(EDITOR’S NOTE — Benjamin Joe, founder of the website Buffalo Music Players, has been writing about the Buffalo music scene for six years. 1120 Press sat down with the journalist and author of Nirvana Dreams to talk about indie music in Buffalo and what it’s like to cover the artists who make it happen.)
1120 Press: You’ve been writing about the music scene in Buffalo for a long time now. What inspired you to get started?
BENJAMIN JOE: I started while I was in college. I was hanging out at Caffé Aroma on Bidwell and Elmwood near Buff State where I went to school. I knew a lot of people there and I knew a lot about the music scene. At that point, I was in my early 30s. During most of my 20s I was raising my kid and going to shows and I knew a lot of musicians. One of them, a guy named Pat Jackson, a bass player, he told me a story about a guy at The Buffalo News who apparently started a music blog or something similar, built-up a following, and then went to The Buffalo News and said, ‘Hey this is what I do. Pay me and I’ll do it for you.’ He knew about local music, so, music journalism. And you know, I hemmed and hawed about it. I thought, ‘I’d like to go and finish my schooling because I don’t really feel I’m that good at this yet,’ which is weird because I worked for blogs and publications before that… Anyway, Pat said, ‘Just do it and I’ll be your first person who you can interview, and I’ll introduce you to other musicians — the real musicians and real crowd in Buffalo.’ So (in 2017) I ended up doing two pieces, and then stopped. And later I came back to it.
When I was a kid working as a clerk at a gas station, I would read Spin magazine, and Rolling Stone, and I would see all these in-depth stories on artists who I loved just talk about regular stuff — they’d talk about their careers, talk about their beliefs and I thought: ‘That’s what I want to do. Not just get behind the scene, but the scene in the artist’s mind; what’s propelling them toward their music?’
It always confused me why my blog became a point of attention because it never really gets a huge amount of people coming to it, but it’s really just beginning too, I think. Every time I reach out to an artist, every time I go to show and pass out my card, it feels like it’s the first time I’m talking to somebody about music.
1120: What have you discovered about the scene in the years you’ve spent writing about it?
BENJAMIN: What surprised me is how similar the waves will be in Buffalo. We seem to have things happening here over and over again. I moved here about 20 years ago and my son was born. And at the time, there were a lot of punk houses on Custer Street in the University Heights area. Twenty years later I moved into one of those punk houses as just a regular tenant and they were no longer doing basement shows there. But, at the same time, now there’s stuff happening over at Soup of Dissent and there’s stuff happening at where Amy’s Place was (Area 54). But that just kind of brings me back to the scene being cyclical. Things are always bubbling up and now there are more and more people doing it.
1120: Has the scene changed at all during the span in which you’ve been writing about it?
BENJAMIN: There’s always been good pop bands in Buffalo. The Goo Goo Dolls I consider a pop band. All this music just doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s an artistry here.
1120: Of course, the Goos started as a hardcore band. Originally, they were Sex Maggot. (laughs)
BENJAMIN: Well, exactly. You look at a lot of bands in Buffalo getting attention like Velvet Bethany and Starjuice, for instance. Those were all punk rock bands that kept getting more and more sophisticated; kept getting more and more into their own sound. When you look at The Tins, they’re based here in Buffalo. My son just said to me the other day: 'It never occurred to me, but The Tins aren’t any different than any of the (national) bands we hear on the radio' because they fit in so well with the entire world of alternative music. But there’s also always been a variety of bands in Buffalo, and there always will be. And maybe that’s another part to the cyclical nature of the scene — that groups start as a punk rock bands and then as time goes by they’ll trend to pop music.
1120: Isn’t it exciting when you find, or even stumble accidentally upon, a great band here in Buffalo and you go down a rabbit hole with them?
BENJAMIN: Oh absolutely. I mean, I went to Aircraft shows for years. Yeah, it’s great.
1120: We personally have been struck in starting 1120 by how welcoming everyone has been.
BENJAMIN: The scene is very welcoming. I mean, you look at, for instance, Smitten for Trash, Jd Crossman and Robin, they are just so enthusiastic. They’re just like ‘Come to us. We’re going to have fun and we’re going to drink beer and eat and just party, and that’s going to be your life for that day.’ I don’t know if it’s just Buffalo, but there’s almost a sense of, like, bands know, ‘We’re not going to get this back. This is our time and so let’s make it the very best that we can.’
1120: Punk has always been about community, and that sense of community stretches across the spectrum. The hardcore bands in Buffalo are welcoming, and the promoters and the people at the venues are welcoming. It seems to stretch across the scene.
BENJAMIN: Yeah definitely. You know, the way I do it is, I’ll go to a show, meet people there, hand out my cards and make appointments. People are cool. It’s funny too when you meet old crusty punks in their 50s who are still coming around and doing their thing. It’s cool. There’s that instant community spirit.
1120: There’s a ton of bands in Buffalo. And there’s a ton of talent. And it’s a struggle to feel like you’re paying attention to everyone, and it’s easy to feel in trying to cover the scene like you’re not doing it justice because you can’t just get to everyone, even when you try. What do you find the challenges to be in covering the scene?
BENJAMIN: For me, I’m 41. I have kid in college. I have second job. I have a marriage. It becomes difficult. Everyone is very open, but it’s always about how much time people have.
I’ve thought about hiring people. If I had the income I would. Send people to cover shows, take pictures, get comments. I would love to do more. The posts on my blog… those are hard-won posts. I enjoyed doing every single one of them. Sometimes, I would take my son with me or take my fiancé with me and we’d vibe. But still, it’s journalism. It has to be timely. You have to get it out as quickly as possible. You can’t just write about some interview you had three months ago.
1120: You can tell from your writing you have a passion for the music.
BENJAMIN: I’m more of a fan. I want to know the inner story. Like, I’m not really interested in what sub-genre you consider yourself to be. To me, music is music, and it gets me excited and I want to learn more about the people who are making it, which is why my blog is called ‘Buffalo Music Players,’ and not Buffalo Music.
1120: And music has played a huge role in your life because even your first book is called “Nirvana Dreams.”
BENJAMIN: Nirvana Dreams came about as a great way to write a debut novel about a young person, about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and about Nirvana. Nirvana is when I became aware that there was music beyond Bob Dylan and The Beatles. I just envisioned this kid living the same way I was living in Massachusetts — just going to different houses and living on people’s couches and things like that, only (in the book) doing that out west during the Grunge Revolution. It’s autobiographical in that a lot of people who I knew were getting into very bad situations, some of which led to their deaths. I talked to someone the other day living in Canada now and he was like, ‘Yeah, we did a lot of partying.’ And I said, ‘You might call it that.’ You know, some of the people we lived with didn’t make it. That’s a shame. The book is about that kind of situation, growing up against a backdrop of music. I actually went to LA while writing it, and lived under a bridge for two weeks just to go and find out what it was like as part of my research for the book.
1120: Talk about that experience.
BENJAMIN: Well, it was dusty. (laughs) Yeah, it was weird. It was strange. My son was just about to be born, and his mother and I were not getting along, and she ended up going back to Buffalo and I went out to LA to do this research. We broke up and so I just went and dove into (writing), and it kind of kept me alive pretty much for five years — just writing it and rewriting it and figuring out a way to make it work.
I call it half ‘hood book’ and half ‘fan fic,’ because in a hood book, nothing good happens. And I consider it fan fic because this kid in the book has this mental disorder and he has these dreams of Kurt Cobain that start encroaching into his everyday life.
So anyway, I lived (under the bridge) with, um… I don’t know if she was a prostitute, but she was a very cool lady. Her boyfriend was this wannabe gangster of some sort. He described himself as a Latin King. And another couple, a 16-year-old girl who was a prostitute and selling her body on the streets of Hollywood and living there in this weird crawl-through space under the bridge with this other guy, he was just white as a ghost, and smoked crack all day. Both of the men would go and find the drugs, and both of the women would go and find the money, basically.
1120: That’s some commitment; to go and live under a bridge, especially given that your first kid was about to be born. (laughs)
BENJAMIN: Yeah, well, I’ve lived many lives. I lived for a time on a hippie school bus for almost two years and just going to different places and squatting there. I sort of thought of myself as a gypsy at that point in time. I met my son’s mom while I was coming from Chicago. I had just gotten in from Chicago and was hitching to Massachusetts. I ended up getting stuck in Cleveland for a week, just bouncing around for a week. Weird stories in Cleveland. I don’t like Cleveland very much. I have bad vibes when it comes to that place.
1120: So, now back to Buffalo, what’s next for Buffalo Music Players?
BENJAMIN: What’s next is just continuing, trying to go to more shows, trying to find more people to interview, doing the same thing I am doing now only doing it more and keeping it a tight as possible. I want to learn to do more cross-platform (content) too, so I can promote different bands and artists. I’m thinking too of getting a link tree… though I hate that you can’t click on links on Instagram. That really irritates me.