Bench Press’ vocalist Jack Stavrakis: “Bench Press has helped me come to grips with who I am”

Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne post-punk band Bench Press released an album to shout about last year, their sophomore LP, Not the Past, Can’t Be The Future was motivational, thoughtful and witty power-punk. As vocalist Jack Stavrakis was working on himself, the band was working on the album, the transition and transformation that came in ‘Baby Steps’ sounds good on the band, they’re still angry but that energy is more focused. Jack spoke to Gimmie about all this as well as dealing with anxiety, how Bench Press came into being, songwriting, doing better and working in “the industry”.

What have you been up to today?

JACK STAVRAKIS: I watched the final episode of Better Call Saul for the season, then I exercised.

Keeping fit in iso!

JS: Not so much keeping fit but getting fit for the first time in a long time ‘cause I got nothing else to do.

How did you end up being the vocalist for Bench Press?

JS: Originally Bench Press formed from two bands. Me and the original drummer used to be in band called Bowel Movement, which I sung for, and then the bassist and guitarist used to be in the band, Luna Deville—they were both crappy pop bands really. Pretty shit stuff. We played a couple of shows together. Bowel Movement broke up first then Luna Deville broke up pretty soon after. For their final show they were doing a B-52’s cover and they had a female singer and they wanted someone to do the male part because none of them could sing. We didn’t really know each other all that well, but they asked me to do it and it went really well. It was a lot of fun! After the show Morgan and Lewis awkwardly asked me, “so, we’re looking to start a new band, it will sound nothing like this. We like Shellac and Jesus Lizard”. I wasn’t sure if they were asking me to sing or not? I was really drunk and I left the conversation and went home. I asked my girlfriend; were they asking me to join the band? She’s like, “I don’t know just ask them! If they say ‘no’ and they’re not interested then you never have to see them again anyway!” I asked them and they were interested, we trialled one other drummer and I was like; what about Jordan from Bowel Movement? He came on-board and I guess that’s how all of that happened.

What do you get from singing?

JS: I can’t play an instrument and I love, love music! I started singing because I couldn’t play an instrument well enough and I really wanted to play in a band; no one I knew could play, I figured if I could rope some people in who could play, I could just figure out singing. At first it was a way for me to play music without having to practice anything, that’s how I used to see it. As time has gone on and I’ve taken it a lot more seriously, the big thing for me is that it’s a way to get my opinion and my views of things across, it’s also a bit of a cathartic release. I guess a lot of people that would yell like I do would say that. I’m a fairly anxious and awkward guy and being able to talk about that and hopefully help some people that feel the same way understand it better.

I’ve seen you play live and you would never tell that you’re awkward or anxious.

JS: No, not on stage, I suppose not. The pacing is me feeling anxious and an extension of that, and me just feeling really self-conscious. It’s the only thing I know to do! I guess it’s not so obvious when I’m on stage. People who know me say that when I’m on stage it’s a different version of me, it’s still me but an extroverted version of myself, more out there and a little more in your face.

Have you always been an anxious kind of person?

JS: I’ve always tried to figure that out and look back on how I used to be as a kid and figure out if I was. I’m not sure that I have always been. I think it’s important to say, I don’t think I’m the most anxious and awkward guy in the world, I think what I go through is fairly mild compare to lots of people I know that go through something far more serious. It still feels real to me though.

Photo courtesy of Bench Press bandcamp.

Totally! It doesn’t matter what degree others see it as, because to the person that’s experiencing it, it can be so debilitating and the worst thing in the world when you’re in it; at least that’s how I’ve felt suffering severe depression and anxiety at times in my life.

JS: Exactly! That’s why I want to normalise that more mild thing, because I think it’s something that does affect a lot of people. People can be a little afraid to talk about stuff. We all have friends that have friends who suffer from various sorts of mental illness and there’s no point comparing yourself to what others are going through, it’s all very valid and it’s important for people to understand those things and feel normal about them in order to feel better and to start improving. Bench Press has helped me come to grips with who I am and what I’m like and how I deal with situations, how I react to certain things.

The second album the title Not the Past, Can’t Be the Future was a reference to the fact that I don’t always think I was like this, I wasn’t always anxious about things. The title of the album and the album itself was trying to bookend certain feelings that I have about myself; I wasn’t always like this in the past and I want to move past this and not be like that in future, how I am now.

I wanted to ask you about the title, the way I interpret it is, it’s not the past or the future that matter or define us but it’s right now, the present, because that’s when we’re truly alive and it’s the only moment in which we can really work on ourselves and take action!

JS: Yep, yep! For sure! That’s a perfectly good application of the title as well. Everyone has their own ideas about it, anyone who talks to me about it has pretty much been in the same ball park. I’ve never seen the singer or the person who is trying to get the message across as necessarily the holder of the truth of it. Whoever looks at it and takes something from it, that’s how they interpret it and how it’s meant to be taken. Art is up for interpretation. It’s really cool that everyone has different ideas and gets different meanings from what I am saying—that’s the great thing about art and music in general.

Where does the song ‘Old. Self. Doubt.’ come from?

JS: The gang vocals are meant to be me saying, I’m so unsure about these things and saying, no, that’s actually not what’s happening… work is where I get most anxious and I second-guess myself all of the time. I really struggle with various aspects of my job and how I feel about myself. It’s sort of meant to be me telling myself that everything I’m thinking in those times is not the reason these things are happening. It’s a reference to a particular job that I had in the past where I used to just put everything on myself, like everything was my fault if things were going terribly, when it wasn’t necessarily the case. I took a bit of distance from there and my friends were looking at it going “no, that’s not the case, it isn’t your fault! These things can’t be controlled”. I guess it’s a play on how I felt in the moment at the time and a more realistic, objective way of looking at it, which came from my friends and the people around me and the distance.

What kind of work do you do?

JS: I work in the music industry. I’m a venue booker.

Ah, ok. I could see how that could be stressful. I’ve always loved music my whole life, since I was a kid I always thought I might work in the music industry so I could work around the thing I love the most all day, music. I wanted to be a part of it so bad, when I finally got there – I saw the workings of major labels, touring companies, mainstream press, PR companies etc. – I found out the reality of the music industry and I hated it!

JS: Yep, yep! It was exactly the same for me. The way I got into it, my dad was always involved in the music industry and he ran a publicity company and that company booked a venue. One of the bookers of the venue left my dad’s business and he didn’t want to re-hire someone to book the venue—I was twenty and begging him to let me do it! There was no way I should have gotten the job at the time, I was not remotely ready. I begged him every single day, eventually he said “yes, but it was my funeral!” Nine years on and I’m still doing it. I guess I did a good job, which is why I’m comfortable telling that story; originally, I thought everyone would judge me for it but, I feel better about my role now and that I deserve it. It definitely isn’t the idealised dream that you have as a kid. You think that you’ll book all the most amazing bands and you’ll see the most amazing stuff ever and that you’ll do this and that! It’s not quite like that. I still love it though, I do get to sit around and listen to music a lot, that is the best thing in the world to me. There are definitely negative aspects of the industry that are there and strong.

I have met some very good people in the industry though, that are doing great things. Having them and someone like you in the position that you are there is opportunity to change the negative things and how things have always been done.

JS: 100%! The longer that I’ve been in it, the more great people I have found. You choose who you have around you, you can choose who you like, respect and work with. I’ve stumbled into incredible, incredible musicians and people. You distance yourself from the aspects you don’t like, that’s the key.

I think the majority of people get into it because they truly do love music but then because of the industry and having to treat art as a product—the bottom line being money—can make people lose sight of why they loved it and got into it in the first place. Then it just becomes a job as opposed to a passion.

JS: 100%! It can be hard as a venue booker, at least when the venues are running. I book nine shows a week, it’s my full-time job. There’s no way you’re going to like all the bands on the shows, three bands per shows, that’s twenty-seven bands through the venue each week. I used to find that a lot harder to deal with but it’s also allowed me to find a lot more good music. I like applying that to Bench Press, Bench Press is my excuse to book every single band that I love. Every show we play has bands that are a reflection of what we like as a band, that’s the fun part! I love booking my favourite bands and helping people get a leg up.

It was so cool how you came up here and toured with Dr Sure’s Unusual Practice!

JS: It was so lucky and the best experience ever ‘cause that band is truly, truly mind-blowing and special!

Absolutely! Dougal from Dr Sure’s is one of my favourite Australian songwriters. Your album Not The Past, Can’t Be the Future to me is almost like a notes-to-self kind of record.

JS: 100%! It’s a reminder. The album is going to exist as a reminder of how I can be and how I should try to be.

The songs on the record ‘Baby Steps’, ‘Take It Slow’, ‘Better Mirror’, ‘Good Guy’ and ‘Enough’; there seems to be a bit of a theme there.

JS: Yes! That’s how I wanted it to be: what I am? What I could be? How I should be? I wanted to touch on all of those things. I hope I did it?

Totally! It’s really inspiring, especially the song ‘Baby Steps’: exhale, stand up!

JS: I’d just seen a psych for the first time and they were like “take a deep breath, all the stuff is so obvious and it doesn’t always work but these are the things you have to do”.

What about the song ‘Take It Slow’?

JS: ‘Take It Slow’ is about… you know when you’re in high school and they’re like you have to do this and you have to do it well and you gotta go to Uni and do this and that… they make you feel rushed. Even now I look around at some of my friends – we’re all in our late 20s now – people still feel that; I feel it stays with everyone. I don’t think necessarily moving so quickly and panicking into things is the right way to do it. It’s a reminder to be slow and that if I carefully do everything, then I or anyone can achieve what they want to. Sometimes I think the idea of taking things slow is a little bit privileged, I have the ability to take things slow and ease my way into things to make sure everything is right but not everybody has that opportunity.

I really love your lyrics, I feel like they’re really thoughtful.

JS: Thank you. I try really hard to write about something that I care about, everything has to be about something I care deeply about. I can’t bring myself to write a song that doesn’t mean anything to me or potentially someone else. I can’t write silly, I’m not going to sit around and write about chugging on beers and smashing bongs! I love drinking beer but I don’t think it’s something important that I have to sing about; I’d feel frivolous like I am wasting an opportunity.

Every song is a chance to get a point of view across and hopefully trying to impact someone. They all impact me and change me in a certain way and gets me thinking about different things more, but it’s all about trying to help someone else and to try and help them change in some positive way—that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of Bench Press. I occasionally will get someone come up to me and say “Thank you so much, your song helped me” and inside I’m like, what the fuck?! That’s so crazy I could help them. I think it’s the most important thing that a lyricist can do. I don’t want to waste my time writing frivolous songs.

When writing and making the record; what was one of the biggest changes that you saw within yourself?

JS: It was a real moment of transition for me from the beginning of the album. The previous album was angry, it was me feeling upset about various things. When we started writing for the new album, the first song we wrote was ‘Respite’ and that was turning point for me because I was actually starting to get help and I was actually starting to open up to my friends. People in my circle started opening up about all these things, it was a moment of transition of looking and seeing a problem and trying to find a solution; the first album was seeing problems and the second was trying to find solutions to problems.

It started with ‘Respite’ then one of the last songs would have been something like ‘Old. Self. Doubt.’ Which were the last lyrics I finished. I could see the problems and tell myself that that’s not the way things are and that things can be better—that I can change them!

It’s a really cool thing when you finally realise your own power, your strength and resilience and your ability to change things!

JS: Totally!

Was there anything that happened in your life that sparked the changes?

JS: [*Takes a big breath*] Yeah. My work life was improving, that was one thing, but to be honest the big thing was me and my partner was approaching ten years together and I was having problems. Problems which stemmed from my own problems; I saw myself as the problem and that I had to fix it because otherwise I was going to lose the most important person in the world to me. That was a really big catalyst, to start realising that I needed to work on myself and to not just be upset and angry all the time.

I totally understand. My husband and I, we’ve been together over 11 years – how cool is it when you find that forever person?! – and there’s been a lot of things that I’ve had to work on within myself too. Sometimes you don’t see how your behaviour is hurting the one you love most, facing those truths are hard. 

JS: Congratulations! It’s incredible, and realising that if things are going to work it has to come from changes that I make or in your case, that you make. These things were all happening round the time of our album. ‘Home’ is about my life with my partner, Bianca.

Good name!

JS: [Laughs] Yes, exactly.

Where do you think your writing will go now? Have you started working on anything?

JS: Yeah, we’ve started working on new songs. We’ve got one finished that we’ve played a couple of times. We have a whole bunch of ideas on the go, it’s been a bit hard without prac[tice]. I’ve always liked the idea of writing something political, but I’m always really scared about writing political because so often it can be cliché and obvious. I wanna start moving down that road, I don’t know how well it’s going though. It’s more political but still to do with identity and self-help, exploring it in a bigger way is what I’d like to do.

Cool! Whenever I listen to your last album I feel like I have my own personal cheer squad!

JS: [Laughs] Excellent! That’s awesome!

What kind of things would we find in your music collection?

JS: Oh heaps of stuff! I’m a massive, massive nerd when it comes to music! I’m a hoarder and I’m a digger!

Same!

JS: I saw the interview you did with Matt from Shepparton Airplane and he talked about Fugazi a whole bunch—Fugazi are my all-time favourite band! Anything to do with that scene, Rites Of Spring, Happy Go Licky, Bad Brains and Teen Idles, all that stuff are at the heart of my collection. I really love this Japanese band called CHAI that toured here last year…

I love CHAI! [*sings*] You are so cute, nice face, c’mon yeah!

JS: [Laughs] Yes! They’re just the best. They are the happiest thing ever, so I play a lot of that! I listened to Melt Banana this morning, which is great while I exercised.

Have you seen how Henry Rollins does his exercise?

JS: No, how?

Well, you know how much he is fanatical about music? Well, he’ll play a 7” and while the side’s playing he’ll see how many push-ups or whatever exercise he’s doing he can do, then when that side is finished he gets up and flips the record then does another exercise. That’s the best interval training circuit idea I’ve ever heard of!

JS: That’s so great! [laughs]. A couple of years ago we found out that a friend of my dad’s has a record store, I think it’s in Newcastle, and Henry Rollins came in to buy records – right after our first album came out – apparently Henry was asking for recommendations. The guy pulled out our record and Henry asked, what it sounded like? He said “sort of like Fugazi” and Henry was like, “nope, not interested” [laughs]. I just love that. Apparently since then he has listened to the record.

I was a late bloomer with music, I was around seventeen when I started figuring it all out and stopped listening to crap. I was listening to The Saints and the Sex Pistols, really obvious things like that and my dad gave me Fugazi’s In On the Kill Taker. I remember watching a YouTube clip of ‘Last Chance For A Slow Dance’ and just seeing Ian and Guy play with so much passion, that was one catalyst for getting me into music.

The other one was, I’m a massive Pavement fan as well, I read an interview with Stephen Malkmus and he said: I think anyone can sing as long as they can fit a tune to a song and that they’ll make it work no matter how terrible their voice is essentially. I was like—I can do that! Ian and Guy made me want to be in a band. Steven Malkmus made me realise I can sing, badly! [laughs].

 Have you ever had a real life changing moment?

JS: I don’t necessarily think of things like that, I think of things as tiny incremental changes over a long period of time.

‘Baby Steps’?

JS: [Laughs] Exactly! That’s just it and how I’ve always seen change in myself. When I was in high school people always said that they couldn’t live without music and I hated that and thought, you fucking idiot, of course you can live without music! Thinking that then, I feel hypocritical in saying it now but, music as a whole has been the thing that has impacted my life the most. It’s been where I’ve spent the last ten years of my life, working. I’ve been playing music since I was seventeen. These are the things that I base my life around and these are the things where I’ve met everyone that I know and love, it’s also influenced everything… stuff like Fugazi doing cheap shows and benefits, had me thinking about those things when I was younger. I guess music over time, in incremental ways has helped shape me rather than one big moment.

What’s something that you’re working towards changing now?

JS: I started this year with different goals to what I have now, I’ve been planning on going back to Uni and doing counselling or social work. It was going to be a big year for the pub I book, the first three months were incredible. Now that that is gone for the foreseeable future, I’m just trying to relax, I’m trying to feel calmer and lose the panic that I get when I’m in a situation I don’t’ want to be in. I’m trying to improve my overall health, physically and mentally. Figuring out what I want to be.

What are some things that help you relax?

JS: There’s the good and bad thing of pot [laughs], that helps me relax or sometimes it does the total opposite! Exercise. I’m trying to see isolation as having this time to completely relax and decompress and make sure that when I do get back to work that I will be in the best mental shape of my life. I’m trying not to do too much and not freak out about things. I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I’ve been trying to read. Just really, small, basic things. I just want to be the best that I can be.

That’s so great. Thanks so much to speaking to us.

JS: Thank you for including us and interviewing me.

It was wonderful to finally get to chat with you. As a fan of Bench Press I’ve read a couple of other interviews with you and the things you get asked always annoys me; you write such great songs and music I’ve always wanted to know more about that… not an answer to some novelty question you’re being asked so the writer gets to feel clever about how funny they can be!

JS: I think part of that is having a publicist hit someone up to do something on your band and the publication may not necessary know us or really give the album a listen beyond once if that and do it as a job and not a passion.

I’ve had bands tell me that they wanted to get press in different Australian music magazines and street press and they were told it would be $200 for a review and $400 for an interview in one particular publication! Having interviewed Creatives and written for all kinds of publications and making my own zines for the past 25 years, I found this absolutely crazy! It’s a terrible practice, very dishonest to your readers accepting money for a feature and not telling them it’s been paid for.

JS: Yep.

At least now I know why there is rarely anything good in those publications!

JS: Yes, it’s one of the most upsetting things to me. We got hit up by a publication and they said they would love to interview us. I thought that was cool and said we’d love to do that. Then they sent us their rates! Like c’mon! Why would anyone do that? Not everyone knows that happens and is privy to the fact that bands have paid for this stuff. Once you know you can’t unsee it, and when you read interviews in the publication you know someone paid for it—where’s the care? Where’s the love?!

Exactly! I can’t believe people pay for that shit. Just like that that bullshit pay to play or in some cases pay for the possible chance to play on shows scam! And application fees for bands for an “opportunity” to play showcases that are already getting money from sponsors and grants. It’s sad that it’s often younger, upcoming bands that do this because they think that’s what you do! This is where I see the industry exploiting bands. I may be old school and an interview purist but shouldn’t you interview a band because you like them? You’re a fan? Don’t you simply want to share ideas and get an insight into what they do? Put that out into the world to document culture now? Inspire others?

JS: Anyone asking you to pay money to interview you is taking advantage of you. I find it really ill. I’ve actually thought about writing a song about this!

Do it!

JS: Every time I try, it comes out too obvious, like how earlier I was telling you that happens when I try to write political stuff. I want to wait ‘til I have that perfect ammunition, that perfect phrase—it will be easy then and all the annoyance will fall out of me! [laughs].

And like I was saying before, paying to support bands is wrong too. They should be paying you to play! And paying you a reasonable amount too, especially if it’s a bigger band/show/tour. I understand people really wanting to support bands they love and get in front of bigger crowds, but at what price to everything else? It sets a bad standard.

JS: We got offered a fairly big support slot late last year, they’re one of my all-time favourite bands. The money that was offered meant that we would have lost money to do the show! In my mind they were one of the bands that helped bring punk to the fore, I couldn’t understand it, so we said ‘no’ to the show. That’s actually what our new song is about! [laughs]. We were asked to play and we would have lost money, I just can’t wrap my head around that. Maybe the band had no idea how much we were being offered? It made me ill. It’s taking advantage of people and it’s totally, totally unfair.

It’s very, very un-punk rock!

JS: It’s the most un-punk rock! [laughs].

Please check out: BENCH PRESS. Bench Press on Facebook. Bench Press on Instagram. Bench Press records out via Poison City.

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