The Rebel Abides: In Search of Ben Wallers

Photography by Jesper List Thomsen

Even by the generous standards of modern garage lo-fi hipsteria, Benedict Roger Wallers seems inept and incongruous; a charismatic lone wolf in a cowboy hat or trilby and a tie whose electrified howls are too idiosyncratic to be broken down into market-oriented terms. It is difficult to sketch a thumbnail summary of a musician who has amassed a vast and unwieldy discography under a variety of names and genres: the most widely acclaimed is probably the Country Teasers, but he also moonlights as, or in, the Rebel, the Company, the Male Nurse, the Beale, the Stallion, the Black Poodle and Skills on Ampex, across folk, country, garage, post-punk, no wave and electronic pop.

Wallers has amassed a near-unquantifiable discography over the past 20 years, from scores of more or less “official” LPs, EPs and 7”s to seemingly endless self-released cassettes. Back in the mid-1990s, he started making records as the leader (singer, guitarist and main songwriter) of a garage combo that would go on to develop cult status: the County Teasers. The Teasers were on Tim Warren’s legendary Crypt Records before joining In the Red’s burgeoning roster. With full-lengths such as Satan is Real Again, or Feeling Good About Bad Thoughts, Destroy All Human Life and Science Hat Artistic Cube Moral Nosebleed Empire, the Teasers liberated garage rock from its clean-cut orthodoxy of the past, splicing it with satirically vitriolic lyrics, surreal themes and nontraditional sounds like outerspace explorations, spastic rhythms, hip-hop beats and dissonant synths. The Teasers released albums regularly until 2008, but in the meantime, prolific Wallers had already started churning out solo work as the Rebel—a name under which he remains musically active to this day, having just released five synth-driven tracks for a split 12” with Year of Birds on the English DIY label Ack! Ack! Ack! Records. However, in spite of its umpteen releases and the current worldwide hype surrounding all that is lo-fi and garage-like, the Rebel is still mainly a private pleasure shared amongst a happy few whose antennae are susceptible to weird signals. “I wouldn’t call it country, it’s just music—melodies and rhythms in the style of western pop/rock, with a bit of avant-garde to keep it spicy, harmonies where possible, disharmony too,” Wallers says.

Wallers is generally understood to be Scottish, although Wikipedia states that he was born in St Albans, just outside of London, and Wallers himself tells me that he was “born in the basement of Gieves & Hawkes, Savile Row, London” and now lives “at the top of the Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, which used to be the DAKS Simpsons building.” He also says that he holds a day job “spotting new looks among the upper middle and upper haute bourgeoisie for a number of fashion houses in London and the other major rag-trade cities”. Clearly he is enjoying exercising his renowned gift for sarcasm and purposeful provocation. But as the discussion deepens, the masks fall. “I hate racists, I hate bores and I hate narrow-mindedness,” he says. “Edinburgh is the most sophisticated place for humour I’ve ever lived—I loved it. Humour, that’s the best. London’s a bit humourless, unfortunately—too busy, too tense, too fast for humour, too political. I feel Edinburgh. Edinburgh is like anti-Scotland for me, more sophisticated than London, and I like London a lot.” He reveals that he is currently living in London and makes a living at the Camden Garden Centre (yes, it exists).

Like many other underground figures, Wallers is not a professional musician, nor does he wish to be. “I am an amateur,” he says firmly. “If I started trying to do it for money, I’d really make some bad music. I’ve never worked with major labels. No one ever asked me. I might have ruined it by swearing too much, or by not playing in tune. For me playing music is a hobby. It’s also definitely a form of therapy—I have to do it; if I don’t do it I feel terrible, I get fucking depressed; but also I express my love of God with it. I don’t write this shit, He does, I just channel it.” The God bit could, of course, be more of Wallers’ provocation. Unless his God is one who takes the “spastic swastika” (Wallers’ own creation and the symbol of the Rebel, it is a swastika with a broken arm) as his emblem and now preaches lustful sermons with titles like “Bitches’ Fuck-Off”, “Please Stop Fucking Each Other”, “Young Mums Up for Sex”, “Don’t Like People” and “Country Fag”.

“Fucking hell no way! I do not literally mean everything I say in my songs,” Wallers reassures me. “Most of it is irony. I’m singing the opposite. Satire, I learnt it off William Burroughs, Jonathan Swift and Lenny Bruce. When I sing, whether on stage or off stage, sometimes it’s me; actually sometimes the person I am when I’m singing is more me than the person I am in society. But yes, other times I get into a character to do something funny or set up a dramatic scene; there’s a lot of acting and pretending to create atmospheres and stories.” As for his dress code, the Rebel explains, “I just wear a suit and tie. Before going on stage I check that my tie is correctly knotted and that my shirt collar is right. For about 14 years I’ve worn a cowboy hat or a trilby; recently I’ve been phasing this out.” Although Wallers is rarely, if ever, photographed for press, he is remarkably vocal when it comes to style. His favourite colour is chocolate brown and his favourite brand is DAKS Simpson, the iconic, mod-favoured precursor to the DAKS label that was founded in London in 1936 and is still going strong.

“I can’t stand ugly, badly dressed bands,” Wallers declares. He confesses that he has kicked people out of his own bands for crimes against fashion. “Yes. I have done this,” he says without a hint of remorse. “A haircut got one guy sacked; another guy got sacked because his shoes had square toes.” Since the very earliest days of the Country Teasers, Wallers has had a clear vision in mind of the style he wanted his bands to project. “It was really just sober suits and shirts and shoes,” he explains. “But not big collars or 1950s shit, just a suit you would wear to work in the City if you had an income of, like, £100,000 per annum plus. I like the opposite of what Caesar liked. ‘Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,’ he said. ‘Let me have men about me that are fat.’ I like the thin, mean ones.”

He is happy to play the game of describing the outfit he would wear every day for the rest of his life. “Brown Oxfords, a pair my wife bought me, they’re just correct, normal, traditional shoes,” he muses. “Quite thin, shiny brown. She got me a great suit by Hackett for about £500, dark grey, one-inch turn-ups. I love that too. But I’ve got another suit that was my grandfather’s that I like too. Sort of dark gray with very faint green pin-check. It’s just a City banker’s suit. Slightly larger lapel, and it’s from about 1977. But my favourite suit is now defunct—I wore it out. Look at photos of me on the web from 1996 to 2006, and I’m wearing it all the time. Brown. Neat. Straight. That was my grandfather’s too, and I used to wear a beautiful brown felt trilby, which was made by Stetson but it wasn’t cowboy. I got it for £7 from a junk shop in Edinburgh in 1993, but a cunt stole it off my head in Glasgow after a concert. My favorite shirt was a blue silk shirt, almost see-through from age; it was my dad’s from 1960. Medium-size collar. My collar size is 15 1/4. I like cufflinks. I’ve got a beautiful set of cassette-tape cufflinks and tie-pin.” Surprisingly, Wallers’ style bears no mark of the bands he most loved in his teens. “I always agreed with Mark E. Smith that the Fall were the smartest band in the 1980s,” he says fondly. “They just dressed how they dressed, a bit tidier maybe. But I also liked the way Robert Smith of the Cure dressed, believe it or not. And Bauhaus I thought looked pretty good. I really hated punk, and new romantic, and goth, and new wave. All of those looks sucked. The Rolling Stones looked good on Exile on Main St. D.A.F. looked good, of course.”

As a teenager, in the late 1980s, Wallers used to love the sounds of Elton John, Roy Harper, JJ Cale, Brian Eno, the Beatles and Supertramp. “I envied the guys in the school band,” he recalls. “They didn’t invite me to join, so I formed my own band. I wanted to play the Cure’s guitar melodies, so that’s how I learnt, playing along. I learnt by ear. I had learnt piano to Grade 3, which I failed; I learnt sax for a year or two at school too. Fucking hated it. But I could play the solo at the end of Pink Floyd’s ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’, the tragic climax of The Final Cut.” As he grew older, Wallers got into country music (“Tammy Wynette is my favourite, and the Carter family”) and also hip-hop. “Ice Cube’s The Predator hooked me, then the Wu-Tang, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, then Kool Keith,” he remembers. “I don’t like hip-hop lyrics in general—only Kool Keith breaks the mould and creates totally original lyrics. I like the rhythms and melodies of his stuff, and the tough tunes on Ice Cube’s classic first three albums.” Early on, the Country Teasers covered Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” on Science Hat Artistic Cube Moral Nosebleed Empire (the record also features an amazing cover of 2 Unlimited’s “No Limit”).

Wallers is famously a wild, energetic live presence. However, the Rebel is more about recording than performing. “Recording is such pure, absolute joy,” Wallers says. “When something goes wrong or gets difficult it’s a nice puzzle to figure out. I would enjoy playing live but I hate practicing and I hate telling people what to do. I love improvising with the band but I really can’t manage a band. I couldn’t manage a second helping! Collaboration is really unpleasant for me. It’s a compromise; I hate it.” These days he collaborates mostly with his wife, who plays drums in most of his projects.

As for his favourite recording space and gear, he rattles off a list: “My room, wherever it is. Scar Studios in Camden, the practice space we’ve used since 1996, which I love. If I have to record some drums I do it there. I love the Fostex X-30 four-track. I’ve got through about five of them—they don’t last long. If any of your readers have one they don’t use, I’ll buy it off them. I use a Fostex DMT-8—I think it was the first digital eight-track they made. It’s fun to use but it doesn’t have a sound, it’s pretty thin. But I love it. I love my piano, a Kawai CityLife, and my synth, the Realistic Concertmate. But I just got the best guitar ever made, from my wife, for my birthday: the Vox Phantom guitar-organ. They only made 80. Famously temperamental, it’s a guitar and an organ, with all sorts of crazy knobs on. It’s still being renovated at the moment. I hate using a computer because I need knobs, switches and faders, and tape if possible. I don’t like mice and doing it all visually. Recording is constantly reinventing and making new, constantly experimenting, finding new games and toys in music. It’s never-ending—it’ll never get boring.”



Interview originally published in Dapper Dan magazine’s fifth issue, February, 2012; Photography by Jesper List Thomsen

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