Breaking Benjamin Frontman Ben Burnley talks the passion behind Ember and connecting on the band’s biggest tour
1: a glowing fragment from a fire
2: embers plural: the smoldering remains of a fire
slowly dying or fading emotions, memories, ideas, or responses still capable of being revived.
Glowing from a fire – still capable of being revived. The heaviness of just these five letters that make up the word “Ember” is astounding in relation to how it has triggered/sparked Breaking Benjamin. The band’s latest record (released in April of 2018) contains 12 tracks and 38 minutes of deeply moving melodies laid confidently over the top of thunderous music. With frontman Ben Burnley’s well-thought out and delicately crafted lyrics, collectively, this is a perfect example of a radiance in both darkness and light.
Envision Burnley approaching a firepit and picking up this glaring ember – with caution, courage and vulnerability all rolled into one motion. He opens up and leads a parade of musicians and fans alike.
Fight with folded hands
Pain left below
The lifeless live again”
Suddenly, the record’s cover image becomes your sky, illuminating that the way out is through. Along your march through the “Red Cold River” you continue to pick up fellow enthusiasts – you “Close Your Eyes”, you “Feed The Wolf”, you… “Save Yourself” together.
Welcome to present day Breaking Benjamin.
Finally, the ripple effect of this movement files into amphitheaters across North America. Burnley and his bandmates reappear on stage before you. Though they are a bit elevated and facing the opposite direction, they are really just among the masses with Burnley leading the chants. Together, you rejoice in these songs penned by Breaking Benjamin, about their real-life experiences. You continue to recognize how similar they are to yours, in your own way. Now, that ember-filled eye is a backdrop staring right back at you.
Burnley locks in. Through the power of song, he realizes he made it, you made it, we all made it.
In sequence, the last lyric you hear on Ember is –
“I will bring the dream to life
Just hold on
I will keep you here inside
Just hold on
I will keep you here inside
Just close your eyes”
Prior to taking the stage in Boston, I had the chance to speak with Burnley. Sitting casually atop a picnic table in broad daylight, I still felt the ember was a torch Burnley was holding high in the air – loud and proud. Over the fences, we could hear the crowd start to file in with enthusiasm. Our conversation surfed the wave of digging deep to find your light, where ultimately – you share your glow.
Today is officially the last stop on this extensive shed tour that saw Dorothy, Diamante, Three Days Grace and Chevelle along for the thrilling ride. As Burnley eludes to in our conversation – it was a journey to get to this point. We find ourselves discussing how the band’s past helped shape a path that led to today. As this tour indicated, with Breaking Benjamin tearing through 16 songs per night, each artist to take the stage subscribes to this concept of being a beacon to project onto the audience.
As the curtains close on Breaking Benjamin’s set, and our interview, the torch is passed back to Burnley and you realize the initial ignition comes from his fire burning inside. We conclude our chat the same way the band concludes the show – a smile, a wave and a “see you again” – where you know the eternal flame of gratitude will lead you to what’s next.
photo by: Brian Kelly
Ember has been out for a year-and-half now, you are about halfway through an extensive summer headlining tour, how are you? What’s the vibe within Breaking Benjamin?
Everything is great. We are really grateful for our fans and people that support rock music in general. We love doing what we are doing and hopefully with a tour like this we can get a couple new fans. Everything we are and everything we do is a product of the people that allow us to do it. We’d all still make music, but to share it is the best thing an artist can ask for. I have people come up to me and tell me what songs mean to them. It means a lot that they relate to me. I personally get the enjoyment that they get out of it by them telling me what it means to them. To be out on tour and see that every day is amazing.
That’s something I’ve noticed in the past 15 years of Breaking Benjamin – how much your music impacts the lives of your greater community. You are so honest with what you write and sing about and the fans in turn, connect deeply and relate to the messages in their own way. Does it ever feel like you are a captain of a very large team?
Yeah, I think it’s really just the human element. We all go through things in our own way. Everybody’s worst thing is the worst thing to them and everybody’s best thing is the best thing to them. What’s cool about music, no matter how different everybody’s worst and best thing is, the one commonality is that they get all the feeling that relates to them through music – that also relates to me, and it connects us.
For me, it is the song “Had Enough”, it simply lit a fire. Or something more subtle like how you deliver the lyric “Something’s just about to break” in “Diary of Jane”.
Everybody has a breaking point. That’s something very important to me – you can have something really amazing on paper, but if you don’t deliver it in the right way it doesn’t translate. That’s what’s awesome about music, it’s not just what you are saying, but how you say it and the emotion behind it. There are a lot of singers out there that have incredible lyrics, but they just talk them without any power behind them. People still attach to that, but I try to do both. I learned that from Kurt Cobain, the band Cold and Korn. Some artists can just say one and word it can move you just by how they sang it. Kurt Cobain was the best at that. It’s fascinating to recognize how real that is. That’s all you can do as an artist, just try to be real. I used to be shy, but now I like to go out and touch people and make it personal. Before, I used to try and go on stage and be perfect. Now, it’s not about that. It’s about being human and actually connecting with people.
Many of your records, Ember included, have an opening interlude and then a closing as the last song. It drives home the point how cohesive the record is and how much of an overall story there is to it as opposed to a bunch of individual songs and singles.
A lot of time gets put into arranging the proper order of the songs. Each song has it’s own story and then you can combine it all and it all makes sense if you listen to it from front to back. That’s what we’ve been going for. We don’t just throw the songs on. We think deeply about what should come next and how they flow into each other. When we get it right, we then book-end it. What’s interesting is that both the intro and outro come last.
It can be easier in this day and age of singles and streaming to just pick your spots, but what’s fascinating is as a listener you are thoroughly rewarded if you take it in as a complete record.
Yeah, we do some hidden things that we get to try and see if other people get it. And it’s totally fine if they don’t. If they just like one song that’s cool, too. Then you do have the people that are so into all of it and figure it all out.
photo by: Brian Kelly
On Ember, after the intro the first thing you say is “I can feel the animal within, I chain the beast” on “Tame the Wolf”. You’re not shying away from anything and getting right after it.
I think it goes back to that human element again. I like to tell stories in a way that is vague so that everyone can attach their own meanings to it. I got that from Nirvana, too. Kurt Cobain would never want to say what a song is about. I stopped doing that as well. I once had a fan ask me about the song “Ashes of Eden” off our record Dark Before Dawn, I said to them that I really preferred you pull your own interpretation because if I tell you, it could ruin it for you. This particular fan insisted it would not, so I said what it was about and guess what? It did ruin it. So, I would much rather leave people with what they think it’s about rather than me telling you what I wrote about. I don’t want to change someone’s perception, I don’t think that’s what music is about. It should be whatever you take it to be. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want to ask an artist what I song I love is about. If it means something specific to me, that’s how I want it to remain forever.
“Diary of Jane” closes your set each night, and that song has taken on such a life of it’s own. It’s such a powerful closing moment – from the intro guitar notes to what happens when you’re playing it. What does it feel like for you playing that song each night given the reaction it gets?
Well, I’ll tell you not necessarily what it’s about, but what inspired it because I think that helps explain how it feels for me. It all started because I was watching a lot of Forensic Files stuff where there were a bunch of unsolved mysteries. There was a Jane Doe that washed up on shore and she just got buried with no story. It was like a meaningless person. Nobody knew who she was to the point where whatever she did was all gone. So, Jane references Jane Doe but then making a story up for her because she had nothing. That’s what started it and then once I started writing, it turned into more than that. Our lives are important. Your life is important to you, my life is important to me. We know that somebody is going to remember what we’re all about. This person Jane was just gone because they were unidentified for so long and lived this entire life for nothing.
Having that collective moment on stage with “Diary of Jane” is incredibly special. Really every song we play, to be able to do it on stage with my best friends and have people sing with us, there are no words to describe it. We encourage people to sing along. It’s amazing, we are grateful for it every day.
Coming full circle here a few hours before stepping on stage before a sold-out amphitheater crowd, what does this Ember chapter in the Breaking Benjamin journey mean to you?
Ember is the first record where other bandmembers are writing with me. The band was all with me on Dark Before Dawn, but I had the writing already done. There were a few things the band helped with, but on Ember, they were there since day one and they wrote a lot. It was awesome for me. Like on the song “Tourniquet”, Keith wrote all of that. I don’t even know how to play it. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for me and I love it.
The ride with these bandmates has been amazing because we are friends. You put that first and then it translates into people. It lets me be relaxed on stage so that I can connect with people. If the roots aren’t there then nothing else is going to grow. I feel like I am at a height that I’ve never been to in my life. I mean, that fact that we’re playing this amphitheater tonight is crazy to me. We’ve never really toured a headlining spot at venues like this. We’ve done plenty of co-headlining tours and arenas, but nothing like this. This particular Ember cycle has been nothing but amazing experiences for us.