Fifteen years of idealism for Boston’s Ben Potrykus

Jerard Fagerberg

At 15 years old, Ben Potrykus was a banshee. Gasping beneath a bush of curls, he blurred across VFW stages in suburban Massachusetts as the pubescent falsetto afront prodigal pop-punkers Fake ID. Equipped with a dogmatic vision of DIY and a distinct New England pride, he spent the next decade and a half ripping through projects and bandmates, burning bridges like cigarettes with each reincarnation.

“I think it’s a good education,” Potrykus says. “It’s a path fraught with personality clashes and missteps by its very nature, but it feels so good to take a step back from something you actually had a hand in and see it completed.”

Now 30, Potrykus is settling into his role as frontman of jangle pop getup Bent Shapes, his 15th band in the last 15 years. In the generation since Fake ID, he’s been a razor-throated hardcore savant, a psychotropic anti-folk prankster, a shit-kicking anarchistic poet, and a cassette-happy sample mechanic.

“It felt right at the time to scroll through that many different things,” Potrykus says from the warmth of his Somerville, Mass., living room, “For me, it was always just searching for something that sounded like it was passionate and had struggle involved, somehow.”

It sounds romantic, but much of Potrykus’ struggle has been self-imposed. Over the years, he’s torpedoed two major label deals, temporarily fractured his relationship with his brother, and sabotaged a rock doc, all results of his idealism, impulsiveness, and neurosis about selling out. His devotion has made him one of the most revered songwriters in Boston, though it was never his intention to become anything, really.

*

Potrykus was born in Braintree, Mass., a whatever suburb at the end of Boston/Cambridge’s Red Line train. He grew up in a family of four children where creativity and resourcefulness were cardinal values.

“My parents passed on a certain aesthetic to me, a certain ideology,” Potrykus says, “It’s a New England thing: ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’” This local mantra has long been an inheritance of the Potrykus family.

“My dad would be making stuff or fixing pieces of the house himself all the time, being like ‘oh, I can make that,’” he continues. “And my mom was pretty into decorative painting. A lot of the stuff that was in our house they made or fixed up, so I got pretty into that aesthetic.”

Potrykus and his younger brother Sam (and later their kid sister, Kate) chose to live this mission through music. By the age of 12, Potrykus was fronting basement bands and playing local talent shows, which were the only avenue the pre-teen could conceive of.

“I didn’t understand that there were places where you could play loud music that weren’t clubs,” he says, commenting on the lack of all-ages venues around. “Like, did parents set it up for their kids? What was the deal?”

So, he devoted his adolescence to figuring out a better way. Potrykus found Fake ID via a classified ad on a local music message board, joining as their singer after his mom drove him out for an audition. Fake ID was DIY out of necessity—the 14-year-old neophytes had no concept of how the music business worked, but the experience of booking residential Knights of Columbus halls and sweaty high school gyms served as an initiation for a life of independent touring and promotion.

In 2002, Fake ID’s nasally cover of O-Town’s “All or Nothing” landed on Fearless Records’ inaugural Pop Goes Punk compilation. “That was a silly time,” says Sam, who in those days was a wide-eyed tagalong.

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Potrykus playing in Fake ID as a young teen.

Soon after Pop Goes Punk hit the shelves, Capitol Records spied the band on MP3.com. From a young age, Potrykus was sucked into the open-water anxiety of the major-label music industry.  Capitol sent a rep out to meet with the boys, but Potrykus wasn’t romanced by the thought of a deal. “I went into it with a pretty bad attitude,” he says, “I immediately had the caricature of a teenager’s reaction to an A&R guy. I was like ‘fuck this dude, I’m not gonna do anything he says.’”

The A&R asked the band to bring records that had sold over a million copies to their meeting. Potrykus’ bandmates brought Michael Jackson and other stadium-fillers, but he had his own idea. “My proposal to him was, ‘okay, I’ll play you stuff that I like, and you tell me why it’s not selling a million records,’” he says. “So, he’d listen to Hot Rod Circuit or Minor Threat and kind of give me a spiel on why it sucked.”

His bandmates were pissed. Fake ID held on a little while after the deal was nixed, changing their name to The Drive somewhere in the fallout, but they never recovered. Potrykus eventually split from the band, chalking his exit up to creative restlessness and stubborn family values. Plus he was already starting to play in another band.

*

The second time Potrykus spurned a major label was a disaster.

It was 2003, and Potrykus had found footing with a post-hardcore group called The Receiving End of Sirens. TREOS, as they were known colloquially, hitched to the burgeoning screamo craze and exploded afront the suburban scene. The band often played directly on the floor, within arm’s reach of their fans. Mosh pits scrambled around amps, with rasping teens taking out cymbal stands while Potrykus writhed and shrieked magnetically behind the mic. It was emotive and inventive, and more than that, it was coming out of Boston.

Though this breed of post-hardcore has not aged well and many, including Potrykus himself, look back on the genre harshly, Sam admits there was something special about TREOS. “They were the best band in the scene,” he says, “They were surrounded by all these other bands who looked up to them. Everyone came to see them, and Ben was very influential then.”

“They were a real band playing DIY venues and doing it right,” says Evan Murphy, a Boston sound engineer, musician, and long-time friend of Potrykus. “You had all these bands locally that were still doing pop punk that were still doing ska in the early 2000s, then TREOS came on the scene and just blew everyone away.”

It felt right at the time to scroll through that many different things. For me, it was always just searching for something that sounded like it was passionate and had struggle involved, somehow.

Hardcore has always been Boston’s bloodline, but by 2002, in certain corners, the sound was getting skewed. At that point, Converge had graduated to the national circuit. In the vortex, hardcore bands like Bane and Slapshot split the scene; punk kids had the likes of Darkbuster, The Unseen, and Kicked in the Head, while emo kids had A Loss for Words and Faraway working in. TREOS were one of the most well-liked bands around though, inspired by bands like Thrice and Thursday, and known for their explosive live shows.

“To use a shitty expression,” Sam concurs, “they were a big fish in a small pond.” What put TREOS even further above the crop was that they were built on grassroots alone. However, an A&R from Atlantic Records soon moved in with an offer to change all that.

Again, Potrykus balked. “This guy was working with Atlantic, but we were gonna get to stay on an indie,” Potrykus says, though it became pretty clear that wouldn’t be the case. “I was very much ensconced in the DIY culture. It didn’t feel right to be me to be on a label that was trying to convince people it’s this small-scale operation when it really had all this other money behind it.”

These were the days the Potrykus brothers lived the dogma of Dischord Records. They were  intoxicated by Ian MacKaye platitudes like “music is no joke, and it’s not for sale.” All that mattered to Ben was creating accessible, experiential music, and a contract meant losing that freedom. “With the exposure we were getting and the amount of people we were getting to come dance and freak out at shows,” he says, “we already had the advantage.”

True enough, TREOS were a commodity big labels were shopping for in 2003. They could’ve been the next Thrice or Underoath, but Potrykus wasn’t interested in fulfilling that legacy. Moreover, he was reluctant to leave Emerson College, where he was enrolled as a freshman absorbing everything from French feminist theory to Dada poetry. “All I was doing was reading all this theory every day,” he says, “a lot things made sense to me, and a lot of things confused me, but I wanted to get those ideas into the music.”

Potrykus was growing uncomfortable with his involvement in a band so at odds with his ideals. And when he discovered that Atlantic planned to cut DIY co-conspirators ECA Records out of the deal, his decision was sealed. In November of 2003, TREOS played their last show with Potrykus at a function hall in Fitchburg, Mass. The evening was emotional, cathartic, and amicable, but Potrykus’ bandmates hadn’t forgiven him.

The Receiving End of Sirens.

The Receiving End of Sirens.

 

“At this point, you were getting the reputation as ‘the guy who quits bands,’” I comment to Ben, one night after he and his wife Athena make dinner. Athena offers me a helping of the something-and-quinoa steaming in a cast iron pan on the stove, then slips her headphones back on and returns to inventorying their record collection.

“Yep.”

Potrykus’ answer is swift, and it comes with a mawkish nod. “I was quick to leave projects when I was younger,” he adds. “It was dramatic, and it was exciting.”

His leaving TREOS was sold as a betrayal. When the group re-emerged some months later with a new singer, they led with “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” a searing takedown that paints Potrykus as an opportunistic captain abandoning a shipwrecked crew. “We have tested the buoyancy of loyalty,” his former bandmates sang of him, “You left our lungs for canteens/You left our ankles for anchors.” It’s a characterization that, despite his protest, the 30-year-old auteur still hasn’t shaken.

“Any of his transitions from band to band have always come from a genuine place,” says Murphy. “I don’t think he decides to do a new project because he’s bored with what he’s got, I think it’s more like ‘I want to try something new out,’ and that leads to some not-so-graceful exits.”

Some might say that being capricious has marred Potrykus’ reputation and shackled his career—there’s a reason he’s not known widely beyond his hometown, and it’s his own fault. But for Potrykus, resistance to cashing in has preserved his integrity. He could’ve stuck with pop punk and gone up like Boys Like Girls, the emo spin-off that rose from the ashes of Fake ID before flaming out and falling into obscurity four years ago. He could have stuck with TREOS, whose sophomore album was a dopey facsimile of their Shakespearean debut Between the Heart and the Synapse. But for every person Potrykus has rebuked, there’s another he’s inspired.

“Nobody ever offered me money to play music until recently,” says Boston local Peter Long, a lifelong fan and guitarist  of Millennium Falcon Punch, “But seeing Ben do his own thing made me feel like that wasn’t really the point.”

*

When TREOS disbanded, Potrykus retreated to his philosophies. He hawkishly shirked everything those big labels represented and went ascetic. His next band would be The Lido Venice, a band he played in with Sam and Matt Sisto, younger brother of Boston DIY champion Ben Sisto. After his semester ended, the young idealists hit the road with teenage righteousness.

The Lido Venice was assembled in the image of Dischord. They toured on a shoestring and used Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life to fill their schedule with more shows than days. In the passenger seat on night drives, Potrykus pored over Henry Rollins’ In the Van. It was purity or bust.

“It was a perfect time, basically,” he says, “We were playing all these basements, and I was picking up all these zines as we went across the country. We literally played houses where it was like the kids’ parents’ house, and their mom was making us treats.”

In 2004, The Lido Venice released Songs Written around a Campfire in the Belly of a Whale, a raw and besotted amalgam of punk and folk that could be a thesis statement for Potrykus’ genre-ambivalent manifesto. The record sounds like it’s being played by two separate bands. This was, in fact, the case. Not only did The Lido Venice have two complete ensembles (a standard four-piece punk setup and a stripped down acoustic version), but the Potrykus brothers were also floating between two other projects simultaneously—a throaty art punk project called Get Loose and a no-frills folk quartet called Sharp Teeth. All these poles are in argument on Songs; Potrykus is at war with his own hangups, and his music is manifesting out of categorical neurosis.

“With the Lido Venice, it was like ‘oh we can do a bunch of different things on one record,’ and that was awesome,” he says, “and then right after that, I was like, ‘no, I want to have a different band for every type of thing that I’m doing, and this one is going to be kind of spazzy and screamy, and this one is going to be loud and not screamy, and this one is going to be acoustic with nice singing.’ I was just doing all that stuff at once.”

Nobody ever offered me money to play music… But seeing Ben do his own thing made me feel like that wasn’t really the point.

A few tours was all the Lido Venice lasted, and the Potrykus brothers carried on the MacKaye-ian campaign as Sharp Teeth, a band through which they continued to emphasize ideas like advocacy and access. And soon they could really put them into practice: when the Potrykus parents relocated to Wareham, Mass. (and, later, Virginia) in 2004, they left their Braintree home in the hands of Ben. With the blessing of his parents, and inspired by Boston show spaces like The Stable and the House of Suffering (later known as H.O.S.S.) he converted the house into an all-access art venue christened The Academy.

“I do the stuff that I do for the purposes of interaction,” Potrykus adds, “I don’t want to ever be at a point where I’m playing music to people I couldn’t also hang out and talk with. That just seems useless to me.”

Using The Academy, Potrykus played patron to anything indie that needed four walls. The shows were all-ages and free to the public, giving upstart musicians a place other than talent shows to exhibit their music. With Sharp Teeth as the de facto house band, Ben and Sam gave beds and couches for visiting acts to crash on and passed around gas money coffers during intermission.

Long remembers shows at The Academy fondly. “Everyone at those shows felt a sense of ownership,” he recalls, “Like, ‘this is a really special thing we’re all sharing, and it doesn’t come around all that often.’”

Eventually, Ben and Sam took their half of Sharp Teeth on the road as a two-piece dubbed Christians & Lions. After that tour, they added Chris Mara and Sisto and released their debut LP More Songs for Dreamsleepers and the Very Awake.

Christians & Lions became the flagship of Potrykus’ sordid canon. The Boston Phoenix called it a second chance for the then-21-year-old shapeshifter, even though Potrykus was really working on his third impression. At any rate, Christians & Lions was ultimately a redemptive turn. The ascetic folk act showcased Potrykus’ rich and poetic lyrics all the while preserving the punkish bent he’d cultivated earlier in his career. The group would flourish as DIY sovereigns, playing street corners, basements, and vegan barbecues, venturing out on several tours that brought their music to the most intimate settings. At the helm were the zealous siblings, with a cohesive musical vision they’d manifested together.

*

Potrykus takes a second to tisk-tisk his other cat for clawing the futon we’re sitting on. He comes back to our conversation with an almost parental tension in his voice, though there’s a sweetness in the way he compares the work Sam’s done to that of Ben Sisto, Dan Shea, and Deb Nicholson — a slightly older great generation of Boston DIY music advocates.

“I’m really proud of Sam,” he says, “He’s become somebody like we used to look up to when we were growing up.”

Though Ben has always been the center-stage sibling, Sam is a devoted architect of the DIY lifestyle in Boston. The workhorse of the family, Sam founded The Boston Countercultural Compass and The Boston Hassle to support, promote, and book scads of shows for local upstarts. Until recently, he was a figurehead resident at The Whitehaus, where his bands (such as Peace, Loving and The Needy Visions) were local touchstones.

Ben (left) and his brother Sam (right) playing as Christians & Lions.

Ben (left) and his brother Sam (right) playing as Christians & Lions.

“They grew up in an amazing, talented family,” says Spirit Kid’s Emeen Zarookian, who has played shows with Ben since high school, “They just care deeply on a very direct level.” “The Potrykus brothers a true local hustlers,” concurs Ben Katzman of BUFU Records, “They give Boston the name and rep it deserves.”

Together, the Potrykus brothers built a reputation around their surname through music and deed, and Christians & Lions became their proselytizing vehicle. “I’m stuck on Christians & Lions,” their sister Kate says, “I think they could’ve gone really far with that band.” Ostensibly speaking, this is true, and that’s why Christians & Lions never made it to their second LP.

At the time, Potrykus saw himself becoming a part of a trend, and he was judgmental about being lumped in with pastoral indie-folk acts like The Shins or Fleet Foxes. “2007 is when bands like the Decemberists and that earnest ‘I’m going to wear a vest while I play my acoustic guitar and sing all old-timey’ kind of thing was really coming in vogue,” Murphy says, “but [Ben] didn’t want to become this cliché of this ‘60s dude with long hair, so he decided to do the total opposite.”

Artistic control of Christians & Lions became a seesaw between the brothers, with Ben wanting to inject more Turtles-style psychedelia into the sound and Sam remaining obstinate. “In about 2007, I decided ‘this isn’t weird enough’,” Ben says. “I had this idea that we were morphing into a dream pop thing, and it wasn’t too much of a leap for me, but Sam wasn’t really into it.” The Potrykuses scrapped the project, and the two have scarcely played together since.

Ultimately, Ben admits that being in a band with a sibling is just really hard. “When you’re in your late teens and early 20s, and you are brothers, it can be a tough time to work closely on a project,” Ben says, recalling a time on tour when Sam ripped the rear-view mirror off the ceiling of the van. “I understand looking back now how I could have handled things much much better … I totally took Sam’s organizational skills for granted. I’d never acknowledged how much work he had put in.”

Kate puts the split in the context of the Potrykus pedigree — her kind are bred for their stubbornness. “Stubborn is a good term for it,” she says, “When we know what we want, we don’t want to change our minds about it.”

I was very much ensconced in the DIY culture. It didn’t feel right to be me to be on a label that was trying to convince people it’s this small-scale operation when it really had all this other money behind it.

For the first time, Potrykus struck out solo. Going by the impronunciable BAXIA, he labored over a sampler, spinning experimental loop music performed in soliloquy. Though not overly solipsistic or indulgent, it was obtuse and inaccessible. And Potrykus was discouraged by the isolated nature of the music. “I burned out pretty quick,” he says, “It wasn’t fun to just sit by myself at my coffee table and sing stuff through pedals. It was way more fun to bring a song to a bunch of bandmates.” Without a crowd willing to plod through the deliberate intricacies and a band through which to channel his vision, Potrykus compromised.

“I was like, ‘maybe I can take BAXIA and maybe reform Christians & Lions and get back to where we started,’” he says. “I knew how to use all these samplers and shit, so I thought I could incorporate them in a full-band setting more naturally. That’s not really how it worked out.”

The re-vamped Christians & Lions was ersatz, trying to shoehorn sample music into a folk band. Without Sam’s participation, they put out an EP titled Bird’s Milk in 2009, which Potrykus looks back on as a fairly misguided vision. “I had always been looking to put a period at the end of everything, and so I did the same thing with Christians & Lions,” he says, “and it was the first time I was like ‘maybe this wasn’t the right time to end it.’”

Waffling may seem contrary to the DIY ethic, but Potrykus is someone who’s so neurotic about becoming a facsimile that he subverts and destroys himself to avoid it. He idealism has made him prone to self-sabotage. But perhaps that’s the point.

*

Potrykus met Andy Sadoway in 2008, and with Christians & Lions officially buried after 2009,  the pair set out to make big, obscurant garage rock that could fuzz away Potrykus’ chequers. “I was back on the idea that loud music can be fun again,” Potrykus says.

As Girlfriends, Potrykus was looking for catharsis. “He was basically like ‘I want to start a rock band,’” Murphy says. “They started putting out tapes because I think he wanted to do it on the most gnarly medium he could find and blow his voice out.”

At the time, Girlfriends were one of the city’s best amongst a burgeoning scene of fuzz-pop bands, but they never actually even put out a record, releasing cassettes and one-off singles instead through Potrykus’s own imprint, Floating Garbage Continent.

Girlfriends eventually trimmed their sound and churned their lineup, changing their name to Bent Shapes in 2012. Their first LP, 2013’s Feels Weird, was well-received by national outlets, making Bent Shapes his most high-profile incarnation yet. The band just finished recording their second LP, which is a landmark for Potrykus, who has never led a band to a second full-length.

“Everything else he’s been in, his decision to experiment with different genres and experiment, has lead him to this point,” says Kate, who subs as a provisional Bent Shape. Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s any less frenetic about his sound.

“Every once in a while, I get a crazy idea,” he says with a knowing smile, “I heard the Weeknd a couple years ago, and I was like ‘fuck man, I want to do some crazy R&B vocals.’”

 

Bent Shapes.

Bent Shapes.

When I ask about legacy, Sam doesn’t hesitate to call bullshit on the whole idea.

“We can talk about Ben’s legacy if he keeps going at it for another 10 or 15 years,” he says. “I’m afraid that he’s just as uninfluential as any local musician. He hasn’t gotten his due, and he’s not gonna, and neither am I, and neither are any of the other hard-ass working musicians.”

Sam’s pessimism isn’t uncalled for, especially in Boston. Boston is hardly a destination scene for professional artists. It’s a city that has a distant relationship to it’s art community. It’s where bands play until they’re big enough to starve for studio time in Brooklyn.

“It’s more interesting for me to succeed here than to move somewhere — a Portland or LA — and succeed there,” Murphy adds, “I don’t know if that’s Ben’s motivation, but I know that we’re both stubborn Massachusetts dudes that played in bands forever. Maybe that’s one  part of his identity that stuck as a constant.”

“His involvement in a project, release, or event is always enough to get me interested,” says Brad Searles, keeper of Bradley’s Almanac, a Hub music blog that’s been churning since 2000. “Every city’s music-making community needs its linchpin, and Ben is one of the strongest we’ve got.”

But Potrykus is forthright when he says it wasn’t his intention to stay and change Boston’s rep. “There’s a certain attitude about people who live here, and maybe Boston specifically, that I appreciate,” he says, “Boston is the city everyone leaves for NYC or LA upon graduation from college or the local scene. It can be frustrating, but it also fuels a sort of stubborn pride in me.”

Boston has always been about bootstrapping and disgruntled underestimation, and that’s made it something of a DIY haven. The Guardian tried to capture this phenomenon in a farcically off 2014 article that name-drops Bent Shapes in passing. Five or ten years ago, an international newspaper pumping out something so half-baked and insincere about a scene he both stewards and heralds might’ve incited Potrykus, but these are no longer the aughts, and the insolent rebel has softened some.

“[The article]’s categorization of Boston as a DIY utopia is overblown, sure,” he says, “but if the Guardian calls Boston an anti-corporate, pro-DIY scene with a pedigree of unsung heroes, and a bunch of college freshman see it, maybe that’s their inspiration or starting point for contextualizing what they’re doing in the grand scheme of things.”

Potrykus is still insufferable when it comes to bootstrapping. In 2010, he sabotaged a documentary about a show Girlfriends was playing because the filmmakers’ take was “a little grandiose,” and he’s constantly tweeting about the anxieties of surviving as a DIY artist. But he’s certainly learned to sit with the idea of compromise. In 2014, Bent Shapes hooked up with Converse to play a show with the Mezingers and Fucked Up. Part of the contract dictated that the band shill for Converse a bit, donning Chucks during the performance, but Potrykus conceded that it was worth the exposure.

“I’m sensitive to it that, when I see someone making big claims about DIY, I want to have a conversation about it,” he says, “But I’m not the be-all and end-all of DIY. I think that you can use corporate money. I just need to know what strings are attached.” (Bent Shapes will play another Converse show this spring, this time with the Descendants.)

Plus, Potrykus was an insolent motherfucker about the whole thing. In the lead-up to the show, he grilled the promotion company about the contract, making sure he wasn’t indebted any social media posts or brand ambassadorship, and, in the end, the band didn’t even wear the shoes on stage. Whatever, though—Potrykus got his audience and Converse got their hip factor.

“Joke’s on them,” he comments with a smirk. “At this point in our career, we don’t even have a hip factor.”

A lifelong vision quest has led Potrykus to this moment as jangle pop moonlighter sitting on a junky futon surrounded by cats. Sam is right, devoted obscurity isn’t exactly a legacy, but it does have its merits.

“Just to keep it going is a miracle,” Sam explains. “But there is something magical about Ben’s ability to maintain fans. He has these lifelong fans, a small, dedicated group the like him and like his voice.”

At a May 12, 2014, show at Cambridge’s TT the Bear’s Place, Potrykus played under the old Christians & Lions moniker. With Murphy on the drums and Sam nowhere to be seen, he played to a crowd of devotees. The room sang back.

“I think people remember the words better than I do,” he says. “It’s not like the show was packed because there’s all this hype about it, but a lot of people are coming because it means a lot to them to hear these songs again. That means a lot to me.”

That’s why a slew of 9-to-5ers crammed into a dive bar on a Monday night at midnight to sing along to songs from 2006 that were rarely heard outside of living rooms and vegan barbecues. That’s why a community of kids on the Internet have sleuthed for old Fake ID/The Drive demos in a thread that lasted twice as long as the band itself did. In his small and persistent way, Potrykus has transcended.

“If I had my version of A Christmas Carol, and the Ghost of Christmas Future was leading me by the hand,” he continues, “I’d like to see somebody listening to records with a friend and pluck out one of the stupid little flexi 7-inches we had, put it on the turntable, and be like ‘this was this poppy band from Boston my friend was in, it’s pretty good,’ and their friend would be like, ‘oh yeah, it is pretty good.”’

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