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Singer-guitarist Benjamin Booker of Tampa is on the fast track

Benjamin Booker of Tampa is on the fast track, with a gig this week on Letterman, performances with Jack White and a deal with ATO Records. He performs with drummer Max Norton, also of Tampa. For Letterman, Alex Spoto, also from Tampa, will join them.
Benjamin Booker of Tampa is on the fast track, with a gig this week on Letterman, performances with Jack White and a deal with ATO Records. He performs with drummer Max Norton, also of Tampa. For Letterman, Alex Spoto, also from Tampa, will join them.
Published Apr. 25, 2014

Only about a year and half after starting to play music in Tampa, Benjamin Booker has found big success — playing with Jack White and on the David Letterman show. The White Stripes frontman chose Booker as an opening act for a handful of dates, and the singer and guitarist is set to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman this Wednesday. • Booker, 24, grew up in Tampa, staying until he graduated from Hillsborough High School. After living in Gainesville and New Orleans, he moved back to Tampa, working at Mojo Books & Records and playing with drummer Max Norton. (Booker has since returned to New Orleans.) • It was in Tampa that the bluesy garage duo caught the attention of ATO Records — the home of Alabama Shakes and My Morning Jacket. They'll release their debut album on the label this year. • Booker talked with Times staff writer Jimmy Geurts about his past playing in Tampa and his busy future.

Can you talk about your last time living here in Tampa?

Oh, yeah, it was incredible. I had just started playing music here in Florida. December 2012 was the first show I had ever played, but those were like solo shows. I played with Max in the winter in a couple of shows, which were really good. … It worked better than I could have ever imagined. There were people early on at shows and a lot of support from the Tampa music community … everyone was really supportive early on.

It was easy for us to play shows regularly — like, good shows. And I don't think that would've happened if we had started off in New Orleans. It's a lot harder to start off as a band, I think. So it's really good that we had like a little boot camp in Tampa last summer, where we just played like four or five shows a month.

How did you end up signing with ATO Records? Was that after the move to New Orleans?

No, ATO came down to one of our shows. Jon Salter, who runs the company, flew down to a show that we had at New World Brewery — I think it was the Nine Bullets show, the WMNF show. He just flew down for that show and saw us and I guess liked it, and said they'd like to sign us.

Can you talk about the new album you'll be releasing soon?

Well, the album is done. We came back to New Orleans and basically immediately went to Nashville in December to record it at the Bomb Shelter, this all-analog studio in Nashville, which was really awesome. We worked with Andrija Tokic, who did the new Hurray for the Riff Raff album that just came out — we went on tour with those guys less than a week ago — and he's done Alabama Shakes.

And what you would say the sound of the album is?

It's kind of crazy how little we went in with, like, no expectations. A lot of bands really plan out what they're going to do before they go into the studio, but … we just had a piece of notebook paper with some notes on the songs on it. And we kind of just winged it for the time we were there — we had six days to record the whole album.

It turned out better than I ever thought it could've turned out. It had only been me and Max playing for a while, and then we got some bass players and organ players on the album. It just sounds better than I ever could've ever imagined. I wrote some songs in my room on acoustic guitar and was playing those for a little while, but that was the first time that we got to hear what it sounds like with a full band playing the songs. It was a lot bigger sound than I thought we could've ever accomplished.

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You'll be playing with Jack White on a couple of shows. How did that come about?

I have no idea how that came about. We were in New York and I got a call from my manager saying that they had set up some Jack White shows. I guess the thing with the way tours get set up, the artist gets a bunch of people that want to tour with them and then they just pick people. So I guess he just picked us to play those shows. I couldn't be more happy to be doing that.

Was it crazy knowing that Jack White had heard of you guys and wanted you to come out on tour with him?

Yeah, it was really crazy. To have somebody's poster on your wall when you're like a 13-year-old to then be playing shows with them is pretty intense, especially because we'd only been playing together for like a year. We didn't expect to be playing with Jack White so soon, you know?

And soon you'll be playing David Letterman. How do you feel about that?

I just found about that a few days ago. We're hoping that it's all right — obviously I'm really, really nervous doing it. I honestly can't tell you how these things happen; it's just been falling into place. Since we started playing, it's been very quickly building. I literally just get emails every couple of weeks where I'm just like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe that we're doing this" with something new that's coming up. I don't know exactly how it happened, but I'm psyched that it's happening.

Will that show just be the two of you or will it be a full band like the album?

Well, we started playing this past tour with this kid Alex Spoto, who's also from Tampa — he lives in New York now. So he'll be playing on the show with us, too. So it'll all be Tampa guys.

And what was it like coming back to Tampa to play Gasparilla Music Festival in March?

That was one of the first festivals that we've ever played, so it was really cool just to have a line of my friends in the front row during the show. It made things a little easier because it was our first festival. It was nice to get to see everybody. I don't get to get back very often nowadays.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.


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