Ben Katzman is one of the leading rock powerhouses of the Boston music scene, and the mastermind behind the electric rock and roll that is Ben Katzman’s DeGreaser. Not long ago, I got the chance to sit down with the DeGreaser bandleader (and BUFU Records founder) to discuss the lessons to be learned from KISS, the motivation behind DeGreaser, and finding your own voice through the power of shred.
Boston Hassle: When did you first realize that music is what you wanted to do with your life?
Ben Katzman: I was a hyperactive kid. I broke my legs, cut my fingers open, sprained my wrist. I did every dare ever told. My mom used to put me in all sorts of after-school programs, I got kicked out of all of them. I remember I took karate in kindergarten and I got kicked out for making Power Ranger noises. I dreaded every after-school program. Tennis didn’t rok. Neither did karate. Finally I wound up at piano lessons and I had loads of fun doodling all these little riffs but I still wasn’t thrilled. I think I saw The Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School for the first time when I was 11 and was like, Woah. These dudes rok. It was so much attitude, and so much fun. School of Rock was a game-changer too. But when I discovered KISS, ya know. That was it.
BH: How old were you when you first got into KISS?
BK: Eleven. It was the summer of fifth grade, going into sixth grade. My brother had all these ill rok magazines, and I went into his closet looking for something sik, but instead I found something SSIK. This was like the time I was still really into cartoons and Fox Kids ya know? So imagine what it was like to see a fire-breathing, blood-spitting demon. It was like I discovered the Power Rangers of rok bands. It was a copy of that movie Detroit Rock City on VHS.
BH: I watched that movie all the time when I was a kid.
BK: Yeah, I would watch it like three times a day. I started to Spread the Shred with KISS. I was like 12 and I’d invite all my friends over and be like “Are y’all ready to get your mind blown?” And I would make them sit through 80 minutes of this movie only to get to the last four minutes when KISS starts shredding. God it was so kool. All of those classic KISS songs like “Shout It Out Loud” and “King Of The Night Time World” were bad boi anthems. The fire-breathing, blood-spitting, and the makeup, and the sick solos. Seeing and hearing KISS was empowering. I was kinda shy as a kid and use to get picked on a bunch for being a dork, and God knows when you like KISS, it isn’t just a musical preference. It becomes part of your identity. Some of my best friendships were started because of KISS. Every conversation with my parents, my brother, and all of my friends was a KISS trivia lesson. Every conversation with my parents, my brother, or any homies was like “Dude did you know that Gene Simmons can speak fluent Hebrew?”
My dad took me to see KISS when I was 12. Still the sikkest thing ever. Poison opened though, and uh they didn’t rok.
BH: I feel like for a movie about KISS, there is a surprising lack of KISS in the movie.
BK: Yeah, but have you seen the KISS movie from 1978 called Attack of the Phantoms? It’s where KISS is in an amusement park and they fight Frankenstein. It’s sik. KISS kicks ass to the sounds of KISS.
BH: You’re originally from Miami. What was you reason for moving to Boston?
BK: I grew up with a real solid cruë. I’ve known Jesus and Santi from Free Pizza since I was 14. I was always the youngest one. They were seniors when I was a sophomore. Them and a few other friends went to Boston, and Miami wasn’t really doing it for me at the time. I mean there were all these sick bands like The Panix, Warrick, Mekhago N.T., and Slashpine, but I always felt like no touring bands came through. Miami isn’t like it is now where there are a bunch of local labels, and promoters, with a bunch of sik bands coming through on the constant.
Jesus was always telling me how sick the Boston scene was, and telling me about bands like Happy Jawbone and Skimask. How all the koolest shows were in basements, and people just loved to chill mad hard and listen to music. It sounded like a dream.
BH: When did you first get involved with the Boston music scene?
BK: I remember the day I got here Santiago was like “yo were going 2 see a rok band tonight.” He got my first 40 too. We saw Happy Jawbone Family Band and my mind was blown. It was the sikkest thing I’ve ever seen. Every band that night ruled too. There were so many kool people just stoked to support their friends, and these touring bands. It was culture shock. It rok’d.
BH: The first time you go to a basement, you’re just like “This really happens!?”
BK: I was used to sneaking into bars, and there being the occasional house show. There just weren’t places to shred. I remember we used to book shows in the craziest places to make things happen. Acidosis would play at our local temple, video game stores, our high school, random warehouses, and skateshops. You had to find places to turn into venues. And sometimes you just couldn’t make it out to a show because it was too far away, and that was a total bummer. Miami is huge and there is no subway, and the buses take forever. So in a way you just couldn’t have a thriving scene that was easily accessible. Accessibility is key! It wasn’t easy as a teenager to go from Miami Beach to nearby neighborhoods the same way you can go from Jamaica Plain to Allston.
BH: Do you think Boston has shaped you at all?
BK: I consider Boston as much of my home as I consider Miami. The Boston scene taught me that everyone can have a voice. Whether you are in a band or the kid who loves taking photos of the bands. Everyone has a way to contribute and support each other, and that rules. Everybody’s band has a chance to be heard, and everyone’s art has a chance to be seen. It taught me how to not worry about what’s cool or what’s not, and to like what you like and love what you love.
BH: Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
BK: KISS, the hardest-working rok band of all time. Hehehe
BH: KISS is D.I.Y.?
BK: When they started they had like no budget. No record deal. They toured the country relentlessly, booking their own tours. Learning all their own stunts. Nobody gave a shit about them, critics hated them. KISS kind of taught me to not give any fucks. You gotta own being you. You gotta be proud of who you are and you gotta shout it out loud. Juan Wauters is kinda like KISS in that sense too. But being a KISS fan is no walk in the park. Nobody ever goes “Dude that’s a sik band,” they are always like “Damn you must be a dork if you like KISS.” But you know if you love KISS you’re gonna defend them until the end. Because clearly, KISS roks the hardest.
Then there is my mom and dad. My mom is the #1 Capricorn and my dad is the #1 Cancer, they’re both the hardest workers I know. They always told me to persevere through any problem and that there is always options and a light at the end of the tunnel. They know how to get shit done.
Also bad boi Aries Ian Mackaye. He’s cool, if it wasn’t for him and the founding of Dischord Records I wouldn’t be doing what I do. He really went out of his way to document his community. Putting out his friends’ albums, organizing shows, recording bands, photographing and documenting the DC hardcore era of the 1980s. Dischord Records helped a whole generation of alternative kids find a voice without radio play or MTV.
Japanther were also a huge inspiration. One of the first contemporary D.I.Y. bands I obsessed over. You can tell they were always finding ways to reinvent themselves whether it’s new music or their insane live shows. Japanther collaborated with all sorts of other bands and artists. They have played with synchronized swimmers, done shows with giant puppets, and have done performance pieces that have pushed their artistic vision to the limits. Also one of the most down-to-earth bands as well.
On a local level, I have mad respect for the Boston Hassle and Allston Pudding for keeping kids interested in local bands and taking the effort to document things. I think that’s what really makes a scene, is once you start documenting things it makes them more important because you have something to hold onto. Like a kid that wouldn’t know about all the shows and ill local bands could see an article online and be like “Whoa, they’re talking about this local band.” And maybe they’d pass it on to all their homies and that way it kind of legitimizes everything that’s going on. Like I said, Spread the Shred.
BH: I feel like it moves so fast, documenting it is important.
BK: It keeps it going. It gets more kids involved. There are multiple ways to be passionate about music. Shout-out to all the writers, and the people who love taking photos and video!
BH: Or interviewing people.
BK: Yeah, that is awesome too! Sometimes people want to start their own record label or book their own shows. They want to find their way of keeping it this youthful, energetic thing. Definitely all the local labels like Feeding Tube and stuff like that, those are some big influences. People who keep things fresh and awesome. Shout-out to KISS. Their disco record roks.
BH: What was the motivation behind DeGreaser?
BK: I’ve been doing Acidosis on and off since I was like 15, and I’ve been doing BUFU Records the last couple years too. I think it was about time I started having some fun for myself. I starred in Grease when I was like 17 too. So I guess you can say DeGreaser is inspired by Danny Zuko’s sad boi 2 bad boi complex.
BH: How does “Rok N Rol Community College” differ from the first DeGreaser release?
BK: The first one was really lo-fi and it was all songs I wrote when I was 18 or 19 or when I was seeing my last girlfriend. So they are definitely specific moments in time. And I go to Berklee now, and I totally doesn’t rok. When I was in high school, I had this one music teacher who told me my music and attitude wouldn’t get me anywhere. He told me If I sat down and shut up that I would get where I need to go. I think he laughed when he found out I auditioned for Berklee. Whatever though, those who can’t rok just teach right? No kid should ever have to hear that from a teacher. You gotta be you, and you gotta be true. So yeah, Rok N Rol Community College is really just about all these experiences of struggling in music school to be yourself and finding your voice through the power of your own shred.
BH: Where do you think the Boston music scene is headed?
BK: I think right now it’s reinventing itself, because Boston is a college town. So like every four years there a whole new generation that turns it on its head. I think there are a lot of new bands right now. And there is going to be a lot more happening. The next wave of shredders are coming in. The next wave of bands, labels, and D.I.Y. spaces are going to pop up. And we still have so many sik powerhouse bands like Bugs and Rats, (New England) Patriots, Gracie Jackson, and Kal Marks. So that’s super kool too! The people of Boston have been given a gift and have been given a role, and that role’s name is Rok N Rol.
BH: Do you think having a college degree is vital to working in the music business?
BK: Nope. It helps but I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s good to study everything, but you don’t need to be in school to study. The real textbooks aren’t the ones Berklee College of Music tells you to buy. The real textbooks are books like Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Underground by Michael Azerrad. You can read from the experiences of artists who came before you. However, the best thing when it comes to the music business is simply going out there. Going to shows, meeting new people, supporting new bands and labels. You gotta dive right in! Might as well jump.
BH: I saw Acidosis and Free Pizza back in December. That was a great show.
BK: Yeah, that was like our millionth reunion show. That show was tight!
BH: When I found out Free Pizza was moving I tried to see them as many times as possible.
BK: Yeah, they’re back in Miami. Their plans to go to Berlin are happening. That was sick that they went back to Miami, because we had BUFU Fest in Miami with the Jellyfish Brothers, Colleen Green, and so many other ill bands. There was something like 500 kids counted at the door the second night. So it was great way to be introduced to the scene. So I think they are going to be A-okay. I mean . . . they do rok real hard . . .
BH: Plus they’re so great, they’ll do fine anywhere they are.
BK: Oh, yeah. Anywhere they are. I mean, Jesus is an Aries and Santiago and Nick are both Geminis. That’s a power trio right there. Same zodiac lineup as classic Motörhead. Plus I hear they’re working on a new record too. Which would be sick.
BH: What’s your sign?
BK: I’m an Aries. Like Elton John and Aretha Franklin, so you know I love working hard. Those two rok.
BH: What’s in the future of DeGreaser?
BK: So this album is coming out with BUFU and Gnar Tapes, which is sick. Then we are just touring a lot. We’re touring the Northeast in March with the Jellyfish Brothers. We have plans to shred coast to coast all over North America this summer with bands such as Ian Vanek’s new band Howardian, and Chicago’s finest shredders the Lemons. The plan is really just to live life to the fullest and tour as much KISS did in 1973, and maybe pump out another record.
Shout-out to Greg Alvarez, Nick Regan, and 2015. Shout-out to Miami and Boston. Shout-out to everyone there who isn’t afraid to drum like Peter Criss to their own beat. Shout-out to everyone who isn’t afraid to like KISS or be themselves. Y’all know who you are. Stay true and continue being you.
Rok N Rol Community College is available NOW on BUFU Records!!