Right now, Benn Jordan, aka The Flashbulb, lives just outside of Atlanta. But that doesn’t stop him from repping Chicago: he continues to be influenced by his South Side upbringing in his performance style and experimental artistry. Using everything from acoustic guitar to ambient sound recordings, no track of Jordan’s is quite the same.
His most recent release, 2015’s Compositions for Piano, features slower, piano-based songs that differ completely from the house-music vibe of Soundtrack to a Vacant Life, which still contrast with the nearly hour-long ambient instrumental track from 2014, “Solar One.” Jordan is considered prolific for his ever-changing style, his unique recording methods, and his refusal to stick to one genre.
Growing up in West Englewood in the eighties, Jordan remembers a unique music scene heavily influenced by house and electronic dance music.
“I think we just had a bit of a different microcosm than the rest of America had at the time,” Jordan said. Instead of playing pop artists of the time like those heard today, popular Chicago radio station B96 once used Friday nights to play long acid house mixes. “It would go on for three hours, four hours without ad interruption,” Jordan said. “At the time that was completely crazy, it was very bizarre.”
Jordan’s musical upbringing was also uniquely self-driven. “I think Guitar Center was the closest I would come [to being around trained musicians],” he said. “I started playing guitar upside down, and I don’t think anybody even noticed enough to tell me that I was playing the wrong way until I had been playing for four or five years.”
Eventually, he began working on projects with professional musicians, the first of which sent him all the way to the North Side. But Jordan credits much of his work ethic, performance style, and creative instinct to growing up on the South Side.
“Musicians performing for me when I was growing up was usually people wearing a suit, playing an instrument, a lot of times they would look at charts and just play a song,” Jordan said.
Although his shows now often use synthesizers and modules to create complex live tracks, sometimes he simply plugs a guitar into a PA system and plays for forty-five minutes, reminiscent of the performances he watched when he was young.
“I feel like those shows are probably the most inspirational because it’s so minimal and you’re actually entertained by just somebody playing an instrument into a PA system,” Jordan said. “That’s kind of incredible when you look at what everybody goes through to put on a show in a lot of cases…and people spend way more money on their visual systems than they spend on their music performances.”
Jordan tends to think about performance from an audience’s perspective. “I naturally don’t like performing,” he said. “When I go to shows, a lot of times I get bored. Especially electronic music shows…and I try and think, ‘How can I avoid that?’”
He uses improvisation, multiple live elements, and sometimes even unreleased tracks in his shows, because he is so familiar with what causes disengagement—and he never wants his performances to be a waste of time.
Beyond performance style, his desire to keep things interesting has driven his music as a whole. Jordan’s music, especially when it’s fast, upbeat, and entirely electronic, is unmistakably influenced by footwork, but this presence is not entirely consistent in all of his tracks, like those on Compositions for Piano.
“When it comes to genres, I never think about them,” Jordan said. “That happens with people who listen to my music, they usually place it somewhere, and just categorize it. I feel like it’s really, really difficult for me to think of my music in that way, and maybe I do it on purpose simply because I don’t ever want to have a restricted direction.”
Sometimes he begins composing by playing with an instrument and a melody, sometimes it involves exploring different audio software: ultimately, the process is completely unpredictable.
Jordan’s dedication to this exploratory recording process is part of what has kept him from releasing anything as The Flashbulb for two years. The weight of the release for Jordan isn’t quite the same as writing the music.
“Writing music to me is like taking a bath in warm chocolate pudding…and then when you release it, you have to clean the bathroom,” Jordan said. “It turns into non-artistic work really fast.” Cleaning the bathroom entails the more logistical parts of being an artist: the press, the manufacturing, the artwork.
Jordan has also had trouble grappling with the fact that his music can be interpreted in a range of ways other than what he intended pre-release.
“You realize that there’s just a huge disconnect between what’s going on in my head and what’s going on in other people’s heads when they listen to it,” he explained. “But that’s okay. I’ll get messages sometimes from people who say, ‘Your music helped me through a very dark time in my life, I was dealing with so much when I listened to this song.’ I’ll think to myself, ‘Wow, that song was not an inspirational song.’ ”
But as time goes on, he has become more comfortable with the different meanings his music has for different people—and how this makes his music, varied and unpredictable on its own, even more interesting.
The unanswerable question, then, is what comes next for The Flashbulb? Jordan doesn’t know, and he doesn’t want to know either. He recently announced that he will likely release something before the end of 2017, after a two-year pause (typical for most artists, but unusual for The Flashbulb).
“It’s funny because I kind of got bombarded on social media with people saying, ‘I hope it’s another album like Arboreal’ or ‘I hope it’s another album like Soundtrack to a Vacant Life,’” Jordan said. “It’s so weird to me when people say that, because why would you never ask an artist to make something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before?”
So when confronted with the question of what direction his music will take in the future, Jordan is hesitant to posit a hypothesis.
“I always think, hopefully, it’s a completely new direction,” he said. “Because otherwise I’ve kind of stopped being an artist.”
What he does know, though, is that he’ll keep trying to create challenges for himself in his music, so that he’s always learning something new.
“I’m always a little over my head, I always feel like I’m a dumbass for even trying to stay afloat in what I’m working on,” Jordan said. “And that’s really the best part because that’s when you continue to grow.”
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