21st-century rambler Ben Bostick hangs his hat on Santa Monica Pier
By Bliss Bowen
What registers first is the bearded visage, then the casual brimmed hat and the unhurried movements as he fingerpicks his guitar while sitting astride a cajón and manipulating percussion-equipped foot pedals. Then the ear picks up the unvarnished baritone sketching out vivid stories: A riverboat gambler chasing a woman he can never find. A “juggler” who “burns through Trojan rubbers like no other.” A first love who commits suicide.
The “outsider country” troubadour in question is Ben Bostick, who can usually be found busking Tuesdays through Fridays on Santa Monica Pier. If Bostick hasn’t personally encountered the characters in his songs, he’s probably kicked the dust in their towns.
Raised in the Carolinas and (briefly) Minnesota, Bostick got turned on to the Ryan Adams-fronted alt-country band Whiskeytown by a high school teacher who also inspired him to major in English. He followed his 2005 graduation from NYU with colorful adventures that offered abundant source material: working as a ranch hand in Nevada, an album reviewer for a Seattle weekly, an independent film loader in Seattle and Los Angeles, attending film school in Paris during a Metro strike, producing an undistributed feature film, and working as an MTV production coordinator in New York.
It’s tempting to view his colorful escapades as spontaneous off-ramps from a Kerouac-style road trip, but Bostick says his rambles were a bit more calculated.
“I loved the Beat poet and Hunter S. Thompson philosophy of getting inside of things,” he explains. “So there was definitely a sense of adventure about it, and also a literary sense of gaining experience. Meeting people my own age in New York that were doing things that I didn’t know you could do, like working in film and using these cameras, was honestly mind-blowing, because I figured that was something wizards did out in California. [Laughs.] From there I got the bug — I wanted to see things, and I wanted to see America too.”
Bostick returned to L.A. in July 2010. While fronting a funk band called Music Force X (“music for sex”), the bassist encouraged Bostick to return to country music after “freaking out” over an early demo of “Independence Day Eve.” By that point Bostick was ready for a break from wrangling musicians, dancers and audiences for shows.
“In L.A., getting together a dinner party is hard; getting together a seven-piece funk band for rehearsal on a regular basis is almost impossible,” he says, laughing. “So I thought it would be nice to just do it alone, because nobody plays funk alone. [Laughs.] I started going to open mics and stuff, and then playing on the pier. That was the first time I’d ever done something musically that people responded to so strongly and immediately.”
A “huge” Jason Isbell fan who cues up Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” album when he’s trying to bust through creative blocks, Bostick released his first proper EP two years ago, the amiably low-key “My Country.” It’s highlighted by “Running on Fuel,” whose earthy poetry and hard melodic curves evoke classic Merle Haggard:
“I ain’t lazy and I ain’t no martyr
I ain’t leaning on Uncle Sam
I just drink coffee like crazy and whiskey like water
And smoke like a power plant”
The most emotionally piercing track of his new self-titled album, due out July 7, is “Paper Football.” Inspired by a high school girlfriend, it deploys simple but vivid images over piano and strummed guitar to convey “the blow” of learning she’d committed suicide:
“Feel the ridges, the valleys, the ridges of your bones
While I paint my name on your skin in Coppertone
And you cheat on your homework over the phone”
“I didn’t how to process it,” he says. “I’m usually a quick writer, but that song took months — maybe a year — of trying to figure out how to say something without coming off cheap
He plays those and rhythmically livelier songs — like the still unreleased “Mary Rose” and Crescent City-referencing “Maybelline,” along with covers of The Band, Merle Haggard, Willie & Waylon, and Bruce Springsteen — on Santa Monica Pier. Since March of last year he can usually be found there from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., his preferred timeslot.
“It’s great because I have other business to attend to and I like to spend the afternoon practicing, writing and being creative. There are many performers who do double shifts out there as much as possible; I do that as little as possible. My voice can’t take that kind of beating.”
A daily lottery determines his location, which influences song choices. A scenic spot at the pier’s far end encourages tourists to linger, and Bostick to perform his own material.
“There’s a strange psychology to it,” he observes. “Usually you’ll go through 10 minutes or something where you won’t see people stopping, you’ll collect a dollar here or there, and then all of a sudden a couple people stop, and within 30 seconds you have a huge crowd around you. A crowd attracts a crowd. That’s when it’s the most fun, having a crowd of strangers gathered ’round to entertain, clapping along.”
Ben Bostick usually busks from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays on Santa Monica Pier. For more information about Ben Bostick and his new record, visit benbostick.com.