At the start of 2018, writer and editor Loryn Stone undertook a very simple yet profound project: create a space on the internet for writers who have less than mainstream passions to share their writing through an all new platform, PopLurker.com. I was a regular contributor to the site for the first half of 2018, and met Matt Burroughs and Ben through the writer community Loryn fostered.
In the year since then, Matt and Ben ran with that momentum and joined forces to evolve TehBen.com into a space for content that reflects their passions, inclusivity, humor and strong opinions on mid-range restaurants, motorcycle modifications, and soda pop. I got to sit down with them and somehow got through a number of topics through peals of laughter and a few beers:
OI: You two are such a package deal and I really love how you feed off one another and work together on tehben.com, how’d you two meet?
Matt: I met Ben through Loryn Stone the Editor of PopLurker, I don’t even remember how I found PopLurker at this point. It developed from there: we were chatting a lot on the Discord server, when the opportunity came up to try something on our own? I realized Ben had his own website the whole time.
Ben: A poorly run website, thank you very much.
Matt: [Laughs] right, but you had something with bandwidth laying around so I said ‘fuck it, let’s try doing our own thing for a little while.
Ben: We can say bad words, right?
OI: Yeah, absolutely. What about me makes you think that you can’t?!
Ben: Some people are different. I think today I got told “you suck” on my website more than ever before so I’m used to offending anybody and everybody.
OI: That’s why I love your site, you guys have a courageous unfettered tone with the fun you’re having. You guys are the cool kids doing flips off the jungle gym writing-wise.
Ben: Or doing wheelies and stupid stuff, getting hurt.
OI: Your website has evolved quite a bit over the past year, a whole new look and feel.
Ben: It’s what happened when I got Matt behind me who said ‘man, you really need to update this.’ The layout was six years old or something. I said maybe I could work on it a little bit, so he kept pushing me and I would update the header and take the Dukes of Hazard and all that crap out. I’d improve and he kept pushing me to keep going and keep fixing things and just improving to what it is today. It’s him pushing me.
Matt: I do miss the Old West graphics we had [laughs].
Ben: Geocities inspired look.
OI: My prior interviewee, Kali Fontecchio wanted me to ask you two, “How much money for you to sell out your art form? What is the price for you to sell yourself as a brand and your soul?” I’ll add a prelude to this one: what do you guys consider selling out?
Matt: I appreciate you giving that extra line there, because we could have had a one word answer for it otherwise. Certainly there’s an atmosphere of selling out that we’re wary of. The money it would take to do that would be one thing, but we don’t want to sell our souls to make companies happy.
We do a lot of book reviews and soda reviews and other stuff. We don’t want to be the kind of people who would end up having to answer PR emails from Pepsi Co or Random House saying ‘I didn’t like the way you did this review. You didn’t push the product!’ That’s the kind of thing I would consider selling out.
Ben: We’re not good with brands. Applebee’s hates us. Hates me, sorry.
OI: Why’s that?
Ben: Every time they post something on Twitter, I’m always the first to respond. That’s where i’m most popular.
Matt: Didn’t you have some bad experience at Applebee’s where they microwaved everything? You plug that the most: that they microwave everything.
Ben: Well it’s true. I’ve eaten there once and it was really bad. Everybody told me: yeah, everything’s microwaved there. I just let Applebee’s know that every once in a while and it brings em down a peg.
Matt: If they would like to buy us though, the price tag is $5 Million.
OI: Tell me about the more internal process between the two of you. Tell me about the kind of ideas that don’t fit the site you’re running, do one of you ever pitch an idea that doesn’t fit the site?
Matt: Fuck no. [Laughter]
Ben: We feed off each other really well. I can throw just a little sentence out there and then we’ll collaborate and come up with a plan.
Matt: I can’t think of any idea that’s completely died in the water, honestly. There’s some we may have thought, ‘would that be funny enough or worth our time?’ But we’ve never gotten to a point where we’ve had a good idea in hand and said ‘well, maybe this isn’t the best for the TehBen readership.’
OI: I’m comparing it to my own site, where you’ve invited me to write on the NBA for TehBen, which I feel doesn’t quite fit my own site’s tone. You guys found each other through PopLurker, so how has it felt through that reverse experience of finding your own voices together. It’s 2019, what’s the path that got you here?
Matt: First thing was a refusal to grow up. There’s an unspoken agreement that we’re never going to write about: we’re not going to be a political website, or not overtly. Ben has his digs on the right wing every now and then, but we’re not offering commentary. Religion and that sort of thing- other than that we’re doing what we feel. Writing about dirty books and stuff has become a passion of mine.
OI: I’ve been enjoying the Smut Vault. How did that particular evolution come about? Have you been into erotica for a long time?
Matt: Yeah. I think the first piece I wrote for PopLurker was kind of my firsthand experience of what it was like to go to Barnes and Noble to read erotica killing time before Pub trivia. Then it went from there reading more consistently.
My wife, for some reason, likes the sound of my voice so I like reading to her in her bedtime and a lot of that stuff has been erotica for whatever reasons. Basically an X Rated Lavar Burton. Not to disrespect the community, I hope this pumps it up: the erotica community is amazingly passionate, particularly on Twitter. It’s all self-promotion.
You’re not going to get a lot of help pushing your dirty books, you have to do it yourself. We’ve made a lot of connections just by hanging out the shingles saying ‘we’ll review your book. If you don’t want to pay to have a review done, give us what you’ve got and we’ll share it with the world.’ For whatever reason, that process seems to be working.
Ben: Matt does an amazing job when he reviews. He summarizes really well, then brings it together, I think he gives real good criticism that they can take away and I think that’s where they get the most out of it.
OI: How about a podcast review series? I agree: he has an extremely sexy voice. I’m all aflutter right now.
Matt: [Laughs] That’s truly amazing. Thank you.
OI: Ben, your stuff continues to be the most imaginative all over the place stuff: music, video games, car takes- so there’s a spirit of whatever your imagination is caught by.
Ben: I’ve got a lot of experience all over the place doing all kinds of different things. I’ve got lots of viewpoints that come from those different walks and ideas. I really have no rhyme or reason, that’s why my stuff has been so out there. I have a thing where I make fun of peoples’ motorcycles, I like doing that.
Matt: Everybody is such a good sport about that too.
Ben: Everybody is like, ‘you’re a jerk.’
Matt: We’ve made so many friends on Reddit.
Ben: Even after all this time I can still make new jokes about the same crappy thing people do to their bikes. I’ve got a lot of interests: I’m an ex-musician, I ride motorcycles, I kayak level 4 rapids, I do dumb things.
OI: Those are good dumb things. Those are dumb things that make you feel alive and doesn’t hurt other people.
Matt: Worth noting: to have all those interests and not be a fucking douchebag? That’s very impressive. Even with the backwards hat, still not a douchebag.
OI: I think the backwards hat thing has come full circle and isn’t really douchebaggy anymore. Kind of humble really.
Ben: You guys suck! I didn’t know I was gonna go on video and be criticized for my looks, geez.
OI: You two have motivated one another to develop the site into something that has an identity and spirit to it, what do you think about looking at who you were a year and a half ago when you set off down this road and who you are now? How have you developed and changed?
Matt: First difference for me is I actually feel like I’m a little bit of an artist for a change. Before PopLurker, I was just a guy who’d get angry on the internet. I would @ people if they said something I was mad about with Nascar.
Having this outlet to be creative in the way I want to be- and I’m not going to be a person that has a vlog series or be a YouTube person or an Instagram influencer. I’m going to write. I actually feel in some way that I’m really doing something and contributing to the artistic world in my very small and dumb way. I realize we’re one rung above a hobo clown.
OI: At least two.
Matt: [Laughs] I appreciate that.
Ben: I definitely edit a lot more so I’ve improved my editing. Matt’s always pushing me to write, and so I’ll work on something I’m actually writing writing, and send him what I’ve been working on to check ‘is this good?’ He gives me feedback too and it’s pushing me to write a real book, but it’s been slow going.
OI: The site has an admirably consistent output.
Ben: That’s Matt, he does all the scheduling.
Matt: I would really thrive in 1930s Italy, keeping the trains running on time. Certainly not for political reasons, but for being able to keep everyone where they need to be.
OI: You said that since PopLurker and getting into writing you’re able to feel like an artist now, so what is an artist? If you weren’t one before, what’s the gulf between those two states for you?
Matt: Did you ever work in Operations? You have a lot of those good buzz words like delta, and gulf.
OI: My day job is in Business Development and I’ve done project management alongside that. I love that you recognized the lingo.
Matt: I try to hide the fact that I do that sort of thing too. I’d like everyone to think TehBen would pay me enough to do this full time.
Ben: I gave him all the money we’ve ever made on the internet.
Matt: After the $800,000 per year base salary he pays me, everything else is gravy on top. Anyway, I think the main difference between and artist and someone else is the amount of ability you have to interact with the community through what you’re putting out there.
Whether it’s an actual work of art, or an article that offers engagement with any sort of community that can be passed around and commented on, yelled at, reposted, flamed- that’s where you start through the “A” word around for Artist.
I feel like a douche even saying it like that because I don’t want to be the arbiter on what is art and what isn’t. I think once you start having that community to it, even a very small microcosm of doing something for society you’re passionate about, that’s where it starts.
OI: I think that’s a great definition: when you’re producing content that stands on its own inviting even just an emotional reaction and interaction.
Ben: I get that all the time.
OI: So motorcycle hot takes-
Ben: Everybody has an opinion.
Matt: It’s not art unless your karma on Reddit goes down by 20 points.
Ben: I’ve been banned, so it’s Matt pushing out content.
Matt: Yeah, I take the flogging.
OI: Until Matt gets banned.
Matt: I think I am on my second account now.
Ben: I went on there because there was a guy in Denver who went around with a PVC pipe beating up people Downtown and somebody was videotaping it. I took that guy’s video and put River City Ransom music to it. Everybody said, ‘this guy’s a jerk.’ Then I got banned, but it’s a great video.
Matt: There’s a great example: sacrificing himself for his art.
OI: You guys are doing great at leveraging communities and spaces to promote. How much of that is plan and how much of it is just lobbing things out there and seeing what happens?
Matt: We’ve got our outline for what we know we need to do. For example books: we also have more mainstream books we’re going to review too. Those we have places where that content needs to go, even to certain Sub-Reddits where we have our niche.
Once we get those boxes ticked and authors retweeted it’s more of a seat of our pants thing: where can we make the most trouble? Like yesterday’s weird car article Ben wrote, we got so much shit on Reddit for that but we got hundreds of views we weren’t planning on having because we didn’t follow the rules of some car mechanic Sub-Reddit. ‘You did not take a picture of a car rolling into the shop that is your place of business, therefore this should be banned.’
OI: I’m looking at it right now, what a weird car.
Ben: Everyone thinks they’re ugly, but I think they’re so beautiful. I love that car, it was a beautiful car, but my God it was broken all the time.
Matt: Now we get to learn why Ben’s Twitter handle ends in SVX- I had no idea until yesterday.
Ben: I was gonna get more into how I sold it, I made a whole creative story on Craigslist for it, about how this rapper and hated his life, a whole thing explaining why people should buy it even though it was completely fucking broken. Nobody bought it, nobody even responded. Girlfriend at the time did a separate post that was just: ‘car, $2000,’ and it was sold within half an hour.
Matt: That’s how he learned to delegate.
OI: You guys do really well at playing to each of your strengths and having such complementary strengths.
Ben: We work really well and don’t argue about things. If I have something is a weird regional thing, I ask him. East coast people have different words for things.
Matt: Yeah, I’m in Maryland about 30 miles away from the ocean.
Ben: I’m at the continental divide over in Denver.
OI: Ben, tell me about the novel you’re working on?
Ben: Not really a novel, it’s kind of an autobiography. I used ot play music and had the debauchery of the band and all the crazy stuff. There’s a lot of stories about that but then there’s the other stuff I did that was actually pretty stupid too.
OI: Tell me about the band?
Ben: I started when I was 18, got into it for the ladies. We were getting really huge here in Denver. That was right when Denver was really starting to hit on the map, we had The Fray, 303, a lot of big Denver bands coming out. We were right on the cusp of that, all those bands opened for us, The Fray opened for us. We were riding a huge wave on that, but we had a mouth and we had huge drinking problems, it was like having four Nikki Sixx’s in a band.
We would try so hard and we’d be doing radio interviews and lots of press related things. We were really getting there. We had a label person almost a representative but she was an alcoholic too. The blind leading the blind, it was really bad. But anyway, we’d have The Fray open for us then we’d go up and trash the place because we were blackout drunk. They kind of blacklisted us because of our mouths and because I would go in and decorate green rooms and stuff.
That’s where I put all my eggs in a basket, I said ‘I’m gonna be a musician’ and we were so close. We almost had it right in our hands. There were three other bands we were playing with that all got signed and we were almost in talks with one record group and then we just exploded. We had the David Lee Roth thing. I rebuilt from there, I’ve played with two other bands over the next two decades. Decades, God.
OI: How are you playing music for decades, you look like you’re my age.
Ben: it’s because I’ve got my hat on backwards [laughs]. We did the best we could. The last gig we had, I got hit by a car and my guitar player jumped off the stage and hurt his back. He jumped off and everybody’s like yeah! Meanwhile he’s on the ground like, ‘I can’t fucking move.’ I ask him, ‘what’s up dude?’ He repeats, ‘I can’t fucking move.’ They had to actually lay him on a stretcher which is a very bad look for a band. I had my wireless and went out on Broadway and got hit by a car. Like I said, we were dumb. We’re dumb.
Matt: Such whimsy to such horrible human suffering. It’s fantastic.
Ben: We had a couple episodes of a podcast where we were telling stories about our time touring and all that. That’s kind of what the book will be about, but it won’t just be the band. It’ll have other things to tell.
OI: I asked the question earlier about looking back at who you were when you first started collaborating, so let’s go the opposite way: if you could talk to the future selves a year from now, what would you hope your future selves have learned or accomplished regarding your art?
Ben: I would tell myself to interact with the fans and readers more. Matt does that really well and I could probably get us a little more attention, I just don’t have time. I wish I could interact with people a lot more.
Matt: Definitely the same thing of keeping that interaction up. I want us to find a little more voice in something. My pipe dream for the site is to be the kids on the playground talking about TehBen.com saying ‘oh yeah, that’s the website where you can find-’ blank.
We do a lot of things, or I like to think we do a lot of things well, I just don’t know what that one thing we end up having to be is. Is it book reviews, is it motorcycle ragging, is it Mountain Dew conspiracy theories? What’s gonna be our thing? Even if that doesn’t work out, I like this Applebee’s sampler approach we’re doing here.
OI: Maybe you’re not the website people think of for a given topic or event, maybe you’re the place that certain people go to. Loryn Stone always said she saw PopLurker as a table for nerds and geeks, maybe you guys have your table rather than subject?
Matt: My table was pretty lonely then [laughs]. That is a fantastic point. PopLurker and all the branches off the Loryn Stone tree, their audience is very dedicated and very well defined. That’s something we’d love to have more of. I just don’t know what kind of person likes the sort of things we do, I don’t even know what sort of person I am in that regard. I like the things I like. I like nerdy stuff, but then I also spend every Sunday watching Nascar.
OI: So if you’re writing about all these things you love, then what’s on the outside of that, what do you hate?
Matt: I hate homogenization. I hate things that are reduced to the lowest common denominator for clicks or views. I never want to dumb down what we’re doing for an audience. Our audience is better than that, whether it’s 20 people or 20,000 people, our audience is going to be better than that.
OI: You guys have a very inclusive spirit, even if the subject matter isn’t trying to reach mass appeal. Like what you want to like so long as those things aren’t hurting anybody. You haven’t tried to tokenize it or market that.
Matt: Yeah, but neither of us is gonna get poached by Buzzfeed anytime soon.
OI: Closing question: what should I ask my next interviewee?
Matt: We prepared a question: would you rather be an unknown talent with strong personal wealth, or a famous artist with barely a dime to their name?
Matt & Ben co-run TehBen.com where you can find food and book reviews, as well as other entertaining humor and culture writing. Follow Matt, Ben, and TehBen.com on Twitter.