The song begins with a hushed,halting voice over a quietly strummed guitar. “Give me something that I can tap my toes to, and scream at the top of my lungs,” Benjamin Booker crackles, “till it sounded like I’ve been smoking from the day I was born.” Sure enough, by the time “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” passes the halfway mark, he’s crowing in gravelly testimony over a garage-punk gallop.
Booker, 25, exudes more youthful bluster on other tracks from his eponymous August debut, from the lively, headlong thump of “Violent Shiver” to the blues and R&B shadings of “Chippewa,” cushioned with organ in the studio. Grimy and passionate, the album surges with chugging, swirling waves of sonic adrenaline.
Yet the New Orleans-based singer/guitarist wasn’t exactly born to rock. Sure, Booker embraced skateboarding and punk shows as a teenager growing up in Tampa before he landed at the University of Florida in Gainesville to study journalism. But he didn’t really start writing songs and playing modest solo acoustic gigs until two years ago, when he was filling his spare time in New Orleans, scraping by at a nonprofit after failing to secure a job in journalism.
Then the stars aligned quickly for Booker. He came back home and recorded an acoustic demo in his parents’ bathroom that caught the attention of a West Coast music blog and led to exposure on Sirius. And just last year, he connected with Tampa drummer Max Norton to form a band. “Electric shows are just more enjoyable, to dance and have a good time,” says Booker, whose influences include punk rockers the Gun Club and bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. “I didn’t really like the acoustic, quiet vibe.” After only a few months, a scout from ATO Records—home to My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes—caught the duo live and signed Booker to a deal.
Now he’s crisscrossing the U.S. and the U.K. with his live trio (completed by fellow Tampa native Alex Spoto on bass), earning such plum opportunities as playing Late Show with David Letterman and opening dates for Jack White.
“I haven’t had time to think about everything else that’s going on,” Booker says from the road, on his way to Minneapolis. “Really, I’ve just been taking it day to day. I know there’s somewhere we need to be, and I just focus on that, getting to the show on time and playing.”
Booker returns to Cambridge to headline T.T. the Bear’s Place on Oct. 22, following two opening slots at the Sinclair as well as an acclaimed turn at the Newport Folk Festival. He recognizes that his young band is continuing to adapt to the spotlight.
“I wasn’t comfortable at the very beginning,” Booker says of his band’s near-nonstop touring since February, comparing it to starting any new job. “But we’ve played so many shows this year, I definitely feel like, even since the last time I came to Cambridge, it’s probably a better show, musically and vocally.”
Booker’s family didn’t inspire a lot of confidence when it came to his musical ambitions. His parents were conservative, his father a retired Navy officer, and Booker reflects the tension of that relationship in the primal, barreling “Have You Seen My Son?” The song depicts parents “calling on the Lord, asking for answers,” fighting with their son down the highway between Florida and New Orleans.
“They’ve gotten a lot more supportive,” Booker says. “They’re happy that I’m working. It makes sense, I guess. If I had a kid that was working at a shitty job and then decided to play music, I probably would not be super-happy about that. It’s a risky route.”
Especially risky in comparison to his sister, an opera singer, although Booker’s sudden, burgeoning fame signals a potentially lucrative destination.
“I was never a singer—it still feels weird,” the guitarist says. “Every time my sister sees something [on television] where I’m singing, I’m like ‘Oh no, she went to school for it, and I’m just some shmuck playing in a punk band!’ ”
Benjamin Booker plays T.T. the Bear’s Place on Oct. 22.