Southside American Plays November 9th SoHo Restaurant and Music Club in Santa Barbara to Benefit the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation
Interview by Nicole Hanratty
via Telephone October 8, 2013
“Ocean Deep” was inspired by his (at the time) four year old son asking him, “Daddy, how deep is the ocean?” during a family trip to the beach. The song oozes imagery of a young inquisitive mind. Ben Sweet says of his music, “I think it’s about us, for us, the music of everyday people, and it’s the music of your existence – the highs and the lows, the joys and sorrows.” Influenced by the greats like Springsteen, Dylan, and more contemporary songwriters like Jeff Tweedy, The Tallest Man On Earth, as well as being a big Townes Van Zandt fan, Ben Sweet’s music sounds every bit as timeless.
Nicole: What really stood out to me about your story being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, is that it sounds like you were diagnosed later in life, is that correct?
Ben: Yeah, I was diagnosed when I was 25 years old, which is really rare. I mean, it’s not as rare as it once was, but it’s pretty rare to be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in your mid-20s. So obviously that was a shocking period of time for me, and that took a little getting used to, you can imagine.
Nicole: Are you open to talking a little bit about how it changed your life?
Ben: Like most guys probably, I didn’t deal very well with it. Or at least the way I dealt with it was to not deal with it and just to tell everybody that I was fine and obviously it had a tremendous impact on me, it’s a pretty life changing event. It becomes like a mental preoccupation, obviously, when you have an illness like that. It sort of colors your view in terms of your life, your trajectory, your mortality, how long you’re going to be around. And the things that you maybe want to do that you thought you would push off into the future until there was more time, maybe that becomes more urgent for you. I think that was the case for me.
Nicole: And on a daily basis, it changes your lifestyle. I don’t think I’ve yet spoken to a musician who’s had to deal with the challenges of diabetes, so I’m really curious to ask you. Because I know what they entail from my sister, she’s a stay at home mom and lucky enough to have a great support system. But I could imagine that life on the road, and a musician’s lifestyle in particular, could pose a few more challenges.
Ben: There’s no question about it. Having diabetes is a challenge for anyone, no question about that. But I think certainly when you’re moving around a lot, there’s not really much routine to your day, it’s especially challenging. I’ve had situations where I’ve had low blood sugar levels like right in the middle of a set. In fact, it happened to me like a month ago, and my band mates were like, “he seems really sort of not himself.” And I knew what it was that I was trying to get through the set. One of the things that happens when you’re having a low blood sugar episode – and I’ve learned this because I’ve been living with the disease a while now – but one things that happens is you literally lose your ability to make good judgement. So it’s probably not a good idea to continue playing music when you’re feeling that way, but you’re not really in a state where you’re able to make that call so well at that time.
Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge, but you know there are obviously worse ailments that you have. And you try and focus on the positive aspects, which is makes you, I think, more focused, and certainly more disciplined of a person, definitely. So there are a lot of sort of silver linings in the cloud I think.
Nicole: I hear bands all the time talk about – in fact I re-tweeted someone the other day who made a joke saying “you know you’ve been on the road too long when the last piece of fruit you’ve had was at the bottom of a cocktail.”
Ben: I like that.
Nicole: And while it was funny, it’s true.
Ben: Oh, of course it is.
Nicole: I talk to major bands who will tell you when you are traveling, finding fresh produce and fruit and good real meals is a struggle, and nutrition is a big deal for you.
Ben: Absolutely, there’s no doubt. I think when you have something like this where you know that a particular point in a day you’re going to need access to certain things, you just sort of without thinking plan your life around that, you know? If you didn’t have that reality, you wouldn’t be forced to confront that – you wouldn’t have to deal with it. But you probably do in ways that you don’t even realize. So you’re absolutely right, and it’s funny that you mentioned JDRF because I’ve been involved with them out here in Pittsburgh, yeah, they’ve been very supportive out here. It’s a great organization. We were just at the walk down here actually 3 weeks ago, it was at Point Ranch. Pouring rain for the walk, well done.
Nicole: Oh, not so great for that.
Ben: That’s alright, we powered through it.
Nicole: Segueing into your music, I would say potentially the warmth and the heartfelt feelings that you’re able to write about and sing about come because you do appreciate life.
Ben: I’d certainly think I do, but you know you hope you do, but you have something like that happen and then you know you throw–I have two kids–you throw kids onto that. It certainly does focus you and make you more aware and hopefully more grateful for what you do have, the time you have, etc.
Nicole: So can you tell me a little bit about choosing Southside American as the band name?
Ben: When I was a kid I was born in upstate New York in a town called Syracuse, New York. …And the little league that my brother and I played in when we were kids was called Southside American, and so I sort of got the name from that and as a sort of a nod to that time and place – the formative part of my childhood.
It’s actually funny, I’m sure if you’re familiar with the musician Martin Sexton, but he’s fun, he’s probably the most famous musician out of Syracuse for the last 30/40 years. He actually lived around the corner from us–the Sextons did–and I think there was like 9 of them, 9 kids or so. They would babysit for us when we were kids. True story. And I actually ran into him in Portland recently, and he’s a great guy. I saw him after the show and I was talking to him. I hadn’t seen this guy since 1980 something, when he was like a high school kid. He knew every single member of my family’s name, he was asking me questions about people he hadn’t heard about in the 30 years – it was amazing, I was very impressed by that.
Nicole: “Angel of the Night,” is there a story behind that song?
Ben: Yeah. So “Angel of the Night” was actually the first song I wrote for that record. You know what happened, we have like this old house, and I like old houses, and I have a ton of photographs of family members going back like three to four generations. Most of them are black and whites and they’re framed. And I was just walking through the hallway and was looking at them really closely one night, probably had a little too much wine, and that’s when the idea to that song came to me.
SOUTHSIDE AMERICAN ON THE WEB
WE ASKED BENJAMIN SWEET
If you had to choose one song title to describe your personality, what would it be?
Ben: I’ll go with “Devil Knows You’re Dead” by Delta Spirit
What is the last album you purchased or downloaded?
Ben: The last album I downloaded was by a Pittsburgh band called The Cynics. They’ve been around a long time. The lead guitarist of The Cynics is a friend and he lives close to me, and we were talking and I ended up downloading the record.
If you could go back in time and see one band or artist play live, who would it be?
Ben: Great question. I love jazz – it might be Louis Armstrong, believe it or not.
Favorite flavor of ice cream?
Ben: I’ve got to go mint chocolate chip.
Cereal that when you were a kid you used to bug your mom for?
Ben: Oh that’s easy, Golden Grahams. I will still buy them on occasion, and I’m like constantly bummed out that my kids aren’t as excited as me.
All-time favorite movie?
Ben: The Big Lebowski
“IN OUR KEYSTONE STATE” OUT NOW ON ITUNES
Watch the video for “Ocean Deep” here
By Nicole Hanratty
Posted November 6, 2013