Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist discusses his band, current tour, and memorable moments
Ben Harper is currently on tour with The Innocent Criminals, a band he has now worked with through “five presidents”. Over the course of almost 25 years, the band has grown in size as well as stature in the music community. Just last year, Harper and Co. released their third album, Call It What It Is.
From festivals to arenas, concert halls to zoos, the band continues to take audiences by storm and reminds longterm fans why they’ve stuck around. It’s a relationship that is built on “brotherhood and trust” and linked by “commitment to a series of miraculous recoveries.”
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Ben Harper to discuss the current tour, find out why the band just can’t quit each other, and hear about the moments that keep Harper coming back for more.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you have just started out on a summer tour. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Ben Harper: I’m so glad you asked that. The mood in camp is different – it’s new, and morale is at an all-time high [for both] band and crew. We’ve got a couple hundred songs under our belt, and we’re ready. We’re completely prepared to never play the same note twice. We’re prepared to be spontaneous.
CF: You’ve worked with so many people over the course of your career. What does playing with a group that knows each other so well allow you to do?
BH: It allows us to have brotherhood and trust. Those are both cliches, unless you can link into a very specific common goal, and that common goal is a commitment to a series of miraculous recoveries because my favorite music is the commitment to a series of miraculous recoveries. That means you go out on the edge, and you know if you go far enough out, one of the guys in the band is going to bring you back.
CF: Last year you released Call It What It Is, but it had been nine years since 2007’s Lifeline. What is it about the Innocent Criminals that keeps you coming back?
BH: Nobody else sounds like us. I’m sure some people out there will be relieved about that, but there’s just nothing out there… You can get six incredible musicians in a room all day, you won’t come out with one good song. It’s chemistry, chemistry we’ve had from the jump. I’ve been with these cats through five presidents. In 1993, George Bush Sr., I met Leon Mobley, and he introduced Juan Nelson and Oliver Charles in the band, and that was two Clinton terms. During Clinton enter Jason Yates, and I started to get to know Jason Mozersky. At the end of the Clinton terms entering W, Jr., and that was two terms, so that’s three and that’s the band. Then enter in Obama, that’s two terms, and then if you count Trump, it’s five presidents.
Now the trick is, and we’re at a weighing station now because we took the obligatory band break, that’s done. We all came back better musicians and better people, hopefully, at least they did – I can’t speak for myself, they’ll have to speak to that. There is at least enough open road in this band for five more presidents.
CF: To dig into this tour that you are on, you said, “A song is not completed until it reaches someone somewhere.” Can you talk about your relationship with your fans, and how they’ve inspired your creative process?
BH: The creative process seems to me is that it is as mysterious to me as it has been since day one. And I am, still to this point, finding it and hanging on for dear life. I’ve been fortunate enough as a songwriter to have some opportunities along the way, such as Mavis Staples covering a song of mine, and Taj Mahal covering a song of mine. I’ve had some heavyweights sort of sound off as far as the writing process, to let me know I’m on the right path as a writer. But just to say that the creative process – whether it’s for me or someone else – is insular and isolated and kind of about my relationship with silence and a blank page, if that makes any sense.
But my relationship with the fans, let me put it this way, we have a silent fan club, and it’s called FRIC: Front Row Innocent Criminals. They come, they have dinner with the band, and they are an ever-expanding group, but it’s a real group out there and they come into soundchecks, and some of them follow the entire legs of tours. It has become a real thing. And the relationship with the fans… They press play, they lift up the night, and any band in the world is lucky to have 10 people, more or less a hundred or a thousand, so I try not to take that for granted and I’d like to say, “Oh, I’m humbled by it”, but am I? Some days I’m as humble as it gets, and some days I’m an arrogant prick, and that’s okay. I’m not born in this world to be anybody’s North Star, but my own, and my families. I am humbled by any appreciation. If any artist isn’t humbled by appreciation they get, it’s going to be a short, fast flight.
CF: Can you speak of a particular song that provoked an unexpected response from a live audience?
BH: It’s tougher for somebody like me to say because if you don’t like a Ben Harper song, then like the weather in Hawaii, just wait five minutes. Because I’ve done things so different for so long, it’s become it’s own genre. I have ballads, rock, roots rock, reggae, folk, funk, all on one record. And that’s probably set the stage for some of my biggest challenges, as well as my biggest accomplishments because it’s bucked conformity and people told me that I couldn’t do it that way from the beginning, “You can’t put these types of music on one record. Please give us ten of one sound,” and I’ve never done it. I’ve never known how to do it because I’ve always been true to the strongest material I write, not the style or sound or genre.
Trust me, back then, the reason I got a record deal to begin with was because my first record cost five grand to make. I was low maintenance, low baggage. I had carry on luggage. We basically snuck into the record label and I performed for the president, he didn’t even know I was coming. I wasn’t supposed to happen in pop music that’s for d*** sure. I just had a bada** manager at the time that busted through the doors and was fearless and he believed in my music, and I believed in myself. With that said, the fact that it is the way it is, I’m still amazed to this day.
Now that it’s stood the test of time, people are like, “Sure.” Let’s not lose sight of the fact that when I came into the game it was 1993, as we’ve mentioned, Bush Sr., and I was a black man talking about the beating of Rodney King and the right for women to have girlfriends on my first record. That’s in the age of Seattle grunge. It wasn’t an obvious play, so my relationship with the fans is, “You found me. I found you. We found each other. Holy s***, and we’re still here. Look at us, we stayed married, we got divorced, we had kids, we’ve spilled emotional blood onto the road of our lives and we’re here. And thank you for letting me be a momentary soundtrack and try to bring meaning to meaninglessness. Thank you.” That’s more what it is.
CF: You’re going to be hitting a variety of different types of venues along this tour, from festivals and concert halls to zoos and food festivals. How do you go about creating a setlist for those unique settings, considering you have such a diverse portfolio?
BH: I just make sure we represent that because if a diverse portfolio got us here, then that’s what I want to represent and show. I’ve been coming out on lap steel guitar, segwaying into just solo acoustic ballad, or I’ll play an instrumental of mine, band comes out we’ll kick into the catalogue, a couple songs from the new record, and by the time you look up, it’s time to say goodnight. I just make sure I don’t only play people the new record. You can get away with a couple new tunes per night, if they are strong enough. If the record holds up. But I try to mix it up and go through the catalogue, even deeper than ever at the moment.
It’s a funny thing. I woke up the other morning and got an email from a man I didn’t know, from a record label I didn’t know I was on, saying, “Congratulations, your record Diamonds on the Inside just went gold in America.” When a record would go gold in America back in the day, there would be fire breathers and clowns and jugglers and possibly zoo animals, and it would be a ceremony with plaques and suits, now it’s just an email. And it took 13 years to get that gold record, but hey check it out, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d rather just get an email and just keep pushing because it’s never been about that anyway. It’s just a side note.
CF: We’ve talked about some people that have covered you and this wonderful band you collaborate with, but one collaboration I’ve been interested in is you previously worked with a former Beatle (Ringo) – did that experience teach you anything about craft?
BH: It did. We talked a lot about that. We talked about songs and songwriting and the process, and some need to get away and isolate and some need to just write to the point where it almost takes them out of their daily reality, and those are the two bookends. Just being in the proximity of Ringo is super inspirational and a huge motivation, not only to make music, but to sober up – that’s an important component of him as well. All around he is just an inspiring person.
CF: As an audience, we know what a good concert feels like for us, but what is a successful concert in your eyes?
BH: What makes for a perfect concert for me is when you’re out of your own way and comfortable, nothing is forced… a perfect night is when you know we’re all in it together.
CF: Throughout your career, I can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
BH: I’ve just always needed some place to put my life other than my life. That’s not an experience though, that’s just in reality. Why?
It could range from trying to fulfill dreams my own father never had, never was able to live, that would be probably tapping into the unconscious, all the way to the experience of playing a show in front of how every many thousand people and seeing Mark Zupan, from the movie Murderball. Mark Zupan is a dear friend of mine and we met because he crowd surfed in a wheelchair and almost tipped over the entire song, and the crowd surfed this cat in a wheelchair from one side of the stage to the other, and I just went, “If he is willing to take that risk, why don’t I? Better live your dream.” There are just moments on tour and that one sticks out. And Mark just being an inspiring figure in my life in general and a friend, but that moment when Mark popped up out of this mosh pit while playing voodoo child and crowd surface in a wheelchair, I’ve never seen anything like it. It still sticks out as one of the greatest road memories of all time, and kind of set my compass in a way.