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Published Oct. 6, 2014

Benjamin Booker's story is the kind to make any aspiring musician jealous. Less than two years after starting to play live, he has been signed to a record label, released his debut album, played festivals, opened for Jack White and appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman and Conan.

He lives in New Orleans, but it was in Tampa where the blues- and punk-tinged garage rocker went to Hillsborough High School and later started playing shows. He moved back to Tampa after college in Gainesville and a first attempt at living in New Orleans.

On Oct. 25, Booker, 25, will return for his biggest Tampa show yet (he played the Gasparilla Music Festival in March). At the Coral Skies Festival at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, he will appear alongside such acts as Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Tokyo Police Club and the Hold Steady.

In an interview, with the Tampa BayTimes' Jimmy Geurts, Booker talked about some of the people and places that were important musical influences during his time in Tampa.


The Teen Hangout

Booker said he started seeing shows at the tiny, all-ages punk space contained within the Skatepark of Tampa when he was 14 or 15. Transitions Art Gallery was one of the few venues in Tampa whose doors were open to audiences of that age.

A standout show was by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, a Pensacola group that combines folk and punk as ably as Booker melds blues and punk. Yet just as important, he said, was seeing local bands with kids his age; that made playing music seem like a plausible option.

"It was the first time of seeing people my age playing music," Booker said. "I didn't realize up to that point that's something that teenagers could do, pick up a guitar and start a band and play shows."


The Best Friend

Mikey Antonakakis was a friend of Booker's and a fellow Hillsborough High School student.

Antonakakis gave him an album by seminal Washington, D.C., hard-core group Minor Threat and taught the now-nimble blues guitar-licker some of his first chords.

Booker said his dad would also sometimes drop him off at the Skatepark of Tampa and he and Antonakakis would skateboard, an ideal spot because it was next door to Booker's favorite music venue.

"(Antonakakis) introduced me to music and skating and punk and all that kind of stuff when I started at Hillsborough," Booker said.


The Big Break

Once Booker started playing music around late 2012 and early 2013, he said, this outdoor Ybor City bar and venue became an important spot.

"There was one month right before I got signed where I played, like, every weekend. I was playing there all the time," Booker said. "To me, it's the best venue in town. If you're a band there, they treat you very well, it's always well-attended and it's just a fun place to play."

New World Brewery was where Booker got signed to ATO Records, the label that also includes Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers.

ATO manager Jon Salter came to watch a set by Booker's band during a concert put on by a WMNF-FM 88.5 program, Ninebullets Radio. When the band got off stage, Salter offered to sign them in the venue's parking lot, Booker said.


The Day Job

During his second stay in Tampa, Booker worked at Mojo Books and Music, a book store and record shop tucked into a strip mall on Fowler Avenue.

Though he was there about only four or five months, he said it was "the perfect job," being surrounded by music and books. Most of his days there were spent listening to music and picking out records, he said, as well as having his musical horizons expanded by the store's staff.

"The people who worked there ... everybody's so knowledgeable about music and books and everything," Booker said. "So it was a very huge learning experience where it was getting introduced to a bunch of new stuff every day - new bands, new music I had never heard before."


The Local Bands

Among the local bands that left an impression on Booker was the noisy hard-core group Cult Ritual. He was particularly taken by its first full-length record, remembering getting excited when it showed up at Mojo Books and Music one day.

Cult Ritual's members have since spread out across the country and moved on to other bands. Drummer Tommy Conte plays in Rhode Island-based the Ukiah Drag, and guitarist Dave Vassalotti joined Merchandise, arguably the only Tampa-affiliated act bigger than Booker.

Booker said he remembered Merchandise as "the older, cooler kids" and seeing frontman Carson Cox perform influenced him because it showed him that the term "punk" could encompass all sorts of music.

"It was important to get to see him when I was younger because the Skatepark was really punk music and he was playing acoustic guitar, melodic stuff, and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, that's really cool, too.' "

Contact Jimmy Geurts at or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.

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