Particle and Beyond: A Conversation with Ben Combe
The recent announcement that Particle guitarist Ben Combe was leaving the band after nearly two years of service left many in the music community scratching their heads. After all, Combe is the third guitarist in that two year period to leave the band and it comes at a time when group leader, keyboardist Steve Molitz is currently touring as a member of Phil Lesh & Friends. Jambands.com originally sat down with Combe when he joined Particle in early 2006 with Scott Metzger as the band’s new guitarists. We now check back in with Combe as he departs the band for reasons that are both gracious and honest. In the end, Particle is a seasoned, well-oiled machine and Combe details how one can sometimes feel isolated from that very entity in a candid conversation about his time with the band and the hopes for a positive future for himself and the other members of Particle.
RR: The public just learned this week of your decision to leave Particle. Was this a long time coming and how did you tell the band?
BC: The letter that was released has been in existence for about three or four months now so everybody in the band and management was aware of its existence. This was not a surprise nor should it have been perceived as one by anybody. I’m looking forward to the future. Really what happened over time was that the band was going in different directions, musically. Basically, I feel that my ideas that I’ve had for some timecertain ideas that I hadwere not being explored. Those three guys in the band had been established for seven years. It’s kind of weird for me because one of the last gigs that we played was Particle’s seven-year anniversary [9/14Knitting Factory, Hollywood, CA]. Of course, I’ve only been in the band for about two years so there’s five years of history that they have without me; it really reinforced the decision-making process in the band.
RR: Can you talk a bit about the factors that led to your decision?
BC: First, I would like to say that playing in Particle was the most amazing experience that I’ve ever had in my lifeespecially musically. I have nothing but the deepest respect for the other three guys and for the gift that they gave to me. It did come with hard work on my part but at the same time, they really did allow me to do something that I have been wanting to do since I was about 11 or 12.
This was something that was very difficult for me and took a long time to decide. Part of the thing that weighed heavy with me was “Am I throwing my dream away?” and something that I worked so hard for and something that I did hold dear to me for a long time. I’m talking about the performing, going on tour, playing for different people all over the place, getting my name out there, feeling the energy of the crowdall of that stuff. It was a hard thing for me to balance. At the end of the day, there were differences that were occurring and that just happens with any relationship and certain things just weigh heavy over time. The stress of going on tour, people in close quarters and having your ideas not really met in certain ways just started to weigh heavy on me.
RR: When was your last gig with Particle?
BC: The last gig I played with them was in Cervantes in Denver. It was a post-Phil [Lesh] show and it was a great show. Like I said, this comes as amusically, when we were on stage, things were great. It was just when we tried to make a lot of creative decisions, things got bogged down. It made it difficult for a lot of those points to get across.
RR: You mentioned a “more collaborative musical direction” in your press release.
BC: I’m a musician’s musician. I have an education background. I take music very seriously. I really do. I want to be in a position where my creative outlet is being met, where my ideas are being fostered and nurtured. I think a lot of times, musically, I wasn’t able to completely be myself in the band. With that being said, I think I was a very good fit for Particle but to a point. There were just times near the endespecially with the new album that is coming outwhere the direction the band wanted to go in and the direction I wanted to go in, as far as material that was written, didn’t really coincide.
We were a band on stage and then when we were writing, we were kind of writing for two different bands. That’s something that became a reality early on in Particle. I’m a songwriter. I write songs. I’ve been doing it for years. It is something that I will always do. A lot of the songs that I was writing weren’t necessarily a fit for Particle. That’s fine. Particle is what Particle is and that’s why things were becoming more and more clear. I just want to be able to be myself, musically. That is something that is important to me. It was getting to a point that the touring schedule that we were continuing to have without certain changes that I felt were needed made it clear that it was just impossible for me to continue to be in the band.
Some of the best musical memories that I remember having before I got into Particleyou remember, because you knew my work back in the Badshoe dayswas writing songs with my best friend, Dan Biederman. Being together, we would create something. That was something that Particle always wanted to do. The way the band ended up working was that person X would write a song, person Y would write a song and we would see how they would intersect and they would not always do so. I think that for me, I would like to have a more rock-based, vocally-oriented, more uplifting soundsomething that is a little more focused. I’m definitely not a pop guy. I’m just trying to be true to myself and to be able to be free to be who I am, musically.
RR: You referenced the “Particle World” in your press release, as well. What is your definition of that phrase and how does one fit into that world?
BC: I think the Particle World as I entered into it, in a lot of waysagain, I say this with nothing but the deepest respecthas a lot to do with Steve’s [Molitz] sound. Steve is a brilliant keyboard player. He definitely has created a new niche and a specific style that is very unique and he is an excellent performer. I think that was something that I’ve always respected and when I first got into Particle, it was such a challenge for me. Each person really has their own persona. In the course of being in Particle, I was discovering what my persona was on stage, musically, in this context. I definitely started to figure it out more and more and it became more clear along the way.
As far as the Particle World, I definitely was entering something that was deeply established. When I got into the Particle World, I was really dropped intoit was like I got picked up by some porn funk spaceship and got brought to their planet. All of a sudden, I had all of these new friends and people that were on my team. I was very much uprooted from my life in Arizona. I was basically living on the road because for a while, I was in between addresses, moving around so much that I didn’t know up from down. It was such a severe life change. I literally dropped my lifecompletely, willingly and gladly. These people [in-and-around Particle] didn’t really know me and I didn’t know them. We were just thrown together and I really think that while I was in it, we made the best of it. I think we took it as far as it was going to go with me in the band.
RR: Were some of those unique experiences shared with Scott Metzger who was the second guitarist in Particle with you for a short duration? I am curious about what it was like to play with him. Was it odd when he departed?
BC: Wellyes and yes. (laughs) I guess, for me, it was always weird because I was really the new guy from left field. That was one of the challenges that I think I faced when I got into Particle. I was Mr. Nobody coming from the deserts of Arizona. I just happened to be the guy who worked hardest for it. I had no recognition outside of Tempe, Arizona and the only thing I had control over in Particle was “How do I play?” I just thought, “Alrightthis is a scary experience; I’m the new guy; I’m just going to go out and play the best I possibly can.”
It was weird for me at the beginning because Scott had played with the Duo, Warren Haynes and others so when I first got into the band and everybody was getting to know each other, everybody would have these war stories. They were talking about the trenches while being on tour: “Oh, yeahI remember that place down in Des Moines, Iowa. Yeah, it had that weird bathroom! I remember being there with Warren Haynes.” They were telling these stories and anecdotes were thrown in and I couldn’t contribute. I said, “O.K. I’m clearly the new guy.” (laughs) That was the weirdest thing for me and definitely intimidating.
RR: What was it like when you became the lone guitarist in Particle? Did you feel some freedom as a musician to follow your own direction?
BC: Again, I have nothing but respect for Scott but him leaving the band was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. When Scott and I were auditioning for Particle, we both were under the impression that we were auditioning for the single spot as the guitar player. They couldn’t choose between us, basically. When Scott left and he left for his own reasons, important reasons, the light got shined on me and it was “Alrighthere’s your shot, man. Go out and kick ass.” At that point, I just felt that the only thing I truly had control over was the way that I played and I just tried to rip the stage in half every night that I went out there. I genuinely tried to do the best that I can, to prove that I deserved to be here and all the efforts for my life had come to fruition.
RR: And the rest of Particle felt that you had earned that right?
BC: Yes, I think what I had done with the band since the departure of Scott Metzger proves that. We had an amazing run. I played over 200 shows with those guys in less than two years. During that time, I got to see all 50 states and I got to open up for 311 and Matisyahu and meet some amazing people from north to south, coast to coast.
RR: Last time we spoke, we talked about Robby Krieger of the Doors sitting in with Particle. Who are some of the other musicians you got to check out?
BC: We played Lollapalooza in front of around 20,000 people and then, that night we played at the Chicago House of Blues and opened for Blues Traveler. John Popper asked Steve and I to sit in and I remember trading licks back-and-forth with John Popper. That was just a crazy head trip. Then there’s Joshua Tree where I got to do the same with Robby Kriegerplaying “Riders on the Storm” with Scott singing. I was just jamming with Robby Krieger. That was insane. That was a dream come true. I’ve been a big fan of the Doors for years. I also got to play with Mickey Hart. I got to play with Ivan Neville. And meeting MatisyahuI got to see how something of a slightly different genre works and how that band works. And seeing 311I got to see the next step of things as far as production, crew and having a tightly-knit professional team all working together to create a product like a true team effort.
It was amazingly eye-opening to see how successful bands work. It is certainly a very, very difficult business. (laughs) Everybody is just waiting for their chance to get their foot in the door. There are a billion bands out there dying to be in the same position of a band like Particle. That is something for sure, just coming from nowhere that I always had in the back of my mind. This is a fragile thing; it is something to be taken seriously but also to be taken lightly in the sense that life is life and life carries you where it carries you. Sometimes, you don’t always have control over where you are going. I think it’s just being able to keep your feet on the ground and keep your head upthat’s important.
RR: When Steve Molitz joined Phil Lesh & Friends as his keyboardist, was there a group thought process in Particle about his decision?
BC: At the end of the day, I have alwaysfrom the moment I heard of this offer to Stevehad nothing but joy about it. I thought it was just the greatest thing, great news. I was very quick to congratulate him when he got the gig. He definitely deserved it. I think also for me, as far as life changes, since I got into Particle, up to about maybe a month and a half ago, I was living out of my suitcase the whole time because we were on the road so much. The rest of the band lives in L.A. I live in Boulder so that also added a lot more travel for me. I was always traveling, always. Since I was in Particle, the longest place I stayed at one time was a tour bus for six weeks. That was the bed that I had slept in the most. That’s just kind of a sense of where things were going. I also got married and I wanted to feel like I had some foundation. It’s definitely easy to get lost on the road.
We all kind of saw it: “O.K. Steve’s going to go do thisthat’s great. Let’s allow him to go do his thing; we’ll go do our thing.” Originally, the idea was to, yes, continue but also, along the way, Steve getting into Phil & Friends definitely was a catalyst for certain things to deteriorate within the band, amongst everybody. I don’t want to say that Steve getting Phil & Friends was the cause of anything because I don’t think it was. The reason why I left Particle was, again, something that was a long time coming.
RR: What are your plans for the future?
BC: Right now, I am going to enjoy being stationary for the time it takes for me to get a new band going which is something I’m going to do immediately. This is something I decided when Badshoe came to an end. I’m not going to stop. This is something I’ve been doing my whole life. I will say that since leaving Particle, the support I have received from friends, fans and family has been absolutely overwhelming. People really want to see what I’m going to do next and I’m definitely going to provide that. I’m excited for the future. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel that, finally, I’m going to surround myself with a great home base in Boulder with people that I trust, people that are enthusiastic about doing something new and different and being in a circle of positivity. I’m definitely going to be cautious, though, because when I do come back, I want to come back full force and have everything in line. It’ll be like one of those things where you say, “Alrighthere it is. Time to go. Let’s go play. Let’s go kick ass.” I think that people want me to do that and I’m going to do that. I have a repertoire of new music for a new band; it’s just a matter of putting everything together.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com