Cutthroat Taking part in: ‘Survivor’ Contestant Ben Katzman and the Island of Indie Rock

Any Other Bands Want to Sue Newt Gingrich?
Any Other Bands Want to Sue Newt Gingrich?

One year ago, Miami rocker Ben Katzman boarded a plane to a remote locale in Fiji, leaving behind the simple pleasures of punk life to compete for a million-dollar prize on Season 46 of the hit CBS reality show, Survivor.

After weeks of food deprivation, and a mercurial island winter, the denizens of the Mamanuca Islands began to turn on each other; and Katzman, 32, says his body began to turn on itself in the form of nightly panic attacks. Still, by the grace of his oddball charisma and gratuitous metal jokes, Katzman—Florida’s answer to Pauly Shore—became one of the last three standing in the competition. But a jury of embattled contestants voted not for Katzman, nor the Swiftie-turned-Harvard law student Charlie Davis, but for North Carolina hairdresser Kenzie Petty to take home the money.

“I’ve always said it’s just a game,” says Katzman, phoning from his home in Miami Beach. While Survivor winner Petty’s at home waiting to welcome her first child, Katzman’s been gallivanting through the U.K. with Davis—where they rocked out at Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour—and recording an album inspired by his time in Fiji, a grab-bag of zany guitar-rock confessionals titled Tears on the Beach

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Released on August 23rd, Tears on the Beach features cameos from Guerilla Toss, Missy Dabice of Mannequin Pussy, Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, and Shannon Shaw from the Clams. Katzman also recorded songs with several former Survivor contestants—and harbors no hard feelings about that final vote. Katzman and I discussed his album, his mental health woes, and the astrology of that fateful month in Fiji.

Let’s talk a little bit about your music career leading up to the show. How did being a musician prepare you to be on Survivor?
Ben Katzman: Well, I’ve survived off $3 of Taco Bell a day! But I’m grateful that me and my friends are doing well within the indie music community and getting to tour the world. But we [once] did a [New England] tour with Mannequin Pussy before they blew up, and promoters just didn’t care. We did eight shows that were all poorly attended. How do you split money from a door deal between eight or nine people on tour? You adapt. Sometimes you win immunity challenges, sometimes you play a sold-out show. But, like… you’re stuck on an island with 18 other people.

When you told me that you were gonna be on Survivor, I almost didn’t believe you. But it made a lot of sense.
Everybody’s always told me, “Ben, you’d be great on reality TV.” I got hit up for a bunch of shows. I was like, “This is wack. I’m not gonna sell my soul to be on MTV or Love Is Blind.” It’s all based around my Internet persona as a character. But Survivor is like a spiritual journey; how hard can you go in this game of social politics, deprived of all your comfort and security blankets? So I applied one day, and they called me back right away.

You went through some brutal tests to your physical and mental health. How did you prepare for Survivor, and how did you recover after the show?
I didn’t have a lot of time to train. I had these European tour dates booked. You’re in a van all day, you don’t have time to hit the gym. But I [had] to bulk up, so I started eating meat for the first time in 12 years. I was also in Spain, so if there was ever a time to eat meat, do it in Europe! Back at home, I would go to South Beach and swim from Ocean Drive down to the pier, and then I would bike home.

You are SO Miami. 

Oh, so Miami. I didn’t know it was winter. I forgot about being south of the equator! Everybody had sweaters; I had denim. I didn’t expect to react so hard to like the elements the way I did because I love being outdoors and I love being on the road. But I had no control over my body. I tried to not be a burden on people. Every time I had a night terror, I’d sit in the pain for a couple minutes, then start cracking jokes or grabbing firewood.

Have you had panic attacks or anxiety before?

I don’t think I have [more anxiety] than the average person would have. [At home] I have my music, I get to burn energy with the guitar. But out there you have no record player, no way to entertain yourself other than with the people in the game, and even that can feel like gameplay.

In the first episode, you introduced yourself to everyone as an Aries. I think that’s also how you introduced yourself to me at Churchill’s Pub in Miami, a long time ago. How did astrology influence your game?

There was astrology in my gameplay. When I met Kenzie, she told me she was a Leo with a Virgo Venus. I was like, “OK, I’m a Pisces Venus—we can get along.” Also, [final four contestant] Liz is a Pisces. Charlie is a Capricorn, and I have [planets] in Capricorn, so I feel comfortable talking to him. You see how [show host] Jeff Probst gets spicy? He’s a Scorpio. He watches police interrogation videos!

(Credit: CJ Harvey)

Let’s look at the astrology for the summer that you guys taped the show. The moon crossed your Scorpio ascendant last June, which made you very emotionally open and vulnerable when you landed in Fiji. Chiron, the asteroid of the wounded healer, was moving through your sixth house and bringing up health issues.

The amount I cried on TV… I haven’t cried like that in years! I wasn’t prepared for that level of cutthroat playing. On Survivor, the biggest [challenge] is releasing control… Who are you in the face of danger?

Uranus has been transiting your seventh house in Taurus [since 2018]. As the game progressed, Mercury was conjunct Uranus. It can bring interesting and chaotic people into your life. It’s also ripe energy for being blindsided!

It took me back to high school. I didn’t expect it when Maria stabbed me in the back and sunk my game. She was like, “I don’t think I have a great social game.” And I didn’t take that as a red flag—instead I was like, “I’ll look out for you.” And Q was such an enigma, but he is a Pisces. He talked a big game, but he wasn’t winning challenges. Yet people were taking everything he said hook, line, and sinker. His whole alliance of six that had numerous [immunity] idols and power in the game… ended up on the jury because they couldn’t trust each other!

When you got to the island, the moon also crossed your natal Pluto, which is in your first house [of identity]. With Pluto there, you have influence over people. You do know how to play a social game.
I don’t see it that way, but then I hear my [music] students talk like me. On the island, everybody, even Jeff, was saying “This does not rock!” I wish I was more aware of that power. Like OK, they [made] me a one-note character because they think there’s nothing deep here.Yes, it’s isolating, but I can use that to my advantage. It’s like surviving being bullied in high school. I outlasted everybody who did that to me!

How did you go about recording songs with ex-competitors like Tim Spicer or Soda Thompson? Even though [she] didn’t vote for you to win?
I wasn’t mad that I didn’t win… I was just mad that I didn’t get a chance to talk about it at the final tribal council! But [the album was] inspired by the friends I made and the people I spent time with. I thought Soda was such an amazing singer—[she] and Tevin were always singing. Me and Tim came up with “Brotherly Love” on the island. “Fire Sprite” was about Kenzie, and “Dumb and Dumber” was what me and Charlie called ourselves. I invited [past contestant] Benjamin “Coach” Wade, [who] is one of my favorite Survivor players ever, to play trumpet on “Tears on the Beach.” That song to me was the most important part of my journey.

How did “Tears on the Beach” come about?

Everybody knows I was crying on the beach! There’s a scene [on the beach] where I told Charlie: “In my life, I’m always everybody’s hype man, but who’s got me?” The song is about showing up for myself [as] myself. Maybe people won’t fuck with it, but you never know who will.

This record has many heavy hitting guests—how did you pull them together?

My friend Shannon Shaw and her late fiancé were huge Survivor fans, [and watching] that show was their ritual. Sarah Tudzin [Illuminati Hotties] was my neighbor in my dorm [at Berklee College]. Marissa Dabice [of Mannequin Pussy] and I have always been homies, before the Romantic record was even recorded. Guerilla Toss played in my basement—now I’m joining Guerilla Toss [to play guitar] on the Primus tour in July. Those were the people [who] were my net when I got home, [and] just like our group of finalists [on Survivor], we have a deep connection beyond music.

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