‘Survivor’ Breakout Star Ben Katzman Wants You to Shred Away Your Pain

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Ben Katzman became a breakout star of 'Survivor' Season 46 for his rock & roll approach to life. - Credit: CJ Harvey
Ben Katzman became a breakout star of 'Survivor' Season 46 for his rock & roll approach to life. - Credit: CJ Harvey

When the universe offers a sign — and the sign comes straight from the lips of Nicolas Cage — you can’t ignore it.

That, in essence, is how 31-year-old guitarist Ben Katzman found himself on Survivor. The paperwork sat on his desk, but Katzman was racked with doubt. He’d already lost everything once: his band, his record label, his DIY community. Going on reality television seemed like a potential career suicide. Which is where Cage comes in.

“Do the things you are fearful of,” the actor said, answering Katzman’s question at a press junket in Miami. Two months later, Katzman was on the 30-hour flight to Fiji, the location of the long-running reality show’s 46th season. He brought along copies of The Four Agreements and Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt to study up on the human psyche. The physical demands — sleeplessness, starvation, exhaustion — didn’t faze him. As he put it on the show: “Nothing will prepare you for Survivor more than being on tour and living off a $3 Taco Bell budget.”

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Survivor has seen an eclectic share of entertainers. But until now, the the reality stalwart hasn’t featured a musician quite like Katzman, whose pre-island resume includes bodysurfing at Coachella and playing bass and guitar with Guerilla Toss, Colleen Green, and Mannequin Pussy.

“Much like another guitar god, Prince, Ben’s guitar style is very technical and it’s really impressive, but he also thinks holistically about his art,” Sarah Tudzin, the Grammy-nominated producer and Illuminati Hotties singer, says. “He’s thinking about the whole package: the merch, the show, the recordings.”

Katzman soared into the Survivor canon of memorable characters like David Lee Roth in Van Halen’s “Panama” video. With piercing green eyes and island jorts, he made it to the final three, playing a game that was criminally underrated (fans in the know are showing up at his gigs with signs that read “Release the Ben edit”). His strategy was guided by rock & roll wisdom  (“I need to be myself, can’t be no one else” he once explained, quoting Oasis) spoken in an accent that’s Miami Beach by way of Ninja Turtle. (His dog, a wiry Cairn terrier, is named Splinter). Even Jeff Probst, Survivor‘s torch-snuffing host, co-opted Ben-isms like “vibe tribe” at Tribal Council and injected Van Halen song titles into immunity challenge narrations.

Burned out by the music business, Katzman found a second chance through his appearance on the show, breaking out by simply being himself. It was that advantage that powered him into Wednesday night’s final three. While he didn’t emerge victorious, he won over a sea of new fans, drawn to his infectious energy and approach to life.

“A lot of musicians can be real pieces of shit. They’re insecure and afraid to be true to themselves,” singer-songwriter Colleen Green says in an email to RS. “But not Ben. He’s just a real person.”

KATZMAN’S CHI HAS BEEN JACKED to 11 since birth. His parents ran a small bakery in Miami Beach, where Katzman washed dishes for five bucks an hour. At one point, his mom consulted an astrologist for ideas on how to tame his wild energy. The star-divined advice? Piano lessons.

Piano was the perfect extracurricular for Katzman until 2003, when the film School of Rock blew his 11-year-old world wide open. In Dewey Finn, the rowdy rock teacher played by Jack Black, Katzman found a spiritual calling to rock. He grabbed the old electric guitar sitting in his dad’s closet, picked out “Smoke on the Water,” and rolled into 7th grade asking people to call him “Ace” (as in Ace Frehley). But he learned the hard way that middle school is less Detroit Rock City and more, well, Survivor.

“I used to get jumped by these bullies and I didn’t even know why — because I was stoked on life?” Katzman says. He channeled his rage into listening to hard rock and metal, beginning with Metallica. “Ride the Lightning gave me a healthy place to process anger and frustration.”

Katzman grew his hair out and shredded through high school, looking as if he’d time traveled from a 1994 episode of Headbanger’s Ball. Class? Optional. Learning every Kiss and Megadeth riff? Mandatory. His band, Acidosis, dominated the local scene, but dissolved after graduation, and Katzman applied to Berklee College of Music, one of the world’s best music conservatories. He was accepted but split after a year, choosing instead to immerse himself in Boston’s indie-rock scene. In the 2010s, New England was fostering bands like Krill, Fat Creeps, Speedy Ortiz, Happy Jawbone Family Band, Black Pus, and Lightning Bolt, and Katzman put himself at the center of it. He and his roommates turned their basement into a DIY space known as the JP Drive-In.

“It was like a religious awakening,” he says. “I’m thinking, wow, I’ve just been at a school that’s trying to manufacture horrible pop artists chasing whatever trend, and here is the antithesis — the most disgustingly aggressive, cool, brutal rock. None of it makes musical sense, but rhythmically, it all clicks, and the whole crowd is moving to it.”

In 2012, Katzman started his own label, BUFU, with just $100. He’d always admired how rock behemoths like Kiss bootstrapped, and in two years, he himself released more than 70 titles and booked his friends on tours all over the country. Bands like Free Pizza, the Jellyfish Brothers, and Designer were turning heads, leading to bigger records like Japanther’s rabid masterpiece, Instant Money Magic. In 2016, BUFU released a cassette of an early Mannequin Pussy project, Romantic, that was named one of the best of the year by Rolling Stone.

“All these dreams were coming true, all the time,” Katzman says. But at the same time, it bothered him to see friendships were turning into business relationships. “I remember feeling, like, ‘Why am I even doing this?’ My friends are going to hate me, nobody will trust me, I wasn’t paying myself — I was burning the candle at both ends.”

After two years of treading water, Katzman hit a wall: His business partner exited and the label shuttered. He gave his artists back their masters and said he was quitting music entirely. “I felt so alone,” he says.

Katzman moved back to Miami and in with his parents, working the graveyard shift at Whole Foods. There, under the hum of the fluorescent lights, he restocked shelves and reconnected with his old gods. “I let myself rock out to Kiss and Mötley Crüe for the first time in years,” Katzman says. “For once, I wasn’t thinking, ‘What email do I need to send today?’ I could just go back to being a fan.”

He also got back in touch with old friends, like Pepper Rostamizadeh, who first drove him and his stuff up to Berklee. Rostamizadeh was a devout Survivor fan and slowly turned Katzman onto the show. He was shocked to see Mike White, who wrote Katzman’s favorite movie, School of Rock, competing in Season 37.

White’s most recent TV show had been canceled after just two seasons, and he didn’t know what to do next. Himself a superfan of Survivor, he went on the show for a rebirth. The experience inspired him to eventually write a new series about inequality and social dynamics — The White Lotus. But while on the island, when his tribe learned about his Hollywood life, White just looked embarrassed.

Katzman was feeling similarly bleak. When a friend asked him to teach guitar lessons at his local music school, he declined. Then he thought of School of Rock‘s Dewey Finn and committed himself to teaching students how to solo their way through life’s struggles. Girlfriend broke up with you before prom? Katzman taught “Under the Bridge.” Feeling overwhelmed in middle school? He’d break out “Lost in the Supermarket.”

Katzman called his style of teaching “Transcendental Shreditation,” playing your instrument like it’s an extension of your emotions. He went on to use it as the title of his 2022 album too. “Not to sound all Spinal Tap-ish, but soloing feels like you’re letting out the depths of your soul,” he says. “Music is the one place where it’s healthy to let your ego fly free.”

In summer 2022, Katzman was at Rostamizadeh’s wedding, feeling a pang of shame for not being able to afford a traditional gift. His solution? Audition for Survivor to present his friend with a vicarious reality-show experience. He was accepted and went on to give not only Rostamizadeh but many fans of the series someone unique to root for.

For Season 46’s final immunity challenge, Katzman stared down the Pinball Wizard game, basically Plinko meets skeeball. It’d been a rough season for the unlikely hero, who suffered from panic attacks and sleep deprivation. Somehow, he won the challenge and secured his spot in the final tribal council. Probst was stunned and peered into Katzman’s ragged, delirious face for an explanation.

“It brought out the little kid in me — and I live to be my inner child — it’s why I’m in a rock band,” Katzman said with tears in his eyes. “And for me, it was the most meditative game of the seasons — it was like transcendental shreditation.”

WITHIN DAYS OF HIS PINBALL WIZARD WIN, Katzman was back in Miami. Writing songs became his only way to process the bizarre TV experience that he couldn’t legally talk about until the finale aired. Survivor had given him a new lens to let out his inner demons. On camera, he was the vulnerable, sensitive, kind soul — the kid who got bullied in high school. That darker side, the rage, never came out, but it’s all there in his new music, the heaviest stuff he’s ever created.

The first song he wrote post-island was “Fire Sprite,” in which Katzman’s vocals sync up with a haze of Thin Lizzy-esque guitars. “It’s about those moments of fear and loneliness, finding the strength within to just keep going,” he says.

Onstage and in video clips, he’s also been teasing “Tears on the Beach,” an irresistibly catchy anthem that, like “Fire Sprite,” is also a battle cry for pushing through the pain, even when every cell in your body says no. (Imagine Ronnie James Dio teaming up with the Mamas and the Papas.) The track features vocalist Shannon Shaw, whose raw contralto cuts through Katzman’s virtuosic guitar spirals like a knife. “It’s not the life I wanted/it’s not the life I planned,” they sing.

When Katzman wrote these songs about the island, he had no idea how the world would see him. Now, he feels part of a new tribe. The new music features a constellation of “chosen homies,” as he calls them — musicians like Tudzin, Colleen Green, Marissa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy, and Guerilla Toss.

Old heroes are also taking note, and he says he’s getting festival and brand offers.

“I’m DMing with Metallica right now,” Katzman says, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s like in the movies. Everything had to go wrong for it to finally go right.”

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