Benefits: an instant punk battlecry against flag-shaggers (and Chris Martin)
Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite bands. Formed as a reaction against nationalism and classism, the Teesside agitators tell us about how only these times could inspire their Sleaford Mods and Pixies-approved brand of aggy electro-punk.
“Why would anyone want to be massive, like Coldplay?” asks Benefits frontman Kingsley Hall, speaking to NME for one of the Teesside punks’ first real interviews. “I read an article with Chris Martin talking about how lockdown made him confront his ego. Then he goes and beams his new song back from the fucking moon – turning it into some middle-class, middle of the road, yacht rock, fucking Death Star. What the fuck?”
Without a record label, management, a PR or an agent, Hall has not been media-trained – and is all the better for it. Talking during downtime between his day job and looking after his young daughter, the frontman certainly does not have superstardom on his mind. You realise that within milliseconds of hearing their handful of sparse, electro-punk battlecries.
“You sit back and think of glory days, but can’t stop moaning about the royal that’s not white, you never fucking stop,” he barks on recent single ‘We See You’, while ‘Traitors’ sees him alienated from a nostalgia-obsessed Britain where “spitfires fly past, homeless pile up, no one gives a fuck”. ‘Fix You’ it ain’t, with Hall placing Benefits among Divide And Dissolve, Bob Vylan and Billy Nomates in making “music that couldn’t have happened at any other time”.
“To me, the songs are about trying to understand what Britain is today and how it’s becoming unrecognisable to something that may or may not have existed 10 years ago,” he says. “That might be about racism and sexism being heightened, xenophobia, classism, violence, hatred, but that’s not to say they weren’t there before. It just feels like they’re bubbling up right now.”
Benefits – made up of Hall on vocals and guitar, Robbie Major on synth, Hugh Major on bass and sequencing and Jonny Snowball on drums – formed around the Newcastle area in the summer of 2019 based on “a collective mistrust of what was going on politically”. While their stance remains unchanged, their sound has come a long way since then.
“We just wanted to be a shock and awe, indie-punk band – nothing too taxing,” says Hall. “When I listen back, it feels like IDLES-lite. We just wanted to plug in, play, shout a bit, stick the V’s up at people with Union Jacks, then leave.
“That was fine, but the reality is that there were and still are a lot of bands doing that. They’re good at it and people like it, but we would have just become another noise in that little genre and wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”
Since then, they’ve dabbled in hardcore punk and even a spot of garage, before the constraints of lockdown and living 50 miles apart led to the brutal and minimalist racket they’re now becoming known for. Emailing one another beats, drone noises and guitar feedback for Hall to drizzle some spoken word bile over the top, they found a way of working that fit the band’s manifesto, “to instantly react to current urgencies”. Polish and perfection are not things that Benefits dwell upon.
“It needs to be instant, rather than writing something, sitting on while you get it precise, then releasing it six or nine months down the line,” says Hall. “That means that sometimes something might be out of key, the tempo will be out or it’ll be imperfect. If things sound dodgy, it’s because it’s been pushed out with fury and a bit of fire.”
With their pared-back approach of hip-hop beats and aggy machine-gun vocals warring against society’s ills, Benefits have often been compared to grumpy-punk pioneers Sleaford Mods. Hall however, admits he saw it coming.
“We’ve had comments calling us the Poundland Mods, and that’s totally fine,” he laughs. “I love them. They’re an inspiration and Jason [Williamson]’s lyrics blow me away, but I’m not a thief. Our work has its own identity and we come at things from a different angle. We’re not the complete thing yet. In X Factor terms, we’re still on ‘our journey’.”
Having had a “game-changing” experience while seeing the Mods in Stockton in 2014, Hall fell in love with their “wittiness and virtuosity”, which is why it meant all the more when the Notts duo came out to support Benefits on Twitter. When Mods shared their single ‘Flag’, it even came to the attention of Pixies’ icon Black Francis. “This isn’t politics, you’re just holding a flag, you’re just a fucking pole, wave yer fucking flag,” spits Hall on the track; it’s notion of people being distracted from real issues by superficial nationalism clearly striking as much of a chord with Francis in the US as it did with the thousands who took it to heart in the UK when the song dropped back in February – just as the term ‘flag-shagger’ entered the social media lexicon.
“Flags were everywhere in the news and in the streets,” Hall remembers. “You go down cul-de-sacs and it’s like a VE Day parade. It’s fucking bonkers. The governmental strategy of having flags everywhere, it doesn’t seem to be about instilling pride in the nation or trying to help people feel safe. It’s to keep people feeling on edge, to keep them angry at their neighbours, angry at their work colleagues, angry at foreigners. Everyone’s just so angry.”
Beyond the constant stench of the political bin-fire that clogs the nostrils at every turn, Hall also puts the band’s knee-jerk release habits down the prevailing culture of everyone needing everything now – as well as more personal, existential matters. “Everything’s got to be instant: news, fashion, music, culture, everything,” he says. “There’s a ticking clock and a fear, plus maybe it’s a death thing. My cousin died last year, far, far too soon. Maybe it’s about getting everything out before I expire.”
For now, Benefits are just figuring out what their live show will look like, not wanting it to seem “half-arsed” but rather an “an explosion of power and anger”. Beyond that, they don’t really have much of a plan.
“We don’t have anyone editing us or telling us what to do,” shrugs Hall. “We’re not writing to get on radio, we’re not writing to be populist or to be liked. When all that’s off the table, we become more honest, and that’s what seems to be clicking with people. We don’t give a fuck and that’s fine.”
‘We See You’ by Benefits is out now