by Amanda Beland
Ben Seretan was walking by himself at night in Brooklyn and a man bumped into him and dropped a bottle of wine. Seretan apologized for the incident, but the man demanded he pay for the accident.
“He was like ‘Oh you gotta pay for this bottle of wine, it cost me $300,'” said Seretan. “I was kind of surprised. I mean, I talked my way out of it. I didn’t realize until weeks later that it was a scam.”
Seretan, originally of Orange County, was a recent transplant to New York then, having moved across the country to play and write music in the city. Almost five years later, Seretan is regularly playing shows and slowly building a name for himself.
Seretan began singing and playing cello in church choir. Cello was his focus until his instrument broke on the way to a music summer camp.
“I was driving to a music camp and it was so hot in the car that the glue came apart on the instrument,” said Seretan. “So I didn’t have an instrument for a few months, so my brother was like ‘Well you can play my electric guitar if you want when I’m not in the house’ and I just fell in love with it.”
Seretan’s new found obsession inspired him to apply and try out for a performing arts high school in Orange County. However, with no prior experience in playing the guitar, let alone playing jazz guitar – a perquisite skill for the program – Seretan had to think – and learn – quickly.
This cramming led to another musical discovery that would further influence his future in music.
“I took a few lessons with this kind of really skeezy church musician who was a rep for Pandora,” said Seretan. “He basically sold me – really aggressively – this little digital four track that I used for years and years. It was totally unnecessary because we had a computer at home – I could have like figured it out – but he was like ‘You gotta have this thing man’ and he sold it to me and I had so much fun just figuring out how to use it. My parents split up a little bit after that and the house that my mom moved into had this weird converted attic and I would take that four track up there and I would have different instruments I had gathered over the years, like some of them were my brothers, I still had a cello, I had various percussion instruments and I would just spend hours and hours and hours in the dark attic just putting shit onto this four track.”
Seretan played guitar in a band in high school, (his drummer from this band is still his current drummer in the Ben Seretan Group), and continued to experiment with recording and writing music.
“I recorded an EP for my girlfriend when I was a sophomore and that shit is painful,” said Seretan. “I didn’t know how to sing – I was just doing my best to sound like Blink 182 probably – and I just wasn’t hitting the mark at all. And it fact, any singing that’s recorded of mine before 2011 I can’t really stand to listen to.”
Seretan attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. where he majored in experimental music and american studies. The experimental music program focuses on ethnomusicology and its application and study in world music. This included everything from music notation to historical aspects and contexts of various genres throughout the world.
Along with his studies, Seretan dabbled in a unique musical project that further helped him find his voice – literally.
“I played in this band in college who was really really loud – like Fugazi inspired – and it was two guitarists and two singers and we’d do a lot of overlapping type stuff,” said Seretan. “Just from having to perform in shitty venues with bad sound and trying to be heard over the drums and really struggling to have my voice be heard in general, it (my voice) just got more and more powerful to the point to where I was like ‘Wow this is an expressive instrument too and it’s like at least half of the equation.’ In playing with that band, my parts and the other singers parts would literally overlap and it wasn’t harmony necessarily. It was like we were singing two different songs at once; it was like sparring with somebody. Instead of learning to sing very sweetly together Simon and Garfunkel style, we were like barking at each other.”
Seretan graduated from college in 2010 and moved to rural Missouri where his mom and step dad were living. He stayed there for two months before he moved to New York City.
“I had a great life there. I would like wake up late and I would like go for a run on this dirt road where all these bugs would land on me and the neighborhood dogs would like follow me as I ran. It was like every morning I would have this Saint Francis of Assis communion with the animals in Missouri. Then I would go for a swim in the lake into the late afternoon and have dinner with my folks, watch TV and work on recordings late at night. It was awesome. But eventually I was like ‘Man, I haven’t see someone my age in like two months, every day is the same here, you know, I’m running out of books to read.’ Then, I got a phone call from my buddy and he’s like ‘Hey I’m driving across country – wanna move to New York?’ And that’s what kind of decided it for me.”
Seretan was still playing with his college band – they recorded an EP in New York – and all the members lived close enough to the city where they could still practice together once a week and play shows. In 2011, one of the members was a awarded a Fullbright award in Poland. Seretan said the band was supportive and encouraged him to take the opportunity. With his departure the band broke up.
“I was like well I moved here pretty much to be in the band and I had girlfriend then, but I didn’t when the band ended, which was fine,” said Seretan. “I decided to stay and figure it out. I was playing scattered shows, so I decided to give it a go and I’ve pretty much been working and steadily playing ever since.”
Seretan’s been writing, recording and releasing music as himself and collaborating with others ever since 2011. The results are numerous – three online releases in September, October and December of 2014, including two 15 + minute singles (September/October) and his first full length self-titled record. Seretan said 90 percent of the writing and arranging is him, but his band – the Ben Seretan Group – brings their own inspiration, experience and flair – to that 90 percent to complete the arrangements.
In 2013, the midst of this creative period, Seretan and his long-term girlfriend broke up. After the break-up, a friend encouraged Seretan to apply for a summer music and producing fellowship in Alaska that year. Seretan applied and was accepted for not only the 2013 program as a student, but in the 2014 program as well as a teacher and program coordinator.
As a result, Seretan traveled and lived in Alaska for two summers and focused on learning, writing and recording new music. His focus in his first year in the program – 2013 – was on extended play, including the physical training needed to play music continuously for hours at a time, as well as the musical components needed to write and record long-form drone-esque pieces.
These summers gave Seretan ample time to write and record music, including some songs that made it on it to his most recent self-titled release.
Seretan’s currently working on his second full-length record. He recorded several songs at Medford’s the Soul Shop earlier this year and plans to continue to record more songs in the coming months at Spaceman Sound in upstate New York. He is also continuing to play live shows and collaborate with other artists on their records.
Seretan said the connection to the audience and the band during a live performance and the feelings that arise from a connection of merit are what drives him to continue doing what he’s doing.
“There’s this tattoo that’s on the front of my album cover – ecstatic joy – there’s a feeling of just unimaginable levity that’s available to me almost exclusively through playing the type of music that I play, ” said Seretan. “I think that’s what it comes down to. And I wanna feel that way forever. I mean, I thought for a long time that it was the act of playing. But you can’t play music that’s made in a vacuum – at least I can’t. It’s about playing that music and that style of music with the people that I play it with for the people that listen and that swirling mass of humanity is just where it’s at.”
“It’s somewhat similar to how people describe opiate use in that it’s a blankness. It’s like a freedom from everything. And when it’s really really good, the emotions come later. It’s like everything from your mind goes into the background and maybe its like a corporeal feeling like there’s a very type of specific feeling of resonance I guess – like if everything’s in the sweet spot and the band sounds good and the people are with it and I’m getting it into this type of blank area – my body feels like it’s vibrating with the music in this very beautiful way. It’s like, you know you go about your daily life, you have thoughts that are intrusive and often if the performance is going terribly you’re like ‘Fuck my hair probably looks bad, that note was wrong,’ like all these things are flying around everywhere. But if it’s really good – that’s what I’m doing it for, for when it’s really good – it’s just like there’s nothing happening. It’s really peaceful, even though its the craziest shit- especially with the band… it can be so loud and so hectic and so almost like painful sometimes, but amidst all that chaos there’s like a wonderful, deep, sense of cosmic peace.”
Ben plays live frequently around New York, (one of his favorite and frequented venues is Shea Stadium is Williamsburg). He’s also playing a live and streaming hour long show this Wednesday – details and link here.
Buy Ben’s album here.