Ben Burnley talks about Breaking Benjamin’s new songwriting process, forthcoming acoustic album
In the summer of 2010, Ben Burnley stepped away from music to tend to ongoing medical issues that had been tormenting him for years by that point. When the frontman of Breaking Benjamin returned to the national music scene in 2015, he wasn’t too sure how fans would react to the newly configured version of his band.
But after seeing Breaking Benjamin’s comeback album, “Dark Before Dawn,” reach No. 1 on several different Billboard charts, it didn’t take Burnley long to realize that his loyal fans were more than ready to welcome him back.
“We were really fortunate to have this incredible support system in place, where fans were right there,” Burnley said. “It was kind of like we never left, and I know that is something that is not common in the music industry — I know that it is something that is just not common in life period.
“I am really grateful for that,” he added.
The tracks on “Dark Before Dawn” are mostly a patchwork of material that Burnley wrote during his hiatus, when he really had no band at all. But since he had always composed and produced the group’s songs leading up to that point, nothing about the process was really new to him. That’s why the album sounds so much like every Breaking Benjamin record that preceded it.
However, after releasing “Dark Before Dawn,” Burnley wanted to make the band’s next album a much more collaborative effort. In fact, a major reason why he reformed Breaking Benjamin with the new members that he added — Jasen Rauch (lead guitar), Keith Wallen (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Aaron Bruch (bass, backing vocals) and Shaun Foist (drums, percussion) — was because those are all musicians who are capable of writing songs on their own.
“I was looking for not just amazing singers and not just amazing musicians, but also I was looking for amazing songwriters,” Burnley said. “I had a group of friends that I knew were incredible songwriters.”
Having partners to share the songwriting load with for the very first time, Burnley said that the band’s 2018 album, “Ember,” saw him only write between 50 and 60 percent of the recorded material. There are several songs — like “Psycho,” “Tourniquet” and “Red Cold River” — where Burnley wrote very little of the music, and, in some cases, didn’t even write the chorus.
The end result of Burnley sharing the band’s songwriting duties, is an album that feels much heavier all around than anything Breaking Benjamin has ever produced in the past.
“I think that there are definitely heavier things that came from those guys,” said Burnley. “Vocally, it just kind of took me there to that place; it made me want to do it that way. I definitely would contribute that to the music that those guys brought.”
Still, Burnley was quick to point out that his new bandmates have a softer side as well. The song “The Dark of You” is one example of this — Burnley wrote the bones of the tune on an acoustic guitar, while Rauch finished up the music on the track with a lighter feel.
“I can’t say that they are only heavy writers, because he put that together,” Burnley said. “So, there is that aspect to those guys as well.”
Mentioning that he never intended to be the lone songwriter for Breaking Benjamin, Burnley added that the only reason he ever put that burden on himself in the past was because his previous bandmates rarely ever composed complete songs. He said that he could “probably count on one hand” the amount of songs — with lyrics, vocal melody and music — his previous band members wrote. It didn’t help that the songs they did write never really resonated with him.
“Nobody else ever did anything in the past that I could connect my heart to or that really moved me in any way,” Burnley said. “It’s not to say that it was bad, but it just didn’t work for me — it didn’t do anything for me.
“I would be a fake if I was out there doing something that I just wasn’t interested in doing,” he added. “So, I never was able to use any songs (written by past band members), and I didn’t get that many to begin with.”
Whatever songwriting dynamic Breaking Benjamin has going on nowadays, clearly it’s working. “Ember” has reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s charts for Top Rock Albums, Top Alternative Albums, Top Hard Rock Albums and Digital Albums. It also climbed as high as No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.
“I am just really proud to be a part of something,” Burnley said. “The success of it just kind of shows that this is what the band is supposed to be, because it is not entirely success from only my songwriting anymore. I am really, really happy to finally be able to do that.”
After wrapping up the Breaking Benjamin tour that ended last spring, the group was able to finish recording their forthcoming acoustic album before heading out for a summer tour. Burnley said that the album is one he is “really excited about” and he feels that it turned out great.
The album, which will mostly feature orchestrated string versions of previously released Breaking Benjamin material, will also include one new track. It will see a number of guest vocalists from some of Burnley’s favorite bands as well.
“A lot of fans have been requesting it for a long time, and it is something that I have always wanted to do to show another side of the song,” Burnley said. “I just want to show that the song, at its base, can be interpreted and shown in a different way.
“Not all of the songs are necessarily re-done, but there is orchestration and all types of melodies added to them, which shows that the songs can carry that melody as well,” he added.
Currently, the album has no name because Burnley is “still coming up with the perfect title for it.”
“I really am trying my best to figure it out,” he said.
Along with fresh versions of their favorite songs, fans will also be excited to hear that Burnley said the new album could likely be accompanied by a follow-up Breaking Benjamin acoustic tour.
“We like to do acoustic tours, whether there is an acoustic album or not to support it,” he said. “We have been doing that for a long time. We like to strip it down and play in smaller venues, and make it more like we are hanging out.
“Our acoustic shows are not like a thing where we are sitting down and changing all of the songs,” added Burnley. “When we play an acoustic show, we pretty much play the song exactly how it is; we just play it acoustic.”
Playing acoustic gigs forces the band to “tighten it up” according to Burnley. Without the benefit of distortion during guitar riffs, the guys in the group have no way of hiding any missteps with their playing. The acoustic shows are also more difficult to play from a technical standpoint, because of the extra hand strength they require.
“When we go on an acoustic tour and then we come back and do an electric tour, it is so much easier,” said Burnley. “Because the guitars are easier to play, all of our riffs are tightened up.
“So, we not only do it to show fans that we sound really full and tight when it is stripped down with no bells and whistles,” he added. “It tunes us up as a band for when we go out and play our electric shows, because we have been doing things with no way to hide anything. Things just have to be tighter.”
Though the health issues that forced Burnley to step away from music in 2010 still haunt him today — he is often in tons of pain, dizzy and seeing spots — he has no plans of letting his illness keep him away from the fans that he loves performing for.
“Whatever it is, it is just there. There is nothing I can do about it but carry on with my life, and not let it affect me or my career or my personal life or anything like that,” Burnley said. “I am still going through it, but I just won’t let it keep me down. I won’t let it change anything.”