Ben Davis of Cincinnati, Ohio-based experimental indie-pop band, Bad Veins, is a mad scientist, indie-rock hermit. His happy place is being in his attic creating music with a 1970s Mattel Optigan electronic organ; a megaphone; and a trusty reel to reel recorder he has named “Irene.” It’s been 8 years since Bad Veins has released an album, but today Ben has come down from the attic with a new Bad Veins long player. The band’s third album, Imposter, out December 1st on Dynamite Music, may be his magnum opus.
“I do think it’s the best record I’ve ever made, but there is a reluctance for me to even admit that. I almost believe it’s good,” he laughs. “I am in constant fluctuation back and forth as to whether I want to be a public person, or just keep to myself. I had no career ambitions when I first started Bad Veins. I just enjoyed making music in my attic. So, there is always the feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ when I have to do music business type things.”
Bad Veins specializes in pop subversion. It’s almost as if Ben hands classic pop songs with, at times, soaring choruses to a fearless soundscape adventurer to have his way with them. Bad Veins songs teem with synthetic woodwinds and choirs, lo-fi hiss, grimy broken-instrument textures, shambolic indie rock guitars, sublime 1980s new wave synths, and ear-worm hooks. Bad Veins lyrics are often non-linear, and almost abstractions of emotions. “When people ask what my songs are about, I ask them what they think they’re about because everyone’s interpretation is as valid as my own,” Ben says.
The cagey artist’s weird-but-well-crafted and indie pop, and his reluctant performer mystique have galvanized fans to form Bad Veins Army battalions all over the internet. There are squads on Reddit, in private Facebook groups, and beyond. The military imagery is no doubt inspired by Ben wearing his father’s army jacket onstage. That jacket has also been immortalized in an image associated with Ken Burns’s Country Music documentary miniseries—the 1970s episode—in which Ben’s father, a Vietnam vet and musician, is photographed in that jacket armed with a rifle and a guitar.
Bad Veins has achieved that rare feat of earning hipster acclaim and mass media appeal. It has been featured in Billboard, Paste, Spin, MTV, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire (“Songs Every Man Should Listen to”), and USA Today (Top 20 songs of the Year). Bad Veins received the “Target Music Maker” Award for “Best Emerging Artist” at the Tribeca Film Festival and was awarded CMJ Breakout Act by http://CMJ.com . Ben’s music has appeared in television shows such as Queer Eye and Santa Clarita Diet. Bad Veins has toured with Walk The Moon, Two Door Cinema Club, Frightened Rabbit, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and St Lucia.
Bad Veins released its self-titled debut in 2009 which boasted a scruffy indie-rock charm that was perfectly aligned with its Dangerbird Records association (Silversun Pickups, Minus the Bear). Its sophomore record, The Mess Remade, released in 2015 on Dynamite Music, was a much more polished poppy affair. Imposter finds the optimum balance between the two extremes. “I pulled back on the clean, and pushed in some dirt,” Ben admits.
Imposter is a tight ten-song collection rife with imagery and song titles (“Helicopter,” “Lonely Solider”) that enrich the artist’s army-jacket aura. The ethereally anthemic “Long Long Night” bursts with dreamy verses that surge upward with driving choruses. The cinematic single, “Wendy,” a bold choice for the spotlight, is an arty track built on a robotic beat and detached cool vocals and swathed in airy synths and sing-song vocals. The song’s chorus pops up at a unique place from a rhythmic standpoint. “It’s a little off-kilter,” Ben admits. “It comes in on the ‘four’ of the beat.” The unusual song arrangement also features an intentional vinyl record skip, and a mellotron flute solo. Of course, “Wendy” is also adorned with splashes of soaring 1980s synth-pop hooks. There is a nostalgic longing in the song that poetically comes to life with its camcorder-shot video. Other standouts include “Stupid Heat,” which is classic Bad Veins with its rubbery synth-bass, gurgling synths, and irresistible pop hooks, and the atmospheric and emotive “We’ll Get It Right.”
Bad Veins has been an unexpected odyssey for a reluctant but beloved artist. Seeing pictures of people with Bad Veins tattoos, and hearing about Bad Veins Army chapters is both surreal and soothing for Ben. “There are moments when people say encouraging things, and that takes the razor off the wrists,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “I’m really grateful for all the encouragement—it keeps me writing music.”