Interview with Canadian musician Ben Vezina

Interviews
Photo credit: Rick Arbuckle

By Monica Ng

If you ever wonder why I spend my free time interviewing Canadian musicians and others, the answer is simple: I LOVE music, writing and sharing. I’m also very inspired by these people and enjoy learning about what drives them on their paths.  If you have a chance, check out my interviews with Canadian musicians, Eric Nguyen of The Moon & I, Al Capo of Stuck on Planet Earth, AARYS, Neon Dreams, Craig Stickland, King Khan and Jeff Fero of jFEROcious; and writers, C. Fong Hsiung, Kelly Ann Charleson, Tony Wong and Sharon Rampersad.

A quick note about new music: Neon Dreams recently released their new album, “The Happiness of Tomorrow” and Craig Stickland has released a couple of new songs for an upcoming album. The Moon & I, Stuck on Planet Earth and AARYS are getting ready to release new music soon!

Follow your dreams

The world can be a gloomy place. But there are many people like Ben Vezina and those mentioned above who inspire others to be their best, persevere and follow their dreams.

Ben and I went to the same elementary and high school. Yup, stuck in the same jails for 8 years! Ben has always been a genuinely nice person. Back in high school, I knew that he drummed, but that was pretty much all I knew about him. Though you may have known the personality of your classmates, you didn’t always get a chance to know them well or find out what they did outside of school. 

Flashback to my (night) clubbing days. It just happened that the club where I was at had a live performance that evening. It was Ben drumming with his band.  I was shocked to see him there and for sure, had to communicate a hello in the partially dark and noisy place. Ben’s band was playing some wild catchy tribal music.  Being at the same place at the same time gave me a chance to re-connect with him.

Ben was low-profile with his talent, but another classmate was an underwear model – so news of that guy’s “talent” spread quickly lol.

Contact

Facebook: Ben Vezina

www.musicircleschool.com

About

Ben lives in Montreal with his family. He currently plays in a couple of bands – Hi-Fins and the Janis Joplin tribute band and teaches drums at Musicircle School of Music.

Photo credit: Frederic Serre

Interview

Me:  Ben, it’s always great catching up. It’s awesome to have a chance to interview you. I think it’s the coolest that you’ve followed your passion for drumming all these years.

Someone told me that parents with kids who are learning to play drums and violin have it the worst. And I can imagine why! When did you pick up your first drumsticks and how did your parents deal? And do you play other instruments?

Ben: I’m not sure I would call them drumsticks because they were homemade, as was the Styrofoam drum set. I made them for a lip-sync talent show in grade 5. I was playing the part of the drummer in a fake band doing a Bryan Adams song. I had almost no experience with musical instruments, aside from being forced to take piano lessons as a 7-year-old. I was SO happy to quit because we were moving, but mostly because I couldn’t pick up the reading part of it. My family is a dance family. More specifically a ballroom dance family. My sisters were nationally ranked, my parents were 2nd in the province and I had begrudgingly begun in that world as well. So this grade 5 talent show was my chance to get out – or so I thought. I went “full-on” with that, that I then decided I would be a drummer. It was the one instrument I could teach myself without having to read. I later found out I am dyslexic. But I would have to wait until high school for the chance to play drums. That’s actually where I picked up my first set of sticks. On the first day of music class, we were told to select the instrument that we wanted to play with two alternates. We were told if we chose drums we would have to play the xylophone first. So I picked the xylophone to ensure that I got the chance at drums second. Miss Walsh figured out my scheme. As a result, she decided to take a chance on someone with zero experience or previous drum lessons and put me on drums right away. I never looked back or touched a xylophone!!! My Dad liked that I had found drums but had no interest in hearing them in the house. He was very against me getting or even bringing a drum set into the house. But my mom was cool with it and actually borrowed a drum set from a co-worker for me over the summer, which became my first drum set after 1.5 years of only playing the school kit. As far as other instruments that I “pretend” to be able to play, I would say the bass guitar is the one that I’m the most proficient on. But proficiency is a bit of a stretch… I don’t have a melodic brain, it’s 100% rhythmic. Although being in bands for 30 years and more specifically 16 years in the Freddie James Project, I’ve been able to develop the melodic side more.

Me: I don’t remember you playing on the styrofoam drums back in elementary school lol. I think that I phased out elementary school altogether. In high school I was forced to play the keyboard but spent most of my time in the “washroom” because I hated it. It’s great that you were able to by-pass the xylophones in music class. I’m impressed that you were able to pick up drums and guitar.

I like your nickname “BreakNeckBen”. What’s the story behind it?

Ben: After people would see me play, one of two things would almost always get brought up: 1. “you make me think of Animal from the Muppets” and/or 2. “doesn’t your neck get sore during the show?” My objective was to try and create the feeling I’d had as a competitive dancer. I always moved a fair bit when I would play, but this was me turning drums into dancing, and I thought “BreakNeckBen” explained everything, plus I didn’t really want “animal” to be my only moniker even though I am a bit of a crazy man!

Me: That’s awesome! I love that you’re inspiring people through your music and teaching drums. How did you decide to become a teacher?

Ben: It’s funny because I never actually made that decision, it was made for me by my music teacher Brenda Walsh. She took a chance on me with the drums. I was instructed by her during my music class, to give some “inner-circle” students drum lessons to keep them occupied so they wouldn’t continue vandalizing the theater during their spares. I didn’t like doing it but it came naturally to me. So I graduated high school with some extra credits for teaching. That in turn led to me running a lunch hour program at Cedar Park Elementary School where Miss Walsh was transferred to. She needed me to occupy a bunch of hyperactive kids with drum lessons during their lunch hour. How I would have loved to have gone to that school!!! I even ended up teaching some of those kids all the way through their high school years. So it just became something I was always asked to do. In the end, teaching chose me and I’m a more enriched person for it.

Me: Wow, teaching drums in high school must have been a great experience for you. Also, I haven’t thought about the “inner-circle” until you brought it up. Wonder what became of those kids. Are there projects that you are currently working on and any other passions that you are pursuing?

Ben: I spent a decade and a half focusing on being “BreakNeckBen” and I’m finally back to working on myself. My main group is The Hi-Fins and I’m currently playing in several other groups and do some subbing for other drummers from time to time. I had been trying to work on a new project with an old student and some other friends, but as of March 2019, everything is on hold…which brings me to my many interests!!! I’ll try and make this concise. I was an auto mechanic for a while and then I studied engineering before music got the better of me. In the last two years, I’ve taken a deep dive back into my world of mechanics. I have two project cars I’m currently fixing. One is a long-term full restoration and the other was a quick restoration that took place during the lockdown this summer. I also spent the better part of twenty years deep into the world of triathlon. I was even trying to get to the pro level but due to injuries, ambulances and cancer, I’ve been forced to focus my efforts mostly on running and getting my body working properly. Post bone marrow transplant, I’m also a bit of a bike hoarder, which allows me to fix my kids’ and their friends’ bikes and anyone else that swings by my place and needs a hand. If it’s not obvious, I LOVE fixing things!!!

Me: That’s quite a portfolio. I’ll be sure to bring my bike over if I need it fixed.

I love the cover you did for Brittany Spear’s Toxic (on YouTube). Though I love the sound of drums, I don’t know much about them. I also love the sound of the guitar and bought myself one recently.  I figured that I would learn how to play on my own.  The guitar I bought was not a huge cost investment, so it was easy to commit. What are some tips that you can offer about learning drums, including whether or not one should invest in a drum set? And what are your thoughts on electric drum set pads or similar products?

Ben: Hmm…I gave a good solid effort in trying to love electronic drums in the early 2000s but I ultimately found them to be problematic and unreliable on stage. That has since changed for the better. Unfortunately, their latency issues and bad tactile feel make them bad-habit forming for learning. The best bet, in my opinion, would be studio and rehearsing work. Practice pads are very useful for working on some technical things (i.e. rudiments/wrist and finger techniques etc.). But in the end, one needs a platform to learn how to correctly use the drumming technique in the language of music. So if possible, I always recommend an acoustic set of drums. Even a really cheap crappy set will properly reinforce correct habits.   

Me: I watched your YouTube video where you were bringing a worn-out drum skin back to life.  Very interesting! I had no idea that the skin could be restored to new. Your video is a must-watch for those thinking of replacing the skin altogether. Any other tips for the general maintenance of a drum set?

Ben: Drums usually don’t wear out. Only the skins, more specifically the snare drum skin. They usually get replaced 99% of the time. But even then, it can be brought back pretty easily if it’s not broken. Maybe if there is water damage to the shells, the wood might warp but usually, drums can last decades without failure. As long as one plays within the tolerances of the metal components, even the cheap ones today are pretty strong. But the three things that I deal with on a somewhat regular basis, due to my forceful playing are bent rims (incorrect tuning), broken cymbals (nicks on the edge) and broken bass drum pedals. You can’t really do anything for the rims or cymbals once they’re bent or cracked. I used to go through a couple of crashes a year. But a good cymbal case would help tremendously with saving one’s cymbals. As far as the kick pedal goes, I have a particularly strong bass drum foot so I think broken pedals are a “me” thing. I’ve had to customize my pedals in the past. But it shouldn’t happen, it’s an instrument that is designed to be hit.

Me: Some time ago, we were chatting on Facebook. I hope you don’t mind me bringing this up, but I find your story so inspirational. You mentioned your battle with cancer. I watched a YouTube news clip video about a fundraising run for cancer.  The kids that you coached in soccer for many years participated in the event and talked about how you were always there for them and not only trained them but trained with them.  That video brought tears to my eyes.  What kept you strong and fighting? And from what you went through, what kind of perspective/insight did you gain about life?

Ben: Wow, these are big questions to answer. Let me start by saying that I think most people are built with a very strong survival instinct. I definitely am. Luckily I was also born with a clear and very calm mind under extreme duress too. This was strengthened through years of beating up my body and callusing my mind by playing drums for my “day job” (i.e. late-night job for The Freddie James Project), often playing 3-5 sets a night six nights a week for months at a time and still training hard for triathlons and running races. All the while trying to be the best parent/husband possible. I also saw what cancer had done to my dad a year and a half earlier and was three months into my chemo when my sister also passed away from cancer. Thankfully I was in fantastic shape and mentally ready for the insanity – being cancer. I went into it like an endurance race or a never-ending set on stage. I even had my kids smuggle my racing bike and trainer into my hospital room during my first five-week stay so I could maintain a “good fighting” feeling about my situation while being attached to my chemo machines. That was definitely the easier of the two hospital stays. The second one was the bone marrow transplant. More of a “second half” of the race type of deal, where you either quit or don’t give yourself the option to quit. For the transplant to take, all the healing parts of the blood (white/red cells & hemoglobin) need to be dropped to almost zero. Being isolated in a room for six weeks not being able to eat, talk or leave the room gave me a glimpse into what it might be like to be very old and weak. So the first of many perspective shifts on life was getting a second chance at midlife. After not being able to do anything except listen to music all day in a room by yourself, you become thankful for ALL of the little things. Moving forward with love and purpose becomes the endgame. 

Me: I’m so sorry for your losses and happy that cancer did not beat you. It must have been really tough for you to be isolated from everyone for so long. On the topic of isolation, no doubt that COVID has hit a lot of people in a bad way. How has it affected your day-to-day life and your music?

Ben: Post cancer I had a couple of lifelines in the music community. These allowed me to let people know that I was still around and planned to continue being active. So I dug my heels in and started saying yes to everything. Focus and hard work have always been my “modus operandi“. The lockdown flipped everything upside down, to say the least. But the longer we’re in this lockdown, the more I feel things are now right-side-up for me. When you’re a gigging musician you must always keep your foot on the gas. Covid has allowed me to look inward – something I haven’t done since high school. My day-to-day life is now focused on neglected hobbies and personal goals. Rebirth of my love and passion for drumming has come out of this. I think I’ll be a better and happier teacher and when we do get out of this. I think my own inner musician/drummer will have evolved to something better than it was.

Me: What are you plans in the near future – life, music and career?

Ben: Hmmm, as a family we lean on each other more now and we’ve become very tight. I’m an optimist, so hopefully more of the same on that front. And because I’m not someone that gets derailed easily, I will definitely continue teaching, as that’s the mainstay. I look forward to getting back on stage soon, and back into “fighting shape”. Being on stage is still the one puzzle piece that’s missing….

Me: I appreciate your insight about life and sharing your passions. I look forward to seeing you perform live again. Is there anything else that you wish to share?

Ben: Love.

Thanks Monica 🙂

Me: Thanks again for taking the time for this interview.  Stay safe my friend!

—End—

Here are a couple of Hi-Fins performances:

The Crack

Short Stories

The Crack – a short play

Written by Monica Ng

Act 1

A woman sits quietly on an armchair staring at a frosted window.  She pulls her sweater on tighter in attempt to fight off the chill in the air.  She sniffles and wipes the tears off her cheek with the back of her hand. Crossing the room, she grabs a box of tissues and returns to her seat. She puts her feet up onto the chair, hugs her legs tightly and tucks her head down between them. She hears a ding from the phone next to her. Glancing at the screen she sees a text message but decides to ignore it. Her attention is drawn to the person lying on the floor across the room with her head in a pool of blood. The woman gets off the floor, casually smooths out her bloodied hair and walks toward the armchair.

Beth: How did you get so weak? Why did you let yourself fall apart?

Glenda: What do you mean? I’m just fine.

Beth: Look at you. You’re so young and in such terrible shape. You can barely walk and can’t even bend down to pick something up off the floor. Plus your vision started to fade years ago. I don’t even know if you can see anymore.

Glenda: My joints are worn out –that’s all. And I can still see you. I’m not young anymore, you know? Seventy-two is old. It’s almost my time to go.

Beth: That’s nonsense. You used to do everything. You ran a business, raised us and took care of the household. Why did you give up?

Glenda: We all have a role in life. I raised the three of you and now you’re all independent.  You all have your university degrees and lives of your own. My job is done.

Beth: You’re so stubborn. Exercise is so important and you always refused. Something simple as walking even. Remember when I asked you to take a walk with me and you yelled at me, telling me never to tell you to walk again? So frustrating! What about quality of life? You’ve fallen apart so much already. What if you live until ninety? Then what?

Glenda: Don’t give me that look.  I hate exercise. You know that. I never liked it since I was small.  I have no health problems.

Beth: You can fool yourself to believe that you have no problems…never mind, there’s no point to talk about it anymore.

Glenda: You don’t understand. I had a rough childhood.  My parents were abusive and ruined my life. Your father and I worked so hard just to survive after we ran away from Vancouver. It was so hard to start from scratch, with little money in our pockets. On top of that, we had to learn how to speak French in Montreal and raise a family while working many jobs. Plus you’ll never know what it’s like to watch over your shoulder every single day, for fear that your father will find you and kill you. He was a violent man. You can’t imagine.

Beth: I know. You said your father was violent and that’s why we never met him. It’s true, I’ll never know what you went through, but you’ve been doing absolutely nothing for so many years.  Isn’t there anything that you’re interested in at all?

Glenda: No. I just like to watch shows.

Beth: Then what? You’ll sit there watching television for the rest of your life?  You haven’t left your condo for years. Do you even know what fresh air and the sun are? They’re good for your body and mind.

Glenda: I open the windows. Fresh air comes in. I’m tired. See how you feel when you’re older.

Beth: Fine. There’s no point to talk about it anymore.

Act 2

Glenda hobbles toward the window. There is no view because of the frost. She holds onto the window frame for support and stares blankly in the general direction of the window, with her mouth hanging open in defeat. From the back of her head, the cracked skull is exposed. Glenda gingerly touches the bone and feels the rough edges with her fingers.

Beth: Watching you die slowly is horrible!

Glenda: What do you mean…watch me die? I’m not dying. Why are you crying?

Beth: I’m sorry that I didn’t take you to renew your health care card that time, but why were you in such a hurry? I would have taken you if you weren’t so anxious to get it done!

Glenda: I know you were busy so didn’t want to bother you.

Beth: That’s better than you falling! Now you’re too scared to walk. You’re losing muscle mass every day and getting weaker and weaker. Soon you’ll need a wheelchair and someone will have to push you around.  Is that what you want? What kind of life is that?

Glenda: I don’t blame you for my fall, but I am scared of falling. Remember when you were young? I held onto the back of your bicycle afraid to let go because I thought you might fall. But I knew that I couldn’t hold on forever because then you wouldn’t be able to pedal and keep going. I let go because that was the only way to set you free – not that I wanted to let you go. So, you see? You can’t control everything in life. There’s no point to think back to the past and what may or may not have happened.

Beth: I know. I know.

Act 3

The room is dead silent. Glenda gently touches Beth’s shoulder, gives her a smile and turns her back away from Beth. She struggles to walk with her body hunched over, toward the spot where she was lying down. Careful not to slip in the fresh blood, she slowly lowers herself to the floor.

Beth: Where are you going?

Glenda: I’m just going to lie down now. Not going anywhere. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. 

Beth: Be careful not to fall.

Glenda: Is that the doorbell? I’m too tired to get up. Can you see who’s there?

Beth: Yes, don’t worry, I’ll get it.

Glenda: Who is it?

Beth: The paramedics.  They’re here to close your eyes.

–End–

Author’s commentary:

I’ve always wanted to write a short play, but never got around to trying until now. This is my first play ever. It’s quite different from novel writing because the focus is on dialogue. It took me some time to wrap my head around the format.

This play was inspired by a nightmare that I had about my mother. In my nightmare, my mom started to walk and crashed to the floor – cracking open her skull. I could hear the sound of the cracking. I called 9-1-1 but the lady on the phone wasn’t listening to anything I was saying. I watched the blood spreading on the floor, knowing that it was just a matter of time before she died.

Over the years, I’ve watched my mom go from being mobile, to less mobile, to becoming wheelchair bound. There’s no going back after you reach a certain point. I wrote this play with tears in my eyes. It’s so hard for me to watch a loved one be physically present, but in my view, dying slowly in front of my eyes. My take-home message, do everything in your power to stay healthy both physically and mentally. No one else can do this for you.