilliant but…
AUDIO: Waylon Jennings “MacArthur Park”
But you were really into punk rock, too?
I really loved punk and I played drums in a punk band called Sick Kids in 1980. One of the members died, which is totally punk rock, so I joined and played drums. 1980 was a pretty good time to be playing punk rock. The original blast, the inspiration, was only a few years before that. I wasn’t in there in ‘76 or ’77 but in 1980 I was in there and we opened for The Cramps and a bunch of bands like that. I was able to really appreciate being in that world while at the same time writing songs to sound more like John Prine—I didn’t see any reason why it all couldn’t coexist.
Alex Chilton, who you played with, is someone who you certainly share that common ground of being an integral part of all those different music worlds.
Yes, we were good friends and it was because of that, his appreciation of music was even a little crazier than mine as far as what he enjoyed. An amazing musician and music fan. But I got to know him around that time. We had the same booking agent and the booking agent put us on tour together in the eighties; we both had new albums out and thought it was a good bill. So we played together every night on tour and that’s how we really got to know each other and our mutual love for music was the basis for the beginning of our friendship.
Both you and Alex seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of so many periods of music.
Yeah, we get along really well.
I wanted to talk about Cubist Blues, the great record you did with him and Alan Vega and how that collaboration came about.
One of the first conversations Alex and I had was about how much we both love Alan Vega. We were both fans of “Jukebox Babe,” which was a record that he put out in 1980, and we were both enamored of it. When I told Alex that I knew Alan, that’s the only time I ever saw Alex Chilton starstruck. He could not believe I knew Alan Vega. He couldn’t believe it. I met Alan in the early eighties. Alan and I kept talking about doing a blues album together because I always thought that Alan, even though Suicide was electronic and all that kind of stuff, his singing always sounded like the blues to me and Elvis. Alan and I were always throwing around the idea of some kind of midnight blues and a late-night blues record. Finally, I booked time right before I moved to California and I said to Alan, “Now’s the time because, hey, I’m here. Let’s do it.” So I booked the time and Alan was…well, he’s actually the most immediate artist I’ve ever worked with. He refused to talk about what we’re about to do. It was forbidden to…it’s almost like when a pitcher’s got a no-hitter going and no one is allowed to mention it. That’s how Alan is. “If you talk about it, it’s already over. You blew it.” (laughing)
Was that whole album done completely off the cuff?
Yeah, well, I was talking to Alex on the phone and I told him, “I’m going to be working with Alan Vega and he’s really throwing me a curveball. He really wants zero expectations. He doesn’t want to know what we’re going to do. He just wants to push record” and Alex said, “Wow, that sounds like a great way to work. I would love to be part of that. Can I be on it?” So he flew up from New Orleans, we did it in New York and we got together for two nights and we just pushed record. Alex and I would start playing and then Alan would start singing and that’s how each song was born.
I actually saw you, Alex and Alan perform at the Mercury Lounge in 1996. I have the ticket stub to prove it, too!
Wow! That album was only performed twice because the day after we flew to France and played a big festival over there and that was the only two times that album was ever performed. So you saw something really rare.
I was going to ask you how many times the three of you played together.
Two nights in the studio and two nights on stage. That was the entire history of that band.
I imagine Suicide was pretty influential on you.
Very big because I’m really attracted to minimal music and Suicide…I remember Alan Vega was a very funny person and he said, “It really pisses me off when people say that the music of Suicide is based on one chord. It really makes me angry because it’s actually based on one note” and then a pause and he said, “and it’s not even a note!” (laughing)
I definitely hear a Suicide influence in your music.
I was very influenced by Alan Vega and Suicide. When that album came out in ’77 it was a game changer and I saw them live. They were the loudest thing I’d ever seen and they didn’t even have a drummer. It was all electronics and they just pushed it until it was so loud and Alan was a very confrontational performer. It really was a game changer for me because it proved that you could, by sheer will and energy and intent, create something that’s maybe not even music (laughs). It’s hard to explain, Suicide.
VIDEO: Suicide “Dream Baby Dream”
Where did you see Suicide live?
In Philly at a place called The Hot Club. Philly was great because it was only a two-hour drive from New York City so everyone from the CB’s scene would come down on the weekends and play in Philly and make money. Everybody from Johnny Thunders and The Cramps came down like once a month. It was a quick moneymaker because they could drive back after the gig. They didn’t even have to stay overnight so it was a quick way for a lot of those bands to make money.
Another great record and favorite of mine you were involved with is one you produced: 12 Golden Country Greats by Ween.
Oh, man, Ween. Those guys are musical geniuses, there’s no other way to put it. Those guys are able to…I mean, it’s unbelievable. They’re channeling something. I don’t know if there’s a word for what they do. But they absorb everything, everything from country music to Diana Ross and Chic or Prince or Madonna or even Harry Chapin. They’re unbelievable, and I’ve known them since they were kids. They were teenagers when I met them because I used to play a club in Trenton, New Jersey called City Gardens and Mickey used to hang around there so I got to know him. I remember one time Mickey gave me a cassette and I listened to it. It was just those guys inhaling helium and laughing and I said, “Are you handing this to me as a producer? Because I don’t hear a song.” (laughing)
How did you ultimately hook up with Ween for 12 Golden Country Greats?
We stayed in touch and when they got the idea to do the country album, they called me up and said, “We want you to produce it” kind of out of the blue. I was in Nashville a lot. I tried to be a Music Row songwriter in the early nineties and I went down there. A friend of mine lived in Nashville and worked at the Grand Ole Opry and I would stay at his house and my publisher set me up with a bunch of co-writing sessions with people with gold records all over the walls in their houses. They considered me too weird to play ball but it was a great experience. I made a lot of friends down there and one of them was Rodney Crowell. Rodney and I were co-writing and the guys in Ween were aware of that, that I was I was down there in Nashville and that I knew a lot of people and they thought I was the right guy to produce the record.
And you got all those pro musicians together to play on that Ween record?
I sure did. We cut it at Bradley’s Barn and Owen Bradley was still alive at the time and he was there at the sessions every day wearing a yacht captain’s hat. We have the Jordanaires on there and Buddy Harman, the drummer, is on a zillion records. That’s him playing on “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison. If you Google those names and see what hit records they’ve played on, it’s astounding and they were all about a year or two away from retiring. That was the A-Team, you know, Patsy Cline Records, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, all that stuff. They’re on those records and Roy Orbison and they were about ready to retire so we made that. If we had tried to make that record two years later, we couldn’t have gotten those guys. It’s crazy.
Were those session legends like “what the hell is going on here?”, cutting a record with the Ween guys who are stoner weirdos? Was it that kind of vibe?
Not as much as you would think because you have to remember, Dylan cut down there with those guys, Leonard Cohen recorded down there with those guys. They’d kind of seen it all. They were amused by Ween. It was great.
“Piss Up a Rope” is one of the greatest songs ever.
Ah, thank you. I’m singing on that, too, and on the chorus.
And it was done super-fast?
No overdubs. That was cut live like the minute those guys left the building. I haven’t heard that record in probably 20 years. It was an amazing experience because those musicians were so good and Ween, they just record all day and all night long on a four-track cassette deck in their house so they didn’t have any experience with that sort of thing. I was used to rock musicians in my own world, taking forever sometimes to get something right, including me, to work with these guys that were just, you know, boom, boom, boom, it’s over. Like “Japanese Cowboy,” a dobro lick and a harmonica lick—that was written right on the spot. It was unbelievable. I’m a huge fan.