Ben Harper is making lists of what he will and won’t need packed for Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals‘ world tour, which he assures Rip Nicholson will round off Down Under.
BEN HARPER interviewed March 23, 2016
For Street Press Australia [VIEW HERE]
Nearly three decades in the business, blues-rock stalwart Ben Harper has gathered together his usual suspects, performing across the States, Canada, East Asia and Europe including a trek to Australia in November, but not before completing the latest album Call It What It Is due in April via Stax Records, the primary reason for having delayed their original March dates.
“Man, I’m broken-hearted about that, I’m telling you. But I couldn’t let this album out into the world until it was done, done. My apologies about that,” confesses Harper, who learned from longtime legend Neil Young never to rush nor compromise your work. “You know there’s a famous story about a Neil Young record and him not liking how it sounded, so he bought every single one of them back and re-did it and re-mastered it and put it back out. I didn’t want to go down that road, man.
“I don’t take one fan for granted. Ever,” stresses Harper who further illustrated a servitude to his fans, insisting to present only the genuine article and not push the “status-quo industry standard” of generic responses.
“I could say something in this interview and it would cost me 20 fans, you know? I come from the heart, I shoot from the hip. I’m not trying to duck and dodge, I could give you an interview script I wrote. I’m not gonna do that to you or me! But I mean, for 20 years I’ll do three-and-a-half hour meet-and-greets, I’ll sign anything and everything. 20 years of that, man. ‘Cause we’ve never been radio darlings.”
“We’re grown-ass men but we had to — not prove to each other — but to show to each other. We had a lot to express.”
Coming off an hiatus lengthened from 2008, following their last album, the Grammy nominated Lifeline, Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals spent time separated like there was no time to lose. While Harper worked with Charlie Musselwhite, Ringo Starr and with his own mother on Childhood Home — the latest off his discography — guitarist Michael Ward recorded with Gogol Bordello, and keyboardist Jason Yates with John Mayer and Citizen Cope. According to Harper it was a cathartic period apart for the band, much to the benefit and enrichment of Call It What It Is.
“Everybody was in the thick of it in the time-off. Like, nobody has one day or one note to waste when it comes to their musical experience so we were just hittin’ it and we were all able to just bring that back into the studio and mix it up. Everybody had just come so damn far… And not only in music but as people. I’m still the same asshole but they have gotten much, much nicer.”
And with that, Harper was hesitant to wax-off objectively in presenting the band’s position and progression since Lifeline dropped. “You should never wax poetic on your own maturity without sounding a bit wack, right? But… We’re doing an interview, who’s the interview about? Me. So you have no choice but to expound. So, If I can take a distant, objective view, I think we landed with the ball way further down the field. And that’s from both the musical and personal experiences we’ve had in between the time we stopped playing together and picking it back up. And, I think we’ve grown a lot and that’s growth projected into the art, into the music, into the song.
“We’re grown-ass men but we had to — not prove to each other — but to show to each other. We had a lot to express. And, the best part about it was we didn’t have to mend any fences ’cause we had done that in like year one after we split. The fact that we can get everybody together, back on the same page to do this is so open-road for this band.”
Back to the bitumen, the first show was a night at The Fillmore in Frisco last year, which for Ben was an emotional one. “Walking out on that Fillmore stage for the first time back together in that many years it was emotional. It was emotional,” he laughs. “I had to fight back a lil’ somethin’.”
As if to make up for having to wait another eight months for the tour to take off, Harper promises their first show since 2007 will be second to none. “They will be the best shows we’ve ever played. That’s just all there is to it. We will put on the best show we have played in the history of this band.”
Conversation with Ben Harper
Won’t need that, won’t need that. Don’t need the back-up Les Paul, won’t need the acoustic watt, maybe bring just one.
Hello, Ben, how are you today?
Good thanks, man, how are you?
Good thanks, you sound busy as hell over there!
Oh, man! Kicking out the jams!
How’s the new album coming along, man?
Got it done. Finally.
Australia would be happy to hear that. You were due to come out this month had it not been for you wanting to wrap up the album.
Man, I’m brokenhearted about that. (Goes off again throwing out orders to his crew.)
I’m brokenhearted, man. I’m telling you, I’m telling you. But I couldn’t let this album out into the world until it was done, done. My apologies about that.
The fans would understand man because I’m sure when you get out here they are going to get treated with the new album, live. It will be Christmas all over again.
Hey man, knock on wood. You know there’s a famous story about a Neil Young record and not liking how it sounded so he bought every single one of them back and re-did it and re-mastered it and put it back out. I didn’t want to go down that road, man.
Seattle blues-rock musician, Allen Stone had also gone down a similar road, he didn’t like the commercial route his album took with a new label and ended up recalling them from stores and reissuing a new album on an indie label.
Whaaat? Good on him.
Kind of like putting an eraser over a year’s work. But good on him.
Before we get into the album and tour, how is the skateboarding going, old man?
Well… My day job is definitely getting in the way of my skate hustle.
Are you still managing to work on your 360 flips and switches for 20-30 minutes a day?
It’s just a tease, I’m getting just enough to stay fit. But I’ve gotta a couple of new moves recently, I can’t knock those but I have forgotten what it feels like to put out a record with the Innocent Criminals and how much attention that takes all the way round and it definitely infringes upon my skate hustle but it’s alright, it’s alright but I am still flipping it all the way round.
What does this interest provide for you? Is it merely distraction from work or is your switch kickflip game getting serious?
When I’m not in the mix it’s… let’s just say I’m doing switch-tre-flips in my sleep.
It’s been a while, then. I know what you mean I am the same with my own sporting interests that I have had to forego.
But I was out there this morning, you’d have been proud of me. I was wheels down.
In ‘95 on Fight for Your Mind you made a serious skateboarding video… might be time to revisit that with what you’ve since learned?
I think you’re exactly right, I think that’s a good call. I was gonna be in it myself, even in ‘95 I was going to do it, but uh, I just felt like it was so masterful. Around other skaters I don’t even look at my board I just sit down and watch. I was too shy to do it back then but I think you’re right man I think it’s time to get on a skateboard and get involved myself and do a proper video again and do a little cameo.
Back with Innocent Criminals – have all bridges been mended and has there been a right amount of uncomfortableness in the pushing forward through the making of another album and a sense of maturity?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. You said it. You should never wax poetic on your own maturity without sounding a bit wack, right? But… We’re doing an interview, who’s the interview about? Me. So you have no choice but to expound. And, I think we’ve come a long way and we’ve grown a lot. I think that. It’s that growth that’s projected into the art, into the music, into the song. They are co-written by, co-produced by the Innocent Criminals – the entire band.
Do you all come in again at the same level where listeners who pick up the new album can recognise that growth?
I hope so. If I can take a distant, objective view away from what it is that I’m doing, I think we landed with the ball way further down the field. And that’s from having that time apart and from musical and with the personal experiences we’ve had in between the time we stopped playing together and the time we picked back up. I’ve noticed with these cats, I’ve turned around and gone, ‘wow, this is my band!’ To have these guys is a dream-come-true. ‘Cause if we’d have just picked back up where we left off we’d have just been running in place, you know? It’s way further down the field than that.
It must be cathartic for the band to have the hiatus where you can each be free to explore new avenues such as Charlie Musselwhite, your mother, Relentless7.
The bass player in the band is a church-going man and the drummer is a gospel man and Michael Ward the guitar player played with the Gogol Bordello and James Yates played with John Mayer and Citizen Cope. Everybody was in the thick of it in the time-off where I was playing with, yeah, from Charlie Musselwhite, to Mom to Ringo Starr. We were just mixing shit up. Just gettin’ down. Like, nobody has one day or one note to waste when it comes to their musical experience so we were just hittin’ it and we were all able to just bring that back into the studio and mix it up.
These cats came back and it was almost like, ‘wow’ it was not unrecognisable but everybody had just come so damn far… And not only in music but as people. I’m still the same asshole but they have gotten much, much nicer.
I imagine the return to the studio as a band, for everyone, would be a bit like a retired ball player coming back to the field?
Yeah but there was no retirement. Everybody kept their socks up, you know what I mean?
But is it a little like coming back to the old team and everyone’s upped their game?
From note one, man. From note one it was different. And not that it needed to be. We’re grown-ass men but we had to, not to prove to each other, but to show to each other you know? We had a lot to express. And, the best part about it was we didn’t have to mend any fences ‘cause we had done that in like year one after we split. Everybody got on the same page, recognised what it was and why it was. Nobody was poutin’ you know? Everybody went on, pushed on. The fact that we can get everybody together, back on the same page to do this is so open road for this band.
So the team is back and the first live show out was at The Fillmore. How was that?
Yeah! I can’t tell you. Walking out on that Fillmore stage for the first time back together in that many years it was emotional. It was emotional. I had to fight back a lil’ somethin’. Like, OK. And the fans they were still there. Man, I don’t take one fan for granted. Ever. I have good days and I have bad days. I could say something in this interview and it would cost me 20 fans, you know? I come from the heart, I shoot from the hip. I’m not trying to duck and dodge, I could give you a status-quo industry standard interview script I wrote. I’m not gonna do that to you or me! I don’t wanna waste your time and I don’t want my time wasted. But I never take one fan for granted. I mean, for 20 years, three-and-a-half hour meet-and-greets, I’ll sign anything and everything. 20 years of that, man – from the ‘90s to the 2000s to the 2010s, you know. ‘Cause we’ve never been radio darlings. We’ve had some radio success – more than others, less than others but we’ve always stuck through. And, I know people have heard us everywhere, triple j – I’m not trying to deny the radio we’ve had I’m just saying our base has been built from a different vantage point than a lot of successful bands and it’s been passing it to one fan at a time, passing it on one fan at a time and over the course of the years and decades the inertia has built up to now and created a moment for this band to reconfigure and I don’t wanna – let’s not fuck around – the Beatles aren’t getting back together, like I’m not gonna front, like ‘oh my god’ this isn’t any reunion. I’m just really glad to be back with my brothers.
There’s a whole generation that has grown up to a signature sound you have curated over this period.
Ok, OK. And I feel so happy for them. We did used to be called the Black Beatles. In certain circles.
The track Call It what It Is – very Bob Dylan-esque. From what I read in Esquire, and correct me if I’m wrong, this track is the voice of the young men you got into conversation with at an LA skate park?
We were kickin’ it at the park and we were all on the same page in terms of what we thought in this moment of time was representing and what was going on in the streets. I mean we were on the same page and had a great, inspired conversation about what was going on in Ferguson, in this case. And it just brought it all up, it brought the song to the surface from the ground up.
One of the leading problems in youth music today, punk, rap, alt-rock is the protest song has been overlooked for the more glossy, materialistic visions leaving them without a real voice. Do you feel the sense of requirement or an empowerment to speak for them?
I’ve never felt the pressure to do it. I’ve always felt that it’s my role. I come from a very politically-charged upbringing. My mother, my dad. My dad should have been Martin Luther King Jr. if he didn’t drink himself to death. But he had that in him, you know? And I am my father’s son. My mother has a doctorate, a PHd in education and my grandparents were involved in civil right, it’s in my blood. It’s not as if i thought, ‘well, I better do this or people won’t like me’. Or that I should do this because no-one else is doing it. I just do it because it’s there, it has to be done, has to be sung whether it’s how many miles must we walk or black reign or for oppression, you know me, man. This is my role in music, this is my role.
Sure. Is it important for you that fans follow along with what you are saying as much as they are enjoying the music itself?
Well that gets tricky, doesn’t it? Then what if they’re of a different political perspective? I can’t tow that line I just have to be sincere for the songs I’m writing. Otherwise I’ll get caught up in whether or not I’m having a conversation I’m having. I know in my heart of hearts there is a solid chunk of foundation of people are backing that message otherwise it wouldn’t have been built up to what it is today. I know they’re there. And I know there are some haters, and that’s good. I want Call It What It Is to piss people the fuck off!! It should, because I’m pissed off. This injustice can’t stand. So, it’s gonna turn some heads but yeah, at the end of the day I think there’s a strong backbone of support for that type of music I make, more than not.
That’s important then that you are getting that balance on your side and they are paying attention.
So, good.. Then we’re going to leave it up to you? I can’t have politics in my music but you can have your thing? Man, I’ve got a microphone dude and I plan to blast it out. It’s just who I am.
You’ve got the weapon, use it right?
Yeah, man… Hell yeah. And when it comes to social music of social injustice and social progress any of us who want to partake in, it’s like Bob Marley at the beach and we all just want to be a grain of sand in the beach in the name of Bob Marley, Willie Guthrie, The Heatseekers. That’s where it’s at. Rage Against The Machine.
Having to wait another eight months for the tour to take off, how do you plan to make it up to everyone when you return under the triumphant banner of Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals?
They will be the best shows we’ve ever played. That’s just all there is to it. We will put on the best show we have played in the history of this band. And I don’t know how much longer we are gonna do it. I’m not gonna be the guy that’s 75 and still on stage. I’m not be that guy. Listen, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life was the Rolling Stones playing Sticky Fingers top to bottom, that was less than a year ago. So, some people can pull it off. I saw John Lee Hooker when he was 72 it was incredible, man. But it’s not me, man. It’s not me. My family has a little music store in Clairemont I plan to go back there and run it. I wanna go back and work in my family shop. But, for now, it’s time to light shit up! Now! This band is ready.
Ben I could still see you sitting down on stage with your Weissenborn slide guitar in front of a 30,000 strong crowd, still at work. As long as you can get your kick-flips going on your deck I can see you still performing, brother.
OK, OK, I can see that… You might be onto something.
Thank you Ben, congratulations on getting the band back together for the album and safe trip down to Australia.
Hey, thank you for the good word, the good conversation, man. I’ll talk to you again. I hope.