Ben Carr is the leader of Personality Cult, a band from North Carolina that released one of the best albums of the year. His music borrows from the post-skate and post-2001 scenes. It’s punk and always wrapped in pop melodies. There’s also that guitar that reminds me of the great hits from a bygone era. Ben has composed a playlist for the occasion, and yeah, there is a lot of power pop in it! The band is here to stay, it’s the biggest revelation of the early 2020s.
Let us start with a playlist curated by
Personality Cult for Still in Rock
How are you? What’s up with you these days?
I’m all right! I just finished up my third year at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m double majoring in economics and anthropology, so between that, my partner and her son (hi Sofia, hi Milo!), and Personality Cult, I’m always running around doing something.
Busy schedule indeed! Hi Sofia, hi Milo. Alright, let me get into it right away. I have a theory: we have seen the creation of a new genre at the end of the 2010s, and it’s about to take over the 2020s. Its name? “Post-skate” music. What is it? Speedy garage punk with nervous yet friendly voice (nothing like angry punks), a simplistic and very tight rhythm, a cathartic sound, almost chopped, anti-corporation lyrics, a mid-fi production (not too lo-fi) and bouncy melodies with a vehement tendency (listen + read). Some of your songs on your second LP, but not all, relate to the genre. “Pressure Point” is a good example. What do you think of this theory? Is there such a scene in your opinion? If so, are you willing to take the lead with a few others?
Sounds like a good theory! I definitely didn’t know what post-skate meant when you first called us that. I thought it was something lost in translation, ha! But I dig it! I’m one of the lefty socialists, but I try not to write anything overtly political. Some of the songs on New Arrows are political, but you’d probably not guess it. It’s not like “fuck the government blah blah blah” shit. I think there are far too many white voices out there, and I don’t think I must contribute to more whiteness in political opinions. Most white liberals are well-intentioned but kinda miss the point. I don’t know about taking the lead, but if our records influence anyone to pick up a guitar and write anything, I’d be super happy.
Some other songs of yours remind me of the scene early 2000s, inspired by The Strokes. “Sharp Edges” is a great example of it. I know that generally speaking, citing The Strokes as an influence is not super cool, because not underground enough. Sheer Mag would refuse that, for instance. Anyway, I was wondering what’s your relationship with this scene?
I listened to those records as they were coming out, and I really loved them! I was a teen, and then I definitely got to be “too cool” and talked shit on ’em for a bunch of years. I used to be in a band called Paint Fumes and we were on a European tour. Someone brought up The Strokes in the van, and I was like, “yeah, fuck that fake garage bullshit,” so my buddies put on one of their records. I was proven way wrong. Of course, they’re not a punk or garage band! That’s not the point.
The Strokes are great songwriters and their records just SOUND good. I don’t think I’d call them an influence, but I dig the band. After that moment, I decided that being too cool for a band is fucking stupid and super limiting. Not saying Sheer Mag or anyone else who doesn’t like the Strokes is wrong or is acting too cool, just saying that I was wrong and acting like a brat. I’ve since started turning some friends onto other shit I never thought I’d like, like my dude Peter fucking Gabriel. (Rich Crook, if you’re reading this, go blast that tape, baby!)
Your latest LP, New Arrows, also reminded me of Buzzcocks, Protex, and the Homosexuals. In this regard, do you want your music to be part of a lineage, or, on the contrary, to start something new?
We definitely get Buzzcocks comparisons in every piece written about us. They were a huge influence on Personality Cult. I mean, who doesn’t like the Buzzcocks? You gotta be out of your mind if you don’t like that band. I have a Protex pin on my amp, and “Astral Glamour” by the Homosexuals is one of the more wild punk songs ever written. That arrangement is absolutely bonkers!
I’m more concerned with making records that people will consistently come back to than worrying about being a part of a lineage, but those bands are way better than mine, so the comparisons are welcomed. I hope that Personality Cult isn’t the same old same old. I’m an obsessive person. I spend a lot of time arranging and making sure the songs are unique. I hate lazy songwriting, and none of those bands mentioned have lazy writing at all.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between your first and second album? Should we expect Personality Cult to foster the direction taken with New Arrows?
At the risk of sounding like a douche, I think New Arrows is more insular and self-contained than the first one. The first one was a flash in the pan and a lot more lyrically literal than New Arrows is. I spent a lot of time with the writing of New Arrows to give it diversity, but I wanted it to feel like one continuous piece and not just a collection of songs. The newer songs I’m writing are in this vein and are poppy but as “dark” or whatever as New Arrows is.
When should we expect your third LP? Or a new EP? Do you have a title for it already? A release date? A label? An artwork?
I’m writing the third LP now. We were gonna do a 7 inch, but after we all talked, we just decided to do another LP. Dirtnap has been really rad and they want to keep working with us, so they’ll most likely put it out unless we totally blow it and make a pile of trash. No release date, title, or anything but a couple demos. I’ve decided that the art for the first three Personality Cult records will all be very similar with my best bud Ian Rose at the helm. I see no rush in making it, though. We don’t tour a bunch because I’m in school full-time and I don’t really give a shit about becoming famous or hyped up or whatever. I truly just wanna make good records.
I’ve recently conducted a short empirical study on garage rock (link). I found out that more and more albums are labeled as such, but the number of Google queries tends to decrease. What’s your impression from the inside? Do you find it more and more challenging to get support from playing shows and releasing music?
The “garage rock” term bothers me. Garage rock is based on the blues scale and 1-4-5 chord progressions, which very few “garage rock” bands do. I get that it’s an easy way to describe music, but I’ve been trying to distance myself from that term for a while now. Personality Cult is a punk band and will always be one, and punk is as relevant as ever.
Fair point! Are streaming platforms helping, or quite the contrary?
This is a tough one. It’s a real good way to get music out and for people to hear your records. According to my answer a couple questions ago, that’s basically all I want BUT it does suck bad that the pay is such shit. After tens of thousands of plays, MAYBE you can pay a cell phone bill. I wish more people would purchase directly from the label or us, but I truly understand the appeal of having a giant music library at your fingertips. I don’t care about making money, but being able to pay rent is tight. We’re all in the gutter, yah know?
What’s the music scene like in North Carolina, and more generally, in the USA. Is it going in the right direction? What would you like to change?
North Carolina absolutely rules. Sorry State Records is one of the better, if not the best, punk distro in the states. Check out the comp American Idylls that Sorry State did last year. That’s just a taste of the local scene we have in North Carolina’s triangle. All Day Records in Carrboro is at that level for electronic music. They’re one of the bigger electronic/techno distributors on the east coast and probably my favorite record store of all time. I work at a place called Nightlight in Chapel Hill (which is owned by the All Day folks), and it’s truly an amazing place. There’s a festival called “Savage Weekend” that happens every year. Look up some videos because it’s kind of indescribable.
I wish bands were treated better in the states. In Europe, you show up to the gig, they give you food and a case of beer and a place to stay. They know you’ve been traveling for weeks and really make you a priority. In the states, it’s like, “Here’s 2 drink tickets and our beers are 8 bucks a pop.” Then you either stay with a friend or put on some charm and make some friends so you don’t blow your measly earnings on a shitty motel. If I could only tour Europe, I would.
One may argue that there’s a battle between the Australian scene and the US one. Could you give us a few names of Australian bands you adore? (just to see if they’re up to the fight).
Ha! I’ve never heard of any battle! Australia rules, though. I haven’t really kept up with them in the last year. I go through periods of being obsessed with music and buying tons of records and then other periods of not really listening to anything. All that Mikey Young related stuff is phenomenal. All his bands/projects are top-notch.
You work with Dirtnap Records. Tell us about them.
Dirtnap rules! When we finished up New Arrows, Jeff Burke sent them the record and they got up with me within 24 hours offering to put it out. I’ve been listening to Dirtnap releases since I was a teenager, so I was stoked. Ken’s attention to detail, responsiveness, and transparency is really great. He actually believes in the stuff he puts out and he puts up with my neuroticism, which I’m sure can be obnoxious and taxing. Working with a label that can handle my nitpicking and need for information is really refreshing.
Almost all of the labels I’ve worked with have been great, but there have been a couple that treated me like absolute dog shit just because I wanted to know something. I won’t name names, but sometimes it’s the ones that are the “coolest” that treat yah the worst. He also knows the scope of the label. It’s not a major label with a million-dollar budget for shit and he doesn’t treat it like one. They care about the art. Dirtnap is one of us for sure.
Let’s finish this up
Is “rock’n’roll dead”?
Probably, but who cares?
Best tour memory?
I’ve been touring for a decade with different bands, so there are a lot of good memories. Doing a three nighter in Toronto at the Silver Dollar for Canadian Music Week was really tight. We actually got to hang out in the city and Dan Burke is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life.
What is your favorite album of the last few months?
Not an album, but Electric Chair’s Performative Justice is an absolute shredder.
How do you imagine your discography in 20 years from now?
Hopefully full of records that I’m still proud of years later.
The last word?
It doesn’t take much money to start a band and make a record. You don’t need to go to some fancy studio or blow five grand to make something good. Anyone reading this who isn’t in a band should start one. You never know what you’ll be good at until you try. Don’t dick over your friends, and don’t worry about getting popular or anything.
Last but not least, my bandmates are amazing and deserve a shoutout and credit. Colin, Stephen, and Johnny have been around the block and are wildly talented. The final product would not be the same without them. Thanks for having me!