The Gaslamp Killer: Neo-Beatnik Shaman

The Gaslamp Killer wants to “lead the youth” to enlightenment. He explains how his epic, psychedelic debut album Breakthrough heralds the dawn of a new Beatnik era

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 17 Sep 2012
  • The Gaslamp Killer

LA-based label Brainfeeder, home to Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Samiyam and a whole host of other artists, is among the best-known and most forward-thinking of experimental music labels operating in the world today. Closely affiliated with legendary weekly LA beat session Low End Theory, started by DJ / producer Daddy Kev in 2006, every single one of the artists on the label creates music which defies easy categorisation. From FlyLo's epic, mind-bending excursion into jazz and broken beat on Cosmogramma, to Samiyam's awkward, stuttering, low-slung bass music, to the abstract word-collages of Jeremiah Jae, it would be difficult to point to a single band or producer on the roster who hasn't consistently challenged listeners' expectations. 

With his debut album about to drop, one of the label's most fascinating characters has come to the fore: William Benjamin Bensussen, aka The Gaslamp Killer. His production on Gonjasufi's A Sufi and a Killer, his work with labelmates such as FlyLo and fellow traveller Prefuse 73, and his three solo EPs have all gathered flat-out critical adulation. His high-energy, often confrontational stage persona has made him a perennial favourite on the US festival circuit, and he is one of the much-loved residents at Low End Theory, which now has regular gigs in New York and Tokyo as well as LA. Breakthrough, which features collaborations with a slew of his Brainfeeder cohorts, is a sprawling psychedelic journey which Benussen describes as “head music,” taking in hip-hop, dubstep, jazz fusion, psych-rock and spoken word.

Although unafraid to use the word 'psychedelic' when describing his music, Benussen has his own definition of the term: “People don't even know what they're hearing, they don't even know that what they're listening to,” he explains. For Benussen, the psychedelic feel is as much to do with the history of the concept as the term's strict definition: “I mean, back in the day... people were singing backwards, playing their guitars backwards. They had so much weird shit going on. Everyone was experimenting with drugs. Everyone was totally out of their bodies, but they were making records.”

Psychedelia is a spiritual thing for Benussen, tied to the landscape of his home in Southern California: “I feel like it's the energy vortex of the world, not just one of many,” he explains. “I live on the edge of Los Angeles – I'm looking at the view from up on Mount Washington. I'm in my car, it's beautiful sunny weather, and I'm looking at this incredible view, and it really has a spiritual vibe to it. It feels like the spiritual centre of the Earth. So, I feel like a lot of us [on Brainfeeder] have been tapping into that.”

He points to the experience of the Beatnik generation, and its literary champions: “A lot of them tried to get away from the big metropolitan mess... with fucking chaos all around you so that you can't get a clear moment to think about what you want to do, or how you feel. You can barely hear your own voice, you can barely follow your own spirit because you're so distracted by all the bullshit.” Getting away from the chaos of the city, and into the spiritual country beyond LA, is the key: “That's what psychedelia is, to me. It helps me get out of my head. It helps me get out of my stressful head and my aching body, and all of my work and all of the shit that I'm doing, and it helps me focus on my spirit. It helps me listen to my inner voice. It's about letting my soul do it's thing.”

Whereas Benussen's interviews in years past have seen him describe himself as an “angry psycho,” he has undergone major changes in his life of late, not least the end of a long-term relationship, and the sudden death of his brother. “It just came down really hard on me, and I felt a little lost,” says Benussen. “And so, I went searching, just like anybody does. I think it also has to do with my age – I'm turning thirty this year. I'm still the same confrontational, B-Boy, hip-hop motherfucker, but I'm realising there's more to life than your career. There's more to life than your persona and what you project. There's even more to life than feeding your family and paying the bills. It's easy for me to say this, because I'm paying my bills, and taking care of my family. I'm paying my parents' mortgage. I'm doing a lot right now that most twenty-nine year olds aren't doing; especially my generation of twenty-nine year olds. So I just feel like the death of my brother, and the collapse of so many things in my life... it was like hitting the proverbial bottom. Maybe it wasn't as bad as the bottom that some people hit, but it changed the way that I think about things, and it changed the way that I'm handling things. It forced me to go deep into myself, into my heart, and I'm still there right now. I'm trying to discover what I'm really here to do. I know it's not just to jump up and down and play music and entertain.”

He sees parallels between the Beatnik movement and the close-knit friendships between the Brainfeeder artists: “In the mid to late sixties it just exploded; everything exploded. But before that, in the late fifties, there were a lot of amazing things happening; people coming together and forming great collectives of thought, and of music, of creativity. Yes, there were protests, but it wasn't totally at the boiling point where the top was about to burst off and fly in everyone's face. I think it's the same now. We're kind of at this place where we want change, we want a revolution, but I think a lot of us are still just so comfortable in our own creative bubbles. I don't think a lot of us are really willing to speak out at this very moment. It hasn't got bad enough for us to stand up and say something.”

Like Flying Lotus, who is the great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, Benussen's family have deep roots in America's musical heritage. His mother worked at Columbia Records in the late 1950s: “She was hanging out with Thelonius Monk, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Alan Ginsberg... all these dope artists. Instead of it being a big protest, they would just get into groups and discuss things. Well, we get together and do the same things – me, Flying Lotus, Ras G... we get together and have good conversations over a smoke, just reflecting on everything that's going on. I feel like a lot of us are all very 'present' – we're not trying to escape anything; we live in the present, in the now. We're trying to create positive shit for our generation and for future generations. I think we all recognise the responsibility we have as artists now. It's a very special time: a crucial, fragile time, and we all recognise that.”

Benussen sees The Gaslamp Killer persona as a potential vehicle for positive change and education: “On Saturday night, I played at Hard Summer [a cutting-edge music festival started in 2007] and everyone just looked like they were frothing at the mouth on drugs. Totally crazy ravers. I told the kids – I gave them a John Waters quote, I said: 'If the person you're fucking tonight doesn't have books in their home, get the hell out of there.' Half of the crowd looked at me like, 'Oh shit, I don't have books...' They were like, 'Oh my God, GLK just called me out.' I think I posed a question to these young kids, and I think that's an important part of what we're doing as artists – to use our voice, not just entertain. That's what it used to be like in the late fifties and the sixties, in the Beatnik culture. Timothy Leary and all these other great minds weren't afraid to share their opinions with the people, and the people started to follow them. They gained more and more followers, because they were speaking the truth. They were speaking a language the kids could understand. We're trying to do that, musically and verbally and spiritually.”

Would he see the role he wants to play as being almost that of a shaman? “I do, but I would never define it as such – that sounds a little egotistical,” he says. “But I feel that my body, my soul and my spirit are conduits of energy for people. Some people just want to be entertained – they don't want to hear what I have to say. But if I strengthen my mind as well as my body and my spirit, I feel like I could really offer the kids more than just a physical escape. I can also offer them a little bit of education. I mean, I've been trying to educate through music for a long time, but now that I'm getting older and I'm starting to find my voice as a human being, on this planet. I feel like I would like to lead the people in a more positive way.”

Benussen launches into wide-ranging, expansive rant about dumbed-down 'trap' music, the sound dominating LA's clubs: “In California we have this saying, 'going dumb.' That came from Mac Dre and E-40. What they were getting at is that all this 'trap' music – all this ignorant rap music by people like Juicy J, all that shit – that's the same concept you see everywhere. Everybody wants to go dumb. When you hear the bass drum, and the crazy hi-hat sprinkler-sytem-ing around, that drum and bass sound – it's not jungle, it's hip-hop, but it's just drums and it's just bass. It's straight 808. That's the root – people don't even realise. They think they're going dumb, but what they're actually doing is letting the drum free them from their bodies.”

The power of rhythm, and the communal experience of dancing, is something Benussen believes fervently in: “We all want to escape our fucking stresses, and when you hear that big bass drum, it takes you out of your body for a second, and it makes you feel all these amazing feelings. You're shaking from the bass and it just feels so good; it makes you disengage from your body. So, I feel like it is my duty to do that, but I'm trying to take it one step further. I don't know if I'll achieve my goal. It's hard. I'm a young person, I like to drink, I like to smoke, I like to party. So my brain isn't always as sharp as I would like it to be. I don't know if I will lead the people where they need to be led. Right now I'm just feeling very grateful and very blessed that people are prepared to follow me at all, in any way.”

What makes him want to lead people in this way? “I feel like I have a bigger purpose, and I don't know what it is yet, but I know it has something to do with leading the youth,” he explains. “I really don't want to come off like an egomaniac, but I feel like people are drawn to my energy, just like they're drawn to FlyLo's energy, just like they're drawn to Ras G's energy, just like they're drawn to Daedelus' energy. People are drawn to my crew's energy. We don't know why! Some of us might just take that with a grain of salt and say, 'You know what? It's about the music.' And that's fine. I'm down with that. But when I speak on the mic, some people cringe, and shout: 'Shut the fuck up! Play some music!' But other people, they have this look in their eyes of enlightenment. I shit you not, man. The others are like: 'Shut the fuck up!' People have thrown things at me. Like, 'We're not here to hear you talk. It's not church.' But other people write me messages... every day I get messages online, after a show, for weeks. Maybe one message a day saying something like, 'Thank you so much for trying to educate. Thank you for telling people to read.'”

He believes that as an artist, he has a responsibility to step into the gap created by the failings of the US education system: “You don't learn anything in high school,” he snarls, the “angry psycho” making a brief return. “All I learned was that life is hard and people are assholes. That's all. The education system in this country is very fucked up. In Europe, in Asia, the kids have to learn English. They have to learn science, geography, geometry, on top of all the shit that we learn in our schools in America. Here, people take Spanish or French, but they don't learn it – they just learn the book version of that. What's the point of reading it out of a book anyway, y'know?”

Breakthrough is an intensely collaborative piece of work, with appearances from many of the Brainfeeder mainstays: “Apparitions, Seven Years Of Bad Luck For Fun, Flange Face and Dead Vets are my favourite tracks from the album. The Daedelus song as well (Impulse) – we had a broken drum set; the snare had a hole in it, the kick pedal was broken. It was a fucking ghetto setup, but Daedelus and I made such a vicious track out of it. That's a pretty special story.”

Daedelus also helped engineer some of the tracks, and he and Benussen have a special relationship: “Personality-wise, energy-wise, we're both neurotic Scorpio Jews from Southern California. That made us bond really closely. He helped with the Amir Yaghmai song [Nissim]. It's a song for my grandfather and my brother. That was one of the most special collaborations on the album... It's like a bona-fide Turkish hip-hop kind of beat. Daedelus introduced me to Amir, set up that recording session, and engineered it. He helped with a lot of stuff on this album. We have a strong friendship. I look to him for advice, I look to him for consulting, and I look to him for brotherly love. I look to Daedelus for a lot of things – he plays a very important role in my life.”

Going back to Benussen's assertion that Breakthrough is 'head music' – what does that mean to him? “I grew up with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The Native Tongue crew; the whole Jungle Brothers and De La tribe. They have these skits and inside-jokes, these weird words. There's this whole personality behind their music. That shit is raw! DJ Shadow had these incredible albums with these amazing drums, crazy basslines and awesome vocal samples... and out of nowhere you'd hear these weird quotes and stories, on the record. I used to listen to these musicians and just think, 'Woah, that is so cool. These people must have such a cool life.' I wanted to know these people, I wanted to be friends with them. There was so much personality involved in these records, and for some reason, that's just gone away. The people who are making records now – the track starts, the track stops, the track starts, the track stops... and I'm sick of that shit, man. I want more personality from my producers; I want more personality from my artists.”

He elected to make Breakthrough a very personal record: “I have samples of my father talking, I have my mother talking. I'm telling a story about me. There are my friends making animal sounds and stupid shit that I've sampled. And it's shit like that which I just feel has been missing from the records of our time. I wanted Breakthrough to be more of an experience where you put your headphones on, and you start with one song, and you let your brain go... and when your brain comes back, you probably won't notice that you're in the same album. You'll start wondering, 'Am I still listening to the Gaslamp Killer album or is this something else?' That's what I like, that's what I used to feel like when I used to listen to an album; like, 'Wait, did this change? Am I listening to a compilation? Is this a jazz record or a hip-hop record?'”

Breakthrough channels the spiritual, psychedelic sounds of the sixties, but it's also plugged into the dark, dystopian, synthesiser-based music of later decades. Are these two sides of the same coin? “Yes, definitely,” he agrees. “Some of my favourite records are based around that. I mean, Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. People think of Pink Floyd as a rock band. But they were using some of the earliest synthesisers known to man. They had two of them on stage going at once during their shows. They had two EML 101's – I think that was what they were using. Some of the greatest rock bands of all time used synthesisers for their breakdowns. When it breaks down to just drums and bass and synthesisers, that's when you get some of the most magical parts of the records. A lot of the seventies jazz-fusion artists, they would just have these brutal jazz drummers, crazy stand-up bass players, and synthesisers. They replaced the guitar. Dudes weren't playing guitar for a while! A lot of pop songs of that era, the lead is a synth. I feel like that drum track, the rhythm track and the synthesiser, that's all over my album. That's a huge part of what all of us [on Brainfeeder] are doing – making it sound like hip-hop, or trip-hop, or dubstep, or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays. I just call it psychedelic beat music.”

This focus on emotional honesty, personal history and transcendent rhythms is twinned with a belief in the power of the tribal experience Benussen tries to create at his live shows: “I want to lead people into ecstasy; I want to lead people into insanity,” he enthuses. “I want to lead people out of their bodies and their worries and their stresses, and into the void, man. Into their spirit. I want to help them let go of their bodies. When they look around at each other, everybody has this look on their face – everybody dancing to the same drum, wearing the same smile, and feeling the good vibes. And, you know, how hard is that? That shouldn't be something that's missing from our society.”

He points to the dance rituals of tribal societies: “They have been doing this for thousands of years. They get together, they listen to the drum, and they do their dance. Everybody does the same dance together. They dance to the beat of the same drum, and they do this all the time. Some tribes even take psychedelic plants and do these ceremonies. Once a month – it's like a sound baths, a human sound lab. I mean, this is what people were doing in Egypt. I believe the ancient pyramids were sound labs. They were conduits of such a supreme energy that they could actually heal the nation. That's what tribes do – they correct the spirit with these sessions. They get together and they let go, and they cleanse themselves.”

He believes this experience is essential for the modern world, and can be recreated at clubs, raves and festivals: “The crowd become one, and they realise that even though they might not want to sit next to that person on a plane, because they have BO; or they might not want to be stuck in traffic with a bunch of these people... you know: 'We don't want to carpool. We have our own agenda.' But then you get them dancing and it's like, 'Holy shit, we are all the same, and we all want the same things. We shouldn't fight each other. We should be friends, and we should try to be kind to each other, because the rest of the time, we're being pretty fucking mean.'”

Benussen is a man with a mission, but he remains humble: “I don't even know if I'm the one to show people this – I might just be in this moment of my life right now, you know, like Saturn's return, this age, where I feel like all of this crazy clarity is washing over me... this amazing sense of purpose and being. That might just be me, right now. For all I know, after my thirtieth birthday I might just say: 'Y'know, it's not that big of a deal. I just want to entertain people and feed my family.' I might go back to that mentality, and that's totally fine! We all deserve to do what makes us happy, and if that's what makes me happy... I don't have to take all of this responsibility, I really don't need to. But I've been around people recently who have told me how I make them feel, and it inspires me. When I have these kids telling me how I make them feel, it inspires me... and it makes me wonder if maybe I do have a responsibility to the world. It's scary, but if I can strengthen my mind, my spirit and my body enough, I can last a long time. I can learn a lot, and I can share what I've learned with the people, if they care to hear it.”

Breakthrough is released via Brainfeeder on 17 Sep .