Plain and simple, if I wasn´t doing this blog who knows if this interview would ever happen? It all started few weeks ago when Ben first left some comments on my FIELDS OF FIRE Discography post (check it out here: FIELDS OF FIRE DISCOGRAPHY) and then he sent me email providing me with some more information about Fields of Fire. If you already don´t know, Ben Merlis was the frontman of Fields of Fire from Oxnard, LA and they are one of my favorite hardcore bands from 2000.´s. That was really cool of Ben, so I thought that this could be a good opportunity to ask him for an interview and ask him some questions about Fields of Fire and other bands where Ben used to play (Bad Reaction, Broken Needle and so on). Ben also sings and play guitar in Surprise Vacation which is a great melodic power pop punk trio, but more about all of that in the interview. I hope you will enjoy in the interview as much as I did. Thanks to Ben once more for the interview, replying me so fast, all the photos and for being such a nice guy (and for playing in great bands, haha). Read on!
BEN MERLIS INTERVIEW
Nine year old Ben with Johnny Rotten poster
1. Please, introduce yourself, name, age, where are you from and anything else you want to say about yourself...
Ben: My real name is Ben Merlis, but I sometimes go by Ben Edge. I was born in June of 1978 in Los Angeles, CA, where I currently reside.
2. Are you still involved with hc/punk in any way? Do you play in any band at the moment?
Ben: Yes, I sing and play guitar in a band called Surprise Vacation. We have a 7" out on Bad Touch Records, and more records coming out soon. Hopefully in Europe as well.
Ben with Surprise Vacation, November 2014, Sunken City, San Pedro, Los Angeles. Photo by Steve Insted
3. When and how did you discover hc/punk? What bands and people influenced you to start listening to hc/punk music and to start playing in hc/punk bands?
Ben: I discovered punk music in the fall of 1987. My father owned a lot of punk records from the 70s and early 80s, and out of curiosity I started listening to them. I think I was drawn to it because the Sex Pistols looked so shocking for their time, and I thought of it as a really funny/weird movement. And I was right - it IS funny and weird. I remember listening to "You Stupid Jerk" by the Angry Samoans over and over again with my older brother and laughing out loud about the lyrics and the fact that it's only 25 seconds long. But punk also has a lot of important things to say socially and politically, so within a short period of time I became a convert, and self-identified as punk, which I still do to this day. I think punk music is incomplete if it treats itself like a joke or if it takes itself too seriously. It needs to be a mixture of both.
Ramones with Ben on his first punk rock show in 1990.
4. How and why did you become straight edge, what and who influenced you? Are you still sXe and can you describe what sXe means (or meant) to you?
Ben: I never did drugs, I've never been drunk. I tried inhaling a cigarette twice as a kid, and it was awful. I've tasted beer and it was awful too. They make it so easy to be straight edge! When I was in 8th grade, a punk rock girl said, "You're straight edge. That means you don't do drugs and you're a dick." I was like, "Fuck that! I'm not straight edge!" I had never heard the term before. Then I bought Youth of Today's Break Down The Walls on cassette, and it was like a revolution. I had never heard lyrics like that before. A lot of punk bands had a "live fast die young" attitude, and this was the exact opposite. It was saying, "Live fast die young was just a fad [for] fucking losers!" I was hooked immediately. I was amazed that there were other people in the world who were punk AND anti-drugs. From that point on I wore the straight edge label with pride. Funny how on that same record they say, "I used to think that labels were a symbol of pride, over time I learned they only serve to divide." Well if that's the case, then oh well. I'm still straight edge to this day.
Fields of Fire 2001. U.S. Tour kickoff, before everybody wanted to kill each other
5. Tell me a little bit about all the bands you have played in?
Ben: Without Reason (1995)
We were all in high school. I was the singer. We only played two shows. We recorded a demo, but our drummer lost the tape. I'm still friends with guitarist Lewis Pesacov to this day. He's in a band called Fool's Gold and they tour Europe all the time.
FUCK YOU (1999)
I played bass. We wrote eight songs, recorded a demo and played two shows all within the span of a week before the guitarist went back to Germany (he was only visiting). The singer was a friend of mine who I was going to college with named Steve Aoki. He's a famous DJ now. I think it's funny that he's made this name for himself and a lot of people don't realize he was a straight edge kid with a Gorilla Biscuits tattoo.
Fields of Fire (1999-2002)
You know enough about these guys already.
Bad Reaction (2002-2009)
I was the guitarist. Our first show ever was Fields of Fire's last show ever. We were called The Problem back then, but we found out there was another band with the same name, so we changed it to The Real Problem and then finally Bad Reaction. We have a demo, an LP on Destroy All Records, a 7" on Flat Black, a 7" on Blind Spot, both those 7"s combined with a bonus track on one CD on Reflections, an unreleased EP, and an unreleased LP, which kicks ass by the way. Someone should put it out. We toured the west coast twice and the east coast once. It was the longest I had ever been in a band. It ended when the singer moved back to his hometown of Brooklyn, NY. He's back in Los Angeles, but we have no intentions of getting it going again. We're all still friends and talk regularly.
Amendment Eighteen (2003)
I was never a member, but I played bass with them for a lot of shows in California, Arizona, Utah, and a five week European tour. I had been a fan since they started in '98, and I was fortunate enough to travel to many places with them.
Broken Needle (2005-2009)
I played bass. Broken Needle started in '01 or '02 and I first heard them in '03, and they blew me away. They were absolutely my favorite band. Their bass player Ryan moved to Seattle and I gladly took his place. Most of the people in the band like Jeff Capra, Charlie, Jon Westbrook and Todd Tyler were guys I had been friends with for years, so it felt natural being in the band. We only ever played in California, and we did a tour of Japan in '09, which was awesome. Everyone quit but the singer, and he managed to keep the band going a little longer after that. I'm on the 7".
Knife Fight (2010)
I was never a member, but their bass player couldn't go on their Australian tour, so I filled in. Coincidentally, the people who played on this tour were the exact same people who toured Japan in Broken Needle the year before, minus Todd. I really lucked out - I got to fly halfway around the world with people who had been my friends for many years, and play music I loved, even though the whole experience lasted nine days.
Surprise Vacation (2010-now)
This is really the first band I've ever done that isn't a hardcore band. I wanted to be in a band that was more melodic, and drew more on the influences of those records from my father's collection from when I first got into punk. It was very difficult to find a stable lineup, and we didn't start playing shows until 2012. In 2013 we became a three piece after going through a few guitarists. So there a lot of firsts for me here: first non-hardcore band, first three-piece band, first band where I sing and play an instrument at the same time. I was very insecure about it, but when we played our first show, I gained confidence knowing that we are doing exactly what I envisioned. I'm proud of the fact that I'm not repeating myself. A lot of people who have been playing music for many years seem stuck in a cycle of either bringing their old band back from the dead and beating the life out of it, or starting new bands that sound exactly like their old bands. This would be a nightmare for me.
Fields of Fire merch 2001. Photo by Fred Hammer
Fields of Fire, location unknown 2001. Photo by Fred Hammer
6. How did Fields Of Fire start?
Ben: I was going to University of California, Santa Barbara, and in my senior year I started jamming with Graham Clise (him on drums and me on guitar). My intention was to always be the singer, so we got Jamie Sanitate who was still in high school, and was the bass player of an AWESOME band called Gazpacho with Noel Sullivan (who would later become our drummer). We got Chris Grande on bass, who had played bass in Stand Your Ground. Stand Your Ground was the precursor to a lot of bands because it had Zack Oxnard, who started In Control, and Todd Jones, who started Carry On, NAILS and a million other bands. Chris was going to UCSB as well at the time, and Graham was living with Steve Aoki a block from where I was living, so we were all in the same area at first.
7. How do you look on those days when you were singing in Fields Of Fire, do you have fond memories of the band? Do you regret anything, not touring outside the USA or anything else?
Ben: I regret not touring outside the U.S. with Bad Reaction, because I think we had a real shot, but we dragged our feet. With Fields of Fire, I wish I had not been so anxious about everything, and enjoyed the experience more. That's my biggest regret. But I learned from it. Being in a band isn't earning me any money, therefore if I'm not enjoying it there's NO reason to be doing it. I always remind myself of that. I have both good and bad memories. Kicking my cousin Jesse Rosemoore out of the band the day after 9/11 would be a bad memory. He didn't talk to me for almost three years. We're friends again though. I have fond memories of running around on stage like a maniac, and meeting a ton of people, some of which I'm friends with to this day.
Fields of Fire need gas, Utah 2002.
8. Any interesting tour stories from Fields Of Fire days?
Ben: We played a house in upstate New York with In Control near the Canadian border, and they wouldn't pay us because Zack from In Control was wearing a One Life Crew shirt. They sat us down and explained this to us. It was surreal. The next day we went to Montreal to hang out, but we had to ditch our trailer so we wouldn't get harassed at the border, so everyone else convinced me to "apologize" to the house (none of us were actually sorry for anything) so we could leave our trailer in their yard. The people happened to not be home, so we left the trailer there, came back late at night, and saw that they had poured a circle of salt around the trailer and left a nasty note on it. I'm convinced one of the people who lived in the house was paranoid schizophrenic because he was obsessed with "toxic metal" in the dump behind their house. Hell, maybe they WERE living next to toxic metal. I hope so. We got back from tour, and found out they had written a giant letter to either Maximum Rock N Roll or HeartattaCk, and they had called everyone else who was booking a show for us, trying to convince them to cancel our shows (it didn't work). When I was back in Los Angeles, I found out when they were doing a show again and called their local cops on them pretending to be a neighbor, just to fuck with them. I told Graham, and he said, "You called the cops? That's not cool. I thought you were about anarchy." So you can see how all these politics intersected to make one giant mess. That's probably the strangest tour story. Or one of them at least.
9. Even though Fields Of Fire wasn´t sXe band, some lyrics had some messages that were very close to sXe ideas. How were other band members dealing with the lyrics? I guess you wrote the lyrics?
Ben: We had a straight edge song called "Declaration," but we never put it on a record for the very reason that we didn't want to confuse people into thinking we were a straight edge band. We also stopped playing it live pretty early on. I think it's on the Live @ KCSB demo/7" though. I wrote the lyrics for every song except "Cut the Crap," which Chris wrote.
Fields of Fire at The Smell 2002.
10. What interesting bands did you play with over the years (with any of your bands)? Any interesting stories? Did you ever play with Tear It Up?
Ben: Fields of Fire played with Tear It Up a lot. Good guys. Paul lives in my neighborhood in Los Angeles now, strangely enough. I used to get stoked when Bad Reaction would play shows with old school bands like the Avengers, Adolescents, BOLD, T.S.O.L. and CH3, but truthfully, playing shows with bands from our own era like Tipper's Gore and Rabies actually ended up being more fun and it felt like we had our own scene. Fields of Fire played a lot of shows with Champion, Carry On, Over My Dead Body, Annihilation Time, Whatever It Takes and In Control. I'd say those are the bands we played with the most. Most random shit ever: Bad Reaction played with Amebix once! We were the furthest thing in the world from being a crust band, but people went nuts when we played. I also threw my back out on stage (not that anyone else could tell). Broken Needle played with Gauze in Japan. Holy shit that band is a sight to see. A bunch of Japanese men in their late 50s playing the FASTEST and most brutal music EVER, hands down, and not stopping at all in between songs, for an hour straight. They looked like they were going to collapse from exhaustion after the show. I'm proud to say Broken Needle and Surprise Vacation have both played with the Zero Boys, even though I always wanted Bad Reaction to play with them, being that they were a primary musical influence on Bad Reaction.
11. How come there is not much information on the internet about Fields Of Fire (or other bands you have played)?
Ben: I think Fields of Fire was around when the internet as we know it now was still in its infancy, and promoting the band online didn't really interest me. We definitely suffered because of it. I have no interest in creating Facebook pages for my old bands that no longer exist. Mike Hartsfield does a phenomenal job of maintaining Facebook pages for almost every band he's ever been in, and that's A LOT of bands. I just don't have any interest in doing that.
Surprise Vacation, November 2014, Sunken City, San Pedro, Los Angeles.
Photo by Steve Insted
12. What and who influenced you to start Surprise Vacation and what the name of the band means?
Ben: Listening to Generation X, the C86 comp, Undertones, lots of obscure 70s UK punk and power pop. Pegboy and Naked Raygun too. These are bands I've liked for many years, but I was never in a band where I could incorporate those sounds into our own sound. I think the name was inspired by the song "Pleasantly Surprised" by Soup Dragons. Our name didn't mean anything at first, but my friend Gabe Hart said, "Cool name! It's like a euphemism for getting fired from your job." I thought that was genius, so then I wrote the song "Surprise Vacation" about getting fired from a job.
13. How is the hc/punk scene in the area where you live?
Ben: One word: FRAGMENTED. I felt that way in the 90s, and it just got more and more fragmented over the years. In the 90s, let's say you were a fan of pop-punk. You'd know about every pop-punk band in the general area. Same for hardcore. You were conscious at least of the sub-genre you were interested in. Now it's so fragmented that two bands could be playing the same kind of music in the same neighborhood and not be aware of each other's existence. It's sad really. Everyone really exists in their own separate universes.
Amendment Eighteen at Chain Reaction 2003.
Ben with Amendment Eighteen in Kontich, Belgium, October 14. 2003.
14. What do you like the most on hc/punk shows? What is for you a good hc/punk show (no matter if you are playing or not)?
Ben: A good turnout, audience participation, and the band is actually good. I think everyone would agree with that.
15. What would you say, why you are still involved with hc/punk, is it just the love for the music and playing or is there something more for you?
Ben: It's definitely the musical component that keeps me hooked into it all. There was a long period of time where I was trying to get Surprise Vacation off the ground, and I wasn't playing any shows, and it was pretty depressing. Being in a band ruins you. Playing music is an addiction - and an expensive addiction at that. I've resigned to the fact that I'll be playing music for the rest of my life in one capacity or another, and everything I do is going to be punk. It's inescapable, not that I want to escape it. Punk is stamped into my DNA at this point. By that I mean I got into punk before I ever wrote a song, so from day one, punk has been the focal point for me on a musical level. I miss the community element of punk, because as I said before, the scene is very fragmented. I used to go to about three shows a week in the late 90s and early 00s and see this small group of people at every show, so it felt like a tribe. I can't bring myself to go to shows if I don't dig the music though, and like most people I've grown more picky about music over the years.
Ben with Bad Reaction at Hall of Mirrors, 2003.
Bad Reaction at Hall of Mirrors, 2003.
16. Your favorite top 20 bands/records?
Ben: Off the top of my head and in no particular order:
Black Flag - Jealous Again
Germs - (GI)
T.S.O.L. - Dance With Me
Adolescents - Adolescents (aka "The Blue Album")
Lifetime - Hello Bastards
Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols
The Clash - London Calling
Generation X - Generation X
The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette
T. Rex - The Slider
David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
the party of helicopters - please believe it
The Beatles - Revolver
Bobby Fuller Four - I Fought the Law
Gorilla Biscuits - Start Today
Minor Threat - Minor Threat
Black Sabbath - Vol. 4
Dag Nasty - Can I Say
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold As Love
Inside Out - Inside Out
Ramones - Ramones
There are so many more. Practically every early Dischord record and early Revelation record would make my top 50. I also love Buddy Holly, but I can't pin down one record as being his greatest. A lot of 50s and early 60s bands are like that. It was more about singles than albums back then. I guess only one heavy metal record made my list, but I love heavy metal from the early 70s through the mid 80s. I also love hip hop from the 80s. And the Misfits! It's hard to pin down one record that stands out as the best by them, but "Astro Zombies" is my favorite song. I'd also like to mention that "Behind This Wall" by Turning Point is my favorite song of all time.
Ben with Broken Needle, location uknown, October 2007.
17. Your favorite Nardcore bands/records?
Ben: To me Nardcore has a big four the way thrash metal has the Big Four (Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer). With Nardcore it's Agression, Stalag 13, Ill Repute and Dr. Know, and I like them in that order. Agression far and away is my favorite. They started a long time before Nardcore was really its own scene, so they stand out as having an older sound, not a codified Mystic Records sound. RKL is sometimes considered Nardcore even though they were from Montecito/Santa Barbara. If we were to count them, they'd be just below Agression for me. Once I was playing an RKL song in the tape deck of my dad's car, and it drove him nuts. He flipped out and took the tape out. You know a band is good if it makes your parents insane. The same thing happened with my mom and the song "We Must Bleed" by the Germs. It just keeps repeating at the end. It's like Chinese water torture for parents.
18. Anything you want to add? Thanks!
Ben: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to someone you've never met before who was in a band you never saw. It means a lot to me to know I was involved in something that touched people almost halfway around the globe. It makes me feel like maybe I'm not wasting my time after all.
Surprise Vacation, Los Angeles, January 2015. Photo by Dan Orange