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West Coast Reversal: Vibrissae Interviews Introflirt

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Two west coast bands –Introflirt from Oakland, California and Vibrissae from Portland, Oregon – have come together for a two-part interview series where members of one band interview the other. Both bands share a love of synth pop and electronica and have a sense of mystique in their music. In this series they discuss the challenges of being in an emerging band, introverts and extroverts, Sarah Vaughn and what makes a great crooner…

We start off with Vibrissae interviewing Ben Benjamin and Vafa from Introflirt. Next time around, the tables will be reversed.

Vibrissae: Your bio mentions that you are both incredibly awkward under the surface, and that you use this to your advantage. We find this very interesting, as we are also very introverted, for the most part. I can see how this would be very advantageous during the writing process. What about during performances? Have you experienced any issues or extraordinary anxiety? I assume that your name is a play on “introvert” which I didn’t realize until today, embarrassingly.

Introflirt (Ben): Yes, the name is a play on introvert. It has many different meanings beyond that, as well, mostly dealing with how I relate to the various aspects of my personality. Vafa is not as introverted as me, and she always brings a high level of energy to everything she does. With the name and the concept of showing people it’s okay to be introverted, awkward, and shy established, I feel very free on stage to embellish whatever I might be feeling. Sometimes I’m dancing and spinning around, and sometimes I’m just standing there staring into the crowd, holding onto the mic stand for dear life.

(Vafa): I’m pretty outspoken and awkward and very honest. If someone says something at a show I’m pretty honest in my response and I think sometimes that is awkward because the people just kind of look at me like I’m crazy and then say nothing.

V: It sounds like the two of you balance each other out very well.

I: Yes! Many people agree with you. It’s a balance that works really well on stage to fortify the musical element.

V: Ben, does Vafa’s nature subconsciously push you to be less introverted than you would normally be, and Vafa, does Ben’s personality affect you similarly?

I: Vafa: Funny you should mention this because I think there is definitely a natural tendency for people to do this. However, Ben and I spend a lot of time apart from each other and it certainly helps to keep us fortified in ourselves. And together we have a very strong friendship and are very comfortable with each other. The amount of support Ben possesses in general allows me to be exactly the person I am in his presence.

Ben: Her nature frees me up to be more myself. I’ll get very drained and crabby after being around almost anyone for a prolonged period of time, and playing shows are so vulnerable – emotionally and physically – it’s nice to have extroverted people on the team to be smiling and outgoing when it’s a struggle for me to. I do enjoy speaking to people, but I do it in my own way, so to have two extremely different personalities in the same room offers me the chance to create a little bit of chill space when I need it.

V: You have coined the term “croonwave” as one way to describe your style, and for many people, someone like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin would be the first person that springs to mind when the word “crooner” is used. To which mid-century crooners did you gravitate the most when you were covering jazz standards? What about now? Al Bowlly? Nat King Cole? Perry Como? Barry Manilow?

Ben: I do love Sinatra, as he mastered the art of expressing raw emotion in an accessible way. Al Bowlly is amazing! Not many people know about him. He had a very quirky, fun, risky manner about him. I listen to a lot of Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughn, Keely Smith, Mel Torme – those are probably my favorites. Some Andy Williams here and there. Sarah Vaughn especially was such a monster musician – her phrasing and light control pushed every song she sang to new heights. When I listen to live recordings of her, everything just melts away and I’m inside every note she sings. There are so many others to mention! Vera Lynn, Sammy, Judy Garland, June Christy. But those four I mentioned earlier are more influential as far as phrasing and attack.

V: Do you find yourself listening to them as much as you did during your formative years? Or do you gravitate to more electronic (or other genre) artists now? And are there any artists in the electronic music world that you feel are especially effective ‘crooners’ in the traditional sense of the word?

Ben: I do listen from time to time. Especially when I’m learning a new song, because I still sing at piano bars. Working the standards is a great way to keep my voice in shape, and I love being in the atmosphere and interpreting the wonderful body of music. Other than jazz vocalists, I sample various artists to see if I want to try and network with them – mostly bands I find on Twitter or wherever. If I listen to electronic music for enjoyment, it’s usually minimal techno. Other than that, I’ve been on a Grateful Dead kick again, and I usually relax with mid-century lounge music. The more vibraphone, the better. I also host a weekly radio show on called The Croon Wave, so I’m listening to a lot of 20s-60s crooners for that.

I haven’t heard anyone crooning over electronic music. There are a few super famous pop stars that had kind of a crooning style, but I don’t know where they got it from. It’s just a style of singing that makes sense to me. I learned to sing with that music, and it fit my range and tone well – so it just naturally developed out of being in that atmosphere, around those kinds of singers, and learning songs from recordings that used that style.

V: How do you feel Bowie fits, as far as the whole crooner-in-a-modern-setting concept is concerned?

Ben: He’s one of the pop singers that comes to mind that used a similar style, along with Morrissey and Bryan Ferry. I’ve never studied Bowie’s style, so I don’t really know what kind of techniques he’s using. I’ve been talking on my radio show about what makes a crooner a crooner. It’s more than just adding vibrato to the end of phrases. It’s more than a vocal technique. In my mind, it’s a certain ability to go to specific emotional realms and maintain an overwhelming sense of sentiment. It has a lot to do with the body of work that crooners traditionally sang, such as the Great American Songbook. That music was incredibly emotionally vulnerable, both lyrically and melodically. Learning that music, that sentiment gets infused in the vocal technique. It gives me context to where my voice fits in. Then when I apply that to Introflirt, I feel like I have identity. Beyond the lyrics and themes of ‘Flirt, I feel like there is a certain emotional realm my voice can invoke. We could write an essay on it! So all that to say, I don’t know if Bowie is a crooner. I haven’t really delved into his stuff enough to know.

V: Switching to a slightly less conceptual mode now … Do you prefer to use hardware or soft synths? Do you favor one or the other during the composition and recording process as opposed to live performances?

Vafa: I am way into the analog process. I do not own a “working” computer for soft synths, but I do have a digital synthesizer – a Korg M50 which I used for a solo project last year. I also have a Volca Beats, three Omnichords, and a Roland JX-8P. I record onto an old Tascam four-track that has two ins. So as you can see, the analog gear really thrills me. The Omnichord is what brought Ben and I together. In Introflirt I use the SQ-80 by Ensoniq. It’s a cross-wave synthesizer. It is analog and digital.

V: Do you use the SQ-80 exclusively during performances, or do you bring along the JX-8P and Omnichords, too?

I: We use the SQ-80 and sometimes the Omnichord. The Omni is only featured on one song, which we rarely play. So it’s best to not bring it unless we’re playing a monster set.

V: What about looped tracks during performances? How much of your material is played live?

Ben: We use backing tracks, and Vafa plays a ton of riffs, pads, and bass lines live.

V: Have you ever discussed, or would you ever consider, adding additional musicians to the line-up? Or would that put your chemistry, which is obviously working well for you, at risk?

Ben: If it was the right person, it wouldn’t. Everything that’s happened for the ‘Flirt – everyone that we work with, every situation we’ve encountered – has been super synchronistic. We’d love to add a third or even fourth live member. We trust that if that’s what the Introflirt realm wants, it will be perfect timing. We have great intuition, and believe that we attract the perfect individuals to work with us. We like to be around people who not only reflect our artistic and professional values, but our personal ones. I need to be around them without wanting to jump out the window, in other words.

V: “Frozen Lace” sounds great! How does your upcoming release, Temporary Heaven, compare to your self-titled album? Is it a natural progression, or are you entering any new and unusual territories?

Ben: I like to say that Temporary Heaven arrives where the first album wanted to be. The debut release is an example of Introflirt stretching its wings and looking around. So for Introflirt, and me as a musician and individual, yes, it’s a very natural progression. I’d say the new work is a little less steeped in ’80s sentiment than the debut was, and occupies a more relevant realm all its own. It’s a little darker (at least in an outward way), and the tempos are faster. It’s more self-actualized, and from my perspective, it touches on themes in a more blatant, honest way.

V: That’s a good place to be. Congratulations. Are there any upcoming performances that you are especially excited about?

I: We’re supporting the Foreign Resort in San Francisco later in the summer, and I love them so I’m super hyped for that.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, and all of our best to you and Vafa! We hope we can see both of you soon, whether in California or here in Portland. And of course, best of luck with Temporary Heaven. I’m sure it will do very well.

I: Thank You. Hope you have the best night ever! I’m sure we’ll share a bill at some point.

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