Musical Eyes: Mutual Benefit on Contemporary Ephemera

Old broken music boxes, warped circuitry, blogger cameos, banjos, pianos, (insert anything else that’s capable of creating sound waves here); now combine them with the voice and mind of Jordan Lee and you have Mutual Benefit. Often simply described as boyish crooning, Mutual Benefit, to me is so much more, it’s a heart-driven exploration into the mind as it finds it’s way in this world – arms and fingers outstretched. Sure, the journey may take detours along the way disguised as toy instruments, Midwestern basements and an existential crisis or two but I assure you the intentions are pure. In the dissonance there is beauty, in the beauty there is all of us.

I’ll leave you to look, listen and explore with words to live by from Jordan himself, “remember to do cool stuff and be kind to each other.”

Wishing "Wishing"
Animal Death Mask "Animal Death Mask"
Birdwatcher "Birdwatcher"

In a sentence or two, tell us why you love each of the four artists whose work we see above.

Betty Blue – With Betty’s work she creates her own specific aesthetic universe using all the materials around her; innocent things become occult while disturbing imagery is twisted to become cute again.

M. Foster – I am always immediately drawn to M. Foster’s interesting color choices and but I also enjoy her sly social commentary.

Stephanie Bonham – While photography may seem to not fit in perfectly with the other three artists, Stephanie Bonham’s pictures captured an emerging diy music scene in Austin that influenced my sounds immensely. Her attention to the little details that make everyday life so absurd as well as the little moments that are so beautiful make her pictures special to me.

Whitney Lee – My sister Whitney Lee’s work is made from found latch-hook rugs which she uses as a canvas to hook an era specific nude model onto…  I love how it blurs the line between art and craft, makes an interesting statement on feminism, and just looks really cool.

Of the artists you’ve chosen to share, many work with materials most would not consider suitable for “art,” such as markers, stickers, rugs… What draws you to their love for the unconventional?

Pieces that incorporate everyday imagery with consumer-level art supplies are definitely the most compelling to me. I like the idea that there shouldn’t be any entry barriers to expressing yourself and being creative. I see a lot of parallels between the art and music that I enjoy. Both could be considered “lo-fi” in a sense. I think there’s a lot of priviledged seclusion and hot air in the fine art world and its nice to see some people ‘stick it’ to any sort of remaining conventions.

Why is it important for you to surround yourself with contemporary, working artists instead of looking to what established greats have already accomplished?

It’s important to me to be able to connect the art to a person. Every day my computer spits out hundreds of images and at this point its hard for it to have a real impact on me unless I see it in real life. I’ve been lucky enough to talk extensively with the four artists featured here so I’m inspired equally by their personality and work.  It gives everything much clearer context. I definitely appreciate the greats as well but its become so commodified. Until I saw Starry Night at the MoMA it existed in my mind as a mousepad. Duchamp and the other surrealist troublemakers did really amazing and important work but its still people making art now that inspire me most becomes now is now and now is real!

We had talked before and you mentioned that Spanish artist Betty Blue (who designed the drifting ep cover, as well as, I saw the sea) was the most influential to your work, even inspiring the music as you wrote. How important is it for you to bring visual art into your process rather than searching for album art after the fact?

In between releases there is a time where I’m just looking for inspiration to make subject matter for next album. Visual art can definitely provide a lightbulb going off in my head or a couple rogue neurons accidentally bumping into each other. For example, the idea of enso played a strong role in conceptualizing I saw the sea. Anything can spark song ideas though, a quote from Deadwood, bird documentaries, scary truckstops in new jersey, a girl talking in nonsense in her sleep, epitaphs of famous people…

You also run the cassette label Kassette Klub, often creating much of the handmade insert art yourself. Are you ever making art of your own while conceptualizing an album? If so, are your visions ever fully realized through your music?

I’m a terrible visual artist! I was hand-making the covers for a while out of financial necessity and it was nice but I’m discovering more and more that there are people out there who are so gifted at crafting imagery that it would be silly for me to try to do everything myself. On the other hand, I have found that getting a bunch of crazy books from the thrift store and having people come over to make collages is so much fun.

Images, from top to bottom:

  1. Title image: Betty Blue – untitled
  2. Betty Blue – untitled
  3. M. Foster – Quips: Directions
  4. Betty Blue- untitled
  5. M. Foster – Telebots at the Playground
  6. Stephanie Bonham – untitled
  7. Stephanie Bonham – untitled
  8. Whitney Lee – Venus of Urbino by Titan
  9. Whitney Lee – Afro

Listen, stream, download several Mutual Benefit albums here on bandcamp.


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Think or Smile | Nathaniel Whitcomb © 2011