PET POLITICS: Drunk Gecko Hunting with Ben Jaffe of PILL

Ben captures a Northern Black Racer at Quantico Marine Base. “[It’s] my favorite species to look for in the Northeast!” he says.
Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope all your furry family gets some special holiday treats off the Hanukkah/ Christmas table. I can tell you my cats are pretty amused by our family Christmas tree; little Ruby even tried to eat a few ornaments (as she attempts with most unknown objects).

A few years ago, my buddy Jordan finally moved to Bushwick from Connecticut into an apartment which would come to be known as the Hartbreak Hotel (for its Hart Street location and its influx of recent bachelors). “I can’t wait for you to meet Ben!” he said of one of his new roommates. Jordan wanted a genuine reaction from me, so he didn’t go into details; all Jordan would say was that he never met anyone else like him, and I would come to agree.

The first time I met Ben Jaffe, I was hosting Jordan’s birthday party. Ben brought fried crickets and hot sauce with him and generously offered them to the guests (to many declines—sorry, I am a city kid when it comes to bugs, particularly eating them). We became quick friends over some mulled wine and videos of animatronic Baby Hughie. The next time Ben and I hung out was at a Nitehawk viewing of Black Christmas. I showed up late, crawled under everyone’s legs to reach my seat, then proceeded to eat and drink almost everything on the menu and pass out, which Ben found very amusing. So I guess it is pertinent that my interview with him would run on Christmas!

Since then, I have spent many a day and night hanging out with Ben. Whether it’s 6am, 12pm, 8pm, or 3am, Ben is usually doing five things at once. Often these tasks include cooking something elaborate from scratch, listening to an obscure record, drawing a anthropomorphic animal comic, watching a bizarre documentary, and/or getting everyone hopped up on espresso. In addition to being a singular host, Ben is also an incredible saxophone player. You can currently see his skills showcased in Brooklyn’s feminist art-punk band PILL, garage rock group Dumb Wolves, and experimental rock group Saxophone Reptile. Ben has since launched a label with Jordan Bell, Nick Rogers, and Davey Jones called GP Stripes that is now making lots of waves. Ben also happens to be a grade school science teacher and an expert on the cold-blooded species of creatures: fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

AF: What got you interested in animals? Was there a particular creature who struck your fancy?

BJ: I became fascinated with fishes of all kinds when I was about three. I would spend hours looking at encyclopedias, National Geographic, or books from the library. I also had a collection of paper fish that I cut out of magazines. From then I moved on to crustaceans, insects, and finally reptiles and amphibians.

AF: Who was your first pet and how old were you when s/he entered your life?

BJ: My first pet was a big black cat named Simon. He was a kitten when I was born, so we grew up together in a way. He lived until I was seventeen, and I still have dreams about him once in a while. Simon’s ears were all knicked up from his many battles. He was like an older brother to me. Cats mature faster, right?

AF: What or who made you want to pick up saxophone?

BJ: I always liked saxophones. I think it could be that it looks like a combination of an arthropod and an ancient squid. You know, all those moving parts? Anyway, I tried to play when I was nine, but had trouble reading music. Years later when I was about to turn seventeen, I had this dream where I was playing the horn, and I had figured out how to play “Tequila.” I woke up and knew that I should do it, since I already knew where the notes were. I rented an alto and practiced every day, sometimes being late to class because I was hitting the practice room during lunch. My good friend Abe Maneri was playing jazz piano and Bowie songs in the same building, so we started playing together. Abe got me improvising right away, really. He also hipped me to a lot of great music. Fela Kuti, Eric Dolphy, and especially his dad, Joe Maneri. My first live solo ever was with Abe Maneri in his glam rock band, Paniot’s 9 at a battle of the bands.

AF: Do you have any experience with any other instruments?

BJ: I have some facility on keyboard, and I play it on a track from the last PILL full length,”Convenience”.

AF: The saxophone is kind of an unconventional instrument for garage rock and punk bands. What was the genre of music you learned on? When did you enter the punk sphere?

BJ: I started out just playing with my friends, who were into Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Bowie, Iggy, Bad Brains, Nirvana, etc. Then I’d practice with my albums at home. The Fela records were big for that! There was a lot of saxophone on Iggy’s New Values album. But there were not a lot of horns on all the other stuff I liked, PIL, Black Flag, Circle Jerks. Flipper had a saxophone on a couple songs. I was even in a Flipper cover band called The Flippoffs. We played only one gig in the summer of 2001 at Charlie’s Kitchen in Cambridge. Can you believe it? Who wouldn’t want to listen to an eight minute version of “Sex Bomb“? There was a mermaid named Sally on slide whistle!

So from there I got into jazz and soul, because that’s where all the best sounding players were. I worked on Thelonious Monk songs because I liked the intervals. I formed a soul band with some friends who were big into Sun Ra and gospel 45s. We’d jam on a few jazz heads, which I could handle after a few years of shredding scales.
A couple of years later I was obsessed with guitarists like Link Wray, James Williamson from the Stooges, and Tony Iommi. I spent hours a day learning their solos by ear and trying to match the tones. Then when I was loud enough, I toured with Murphy’s Law for about a year. It is widely accepted that before 1965, the saxophone was the main instrumental voice of rock ‘n’ roll. Sometime around ’66, the guitar took over. My approach presupposes… maybe it didn’t. Like I mentioned, the first music I really liked was basically punk rock, and then I played jazz at the volumes required for punk shows.

Jaffe with Dumb Wolves. Photo by Natalie Kirch.

AF: How long have you lived in New York and has that influenced your music to go in a particular direction?

BJ: Does couch surfing for five months count? I got here around June of 2008, but toured almost the whole time until January of 2009 when I got my first apartment. It was then that I really got my lip in shape to produce the sounds the way I do now. I had a situation where I was living in a loft on Myrtle that only had two tenants up on the third floor. When not on the road I would practice about four hours a day. I switched mouthpieces then to the kind I have now, which has a large chamber. Scales and long tones during the day, and shows at night. I checked out Silent Barn and Market Hotel a lot back then. Sometimes, a bunch of people would just show up at my practice space on Meserole and we’d have a noise jam until 4am. A friend came up with the idea that I should be playing through an amplifier around this time. I’d say that I expanded my tone to fit the environment.

AF: Has New York limited the type of pets you would like to keep in any way? What are some animals you would love to host but haven’t been able to in an urban setting?

BJ: All I want is a frog pond. But that won’t happen unless I move to the country. I would love to have a cat, but touring and living with roommates limits that idea. You have to really hang with a cat. I wish I could turn my entire room into a giant terrarium and just sleep on a flat rock. There could be garter snakes and a running brook. If I moved to Florida or Arizona, I could just walk outside and probably wouldn’t even keep any pets. I honestly just love seeing animals living healthy in their habitats. I guess I just want a cat.

AF: I know you have hosted many reptiles and insects. Has being a childhood science teacher warmed you up to these critters, or were you always interested in entomology?

BJ: I’ve always been really into arthropods. I just don’t get in trouble anymore for bringing them to school! I would say that it is the opposite, in a way. I have really enjoyed sharing my knowledge and fascination for living things with creatures I never took a close look at previously…children! It is so cool to show a snake to young people, because they are genuinely excited about it. Adults most often just say “Get that away from me!” This reaction is boring and a little heartbreaking for a biology-minded person like myself. So the children motivate me to learn more about living organisms with their own innate curiosity.

AF: I heard you were caring for a pregnant hissing cockroach in your apartment a few months back. How did you get the okay by your roommates? How do these creepy crawlers differ from the old Brooklyn gutter roaches?

BJ: I never told them about the hissing roaches. I think that’s the best way to keep large insects in your room. Hissing roaches belong to the family Blaberidae, which is different from Blattdae, the family that subway roaches belong to. Hissing roaches cannot fly, and would not be happy in a NYC sewer. They prefer rotting logs in a tropical forest habitat, and eat mostly fruits and vegetables. I think anyone that gives hissing roaches a chance will see that they are very chilled out, don’t bite, and make really good pets. Come on, cut up some of your apple and a few collard greens and give them a treat!

In New York City, we have three types of cockroaches. They are the American Cockroach, the German Cockroach, and the Oriental Cockroach. The one everybody talks about is probably Periplaneta Americana, the American Cockroach. This is the reddish brown monster that flies and is referred to as a water bug. To be specific, they are not true waterbugs, since they are not aquatic, and are not related to Hymiptera, the order that includes true waterbugs, stinkbugs and bedbugs! I’m glad we cleared that up!

Cockroach comic by Ben Jaffe

AF: You have fostered some pretty interesting pets from your teaching job. Can you share some of them with AudioFemme?

BJ: My favorite animals that I have kept in the science lab have been the baby Chinese mantis I raised. They were so tiny and fascinating! You really have to do it yourself to understand what I mean. I don’t recommend keeping more than ten, because you have to house them in individual containers. They eat each other if left in the same tank together. The mother of this brood actually lived way into December of that year. If you’ve ever kept a mantis for that long, you notice some very curious changes in its behavior. I think that Chines Mantids essentially go insane as they get old. The eye spots get huge, making the mantis look crazed. They slow down and have difficulty hunting. My mantis chewed off part of her forelegs. One afternoon right before she checked out, she actually tried to eat my hand! She just chomped down on my knuckle and would not stop chewing. I had to spray her with water to get her to let go. It really hurt! I’ll never forget those eyes. Like something had gone haywire in her brain. I’ve never been more afraid of an individual insect.

Other cool residents have been an Italian Wall Lizard that I caught out on Long Island, and a very charismatic Anole named Cletus who now lives in my apartment. Currently in the lab, we have a Common Garter Snake that I adopted from a pet store. I am pretty sure it was wild caught. We also have some impressive Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. One got out over the summer and was discovered by the assistant principal! She recognized it and did not treat the insect the way New Yorkers usually deal with roaches. We also have a school of fathead minnows. I love common species.

AF: If you had to choose one animal you relate the most to, what would it be?

BJ: A grey tabby cat.

AF: Your roommate Diana has some pretty cute fluffy friends. What has it been like having those buddies around the apartment?

BJ: It’s the best. Toki and Scrambles! They are such friendly cats. I play with Toki every day after work. It is definitely important to keep my door closed, however. Toki will go in and chew up the house plants. One time, he threw up on Cletus’ cage.

AF: I know you dabble in comics on the side of your music and teaching careers. Are Carlos Rock Dog, Kitty Cat, or Denim Frog based on any real animal or human pals?

BJ: It’s hard to pinpoint who is what. Carlos just sort of showed up one day. He was a seagull first, in a comic I drew during lunch. Then he was a hound dog, and before I knew it, he started driving a car in the desert. Carlos spends most of his time on the highways between Ohio and Los Angeles. He hardly ever goes to New York City. Over time, I realized that Carlos is based on a few different people. He looks most like Jhon Grewell and Edd Chittenden from Dumb Wolves, the Prits, I’m Turning Into, MTS. Edd once said that Carlos is my diary, and he is right. I take things that have happened to me, and draw them as comics. “The Cat” from Carlos is based on every annoying friend you have ever had. The friend that drives you crazy, gets you in trouble, and you sometimes have to disassociate yourself from because it’s just dangerous being around them. Except Carlos can never do that with the Cat. He does not have a choice. Along for the ride, unfortunately. Denim Frog is a less complex character. He is a vehicle for dumb jokes. He is not that smart, but loves tricking other people. I won’t reveal who he is based on. I did keep a bullfrog for about eight years, so there’s something for you to think about.

Denim Frog illustration by Ben Jaffe

AF: How did you become friends with all of your current bandmates? Do you think you all would be in the same animal family, or are there some fluffies and some scalies in your crew?

BJ: I first met Edd and Jhon

[of Dumb Wolves] when I would go to hear I’m Turning Into around Brooklyn. We became friends at shows and parties. One day, Jhon was out of town and I filled in the bass parts of I’m Turning Into songs on saxophone. That was the beginning of the band, basically. We’re all Dumb Wolves. Which are dogs, as you know. Jhon likes to wear a shirt of whatever dog breed he feels like that day.
We also like Thrinaxodon, a mammal like reptile who lived during the Permian-Triassic period.

[Regarding] PILL, I knew Andrew from his performances as Space Lions in Outer Space, and I met Veronica at Death By Audio and various shows/parties. I did not meet Jon until the first time the four of us jammed together. We played for about twenty minutes and he said, “Hi I’m Jon.” I imagine we’d all be different animals: Andrew, a dolphin; Veronica, A cockatoo; Jon, A black or dark brown poodle; and myself, a frog or a garter snake.

AF: You have been on the road a lot these past few years. Do you have a favorite location to play in?

BJ: I like Nashville. There are some great spots there, and it’s different enough to feel far away from NYC. Columbus, Ohio is a good gig to play in the middle of the week. People really seem to come out for shows there. I also really dig Chicago.

AF: Any funny or fantastic road stories to share?

BJ: Drunk Gecko Hunting in Talahassee. After playing a party last March, I went looking for Mediterranean Geckos behind the house. We tried to film it to send to my students as a science video, but I was too drunk. There was no way I would ever email it to the school. It sounded like I was lurking behind people’s houses talking crazy about nocturnal animals, which I pretty much was. I did catch a good sized gecko, however.

I’m racking my brain about these tour stories. I have some from when I was a kid, of course, but PILL stories? Every day is a ridiculous day. I could relay the time in 2016 when I stood at the Mexican border in Big Bend National Park, playing “America the Beautiful” to a couple of people standing across the river. They came over to sell us some little toys and things made from wire. I continued to play, and this time it was more free. A man and a younger guy who was probably about 14 did not even look phased. A family came by to take some photos. That is who we saw on the border that day. It might not be much of a story, but it has a resonance now.

AF: Will you be cuddling with any animal friends for the holidays?

BJ: Oh sure. I will have a little extra time to hang and play with Toki and Scrambles. Toki is the kind of cat that wants to be chased around, and if you don’t play his games, he will do something to make you annoyed. Chewing house plants and then throwing up are a pretty common agenda. There will be a few cat naps, which is close to how I sleep anyway. I’ll spend some time hanging with a garter snake from the school. It is necessary for me to take it home to ensure fresh water and lots of live food. Garter snakes like water, you know. I also have two cat sitting gigs. Cats get bored and need a buddy to hang with. I think that’s the most important thing about keeping one. After you sleep for three hours and there is nothing to do, what happens then? You can’t go back to sleep.

PILL’s next New York show takes place at Elsewhere’s Zone One on January 16th, when they open up for Olivia Neutron-John. Get tickets here and check out their latest release, Aggressive Advertising, via bandcamp.