Ben Harper by Danny Clinch
By Iain Patience
Talking with Ben Harper, you get the immediate feeling that he’s a guy with opinions, a relaxed take on life and a belief in self that shines at every turn. Asked why it’s taken the better part of ten years for him to get back together with the Innocent Criminals, he sort of shrugged, laughed and said, “We’ve never been apart. We were always in touch with each other, but the time and space gave us the freedom to breathe and develop as individual musicians. Every one of us musically has been off doing different things, making musical inroads. Maybe it was necessary after our previous time together, but after seven years or so we got back together to play and record and it just worked perfectly again. It was like a rediscovery, and the music came out as good as ever, maybe even better, in a way I never felt before.”
Harper possibly understates the truth with this modest appraisal. The band’s new album, Call It What It Is, rips and roars along with sure-footed strength and solid musicianship that screams ‘quality.’ The recording process for this reinvented outfit was far from the usual, old run-of-the-mill days of hard-graft in the studio, as Harper explains: “We recorded the album with four five-day studio sessions spread across the year. Stax Records were great about it all. Stax records is a real good fit, I feel. In reality, I don’t think they fully realized what and how we were doing it. They were real loose, and we were able to put it together easily, spreading it out and taking time to capture the sound we wanted while also having time to tune-in and reflect on what we’d done following each session.”
The result is an eleven-track release that is inevitably bound to generate enormous interest worldwide and push Harper and the Innocent Criminals back into the searching musical spotlight. Harper adds his thoughts on the reunification with the band and what the latest material and album mean to him: “I thought we would be more energized and revitalized by thinking outside the box and starting with new material in the studio before we dug into the old stuff. It was meant to be a signpost that we’re here to forge new ground musically and personally. Because of that, the older material started to sound brand-new too.”
The Innocent Criminals line-up remains rooted with percussionist Leon Mobley, bassist Jaun Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles, Jason Yates on keys and guitarist Michael Ward on guitar. Before reuniting, Harper had the album pretty well written and in the bag, though guitarist Ward added his writing nous to the project as it rolled itself out.
Looking back, Harper is satisfied with his highly acclaimed, award-winning back-catalogue. Since his 1994 debut, Welcome To The Cruel World, he has released eight studio albums, many featuring his Innocent Criminal buddies, and has established himself as a singularly powerful singer, songwriter and performer, with a cross-genre talent that allows him to blend blues with soul and rock, incorporating lyrics that echo with personal and political themes.
Accolades have, of course, poured in over the years. Rolling Stone describes his music as “…jewels of unique and exquisitely tender rock & roll,” while others have spoken of his “casual profundity,” and the “power and beauty of simplicity.” Together with the Innocent Criminals, he has headlined major events around the globe, with massive international sell-out tours, television appearances, gold and platinum album sales and astonishing success– little or none of which he genuinely appears to have expected.
“I really didn’t plan it that way. It just sort of took its course, with a life of its own. Now I love it. My grandparents ran a music store in California, so I worked there at first, learning the difference between different types of Eastern instruments, for example.”
At the same time, however, Harper was also picking up experience as a player himself, and he recalls his first time hearing the Stones album, Sticky Fingers, as a spark being lit, knowing it was one of those moments that really did it for him personally when he was a young aspirant, learning the trade.
“When I was around 19 or 20 years old I’d go out and do ‘open-mics’. Then I had about ten stock blues songs I did, just me and a guitar. It was a real learning curve. I played a gig at an old church, and the guy running it came to me a few days later and gave me $200. I thought, “wow,” and asked him what it was for. When he told me it was my share of the door money, I initially thought he meant he’d sold the church door, and I was a bit shocked, thinking “why, you didn’t have to sell the old church door to pay me!” But it sure made me think about the possibilities. About one year later I was called up and asked to go out on the road on tour with Taj Mahal.”
Harper is now well known and widely lauded for his mastery with lap-steel guitar, and confirms being both impressed and influenced by two other greats of the instrument, both monumental musical forces with differing styles and approaches. He admires Blind Willie Johnston and Ry Cooder enormously, and says that they both retain the potential to bring him to his musical knees.
Alongside those blues-based greats he also acknowledges the importance of others, some perhaps surprising. “I love Edith Piaff,” he says, before adding: “And Led Zeppelin were fantastic. And then there’s always the late, great Pete Seeger, with his particular importance in the world of music and civil rights in the USA, and Mavis Staples. I also love English folk players Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and Richard Thompson.” A positively eclectic bunch of musicians and international influences if ever there was one.
He describes all of these people as giving him insight and producing “good music.” His own personal philosophy embraces many sources and subtleties when required: “Music doesn’t have to be always loud, but it should always be authentic, worth exploring. It’s important to see just how deep it can go and how it can become a fuse with different colors of sound. These guys all do it for me. The music must have room to breathe. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been, or had to be, mainstream. If anything, mainstream has in fact shifted to meet and fit me.”
And in a way, there’s a glorious squaring of the musical circle with his thoughts on that very point. He agrees that he now has a freedom to pursue his own interests, and the power and freedom to incorporate political references that more than hint at his own personal beliefs and values into his writing and musical releases.
Take the title track to the latest offering, “Call It What It Is,” as a case in point. It has a decidedly traditional bluesy undercurrent, but screams its politicized importance in the here and now with lyrics that Harper agrees cut to the quick: “There’s good cops and bad cops. White cops and black cops. Got to call it what it is. Murder…” he sings, before invoking the names of recently passed youths and notorious and tragic events in the USA with “Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford and Michael Brown.” Harper acknowledges that lyrics as potentially explosive as these would never normally make it to mainstream, widespread outlets, but notes that his spreading fame and fortune has resulted in him being in a position to add political references and to bring civil rights issues into the wider, often closed, U.S. musical context. Again, he thanks Stax Records for the opportunities here, describing it a label with a historical grounding in and support of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s important to make your point,” he says simply. “I know I’ve been successful, though I never expected any of it, but it does mean I can record my material, like “Call It What It Is,” as a song that might be heard in a much bigger, wider musical world, with much greater exposure than many others.”
After over twenty years at the top, Harper confirms he still loves the musician’s life, and genuinely enjoys being out on the road on tour with live performance at its core: “I probably do about sixty or seventy shows a year, and no venue is too big or too small. Bring it all on, I say.”
Never one to sit still for long or rest on his substantial laurels, Harper is always looking ahead, with new projects thundering around in his head. “I’d love to do another record with Charlie Musselwhite,” he says, before assuring me that this will indeed happen in the near future. “I love Charlie and his music. He’s such a lovely guy.”
He knows he will be taking to the road with the Innocent Criminals to promote the new album, and relishes the prospect of travelling widely in Europe, the US and Australia later in the year. “It’s always good to get the music out there, and it can be fun on the road,” he quips.
Harper’s good humor was fully on display when I asked if he has any regret– anything he would rather forget, perhaps– in his career to date. To my surprise, he roared with laughter, and disclosed that he once wrote a song for the band he was working with at the time, the Blind Boys of Alabama. “In retrospect, it – the lyrics – was terrible. I thought, here we go, and ran it past them. There was no response at all. Silence. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life.” He elected to remain tight-lipped on the title of that song and whether he’d ever recorded it himself in the years since. However, his time with the Blind Boys remains firmly lodged in his memory, and he recalls with evident pleasure and pride that they all wore similar stage outfits.
“I remember around this same time, I turned up to meet and sing with them and the guys had a team jacket specially made for me to wear. It was a real proud moment. I felt that they’d accepted me as one of them. We had some great times together.”
Harper is fully aware of the capricious nature of the record-buying public and of his own place in the musical firmament. He already has plans for his retirement, though thankfully that appears to be a long way off from now. “I started out working in my grandparents’ music shop in Claremont, California, a real honest family business. I can identify the difference between an Oud, a Saz and a Bouzouki. I can also tell who probably made it. I learned a lot there, and it introduced me to music generally. I intend to return there and run the store again as a family business,” he explains, illustrating the simple truth that his own, personal musical circle will remain unbroken. But that’s for an unspecified time ahead, well in the future, it seems.
For now, Harper is again riding high, happy to be back with his old buddies, the Innocent Criminals, recording, touring, meeting the public and generally having fun out on the road, albeit travelling a care-worn musical highway that can be tiring at times.
On a wave of popular acclaim and deserved musical success, Harper believes in the importance of this latest album, Call It What It Is, and his work with the Innocent Criminals. “The time we took with this record has let me look it straight in the eyes and say that I gave everything I could to it, and that’s exactly the way we intended it to be. To be able to say that we’ve left no stone unturned just feels great.”