Music

Musician Ben Salter is ensconced in a studio at MONA, making music in front of the museum’s patrons as a kind of performance art. By Kate Holden.

Ben Salter

Ben Salter’s installation IMPORT EXPORT is a working performance space inside Tasmania’s MONA.
Credit: Ben Salter

After a lifetime of touring up and down the east coast of Australia, Ben Salter is staying put in Hobart. Salter, now in his early 40s, has been a constant presence on the music scene, turning his hand to many genres – folk, jazz, bluegrass, punk and country for a start – and collaborating and playing with a range of artists from Marlon Williams to Tim Rogers, who calls him one of Australia’s best singers and songwriters.

He has been asked to support Cat Power, Counting Crows, J Mascis, Violent Femmes, Augie March, Something for Kate, Built to Spill and others. He’s performed at the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) awards and one of his bands, The Wilson Pickers, has had three Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) nominations for Best Blues & Roots Album.

Salter’s touring was halted by Covid-19. Almost immediately he began creating streamcasts, and he is now ensconced at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) where he presents an installation called BEN SALTER IMPORT EXPORT.

Captivity hasn’t impeded his creativity and he is making more work than ever.

Hi Ben, thanks for making the time. Explain to me who you are and what you do?

You could totally be forgiven for not having heard of me – I’ve always flown under the radar. I was in a couple of bands in the late ’90s and early noughties – one called Giants of Science, which was a heavy, stoner rock sort of band with lots of shouting and jumping up and down: we got a bit of play on Triple J. And a band called The Gin Club, which was started out of running an open mic night in Brisbane. We did about six albums with that band. But I’m pretty restless so I’ve also got a punk rock band that’s released about eight albums called The Young Liberals, and all the way through I’ve been doing solo stuff, acoustic, folky stuff influenced initially by Nick Drake, Elliott Smith.

Not counting the IMPORT EXPORT stuff [for MONA], I’ve put out five solo albums. I’ve also got a punk band with my partner, Jacqueline, called Homeowner: we’ve got an album… yeah. So. Oh, and I’ve got another band called The Wilson Pickers, very family friendly, sort of bluegrassy that I play banjo in.

Jesus.

But I’m not particularly famous. I just like doing stuff and getting it out. I would like to be a perfectionist and spend 10 years making the perfect album, but it’s just not how my brain works.

Tell me about this MONA thing.

For whatever reason I got on the radar of David Walsh, he’s a big fan of what I do, so I ended up getting booked for a whole lot of stuff, spent a lot of time in Tasmania and fell in love with the place. At some stage I said to David, probably drunkenly and not at all seriously, you should just put me in the museum, I’ll just do what I do at home anyway, which is make up bands, make up songs, collaborate with people and play all the time. After lockdown he called me up and said, “Do you want to do that?” And I said, yes!

So now they’ve set me up with a little space, it’s an area where people can drink and eat and sit down. I have a studio set up there where I record, and every day I do a performance and I get collaborators in. My output’s gone through the roof. You might not believe this but I’m quite lazy, and unless I’m really motivated I’ll just sit and stare at the ocean, play PlayStation. So now I’m forced to be in the studio with all these amazing tools, four days a week from 10 ’til five, I’m just churning out stuff. I’ve done two albums and I’m planning on doing one every month.

ben salter - progress

Some people love to prepare a lot. Sounds like you’re a splasher. Is there fiddling around at the end?

The whole process I use at the moment, perfect for what I’m doing at MONA, started with The Young Liberals. I was spending all this time working on albums where we’d plan the songs, write them and mix them to death. By the time you got to the end of the album you’d just never want to hear it again, you know? We decided to take on a way of using silly ideas, like coming up with the song titles first, or we’d say we can only have three takes, and you have to keep any mistakes that are in the performances. I really love the idea of letting these decisions get made for you by some random thing: like, stop trying to control every element of the song.

At MONA, I love to just go into the studio, sit down, press “record”, play the drums for three to five minutes, 10 or 15, then pick up a bass or some keys and just start playing along to it. Then I find that the drums change, so I think, well, I’ll have to do a change there, and I end up with these songs that are really interesting to me – maybe not interesting to anyone else! [laughs] – but they keep me amused. I feel that’s the key. I’m so impatient, and my brain is always going at a million miles an hour, so this is a way that stops the decision-fatigue and really helps to keep it fresh.

I explained this to someone the other day, they have four degrees in music or something, and they just looked shocked, and I felt really silly! But then I thought, maybe it wasn’t shock, maybe they were thinking this is really cool.

You’ve spent 20 years getting to know your process…

I’m incredibly bad at sticking to systems, but I have one I resort to: in the morning I get in, I set up before anyone’s in there, and I might start fiddling around on something I’ve done the day before. Then I have a typewriter, so I sit at that and do a combination diary/stream-of-consciousness, pages and pages of stuff: sometimes ideas start to coalesce and they might become lyrics, or something I can put in front of me. Or I make a cup of tea, I switch to the typewriter, I might start reading a book, or just wander around the museum: it’s an amazing place to get inspired.

The hardest thing is silencing the critics in my head, thinking “that person’s looking at me, going, what is he doing?” – just standing with headphones on in front of a bunch of people and bellowing out some absolute nonsense I just came up with that morning. But that’s what I have to do if I’m really committed to this process. No filter, really try to get your subconscious out on the page, that’s how it works.

As I say, I’m not particularly well known, so people are dumbfounded. They don’t know if it’s art, or performance… They come up to me and say, “Is Ben Salter here today?” I’m like, “I think he’s here.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Ben Salter".

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Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.