Interview: Jordan Benjamin of grandson Chooses Action Over Apathy on New Album

Jordan Benjamin—who performs under the moniker of grandson—shares an urgent vision for the future on his debut full-length album Death of an Optimist, out today via Fueled by Ramen. Grandson’s music smoothly veers between hard-hitting rock, invigoratingly confrontational hip-hop, and exhilarating electronics.

This diverse and vibrant blend across Death of an Optimist relates a story of modern anxieties, with a feeling of pushing ahead through an emotional storm and, critically, a real sense of large-scale triumph at moments like the energetic and somewhat bright track “Drop Dead,” which Benjamin crafted alongside Travis Barker of Blink-182.

Social concerns weigh heavily on grandson’s music. Benjamin’s lyrics grapple with the struggles of facing off with the problems that rip across underprivileged communities. “Dirty,” which was released as a single, captures the perspective when Benjamin sings alongside an exuberant, free-flowing rhythm: “Do you have enough love in your heart/ to go and get your hands dirty?”

Benjamin has focused on these topics throughout his career. “With this album, I just wanted to be honest about the challenges that I’m going through as an artist giving you something to believe in,” he explains. “I wanted to shed a light on the antagonist within myself telling me that all this is for nothing—but also still concluding on a message that inspires you to take on those challenges. That is the most honest story that I can tell in 2020.”

Death of an Optimist conceptually hinges on a struggle between Benjamin and a character who the artist calls “X,” who represents the allure of apathetically ignoring the problems that confront people across the globe.

“When I first started writing the album I was kind of just noodling around with kind of generic songs—titles like “Okay Not To Be Okay”—just kind of wading in shallow water creatively,” Benjamin explains. “I began fleshing out that this is a project around optimism, it’s around hope, and it’s around this tension I feel between being so deflated by the uphill battle of progress versus the sort of allure of apathy or the ambivalence that is so tempting.

I never could have imagined when I first took that concept on how relevant it would be for everyone this year, but once I had these characters and this clear narrative that I had been writing towards, I found the music got a lot better, and the output got much more efficient.”

Like other artists, grandson has been affected by the COVID-induced chaos across the world of music.

“It’s brutal being so disjointed and detached from these relationships that you build on the road that stick with you for a lifetime,” Benjamin shares. “It’s hard watching my bandmates or my road crew be in this purgatory, uncertain of when or if their jobs will ever come back to that familiar routine that we had, but working on a project, having those expectations can actually really help push the project along, and frankly, having this album to work towards—it just gave me a reason to wake up and put the pen to the paper, so to speak.”

Benjamin used the downtime during the live event slowdown throughout 2020 to fine-tune his debut album. Although live events suddenly became scarce with the spread of COVID-19, and the prospect of returning to the tour circuit still seems rather far-off as of the release of grandson’s new album, musical creations—including those from grandson—have continued to emerge amidst the turmoil. Pre-release singles from grandson’s new album including “Identity,” “Riptide,” and “Dirty” have all gotten music videos.

“The album’s about this tension between this fork in the road of: do you indulge in the delicious, comforting apathy and just throw your hands up and say none of this is my problem, it’s too big for any one of us to take on—or do you get involved,” Benjamin shares.

“It was during COVID and getting some time to just sit with these songs that I realized I wanted to anthropomorphize that feeling, give it human characteristics, and that’s where this character “X” came about that then colored the aesthetic of the music videos, the social media presence, and the merch—all of those creative designs, the visual feelings. The album looks how it sounds, but how it looks came about from sitting around, smoking a joint in my living room instead of trying to get all that done from the back of a tour bus, exhausted, with a show coming up.”

Benjamin himself is a central figure in each of the music videos for the three initial lead singles from Death of an Optimist.

“I was able to lean in and be creative in ways that frankly I just never have been in my career up to this point,” he says. “I had never put myself in the middle of these music videos, or done any acting, done any choreography, and I remember early on when the pandemic first began, I absolutely mourned the year that could have been, all the tours I was lined up to do, the incredible legacy bands that I was going to be opening up for around the world.

“But, after that I kind of just realigned and refocused on: how can I leave this year having gotten better at shit that I had never even thought I was interested in? How can I not only take on these new challenges creatively and dig even deeper as an artist, but how do I do so and be good at it? These six months have been really, really good for that.”

While crafting Death of an Optimist—for which he says that “the bulk of the songwriting” was done before the pandemic set in—Benjamin partnered with folks like Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Grammy-nominated producer JT Daly on select tracks—but he also worked alongside producers Boonn and Krupa, who’ve long collaborated with him.

“I’m really proud that we’ve been able to maintain that relationship and that intimacy creatively while the three of us have all grown and expanded in our respective points of what we each bring to the table,” Benjamin shares, explaining that working alongside certain high-profile collaborators turned out rather conducive for maintaining this heart at the core of grandson’s music.

“Working with Travis, working with Mike—often I find the most accomplished collaborators I’ve worked with are often the ones that are the least imposing. Working with these bigger, more accomplished producers, I came in with my guard up, but what I found often was, they just say: I like what you do, and how can I help? And those sessions were some of my favorites when I look back.”

Death of an Optimist definitely carries an organically diverse sound. No element feels like a garnish; instead, each piece of the music cohesively builds the album’s poignant experience of rushing headfirst into seriously tense storm clouds with an ever-present determination to prevail. Grandson’s music unveils propulsive emotional energy at the core of each of the music’s stylistic elements, filtering a drive for fist-pumping triumph through personal perspectives on tense struggles.

Benjamin explains that inspirations for individual songs across Death of an Optimist range from groups like Rage Against The Machine and System of a Down to more directly rock-oriented artists like Queens of the Stone Age. Outside of rock, other song inspirations include electronic producers like Skrillex and RL Grime, while the verses of grandson’s new song “WW3” are entirely hip-hop.

“There is a formula for the kinds of influences that I’m going to bring to a song, but the particular blend of them: we try and approach it with a curiosity each time,” Benjamin says. “We try to push it forward and do it in a way that we haven’t yet while also not leaving behind the very creative synergy that got us here, which isn’t just me sitting alone in a room. I can’t look at my Spotify and think—you know what? I don’t need those people that got me here, because look how many plays I have. I got here with those people. […] Grandson is a village, and it always has been. It always will be, and the more that I’m honest about that and give that shine to the other people I work with, then I find the more the universe kind of gives love back, for sure.”

Death of an Optimist ultimately carries a kind of punk spirit via its frequently ferocious insistence on looking turmoil right in the eye. After all, Benjamin notes art is a clearly potent vehicle in the first place. “I think that there’s gotta be something—if you look historically at fascism as it spreads—I feel like historically they always come for the artists first, and that’s gotta mean something,” Benjamin observes. “It feels like one of the very first ways to stifle a community, to stifle an uprising, is to censor or mute the artists, the poets, the writers.”

“I believe what we do first and foremost is providing a commentary on or a soundtrack to something that’s already happening,” Benjamin observes, discussing the connection between grandson’s music and social activism. “Do I hope that something from this project can spark some sort of movement? Of course, because it would just be the single most important thing I can do as an artist to be able to contribute to a social awakening in some small form towards a more progressive, more forward-thinking America, but it certainly won’t come from me alone. This music came from what I’m seeing other people on the front lines of the causes that are closest to my heart doing, and it’s the courage that I see around me.”

Some of the examples that Benjamin cites of inspiring action include movement within the community of grandson fans themselves.

“Ultimately, I just want people to leave feeling a little bit better, a little bit more willing to take on the cause,” Benjamin shares. “It is through our collective apathy that we are just getting rammed with this conservative agenda in the world and where big money and big corporations that don’t give a fuck about normal people are able to do so much damage because of the lack of consequences, because we don’t care enough. So ultimately, choosing to end [the album] on this optimistic note is because I’m inspired by the kids that I see standing up for what they believe in, and I believe that my role in society is to just give someone else a little motivation or a little fuel to keep going — not necessarily to start, but rather to continue on the fight for equality and for justice.”

Image by Ashley Osborn

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