Ben Harper Shares White Lies For Dark Times
Ben Harper views every day as an opportunity to transform himself positively. He succeeded in one manner last year when he journeyed towards a different path for musical inspiration and found a rewarding outlet among the company of guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson. The quartet had whipped up some initial magic during a session that resulted in the track “Serve Your Soul” on Harper’s 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun. The writing and recording process as band mates became equally impressive, and Harper decided to continue the process, while stepping away from the Innocent Criminals. Thus, the Relentless7 was born.
The group’s unveiling to the world came about during the Get Out and Vote ’08 Tour, which included headliners the Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones and Perry Farrell’s Satellite Party. The members relied on tunes that would make up their debut, White Lies For Dark Times, an album that rocks without any preconceived nods to 21st century musical fashion. Rather, it successfully blends classic blues-based rock n’ roll with the emotional purging of Harper’s past work.
I had the opportunity to interview Harper about his latest endeavor. An interview with Mozersky will follow next month.
JPG: I saw your debut at the first stop of the Get Out and Vote show in Youngstown, Ohio. I wasn’t planning on reviewing it but just out of habit I was writing down the setlist and notes. And I kept thinking, I don’t know any of these songs!?!?’ Turned out it was all new Relentless7 material.
BH: That was a huge moment for us because it was a test like no other test. It blew me away like no other way could. Imagine me, as far as where I've come from and my path, stepping on that stage…and for all intents and purposes it was the Beastie Boys stage. It was the Beastie Boys fans. Not to say that mine didn't find their way there. But it was just…they're the Beastie Boys. Their announced gig. We signed on maybe two weeks out from the gig itself. So, Beastie Boys crowd, all new songs, all new band. The response that we got told me exactly where this band was and could go.
JPG: Absolutely. Now, let me ask you this in regards to that show. Starting off with Queen’s “Under Pressure.” It fit for the situation because you could say the people that were there were supporting it more than just a concert and have been feeling that way under the current presidential administration, but was it also for you something aimed towards those who aren’t there to see Ben Harper? You’ll grab them with something familiar, but done in your own way.
BH: You're right in line with that thought process. You know what? Let's take this route. When you're plotting a set there is a psychological as well as a musical aspect to any set. Is it Friday night? A Friday night set may be different from a Sunday night set.
JPG: How did you feel election night and are you still on that higher plane or is it back in the trenches because everything doesn’t change overnight?
BH: No. Things don't change overnight, mainly because things were so bad the night before. Imagine having an eight-year presidency that ends in that deep of a ditch. Banks crashing. Basically, it's the end of the world and we're starting over from the end of the world. So, give Obama a chance everybody, you know what I mean? Let's be realistic about where the man is starting and where we have to go.
JPG: It was nice receiving emails from people afterwards who gave me the impression that I wasn’t the only who couldn’t exhale completely for eight years.
BH: Right on. Wholeheartedly. I don't care about Republican or Democrat or black or white or any of that. Those are just circumstances that keep our eyes and ears off the real shit, the real stuff going on. Martin Luther King was a Republican before Kennedy. Abe Lincoln was a Republican. None of that matters. I always pick the right person for the job. Man, Woman, Black, White, Democrat or Republican. I could care less about any of that, you know. Ron Paul is as smart a guy as anybody when you listen to him talk.
JPG: There were things I liked about him, things I didn’t agree with. Back to the present, since Relentless7 is playing a number of summer festivals do you think in terms of a festival set versus playing your own show?
BH: I think at this point, the gloves are off. The gloves and the fence are off. I mean we have to bring it and we have to bring it loud. As a new band, we do only have one whisker’s worth of material. (laughs) Having only one record’s worth of material is refreshing to me in a great way.
JPG: I read that you’re also doing Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.”
BH: Yeah, we have a collection of covers together as well.
JPG: Was that any sort of afterglow from playing the Bonnaroo Super Jam with John Paul Jones?
BH: In a way this band is kind of an afterglow of that. It was definitely a signpost for me of where I want to be.
JPG: Well, there goes the question I was going to ask you about that situation. I can put a check mark for myself there.
BH: I love when it rolls out like that.
JPG: Exactly. Now, would it have been too much overshadowing the idea of Relentless7, as a band, if you had invited John Paul Jones to be a part as this?
BH: Now listen, I would invite John Paul Jones to be any part of anything I ever do forever. That would be a running invite to him as of this moment. But at the same point, this could have only happened with these guys.
JPG: That brings us to the beginnings of this band. I know that you played with Jason Mozersky, Jesse Ingalls and Jordan Richardson on “Serve Your Soul,” from the Both Sides of the Gun album. At what point after that did you arrive at the idea that you needed to take a break from working with Innocent Criminals and move into this direction with new people?
BH: It was never even about taking a break. The song that they played on, "Serve Your Soul," at the time was a 15-minute multi-movement…it had subtleties and bombast. There was a lot to convey on that song to guys that I had never worked with in that capacity. “Both Sides of the Gun,” I played most of the instruments myself. But Jason Mozersky, the guitar player, had shown up the day before to drop in and say, Hey.’ He ended up playing on a song called “Please Don't Talk about Murder While I'm Eating." That song went really well and afterwards he expressed to me his passion for these two cats, two guys that he'd known for a long time that he was playing with. I invited them down to the studio the next day.
Just for his description, I said, I have a song that would really fit your description of those two guys and what the three are doing.’ And after I did it that night, I got cold feet. Man, these guys are never going to be able…this song is so complex in my mind. I don't know how I'm going to explain it in musical terms so that they can connect.’ So, at first I was going to cancel the session. Then I said, No, I've extended the invitation. I'll just chock it up to a day of experience.’ The next day they came in. I showed them how the song went once. We walked into the studio and played it. And that was it. That's what you hear on Both Sides of the Gun on “Serve Your Soul.”
And if I don't recognize that sense of chemistry at this point in my life, I’m in trouble. Usually you think of a musician whose part of a band, like let's just say the Who and Pete Townsend goes off and does a solo project. This has nothing to do with that. It's not a solo project. Not connected to any other band. There's no reference point for a band like this.
JPG: Hmmmm… Well, what I was getting to. I think of it as Bruce Springsteen telling the E Street Band, “I love you guys, but I’m going over here because I need to explore new stuff.” Something like that. Or Neil Young, he’s with Crazy Horse, he’s not with Crazy Horse. Is it just a matter of the muse overtakes you? You don’t want to hurt feelings but you have to say, “This is it and I have to do this.” How is it as a creative person but also as a bandleader?
BH: (pauses) I'm still wrestling with it. I never planned to make a record or start a band with these cats. We visited that chemistry on Both Sides of the Gun. The songs commanded that they have their own voice and be their own beautiful sound and movement, and that was not to be denied. The IC's, they know what's up. They recognize what I have to do and why I have to do it. But at the same time, it's really hard. Those guys are brothers to me and I love them. And what we've made is as world class as anything. And that needs to be represented, too. I need to represent those guys with grace through this process because they're all graceful individuals. They're all musicians of world-class caliber. Obviously, I don't even need to say it. The proof is in the sound.
I'm still negotiating the way I move from one thing to another. You know what I mean? I don't know how to do it. How do you say, “I'm doing something else right now. And I could be doing something else for awhile.” Because Relentless7 isn't a side project. It's not an experiment. This is a full-fledged, fully realized band.
JPG: Going with the idea of this being a band not a side project, I read somewhere that you didn’t even want your name in front of it. You just wanted to call it Relentless7.
BH: That's exactly right. And I'm still kicking myself for maybe having needed to push that further with the record company.
JPG: You can’t totally blame them. It’s terrible artistically but just a matter of name recognition. Roger Waters tours and plays Pink Floyd material and he can barely sell out a shed while David Gilmour heads out, calls it Pink Floyd, and plays stadiums. When you were talking about depth of chemistry with the band, I was thinking of chemistry and growth. I was listening to Lifeline earlier today and I was wondering if Relentless7 is a growth from that album because it has this loose feel to it. Now you move from that more relaxed direction into one that has a more organic straight rock type attitude.
BH: I learned a lot from Lifeline. If you’re not carrying over the lessons from one record to the next, you’re really not doing your job as thorough as you should be as a musician and as a producer. And Lifeline was a signpost. Lifeline was co-written with the Criminals for the most part. And so that definitely opened me up, wider than I ever have been, to the collective collaboration. In a way, that prepared me more than anything to make White Lies for Dark Times. It's collaboration for the most part.
JPG: Now that I hear you explain the idea of creative growth, I’m thinking of an interview I did with Taj Mahal in conjunction with his album Maestro. He talked about working with you on “Dust Me Down.” And, he said how he’s known Ben forever and that here’s a young guy that developed really well, excellent development. How do you see yourself as far as development as a musician?
BH: You know that's one step further into self-introspection than I usually care to go. In the name of complete sincerity and disclosure in an interview and not repeating oneself because I’m still developing. I wouldn't trade it. There's times I could have done different and better, sooner and clearer, and if any of that would have changed being here now with this band then I wouldn't shift a thing.
JPG: Is it the sense that you can be proud of yourself yet not be too full of yourself but hearing someone like Taj Mahal saying that you could think, Well, I guess I am okay’?
BH: You know what? That's exactly it. Thank you for the words. Now that he said that, there's no higher level of musical validation I’m going to get than hearing that come from him.
JPG: Staying with the idea of growth and development, I read how you celebrated last December the 50th anniversary of the Folk Music Center. How does owning such a place and being around such a place throughout your life give you a different connection to music?
BH: The Folk Music Center for me is home. It will always be home. The Folk Music Center celebrates music for music's sake. The Folk Music Center has never given one inch into any level of any sort of music industry Hollywood nonsense. It completely operates outside anything mainstream, whatsoever. It operates outside mainstream politics. It operates outside mainstream art, outside mainstream music. And it is its own culture. The Folk Music Center is a culture within a culture. And it is a constant reminder to me of what music always should be about at its core.
JPG: Say, for example, you have a bad day, such as you couldn’t convince the record company to just call the band Relentless7. After a meeting like that is it a situation where you head straight to the Folk Music Center just to be in that atmosphere…?
BH: Every time I step foot in my family's 50 year heritage of having the Folk Music Center it hits the reset button because there is…that store represents non-conformism in absolute terms. And I've always wanted to represent that in my music. It's the peak of non-conformism, not to the industry, not to fans, not to anything other than my own musical instincts. If you like it, I am so thankful. I take musical appreciation with great humility. Not that I don't have my moments of egocentrism or any of that.
The music industry has put me in a position of always selling my records one at a time. Never been a smash out, overnight scenario. It's just never been that. It's been one record at a time. That does take its toll after so many records, psychologically, but I've got big shoulders. I can handle that, too.
Whether a song was a hit or sounded more like it was a hit than another song for me it's always been about nothing other than the music itself and the song of the moment and writing it because I want to. Even though I'm on Virgin Records, I've never recorded for Virgin, I record for me. It just so happens that Virgin is willing to follow the train.
JPG: I guess that’s where you can say good fortune comes in because other people have decided it’s what they like as well.
BH: True enough. I mean God, knock on wood.
JPG: I was looking over the lyrics and wondered if because the end result was going to be in a more rocking manner than some of your recent work, did it change how you wrote them or what you wrote?
BH: My approach never changes. It evolves. I’m just learning how to write songs, man. This record represents me finally coming into a specific confidence in how to write a song.
JPG: In particular, “Up To You Now," at the beginning I saw it as a call to personal responsibility then it seemed to be a plea to a higher power near the end. Am I catching that right or…?
BH: I don't want to give it a definition of permanence because once I do that then it is that. Done forever. I'd rather have it be different things in different ways because I think it could be either. I mean listen, let me not stake any claims ever on any level to any higher power or even lean towards it. For me, I stay far and away from it. I'd love it to be able to have that potential definition, social definition, relationship definition. The songs that I connect with can cover a lot of ground and, hopefully, that one can do the same.
JPG: I can deal with that. The idea of self-empowerment, you played the David Lynch Foundation “Change Begins Within” benefit [It took place April 4th at Radio City Music Hall with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eddie Vedder, Donovan, Moby, Sheryl Crow and Betty LaVette]. How did you get involved in that?
BH: My wife [Laura Dern] practices TM through David and her relationship with David, and David has just been a very special person in my life, having met him through my wife. He and I have had a lot of conversations about me getting further and deeper into TM, which I plan on doing. It was something that just made sense, and I wanted to be a part of it.
David’s method for solving so many things in the world — personal, cultural, political and spiritual — is TM. It makes more sense than just about anybody when it comes to his practice and how he lives it and preaches it. It's important in everything he does.
JPG: Do you meditate or are you heading towards doing a more scheduled practice?
BH: I meditate with every step I take on the planet. Listen man, a lot of different things tug on me in different ways. I'm conflicted. My mother's Jewish. My Dad is black. I get tugged on from all kinds of different corners of faith. I haven't been ready to throw down the gauntlet in one specific direction quite yet. Although, I'll tell you what, my days go a lot better when I take a second to meditate in the morning, not even gather my thoughts but just center my spirit. I’m backing it.