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Published: 2000/02/15
by Bob Makin

Ben Harper: Something Real

In a music industry that severely lacks artist development, singer-songwriter Ben Harper and his eclectic backing band, the Innocent Criminals, are an exception.

Harper has released four albums on Virgin Records since 1994. Last year’s, “Burn To Shine,” was the first to credit the Innocent Criminals — bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leach — above the title.

The fact that Harper and his band have yet to get any of their songs on commercial radio or reap the kind of sales that result from airplay hasn’t affected the quality of the music for a nano-second. You might say Harper’s hard-hitting social anthems, penetrating personal politics and varied but spot-on, roots-oriented styles are too good for commercial radio.

So Harper and the Innocent Criminals stay on the road constantly. One of the hardest working bands in show business, the fun but fierce four-piece is beloved by its peers. Everyone from Ray Charles to The Fugees to Pearl Jam to John Lee Hooker to Marilyn Manson have asked Harper and his band to open for them. So have such jam outfits as Dave Matthews Band.

While Harper and the Innocent Criminals jam and groove, they aren’t really a jam band. Or at least, they didn’t set out to be a part of the jam band scene. But they’ve impressed so many fans of Dave Matthews, G. Love and the several other jam bands that they’ve opened for, they’ve been adopted as one.

Since that jam scene mainly consists of a live audience, it hasn’t led to much radio play or many record sales. But Harper and the Innocent Criminals also are building an audience overseas; a much bigger one than they have domestically. Each one of Harper’s albums — 1994’s “Welcome to the Cruel World,” 1995’s “Fight for Your Mind,” 1997’s “Will To Live” and 1999’s “Burn To Shine” — has gone platinum in Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand.

If it were the late ’60s or early ’70s, when rock was at its most liberated and creative, Harper would be a huge star along the lines of a Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison or Jackson Browne. The socially conscious, spiritually uplifting singer-songwriter gave a nod to Browne’s longtime right-hand man David Lindley by asking him to guest on several “Burn To Shine” tracks. Harper recently did the guesting on Gov’t Mule’s just-released “Life Before Insanity.” A summer tour may result from that union.

In the meantime, Harper and the Innocent Criminals will be slugging it out on the road, most likely at a theater near you, waiting for radio programmers to take a chance on something real.

BM: There’s no doubt that artist development is severely lacking in today’s music industry. Do you feel that you’re one of the exceptions?

BH: I don’t know. We work super hard whether there’s artist development or not. In today’s musical climate, you have to work hard. If there’s a chance you’re going to have a hit, then maybe you might not want to work so hard. But I have a lot of people working for me who are working very hard.

Putting out a record and touring is something I’ve always dreamed of doing. Virgin has been a great label. They’ve allowed our group to develop and they’ve stuck with us with the turns we’ve made. I give credit where credit is due. Virgin has stuck behind me. I never lose perspective of where I’m at and where I want to be. It’s really a team. I have an incredible group of people surrounding me, and we’re busting our asses. Virgin’s looking at us working so hard and they’re saying, ‘We’ll keep them around.’

I also have to give Virgin credit because they get a lot of doors slammed in their face with this music. I never met a radio programmer who wasn’t three weeks away from losing his job. If playing Ben Harper music is going to get the guy fired, I don’t blame him for not playing it. He’s got to keep his job. He’s got the same mouths to feed that I have to feed.

BM: Why is your overseas following so much larger than your domestic audience?

BH: This music climate puts us at odds with what’s being played on the radio. I’m not even going to get negative about it or be a pain in the ass. I don’t have anything to say about anybody else, because to make a shitty album, it’s a lot of work. Even with shitty music, it’s still hard work and I respect it. At the same time, it’s different. It gets tricky in the world of radio. I don’t want to sound bitter, because I wouldn’t make any other kind of music.

It’s what I feel. It’s a direct reflection of my emotions. I don’t know any other way. The music I make, I can taste it. It grows out of me like my hair and limbs.

It is pretty drastic compared to what’s going on in Australia, New Zealand, France and Italy. I can’t say why. Maybe it’s because it’s so spread out. There’s a common thread in Europe and between Australia and New Zealand. In America, how much is Manhattan like Kentucky? The United States are not that united. We’re united for financial purposes. All that tax money goes into one big bank, but we’re not that united. But I’m not preaching segregation, because at the same time, kids are excited about all kinds of music from Tricky to Led Zeppelin to Mississippi John Hurt to Corey Harris to Ben Harper to Marilyn Manson. Kids are open to listening to all kinds of shit.

BM: You’re a musician’s musician. Some of the biggest acts in the business have tapped you as an opening act. How has that exposure broadened your audience?

BH: By opening up for a little of everything: J.J. Cale, Metallica, Luscious Jackson, The Fugees. I was just trying not to get booed off the stage, but it has exposed to a lot of different kinds of people.

BM: Burn To Shine mixes styles more than your three previous albums. I love the way you go from a Hendrix/Zeppelin thing with ‘Less’ to 1920s-style jazz on ‘Suzie Blue.’ It’s very cool that you’re left alone to do that instead of being told to write a radio hit.

BH: I’m not going to make an easy listening record. I never want to write two songs or make two records the same way. I take chances. That’s what keeps me excited about music. I don’t want to get bored. I hear an old artist who’s gotten bored and it makes me so sad. If I’m going to record a song, I’m going to feel it and sing it to the best of my soulfulness and ability. I like to push ideas. Picasso never wanted to make the same painting twice. Neither did any great painter. Experimenting is what life is about. Yesterday I did it differently than I did it today, and I’m going to do it differently tomorrow. And when I write a song, my hands land wherever they happen to fall, and I have to respect it.

BM: Burn To Shine is the first album credited to Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, your longtime backing band. Is there more band chemistry than before?

BH: Definitely. The chemistry has been growing with different members of the band. I finally have the band where the chemistry is undeniable. That had to be brought to the forefront. When we were making this record, there were no egos, no hidden agendas, nothing that was unhealthy for the music.

BM: How’d you like working with David Lindley?

BH: I’ve wanted to work with people like David Lindley and Taj Mahal because they’re my living heroes. I got into the old delta blues players like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. These guys were directly influenced by those cats. I couldn’t see Hurt and Johnson, but I could see those guys. They really influenced me.

BM: Comment on working on “Lay Your Burden Down” on Gov’t Mule’s Life Before Insanity.

BH: I just got a call from Warren to go out on the road this summer. My schedule’s tight, but I’m hoping we can do that. I was honored to play with them on that record.

BM: The jam band scene has grown to include many bands that might not consider themselves to be jam bands. But because you’ve opened for people like Dave Matthews Band and you improvise and groove to rootsy music in a organic, grass-roots kind of way, it’s no surprise that the jam band scene has adopted you. How do you feel about that?

I’m with it. There’s so many great groups really pushing what is music. People like Beth Orton, Gov’t Mule, G. Love. With all that shit they’re playing on the radio, it really excites me.

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