I own a hand-painted GothBoiClique mug. I painted it myself. Meaning, I have been a fish narc fan for some time. The Seattle-born, New York-based artist produced my favorite Lil Peep project, the Goth Angel Sinner EP, back in 2017. Born Ben Funkhouser, fish narc, 27, stands at the intersection of DIY punk and hip-hop. His music is growling and expansive. From his productions for GBC to his latest solo effort, WiLDFiRE, written from February to May of 2019, the common threads between all of fish narc’s music are his howling tendencies and blunt-edged lyrics.
“There’s a whole book that could be written about how things came together, but I’ll give you the short version,” Ben tells me over the phone. “I participated in a DIY culture in Seattle, and it was based on alternative spaces that were almost always all-ages—precursors to what people now call safe spaces—with leftist politics and inclusive goals. That’s what I grew up in; I went to college in the Northwest and saw that culture decline. I played in bands, booked shows. In this moment that I felt it was declining, I was aware of, and a fan of the music of, Raider Clan and Lil Ugly Mane and Black Kray.”
It’s around 2013, and Ben’s band breaks up. He joins Thraxxhouse, an artist collective that precedes and goes on to include GothBoiClique because Mackned and Key Nyata are looking to book shows in DIY punk spaces—Ben can help. That summer, Ben spends all of his time with the artist we now know as Lil Tracy. Tracy decides to use Ben’s laptop while he’s asleep, finds an ambient piano loop, and records himself over it. Tracy’s vocals are the tipping point for Ben, who was mulling over going down the techno and industrial routes. As we understand it, this is the birth of the modern-day fish narc.
“I went to college for art history, and I have a nerdy, historicizing mind,” Ben tells me sheepishly. His tone over the phone is relaxed and methodical as he recalls the GBC history and his own origin story. “I want to paint [the culture] as vividly as I can. It’s important to note Mackned was experimenting with Witch House-influenced production and experimental vocals and was also making trap, and he grew up in Seattle listening to grunge. Wicca Phase’s background was in Tigers Jaw and his penchant [was] for boppier base. Cold Hart has this penchant for doo-wop and 50s rock, but he also was making Chicago-influenced music. Horse Head… We played in bands before all this happened. We played shows together back in 2011.”
The GothBoiClique culture is rich, and the canon is deep and rife with talent, but we’re here to talk about and celebrate fish narc himself. WiLDFiRE, fish narc’s forthcoming album, is decidedly a modern punk effort by one of rap’s most interesting and boundary-breaking producers, which finds Ben stepping into his light as a vocalist. Free of breakbeats and full of GBC spirit, WiLDFiRE feels like the last days of senior year, feels like storming down the highway on the way to the shore to soak up the first days of a raging summer. WiLDFiRE has fish narc sounding comfortable in his skin as he explores his sound and delves into his DIY roots.
The vocal tricks on “MY BEST,” the way fish narc sings about getting his pulse checked by his lover, capture the ethos of WiLDFiRE. Then we have the choppy deliveries of “SO LONG!” featuring fellow GothBoi Cold Hart. Across the album, the instrumentation is fresh and fits into a cultural moment fish narc ensures is not too removed from rap itself, as on the synth outro of “NEW MEDiCATiON.” The self-awareness of “808 SELECTiON” and “CRAWL OUT” remind us fish narc is entrenched in the producer realm as well. They’re both cheeky moments where Ben steps from behind the curtain to show us who he is. Really, all of WiLDFiRE is an expose on Ben Funkhouser.
“It was freeing,” Ben tells me of the making of the album. “I honestly started [WiLDFiRE] because I was frustrated an artist I was producing for was not treating the music we had made as 50 percent mine in terms of decision making, even though I had helped write the vocal melodies. I realized I had put down singing because I felt like I didn’t have anything to say. Producing was a way of continuing to make music and letting other people sing, and putting my energy into helping other people express themselves.”
“Coming back, I finally felt like after four, five years, I was ready to sing again,” Ben continues. “Having that [creative] control is amazing. Getting my demos where I wanted them, and then YAWNS’ production is what brings them out to these polished things that they are. It’s immensely freeing some other people’s expectations and taught me how to make records better than I knew how to before.”
On WiLDFiRE, fish narc sounds exceptionally comfortable in his skin. His belts are cutting. His energy is infectious in the way screaming when you are at your breaking point is infectious. The music has an honest edge to it, with Ben’s incisive writing making every song a standout. “Learn to let it go,” he sings on “CLEAN UP” before switching up his vocal deliveries. “I don’t know the answers anymore,” he admits. There’s something so inviting about Ben’s vulnerability, about his ability to put the spotlight on him and point out how little he understands in an attempt to fathom himself and the world around him better.
In so many ways, then, WiLDFiRE is a great moment of release. “I feel like I put myself out there personally, without much defense, on these songs,” Ben admits. “Part of that has gotta be from being exposed to public opinion and being a part of this big, crazy story that a lot of random people wanted to have an opinion and weigh in on. Realizing the narrative I could control, and the truth I feel like is mine, and I wanna tell… I have to embody it. It wasn’t because I feel incredibly confident and worthy because I struggle with those feelings a lot. It was just like, in a way, a defense mechanism. Like, ‘I said it first! Take it.’ That was my attitude with these songs.”
Ben continues, his voice thinning a bit: “Part of the process of writing it, too, was me getting off hard drugs. About halfway through is when I got clean, and writing the songs was a huge part of structuring my life during those weeks and months. It is a release. It’s a whole lot of desire… Desire to do something bigger and better. Getting clean was a necessary step for making anything for staying alive, but I don’t want this to be the focus.”
The focus of WiLDFiRE is fish narc finding creative freedom and finding his voice amidst a storm of comfortability. It’s so easy to simply not do something, to get comfortable doing the easier thing—in this case producing for others—but the itch to create never left Ben’s side.
“That’s the thing I’m least afraid of,” Ben says of singing. “I never stopped singing the whole time I was making beats. I just didn’t record or write for myself. I wrote lots of parts—lyrics, bars, melodies, arrangements—for other people… When I get on stage and sing… I’m nervous as hell at the shows until I get on stage and start singing.”
Looking over the tracklist of WiLDFiRE, you’ll find instance after instance of emotional nakedness, so much so, I had to ask Ben which song was the most taxing to write. He paused for a moment, but came back decisively: “‘IT MATTERS.’ The vocal takes felt too overwrought and dramatic. I was embarrassed, projecting so much energy out with the vocal takes. I had to redo it three or four times to get it how I wanted. YAWNS and I built that beat out of an idea I had. That one is the one I am the least comfortable with on the album. It doesn’t make sense to me. I feel strongly about it, but it was the hardest one to make.”
It’s at this point Ben surprises me, talking down on his vocal performance. The fear isn’t the singing, but, rather, the reception. “I’m shy, and it’s crazy to hear my voice loud and projecting,” he says. “To put all that into it, I feel like someone’s gonna make fun of me: ‘Get over it, dude!’ I was scared of putting that much out. I hide behind a Kim Gordon voice a lot of the time. She’s so confident and vulnerable and poised—I try to embody Kim’s style. But ‘IT MATTERS,’ I belt it. When I sing that live, it’s hard to breathe.”
“I’m not listening this time,” Ben wails on “IT MATTERS.” Much like the rest of WiLDFiRE, this song is a great moment of catharsis. Of course, it’s hard to breathe—this song sounds like it comes from the pit of something deeper, uglier than the soul. Perhaps that is the best place from which to summon music. No matter, as we near the end of our conversation, Ben tells me he’s been struggling with catharsis lately. He’s lost hobbies and social skills in the name of music, which I understand. As a creative, isolation is sexy to the point of being damning.
The music, ironically, is the glimmer of hope in Ben’s world. “I’ve dedicated myself to making music and have to address how that affects me instead of charging into making more music, and ignoring how I feel all the time,” he concludes. “These songs are how I… I haven’t been producing for other people or making beats. This is what I put all my cards in.” Not that he asked, but had Ben been curious, I would have told him: WiLDFiRE is an amazing hand to have been dealt.