Could you start off by giving a little information about both of you to the audience?
Leslie: The Sweetest Condition is comprised of Jason Reed Milner (formerly of the bands Nimbus, FORM 30, Seven Mile Radius, and Irene & Reed) and myself—Leslie Irene Benson (formerly of Mr. Eyetooth and the Majestic Moose, Burning Veda, and Irene & Reed). We launched the band in 2012. Jason primarily composes all the music using synthesizers (an Access Virus TI2 like the one used by our namesake inspiration, Depeche Mode, is his current dream machine) and guitars. I write all the vocal melodies and lyrics, and I sing a low alto akin to Shirley Manson or Johnette Napolitano. I’ve also been known to pick up a guitar, ukulele or flute every once in a while. (I was a symphonic flutist in high school.) But I prefer to keep my hands on the mic. We currently live in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s not just a country music town anymore. We’re part of a growing underground electronic music scene.
When you first started making music, was there a particular sound or artistic/musical influence that you would say was your biggest inspiration to start pursuing the creative path yourself? What led you to electronic music, particularly the heavier kinds of it?
Leslie: When I was around 16 years old, I saved up to get my first electric guitar at the local used music store. It was a vintage Van Halen-inspired black and white striped monster that made a distorted metal howl. I used it to write my first original song, “Xavier,” in 1997. At the time, I was one of the trenchcoat- and combat boot-clad kids in high school listening to Bauhaus, Switchblade Symphony, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.
As a weird, awkward kid growing up, straddling the line between honor student and band geek, the only place I fit in was with the other weird creative types—the gamers, artists, drama club kids, aspiring poets and musicians. Little did I know that two decades later, I’d be paired up with the ying to my music yang, Jason, who grew up listening to the same stuff I did. The album that made him want to learn how to write and perform music was “Pretty Hate Machine” by Nine Inch Nails. I can definitely hear that influence in our music now.
What would you say would be you short term, and long-term, goals for the band?
Leslie: Our short-term goals are to release our second full-length album, “We Defy Oblivion,” later this year and kick off some tour dates. Our long-term goals are to have our own home recording studio, play a world tour, and find a way to make a living full-time off of music and our other creative endeavors.
Do you find that you two have to find a balance between your different directions and goals? Or do you work together fluidly?
Leslie: It’s rare to find someone with whom my creative goals are so closely aligned. There was some divine magic involved in getting us together. Although we drive each other crazy sometimes, we’re able to set aside any differences for the greater good of our artistic vision.
Within the band, how do you guys define your roles within the composition of the music?
Leslie: When Jason and I began writing music together as Irene & Reed in 2009, it was an indie piano pop-lounge act, so we’d both bring melodies to the table on guitar or piano, and we’d hammer out a song together in a very organic and fluid way. It was an almost spiritual experience.
Now, with this electronic industrial and synthpop-infused music, we have more defined roles. Jason composes all the music, with no preconceived notion of what the song will be about. He just trusts his emotions and rhythmic instincts, and then I take my time getting to know the music until it starts telling me a story. I write the lyrics based on how I’m feeling and what demons I have to wrestle with that day, and out come these catchy little tunes that get stuck in your head when you’re trying to sleep.
And when I get stuck, I remember all the fucked up relationships I had in my teens and twenties, and I journal my way through the poison until I have found some revelations to share. On occasion, I’ll even write a happy love song. But that’s rare.
Are live shows an important part of your career? Do you feel the most home in the live performance or in the studio? Why?
Leslie: We played a lot of live shows as Irene & Reed. What I loved most was the energy we got back from the audience—that exchange of emotions between the audience and performers. It was an intense and magnetizing feeling. However, as a bit of an introvert, I am most centered when it’s just me, a pen, and paper. I love songwriting the best, and creating the albums. The feeling of having something from nothing is very rewarding.
Playing live shows, recording new tracks, attempting to go live the life that gives you the experiences that inspires it all... it can be difficult to balance the time. Do you have any particular methods that you use to keep yourself focused or balanced in your direction?
Leslie: Yeah, I quit my journalism job in January to do this full-time. Right now, I work from home on all the band marketing and promotions. In the future, this may change. Jason is a full-time mechanical engineer. It’s definitely challenging trying to balance everything going on in our lives, but we’re not giving up on our dreams.
Are there any particular instruments, programs, or effects that you would say are vital to you making music? If so, is there a reason in particular that draws you to said creative outlet?
Jason: I prefer to use Native Instruments, but I also like to create my own sound libraries using samples that I can later manipulate into new sounds. My favorite synth right now is the Virus TI2. The DAW we use is Logic.
What would you say are your biggest influences when it comes to art and music? Are there any bands that you would say struck you with the chord that inspired you to pursue your current path of musical aspirations?
Jason: My two biggest musical influences have been Tori Amos and Trent Reznor. I have posters of each of them hanging in my studio.
Leslie: For our 2013 “Truth & Light EP,” I channeled Dave Gahan vocally for songs like “The Wound.” For our 2015 debut album, “Edge of the World,” I dipped into the psyches of Chibi from The Birthday Massacre and Carah Faye of Shiny Toy Guns. But for our upcoming 2016 release, “We Defy Oblivion,” I dug deep into my heavier industrial roots and slipped into the shoes of Trent Reznor and Al Jourgensen of Ministry on some of the tracks—putting my own sultry feminine spin on our original songs. Strong women also inspire me—Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil and Lucia Cifarelli of KMFDM—to name a few.
Do you spend a lot of time crafting your own sounds? Or do you value song crafting and effects tweaking more? Or do you find it's a balance between the two? What's your relationship with presets?
Jason: Presets can make a good starting point for creating unique sounds, but I don’t use them on our songs. I usually build my own sounds. It’s all about what works best for the song. Sometimes I’ll build sounds from software, hardware, or from samples. It just depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I don’t believe that there’s a wrong way to create a sound. Sounds are the artist’s audible interpretation of feeling. It shouldn’t matter what tools you use to paint your picture. I’ve always been a mixed media kind of guy.
Other than what you currently produce, what other sorts of genres, instruments, or sounds would you like to use in the future?
Jason: I have a sound in my head that’s a cross between Skinny Puppy, Razed in Black and VNV Nation. Leslie: Yeah, we’d really love to write a futurepop-influenced album with industrial undertones.
Do either of you have any other musical projects that you are involved with, or do you have any other musicians or artists that you collaborate with in some capacity?
Leslie: We’re currently collaborating with Lydia Burris, an artist from Indianapolis, Indiana, (where Jason and I met), who is creating limited edition, hand drawn lyric books for us with her magnificent fantasy-meets-dream-world artwork and our lyrics. In the future, we’d love to collaborate with established indie musicians on remixes and compilation albums.
Jason: I also write indie film score, some of which has been featured in Gen Con Film Festival selections.
When it comes to non-musical media, what do you find yourself most inspired by, and what about it draws you to it as a source of inspiration?
Leslie: One of the major themes of “Edge of the World” is living in the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide. The statistics are staggering when it comes to young people taking their lives—whether it’s due to economic, financial or social pressure; it seems to be a sickly growing trend.
I can’t stand idly by and say nothing when this is happening all the time to my friends in the alternative music scene and LGBT communities. We’re living in turbulent times, and our survival hangs in the balance. We are fragile human beings, and yet, somehow together we are stronger. Do your best to love one another and support each other through the hard times. Maybe you’ll save a life.
Another theme I explore lyrically on “Edge of the World” is overcoming addiction, and I don’t just mean to alcohol or drugs. Addiction can also be an unhealthy obsession to those bad behaviors and bad people you just can’t quit. It’s a cycle of madness. You may think you’re in love, but violence and fear do not equal love.
I speak from deep wounds and often let my demons out through my songs, so they don’t tear me apart from the inside. I share my anger and my passion, because I don’t want anyone else to feel alone. But I also want our songs to offer hope, because even the darkest night ends with a sunrise.
Any parting words for your fans, or my audience?
Jason: Thanks for the interview! Please keep a look out for our new album, “We Defy Oblivion,” which we’ll be releasing soon on Bandcamp (https://thesweetestcondition.bandcamp.com).
Leslie: Thanks again to all the fans, journalists and DJs who have supported us through our first few years as a band. Here’s to many more!
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