While the world at large may seem to be wallowing in division, violence, hatred and uncertainty, a new generation of artists are stepping up in a big way for a more unified future.
Through his trilogy of ‘Modern Tragedy’ EPs, Jordan Benjamin AKA Grandson has provided a soundtrack for a society on the edge of collapse. “My President’s a neo-Nazi. Don’t listen to them, you are not free,” he sings on ‘Die Young’. “We’re stronger when together,” he promises a few lines later, offering the same hope and unwavering belief that’s made his music such a powerful beacon over the past 18 months.
Blending the energies of a one-man Rage Against The Machine, a euphoric festival headline-worthy live performance and millennial vulnerability, his music is eclectic but his aim is true. NME caught up with him on a rare day off from touring to find out if he thinks this modern tragedy has a happy ending.
Hey Grandson. What’s changed between Volume 1 and Volume 3 of the ‘Modern Tragedy’ series?
“Undeniably it feels like there are more ears on the music that I’m releasing now. I knew that I didn’t want to make a debut album right away. I wanted to use this first series of releases to explore my own relationship to hip-hop, rock n’ roll, and electronic music. Volume 1 was my first smattering of songs and they were kind of all over the place in a way that I was proud of. With Volume 2, I think I got scared of being pigeonholed as a political artist so I wanted to express who I was and find my own voice within it all, and Volume 3 represents all of it.”
How do you feel about fighting that label?
“At times, it is undeniably political and it is undeniably rock n’ roll, but there’s also a push and pull between wanting to avoid conflict and avoid the realities of 2019, and wanting to fight head-on for what you believe in. I’ve been trying to navigate that struggle my whole life. I’m trying to make sure that everybody who listens to the music leaves with a sense of power over their life, a sense of agency and a willingness to take on those difficult things.”
How does hope play into your music?
“One of the hardest things when you’re going through a tough time is even being able to articulate what you’re experiencing. By admitting that there is something broken, there is hope that you’re going to fix it. Just by showing up and being willing to confront these things that make me mad, I’m sending a message that it’s not so far gone that we can’t even talk about it. I hope people feel excited to take on the challenges that they face, rather than a sense of hopelessness.”
“It’s easy sometimes to be tempted to get onstage and say ‘Everything’s going to shit, let’s burn it down’, but I also want people to leave wanting to participate in taking back the power.”
Is it difficult to stand up on stage every night and tell people how awful everything is?
“I have a certain amount of optimism about the progressive wave in America and beyond. Over the last couple of years, we’ve experienced an undeniable surge and distrust in our democratic institutions. I feel that we’re in a very important time, but the idea of taking back control from an older generation that doesn’t seem to get it, that’s a theme that’s been playing out since humanity’s start. When I see young people today at my shows and dominating headlines across the world, I believe that their intuition for what to do with this planet is right. What we’re seeing is the last echoes of a dying breed, trying their best to reign in the limitless potential of young people and I just don’t think that that’s going to win. So yeah, it’s easy sometimes to be tempted to get onstage and say everything’s going to shit, let’s burn it down, but I also want people to leave wanting to participate in taking back the power because the system feeds on our apathy.”
What about those who feel unheard?
“If young people don’t feel like they have a voice, if they stay home on election day, that’s how the virus spreads. There are some people who say your vote doesn’t matter and they’re full of shit. Your voice is incredibly important and we need it more than ever but I’m not going to sell you a doomsday scenario to get you to think that it matters. It matters because it matters.
“Recently some people were asking me what I’m going to make music about if and when Donald Trump or Boris Johnson go back to the swamps that they crawled out of. In some ways, my music has been selling pitchforks at the Salem Witch Trials, so to speak but I’m very excited and looking forward to this progressive wave and making happy folk songs. Maybe I’ll be Mumford & Sons or something.”
It’s an important time, but do you think what you’re doing is important?
“It’s important to me. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing it and the feedback I’ve gotten from kids has been that it’s important to them and that’s all that really fucking matters. I meet a lot of kids who say that the music has changed their life or that they’re going through a tough time. People that have been experiencing addiction or self-harm and have wrapped themselves around music as a tool to inspire them to do the difficult work and take back the reins on their own life, those people will come up to me and tell me that what I’m doing is important. I really try to remind them that they’re the ones doing the hard work to take back that power over their own lives.”
“There are some people who say your vote doesn’t matter, and they’re full of shit”
How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
“I came to rock and alternative music as an outsider. I didn’t really have an emo phase growing up and I never had that relationship to an artist the way that a lot of young people do. I was never in a fandom but now I’m in the middle of it. I’ve got the ‘Grandkids’ and I can see how many people are looking to be a part of something. I’m very proud to stand with a huge LGBTQ+ fanbase. A lot of those kids came out to their parents and were told they can’t come home. A lot of people have been ostracised from their community. If you don’t have a home in a traditional sense, if your relationship to community is contingent on you being something you’re not, you’re going to look for other places to feel that family.”
What’s the community like among ‘The Grandkids’?
“When you come join the Grandkids, we don’t give a fuck who you love or what you look like. Essentially, we’re trying to build a non-denominational church. At the shows, there’s an understanding that we’re all going through it together and none of us are inherently more deserving of opportunity or joy. I’m trying to stand up on stage and say ‘Look, I don’t have the answers. If you came here looking for them, you’re going to be disappointed. We’re here to ask the questions together.’ I hope that there’s power in that and I hope that there’s family in that.”
After you went viral with ‘Blood // Water’, you dabbled in so many genres. Were you ever tempted to stay in that lane of angry dance music?
“I knew right off the bat that it can’t be the only thing that I want to do because it’s just not. I don’t want to just want to make big, trap or EDM inspired drops that play at huge festivals or that feel good in a sports montage on Instagram. That would just get so formulaic and repetitive. I’m always seeking to do something different. To put myself in a box at 24 just didn’t make any sense – but what was scary about that is watching other artists get more successful than me. It was scary for me because it gave me the scarcity mentality that I might be making a decision to be a less important, impactful artist. I still love ‘Blood // Water’ as much as I did the day it came out.”
The ‘Modern Tragedy’ trilogy is complete… so what’s next?
“Honestly, I don’t know. We’ve got a couple different projects that I’m working on. There’s a concept project that I can’t give you any details on – but it’s more cohesive, creative and really different to what I’ve done before. I’m just looking to find things that inspire me to get back in the sandbox, so to speak. I think that the best work that I’ve done has come from a real innocent state of play. Despite having an even bigger platform now and having even more people waiting to hear what I’m going to do next, I’m really trying to sit back down and play. We are also working on a debut body of work that’s similar to the ‘Modern Tragedy’ series sonically, but whether or not it comes out as EPs or we put 13 songs together and call it an album, I don’t know.”
“Despite having an even bigger platform now, I’m really trying to sit back down and play”
What kind of sound are you looking to explore?
“I’ve always been passionate about acoustic guitar and doing stripped down songs. We’ve done a lot of stripped down, unplugged versions of ‘Modern Tragedy’ songs and I would love to do a whole stripped down project with a sort of dark minimalism to it. There are a lot of different ways creatively that I’m trying to go. And on top of that, I’m trying to build what The XX Resistance Fund [a movement founded by Grandson that serves to empower youth and connect passionate people with ways to get involved in the progressive causes they care about] is and what it could be.”
What kind of message do you want that movement to have from here?
“I have a better understanding now than I did maybe a year ago but when I look around at the world, I look at bands like The 1975 gravitating to climate change and how impactful it is to have a sole focus, you know? The 1975 are intelligent dudes with a lot of different issues and topics that they care about, but by singularly focusing their energy right now, it’s powerful. I’m interested in leaning into different subjects that I’m passionate about and trying to figure out how I can leverage the growing momentum behind this fandom to try and really be there for the topics that I’m passionate about.”
“Power is in the people that believe in something together”
What projects are The XX Resistance working on?
“We did a project about gun violence, which remains something I’m really passionate about here in America. I’m really passionate about voter registration and voter participation as well. As we get closer to the 2020 elections, that’s something that I’m really interested in getting involved with more; finding ways to motivate young people, particularly in swing states that could vote either way. There’s a lot of shit going on and I have to keep one eye on making music but what’s more exciting for me is figuring out ‘what can Grandson be ideologically’ because power is in the people that believe in something together. It’s going to be a wild ride.”
Grandson’s ‘A Modern Tragedy’ trilogy is out now.