The Lonely Planet
Ben Von Wildenhaus Watches the World from a Cramped, Neurotic Apartment in Queens
You wouldn't think Great Melodies from Around—the solo, largely instrumental recording from Ben Wildenhaus (appearing here as Ben Von Wildenhaus)—came from one of the guitar-wielders of great Northwest garage-rock heavies Federation X. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to figure when and where it came from at all.
"It's supposed to be like a found object," says Wildenhaus on the phone from SXSW, where he's navigating a particularly gnarly crowd. "Where you can't tell if it's a shitty cassette, or a recording of the radio, or, say, a dub of a record."
But the more we talk, the more he indicates that this record is planted with his deep Northwest roots. "That's sort of the vibe of it," says Wildenhaus, who grew up in Olympia, went to college in Bellingham, and moved to Queens a few years ago. "It's me looking at the Northwest from this cramped, neurotic apartment in New York."
But if he's looking at the Northwest, he's also looking elsewhere. In New York, Wildenhaus plays this material with a Middle Eastern group—Ben Von Wildenhaus and his Professional Band—and the record traipses hazily through Eastern-influenced melodies and rhythms, fireside pedal-steel languor, and just about everything in between. Using tape loops, voice, guitars, bass, drums, a sine/square wave generator, pedal steel, lap steel, accordion, piano, and a Wurlitzer organ, Wildenhaus traverses melody fragments and song sections that seem to drift in and out like wandering wraiths, never staying long enough to grow tiresome. The result is at once meditative, transformative, and isolating. "The Limping Axeman" features the most catching melody on the record. After a prelude of Ennio Morricone–caliber vocal intonations, it quickly breaks into a slinky guitar riding over an uneven rhythm, similar to a limping rhythm in Turkish or Arab music, and the combination is sinister and hypnotic.
On this tour, called Orbothology, Wildenhaus plays alone with just his voice, a guitar, and an old sine/wave generator he bought at a stoop sale ("the New York equivalent of a garage sale"). He plays along with a film he and collaborators House Plants put together, and in videos he can be seen making ridiculous faces and head jerks as he picks at his guitar.
"There's kind of a Neil Hamburger aspect to the show," he says. "I take the nervous energy I have from playing by myself and turn that into an aspect of the show—I'm sweating profusely, wearing a suit and tie, and coughing into the mic." Maybe he should get out more.