FTS Q&A: Ben Feeney

Ben Feeney is part man, part drum machine.  He’s not only a loyal Stein Filler, but he’s also an actual Maine Steiner (emeritus).  When Ben joined the Steiners, he brought a new element to the time-honored group – vocal percussion – that helped propel them to even greater heights.  Nowadays, Ben’s one in a long line of successful UMaine Engineering alums by day, and continues his wildly successful career as an a cappella vocal percussionist, as well, having performed for Marvin Hamlisch, at the Kennedy Center, and at New York’s historic Beacon Theater, among others with his award-winning group, Cartoon Johnny.  

It’s also worth pointing out that Ben cites Rush drummer Neil Peart (along with Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy) as a great influence.  You know, because your faithful correspondent is a big Neil Peart guy.

It’s a great pleasure to Fill the Steins with Ben Feeney…

FTS: What was your UMaine experience?  Major?  Dorm(s)?

Ben: I graduated in 2002 with a BS in Chemical Engineering.  I stayed in Oxford Hall my freshman year, moved to York Village for a couple years and then Dryden Terrace.

FTS: How’d you get into singing in the first place?  How did the a cappella thing start?

Ben: Music started out as a small seed in my life from an early age.  No one in my family was involved in music, but deep down I had an affinity for rhythm and melody.  I just never knew it until I started formal training and got my feet wet in high school choirs, band, and musicals.  I got addicted to the adrenaline rush of a solid performance and the emotion and therapy that music can have on one’s self.  Suffice it to say, I was hooked on the music experience.

At UMaine, I found out about a co-ed chorus called the University of Maine Singers.  They had performed at my high school and the “Wall of Sound” they produced gave me goosebumps.  Even more jaw-dropping was the all-male a cappella group, The Maine Steiners, a subset of the Singers.  After hearing their intricate harmonies, I knew I had to find a way to audition for the group.

Luckily, I had a good friend, Keith Luhmann [Editor’s Note: who?], who was one year ahead of me and became a member of both the UMaine Singers and the Steiners.  I thought it was a lock that I would make both groups, and so I set out to audition my freshman year.  I did end up making the Singers, but I was rejected from obtaining my ultimate goal of becoming a Steiner.  The truth was my voice did not meet the high standard.  So with this in mind, I decided on a new strategy.  I always had rhythm and was a decent drummer, so I started trying to make all kinds of percussion sounds VOCALLY instead of using actual drums. 

The next year I auditioned again, but with a different result.  The group loved the idea of having a vocal percussionist and they accepted me in as one of their own.  Over the next few years we developed a fresh new “vocal band” sound.  In ‘02 we decided to try our luck and audition for the ICCA’s (International Championship of Collegiate A cappella).  The ICCA is the leading voice of collegiate a cappella competition across the country.  The Steiners took first place in both the regional and semi-finals, beating out many outstanding groups.  We received awards for, Best Arrangement (Danny Boy), and Best Vocal Percussionist.  The Finals were held at the famed Beacon Theater on Broadway in New York.  We finished in third place overall and took home more awards for arrangement and best percussionist. 

My time at UMaine really solidified many of my dreams and gave me the confidence to pursue yet another level of musical ambition.  Post college (2002-04), I auditioned for a professional a cappella group called “Almost Recess.”  As a group we spent two years touring the East Coast teaching children about the history of  a cappella through one-hour programs.  We performed at least 100 shows a year and most of them were held at schools from K-12. 

FTS: For the kids – nice.  Now give us an idea of Cartoon Johnny…
Ben: From 2005-present, I joined up with Cartoon Johnny, which has given me several amazing performance opportunities.  We were asked by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch to perform at his Kennedy Center Christmas program with the National Symphony Orchestra.  Mr. Hamlisch also flew us to San Diego for a 4th of July Show. 

We competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes Competition for Semi and Pro a cappella groups and were two-time finalists.  Over the years we produced and recorded several CDs and I frequently teach vocal percussion at festivals such as “Sing Strong” and “VocalNation.”  Most recently, I was a guest percussionist for NBC Sing-Off finalists, “Groove For Thought” at VocalNation.

We rehearse once per week. Each member must take on roles to contribute to the success of the band.  We use quite a bit of sound equipment: I use a mic wrapped around my throat called “THE THUMPER” along with a wireless mic for my lips.  We all use in-ear monitors and our bass singer has an Octave Pedal which adds a full Octave to his voice.  When learning new songs, everyone is expected to come to rehearsal having learned their part on their own time.  This way we can spend our time working on Tuning, intonation, blend, groove, and sound effects.

FTS: You’ve been successful in a cappella competitions – what is that atmosphere like?  How competitive does it get?  Friendly?  Super cutthroat?
Ben: Recently I watched the movie “Pitch Perfect.”  Even though the movie was meant to be a funny take on college a cappella, the competition portion of the film regarding the ICCAs was spot-on.  The competition is as fierce as any sporting event.  As the years go on, I find myself amazed at the steady evolution of the human voice, arrangements, and fresh sound a cappella has morphed into time and time again. 

FTS: What’s your favorite song to perform? 
Ben: A few selections: Foot Loose ; Fine By Me; Signed Sealed Delivered; Something To Believe In; More Today Than Yesterday; Let Me Entertain You; Let’s Groove; Motown Medley; Disco Medley; Stacy’s Mom; Bless the Broken Road; Easy Like a Sunday Morning; Hot and Cold; Forget You; Please Don’t Stop The Music; Not Over You……..and more

And here are some recommendations, if you want to hear groups that will blow your mind.  Pentatonic; Naturally Seven; The House Jacks; Sonos; Basix; Groove for Thought; M-Pact; Ball in the House; Overboard; Blue Jupiter; and…  Cartoon Johnny.

FTS: Seriously, though – how do you do that vocal percussion thing?
Ben: All I can say is that it requires a lot of spit…and if you are in the front row…watch out!!  Actually, it is a skill that can be developed just like learning a new language.  You can take the alphabet and create drum sounds by combining letters in interesting ways.  PRO TIP- to make a High-Hat sound place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and make a TSSS sound…..there you go!  To make a deep snare drum sound say “PFT” really fast while keeping your lips together.

FTS: Thanks.  Now I’m covered in my own saliva.  Anyway… A new Cartoon Johnny album is rumored to be out soon – can you give us a sense of what it’ll be like?
Ben: We are slow-going on recording, but we should have at least an EP out in February.

FTS: You also have a day job as a chemical engineer, right?  What kind of stuff are you working on there? 
Ben: I work for Boland Trane as the Technical Director of water treatment sales.  I sell chemicals, industrial water softeners, reverse osmosis, and design chemical systems for boilers, water treatment plants and commercial buildings.  I also work with our energy team to help customers reduce energy consumption by looking at alternative building HVAC controls and dashboards to see overall building energy consumption.

FTS: Favorite UMaine memory that you care to share?
Ben: It’s hard to pick one.  Most of them are a blurrrrrrr…  Seriously though, the memory that sticks out for me was right after the World Trade Center Bombings on 9/11.  The effort and support around Campus during the aftermath was something special to witness.  Everyone from the staff to the students, community etc. came together to navigate through that difficult time. 

FTS: What’s the one thing you’d want to do if you were back at UMaine right now?
Ben: If I was back at UMaine I’d do it all over exactly the same………except I would have tried to score more chicks! 

FTS: Regrets, we’ve all got a few.  Oh, well.  So, what are you filling your steins with these days?

Ben: I just got back from Ireland…so Guinness is the stein of choice.

I’d try and say thanks to Ben in vocal percussion-ese, but I’ve already given myself a spit shower, so how about just…  Cheers!

Feeney starts really coooking around 2:00…

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