Ben with puppet Kasey Tang ca. 2007.

Ben O’Brien has never let the fact that he doesn’t play an instrument or write songs keep him out of the music scene. In college, this meant his brother (that’s me) had to devise a band with two lead singers, one of whom could sort of growl along. Post-college, it meant making a slew of music videos that tie into his puppet-and-green-screen-heavy video series Showbeast, which Ben describes as “a kids-TV-show style series of short films that come out irregularly for adults.”

Showbeast (on which Ben collaborates with Erin Gleeson, Stefani Levin, Mason Ross, and Ryan Syrell) is one of a number of filmmaking projects (Everything Is Terrible and Jimmy Joe Roche also come to mind) that, to a greater or lesser degree, work like bands — touring succinct, attention-holding videos on the DIY circuit, often the only non-musical act on a bill. It’s a struggle in its own right to compete with live music when what you are presenting is at all outside of that, but for Showbeast the strategy has offered its share of opportunities, namely to create long-form, “Thriller”-style videos for well-hyped Baltimore bands — bands like Beach House, Dope Body, Dan Deacon, and Height With Friends.

Recently, Ben has begun to make work outside the Showbeast universe. He co-directed Dan Deacon’s acclaimed “True Thrush” video, has a Flock of Dimes video forthcoming, and watches multiple movies everyday for his conceptual tumblr. He fills us in on all of the above, below:

What was the first music video you made? Was it the one for Height?

The video was made with Erin Gleeson as a part of Showbeast. It was for Height With Friends back in 2008.

Height is, and forever will be, my absolute favorite musician on the planet. He made the Showbeast theme song for us, and from the beginning Erin and I wanted to do a Height music video. Our dream was to incorporate him into the Showbeast universe as a character but at the time we lived in Oakland and he lived in Baltimore so it wasn’t really possible. Most Showbeast videos are the result of us trying to do something that is logistically impossible.

The video was for the song “The Woods.” In it my character, Snow Beast, is sick with 1,000 fevers, and he punches a fishbowl with his bare hands because he thinks the fish is trying to take over his mind (which it is). All of our ideas in the beginning had to do with mind control, facial hair, punching, and kicking.

There are two versions of the video for Beach House’s “Norway” with different soundtracks. What’s the story?

The story behind “Snorway”/”Norway” is literally my least favorite story that I have that’s about me. Basically Alex Scally [of Beach House] approached me to do a video for Teen Dream, and in describing what they were going for he said, “We don’t want a music video, we want an interpretation of the song.” I, for some godforsaken reason, took this to mean that he wanted a video that didn’t have the song in it, which I wouldn’t have put past Alex.

Thinking we had to make a video based on a song without putting the song in it, we decided to get around this imaginary restriction I put on us by making our video sync up with the song when you played them at the same time (like when you play Dark Side of the Moon over The Wizard of Oz). It’s all very confusing, and was very confusing for us to make.

Around the time the project was due Beach House sent me an email telling me they had the mastered tracks for us to pop into our video. When I got the email I almost [lost control]. I had to be like “Oooh… you mean, you wanted the song in the video?” Which is pretty much the dumbest thing you can say to someone who has been expecting a music video from you for months.

I think it actually turned out okay — I’m even kind of proud of it — but every time I think about it, it reminds me of my most public display of stupidity and a great opportunity missed.

Do you find the fact that in Baltimore many art scenes run parallel to the music scene and link into it frustrating or exciting?

Mostly I love it. The other day I realized that I love making music videos more than anything else.

I used to think that in Baltimore, all art scenes “lived” within the music scene. This may or may not be true. Music has more of a built-in economy than other art forms. Music also has a clearer business model: tour, tour, tour; record album/release album; tour, tour, tour; etc. The business model for most other art forms is: work really hard for years; get great at your art; get frustrated with Baltimore; move to NYC or LA; wallow in depression. A lot of non-musical artists have a hard time getting exposure, and musicians are self-promotion kings by comparison, so linking up with them can be mutually beneficial.

You made a video for “Crash Jam” that Dan Deacon is using as a live projection right now. How’d that come about?

I worked out to P90X videos for two years, and every time I did, I would think, “I could make a f—ed up video out of this.”

Dan was looking for videos to project on tour, and I asked him if he wanted an all P90X projection. He said yes. I got obsessed with the video and spent two straight weeks on it. It’s probably more like a music video than a normal projection.

A recent Dan Deacon show featuring Ben’s re-edited P90X projection.
A recent Dan Deacon show featuring Ben’s re-edited P90X projection.

What’s the upcoming Flock of Dimes video?

It’s a loose narrative made from the underwater scenes of 78 different movies. It’s a “supercut.” A supercut is usually a compilation of every instance of a TV/Hollywood trope (for example, a montage of every time someone on a reality show says, “I’m not here to make friends”). They usually point out how repetitive and unoriginal TV and movies are, but some of them are beautiful (like the one of every POV shot in Breaking Bad). The Flock of Dimes video [for “(This Is Why) I Can’t Wear White”] is repetitive but hopefully still exciting because of the storyline created from the repurposed clips.

How did you get into supercuts?

I started a blog of screenshots of text messages from TV shows and movies. I was watching, like, two or three movies a night on the hunt for text messages. I began to notice how repetitive movies were. I would watch two movies of different genres and they would have similar scenes in them. I was eventually able to connect every movie I watched to the next one through subtle similarities. I started thinking about gathering all of these similarities into one constant fluid stream. I told my friend Nic about this idea, and he was like, “Yeah, they’re called supercuts, you idiot, and there are hundreds of them.”

Look out for Ben’s video for Flock of Dimes’ “(This Is Why) I Can’t Wear White” soon.

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