We’re seeing so much good music come out of Provo these days that the city can’t contain it all, as more shows in SLC and Ogden are featuring all-Provo lineups. Take this past weekend, for example, where Kilby Court featured a lineup ofFictionist, Coral Bones and Sen Wisher, which brought in a near-packed crowd to Kilby Court on a Saturday night. Today we chat with Sen Wisher founder Ben Swisher about his band before he departs Utah for Oregon (all photos from their performance at Kilby).
Sen Wisher on Facebook
Gavin: Hey Ben, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in and grew up just south of Seattle. Worked at a library for two years in high school and then ended up serving a mission when I was 19 in Ogden—which is how I ended up moving back here four years ago. I volunteered at the bike collective there a bit, met friends with similar interests who eventually moved down to Provo, and I decided to follow them down there for school and social reasons. I also like non-linear books and sleep in a tent with a mattress in my room because it’s fun.
Gavin: What first got you interested in music, and what did you listen to early on?
My first real exposure to music was this campy Canadian children’s folk show called Fred Penner’s Place
that I’d watch on this tiny TV in my parent’s bedroom when I was four or five. It was just this dad-chic middle-aged guy who would hike into the woods and climb through a tree trunk to get to his spot in the forest where he’d play a bunch of songs. Really weird, I know—but also really amazing. That was what first got me caring about music. I’d say the moment I really started connected with music—outside of the Space Jam
soundtrack—was when my dad started playing these mix tapes he made in his 20s with Talking Heads, The B-52’s, Janet Jackson and The Dead Milkmen on them. I would just spend hours listening to all that stuff in a hammock we set up in the trees by our house. I later got into more punk bands when I was 12, and started taking guitar lessons soon after that.
Gavin: How did you eventually get involved with the local music scene?
When I initially moved here, I was borrowing a loop pedal from my roommate and just trying to write songs that I felt were good enough to record on my own. I was dating someone for a few months, and then we broke up—which was really important because it helped me realize I wasn’t really doing a lot of the things I wanted to do with music and other passions I had. I decided to play an open mic at Muse Music in Provo, and then later got invited to play a 30-minute set at Velour. I agreed—even though I only had written maybe three songs that had actual lyrics. So I rushed to write enough material to play that show. After that show, I helped with back-up
vocals when my haircut friend Drew Danburry put out Becoming Bastian Salazar
at Velour and Kilby Court. Things sort of fell into place from there.
Gavin: What was it like for you performing around in various groups and learning the ropes of the Provo scene?
Drew Danburry and Officer Jenny are really the only other bands or musicians I played with in the local music scene. I also worked with my friend Sidney Baptista on a project that got lost in a hard drive crash. But I think just having friends or roommates that were already a part of it—that had been part of it for a while—made it seem more approachable. It gave me a lot of context. Along with having Kaneischa at Velour asking me to play shows and believing in me as a musician, going to Dirty Provo house shows or Avant GaRawge events with Stuart Wheeler or Jesse Quebbeman-Turley showed me how eclectic things can be. And then on top of that, Medussa
Collective shows—or posts my friends in the community would make on social media—also really helped me learn so much about the things that could be done to make our community that much more inclusive and supportive. All of that really inspired me and shaped a lot of what I want to do with music.
Gavin: When did you decide to form your own project, and why the name Sen Wisher?
I think that just happened because I was roommates with Stephen Cope at the time. We met because I asked him to perform for a living-room podcast I was doing at the time. I got asked to open for a touring band at Velour after moving in, and wanted to do something that wasn’t just me with a loop pedal. So we decided to start working on recording some songs that same week. After we recorded two demos to promote the show, I asked two of my friends to help me out with arrangements and fill out some harmonies. We’ve just added or rotated friends that were free to help out from there. Trying out different arrangements from time to time to keep things interesting. The name just comes from a typo of my name. I used to be really obsessed with grammar as a kid, and I’d often unfairly judge people based on the grammar they used. And now that I’m into wild things like descriptivism, I’m the opposite—I think changes in language or typos or things like that are really interesting. So it’s sort of based on ideas like that. I also just didn’t feel comfortable going by my name when the other people helping me out were just as important. The name seemed pretty good for SEO, and just confusing enough to never get famous.
Gavin: What was the major influence behind the kind of alt-pop sound you've created?
I mean, probably really standard and evident influences like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens—even though the newer songs I’m writing are trying to distance myself from that. But I’ve also been influenced by a lot
musicians I started getting into when I lived in Seattle. Mount Eerie in Anacortes and Damien Jurado’s last few records with Richard Swift. LAKE from Olympia, and Annie Clark of St. Vincent’s more understated moments. Deerhoof’s more dreamy songs, Beach House, But also a healthy amount of local musicians. Batty Blue was recording the same time I was, and I think those sessions gave me a lot of courage to try more unconventional things.
Gavin: How did you go about forming the ensemble of musicians that make up your backing band?
The core musicians that have been involved the most ... are Stephen Cope, Stuart Wheeler, Alex Vincent and Ally Nickell. I think I was just mostly excited about trying new things and seeing what did or didn’t work. Drum machine and synth is
what we’re doing for our upcoming show—with some great flute parts and auxiliary guitar. It’s what seems to be the easiest and best arrangement live. Having layered vocals on the songs also makes things feel closer to how it was all recorded.
Gavin: Earlier this year you recorded you debut EP, Glow. What was it like for you putting that record together?
It was simultaneously easier than I thought it would be when we started tracking—and then it was harder than I thought it would be when we were almost done. Those smaller production ideas were things I had to take some time to figure out. And it took a lot of help from my friends to encourage me. It kind of became this year-long collage of me just trying. Stephen is one of the best musicians, producers and engineers I’ve ever met. I felt super comfortable with ideas and working on everything with him. Traditional studios are pretty meticulous with zooming in on the second-by-second details. But we would get to the point where mistakes or not-so-great takes or sounds became the best parts in a song. (Life lesson alert.) I think that process has helped me be more excited about my weaknesses as a musician—those are the things that make me stand out musically more than my strengths. They force me to try something another way than someone else might.
Gavin: What was it like working with Stephen Cope at Studio Studio Dada, while also having him in the band?
Just so intuitive. I feel so comfortable working on live arrangements with Stephen and everyone else that’s playing in Sen Wisher for our show at Kilby Court. We’re all really open to each other’s ideas. I think they’re so talented and I trust them musically. Like, really cheesy to say. Kind of makes you want to throw up, I’m sure. But I’m really lucky that I get to play music with all of them.
Gavin: What did you think of the public reaction to it when it was finally released?
With everything, I kind of think of the worst possible outcome and figure out why that would still be valuable. You know, like, if a bunch of dinosaurs came into a show I was playing and ate all my friends. Why would that still be valuable? I don’t know. Sometimes that’s really hard to answer. I just didn’t want to go into wanting to put out music because I wanted everyone else to like it—I was really just doing this because it’s fun and it celebrates my friends helping me finish something that matters to me. I’ve been really surprised at how many people have said how much they genuinely like it—people I really respect. Even though I think they’re great songs, I still don’t take that for granted. I think it’s honestly done really well for a small album that didn’t have a big PR machine pushing it to all their friends, you know? My dad also told me he’s proud because he’s never put out a record. Maybe I should make that an album sticker if I ever do a physical release? I think that seems like a good idea.
Gavin: With a group that big and a sound so specific and produced, what kind of challenge has it been transferring that sound to the live stage?
Not so much a challenge as just being like what I imagined music summer camp would be. It was really only stressful when we started adding musicians and trying to schedule practices. The album release show was also so stressful just because I convinced myself at one point that no one was going to come. But outside of all that, it’s mostly just been a space where we’re all trying the ideas we’re the most excited about. Small changes from show to show. I think our live arrangements right now sound even better than the songs on the record; but
I think that’s just because we’ve gotten better ideas about how to play them since then.
Gavin: Do you have any plans to record a full-length album yet?
So we actually started off with the intention of doing a full-length. But when we finished four songs, I was just really impatient and wanted to release what we had so far. Like, why wait? It felt more manageable and exciting that way. And I kind of felt like there would be more traction putting it out that way. We had four songs left over after that. Because I’m actually moving to Eugene, Ore. a week after the show at Kilby Court, life was understandably kind of busy and we decided to put things on hold. But after we played this show with New Shack at Velour just recently, I think we got excited about the idea of finishing things up before I move. We’ll see how far we can get, but I think we’re super close. These two EPs are definitely intended to work as a full-length.
Gavin: Have you given any thought to touring after the move, or sticking to Oregon for a bit?
Moving back to the Pacific Northwest is going to help me extend that network of places where I could potentially do something like that. And it’ll hopefully give me the ability to do some mini-tours over breaks and weekends. I plan on trying to come back here at least once a year to do some shows if my friends are still around. The idea of house shows seems more practical to me right now—with a mixture of venues that I’m familiar with. But we’ll see! I’d also be happy to go on a tour with the friends I have in different bands.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?
Honestly, I don’t even know what I’m eating for dinner tonight. I have a lot of new songs I’ve been writing that I feel really good about. This last album was kind of a sonic palate cleanse for me in a lot of ways. My plan is to first finish this second EP and put that out digitally. Then I’ll hopefully do some home demos over the next few months when I get settled out there—really work out arrangements and lyrics to the point where it’s really easy to record them in a studio if I need to. Let my new surroundings influence me and seep into my ideas. I kind of have to get my bearings there first. But I definitely plan on stopping back here often enough to do some cool shows or come through on a small summer tour. Maybe a physical release for the full-length around then with some home demos on cassette? Hopefully collaborating with friends on songs via email exchange or something like that? Send the two EPs out to music blogs? Try to get things placed? Who knows. I’m also working to get into the composition program out there so I have more skills to do what I want to with future albums and songs or producer work. With how much it rains there, I'll probably be investing a
lot time indoors working on music and figuring out where I should go from here. I'm sure it'll be somewhere good.