Analogue Music | Beta Radio

Beta Radio

By Matt Conner

Beta Radio is happy to be on the other side of Beta Radio.

That's statement not intended to confuse. In fact, it represents the opposite, a moment of clarity for a band who, in order to continue, needed to get outside of themselves. Given Beta Radio's history as an isolated, acoustic-based act, the last year or so has brought forth a concerted effort to be the opposite of that, even as it countered the instincts and experiences of both Brent Holloman and Benjamin Mabry.

To hear the Wilmington-based duo tell the story of the last 12 months, Beta Radio is a new band these days. They feel permission to experiment and confidence to explore. If they return to their musical roots, it will be out of present interest instead of past expectations. Afraid of Love is the new EP, a first fruits offering of music on this side of Beta Radio's established conventions.

We recently sat down with both band members to discuss working with Bryan Devendorf of The National, unlearning religious habits, and finding themselves in an exciting new creative season.

Analogue: What has the pandemic brought for you as Beta Radio? How has that been writing and recording in a season like this?

Benjamin Mabry: It’s been a pretty massive transformational year for me in a lot of ways. Brent and I have never had a band community. We’ve been pretty isolated down here in Wilmington. We didn’t tour a lot. We wrote a lot. But this year, we’re both big fans of The National, and we went and recorded with Bryan up in his studio in New York.

Even 10 years in as a band, everything we’ve done has been pretty in-house. That was our first real collaborative experience, so that unlocked a piece of my brain in terms of collaboration that way. Then as the year rolled on and the pandemic happened, some difficult personal things happened to open me up to new things or spaces of consciousness even.

There’s been a cracking open. I’m reading a book by a Jesuit priest [Anthony de Mello] called The Way To Love and it’s just about awareness and presence, things I never learned growing up in a fundamental religious community. It was shame of the past and fear for what’s to come. It was preparing for the terrible day of the Lord. To a six-year-old, if it is the truth, then it is good news. But if it’s not true, it’s child abuse.

What I’m saying is that I’m reckoning with a lot of that now. I’m not thinking about the past or worried about the future. I’m just focused on the present for the first time. I think a lot of that was the pandemic. We’ve had so many moments of clarity with Black Lives Matter and then yesterday [attack on Capitol]. I just think the ground was so fertile for transformation this year and that’s what happened.

'Afraid of Love' EP
'Afraid of Love' EP

I think all these songs were written so differently than the others. Every record, we work with a theme because I needed a framework to work in. So this was the first record in which said we didn’t want a theme, that we were tired of doing that, on the front end before all this happened. We didn’t want any of that because it felt like too much pressure and we wanted to have fun. What ended up happening is that we ended up not having a theme and having more fun and being more present than ever. Yet everything is about the same thing.

For me, this is a year of love. I spent so much time not wanting to write about love—thinking love is overdone, I don’t want it anymore. Some of that was a rejection of my religion. I spent 30 something years trying to be born again, but I’ve been born again.

Analogue: Has music been that transformative place for you to think through those things?

Benjamin: For me, yeah it was always music. This is another way this has been weird, because it’s always been music, but up until five or six years ago, when we started doing this full time, I didn’t realize it until recently but I started falling out of love with music. Brent and I had a hard couple years…

Brent Holloman: Learning how to work together.

Benjamin: Yeah, we had other jobs so we’d work at nights. It was fun.

Brent: We got pretty close to calling it quits a few times. [Both laugh]

Analogue: When was the most recent instance?

Brent: It was the tour.

Benjamin: We went on a little week-long tour in June 2019. We’ve always had a lot more success with our recordings than our live act. We were feeling the weight of the live show not getting the turnout our egos thought we needed.

Brent: I also have a family with two kids and a wife, so being away from them and being in a band for a week traveling is not my thing. Playing live music and being out is just not my thing. My love is the recorded music, creating something that’s going to last. Playing live is for one night and then it’s over. You’re putting a lot of work into one night. I’d rather put work into something that’s going to live on for one night.

Benjamin: Yeah, we’re both recording junkies.

Analogue: That’s an interesting juxtaposition because you mentioned being centered in the present and learning to live there, but the presence of the live moment isn’t your thing. Instead, you’re talking about the future in terms of music and making something that lasts.

Brent: It is! One of the big reasons I don’t enjoy live music in the moment is because we don’t have the resources for us to put into it to make the show I want to make. I’m never happy with our live sound—ever. I try and try but you can only put so much money into it. For the amount of shows we do, we can’t invest. Plus I don’t want to be on the road that much since I have my family. I’m a homebody.

Benjamin: Our favorite live shows are always living room shows because there’s no audio equipment. Everyone knows what it is. It’s people in a living room playing music. For me, when there’s a stage, I want the audience to think we’re more important than we really are. When you’re in a living room, no one has any bones about how important you are. [Laughs] But when we’re on a stage, we feel like, ‘Okay, this has to be good. We have to make sure that everyone is pleased!’

Brent: For me, I want the guitar tone to be represented the way I want. The mix is not right. That’s how to do with our resources.

Analogue: You mentioned trying this new collaborative approach with Bryan. Do you remember an A-ha moment when you realized the new approach was leading where you’d hoped it would?

Brent: Yeah. We’d worked on a shell or structure to show another musician that we hold very highly to say, ‘This is sort of the drum thing but we know you’ll do better.’

Benjamin: Just to be clear, we sent Bryan some demos with some temp drums from our MIDI kit.

Brent: We thought, ‘You’re going to do way better than this. This is just us amateurs doing what we think may be okay. We left there feeling very confident about our abilities to be able to do it ourselves. He was like, ‘What do you want me to do?’

"I wanted to throw away any idea of what a Beta Radio song should sound like." -Brent Holloman

Benjamin: I mean, he totally transformed our sound on that record. But it felt good to us to know that we were a little bit better than we thought we were.

My A-ha moment came after that. We have a Juno 60 synthesizer that we bought for the last record, and we love playing with it. One of my favorite all time sounds is an arpeggiated synthesizer—like the Stranger Things stuff. We have a song called “It Doesn’t Really Feel Like Spring.” We wrote that song as an absolute diversion. We were working on something else, had a deadline, and we couldn’t think. We felt like we were at a roadblock.

Brent: Preface this by saying that I’m tired of writing acoustic music. [Laughs] I wanted to throw away any idea of what a Beta Radio song should sound like.

Benjamin: We started playing with this arpeggiated synth part and just recorded it for 25 minutes. Then we began shaping it. We’d never written that way before, but this is probably in the top 3 songs I’ve ever written. And it was a total accident. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no real time signature or musical structure. It just ebbs and flows.

Brent: But it was probably the most in-the-flow fun song we’ve ever written. It’s probably one of my favorites as well.

Analogue: When you find out that there’s Beta Radio on the other side of “not wanting to make a Beta Radio song,” what does that mean for the future?

Benjamin: Let me say one thing: Our first band was this rap-metal band back in high school. I love hip-hop and I don’t know where this would ever amount to, but I love the new Run the Jewels record. And some of the techniques they are using… they are doing something so interesting, and I feel like I want to somehow take some of that oregano and sprinkle that on my folk pizza. [Laughs]

So I think there’s more synthesizers, more electronic music ahead of us. Then again, did you hear the new Bonny Light Horseman record?

Analogue: I did.

Benjamin: That record, as soon as I started metabolizing that in the springtime, this old acoustic guitar part of my heart opening back up. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s still there.’ So I think it’s going to be more of everything.

Analogue: All frontiers open?

Brent: Yeah, I think no idea what we’re going to release next. But scoring is something I’ve been wanting to do for years and we got a piece of that this year after scoring a little podcast last year that never ended up getting picked up. We had so much fun with it, so that’s something we’ve experienced enough to know we could do this.

Benjamin: We’ve never had the confidence to think, ‘If we had to, we could write a record start to finish by ourselves.’ Never in our lives did we think we could do that. We’re not saying that we want that, but a number of these songs have just been us, whereas before, we always had to have a drummer or someone else to help with these things.

VISIT: Beta Radio

*Photo: Amanda Holloman