- The key to Burnley's success? "I sing songs that people like."
Breaking Benjamin founder and frontman Ben Burnley says that the group's name isn't an indication of his emotional state. He's not being broken by the music industry.
"Breaking Benjamin got its name from me breaking a microphone," he laughs. "I used to go out and do these open-mic-night performances under just the name Benjamin. That was my stage name, like Madonna or Sting or something. So one night I did this Nirvana tribute, and at the end, I threw the microphone down on the floor, just like Kurt Cobain used to do, and it broke. The thing is, it wasn't my microphone. Later on that night, there was a kid thanking everybody, and he said, 'Oh, yeah -- I'd like to thank Benjamin for breaking my effing microphone.'"
Burnley spoke with us just as the third Breaking Benjamin CD, Phobia, was getting ready to drop. The day before the disc's release, it was already No. 23 on the best-seller list. "Is that good or bad?" asked Burnley innocently. "Really, I don't know. I mean, I'm not internet-savvy at all, so I don't know a lot about it. Is 23 on Amazon a good rating?" After a long pause, he adds, "Who's No. 22?"
Burnley insists that he doesn't pay attention to rankings. "As far as chart positions and spins, I don't keep track. But don't get me wrong. If your song is No. 1, that's pretty cool. But you can't just sit there and watch it be No. 1, thinking, 'Oh, I'm gonna make it stay there.'
"I'm to the point that all I want to do anyway is go out and play rock shows. That's it. That's all I've wanted to do since the beginning. That's all the fans want; they want to come out and see Breaking Benjamin. And that's our No. 1 priority: our fans. We love our fans. Fans are the ones that buy the records, fans are the ones that come to shows, fans are the ones that request our songs on the radio . . . And Breaking Benjamin fans are probably like the coolest fans ever; they really get the music, they really get what's going on. It's been so far, so good."
The first single from Phobia, "The Diary of Jane," is the track most often added to three rock-radio formats and has jumped into heavy rotation on 100 radio stations nationwide. In its first two weeks online, the audio track was streamed from the band's MySpace site more than 160,000 times, and the video is also getting big streaming numbers.
Too musical for a straight-up metal tag, Breaking Benjamin has alt-metal leanings. "Yeah, okay," says Burnley offhandedly, seemingly unconcerned about what people call his work. "Basically, I sing songs that people like. That's it.
"We take what we do seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously at all. We're not drama queens. We go up onstage, we have a good time. There used to be a time when everyone in the band was so serious about it, but people go to a show and they want to have a good time. It took a few years of touring for us to realize that the more fun we're having, the more fun everyone else is going to have. This is our third record, and while that means that we're not veterans by any means, we certainly aren't wet behind the ears anymore. So people will come to our shows already knowing what to expect. And if they don't like something new, they'll like something old. I don't care either way, as long as they like something."
Burnley says he was influenced by Nirvana and Tool, and he remembers what it was like to be a teenage fan. He uses that as a guide to dealing with his own fans.
"When I started playing music, I was very idolistic of Kurt Cobain," Burnley says. "I wanted to be like him; I wanted to do everything he did. Well, not everything -- but you know, I really looked up to him. And it's just weird now to be doing some of the same things with my fans. It's surreal. I'm the singer for Breaking Benjamin, so I'm that guy now. Like Kurt was to me, I'm that to somebody else. I'm really a quiet and modest dude, but I've been through the wringer, and I've been through some stuff. Haven't we all? But people looking up to me, wanting to be like me, it's a privilege, kind of weird, but a privilege. I tell them, 'If you want to be like me, then be yourself.' Because that's all I'm doing. I'm just being myself."