Sonic Diaries: A Conversation with Drummer/Producer Ben Sloan
A picture of Ben Sloan outside with a blue sky background and dried flowers in the foreground.

Though his new album 'Muted Colors' is a debut solo offering, Ben Sloan is hardly a newcomer. As a drummer, he's toured with acts like The National, WHY?, and Beth Orton. Readers of this blog might also recognize him as the drummer using Sensory Percussion on Moses Sumney's live visual album Blackalachia. In his own words, 'Muted Colors' is "an abstracted diary" made up of pieces from various sessions, voice memos, and field recordings from the last decade of Sloan's career. With features from Moses Sumney, Serengeti, Liz and Josiah Wolf of WHY?, Felicia Douglass of Dirty Projectors, and Madeline Kenney, the record feels like a collage of disparate ideas that have been meticulously sewn together to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Though Sensory Percussion takes the forefront on several tracks, the record is as much a display of glitchy production techniques and off-kilter songwriting as it is a display of percussive prowess. Sloan's vocals are often drowned in layers of processing, yet they feel distinctly personal, inviting the listener into a stream of consciousness that can be both comforting and haunting. In addition to producing the album, Sloan created all of the videos and animations for each track. Check out the video for 'Distant Spirit' below, and then read on to learn how Sensory Percussion helped shape the recording process.

You've been playing in bands and producing music for a long time now, but this is your first release under your own name. Does it feel different to step out of the background and into the spotlight, or is it just a natural extension of what you've been doing for years?

Well, I've already been doing production stuff for a long time, like since high school. So I always felt the most confident in that setting even more so than drumming. Production and playing piano and recording myself was always a part of my process. But now, putting out music and being the sole artist and being responsible for it--whether it's good or bad--there's a big difference. It does feel good but also scary.

I don't think I'm a great songwriter because the forms that I make are sort of linear. They just kind of keep going into new places. Rhythm always comes first, but I do think that doing production work helps you consider more than just the rhythmic side of things. I think in the stuff that I'm making a lot of times there's a rhythmic element even if it's a piano or whatever.

The visuals are such a huge part of Muted Colors, with beautiful animations accompanying each track. Did you hand-draw all of these yourself?

Yeah, my partner got an iPad right before the pandemic and got this app called Procreate. I was just glued to it and it quickly became my iPad. I've always loved animation as both an art form and as entertainment. I think it's the most easily digestible thing for my brain. It's like a little fantasy. It's escapism; it can be cute, it can be haunting, whatever. I got really excited about it and just started working on it during the pandemic sortof manically.

I think visuals are so integrated with music now, almost like dance used to be. The way music is visually presented to people is a huge component and I've always wanted to be a visual artist, but music kind of captivated me and I put most of my creative energy towards that. So this was now like getting back into that part of my identity.

A picture of Ben Sloan outside with a blue sky background and dried flowers in the foreground.

Sensory Percussion is front and center on many of the tracks, particularly 'Who's Melting?'. When you were recording these parts, did you put sensors on your acoustic drums and record it all at once? Or would you do a take of acoustic drums and then overdub Sensory Percussion on top?

It definitely depends on the song, but I would often run Sensory Percussion off of my laptop and record into my desktop computer and I would mic up the room or mic up a speaker that was playing the Sensory Percussion sounds so that I could record them at the same time and also get them to feel like it's happening all at once in the same room.

For example, the sounds I have in the software for 'Who's Melting?' are very clean. If you track specifically the sensors and then the drums, and you can dirty them in the box, but I prefer to let it be this live, raw-sounding thing and use that as the lump sum and start from that place.

Wow! So you didn't record the output of Sensory Percussion at all; you just mic'd up a speaker that was playing the sounds?

Yeah, for 'Who's Melting?' I just had a room mic for those sounds and then I had snare and kick mics and that's what you're hearing on the record. I think you also maybe hear an iPhone recording on the record of all of the sounds melded into one. Just just for energy reasons. It just feels more organic than trying to tweak it in the box to make it feel dirtier.

I feel like that's what Sensory Percussion does: it lets you expand the meaning of what drumming is

That's so interesting; I never would've guessed that! Speaking of the recording process, where/when did you record the album? Was it completely self-produced?

It's definitely a homemade record, but a bunch of different homes. Because elements of this music have been around for so long, I think it was recorded in four different iterations of a home studio. Plus Liz and Josiahs Wolf's home studio, and maybe two things at Banff Arts Centre. Some of the earliest stuff was started in 2016-ish, but most of the record was done in 2018/19 and mixed by Maryam Qudus in 2020. It feels crazy to think about the timing of it all; it just took me way too long, which in hindsight was definitely because it was self-produced.

You can tell that you've spent a lot of time with Muted Colors over the years, taking little ideas from various points in your life and career. What's the earliest thing that made it onto the record?

I think the earliest stuff comes from right around 2013. That's when I started touring with WHY? and I think that was also maybe the first iPhone that I had. I started recording little voice memos. And I think I got Instagram at that time. And so this ethos culturally of recording stuff in your life and sharing it came about. I think that was always there to a certain extent, but everything just became so readily accessible. So I recorded lots of voice memo samples that I've just saved over the years in random folders.

And the first song, one "1e+a" is a recording of some organs and some drums in the basement of Josiah Wolf and Liz Wolfe. And then the vocals are a recording of some students that I was teaching at the time at this after school youth orchestra. It's very cute, but also some people don't know how to pronounce the title of the song. [Laughs]. I didn't realize that not everyone knows how to count sixteenth notes.

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You've already performed some of the album live, correct?

Yeah, I haven't performed every single song from the record, but I've done maybe 10 live sets since I started working on it. And that has actually informed how it developed because I would do something live and either an accident would happen that would alter the course of how I would play it or I would just realize what I wanted it to be and would then come home and work on it. So doing the live thing was really helpful. And I oftentimes would invite somebody else to play with me. Sometimes it would be a vocalist, sometimes it would be a guitar player. Just to give it another element of chance to help flesh things out.

It's a cool process of getting out there and performing and letting go of the idea of perfection. The sensors are incredible and super powerful, but they also do their own thing sometimes, like you don't always have full control, and I enjoyed learning how to map out the songs so that that's okay.

Yeah, you can tell just from listening that you embraced a certain degree of chance and randomness with this record.

And Sensory Percussion was a big part of that. You can tell from looking at my files, a lot of things are set to random, I have all kinds of LFOs set to different parameters and things moving on their own. I like that with Sensory Percussion, you can hit the same drum in the same way and have it sound slightly different every time.

It just lets you access any sound and do so much with it that you often don't know what the source is if you're just listening to the audio. I did one live performance with Sensory Percussion on a local Cincinnati radio station for YouTube, and somebody wrote in the chat, "This isn't drumming, I don't hear drums." Because they were seeing drums but not hearing drum sounds. So I feel like that's what Sensory Percussion does: it lets you expand the meaning of what drumming is.

If you're a Sensory Percussionist, you can download Ben's Muted Colors Kits and play the sounds from the record at home! This download includes some of Ben's incredible vocal, woodwind, nature, and percussive samples, as well as the kit files for both v1 and v2 of Sensory Percussion!

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