Ben ‘The Rebel’ Wallers: Satire, fascism, country music, and the death of all human life
Ben Wallers is the strange maverick behind Country Teasers, a musical legacy bolstered by nine albums and an ever-loving trickle of cult devotees. Before the Teasers’ eventual break-up in the late noughties, Wallers helmed over a decade’s worth of material - a broad tapestry that ranges from their 1997, angst-ridden debut album, The Pastoral – Non Rustic – World of Their Greatest Hits, to the experimental, Science Hat Artistic Cube Moral Nosebleed Empire (2002) to the political nuances of The Empire Strikes Back (2006) - a collection of swan songs steeped in satire and postmodern vim.
It’s hard to live a normal life once you’ve visited Wallers’ twisted world; you look at people differently, wondering if they, like you, have been initiated. After the Teasers disbanded, Wallers has continued to make music as ‘The Rebel’ (so named after Tony Hancock’s 1961 film depicting a jaded charlatan, desperate for an authenticity he can never achieve). A visit to one of the The Rebel’s bizarre, intimate performances is recommended if you, like ‘us’, take your cues from someone who dresses partially as Spiderman and sings about gentrification on Mos Eisley, Tatooine – which, according to Ben, is a bit like Walthamstow.
In an exciting turn, GigList was afforded the rare opportunity to speak with the man himself in his Hackney flat, and, as Wallers’ infant daughter trundled around in a circular baby-walker (Ben lovingly calls it 'The Davros') a field recorder switched to green, and we began.
(That's Ben Wallers, on the left)
Tell us about the early stuff?
I don’t really like to sing those early songs (says Ben, sitting back in his chair, surrounded by mountains of musical paraphernalia) because I don’t identify with the character. (Wallers likes to use ‘bad words’, and the most memorable song of that first album is one entitled “Bitches Fuck Off”. Although Ben was quick to clarify that it was an early attempt at Swiftian satire.)
What mindset do those early songs occupy?
At the time I thought it was ultra-feminism, hardcore feminism, saying plainly that women and men are equal, and that I’m going to express these feelings so that I can mock them. But now I suppose it doesn’t look very good, but I like 'Bitches Fuck Off', I think it’s a good song.
Is anger important to writing a song, a political song?
Well, I got into Jonathan Swift and William Burroughs when I was young, and they’re all angry, and I was attracted to the satire in their work, the way they take on the worst of what they see. So maybe it’s not important to a political song, but it’s certainly important to satire.
People say satire’s become more difficult, now it’s been obscured by reality. Does that hold true?
Well, regardless of whether it’s difficult, I think it’s a moral thing. Life is terrible for so many people. If you see a child smoking, you can’t go up to them and say, ‘stop smoking’. Just like you can’t go up to the human race and say, ‘stop being racist’, you have to use satire and irony to say the opposite of loaded things. That’s what I thought about racists and misogynists in the 90s, and that’s what I think now. But yes, I suppose satire today will be more shocking because that which it satirises will be more shocking.
Let’s go back to music - what are your influences?
I loved Pussy Galore, I loved The Carter Family, those old country songs, and the Nashville scene, all that decadence, it’s the fall of Rome in America, but perhaps most of all I loved The Fall. I became obsessed with The Fall, The Fall dominated my taste completely. It’s like a genre in itself, there’s so much in there and I don’t understand why everyone isn’t in love with them.
And then there’s Tammy Wynette, who you cover?
Yes I love Tammy Wynette, I cover a few of her songs. The reason I cover that song ‘Stand By Your Man’, is because there’s that thing of the ironically un-ironic, she wrote that song earnestly, as a reactionary, which is quite funny really.
(Wallers performing live at The Hope & Ruin, Brighton in 2017. Photo credit: Agata Urbaniak)
When you perform, why do you dress up the way you do? What’s with the Spiderman gear?
Well the whole Spiderman thing is a funny one, and I often get asked to explain it literally, as if Spiderman is some sort of perfect allegory. It isn’t. I just wore the costume once in New York and it stuck. Although, there’s something very interesting about dressing up in costume; it helps me transition to this other character, the one you hear singing in the songs. When I perform, I reveal pieces of that person as I go, taking off parts of the costume song by song.
And what about the ‘Spastika’ the ‘Spakenkreuz’?
I’ve always wanted my music to remain, at its core, politically anti-fascist, that’s very important to me. However, I’m also interested in the power of symbols, and the swastika is an example of a symbol that elicits a real, visceral reaction in the viewer, that’s why the punks used it so naively; they were attracted to that. (Ben flaunts a strange symbol - emblazoned on his ring, his amplifiers, his album covers, his instruments. It looks almost like a swastika, but with one of its arms broken, turned upward to face in on itself. Ben looks rather serious, hoping not to be misunderstood.) So I wanted to make an anti-fascist symbol that would carry the same emotional weight as the swastika. And I came across all these photos from 1930s Berlin, when anti-fascist protesters had painted over swastikas, turning them into umbrellas and stuff. That’s where the idea comes from.
Do you think fascism is on the rise?
Probably. I am writing more angrily at the moment, because I’m annoyed at the fact that none of us really know what’s going on. I blame the internet, it’s this wealth of information without meaning. And everyone gets to bolster their worldview – however shitty – in any way they like. That’s what’s changed since my day.
When you talk about exterminating humanity, as you do in many of your songs, what do you mean?
Well that’s a funny one. Because I called one of my albums ‘Destroy All Human Life’. (‘Destroy All Human Life’ is immensely toned down compared to the rest of Ben’s oeuvre, filled with mournful lost-love songs, country covers and twanging ditties, it also includes his best-known single ‘Golden Apples’.) Yeah, and while that statement is a joke, it’s also, incidentally, what I think should happen. We’re an immensely self-important species and I think it’s widely accepted in most scientific circles that, if we did all just disappear, the world would be much better off. It’s a cold, sad truth but it’s a truth.
(Country Teasers in 1994 - Wallers is middle-right)
So, looking to the future, do you have any advice for blossoming cult musicians?
Urm, let’s see, what have I done wrong? Well don’t get married obviously, don’t have a baby… (Sophie, Ben's wife and former bandmate, chuckles loudly from next room. The baby carries on as it was, bouncing off the furniture pinball-style in 'the Davros'.) Also be sure to collaborate - I’m a solo egocentric at the moment and I think things could be better. It’s good to collaborate, and I’ve scuppered myself by not liking it.
Speaking of legacy, your aesthetic has influenced quite a lot of people - Fat White Family for instance. How do you feel about that?
Well I like Fat White Family, I think they’re good, and I’m glad my music has had a canonical impact on things, but often when I go to gigs I hear music that sounds like my music and I hate it. That makes me quite upset – perhaps at myself.
So I’ve heard that you now work in a garden centre, what’s that like?
Yeah I love it. I’m on sabbatical right now because of the little one, but yeah, I like it – I love plants, so that’s great. I sometimes think about dedicating myself wholly to music again, but I need the money at the moment, and I’m happy doing what I do as well.
Having said that, the real artist that Tony Hancock fantasises about in The Rebel is the one that takes the risk, moves to Paris… so I do sometimes think about spending a couple of grand on recording equipment.
The other day I read about how Virginia Woolf started a fund to get T. S. Eliot to quit working at the bank. Will we have to do the same for you?
That would be awesome! Yes, forget the garden centre, I’d love that. Please do that...
Ben 'The Rebel' Wallers has an upcoming headline set at Farmfest 2020's livestream on 28th August.