Ben Johnson is a Portland native and lifelong contributor to the Portland music scene that he has both inherited and helped shape. A veteran of Grandparents and Psychomagic, Ben is simultaneously active in the likes of Laura Palmer’s DEATH PARADE, Wet Dream and Dimwit, while also crafting his solo project, Heavii Mello.
Johnson is probably the youngest (if not only) person to write an ambient electronic album inspired by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. His 2019 Gifford Pinchot Sleep Tapes is the closest you can get to the forest without leaving your room. That being said, Johnson enjoys leaving his room, swears by hiking, camping, getting out of the city and losing himself in music. Stay tuned for Heavii Mello’s upcoming debut album and much more in the near future—the floodgates are opening.
Eleven: This is the Local Feature—how local are you to Portland?
Ben Johnson: I’m from Portland actually.
11: How long have you been playing music and how did you get started?
BJ: I had a few little high school bands, but I didn’t really take it super seriously until I graduated and met a couple of new people. Things just kinda converged where we all ended up living together in this house and playing music.
11: That sounds very Portland.
BJ: It was super Portland.
11: As a kid were you ever worried about the volcanoes in the area?
BJ: I never thought about it.
11: You never worried about Mt. Tabor or St. Helens?
BJ: Well, St. Hellens I actually flew over in a small plane once and was like, “damn that’s a big hole,” but I didn’t even realize that Mt. Tabor was a volcano until two years ago.
11: I moved here in 2013, so I’m asking from a place of ignorance, but what was it like trying to make it as a local band in 2009?
BJ: In 2009 it was still really really cheap to live here so there was a real condensing of talent for a couple of years. There was a lot of culture and always places to go, things to do, lots of house and basement shows. I mean we existed completely outside the venues because we were all 18 and 19, we couldn’t go to bars.
11: Was this the start of Grandparents?
11: That was a six-piece right? That’s a lot of people.
BJ: God I know… There were actually eight at one point. I actually started playing drums in that band and then switched to guitar about halfway through the life of it. We were around for like 8 years. 4 years in, it just kinda morphed almost into a different band.
11: 2009 was over a decade ago. Does it surprise you or your family that you’ve been a part of the scene for so long?
BJ: And that I don’t have much to show for it yet? (laughs)
11: That’s not what I mean, and I disagree! No one gets to the moon without a few explosions. Speaking of explosions, how did you get involved with Psychomagic?
BJ: I was working for a catering company as a day job and I met the then frontman of that band—Stephen—and we just started talking and we connected over music. Grandparents ended up playing a few out of town dates with them. Once the band broke up, Stephen reached out to me and asked if I wanted to play guitar. They were also looking for a bass player, so the bassist from Grandparents and I came as a package into Psychomagic and did that for a few years.
11: And that was a five-piece?
11: Do you think your desire to make Heavii Mello a solo project was a reaction to being in two rather large back-to-back bands?
BJ: Well… the need to produce things by myself has always been there. Heavii Mello actually came out of the death of Grandparents. It was me trying to officially stamp something and make it more concrete.
11: Is there an official Heavii Mello release on the horizon?
BJ: I’m hoping to get that out in the next couple of months. It’s done, I just need to get it mastered. There are 8 songs.
BJ: I’ve been calling it Iceman.
11: Because… you are a cool customer?
BJ: It’s kinda like a weird nickname that I got because I’d always play melodic icing-things and flourishes. But the collection of songs cover a personal stretch of my twenties where I felt really emotionally shut off, so the name works with that too.
11: Sounds draining. Was the personal writing difficult?
BJ: Yeah, it’s been holding me back to release it.
11: But you feel relieved now?
BJ: I feel super relieved. It’s just been weighing me down—things like this, “I started-and-feel-like-I-can’t-finish-it” kind of thing. Now that it’s on the horizon, I’m starting to get back into the mindset of how I can play shows and get out on the road if possible.
11: What was the recording process like? How did the tracks come together?
BJ: It’s been a journey. They’re very pieced together between stuff I’ve done in the bedroom, stuff I did in one studio with somebody else and finished in another studio. A couple songs were written in one session straight up, but most are made from combining these little pieces over a pretty long amount of time. I would write a riff and kinda forget about it, then find it and add another part to it, one piece at a time.
11: How often do the songs come out fully formed?
BJ: I’d say like 40% of the time, where it just comes out in one go. That’s what happened with Marble Staircase. I had a studio day booked. I woke up before I went in and just wrote it in the morning. Just words and lyrics and everything off the cuff. The things that always come out in one chunk feel like pulling it out of the ether. [Looking around the room blindly for the ether) “I don’t know where this is coming from but it’s here now.’”]
11: There’s a lot of nice surprises and unexpected turns on your solo stuff/ Do you think the eclecticness is partially from being involved in so many musical groups?
BJ: I think my ideas are very much colored by the projects I’m in, whether I like it or not. I love music, I really do feel like I can find things that I love in almost every genre. A big part of my process is going on really long binges—just looking for music or revisiting things. I kinda soak it all in for a couple of days and then things come out afterwards.
11: The album feels less psychedelic than some of the earlier projects you were a part of.
BJ: I definitely wasn’t trying to be too psychedelic on any of these tracks. I just wanted to write solid songs, nothing too overly epic or intense. Just focusing on the words I’m saying and then like slight little tonal qualities of it—almost trying to restrict myself in terms of not taking it too far in any direction.
11: Has your solo stuff changed the way you approach the other bands you play in?
BJ: I think I have learned to try and communicate as concisely as possible if I have an idea, but also understanding the different roles that people have in their projects and what compliments well from where you are. If I’m in someone’s project, I have a way that I like to step back and just try and execute what they want me to, then from there I’ll throw on little things to help the process along. Having the practice of writing my own material just helps me understand other people, that are coming in with their own material and how it feels to present that to other people. Because you want to feel safe in your group, whenever you’re working with the creative ideas you come with, they’re going to be nurtured or honestly worked on.
11: How do you feel about smartphones and technology?
BJ: I think about it a lot. I think we are in a weird transition period between technology being at a certain level. I think we are becoming more and more enveloped by it every year.
11: Pretty spooky thought.
BJ: I don’t know, there’s such a deluge of new things constantly happening, I don’t even have time to be afraid of them. I feel like it’s definitely eerie when you stop and kinda look back at how quickly everything is progressing, but I don’t have time.
11: I ask partially because you released an ambient album called the Gifford Pinchot Sleep Tapes last year.
BJ: Yeah that came about last winter. I had done a bit of backpacking up in the Gifford Pinchot which is over on the Washington side of the gorge. I felt inspired by it because I was in that head space… and I just kinda started to produce this weird ambient music.
11: When listening to those songs I found myself engaged, but I didn’t have an emotional response outside of calmness. I wasn’t drawn to feel happy or sad. Did you write those songs coming from a meditative space or an emotional one?
BJ: They came from an emotional space for me, because I recorded all that stuff after I had gotten out of a relationship, so I was feeling pretty raw nerves, y’know? Some parts were actually my own kinda therapy to myself… just trying to calm down.
11: Do you sleep easily?
BJ: If I keep my routine good.