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An enigma wrapped in a musician: A chat with Ben Lemi

Martyn Pepperell hangs out at the library with musical polymath Ben Lemi to talk about Lemi’s debut solo EP as Courtesy Caller.

“He’s quite an enigma,” muses Brooke Singer, the frontwoman of Wellington dream-pop band French For Rabbits. “Although I’ve known him for a few years, he is still a surprise. When you meet him, he seems so zen – the epitome of politeness, and very thoughtful. I think we mostly see only the tip of the iceberg because then he’ll come out with some psychedelic 3D computer drawing that he probably spend three days on, or an incredible piece of music which he has played every instrument on – including some you didn’t know he could play.”

Singer is talking about Ben Lemi, a Wellington-based multi-instrumentalist, singer, record producer, soundtrack composer, multimedia artist, and former jungle/drum & bass, IDM and electronica DJ. Now in his 30s, Lemi has been kicking around New Zealand’s music scenes since the early 2000s. Along the way, he attended jazz school, spent time in a diverse range of jazz, experimental, folk, dub reggae, and dream-pop bands, worked as a glassie in nightclubs, and held down odd jobs crewing concerts, before settling into dual roles playing with French For Rabbits and veteran psychedelic dubsters Trinity Roots. At the start of July, Lemi quietly uploaded a six-song EP titled A Pleasant Climb For Some to Bandcamp under the name Courtesy Caller, and yes, as Singer alluded to, he played every instrument on it and even sang as well.

Despite his extensive experience on stage and in recording studios, A Pleasant Climb For Some is his first solo release. “I think taking his time has been a strategy for Lemi,” says Trinity Roots’ Warren Maxwell. “He hasn’t taken the lid off the crockpot too early. Ben’s been simmering away with all these groups and taking it in. Most of us jumped out there as soon as we had anything ready, but Ben’s obviously feeling like right now is his time to get something out there.” And what a something it is. Over A Pleasant Climb For Some‘s running time, Lemi uses atmospheric guitar work, reverb-heavy drums, faint vocal refrains, woozy bass, woodwind, and synth flourishes to realise an expansive soundworld equal parts intimate folk, celestial jazz, minimalist composition, and ecstatic electronic noise.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I spent some time with Lemi at the cafe inside Wellington’s central library building. Rugged up in a cardigan and jacket, he talked to me about A Pleasant Climb For Some and his Courtesy Caller project. Recorded sporadically over the last five years, with the final songs completed a week before it was released, the EP emerged in the shadow of some soundtrack and television scoring work he’s been doing with Warren Maxwell and Rio Hemopo from Trinity Roots.

A Pleasant Climb For Some also links directly back into a pivotal experience Lemi had in the early 2010s. “I was living in Hataitai, in a room with black mould on the ceiling, and I’d just been introduced to the work of [legendary Chilean-French avant-garde filmmaker] Alejandro Jodorowsky,” he recalls. “I wanted to try and capture the kind of cinematic element of the soundtrack to his film Holy Mountain, and make a sonic art piece.” Known for his intensely psychedelic and spiritually-tinged output, Jodorowsky has always been incredibly hands-on with his films. He often stars in them, helps build the sets, assists with scoring the soundtracks and directs, amongst other roles. When it came to creating A Pleasant Climb For Some, Lemi’s approach was similar. “I guess I’m one of those control freaks who tries to pretend they’re not a control freak,” he laughs.

Drawing inspiration from composers and musicians including Steve Reich, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Kronos Quartet, he began creating his own miniature compositions. They were designed to soundtrack fantastic stories drawn from his imagination, and vibrant interpretations of specific memories. To illustrate how it all hangs together as a larger work, Lemi references the late-’80s/early-’90s American science-fiction television series Quantum Leap. The show told the story of  Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist trapped leaping through spacetime by a time travel experiment, temporarily taking the place of other people to correct historical mistakes. “It’s like that,” he enthuses. “Each song is a different story, and across the record, we jump from story to story through this weird landscape.”

Ben Lemi (Photo supplied)

Some examples: ‘Faux Pas at the Reptilian Ball’ is the story of a diplomatic incident after a group of politicians are invited to an opulent ball hosted by a bunch of reptilian lunatics. ‘Theme de Ying Yu’ is his response to watching a documentary about a massively popular Chinese television show called Interview Before Execution. “The journalist who hosts the show finds people on death row who are about to be executed,” he explains. “She interviews them and asks them what was going through their mind when they committed their act of crime. It’s not like I would sit around with the family and watch it on Christmas Day, but I recommend the documentary.”

Given how long he’s been involved in for music for, I was interested in understanding why he’d finally decided to release his own music now. “I probably only realised I had a finished record 12 to 16 hours before I put in online,” he admits. “I’ve been working on a bunch of actual songs for a while now, you know, verse, chorus, bridge sort of songs, and they’re 90% ready. I was gearing up to release them, and then I had this weird gut feeling the timing wasn’t quite right. So, I decided to put out something different first, something ambiguous and slightly expansive. Part of my logic is I wanted to create a pretext within my immediate community of musicians and friends.” For Lemi, as with most musicians, his community have been crucial catalysts to his development. He’s quick to name check musicians and engineers like Ian Downer, Paul Wickham, James Coyle (The Nudge), Jeff Henderson, Dr Lee Prebble, Julian Taylor, Ariana Tikao, Brooke, and Warren as having given him opportunities for growth.       

Lemi took the Courtesy Caller name from the concept of a “courtesy call,” or as he puts it, “a formal meeting in which a diplomat, representative, or a famous person of a nation pays a visit out of courtesy to a head of state or state officeholder.” If his language seems precise here, it’s for a reason. Lemi’s father is a former New Zealand diplomat who served as the New Zealand ambassador to Iran, Turkey and the United States; he loves classical music, early blues, jazz, afrobeat and American folk music. In a sense, hearing those records playing in the lounge as a child sparked Lemi’s early interest in music, so a project name that connects with his upbringing seems only right. On top of that inspiration, his older brothers played guitar and taught him the basics when he expressed interest. “I guess I have them to thank for at least putting the guitar in my hands,” he reflects.

Several decades on, he’s poised to step from a supporting role into center stage, bringing a lifetime of experience with him. “He’s got so many songs tucked away,” Brooke Singer says. “I really hope more of them see the light of day soon. It’s just not fair to keep them a secret from us all, and his EP is so lovely. On every listen, there is a little detail to discover. I feel on listening to it that we get a glimpse into the way he operates below the surface. He’s still an enigma though!”


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