When Congrats‘ Ben Stewart showed up to our phone interview a little late, all was forgiven when he explained he’d lost track of time learning to play Ricky Martin‘s “Livin La Vida Loca” on guitar. It also seemed particularly ‘on brand’ for the creator of a project that’s full of the spirit of trying things out and seeing what happens.
Known for his role as the frontman and songwriter for Slowly Slowly, a listen to the Congrats discography starts to make the differences between the two projects obvious, even though Ben’s expressive voice exists in both. Instead of heartfelt ballads with wholesome guy-next-door spirit, there’s a moodiness to Congrats that curiously slinks into darker corners while somehow simultaneously making light of itself. The freedom of experimentation is what speaks loudest about Congrats, in aesthetic as well as in song.
When sharing with me the inspiration as to how Congrats came to be, there seemed to be a lot of interweaving factors that led to the project’s inception. Ben shared with me that he’d come to a point where he’d felt the bumpers of restriction when it came to what he could create with Slowly Slowly. He’d wanted to have room for thematic inspiration outside of real life experiences, and had also wanted his personal listening tastes of pop, rap, hip hop, and trap to be able to come out in his music. He’d also admired artists like Chino Moreno and Maynard James Keenan when it came to the idea of creating music via multiple projects.
Ben says “I see Congrats as a conduit I can speak through for things outside of myself. I have done a lot of autobiographical writing over the years and it’s been exciting to push myself outside my own experiences. White Pony by Deftones is an album I often look to for inspiration. Moreno writes from multiple perspectives, often drawing from dreams and surreal character play.” This character factor seems to be why we see the ’emo Colonel Sanders’ in the music video for “Russian Roulette” instead of footage of the ‘local nice guy singing about meaningful things’.
Ben and I spoke about the project name, and suddenly the throwaway casual (maybe even sarcastic) nature of the word ‘congrats’ had me laughing. We both tried out different ways of saying it before Ben described how it came to be. ‘Congrats’ had been the name of a folder on Ben’s computer where music had been filed in, and it just happened to stick as the idea grew. He says “I see the word ‘Congrats’ as so throwaway, it just felt right for the project – so celebratory and yet so nonchalant.” Though meaning is still important for Ben in his music, the opportunity to play around more in a way that wouldn’t derail Slowly Slowly perfectly suits this flippant and positive vibe.
The casual nature seems to come into the way that the creative process is handled too. Ben says “Slowly songs feel to me like my own little homemade statues that I chip away at trying to get the form perfect, but Congrats is all about energy and capturing things in the moment – unadulterated and unabashed.”
Ben appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with others that Congrats has given him, saying that the creative process for Slowly Slowly can be a lonely one. As someone who benefits from bouncing off others, he says “I like writing for the project with new faces and sounding boards.”
One of those ‘faces’ is producer Konstantin Kersting, who Ben worked with on “Russian Roulette” and “Lobotomy”. The two had met at a songwriting camp, which Ben had fascinatingly described as being like Hogwarts. Ben says “We were bunked together a few nights before we actually worked together, so had gotten to know each other, but hadn’t worked together. We went in not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but there was some pretty palatable chemistry the whole time. We worked again together in Brisbane at Kon’s studio. He is a dear friend and I plan to make more music with him.”
Seeming like the Congrats sound is still forming its sound over time, the two newest songs have a different vibe to them in comparison to the tracks released before them. Ben was in agreement to this, suggesting it may have to do with the magic of the creative process that happened when bringing them to life. He says “It’s very rare you get to write two songs in a day, let alone two songs you want to use as individual singles. It was a killer day with some great energy behind it.”
I didn’t realise at the time that the Trophy Eyes “Figure Eight” show in Melbourne would be my last gig for a long time in 2020, but as far as gigs go, it was a memorable one; my first time seeing Congrats in the flesh. Surreally beautiful and spellbinding, it was a pleasure to see Ben immersed in these songs, as well as have some creative friends share the stage with him in a collaborative and relaxed way (which, now that I think about it, really sums up what Congrats is about hey?).
In his own words, Ben says that it was “such a great night, to hear people singing songs before they have been released and to be joined on stage by my talented friends. One to remember.” Talking about the musicians he has working with him in live settings, Ben spoke admirably about their individual talents, grateful for them to join him. He says “Connor [guitarist, Ableton pad, ‘acts like a conductor’] is the technical wizard. He built a theremin out of an old Nintendo in high school! And Tom is an old friend who is an amazing drummer.” Whether it’s the on-stage collaborations, the free rein for drumming solos or other spur-of-the-moment playfulness to happen, Ben aspires for Congrats shows to have a whole lot of energy and be more than just a performance that adheres firmly to the recorded version.
Wrapping up our conversation there, there’ll be more to talk about soon, given that Ben shared the news that there’s an EP to come later in 2020. Stalk Congrats on Facebook to learn about that when it happens!