I spoke to Ben Arsenal of Worldtown Soundsystem and was struck by his commitment to using his music to create a growing community and his dedication to help our world ecosystem. On the Worldtown Soundsystem website (www.world.town), the first message you get is “Peace + Love Everywhere for Everyone.” This message is consistent with all that Worldtown Soundsystem does and is a promising sign for the future. Their newly released single “Freedom” is a powerful, vibrant song which comes to life in a video that was filmed totally underwater by Julia Lehman. The final product was the culmination of efforts by a lot of people, including Lehman, Corin Hunter (scout/producer), Oluwafemi (Worldtown Soundsytem co-founder, art director, dj) who did some of the graphic work as well as Chris Bruffee for the after effects production. This gorgeous, colorful video is a compelling way to highlight the importance of water and celebrate the music itself. I also spoke to Julia about the making of the video and the conversation follows.
There’s a lot more great music coming from Worldtown Soundsystem soon as they are getting ready to release their new album SURROUNDED due out soon. “Freedom” is one of the songs on this album. In the meantime, Click here to learn more about Worldtown System. Also, you can learn more about Charity Water and what you can do to help by clicking here.
Interview by Fredda Gordon. Photos courtesy of Worldtown Soundsystem and Julia Lehrman.
Fredda Gordon: You have a diverse music background. Can you tell me about it?
Ben Arsenal: I got into music through drumming. I grew up in VT, in a small town called Montpelier. There was a jazz and rock and blues program in my town and I went up through that. I moved to France when I was 16 to live with family and that exposed me to dance music culture. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Daft Punk, they were coming up big at the time. That was a pretty exciting discovery coming from traditional jazz, rock, Led Zeppelin and Charles Mingus, those kinds of classics. It was a completely new feel. I came back and had a hard time figuring out where to start with it. Eventually, I got into DJing, which led me to Brazil, and I got exposed to a mixture of Latin culture and house music. When I moved back to Philly I connected with another DJ. We had really good chemistry and we founded, with two young women, a group called Worldtown.
We wanted to create a space that celebrated international music, for people from everywhere to come together and celebrate together. That was in 2011. At one of my first featured solo gigs, there was a sax player who showed up, coming from a live music background. I thought it was great and kept in touch with him. [I] opened a studio about the same time [and] I invited him, among other people, to record and started writing original music. [I] got back in touch with my original vision of performing original electronic music with live instruments to create something unique in a party atmosphere.
From there, I connected with [a musician] who is now another partner, Gary Dann. He hosted a Sunday night event called Music Church that was a music writing forum, so I started hanging out there. His close friend Julian Hinson is a bass player, and also helped put together the program, so I invited Julian to come record some basslines to my material and he said “Wow! This is really cool! We should work together, and I want to bring Gary into the fold as the drummer.” I never really thought about having a drum set player, y’know, because house music is very drum oriented. But I was open to it, so we started practicing and I [thought] ‘Wow! This is really cool!’ Within a couple of months we figured out some technical obstacles that really allowed us to lock in with each other and start playing gigs. That was about 7 years ago now.
FG: Did you formally study music?
BA: I studied audio engineering for a bit. I’m coming from that angle.
FG: Your latest video is shot completely under water. How did you come up with the underwater concept?
At the end of the day, Worldtown is kind of a creative conglomerate, a community, so aside from the band there’s a handful of folks who do various things and contribute in different ways, not just musically. [With] Corin (Corin Hunter, scout/producer), we’d been talking about shooting a music video, and some different directions, and she mentioned knowing about Julia Lehman and said “Well, why don’t we shoot it under water?” I never really thought about that before. So, I met Julia and we did a test shoot. She’s doing some phenomenal work and we came up with a shot list and did a marathon shoot, 14 or 16 hours.
BA: Yeah, it was really crazy. Knocked out a whole production in a day which was great.
FG: What’s it like to be photographed under water?
BA: You kind of lose your senses a bit. You’re not really sure what’s happening. When you’re able to see things clearly, and hear direction, it’s easy to become self-conscious quickly. When you’re under water that is erased. It’s very free. You have a general conversation. You know she’s going to shoot from this angle, and try to look over here and move the fabric and whatnot. But the control is out of the subject’s hands and almost in the hands of the water itself.
FG: I saw the video of the making of “Freedom” and it looks like it was fun and crazy.
BA: Totally fun and totally crazy. The whole band was there, a solid 8 people. Then we recruited 4 or 5 dancers and extras. The violin players in the video were folks who are part of the community. The dancer in the red dress was brought on as an extra flair. It was crazy. It was about 20, 25 people around a swimming pool for the day.
FG: A great way to achieve your goal of bringing attention to the lack of water for some people. Can you tell me more about that goal?
BA: We started as a group that celebrated international culture and every year we’ll do a community service project. We call it Worldtown Citizens. We have done urban farm cleanup projects, MLK Jr. day of service, [etc.]. This was a really interesting conversation that stemmed from the global issues that affect everyone and it becomes less about who people are and where they’re from and [more about] the universal core issue that humans as a whole face. Serendipitously we connected with Charity Water, that’s a big organization out of New York that has provided clean water access to 6 million people around the world. Their metric is $30 raised brings clean water access to 1 person. They have raised 180 million dollars last I checked. Our campaign is promoting Charity Water and that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are without clean water. A really good starting point is having people acknowledge that without water we’re in trouble and it’s a challenge that tons of people face around the world and we don’t really think about it so much in this country. Although there are certainly communities… even in Philly there’s lead poisoning issues, that type of thing.
FG: I love that you’re doing this.
BA: When we were getting it together it was a little bit stressful because it’s like ‘Ok, we gotta make an impact, we have to show results’ and that kind of pressure was mounting. But what I’m realizing is that just like anything good it takes a lot of time. It takes people awhile to warm up to that kind of message. As long as we stay consistent with it, we’ll be able to make an impact in the long term for sure.
The lyrics were written by a bandmate, Zeek Burse. I wrote the track. The process has been getting together in the studio, creating a collaborative theme or concept and then augmenting it with live bass, saxophone and whatnot.
I’ve been working with another producer, Mattias Nilsson, a really awesome, talented producer from Sweden. He challenged us to take it to the next level and has a history of working with Larry Gold, who is one of the staple Philadelphia string arrangers. He brought it to Larry and Larry got on the track as an arranger. A mega collaboration between myself, Zeek, Mattias, Pablo Batista the percussionist and multi-Grammy guy who toured with Alicia Keys for a long time, and Larry Gold. Then, of course, there’s Dan Keller on the saxophone. It speaks volumes about the Worldtown vibe, the collaborative nature of the whole project.
FG: You already have the message out there.
BA: Sure, who knows what that’s done. It’s pretty exciting. Slowly but surely we are going to keep plugging away at the community impact efforts. We’re always open to partnerships and collaborations that will magnify the impact. For example a younger guy who has been part of the auxiliary team, just had a fashion show in NY over the weekend and used some of the footage to promote the message. His father did some great fashion designs that were made out this fabric that’s made from recycled plastic called reprieve. We can give them a shoutout: DK Designs and Next Level World. That’s a great example of how this has propelled efforts outside of just the band. They’ve always been really passionate about sustainability and environmental issues. They had a really great show and some of the fashion and photos were on billboards in Times Square.
FG: Where do you perform live?
BA: We play mostly in Philly but we’ve played New York, DC, the Carolinas, SXSW. We’re currently [working on getting the band really rolling].
WORLDTOWN SOUNDSYSTEM is Ben Arsenal (musical director/DJ), Gary Dann (drums), Zeek Burse (vocals), Dan Keller (saxophone), Julian Hinson (bass, vocals) Fawziyya Heart (Vocals), Anessa LaRae (vocals), and its newest member, world renown master percussionist Pablo Batista (Alicia Keys, Grover Washington Jr., Jill Scott, Patti LaBelle), replacing the late Stan “da Man” Hunt. Batista holds the rare distinction of performing on Grammy-winning releases in jazz, R&B and gospel, as well as guesting with the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra.
Julia Lehrman – Interview
As a fellow photographer I was excited to talk to Julia Lehman about her beautiful underwater photography and her work on the Worldtown Soundsystem video. Click here to see her work and a video on the making of the video.
FG: How did this video come to be?
JL: I’ve had this project called the Plastic Project going on for over a year. It’s a concept of the idea that I’m a passionate environmentalist, depressed about what’s going on in the environment, and instead of sitting back and being depressed and creating more depressing images that none of us wants to see anymore cause we’re all tuning those out at this point. I wanted to use my creativity, the energy that we all have, an ability to do something for the environment. For me it was ‘Let’s try to do something inspirational with also bringing awareness.’ They (Worldtown Soundsystem) fell in love with what I was doing. We have this amazing song “Freedom” about being underwater and we want to link up and try to create this platform. We’re still working on how to make it sustainable, where we could create these experiences or creating art and be able to get it back to Charity Water which is the organization we have chosen because they give 100% of proceeds to giving people access to clean water.
FG: I love your underwater work.
JL: My story behind that was interesting. I always did fine art photography. For years I still shot film with large format. My work has always been inspired by nature, my love for Mother Earth has been strongly present in all my work no matter what I’m shooting.
I’m a nature girl and was for a long time living in a very congested area, it was bumming me out. So, we bought a property, a fixer upper with this pool. I wasn’t really thinking about underwater photography at the time. I was 21 or 22 when I worked in Mexico so I had a little experience working on a dive boat and had experimented with underwater photography with film back in the day, with a Nikonos camera. I was not good at it, I was only doing it for work. Tourist snorkel pictures, trying to make a living at it. It was interesting. Here it was, 20 plus years later and I’m looking at this big, old school 1970s, rectangular 10-foot deep pool and it was filled with frogs and fish. What the hell do you do with this? I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I should build a studio building,’ and then I’m like ‘Wait a minute!’. It was a flash of inspiration that that was my new studio.
FG: How do you stay down while shooting under water?
JL: I have a sand bag and I fill it with rocks or scuba weights. It’s about 20-30 pounds and I throw it on my lap to keep me stationary. Before I go down I will have a conversation with the model about what we’re going to attempt to do. I really have to acclimate them and sometimes train them to relax their faces. Safety is number one for me, obviously, and I have a questionnaire they have to fill out and we go over all the lists to do and make them extremely comfortable before they get in my pool. It does take an adjustment. Even people that are really comfortable with the water don’t realize that they’re without goggles. They forget, “oh, yeah, I have to open my eyes.” I’ll also have tricks if they have issues.
FG: You want to look good when you’re under there and you have to worry about breathing.
JL: While holding your breath oftentimes people puff their cheeks a little bit. All those things where you don’t think you’re doing it but it’s just enough. These sessions take a lot longer because of that. There’s a lot of psychology in it. It’s not just ‘get in and start going’ like regular shoots. It’s funny, sometimes people come and they forget, you don’t have to put hairspray in. All that stuff is coming right out so don’t bother. (laughter). I had one girl come in with so much gel in her hair. I’m like ‘just so you know all this is coming right out and it’s going to create a big cloud of smoke around your head.’ When I get them relaxed enough in the water we’ll go probably between the 5 and 10 foot range. That’s where a lot of the pictures are done because you get those amazing reflections when their bodies are close to the surface.
FG: Do you light the shoots?
JL: Day shoots, no. The sun is so powerful and it’s so beautiful. Cloudy days are amazing [too]. They are very different looks. Sunny days create all those ripple effects on your skin. Almost like rainbows. Cloudy days it’s very soft, dreamy, even light and it’s just gorgeous. When I do night shoots then I’ll have a couple of big lights up above and gel them. I do also use some underwater lighting. I don’t love the way strobes look under water. They look plastic, fake and weird.
FG: What about the Freedom video. I understand that was a long shoot, all day.
JL: Oh my gosh, yeah. (laughter) It was crazy. I crawled out of the pool, it was 12 hours completely under water. We started in the pool at noon and it was such a tight day. We had 30 shots we had to complete. Everybody was there that day so we just wanted to rock it out. Plus I had rented all this lighting for the nighttime. A lot of set up. I did have a lot of volunteers helping me out. All the tile had to be covered in the pool. we had a mega amount of white big huge muslin backgrounds with a lot of long, flowy, colorful fabric also. Then we had the models lined up. Every time slot, they had to be at the pool at that time because it was all about the light for me. I’m like ‘We gotta get this going, we’re trying to do this in one day.’
FG: How different is it to do video rather than photographs under the water?
JL: This was a huge learning curve for me. I had to learn that with shooting video it’s not going to be perfect the whole entire clip. With still photography everything has to be perfect in the shot, right? Well, it’s not like that with video. I had to surrender my perfectionism a little bit [or] it definitely would have had to be more than one day. But I had Corey Hunter, the director of the video, with me. I would share with her what I was getting and she’d [say] “Yup, we’re good.” She has that eye for editing that I don’t have so I relied on her for that piece. For me it’s all about seeing the models looking good, making sure everything looks good in the frame. Lighting. Movement.
FG: Did the Sax player put his Sax in the water?
JL: Dan used my sax. I used to be a Sax player when I was little. When I was 10, 11 years old I had my little Bundy alto sax I kept through the years. I never got rid of it. When we decided he was going to be playing under water I [said] ‘Well, I haven’t used mine in a million years. You can use mine,” because it was going to be totally trashed.
FG: I was thinking ‘Oh, man! He put his sax in the water!?’
JL: Yeah, so mine was like pretty crusty anyway so I was like, ‘It’s fine. Go for it.” It ended up being really cool. Then he was able to get bubbles coming out of it too which I thought was pretty awesome.
FG: Did anything funny happen on the set?
JL: Looking back, that day was kind of out of my control. I told my family ‘You might all just leave for the day because it’s going to be crazy. I was glad I did that because I thought it was probably going to be about 15-20 people. I took a break between 5 and 6 o’clock, I come in my house and there was literally like 15 people I never met, in my house, hanging out. Totally chilling in my house. Eating, cooking, barbecuing. They did ask but I was like ‘What the hell is going on here?’ So that was a little crazy and I had to do the surrender breathing and was like ‘This is all good. Gotta trust the process here.’
It must have been a “whisper down the lane” effect because Worldtown has such a great following, such great energy, they are just awesome people. So I think any time anybody hears anything about Worldtown, people just show up. It was amazing. I had a few people surrounding me that I would relay information to, and they would relay to other people. I felt really good. Ben is an amazing human being. He was there, [had] my back. Corin [had] my back. There were multiple people who really understood how critical every minute was. Because the light, timing, energy, everything had to be done in one day. It was kind of a miracle that we did it all in one day.
FG: Ben Arsenal mentioned a fashion show you were a part of. Can you tell me about that?
JL: Julian Grant has a fashion company called Next Level Fashion. [They] create clothing where they’ll digitally create paintings and print it on recycled fabric. Plastic fabric [that] has over 90% recycled materials. And, this New York fashion show was at the Nat Geo Explorer museum in Times Square. Some of my images were used that I photographed underwater and [were] printed on clothing and that was in the fashion show. Also, projected behind the stage were videos that he created that were beautiful. There were a lot of clips from the [Worldtown Soundsystem] video pieced into it and some of my images were pieced into the background. It was a very cool thing to see somebody taking it and bringing awareness in their own way, through fashion. It’s been an interesting ripple effect.