It all started one fateful summer night along the east river in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when violinist Bennet “The English” Cerven was playing a loft party overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Fellow musician B-Zy Brain spontaneously joined him in an impromptu jam session. They found their third member, drummer Olli/Oliver Maguire, on the road and became The Trouble Notes. After New York City, London, Dublin and Prague, The Trouble Notes’ whirlwind tour finally led them to the streets of Berlin. Stefanie Tendler struck up a conversation with Bennet Cerven and The Trouble Notes when she discovered the trio playing at Warschauer Strasse the other night.
S2S: What meaning does street music have in your life as a band?
The Trouble Notes: There is no better way to show people what you do than to stand on a corner (or under a bridge!), pop open a case and just play.
There is something about busking that is really interesting. It is an organic way for writing music and all of our songs except one or two were written at least in some way in the street. All of them have been shaped by different cultures. A song we had been playing for two months in London and Dublin all of sudden changed while we were playing it in Prague in that certain moment and in that very street. We don’t know why but it took on a new life, that ultimately we said- that’s the one! This shaping of songs, being influenced by our encounters and travels is a huge part of our identity. It always has been. People will say to us – Why are you guys playing in the street? You guys are professionals. To which we say- Would you have heard us if we weren’t playing in the street right now. And the answer is always- Probably not. What better way to tell people- Hey this is what we do, this is who we are, these are our songs, this is our sound.
S2S: How did the initial idea of traveling Europe or even the world as street musicians come to life?
Bennet Cerven: I was inspired by the musical Once about an Irish busker. The story and the performance moved me so much, that while sitting in that seat in Manhattan, Midtown, on Broadway, I was like- I am gonna do this. I am going to quit my job working at a hedge fund, run away, not literally running away of course, but to just travel and busk and chase after this idea, but do it through street music.
The Trouble Notes: There isn’t a place we really don’t want to go. Our ears are open to anywhere. Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium and many more are on our list and once we get settled in Berlin we will start traveling more. We’re not doing this to say – Look where we’ve played! The reason is to go and share. When we left New York, the only thing we had in London was a flat. We showed up in London not knowing anyone and we just jumped out right in the street doing our thing and immediately encountered chances to play some gigs. In Ireland, we had booked some things ahead of time, Prague no, and here in Berlin we also just showed up. It’s kind of hard to book something ahead of time, as a lot of the venues don’t really see a reason why. A lot of venues aren’t going to book you, unless they think there is something in for them. So you have to demonstrate wherever you are that you have a following. Usually we just show up in places and make the connections along the way as you never know what will come out of playing music in the streets.
S2S: How did you pick the name for your band – The Trouble Notes?
The Trouble Notes: Well, originally we wanted to call ourselves Notes from Underground, since we were busking in subways and it was also a tribute to one of Bennet’s favorite authors: Dostoevsky – but to our dismay we found that a band with that name existed. We wanted something unique, so we quickly brainstormed. B-Zy used to always call things “Trouble” and had suggested we call ourselves “The Trouble,” which then Bennet came back with “The Trouble Notes,” which clicked for us both because it’s kind of a play on the word ‘Treble,’ plus it fits the intensity of the melodies.
S2S: Are you trying to reach out to someone specific with your music, or do you want to attract anyone’s attention that will stop to listen to you?
The Trouble Notes: No. Someone in London once said to us: “If you keep doing this, you’ll get signed.” Yeah maybe, but that’s not really why we are there. We are playing for the people who like what we do and we don’t know who they are and who will actually like any of our songs.
If you are backed by a major label, or you interact with the corporate music scene they will pump out your music to anyone who does or doesn’t want to hear it. Often you loose control over your work. None of us want to sign just to sign. We want to sign with the right person. We want to make sure that it is somebody that understands what it is that we are trying to accomplish. As long as it doesn’t interfere and there is no dictation regarding the music, there is no problem. We want to make sure that the core of our songs, and the musical conversation that we three have with each other, is kept and held alive.
S2S: How would you describe the kind of music you make? What musicians have influenced you the most?
The Trouble Notes: Part of our appeal is that there is so much influence in our music from tons of different artists and genres that it is really hard to put a finger on the type of music we do. We couldn’t define or categorize the music we play. Musically all three of us have totally come from different sides of the spectrum. Bennet was classically trained for 15 years before he started to branch out. B-Zy was a Reggae guitar player and then was doing Techno and Olli was into the Hip Hop, grunge and grime scene in London. So you have three different guys that have come from totally different backgrounds when it comes to what shaped them and what got them playing their respective instruments. We have mutual influences like Rodrigo y Gabriela. Anyone who is a fan of them will probably like our music. There’s something about them that has always attracted us, who they are, the way they play, they just go up there and do their thing and they are just likable people. Another band that influences us is Gogol Bordello – gypsy punk. They were going to cities, not to make money, but because they loved it. Now they are a huge act. The thing about them that is incredible is they bring this huge energy that everybody is infected by. Their songs are not very difficult but it’s the energy that just wants to make you jump onto the table and poor a bottle of vodka over your head. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli have also been a big influence as they are the pioneers of gypsy jazz-hot jazz, a French duo from the 1930‘s and there is a song we have written called „Steal my Soul“ which is an homage to the two of them.
Bennet Cerven: I personally am heavily and always have been influenced by Muse. The instrumental music of Muse, when you take away the lyrics and take away the voices and just listen to the instruments, they are masters at their craft and they have actually written a rock symphony, which I have always wanted to do. Olli and B-Zy are influenced by Reggae.
The Trouble Notes: You can hear the Reggae influence in ours too. There are moments where songs break down and if you stripped away the violin and just listened to the guitar and the drum, you would say- that’s a reggae tune. And that’s the interesting thing about our music and a lot of our songs. If you take out one of the instruments it changes the song.
S2S: Has there been a unique encounter or experience in Berlin that stands out in your mind?
The Trouble Notes: Here in Berlin, we perform at Mauerpark every Sunday and it is something we will continue to do as we move here. We have come here at an interesting time- it’s cold, and most other street-musicians have decided that it’s too cold, that they’re done. Playing in the cold started in Manhattan. We had a routine where we used to go to a bar every hour and take a shot and then go back on the street and play. Now we just go play. What’s been amazing here in Berlin, with regard to Mauerpark, is that we’ve been able to score the Amphitheatre every time. Who else is crazy enough to stand in an elevated platform in the wind and play? Well us, we’re nuts! That particular spot in Mauerpark is very special to us, as it is a romantic spot to play in the street. What’s incredible is, when we play our heads are down and our eyes are closed, we’re into it, and when we play that first song, nobody is there. So when we finish that first song and you hear a round of applause, that’s when the smile comes on, as we realize, yes, we’re pulling a crowd and at the end you’ve got a nice group of people watching you.
S2S: What special connection do you have to New York?
Bennet Cerven: My heart always goes to New York City, even though I wasn’t born there. I love most things about New York. New York City has an energy that I have seen nowhere else in the world. A good and a bad one. It’s work-work-work, everybody is just constantly on the go – for music that is awesome. To tap into that vibe and to latch onto that personality of the city, we do that everywhere we go. We brought that with us. We busk six days a week or sometimes even seven, and that is something that started in New York City. If you want to be at the top of your game or if you want to reach a very high level at anything you just need to go for it. And most people who go to New York City, go there with a Dollar and Dream. They go there with nothing.
The Trouble Notes: New York in America represents something – there’s kind of an adage there – that if you are the best in New York you are the best in the world whatever you do. It sounds like American arrogance but at the same time there is something about NYC that does not make it America. You can be on the subway and hear ten different languages, the city is always bustling and it never closes. In New York City just everything is possible. While we were still there we got a taste of NYC of what we are. The dream is to go back and to do everything New York style – to do it big. A lot of the earlier songs, actually all four songs on the EP were written there. The title track „Court the Storm“ is written about Hurricane Sandy, which is the storm that hit NYC last October 2012. We were living in Brooklyn at the time. The song was written as the storm was rolling in and that’s sort of the main melody and the rhythm. We got the idea to shape it based on the changes that you experience while being in a hurricane. So the song kind of creeps in with light rain and then it really gets big, there’s an eye of the storm, there’s a calmness and then it picks back up again. And then there’s another song, „Riverside Jazz“ that was written along the East River.
New York is very special to us and it always will be.
S2S: What’s your impression of Berlin so far?
The Trouble Notes: We see many parallels to New York City. There is a cultural vibe here that can’t be found anywhere else and I think that is a reason why a lot of New York artists are coming here. We as a band have already made a conscious decision to say that we love this city enough that we consider living here for a longer period.
And to be fair, it has always been in the back of our minds. We used to joke about how we couldn’t go to Berlin too soon, as we will never want to leave! None of us had ever stepped foot into Berlin but it represented something to us, much of like I think New York does. The two cities represent an open-mindedness when it comes to culture and art. For us, at the moment it is the cultural center of Europe. We don’t think there is any better place to be in Europe than Berlin.
It will take place Friday 22nd November in Antje Öklesund, Berlin. Just take the u5 Bahn to Samariterstraße, and from there you are 5 minutes away 🙂 FOLLOW THE BALLOONS AND CANDLES!
Be there for 9pm.
Entry price is 5 euros.
Expect a big party!