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.