Ben Mengel, a writer, podcast presenter, movie and music lover, based in his favourite city, Melbourne, dishes up a fabulously quirky, transparent, funny, entertaining and informative music podcast, Creative Spectator for your ear's delight and he is also currently finishing his novel All Round Down. If you haven't yet had the chance to embrace the creative spectator that is Ben, read more below and then go immediately to the podcast!
Get to know Ben:
You describe yourself as a music nerd, writer of words, cinephile, coffee addict and party fiend - awesome descriptors! Can you tell us about your love of writing and what you write about? ~ Thanks! My love of writing can be traced back to my teenage years. I distinctly remember writing a short story for an English assignment that revolved around an alien roaming the earth, trying to fit in while observing all kinds of odd human behaviour. Half the story was written in some made up alien dialect. To say the finished piece baffled my English teacher might be an understatement. In fact, I think it broke his brain a little bit. When it came time to grade it, he actually had a classmate read it out to the rest of the students to get their opinions on it.
While the thought of having your story read aloud and judged by a classroom full of students might sound painful, I honestly embraced it and loved how divisive my stupid little story ended up being. Later that year the very same English teacher pulled me aside and told me he thought I had talent and that I should maybe continue to pursue this whole writing thing. That really meant a hell of a lot to me at the time. Looking back, it is actually one of the few inspiring high school memories I have.
Since then there hasn't been one particular writing style I have necessarily gravitated towards - I have attempted everything from penning lyrics intended for a band I wanted to start (but never did) to writing screenplays meant for films that I one day hoped to direct (also never happened). A little later on, I shifted gears slightly by moving onto writing reviews, op-ed pieces and feature articles for online music magazines and music blogs.
Overall, the single piece of writing I've probably dedicated to most of my time is a yet-to-be completed novel titled "All Round Down" which is something I try and work on whenever I get the chance. As anyone with even a remote interest in long-form writing can attest to, attempting to complete a novel can be frustrating, to put it mildly. It definitely requires more patience than I thought I was capable of, that's for sure. At the same time, it has also proven to be an interesting, educational, and ultimately fulfilling experience. Even if nothing comes of it when all is said and done, just finishing the damn thing will be an achievement all on its own.
What is your favourite piece of literature of all time and why? ~ Now that is an extremely difficult question to answer! When it comes to my reading habits, there isn't really a particular genre or style of writing I prefer over another. I love reading everything from novels to biographies of musicians I adore to graphic novels to the short stories of George Saunders. Hell, when the mood is right I might even go hunt down a random book of poetry.
In terms of writers, I have many of the same influences practically anyone else who is asked this question has. Jack Kerouac is definitely one for sure, though naming Kerouac as a literary hero feels like such a cliché at this point in time. Who hasn't that guy influenced?
I have also always had a strong love and respect for pretty much every word Bret Easton Ellis has committed to the page. For my money, Ellis is an A-grade satirist who never fails to produce interesting and challenging work. His novel Glamorama is, for me, one of the most underrated pieces of literature of the last twenty years. Brutal, brilliant and so completely ahead of its time it's insane.
However, at the end of the day, it is probably the work of Hunter S. Thompson that I tend to revisit the most. He was such a trailblazer during his lifetime and someone who did not allow himself to be restricted by what was expected of journalists at the time. While most of his peers were playing by the rules, Hunter was very much doing the opposite. The fact that he had the balls to not only go out and report on everything from politics to outlaw motorcycle clubs to Las Vegas benders, but also make himself a central character in those stories is something that changed journalism forever. His writing was so darkly funny and unflinchingly honest that it's rare, even today, for many writers to even come close to reaching the same glorious heights.
Where are you based and how do you creatively consume your environment? ~ I am based in Melbourne, which is obviously known as a culturally and artistically vibrant city. Having now lived here for nearly four years, I cannot overstate how important being in this kind of environment has been for my own creative progression.
I think the music scene here in particular is especially strong. Not long after arriving in Melbourne I started writing about the scene, firstly by doing a handful of gig reviews for WICKEDD CHILDD and then, not long after, writing some music-related pieces for an online magazine called Aphra (RIP).
Despite having since moved on from these writing gigs, I think I'm even more invested in the music scene now then I was back then. For me, it's hard not to be. There's just so much going on here at the moment.
I cannot say this enough - if you have a passion for anything – art, food, theatre, whatever - then it really pays to be somewhere where there is real love, respect and passion for whatever it is you are into, which is why I am, years later, still so hopelessly in love with this city. Beyond the thriving music scene, it's a city made for lovers of literature, cinema, and most importantly, COFFEE! In other words, Melbourne & I are a match made in heaven.
Creative Spectator, a music podcast is your most recent creative project, can you explain the purpose of the podcast and your journey that led to the first episode being launched? ~ When Aphra Magazine closed up shop, I knew I wanted to keep focusing on the music scene but wasn't exactly sure how or in what format I wanted to do this. There was always the possibility of applying for other online music sites (there's a million of them here, after all). However, it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that the writing I had been doing with Aphra was leaving me little time for anything else, so I wasn't sure that continuing on in this fashion was really in my best interest. Another option was to continue writing about this stuff via my own personal blog without the pressure of pesky things like word counts and deadlines. Still, I wasn't really over the moon with that idea either.
I had been wanting to give podcasting a go for a while and making the switch over to that format while continuing to focus on the music scene seemed like the exact kind of change I needed. However, as I have since discovered, the whole podcasting thing is even more time consuming than the writing was, so the idea that this would somehow free up my time was a massive miscalculation on my part. That said, there's no question that the process as a whole is far more interesting and enjoyable than simply sitting down and banging words out onto a page.
How do you plan and develop your podcast episodes? ~ Even before recording the first episode, I knew that there would need to be a tight structure to the show. There's no way it would work if I simply hit record and started rambling on about a bunch of random things off the top of my head for as long as I wanted.
From the get go I knew that each episode should begin with a short rant or spiel relating to either a) something going on in the music scene at present, or b) a rundown of an interesting/embarrassing experience I recently had while out attending a show. I also knew that a large percentage of each episode would be dedicated to reviews of both live gigs and new albums I had been listening to in the weeks leading up to the recording of the show.
Episode length was another thing I was very focused on during the early planning stages. Because Creative Spectator is a podcast about a very specific topic, and a majority of the show really only consists of the sound of my voice (along with the occasional music interlude), I felt that making the episodes any longer that 30 - 45 minutes would really be testing the patience of even the most understanding listeners.
When it comes to organising a new episode, the first thing I usually do is decide on the topic I will be opening the show with and then write a short piece on said topic. After that I will select a gig and a handful of albums I wish to discuss, do a little research on all of the artists involved (mainly to give listeners a bit of backstory on the off chance they are unfamiliar with the musicians I'm talking about) and then write a short review on each, not dissimilar to the kinds of reviews I used to write for Aphra Magazine (though with a lot more of my own wacky personality thrown into the mix).
Once everything has been committed to the page I will go over it all a few times and then record the episode (usually in three separate segments, sometimes on different days depending on time constraints). After all the recording has been completed I will then begin the often-time-consuming process of editing the show together. Finally, once I'm satisfied with what I'm hearing, I will write up a quick episode summary and upload the finished product.
What inspires and motivates you? ~ My greatest motivation comes from seeing under-funded, struggling, independent artists in any creative field who are willing to get up and start doing anything and everything possible to make their dreams a reality, regardless of how limited the tools they have at their disposal ultimately are. Whether it's musicians like Car Seat Headrest's Will Toledo recording vocals for his early albums in the back seat of his car or filmmakers like Sean Baker making feature length movies on his iPhone that eventually go onto be praised the world over, I cannot overstate how important it is for someone like me to be exposed to that kind of fearless creativity. It is the fuel that keeps me going.
What are your goals for 2018? ~ I made a promise to myself before recording the first episode of the Creative Spectator that I would keep at it for at least 12 months, regardless of how little interest it ultimately attracts. Thankfully, the response has been better than I could've anticipated, which is surprising and, honestly, a little baffling.
Beyond that, I've got my long-gestating novel to finally finish up. I would say it's 90% done at this point. After giving it one final read through/edit I will then bite the bullet and start sending it out for others (publishers, gulp!) to read... the mere thought of which frightens the absolute shit out of me! But it has to happen at some point I guess. And, honestly, it's well and truly time for me to let go of it and move on to something new.
What does success mean to you? ~ My idea of success has definitely changed as I've gotten older. If you asked me this question 10 - 15 years ago, I might've said that recognition & praise equalled success. Flashing forward to the present, that stuff seems way less important. Success to me now is something much more personal. It's about me being happy with the hard work I'm doing. If I am able to work hard on a project, see it through until the very end, and eventually come out the other side of it all with a finished product I am happy with, then that, to me, is success. Anything beyond that is really just icing on the cake.
Where can people follow you and your podcast? ~ Creative Spectator can be downloaded/streamed/subscribed to/followed on iTunes, Spotify and Libsyn. As for me, I can be found on Twitter and Instagram (@benjimengel). I have yet to jump on the Vero band wagon, but I hear good things, so who knows – I may also be on there by the time this goes up.
Can you share some advice to others who are thinking of putting their creative pursuit into motion? ~ When I was growing up, there was a saying my Dad used to repeat over and over ad nauseam. That saying was: "He who hesitates is lost." At the time I was like, "Okay, whatevvvver Daaad." Of course, as I've gotten older, I've come to realise just how true and important that saying actually is.
Sitting around and thinking things like, "Should I do this?" "Should I wait?" "Am I ready?" will only lead to more time wasting. If you are passionate about something but don't feel ready or don't feel like the time is right or are severely lacking in confidence or any other number of excuses, then I'm sorry, but it is absolutely in your best interest to ignore these things and just get off your butt and do it anyway. Life is far too short to just wait around for the right moment to strike.
I can promise you that no one, not even your creative heroes, were ever 100 % ready to take the leap when they did. The timing is never exactly right for anyone. Waiting for the so-called 'right moment' will only lead to missed opportunities. Do not overthink anything you're wanting to do - just do it! Get going! Yes, you will probably suck at whatever it is you're trying to do to begin with. And there WILL be failures. Oh boy, will there be failures. But guess what? EVERYONE fails at first. And failing is a necessary part of the process. Nobody ever grows as a person and/or artist without failing at least a few times. Once you can accept this and are willing to push through these low points and keep moving forward, then you will be well and truly on your way. After that, there will be no stopping you!