“Music will always be there” – A Conversation with Ben O’Brien


During the last few months we have turned like never before to popular culture to see us through lockdown. We caught up with illustrator Ben O’Brien to chat about creativity, and keeping busy with Tim’s Listening Party…   

These are precarious times for creatives of all stripes, and yet, it is their endless ingenuity that has helped see us through the challenges posed by various lockdowns. In particular, many of us have found solace by reconnecting with or listening to more music. Its power to transport and transcend has been ably demonstrated by Tim’s Listening Party, initiated by the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the listening parties take place on Twitter, bringing together bands and musicians with fans who, in real time, listen and Tweet along to a particular album.

So far, traversing genre, era and geography, this has included the likes of the Charlatans (of course), Paul McCartney, Jane Weaver, Run The Jewels, Pulp, Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip, Low, Anna Calvi, and many more. Alongside their obvious aural and communal qualities, the parties have a very distinctive aesthetic, provided by Ben O’Brien (AKA Ben The Illustrator). These have since taken on a life of their own, seeing O’Brien paying tribute to albums old and new with his Cover Versions series. We spoke with the illustrator about his involvement, staying creative over the last few months, and his plans for coping with the latest lockdown.


The Double Negative: During lockdown you worked with the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, illustrating his twitter listening parties – how was that and how did it come about?

Ben O’Brien: It. Was. Great. It was such a fun thing to happen and became a good cure to the trickiness of being locked down and not being able to see friends and family. Tim had already started the Listening Parties, I’d enjoyed plenty already, then he tweeted that Twitter were giving him his own emoji attached to his hashtag. Having illustrated a Twitter Emoji for Elton John already, I offered my services to Tim (if you don’t ask you don’t get and all that!). Alas Tim’s emoji was already designed but it gave Tim a chance to see my work and he asked if I’d be interested in illustrating some scenes for the Listening Party website. I created four illustrations of people in their homes, connecting with the world through music and social media.

“It was the simple little record sleeves that people really loved”

The illustrations went down well, but it was the simple little record sleeves in each scene that people really loved. And so Cover Versions were born. Tim’s been amazing, it’s such a pleasure to get messages from him, he really cares about people, about music and art. I’ve kept illustrating as many Cover Versions as possible, Tim will always give them a retweet, and we even ended up collaborating with Rega to produce a limited run of custom turntables covered in Cover Versions!


Rega-turntable-plinth detial-Ben

TDN: Did the listening parties introduce you to any new favourite bands?

BO’B: Actually one of my now absolute favourite bands, DMA’s, an Australian indie band who I now just adore, I wouldn’t have heard if it wasn’t for the Listening Parties. Also Billy Nomates, Girl Ray and Pip Blom I think I first heard from the Listening Parties.

TDN: Did you find music helped your mood generally?

BO’B: 100%, it’s a constant, music will always be there, and there’s something for every mood. I found myself going through some real nostalgic phases during the first lockdown especially, and it was jumping back into albums I’ve not listened to for decades that was the comfort when the mood was low, and then you can put something else on to give you some energy, enough to boost you into leaving the house and getting some air and exercise. Connecting with fellow music lovers (through the Listening Parties especially) has been a great help for the mood too. I really missed my Dad last year (he passed away three years ago now) but through Twitter I’ve connected with a few people who reminded me of him, mostly Bowie fans, which was a nice comfort.


TDN: What were your favourites – both as a listening experience and in terms of your creative response?

BO’B: I think my favourite Listening Party personally was The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike, it’s a great album, but also it reminds me of a fun time of life, and some of the mates from those times were following and tweeting along during that party, it was a reminder of more carefree times! The Run the Jewels RTJ4 party was pretty special, it was a good insight into one of the best albums of 2020.

“My favourite creative response was I’ve Seen Everything, by the Trashcan Sinatras”

I think my favourite creative response was I’ve Seen Everything, by the Trashcan Sinatras, it was an album I knew and enjoyed when it came out, but it somehow never really stuck, I don’t remember listening to it since, until the Listening Party and it somehow just sparked all the right listening bones in me! It’s one of the only Cover Versions I illustrated while following the Listening Party live, the full experience. I just regret not listening to that album in the years in-between!



TDN: We’ve all experienced ups and downs during lockdown, do you have any go to techniques or strategies to cope and remain creative/productive?  

BO’B: For me it’s all about the mind, look after the mind and I’m in a good place to be creative and productive. Walking is my key therapy, just get out and walk, alone or with family, beautiful countryside or around the block, with music or just listening to the sounds around you. I’ve tried meditating but I never stick with it, or I get interrupted! Talking helps, my wife and I can talk about anything, but also just having a chat with someone else, I’ve not been so keen on the big Zoom group chats, but a catch-up with a friend or even a brief ‘how’s it going?’ with the DPD man can help the mind. Creatively, I love what I do, so I just want to do it, the covers still feel new and exciting to me, so I remain productive with them, they connect me with people, they can be diverse, and it keeps me tied to the music I love.


TDN: You never name the album you’re interpreting – is there a specific reason behind this, or do you like to give us all something to guess at?

BO’B: Originally it was the guessing game, people loved it, I know they got used for Zoom quizzes quite a lot last year, ‘Can you name these 10 albums?’ etc, which is great.  But also it’s become part of the art, the simplification of it.  I feel like if I used typography it would jar with the illustration, also I’m always super worried about typos!

TDN: Have you any particular creative plans for dealing with this latest lockdown? 

BO’B: This lockdown feels different to last year, maybe it’s the weather, it feels heavier.  In the short time, over this next few months I’m mostly focused on getting my son through home schooling, but creatively I’m aiming to produce some more Cover Versions, I’d like to stray into some genres I haven’t touched yet, and fill in a few gaps on some of the more popular genres. Looking ahead to post-lockdown, I’ve streamlined my illustration practice a bit for 2021, I’d like to focus on doing good client work, find some stability after last year.  But I also want to have a whole lot more fun with the Cover Versions, more covers, more prints but also move into some different products, I’d love to produce a pack of playing cards, have an exhibition, connect with more people, listen to more music, have more fun.

As told to Mike Pinnington

Check out more of Ben’s workAll images courtesy Ben O’Brien

Posted on 15/01/2021 by thedoublenegative