At a time when the mainstream narrative is all about how Greece’s ‘best and brightest’ minds have been fleeing the country in drones, many of them coming to Australia, it is a rare exception to see someone make the opposite journey, from Melbourne to Athens, a sign of eccentricity even. But Ben - 'Bjenny" - Montero was never afraid to stand out.
He has been doing just that, through his psychedelic cartoons and his music, creating an interesting juxtaposition between uplifting form and bleak content. In the ’60s and ’70s, his art would be considered ‘underground’, but now the lines are so blurred that it seems that both his drawings and his music could appeal to anyone – particularly the latter, with its nods to the sound of bands like Supertramp and the Beach boys, in an up-to-date way. Nowadays, he performs his songs with musicians from the thriving alternative pop scene of Athens. As he prepares to launch his new album, he talks about his decision to move to Athens – and his talks with his favourite Greek Australian tavern owner.
How did you find yourself in Athens?
I actually arrived here by accident, to be honest. I was planning on visiting one of the islands while I was traveling around the place and I never made it past Athens. Having never actually thought about the city at all, I had zero expectations but I landed here with just a couple of Facebook contacts, went to an exhibition and was lucky to meet some great people who set me up with somewhere to stay and warm welcomes. Instantly I felt something really welcoming and exciting in the air, in the buildings and the surrounding mountains. Also, the street signs were vaguely familiar from growing up in Brunswick.
I’ve been living here off and on for around three years, coming and going while traveling to other parts of the world. I always felt the pull to come back though. This year I finally got my own apartment in Exarchia and live here with my two cats. Exarchia [is] pretty famous for being a bit of an anarchist sanctuary. It’s very vibrant and intense with its great bars, galleries, venues and tavernas mixing in with the frequent tear-gassing, car burning, bombing and Antifa vs police street clashes. It feels very safe however and I stay out of the way of the action. To be honest, that side of things can end up a bit tiring and annoying for the locals after a while.
How would you describe the vibe of the city at the moment?
The vibe seems great to me. Even though I live in my own bubble no matter where I am, the vibrancy of the city can’t be ignored. It seems really alive at the moment and busy and interesting, open to anything and probably one of the last cities in Europe that can still be old, weird, chaotic and not yet smoothed-out and polished up. I love the chaotic visual aspect of the city! When I first got here it was what I imagined New York in the 1970’s to have been like when it was thriving after it’s own troubles. There’s so many growing and changing neighbourhoods and potential new scenes. It feels pliable. Then there’s all the great bands playing any night of the week, art exhibitions, theatre, protests, great street markets, old cinemas and new places to check out. People seem to be out just doing stuff because when you’re living in a city of apartments there’s not much point spending too much time inside when you can go outside where there’s cheap good food, ouzo to drink and friends to meet, rebetika music being played and the Acropolis to view.
What part of living in Melbourne do you miss the least?
I’m glad to be away from the old neighbourhoods’ rapid ugly overdevelopment. The nanny state vibes, the ridiculous rental prices, online toxic activism. The lack of chaos and the orderly lines. Beer prices. Homelessness. Moving here I realized how important and valuable it is to interact with older people and others that you might not agree with politically or socially and that healthy debate and discussion can be rewarding. People are out every night having a drink and talking face to face. I do miss Australian humour and banter, though. Self-deprecation. All the talented artists, musicians, designers, writers etc. The community radio and positive aspects of a small-town atmosphere. I miss the multiculturalism the most probably. Good pho. European cities can tend to be very monocultural. Nowhere’s perfect.
Greece has been struggling for the past seven years, trying to cope with a deep financial and political crisis; how do you see this impacting people around you and shaping your experience?
I kind of feel like it’s not for me to discuss too deeply or have anything new to add. Firstly because I come from Melbourne, where I was lucky to be on the dole for years, which gave me time to work on music and art so I feel privileged. Secondly I’m an outsider anyway, and lastly, I’m not good at putting cohesive thoughts together for any larger socio-political perspectives.
Anyone here over a certain age will look at me like I’m insane when I mention I moved here. “Why would you do that? Australia has lots of work and money!” But [I] didn’t feel like there was any work or money for me in Australia, so I guess it’s all relative. However, all the younger creative people I know, realize what a vital city it is right now to be in at this point in time.
The first time I came back to Melbourne from staying in Greece, some people seemed genuinely horrified that I was there. Like they imagined suddenly, due to economic and political upheavals, people were suddenly howling at the moon and tearing at each other. It’s not the case obviously. Life goes on.
Obviously, I’ve talked to friends who have been through it all and have recounted their experiences, but they’re personal stories and aren’t the number one topic of conversation.
How do you see yourself, as an artist, within the political and social context that we live in?
I don’t know if I think of myself as an artist responding to any political or social issues directly at the moment. I’ve tried in the past, but right now I’m too clumsy to do it properly and seem to be going inwards and seeing where any negativity comes from. You’ve caught me in a boring phase of self-therapy – ha! I don’t always trust how I see myself anyway and I’m probably not capable of explaining it. Basically, I’m pretty much happy to operate on a non-thinking level right now and just let my drawing be some vague hand movements and that hopefully, any impact is simple positivity. Until I end up in some other place, at least.
How has Athens affected you, in terms of artistic inspiration?
I find it friendly and safe. I have my local places where I get coffee in the morning and chat in basic Greek and I have a million places to go and sit and have an ouzo and lunch and soak up some inspiration. That’s all I need to find the energy to sit and draw. Here I can find countless places to hide and alleys to duck down and find inspiration. My favourite local taverna is Ouzeri Lesvos downstairs from me. The guy there is super grumpy and that suits me. He was actually born in Melbourne and came to Greece very young. He wonders why I’m here and always says “Greece is beautiful country but full of malakas!”
What inspires you, in general?
Recently just super basic stuff like being happy or sad. Nothing complex. It’s a weird phase. Whatever is interwoven with these basic themes are all inspirations. Music, memories, nostalgia, warmth, longing, comfort, discomfort, romance, wonder, colours and cities. Rooftops and buildings. Something cooking on the stove. Friends and family. Missing family and friends. In a bigger sense, freedom and the room to live in strange places.
Both your drawing and music tackle issues of loneliness and depression, with bright, optimistic colours and joyful melodies and orchestration; how deliberate is this contrast?
I think [I’ve] always dealt with any of these feelings of isolation, despair, and displacement by channeling them all into colourful creations and bright imagery. Plus, I’ve always been drawn to melodies and cartoons because they’re interactive and enjoyable even when you’re by yourself!
Also, I remember the first 10 years or so of my life, I’d come down with these major delirious fever dreams and hallucinate giant cartoon faces on the walls and hear strange songs at shouting level in my head and then vanish after an hour or so. This all went away when I became a teenager thank God, but the impact of having to be on guard against this never left. So, insecurity, bright colours and catchy sad songs all go hand in hand for me.
What is the main thing that you want to say as an artist?
Probably something as simplistic and vain as “Hey listen to me, listen to my feelings, look at my colours!”