London (UK)

Anyone who claims that pop music no longer boasts great characters needs to discover the music of (Ben) Esser. A 23-year-old Essex boy brought up on UK garage but such a fan of legendary 60s producer Joe Meek that he’s planning to get Meek’s portrait tattooed on his chest, Esser makes music which sounds like the Radio 1 A-List re-imagined by aliens.

First single "I Love You", three beguiling minutes of off-kilter loops and vocal samples pulled together with a dead-on pop sensibility and such wonky lyrical observations as “Love can be dangerous/Like a fire in your kitchen”, has already been described by NME as “playschool pirate pop”, while Popjustice acclaimed it as “weird but brilliant”. Its video, in which he sings the lyrics into a camera while getting paint and food thrown over him, is, Ben says, a “pained artistic expression”.

That’s just for starters. Released in April on the ultra-hip Merok label (Klaxons, Crystal Castles, Teenagers) as a limited edition of 500 seven-inch singles, "I Love You" will be followed up by an album on Transgressive records which gives Esser’s extraordinary imagination full rein. Produced by Lexxx, sidekick of the A-List mixer Mark ‘Spike’ Stent (U2, Madonna), the debut album includes songs of peculiar brilliance. There’s Headlock which sounds like an inspired collaboration between Pharrell Williams and Jim Noir, and contains the surprising lyrical plea “Bury me in sand like a knackered stallion”. The rest : reinventing trashy glam rock, moody, half-whispered, hip hop-inflected minimalist pop songs and more.

Esser grew up in a house full of music – his father was, he says, “a jazzer” who used to teach at the Colchester Institute. “Family members would come over and play - there was always music happening. It was always something you’d do for fun, to get together, so that’s the attitude I grew up with.” Growing up, Esser listened to hip hop, but it was UK garage that made him realise it would be possible to make records himself.

Esser started experimenting with loops and synthesizers, making “Ninja Tunes-type stuff” that he’d attempt to persuade his friends to rap on, then upon leaving school started playing drums in a covers band. “We played Mustang Sally, Beatles songs, Sit Down by James…” Many of their gigs were at holiday camps. “Some of them were really great because it was like classic English cabaret,” says Esser.

After almost two years he joined a DJ collective "Bugz In The Attic", then spent another two years as a drummer in an indie band in which at last he could play original material. He also enrolled in music college and started to write songs. Through that process he decided that he didn’t want to be in a band any more but wanted to do it on his own.

The transition was far from easy. “I ended up signing on for a year. I pawned all my guitars, everything. I just about survived. But it got to the point that I had my bills to pay, but I wouldn’t be able to wait for my cheque to clear, so I’d have to go to cash converters and cash my cheque. They’d take some stupid percentage, and I’d pay my bills and just have to wait for the next one because I didn’t have any fucking money.” interest in mainstream pop music. "I’ve basically just been listening to Radio 1 and all the cheesiest pop music for ages now. I’m just interested to hear people that are pushing it, that are at the top of their game. "

Esser started got a publishing deal and formed a band, which features his younger brother on drums. “The band developed out of the songs,” he explains. “It started off quite rigidly, it was just me programming the samples, getting someone to trigger them in the right way and getting the other guys to play the parts, but I think it’s developed beyond that now. Their personalities are coming through. We’ve supported Foals and the Mystery Jets and our own tour’s really coming together.” Not that Esser wants to be locked into one format. “The next record could be a different band,” he says. “It could be two people, it could be 20 people. It can be whatever it needs to be for the music, I’m not restricted by anything.”

Esser is also bolstered by the fact that he already has enough material for two albums. After a long period of roughing it, he also enjoyed the bidding war that erupted around him.
Now he’s preparing to unleash himself on discerning pop fans everywhere. “I really liked the sound of the stuff that I’d recorded, even if it was just weird things like me tapping on my desk at home,” says Esser. “That was something I wanted to keep on the record, so it was a case of turning those demos into proper productions together with Lexxx to make them sound like a record, so that’s where I am now.”

Esser seems also destined to cause a stir thanks to his dress sense, which is as eclectic but stylish as his music. “I love looking in YouTube and finding videos of mods,” he says. “I love those youth movements. I’m interested in classic bits of clothing that have come from a few places and are thrown together. That’s what I love about sampling, that you can take something from two different worlds and combine them and create something completely new. For instance,” he says, gesturing at his bowling shirt, “they were wearing this shirt on a Beach Boys album cover. I’ve got the 90s calculator watch, dunno about these trousers.” He looks at his white, rolled up jeans. “Tennis? Wham!? Don’t put that in…”

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