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Now and Zen

Ben Lee used to be known as that kid from Noise Addict. Then he was known as Claire Danes's boyfriend (and then as Danes's ex). These days he's just Ben again, a pop bard from Bondi, Australia, who's touring his ass off and churning out pop numbers that are as buoyant as he is when you sit down with him for a cup of tea. If his energy could be bottled and mass-marketed, war, poverty and all things un-transcendent in music would go the way of the dodo. We spoke with Lee recently about how Buddhism has affected his music and about rediscovering his inner Nirvana.

Westword: Your music, despite having an unabashedly giddy addictiveness to it, gets at something pure in the human experience.

Ben Lee: It's a heart thing, you know what I mean? With my music, it's not a brain thing. With a lot of people in music, journalists can explain to you why in the history of rock music this is important, because it uses this influence or that influence, being clever because of this or that. It's not like that with my music. You either feel the vibration in your heart or you don't.

How has Buddhism changed the way that punk-rocker Ben Lee, the rock brat signed by the Beastie Boys, makes music?

It's not about whether you like it or you don't. It's about if it's pure or not. Is it real? And if it's real, it changes you and you're never the same, whether you like it or not. When I look at music, that's the big problem with music critics and the like: They're obsessed with the things they like and they don't like. They're not looking at the inherent, transformative power of a work. Do the people who view this work walk away differently? Yes or no? That's what's important to me.

What are you trying to bring to your music these days, then? Hope is a decision, too. We live in a world where people choose darkness all the time. When people write songs, they choose to write on the wrong in their life. You even have a lot of songwriters who'll tell you, "I can only write from pain." No one knows how a song is written. Don't tell me you can only write from pain. You don't know how you write songs. I don't know how I write songs. But what you hear when they're talking like that, you hear the psychology at work of a culture obsessed with negativity, afraid of the light. And for me, I'm interested in light. I'm interested in healing. I'm interested in growth. I'm interested in how people operate at their full potential, at that super-high-frequency stuff. So for me, that's where the punk-rock training comes in, that subversive element. That I have to say, "Even in a world this way, I believe there is value to a different way of thinking." And that's when I fall back to the way I felt when I was thirteen years old and I saw Nirvana. Or the way I felt at these great moments. I think of the fact that all great ideas were at first blasphemy.