Based on my gushing review of the latest EP release by Radical Face, it should come as no surprise that I found seeing one of my favorite artists live to be both empowering and overwhelming. It was also surprising; Radical Face is known for his complex compositions and gracefully sad story telling, as well as narratives that run not only through songs but through entire albums and series. A recent Youtube video guided fans through what he uses in his studio and how he set it up. The idea of seeing an artist who primarily works alone in a basement studio was hard to grapple with.
Ben Cooper, who told us during his show that he took the name Radical Face from a plastic surgery commercial when he was twenty one because he “thought it was very clever and funny and it stuck,” tours rarely. He wrote in his blog about the difficulties of touring– the way it disrupts his creative process and the physical and emotional realities of playing live; “I think people assume I’m shy (I’m not) or have stage fright (I don’t), but it really has nothing to do with the shows themselves.” The announcement of a tour coincided with the two-disc rerelease of Ghost, Cooper’s first LP. This was followed up by The Family Tree, a four album project which comes complete with a guide, that led to the creation of Bear Machine Records. In Cooper’s words, the creative process of creating a complex fictional family led him to therapy, which would eventually lead to the Therapy EP.
The stage set up at The Neptune was minimal; a few guitars, a small piano, a small synth, and a drum set. The opening act was Axel Flovent, an Icelandic indie rock artist who has been gaining prominence in the US. Before the show, I spoke to several people who were primarily there to see the opener. Flovent played alone on the stage with an acoustic guitar, using open thumb strumming to accompany a floating tenor voice. He was very tall; I could see when stage hands came to break down his set up that his microphone stand towered over them, and this visual added to the emotive character of how he handled his guitar and lyrics.
As the audience cheered for Radical Face as he came on stage with his accompanying musicians, he immediately set the tone for the evening, “You guys are way too excited. For all you know we’ll be shitty.” Cooper promptly let us know that the play list had “been chosen by the internet, so you can’t get mad at me,” having months earlier asked his future audience to select the songs they wanted to hear.
He would open each song with a brief explanation of its story, such as “this is a song about about murder” and “this is a song I wrote at 2 am about being more optimistic in life and look where that got me.” Even songs with more upbeat stories — “this is a song about two brothers and they don’t die. Well, they don’t die in this song, but obviously they die eventually” — gave insight into the “walking existential crisis” that is Ben Cooper’s songwriting.
For an artist that tours rarely, it was clear that Cooper had chosen his band from among friends. They had a casual, self deprecating rapport. When an instrument wasn’t needed, the musician would sit on the floor and stretch or re-tune. Although Cooper remained seated with an acoustic guitar, owing to a back injury from his twenties, his bandmates frequently switched or traded instruments. Several song requests during the encore were declined on the basis that, “I haven’t taught it to them yet.” I realized after the show that several of my favorites would be difficult with a live band; although ample use of sampling was used, without Cooper’s entire studio the effect would be lost.
The intimacy of the Neptune combined with the casual storytelling quality of Cooper’s banter made the show feel extremely conversational. Flovent was with his merchandise for a portion of the show, but near the end of Cooper’s set, his height was unmistakable near the front of the stage, further encircling the shared experience between artist and audience. Closing with two critic and fan favorites, Welcome Home and We’re On Our Way, there was a palpable acoustic resonance as the audience hummed and sang along. It was clear that this was an audience that knew not only the artists work and lyrics, but had also travelled their way from Ghost, up The Family Tree from The Roots to The Bastards and had spent some time in Therapy before coming to this place. All of the members of the audience have a dialogue with these songs we have been carrying with us for a long time.Cooper stated in his blog that he made touring more manageable by breaking up the dates and locations so he had time to rest and create at home. It is my hope that this will allow Radical Face to tour more often, because as an audience and fanbase, we are thirsty. Cooper continued releasing new work during the course of this American and European tour, which gives hope that perhaps a balance can be struck. The power of Therapy continues to bleed into lyrical stories and complex compositions that has made Radical Face an underground force to be reckoned with, and this performance in Seattle leaves little doubt that Cooper will continue to retain and obtain fans.