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Escape Velocity

A Weird Duality: An Interview With Benefits
Patrick Clarke , February 14th, 2022 08:58

Kingsley Hall of schreigesang agit prop noisemakers Benefits, puts Patrick Clarke through his paces on a day out in and around his native Teesside

All photos by Eddy Maynard

Kingsley Hall and I have spent two hours hiking through the Eston Hills in his native Teesside. It’s a punishingly steep incline, made trickier by the muddy leftovers of recent rain, but Hall is in fine fettle. He powers his way upwards without breaking a sweat as I slip and stumble to keep up. As we zig zag through lush and beautiful woodland, we pass the occasional burnt tree stump. People sometimes set fires here because “they want something to do,” Hall says. Every now and then we see a crumbling remnant of an old shaft or tunnel, relics of the ironstone mines that saw the area’s population boom in the 19th century, now covered in graffiti.

Hall talks effusively as we walk, pinging from one topic to the next. We discuss the thrilling, confrontational music he makes with his bandmates, brothers Robbie and Hugh Major, under the name Benefits, scorching, heavily politicised spoken word, roared with overwhelming intensity by frontman and chief songwriter Hall, over punishing electronic noise. In their videos, filmed starkly and direct-to-camera, he comes across as terrifying, but in conversation he’s genial. We talk about the difficulty of finding the time to do press between shift work in a plastics factory and his duties as the father of a three-year-old girl. Most of all, though, conversation turns to the complicated politics of his native Teesside. He has lived here all his life and he is fervently anti-Tory, “I’ve never wavered in my belief that they were shits,” he says, but things are not quite so simple in the community around him.

In the 2019 general election, Teesside was one of the areas at the heart of the collapse of the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Although the seat of Middlesbrough remained Labour (despite losing more than 15 per cent of the vote share), surrounding seats of Redcar and Stockton South were among the former Labour strongholds that were flipped by the Conservative Party, while Stockton North was held by barely 1,000 votes. The seat of Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East had already been gained by the Tories two years prior, despite having been staunchly Labour since its creation in 1997; in 2019 its incumbent Conservative MP Simon Clarke’s vote share increased by an additional 9.2 per cent. Ever since, the region has been bombarded with Government visits and photo opportunities as they attempt to shore up that support, like Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s visit in December, during which he defended the government’s decision to award £20million of ‘level-up’ funding to the already relatively affluent market town of Yarm, while rejecting applications from poorer neighbourhoods like Billingham and Hartlepool. “The North East did well,” Sunak insisted to the press.

At least part of the area’s 2019 swing to the right was down to a desire to ‘Get Brexit Done’, as Boris Johnson’s campaign repeatedly promised. 65.5 per cent of people in Middlesbrough had voted to leave the EU three years earlier. “I think the reasoning was ‘I’ll lend them my vote and see what happens,’” posits Hall. “That was repeated and repeated and repeated on local news in vox pops. The idea of ‘I’m not really a Tory’. Hopefully that’s something the Tories will be shocked about when it comes to the next election…”

It all speaks to what Hall calls the “weird duality” of his home. A working-class, historically Labour area turned Tory – but perhaps only temporarily. Where stunning natural space (and plenty of millionaires’ country estates) surround working class post-industrial towns, and where woodland is dotted with tree stumps burnt out of boredom and crumbling relics of long-dead industry. It’s not on any of the major road or rail routes between London and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ cities, he says. “It’s the kind of place you have to go out of your way to get to.”

After some time trying to find a route easy enough to accommodate my lack of hiking skills, Hall and I ascend to Eston Nab, a large rocky promontory at the hill’s highest point. Thousands of years ago it was an Iron Age fort, and during both the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War it was the site of a lookout tower in case of a naval invasion from the east. The tower, later a house for ironstone miners, was demolished in the 1950s when the mines closed, and then rebuilt into a memorial, which is also now covered in graffiti. More eye-catching than that, however, is a huge England flag affixed to a mast, erected on the edge of a rocky sandstone cliff initially as a tribute to the murdered British soldier Lee Rigby. The canvas is signed ‘The Eston Flagman’. It has been removed many times, Hall explains, but a new one is usually erected not long afterwards.

We look past the flag, down at the landscape beneath us. It’s a stunning view, stretching from the North Sea in the east to the clusters of little villages in the countryside to our west. Between them the now-defunct Teesside Power Plant dominates amid the many factories and industrial estates, while Middlesbrough itself is flat and unassuming. Hall points out the modest market town of Stockton-on-Tees, where he grew up, to the far left, and the small town he lives in now, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, to the far right. From here, he says, it’s as if he can see his whole life laid out in miniature. It’s the reason we hiked all this way. “I wanted to take you up that muddy hill to show you the surroundings,” he says. “It’s like I look down on this canvas and I can find elements of everything in my life. My place of work, people I used to know for good or bad, a place where someone has died, the place my little girl was born, the place I did my first gig. It’s all in there. I know it’s hard getting up here, but it felt important.”

After clambering our way back down with difficulty, we take a drive through Middlesbrough. We pass Anish Kapoor’s 110-metre long sculpture Temenos, which looks like a scientific diagram of a wormhole. It was supposed to be the first of five ‘Tees Valley Giants’ by the artist but the other four were never started. Hall believes it’s because Temenos was so unpopular with the locals, particularly his fellow fans of Middlesbrough FC, whose home ground the Riverside Stadium is right next to it. We then pass the formidable Tees Transporter Bridge – currently closed indefinitely for repairs – and the new, soon to be opened, Press-On Vinyl Factory. Eventually, we stop in Stockton, Hall’s childhood hometown. Walking down a half-boarded up high street, we pass the beautiful art deco Globe Theatre, recently reopened after 24 years of closure following a refurbishment that far outstripped its initial budget and deadline. An exhibition of posters from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s line the windows, advertising shows by The Beatles (they were playing there the night President Kennedy was assassinated), Cilla Black, Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard. We slip down a side alley, its walls covered in flyers for the forthcoming Stockton Calling music festival (line-up: Self Esteem, The Pigeon Detectives, Bob Vylan and more), until we find ourselves at the town’s other cultural hub, the pretty Grade II listed Georgian Theatre. We take a seat in a cosy bar nearby, and settle down for a soft drink.

Hall says that he had been a bit worried that the visual metaphors of Eston Nab, where Teesside’s duality is most plain to see, might have been a bit too obvious. But then again, he says, obviousness has its upsides. “Our music’s obvious, blatantly obvious,” he says. “It’s concrete slabs of noise interspersed with an elongated Twitter rant.” There is certainly a directness to Benefits’ work. His lyrics, written on scrap paper, receipts and iPhone notes, often during his shifts at the factory, are free of frills. “Flames licking St George’s heel / Itching the bones, fucking up your smartphones / The decking’s up in smoke / You’re a lifeless statistic, a reliable vote” he spits over eviscerating harsh noise on his most recent single, ‘Meat Teeth’. His flow is frenzied and scattergun. Words are barked, spat and repeated, with snappy phrases about flags, empires crowns and the queen popping up again and again across different tracks. Hall says it’s a deliberate counterpart to the ‘Get Brexit Done’ school of simplistic, but highly effective sloganeering practised by “identikit tory politicians who look like call centre managers reading out what they’ve been told on WhatsApp,” the way that they can take a simple message and then “just drum it in.” It’s the obviousness that makes them so compelling.

“90 per cent of what I have in my pocket is drivel,” Hall says, showing me his some of his recent phone notes – multiple variations on the phrase ‘fuck this island’. “Then I’ll take some time to mould it, throw in a few swears to make the line make sense.” Their message is never diluted, however. The songs shake with shoot-first, questions later energy. “The motivation is to try and release some inner tension, anxiety and frustration with, to keep it simple, the world I’m surrounded by. To get some kind of release valve and blurt it out, like how my little girl has tantrums.” He’s wary of attributing any importance to his work beyond self-expression, but nevertheless admits: “I feel the need to be a voice that shows a reality that maybe isn’t being presented. To show that there is an alternate voice, particularly somewhere like this. The propaganda about this region is that it’s now a Tory heartland, but there’s people like myself who haven’t been represented by what’s been portrayed.”

He wasn’t counting on quite so many people identifying, however. Benefits’ songs are released one at a time, as soon as possible after the event(s) that inspired them, and strike a louder chord each time they’re announced – usually via social media. Despite having no PR, label or management, many of the dates on their upcoming shows have sold out. As well as an ever-growing fanbase, the music’s found prominent champions from the likes of Modeselektor, Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Pixies’ Frank Black and Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson, the latter of whom Hall sometimes turns for advice. The intention was always simply to speak, not necessarily to be heard, Hall insists. “It’s an accident that anyone started listening to it.” That’s not to say that the band don’t pour plenty of thought into the finer details. “The way we push it and the way we present it is totally intentional.” Their logo is written in the easy font of Helvetica Neue “because it’s the same font as brands like Superdry; it’s easily recognisable, it’s inoffensive, but also so blatant. I love that,” Hall explains.

The instrumentals are no less important. Hall’s performances are transfixing, but his words always attack in lockstep with the explosions of overmodulated noise – made in collaboration, but often remotely, with his band. On the scraps of potential lyrics he showed me earlier, words like ‘RIFF’ are provided in bold capital letters, assaults drafted in advance. Benefits has been through a number of evolutions, beginning as an “IDLES-light also-ran” post punk band, as Hall puts it, “but without any of the popularity,” occasionally flirting with crude electronics. When they performed live, their “plug in and play” ethos would drive sound techs mad. “I’m all for a lovely confusing wall of noise but there has to be control, it just wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t half assed, we worked hard on it, but it was still rubbish, which is even worse.” After one particularly chaotic show, at their next band practise they left their gear in the car. “We still spent ten pounds an hour on the fucking room, but just sat down and thought about how we can make this less of a mess.” The solution was to slim their work down to its absolute essence, let go of the “rock tropes and symbols that I had been holding onto about the guitars,” and amplify the rawness that was always at its core without worrying about being ‘listenable’.

At one point he reached out to one of the band’s early backers, Tom Robinson of BBC 6 Music, who helped to bolster Hall’s conviction. “We talked for about an hour and I ended up writing six or seven A4 pages of notes. Effectively it was just encouragement, to not lose heart and maybe try and think of different ways of working, and so effectively I did that. I removed the rules and regulations, like songs having to rhyme or a verse-chorus-verse structure, the constraints you put on yourself because you think the way to succeed is to get a song on BBC Introducing, then 6 Music, then maybe hope it’ll get on Radio 1 or Radio 2, then you get on a stage at Leeds and Reading. There’s this mythology now, whenever Glastonbury rolls around, that Ed Sheeran started on BBC Introducing and so on, but we had to bunk that off and stop seeing getting played on something like 6 Music as the goal. It could be a nice little aside if it happens, but it’s not the be all and end all.”

Then, came lockdown, during which Hall started working as a bin man in an effort to help out. At first, “there wasn’t a burning desire to do music, nobody thought it was going to go on forever,” but as things dragged on, his attitude started to shift. “I think it probably started with Gal Gadot doing ‘Imagine’, then this weird wave of online gigs. There was something missing, everyone was in this phase of not wanting to offend anyone. It didn’t reflect the reality of what was there.” His writing got spikier and more concentrated in response. Due to a combination of Benefits’ earlier decisions to start stripping down their sound, and the limitations of making art during the pandemic, the music was intensifying too.

The crushing sound Benefits landed on started garnering plenty of comparisons to power electronics bands, particularly Whitehouse, but any similarities are entirely incidental. “When we started getting this Whitehouse comparison, I didn’t know who that even was. I did some YouTube investigation, I can see [the similarities], but that’s not what we’re doing,” he says. “Robbie, our synth person could reel off musical influences like ‘I’ve heard this band at this festival playing spoons through distortion pedals for three hours and it’s the best thing I heard in my life’, but I’m not from the background where I know what noise music is.” At work, he’ll listen to Ken Bruce’s mid-morning show on BBC Radio 2 – he adores PopMaster – or a greatest hits compilation on Spotify to “while away the day”. It might be tempting to draw a link between factory work and Benefits’ sound, the way that those links are often drawn with Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Black Sabbath, but Hall rejects that entirely. “Why would I want to listen to music that sounds like my own all day, surrounded by machines making the same noises?”

Ultimately, their music only sounds the way it does because of Benefits’ core focus on delivering their message of rage and frustration, with minimal restrictions. The abrasiveness of the songs is down purely to the resources Hall has available. “I try to do the best I can with what I have, and what I have is not a great deal of musical or production ability. But I’m passionate about what I believe in and I want to demonstrate that. Why shouldn’t I be able to, just because I don’t have the right tools?”

At this point, we’ve been together for six hours and conversation has rarely slowed. You get the sense that Hall could keep going for six hours more, but we have to wrap up our interview because he has to pick up his young daughter. She’s been staying with her grandparents in order to give him time to show me around Teesside. To save time, I accompany him to pick her up, and he drops me at the train station which is between their house and his daughter’s dance club. She’s never heard his music, there are far too many swear words for a three-year-old, but she’s a huge fan of Leeds indie group Yard Act, and can sing the chorus of their track ‘Payday’ by heart. She demonstrates this with extreme passion before I leave them at the station. As the sun sets on Teesside, for the first time today Hall’s lost for words as he takes a moment to consider the strangeness of it all.

Benefits tour the UK this month and April, beginning in Birmingham on February 21