Like a reunion with an old friend, Breaking Benjamin has come back into our lives after what seems like an eternity to fans bringing us new music, new inspiration and new members. Currently touring and with their new album Dark Before Dawn released on June 23rd and on track to be #1 on the Billboard 200 Charts within the first week of release, Breaking Benjamin is making quite the comeback. With such an escalation of anticipation for this new album, we asked Benjamin Burnley about the details. “It’s staple Breaking Benjamin. I’ve been the primary writer ever since the band started in 1998 so I wrote our first album Saturate all on my own before anyone else was even in the band and I have just been writing a majority of the music ever since so the new album is no different as far as that aspect goes. My writing style hasn’t changed and so the sound of the band really hasn’t changed. With the release of our first single off Dark Before Dawn called Failure, fans and people in general appreciate that the band has stayed the same and I have never really been interested in loosening the wheel or changing the sound or changing what the band is about. We have a signature sound and I like that sound and the fans like it, so why change it? I just do my best to write songs that will stand the test of time, songs that are good to their core.” We can certainly agree that one of the preeminent qualities of Breaking Benjamin is that they have remained unsullied by the need to deviate from what people love about their music. “I think the only ingredient that has really changed in our music is the use of technology to record and not necessarily the songs themselves. We use the same guitars and chords and I have tried to keep things pretty much the same as far as my songwriting is concerned” Burnley assures us. “I’ve always done my best to keep a heavy sound but still have some melody as well as a catchiness to the song because I am a fan of that type of music and it is what our fans like too.”
Burnley has always noticeably put his heart and soul into the songs he writes. Through his lyrics and vocals, it is easy to get lost in the music and feel what he is feeling which is an immeasurable excellence that raises Breaking Benjamin above the rest. In the time since their last album Dear Agony came out in 2011, Burnley says “everything in life fuels me emotionally but you definitely need to have an emotional drive to be a singer/songwriter in order to push where you need to be. I have always had that feeling in my stomach and I don’t know where it comes from or what brings it out, I just tend to do things in life that generally and emotionally drive me. I am always seeking that emotional high and writing music does that for me. Sometimes watching a movie or even something as simple as going outside and just enjoying being alive will inspire me. When I write a song, I just open my mind. I don’t think about a particular situation, it just comes from emotion and not a thought. The music just takes over and it comes out.”
Since signing to Hollywood Records in 2002, Breaking Benjamin has had two platinum records, one gold record and a gold single. The album titled Phobia which was released in 2006 reached No. 1 on the Top Digital Albums and Top Rock Album charts. The album was inspired by certain phobias that Burnley experiences, just like we all do. “Since the release of Phobia, I have been dealing with some pretty horrendous health issues and have been seeking a cure ever since. The medical community has completely let me down. They were never truly able to diagnose me or address the pain and symptoms I have in any way. So, because of the suffering I go through, I have been able to overcome many things” Burnley opens up. “I have no fear of death and I have no fears of anything anymore basically because of this agony I go through in my everyday life because of this. I would give anything not to feel this way and know that I have to live the rest of my life with this torturous pain. The whole thing has changed me though in that this particular symptom has strengthened my will beyond anything I thought was possible, so it makes everything I was ever fearful of obsolete. It takes precedence over any fear in comparison.” All that being said, “I still don’t like to fly anywhere. Not because I am afraid of it but because I believe that airplanes could be more safe than they are but it would take billions or trillions of dollars due to government’s monetary restrictions in order to make them safer, in my opinion. So getting on a plane that could be 60% safer is not something I really want to do. Not because I fear it but because it is an unfinished thought and is still in its infancy as far as safety is concerned.”
During the years that Breaking Benjamin was taking some time off, Burnley dealt with his health issues head on and also became sober after a long battle with alcoholism. This in itself is beyond inspirational and as if we needed another reason to respect him, Burnley has exerted courage and strength in overcoming any obstacle he has faced. While all of this hasn’t directly affected how he writes music or directly changed his creative side, Burnley has a strong opinion of how things work and how he has been treated by medical professionals. He has strongly expressed that he intends to use his voice and his experience to make a difference and hopefully enlighten others’ perceptions of how you should be treated when you have health issues. “I have done my part as far as my health issues are concerned. I went to John Hopkins as well as various doctors, I could not even begin to tell you how many I have been to over the years. The one common problem I found was that they never truly took the time to diagnose me properly, it seems they don’t care. I basically had to back them into a corner and push just to get them to truly pay attention to what I am going through and take the time to try and find out what the root of my problems were. Doctors seem to want to just see as many patients as they can and collect the checks. If they just took the time to properly diagnose me or anyone else and try to understand their patient’s concerns, then the medical industry wouldn’t be so broken. It fuels my anger to draw from myself and other people’s suffering and want to do what I can to help raise awareness.” Burnley expressed even more into detail about how he feels that doctors should need to find a different approach and that just giving someone a prescription as an easy way to avoid taking the time to really help a patient needs to change. “You would think in 2015, we would have some Star Trek way of doing things and more non-invasive methods but we are still cutting people up like meat and giving away medication but in reality, our bodies heal themselves. Once we can figure out what the real underlying issue is, I think that we don’t need all that.” In the age of smartphones, maybe Apple will come up with an application that will diagnose people. “I would put more trust in Apple than doctors for the most part. If Steve Jobs can die of cancer, and he was one of the most wealthy people in the world, what hope do the rest of us have?” That would give the phrase “an Apple a day keeps the doctor away” a whole new meaning.
Breaking Benjamin has included different band members but this time around, Burnley feels that there is more of a camaraderie that he didn’t feel there was with previous members. “Before, the band was never really founded on friendship, it was based more on just finding capable musicians who could bring my songwriting visions to life. In the studio, I am able to just record over myself and play the instruments myself but what happens when we play live? There has to be other musicians to play those parts. The band is now structured with guys who were friends of mine beforehand. We didn’t get together just because of Breaking Benjamin. We got together because we are friends and it really does make an incredible difference because I have known some of these guys for over 10 years. Aaron Bruch (bassist and backing vocals), Shawn Foist (drummer), Keith Wallen (guitarist and backing vocals) and Jasen Rauch (guitarist) and I don’t have to go through the honeymoon phase that bands go through when they first start playing or recording. When you do something new there is always this deception because everything is new and exciting and things are going well but then once time goes on, that wears off. For us, because we have known each other for so long and because we are all seasoned musicians who have toured extensively in the past, we have already been there and done that.” Burnley describes how being friends and professionals directly resembles getting together with your friends to play music but on a professional level. Each of the members is absolutely, 100% professional and while they might not be best friends, they are friends who work well together. “I have a lot of best friends and these guys are among them and I am so fortunate than in my entire musical career to be playing with who I am playing with and I realize that every bad thing that has happened in our lives has been a blessing in disguise because in the end, it all brought us here.” Burnley continues to graciously talk about how he believes that everything happens in its own time and while he would have ultimately liked it to happen a bit sooner, he trusts that everything we go through in life makes us who we are and we can’t make up the scenario or when things happen because that is not the way the universe works. “Part of me wishes this is the way things would have always been but I am just glad it finally did.”
Burnley always knew that he had no desire to be known as a solo artist. Even though he writes 90% of the songs, Breaking Benjamin was always his goal. “I always try to be polite when I am asked about whether or not I ever intended to be a solo artist. I am not the type to run from a question or avoid it but I do try to be as polite as I can in answering people’s inquiry about that subject. The truth is, I have always been the one who writes the songs. I haven’t had anyone come up to me with a song that was 100% complete or a song that I envisioned as one that I could use.” It’s not that the ideas of others were bad, they just didn’t fit what he was looking for, they didn’t project the style. The songs weren’t heavy enough or edgy enough and Burnley didn’t feel they were something he wanted to put his voice into. “They just didn’t inspire me in any way so I felt there was no choice but for me to be the main writer in the band in order for there to be songs for us to play.” This only goes to show what kind of passion that Burnley has and that he wants to be a true artist and sing what he feels, what is important and what is honest to his voice and his own vulnerabilities. Something that can be lost in translation when you have someone else write songs for you and you don’t really feel or believe what you are singing.
With all bands, there comes an interesting story on how they have decided on a name. Whether it is something the members come up with as a group, by accident or from a situation, a band’s name has to be personal. Burnley tells us about how he often played open mic nights at a club in Northumberland, PA called Gooseberries. He would do a three song tribute to Nirvana and at the end, he would always take the neck of the guitar and knock over the microphone stand just like Kurt Cobain. “It was like my little tribute to him and usually everyone would cheer.” Burnley describes that the open mic nights would just consist of people like himself who would show up and put their name on a list. The owner would get up and call performers up in order and you didn’t use your own equipment, that would have been too hard to put up and tear down. “They got to my name and at the time I just went up as Benjamin. No last name, just Benjamin. I did my bit where I would knock over the microphone and at the end, the guy got up and said my name and thanks for breaking his f***ing microphone. So that is how I got the name Breaking Benjamin. I don’t even remember the guy’s name or talked to him since. I doubt he even knows that he is the one that inadvertently inspired the name.”
As fans are inspired or influenced by Breaking Benjamin, Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson are two musicians that Burnley has been strongly inspired by, or shall we say idolized. “They are fantastic performers. Kurt was an amazing singer and songwriter. Michael Jackson was a force of nature. I love Man In The Mirror, Bad, Dirty Diana…all of the songs in Michael Jackson’s catalog. When I was a small kid, I tried to dance like him. I would try to sing his music and do the whole routine. Dancing and singing to songs like Smooth Criminal I never even came close. I was just a kid in the 80’s trying to learn. Then in my teen years, I started to have that angst all teenagers go through and all these emotional things going on. I started looking for something different and that’s when Nirvana came along. I would try to be Kurt Cobain, even down to his look. I idolized him. I had the long hair and flannel and the guitar. Then I just started my own thing doing cover songs and trying to find my own voice. Over the years though, I have just gained appreciation for all sorts of music. Tool, Metallica, even bands that Kurt Cobain said sucked nowadays.” Burnley chuckles. “I appreciate them for their place in musical history. Every genre of music has its place and its appeal. In the 90’s I couldn’t get into hair metal because it was too close to the 80’s but now it is like new and now it is nostalgic. Now when I listen to it, it has an allure, it brings me back to that time.”
Burnley and his wife just had a son about seven months ago which is a big part of his life now. “I couldn’t imagine my life without him, I just love him more than anything in the universe and I couldn’t really live without him. He doesn’t inspire me to write music per se but he might inspire me creatively, I don’t know yet. I don’t have hopes that he will be a musician like me but I do hope that he becomes whatever he is meant to be and I will let him do whatever he needs to do to be. I was meant to be a musician, I wasn’t pushed into it. I want the same for him. He might be meant for this and he might not. Either way, I will support him.”
Originally, Breaking Benjamin’s website was www.shallowbay.com and while it was a great site and run by great people who were their fans, it was a little too obscure for the masses so they changed the website to www.breakingbenjamin.com to avoid confusion and make it a lot less complicated. The music industry has changed in a big way with the introduction of social media. Even in the past 5 or 6 years social media has changed so much and allowed fans to connect with bands and vice versa and Burnley shows nothing but appreciation for his fans. “We do everything we can to reach out to our fans and we want to get as many people onto our social media as we can so we can reach out to them and we do more and more as we go along. Really, our band has just started to get back out there and it hasn’t even been a full year since we’ve been going all out so we are evolving our social media to include more fan interaction and we post on it every day and ever show. We get on there and read comments as much as we can. There’s a lot to read but we try. We just try to stay on the pulse of fans. We don’t take our fans for granted and you can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time but we will always strive to do everything that we can that’s within our power and sometimes you read negative things and it’s like ‘oh the band couldn’t wait another hour to sign’ or ‘I waited outside for 3 hours for the band or Ben to come out and he never came out.’ Stuff like that. There’s things that are unavoidable like I didn’t even know there was anybody there you know what I mean? You read stuff like that and you want to be there for them but you can’t be 100 places at once. You can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time but we try. I try my best and that’s all I can do.”
After we are notified that there is only time for a few more questions, Ben graciously apologizes for his answers being long, which is entirely unnecessary, as he’s every journalist’s dream subject. Burnley goes into how he is open to having more songs in video games and even featured in film and television. One can’t put past the talent Burnley has as a songwriter and how this could be an opportunity he may need to explore. “I am always interested, I just hope the people working for us are doing their jobs and if those opportunities come up, they are bringing them to our attention, not dropping the ball.
If Burnley had to choose one artist to collaborate with, living or deceased, he would hands down choose Kurt Cobain. “Just because he’s a genius and he’s an inspiration and he’s my idol still ’til this day. He probably wouldn’t like me saying that because he didn’t like to be idolized but it is what it is and people find their inspiration in their own ways and that’s the way I found mine and to become a musician.” Sometimes it’s not even about idolizing a certain person but it is about respect for their work and how it has affected you.
Burnley could not end the call without expressing his extreme gratitude to his fans. “Breaking Benjamin is a fan driven band, first and foremost. We are just so thankful from the bottom of our hearts for their continued support and for the support they have always given us not only in the past but moving forward as well. We appreciate every single fan who is out there.”
Photo Credit: Angela Strang (live photos 2-5)