Craving Danger: An Interview With Strange Names' Liam Benzvi On His New Solo Project

Soft Ethnic is the brainchild of 25-year-old, Brooklyn-based Liam Benzvi. In what sounds like an amalgamation of queer no-wave and r&b of the late 70s/early 80’s, the melodic insistence of Benzvi’s songs feels original in delivery, and familiar in musicality. The name “Soft Ethnic” comes from a type-casting term that was given to him during his years of acting school in Minneapolis, cheekily attributing his skin tone to his ability to be cast as a variety of “ethnic” characters. Turning to music, Benzvi co-formed new wave-pop outfit Strange Names. Their debut LP, Use Your Time Wisely, came out last Spring on Frenchkiss Records, and a second LP is on the way. Benzvi says Soft Ethnic is an experiment, mostly in its performance: “a means to over-saturate the city with my feelings.” Soft Ethnic's debut EP will be out in the Spring of 2016. Today, Autre exclusively released Soft Ethnic's Memphis Milano inspired music video for the track Prints, co-directed by Jarod Taber and Alex Rapine, with set design by Marki Becker. We got a chance to catch up with Benzvi to discuss Soft Ethnic, type casting and his new music video.   

Autre: When and how did you start making music?

Liam Benzvi: I was more invested in lyrics for a while because I didn’t need any kind of musical vocabulary or skill to quantify what I was making. I’m a product-oriented songwriter, so even if something isn’t done, I’ll say it’s a finished demo as an exercise of my full authority over the song. When I got my first computer in college, composition was suddenly a very user-friendly experience for me. The bounds of the software ended up pushing me to seek out real musicians to collaborate with because I was dissatisfied with the computer sounds, and still didn’t think I had any capacity to learn anything myself. It was getting into a room with real musicians—my best friends—that ultimately allowed me to make the music I wanted to. When I was in my first band in college, I semi-stole my band mate’s DD6 pedal, and would make really expansive vocal loops that crafted the majority of my first fully formed songs.

Autre: I understand that your name, Soft Ethnic, comes from a type-casting term that you encountered quite a bit while acting in Minneapolis. How did you get into acting and what kinds of characters would you play?

Benzvi: I went to performing arts high school in Manhattan, followed by a conservatory acting program in Minneapolis. I got into it because I loved the backstage culture of theater. My friends, talking in class, talking about what we liked/disliked—these were my people. I really wanted to get into my body and be as self-realized as I could be by the time I had to move out of my parent’s house, and being on stage was the best way to do that. I was always cast as villains—I had the most fun when I had to be old or monstrous and grotesque in some way. I was told I was “soft ethnic” by a bunch of casting directors that would teach us workshops about being the “CEOs of ourselves” and understanding how we would be perceived at first glance, walking into an audition room. It felt shallow, funny, and very real all at once. And I always knew I’d take the term and turn it on its head—not necessarily to be political, but to make it more personal to me if that was indeed how I was “perceived”.

Autre: Do you plan to continue acting or are you focused exclusively these days on music?

Benzvi: I’m committed to music right now, but I always intend to make it as performative as I can. I think I’ll act again, and I’ll be much better than I was, because of what I’m doing now.

Autre: Each character you play in this music video is distinct from the next and represents a clear embodiment of the melodic components that comprise the song. Are they all separate sides of yourself, or is there one that feels more connected to your true identity?

Benzvi: My friends that have seen the video like the drunk character the most, and they say that he is my true essence. It’s probably true because I’m more unhinged. I also like the archetype of the dude in the band that’s just really excited all the time about everything. That’s the character in the flamingo pajamas.

Autre: How did you discover Ettore Sottsass and why did you choose his Memphis Group aesthetic for this particular video?

Benzvi: : Marki and Jarod had just birthed their film/design group Wash & Fold, and they brought me a bunch of paint swatches. At that point I had no real idea of what Marki was going to design and build. I just knew that I wanted it to look like a baby’s bedroom—she took it from there. When she came back with a design, she had gravitated to the Memphis Group for the playfulness of the shapes they used in the 80s. The personality of the Memphis objects allowed them to be read as set pieces but also added a layer of continuity to the video and gave me fun shapes to interact with for each character.

Autre: There are some very clear parallels between this new sound and that of your other group, Strange Names. Although, with Soft Ethnic you take a clear shift toward a much more mellow drum line, which makes for a slower, more contemplative groove. Was this a conscious choice, and are there any other ways that you intended to branch out from the sound you’ve been crafting with Strange Names?

Benzvi: I approach all my writing with a uniform simplicity. When I write for the band, I always keep in mind that whatever I make alone is only a third to half way to the finish line—it’s really liberating. With Strange Names, I fundamentally trust Francis and Fletcher with their unique creative authorities and I can allow myself to let go of ideas when they’re not necessarily a complete demo on my end. In the last year or so I had been listening to a lot of no-wave electronic stuff. It didn’t feel very flashy, and it was kind of bizarre, but all the hooks were there. It felt like pop and jazz and funk at once; totally achieved with not much more than a drum machine, some synth chords, and a very up-front, grandiose, indiosyncratic vocal. To name a few—Indoor Life, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Patrick Cowley, Tuxedomoon—verging on punk, but still a little too weird/queer for it. This kind of not-belonging theatrical energy was something I wanted to experiment with on my own. I knew that I would do it in my own way, and if it sounds like Strange Names a bit at the onset, it's only because it’s my voice singing and it's my melodic instinct in the writing. As far as execution, the simpler construction is definitely intentional. I like that it sounds like a demo. There’s some spoken word involved—kind of in a Jarvis Cocker kind of way—and for the live show, I’ve begun collaborating with dancers and devising choreography and that’s been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Autre: I’ve read that Strange Names has constantly been restraining its avant-garde tendencies in order to make the sound more accessible. Is that something you feel you need to do with Soft Ethnic as well?

Benzvi: You could say that. With Soft Ethnic, I want to be unapologetically myself in every way, from start to finish—I suppose that could form a window to potential avant-garde tendencies. Making something accessible is in reference to the hustle of being in a band, trying to get picked up. We were in Minneapolis and we were listening to all sorts of music, reading all the blogs, trying to methodically figure out how we could be successful. It was and will always be exhausting, but when we moved to New York that all changed because we really sat down and made the record we wanted to make. We realized that our collective admiration for anthems came from the inclusive feeling it evoked—not talking meaningless and vacant American Idol-penned anthems, but Human League hooks and B-52s summer-of-love type music. I think we’ve stopped giving a shit about people turning their noses up.

Autre: Strange Names came out of the Minneapolis music scene and has since made its way to New York City. Can you talk a bit about how those music scenes differ and whether or not this has affected your sound?

Benzvi: I think that in New York it’s really easy to be alone, and because I have a lot of alone time here I’m more inclined to make things alone. Since Strange Names has been a New York band, when the band gets together, we’ll all have made something alone and bring it into the room and have to make collective sense of it. Is this something we can all attach ourselves to? And great results always come from that kind of dissecting. With Soft Ethnic, I have no idea how something is being received because I keep it completely to myself and then perform it and see what happens. I crave that sort of danger so that I can keep working hard at all times. I want to be the most resourceful performer I can be, and I always want to be learning about how I can be as compelling as I can on stage.

Autre: When you’re not making music how do you spend your free time?

Benzvi: I’m trying to collaborate with as many people as I can lately. Making friends. Drinking. Writing. I’m not really sleeping that much.

Autre: How would you like your sound to evolve over the next 5 years?

Benzvi: If whatever I’ve made is aggressively of my doing, I’ll have probably evolved in some way.


Click here to watch the music video for Soft Ethnic's track Prints. Photograph by Charlotte FergusonInterview by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE