By Noah Hubbell
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Despite his tender years, singer-songwriter Ben Lee, age eighteen, is no stranger to the interview process; rave reviews and cult stardom have ensured that. But at this point in his career, the young Australian seems more comfortable discussing his hobbies than his music. And what is his favorite time-waster? "I watch a lot of TV," he says.
Lee is no dope: He's well-read enough to cite writerly influences ranging from Joseph Heller to Greil Marcus. But as he speaks from a room at a Comfort Inn in San Diego about his viewing habits (a topic suggested by "Household Name," a cut on his latest CD, Something to Remember Me By), he hardly comes across as a highbrow. "I liked Family Ties a lot," he confesses. "That was, like, some real quality." He subsequently describes The Wonder Years as possessing "undeniable power" in a tone that makes it impossible to tell if he's kidding or not, and pronounces Who's the Boss?, the late, unlamented Tony Danza vehicle, as "very witty"--an assessment that makes one doubt that the same episodes seen in the States were broadcast Down Under.
The observations about television personalities that form the backbone of "Household Name" are considerably more sophisticated. During it, Lee examines the ups and downs of child performers from the medium's past, and while some of his facts are a bit skewed (Michael J. Fox, currently appearing in a successful sitcom, is on his list of fallen celebrities), he deserves credit for finding a way to equate their experiences to his own. At one point, he sings, "You're never so cute, and I should know/Once puberty takes its toll."
Unfortunately, Lee refuses to add to these insights via conversation. Questions about the ways, if any, in which he relates to the characters he lampoons in the song initially prompt a display of annoyance that would do performers twice his age proud. Rather than spending time analyzing his lyrics, people "should just read a book," he suggests. "I spent, like, one minute thinking about it," the tunesmith confesses somewhat less petulantly, "and then I wrote a song. I didn't really dwell on it."
Far more worthy of discussion--to Lee, at least--are his brushes with greatness. He describes a recent show at Los Angeles's famous Troubador nightclub as "funny, because the 'Nanny' came." (Fran Drescher, who plays the nasal-voiced protagonist in CBS's The Nanny, had one of her people finagle a free seat for the performance, which was perfectly fine by Lee.) And, Lee admits, "I embarrassed myself when I got really drunk in front of Jerry Seinfeld in New York and told him this really bad joke. But I don't want to repeat it now, because the humiliation is still fresh in my memory."
Perhaps the Seinfeld incident was so distressing to Lee because of the amount of praise other luminaries and high-profile buddies have been heaping on him of late. The Beastie Boys, whose Grand Royal label released Remember, are constantly tossing accolades at his feet, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Russell Simins, a onetime Lee collaborator, has been quoted as saying, "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is Ben Lee."
To his credit, Lee downplays such hype. While he admits to being flattered by these statements, he says, "I'm not really interested in fitting in with the past or the future of anything. I'm just interested in expressing exactly how I feel at exactly this very moment and making you think you are there. I don't know about any of the rest of it."
As the above statements imply, Lee's not a performer given to long bouts of reflection. He first came to the attention of the masses in 1994 as frontman for Noise Addict, a boisterous combo whose moniker served as an apt description of its sound. But following the appearance of several well-received offerings, such as the 1994 EP Young & Jaded and the 1996 full-length Meet the Real You, Lee broke up the band--and he sees no need to go into detail about his decision. When asked how he compares his current, more pop-based work to Noise Addict's material, he snips, "I don't. Why should I compare it? What's to compare? Do you sit around thinking about, 'Wow, let me see how I was at eleven and let me compare that to how I was at twelve'? It's not something you do as a human being. You can think you've changed, but who really gets down to it in such specific terms?" He cites the response given him by a friend who grew out an extremely short hairdo. He wondered if she was bothered by the awkward weeks she went through on the way to achieving a more full-bodied coiffure--"and she was like, 'No, I like my hair at every length." Lee says that he feels the same way about his music: "You're going to record it and enjoy it in each of its different stages."
Still, Lee's not about to let his opinions be colored by the rose-tinted hue of nostalgia. The end of Noise Addict was necessary because, he declares, "we had completed our mission, which was to create the perfect teenage rock record and a tour. And we did it. It was very one-dimensional, and once we'd filled that one dimension, there wasn't much left."