“There Was A Joy To Doing It” Benefits’ Singular Mission

Frontman Kinglsey Hall in conversation...

On the surface, Benefits can be difficult, at times impenetrable. The Teesside group’s exhilarating debut album ‘NAILS’ moves from jagged electronics to free jazz via post-punk, all held together by Kingsley Hall’s careering, scorched-throat treatises on our dystopian island. Peeling back the layers, though, reveals huge subtlety, and no small degree of heart. From those early shows to a recent landmark gig at London’s The 100 Club, Benefits have built a unique connection with their audience, tapping into pent up anger at the bland authoritarianism that has swept over the country.

“It’s easy to be a shouty, Northern punk type person,” Kingsley tells Clash over a Zoom call. “But I find it all very daunting. I enjoy it when we do the merch afterwards, and people – usually quite big guys – come up to us afterwards, and say that they feel the same.”

He’s just finished the school run, and is balancing shifts in a day job with his band commitments. Despite the overwhelming work load, he’s still bristling with excitement. Within a few days of our call Benefits open the Clash stage at the Great Escape with an incredible show at Brighton’s One Church – the electricity generated by their debut LP is flooding across the land.

“Having the album out is amazing. I’m not going to lie, it’s been really hard work,” he adds. “We started turning cogs in lockdown, so I think a lot of people had written us off after live shows started again. A lot of people saw it as: that was that, let’s go back to watching proper bands in proper venues. Everything we’ve done since lockdown has felt like a victory.”

It’s Benefits’ staunch refusal to give in, to buckle to these outward pressures, that has allowed them to rise. The band’s debut album was released on Invada, a move sparked purely by change – label founder Geoff Barrow (also of Portishead, Beak, and other projects) – spotted a tweet from sleaford mods, and sent them a DM. “It still blows my mind!” the frontman marvels.

The band engineered a Bristol show – “seven hours there, and seven hours back” – with the sole purpose of getting Geoff Barrow to come down to listen to them. “We snared him, really,” Kingsley laughs.

These are golden days. The musician even admits that he’s pondering a visit to HMV, to see the album in the flesh. “Seeing it as a vinyl record, on a shelf, with a sticker. If I buy that, and give it to my mum… she’ll understand it, then. There’s something really preposterous about going into your local HMV and buying your own record and hoping that the staff don’t go: what a vain prick!” laughs. “It’s fascinating. We never planned any of this.”

It’s a release with almost perfect timing. ‘Nails’ emerged on streaming immediately prior to the Coronation, with all its attendant pomp and paegantry. Countless millions were spent on uniforms, coaches, horses, and crowns, while the cost of living forces families across the country to choose between heating their homes or feeding their children.

“You get to things like the coronation and you feel like you’re taking about 10 steps backwards again. All the way through lockdown, when Cummings did that awful press conference, or Truss tanking the economy… you felt, like, rage! As though the country might finally start to make it shake. But in the end, we kind of whimper.We have a little moan, it’s all semi-polite and we grumble. And we go back to the status quo. Then something else comes along – a coronation or an Olympics or a football championship – and it throws people. They distance themselves from the politic. We move into this flag-waving, drum-beating rhetoric… which I find really appalling.”

Benefits choose to peel back the plaster, and examine the wound. Theirs is a debut album that dares to explore the Imperialist legacy, that chooses not to flinch at the darker aspects of our country. “We don’t shirk away from events that we find despicable,” Kingsley tells Clash. “And maybe a percentage of the population don’t find it despicable at all! But we would find it dishonest not to speak about it. It’s nonsense. I don’t understand how so many artists can just bury their heads in the sand as this country gradually, sneakily, twee-ly falls into fascism.”

“I do think this country is freely moving into fascism. It’s the John Lewis-ness of it all. Christmas adverts. Paddington the fucking movie. It all paints this country in such a nonsensical light. It’s like Mary Poppins – where everyone, no matter how low they’re paid, lives in a Victorian mansion.”

“I know it’s a kid’s film,” he laughs. “I’m not stupid. But it’s the way we hold on to the 2012 Olympics as a sign of our country’s greatness, when they had to put gun turrets on people’s homes. They had to drag the army in, as there weren’t enough workers. But we forget all that, because we won a few medals and got to wave some flags.”

Beneath the coruscating noise and hollering lyricism, however, lies a beating heart. Benefits make this because, well, they really fucking care. It wasn’t an easy path, but it’s one trodden with love. “As harsh as the record sounds, and as difficult as it is… it was actually really joyous to do,” he beams during our call. “And invigorating! Proper fire-in-your-belly stuff.” 

“There’s a fearlessness there. We had all these obstacles, but we ignored all that. You know, my Dad died towards the end of it. And relationships get strained when you go to work at 6am, come home at 6pm… doing that, getting home, trying your best to do your parental duties – as you should – but then staying up until all hours scrambling together these notes, mashing together these sounds. It’s knackering. But there was a joy to doing it. If it wasn’t fun to do we would have stopped.”

The sessions were free-flowing, with each idea seized upon and injested, becoming part of the broader whole. “I’ve been in bands before, and it can be regimented, or static. But the way we worked was abstract. Totally abstract. It felt like Bowie and Eno in the 70s. There was a purpose to what we were doing.”

Indeed, there’s an innately visual quality to what Benefits construct. Kingsley Hall actually has a background in visual arts, and for a time worked in a modern art gallery in Middlesborough. “I was employed to tell people not to touch things,” he jokes. “It’s a minimum wage job. But you’d chat to people about the artwork. And a lot of the ideas in Benefits have come from my time doing that. I love abstract expressionism from the 50s and 60s – your Jackson Pollocks, and so on – and I love the idea of creating an artwork by chance, with a little bit of purpose. Throwing something on the canvas, or really attacking the canvas… as opposed to beautiful drawings. And that’s what our recording process is.”

In the end, there’s so much colour and light, so much vitality in Benefits, that it’s becomes impossible to simply characterise them as a protest. There’s celebration, too. “I try and stress this when we play,” he points out. “The emphasis isn’t just on anger and aggression and rage and ranting and raving… so many bands do that. It’s so easy. And it is easy.”

“We try and push a positive message,” he says. “We try and tell people that regardless of what you might see as a weaknesses – in your abilities, in your strength, in your anxiety, or your place in the world… we try and tell people that you’re not that. You are fucking important. You are so special. You’re so unique and you’re so powerful. That’s kind of it. That that’s the point of it.”

‘NAILS’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Ciara McMullan

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