with Ben Vendetta author of Wivenhoe Park
Ben Vendetta is a long time friend of Silber & QRD. When QRD started he was running a peer zine called Vendetta. When Silber was getting cooking, he was starting his label Elephant Stone. Over the years I’ve slept on his floor a few times on tour. Now while I’m looking for a home for a collection of my short stories, he’s releasing his first novel. We’re basically twins in a way.
QRD – When you started Vendetta, were you already pretty familiar with The Big Takeover, Dagger, & other zines or did you kind of start it not knowing anyone else was really doing a serious interview driven magazine about the bands you were into?
Ben – I was very aware of The Big Takeover. I first stumbled across The Big Takeover in 1987 just as I was finishing college. Jack Rabid is the main reason I became a music writer. I always read the English magazines like NME & Melody Maker, but the idea of writing for magazines like that seemed too far-fetched. When I saw The Big Takeover, I was like, “I can do this too!” Jack’s reviews & interviews were great & he was doing it himself -- total punk rock. I actually published a zine called New Direction from 1988-1990, four issues I believe. It was pretty crude next to Vendetta, but we all need our baby steps. After that I started writing for The Big Takeover, including the cover story on the Pale Saints for one of their 1991 issues. I’m extremely proud of that. I’ve been writing for The Big Takeover consistently since that time though I did take a bit of a writing break when I went back to school from ‘92-’93. Through The Big Takeover I learned about other zines. I can’t remember when I first came across Dagger, but it must have been the early ‘90s. I’ve known Tim a long time. Along with Jack, another huge influence was Rob Cherry; Alternative Press was such an amazing magazine when he ran the show.
QRD – Why did you end up stopping Vendetta & what did you learn from doing it?
Ben – My last issue of Vendetta was in 2002, the one with Rob Cherry’s cover story on Echo & The Bunnymen & The Psychedelic Furs. I basically stopped because I had too much on my plate; I was working full time for Dionysus Records in L.A., starting Elephant Stone, & also DJing a few nights a week for some much needed under the table cash. It was a crazy three years in L.A., but I’m really proud of the fact that all the money I made came from rock ‘n’ roll. I never had a straight desk job there.
QRD – When you started Vendetta, did you always intend to eventually morph into a label?
Ben – No, the thought never crossed my mind to be honest. My boss at Dionysus, Lee Joseph, inspired me to start a label. Working for Lee was amazing. I learned so much from him. I look up to him for the same reasons I look up to Jack Rabid. They’ve both made full-time careers out of a passion, which is something very few of us do.
QRD – You had Elephant Stone on hiatus for a while. What made you bring it back & how are things going to be done differently from here on out?
Ben – My wife, Bella, & I are slowly bringing it back. Last year, we did a very cool limited edition compilation of an early ‘90s UK band called The Lucid Dream, who were produced by Will Sergeant. No immediate future plans yet, but we’re going to possibly just do vinyl only now & make it super limited edition. As you know, the industry has changed immensely, but I’m pretty well connected & I know enough cool bands who I am sure would love to do a limited edition 7” or 10” or something like that. No cassettes!
QRD – Were you writing fiction the past twenty years or did you just refine your writing skills on music reviews & press releases?
Ben – I’ve never really written fiction other than taking a creative writing class in high school & trying to write a few short stories in college after reading Less Than Zero & Bright Lights, Big City. There has always been a voice in my head telling me that I should write about the events that happen in Wivenhoe Park & I think, in part, it took getting back in touch with some of my old friends from that era to make it happen.
QRD – How autobiographical is Wivenhoe Park?
Ben – I’d say about two-thirds of the book is true, though some stuff happened to me a little later in life & it didn’t always happen with quite as much gusto! I don’t want to say which parts are true & which aren’t -- I think it adds to the mystique! Like the protagonist Drew, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan & I did go to school for a year at the University of Essex. Most of the adventures Drew has with Johnny from NYU are totally accurate. Johnny is based off my best friend that year, Marc, who went to Rutgers in real life, not NYU. I hope people read the book as a novel rather than just Ben’s junior year abroad confidential.
QRD – Were any of the bits coming from fragments of journals or anything else from the era it takes place in?
Ben – Funny you ask. Like Drew in the novel, I really did keep a journal that year where I would write notes on gigs I saw & girls I liked! I really wish I still had that. I remember throwing that out during a real low point in the early ‘90s after divorcing my ex-wife. I really wish I kept letters from friends & family too. Friends who have read the book tell me that I was really stressed out back then, like Drew is, because I wasn’t measuring up to my parents’ academic expectations. I do have a really ridiculous memory though. I remember all kinds of little details that other people forget. I saw Marc (Johnny) when I was in NYC last week & I mentioned one section of the book that wasn’t true & he was like, “I could have sworn we did that!” Maybe he’s right & I’m not & what I thought I was making up was actually true. That would be really cool! I really got into character with Drew & now I sometimes have to do a double take & be like did Ben or Drew do that?
QRD – Did you need to do much fact checking about the bands to make sure a single had actually already been released in the timeline of the story?
Ben – I did some fact checking, but wasn’t obsessive. I double checked the Psychocandy release date though! I wanted to get that exactly right. Psychocandy really come out the first Tuesday of November in 1985 & I really did skip class to take a bus to a record store to buy it!
QRD – I assume Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero) & Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) are somewhat inspiration points stylistically & thematically for Wivenhoe Park. Would you say that’s true? Any other major influences you’d like to add?
Ben – I read Less Than Zero when I was in college & liked it a lot but haven’t read it since. I like Ellis’s writing style, but as you can see from Wivenhoe Park, my characters aren’t nearly as messed up as the people in Less Than Zero. I love High Fidelity. Hornby is great, but High Fidelity is about pushing forty & becoming jaded as opposed to Wivenhoe Park, which tries to recapture how life feels when all your life experiences feel so new & extreme. I wanted to capture all of the soaring highs & crashing lows of my early twenties. Ultimately, I tried to be really true to myself & get into my twenty-year-old headspace & describe events the way I would have described them back then. As a writer I think my biggest influences are the really economical Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Thompson -- the classic pulp fiction. I love that stuff. As far as coming of age stories that inspired Wivenhoe Park, I wanted it to be like a Quadrophenia for Anglophiles. Too few people get the ‘80s right. SLC Punk is amazing, but all those John Hughes films are terrible. I hated them when they came out. One book I think everyone should read is a British coming of age story called Awaydays by Kevin Sampson. It’s set in Liverpool in ‘79/’80 & references are made to post punk legends like Echo & The Bunnymen & Joy Division.
QRD – At what point did you decide you should publish the book instead of just having it done for your own amusement?
Ben – I wrote it with the intention of it getting published either by a small press or myself. Maybe it comes from having published zines, but when I write something I usually want to share it with the world, whether it’s a review of a band or in this case writing about experiences that I think other people can relate to. My publisher, Shannon at Cooperative Press Trade, loved the first draft & said she wanted to publish it, so I didn’t have to shop this at all so to speak.
QRD – Was it important to you that it come out as a physical book instead of just an ebook?
Ben – Yes. I’m glad that we’ll be doing print-on-demand via Amazon. Bella designed the cover with original artwork, which is super cool. With book publishing I suppose the physical book is like the deluxe 180 gram vinyl & the ebook is the download.
QRD – Do you think you’ll release some type of playlist or compilation of the music the book refers to?
Ben – I have actually done a chapter by chapter video playlist on Tumblr (http://benvendetta.tumblr.com). That was pretty fun to do. I may put together something else as well. My ultimate fantasy would be for the book to get adapted into a screenplay & get asked to score the movie.
QRD – What makes the 1980s brit-pop & shoegaze scene so important to you? Is much of it personal nostalgia?
Ben – To this day I still love my favorite ‘80s bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, Smiths, JAMC, & Psych Furs more than anything else in my collection. They were the right bands at the right time for me. I find that all my favorite current bands happen to be heavily inspired by that era or late ‘80s/early ‘90s stuff like Stone Roses, Verve, Catherine Wheel, etc.
QRD – How do you feel about all the 80s & 90s bands reuniting for tours?
Ben – I always have mixed feelings about tours. I remember being really nervous about The Bunnymen getting back together in the mid-’90s, but they were fantastic. I’ve seen them this century & they still have it. I guess it comes down to if the group is still inspired or not. Jerry Lee Lewis is still a God & so is Lemmy! I just saw The Cult & while that was pretty good, Ian has definitely lost some of his vocal range. Billy Duffy is still a rock star though.
QRD – How is marketing & promoting a book different & the same as pushing an album?
Ben – So far it seems pretty similar. I’ve talked to Shannon about this & we’ve actually been hitting up musicians/music writers first to build up a buzz & get some really good press before we hit the more traditional book review publications. I think that makes sense since no one knows me in the fiction world yet. It’s been amazing getting back feedback. Both Rob Cherry & Jack Rabid have told me the book is excellent & Dave Hawes from Catherine Wheel digs it, which floors me because his group’s music means the world to me.
QRD – As such a huge music fan, how did you manage to never become a musician?
Ben – Not sure! Other than playing the Bobby Gillespie role in a one-off JAMC cover band called Psychocandyass, I’ve never performed. Like most guys, I’ve had fantasies about rocking out on stage, of course, but when it got around to actually picking up a guitar & trying to learn how to play, I think I just got frustrated because writing comes so much easier to me.
QRD – Anything else?
Ben – Just that I think I’ve found my voice with fiction. I’ll always write about music & I’m excited about doing things with Elephant Stone again, but writing Wivenhoe Park felt almost effortless. Maybe that’s the way it is with first novels & first albums for bands, but I have more to say! I’m really excited to promote Wivenhoe Park. I already have some readings/signings set up for here as well as other cities across the country next year. I don’t know why some of the bands I worked with were so gun shy about touring. I’m super pumped to get out there & meet new people.
Author page: www.elephantstonerecords.com/ben-vendetta
Other QRD interviews with Ben Vendetta:
Interview with Ben Vendetta of Elephant Stone (March 2004)
Interview with Ben Vendetta of Vendetta (November 1998)