Benjamin Burnley is hardly the first band leader who has found himself having to replace the other members of his band. But his task was that much trickier because with his band, Breaking Benjamin, because Burnley was leaving behind a lineup that had notched three platinum and one gold album during the first decade of the band’s existence.
Burnley, though, already had a list of musicians he wanted to work with by the time he decided to reform Breaking Benjamin in 2014. And after nearly four years with the current lineup, he feels this is the best version he’s had of his band.
“Starting over is not an easy thing in any sort of walk of life,” Burnley said in a recent phone interview. “But I did, for a very long time, I did know who I had in mind, people that I always wanted to play with. So I was really thankful when it actually came to be and we got together. Just because you have individual friends that you get along with individually, that doesn’t mean when you get them all together it’s going to work. So that wound up working really well, too. It was just meant to be. There are some things in life that are meant to be, and there are some things in life that are forced, and the things that are forced are things that probably shouldn’t be.”
Burnley put together an early edition of Breaking Benjamin a couple of years before the lineup solidified in 2001 with, bassist Mark Klepaski and guitarist Aaron Fink joining drummer Jeremy Hummel and Burnley. That lineup enjoyed quick success when the band’s 2002 debut album, “Saturate,” went gold behind the popularity of the single “Polyamorous.”
The second album, “We’re Not Alone,” did even better, with the singles “So Cold” and “Sooner or Later” propelling sales of the album past 1 million copies, earning Breaking Benjamin its first platinum album. After Hummel was dismissed and replaced by Chad Szeliga, the group went on to release two more platinum albums – “Phobia” (2006) and “Dear Agony” (2009) – while adding such top 5 singles as “The Diary of Jane,” “Breath” and “I Will Not Bow” to the band’s list of hits.
But then things took a turn into uncertain territory for Breaking Benjamin.
In 2010, Burnley put the band on hiatus when he started suffering from a mysterious illness that to this day has not been diagnosed and forces him to work through pain. While sidelined, the band’s label, Hollywood Records, requested that the group record a new version of the earlier hit song “Blow Me Away,” to go on a proposed greatest hits album,” Shallow Bay: The Best of Breaking Benjamin.”
It’s been reported that Fink and Klepaski granted Hollywood Records’ request after the label offered them $100,000. Burnley fired the two musicians, claiming that neither he nor Breaking Benjamin’s management were informed of the actions of Fink and Klepaski, and a lawsuit ensued. An agreement was reached in 2013 in which Burnley retained the rights to the Breaking Benjamin name and was free to assemble a new lineup for the band. Shortly after that announcement, Burnley parted ways with Szeliga, citing creative differences.
Burnley announced the new lineup — guitarist Jasen Rauch (formerly of Red), guitarist/vocalist Keith Wallen (formerly of Adelitas Way), bassist/vocalist Aaron Bruch and drummer Shaun Foist — in 2014 and brought the musicians into the studio to record parts for the next Breaking Benjamin album, “Dark Before Dawn,” an album Burnley said he had 95 percent written and demoed before he brought the band into the studio.
As such, the recently released Breaking Benjamin album, “Ember,” is really the first album to be made by the new lineup of the group. Where before Burnley wrote nearly all of the songs, getting only occasional contributions from his former bandmates, the new lineup was very involved in the writing for “Ember.
“The guys in the band now, not to put anybody down, but the writing we had done with the old lineup, it was very limited and it was very unorganic to me,” Burnley said. “I would have to take pieces and parts from things and make them fit into things that I already had. So with this band, on the writing aspect as well, the writing that those guys do is a lot more along the lines of the writing that I would do. We all kind of clicked that way.”
Burnley said he can hear new elements in virtually every song on “Ember” that are the direct result of the contributions from his new bandmates. Even so, fans won’t be caught off guard by the new album. “Ember” sounds very much like a Breaking Benjamin album.
That means plenty rockers featuring fierce guitar riffs and sweetened by melodic vocals (“Feed the Wolf,” “Red Cold River” and “Psycho”). With only one moody ballad (“Dark of You”) providing a brief change of pace, “Ember” is a bit heavier overall than the other Breaking Benjamin albums.
The new lineup, which performs March 23 at the La Crosse Center, seems to be connecting with fans. “Ember” has so far produced a #1 hit on “Billboard’s” Mainstream Rock chart, “Torn in Two,” while “Red Cold Red” went top 5 on multiple rock charts. Now the latest single, “Tourniquet,” has climbed into the top 15 at Mainstream Rock.
Burnley said in addition to pitching in as songwriters, the new band members functioned well in the studio in recording “Ember.”
“These guys, they are very familiar with the process of making an album, so they really tapped into that and accomplished everything that we needed to accomplish in a very, very, very organic and natural way because they themselves are used to the process of making albums,” he said. “So everything just went very smoothly.”
The biggest differences between the current and former Breaking Benjamins might be most apparent on the concert stage. A current headlining tour is giving fans ample opportunity to see how Breaking Benjamin’s live show has changed with the new five-man lineup.
“There are a lot of bands, they’ll run (pre-recorded) tracks behind what they’re playing. With the old (four-man) lineup, because we were sort of limited, I had to do that as well,” Burnley explained. “No other guys in the band sang and there wasn’t an extra guitarist. So there were some guitar parts that needed to be in there. There were some computer sounds, like samples and what not, that needed to be in there. We ran everything through a grid to a click track. With this band, we don’t run any click track and we don’t run any (backing) tracks whatsoever. We use the technology in the right way as far as drum triggers are concerned, so we don’t play to any tracks. So everything we’re doing now is completely 100 percent live. It’s all done by a person. There’s not a single track running. There’s no click or metronome running or anything like that. So it’s very organic and it’s very real now.
“I made it a point when I got the new lineup to hire a couple of guys that were, not only friends of mine, but guys that were singers,” he added. “The bass player (Bruch) and the other guitar player (Wallen), they’re singers. They’re not like guitar players that can sing. They’re singers who play (instruments). They were frontmen of their own bands for a long time and so it really makes it so we’re able to sound like our albums live and sing everything live. It’s a really, really amazing difference to me.”