Brkn Love, the brainchild of 22-year-old Toronto native Justin Benlolo, is poised to make waves in the world of rock music. Its self-titled debut album (review), featuring infectious singles such as “Shot Down” and “Flies in the Honey,” is out now via Spinefarm Records, and upcoming tour dates include stops at the Epicenter, Welcome to Rockville, Sonic Temple and Rock USA festivals. On the last day of a Canadian tour supporting Royal Tusk, Benlolo checked in with Live Metal’s Greg Maki to discuss his background, the album, touring and more.
LIVE METAL: The Brkn Love debut album just came out last month. That’s got to be a dream come true for you. How does it feel?
JUSTIN BENLOLO: Pretty surreal. I’ve been working on this for so long. It’s just been a real process, so to actually finally have the product out there after we’ve been sitting on it for so long, it feels kind of relieving, in a way.
You grew up in Toronto. What kind of music scene is there in Toronto? I know you didn’t stay there, but what is it like?
Well, the thing is I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. So where I was, there wasn’t a lot. It’s kind of a small-town vibe. There’s no venues. There’s no bars where you can go and see shows. There’s none of that. And growing up, I was never old enough to actually go downtown and get immersed in a scene, I guess you could say. The only bands that I would see growing up were big bands that would come through and play the arena downtown. So I never really got involved in any sort of scene downtown. It’s more of a hip hop town. Now that I’m older and can understand what’s going on, it’s pretty much a hip hop city, mostly because of Drake and the Weeknd—those kinds of guys. So the rock thing is interesting down there. There’s some punk bands and stuff, but it’s really a lot more of a hip hop city.
What got you into music, first as a fan and then wanting to pursue it professionally?
The first band that ever really, like, fucked me up was KISS. That was the band that sort of started everything for me, and it was the first time I saw the visual aspect of what could be done. And seeing the fire breathing and Gene Simmons flying and shooting rockets out of Ace (Frehley)’s guitar—that was amazing to me. It was like rock ‘n’ roll superheroes. That definitely was really attractive to me, and I sort of caught the bug after that.
According to the bio, you dropped out of school and moved to New York City when you were 16. That’s a big thing for anybody but a teenager especially. How did that go over with you parents and other people you knew?
It was actually really easy. My parents just let me do it. They kind of saw I wasn’t going anywhere academically, and I definitely didn’t apply myself in school. At least they thought I was good enough to let me go do this, ‘cause when you’re young, it’s when you can seize the opportunity to actually have a fighting chance at this whole thing. And they understood that, and they were very supportive. I was lucky to have that situation. They just let me go.
I have a mentor that actually took me out there, and I lived with him when I was out there, and he sort of took me under his wing. It was still hard going out there, being young and having no friends, and not really being able to go out much because I was underage. Eventually, I got a fake ID, and then I could go do whatever I want. And especially when your fake ID’s from Canada, they have no clue what Canadian IDs look like. So it always worked in the States. In Canada, I never tried it once, ‘cause I wouldn’t dare. They would know in two seconds that this thing wasn’t legit.
Then at some point, you moved out to Los Angeles. Why did you make that move?
Being in New York, one thing everybody knows if you’re a New Yorker is you don’t have a lot of space. And when you’re a musician, you’ve gotta make noise. And they’re two things you can’t really do if you’re in an apartment in New York: have a ton of space for all your shit and make a bunch of noise when you’ve gotta practice. So I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t really play guitar in the apartment that we had, ‘cause every time I opened my mouth, somebody would knock on the door and tell me to shut up. So that hindered the whole creative part of it, ‘cause now I can’t even do what I’m supposed to be here to do. And things are just so much more complicated out there, in terms of meeting people and getting them to travel with their gear and all that kind of stuff. It’s just such a pain in the ass. We went to L.A. ‘cause we knew some dudes out there that could help put together a band; now I could actually play and practice; the weather is better—it’s beautiful. It was a pretty easy decision.
When did you start seriously developing what has become Brkn Love?
I guess it’s sort of been a work in progress since I was, like, 17. I guess through the years from that point, it was about honing in on exactly what I wanted the record to sound like. I kept getting stuck on the thing like, it’s gonna be the first record, it’s gotta be right, you only get a first shot on making a first impression. So I was just refining what we were doing and listening to a lot of new rock bands and trying to pull the right amount of stuff from the things that they were doing, just to come up with this sound, and I think we ultimately did that.
You wrote and recorded this album before the band was put together, so what was that process like? You were working closely with your producer, I guess, right?
Yeah. It was him and I at the studio every single day, doing everything. I didn’t play the bass or drums on the record. I had two of my friends—this dude Dylan Wood and Brian Weaver played drums and bass. They knocked it out of the park really quickly, ‘cause that’s what they do. They’re session guys, and I just hired them, and aside from being my friends, they’re killer musicians. So they knocked it out in like two days. So then it was just me and our producer, Joel (Hamilton), going back and forth for another two weeks. And it was super easy. He was really, really easy to work with and super cool and very reassuring and very decisive on what he liked, and definitely kept me at my best the entire time, I would say. He really kept me out of my head and kept me comfortable. He really just captured what we did best and just kind of got out of the way. It was a really, really lovely recording process, actually.
What kinds of things inspire you as a songwriter?
That’s actually a good question. I’m just inspired by life, things that actually happened to me. Sometimes I’ll grab things from movies that I really, really like, or other bands. If I listen to other music, it helps. Mainly, it doesn’t come from rock music. But the thing I mostly pull from is life experience. I try to do a lot of stuff all the time. I’m not really much of a chiller, I would say. I’m always up and out, trying to do things and get myself in situations and pull from those things. Then every once in a while, I’ll discover a great band and it’ll totally fuck me up, and then I have to go super in on those bands, and that’s really inspiring. Or seeing my friends, too, that are really great, work really hard—that’s like a friendly competition and keeps you going.
Who are some of the bands that you’re not necessarily influenced by, but just some of the bands you’re into?
Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Reignwolf. I like that band a lot. I’m always listening to Royal Blood, Queens of the Stone Age. I really like Dinosaur Pile-Up, Soundgarden. I’m just naming a few that I listen to, almost daily. A couple others that are really cool—I like Nothing but Thieves a lot. A band called Dead Poet Society, they’re really cool. The early Highly Suspect stuff is really good, too. Just to name a few.
You’re just wrapping up a Canadian tour with Royal Tusk. It seems like a winter tour in Canada might have some problems, but I guess it’s been kind of a mild winter this year. How was it out there?
It’s actually been really chill. We’re in St. Catharines right now. We’re getting the worst weather of the tour right now, which is kind of surprising, ‘cause we were out west in the mountains, and that could’ve been really bad. We actually dodged a lot of it. I mean, it was cold as hell, but there was not a lot of snow and not a lot of ice. So that was really surprising. We were kind of prepared to go through hell at the beginning of this tour and then be chilling by the end of it, but it’s kind of the opposite out here. It’s been way more snowy out here and way more icy, which is crazy. But tonight’s the last night of the tour, so this is the last day we have to actually deal with this kind of stuff.
Are you finding now that you’ve had some singles out for a while and the album’s out that you’re getting fans coming to the shows knowing the songs?
Oh yeah, yeah. It’s happening a lot, actually. This is the first time ever that that’s happening. In the past, here and there we had a couple people come to see us. We exclusively toured in the States prior to this tour, and just because the song is doing so much better at radio here, it’s amazing how many people are actually coming just to see us. We have fans that have come from states that are more north to Canada just to see us play—just to see us, which is amazing. This is the first time I’ve really seen people actually know the words to everything. (laughs) The record’s only been out for a little under a month, and people are actually showing up singing the words, which is nuts.
Yeah, how does that feel when you see people singing the words you wrote?
I look at them all the time. I’m always looking at their mouths on stage, like, “Wow, holy shit, they really got that right.” It feels really weird, and it’s super fucking cool at the same time. I’m like, damn, I can’t believe people are learning this shit. This is stuff that I did, or I do, ‘cause I’m a fan. It’s pretty amazing, man. It’s a dream come true.
You just announced a spring tour with Pop Evil here in the States, and you’re also playing some festivals. I’m sure you’re looking forward to that, the festivals especially.
Yeah, yeah. That’ll be great.
How would you describe what you guys do live?
Imagine hearing the record but 10 times more chaotic. (laughs) I think we amp it up. I personally think, and I’ve heard from a lot of people, that we sound better than the recordings. That’s sort of why we recorded it that way. The record’s pretty much live. Most of it’s live off the floor, just crushing through it. Live, we just take it to the next level. We jam a little bit. We kind of beat each other up sometimes, and we can get pretty aggressive with each other on stage. It can get pretty wild, but it’s definitely a high-energy rock ‘n’ roll show. If that’s what you like, you’ll love our show.
You’re breaking into the music business at a strange time, with streaming taking over and sales way, way down, and even established bands are struggling just to survive. Where do you see all this going?
All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing. Just keep putting stuff out and keep touring, and as long as we have a secure team who’s willing to work hard and believing in this project, I think we’re always gonna win. The upside now is that there are a lot of outlets that people can find your music on. So that’s good. We can get in a lot of people’s faces. Of course, it’s very saturated, and there’s a lot of it, so it’s hard to stand out. But I think what really sets us aside is that if we play great shows in front of people, that’s how we’re gonna grab people. If we keep opening for great bands that are gonna give us the opportunity to do that, I think we’re gonna be fine. For us, it’s just about touring right now. Let’s just get in front of a lot of people and open for great bands that are willing to put us out there. We’ve been lucky so far, and it seems like we’re on an upwards trajectory. So I don’t see it falling off anytime soon.