Saturday, 16 April 2011

Relentless Ben

Published in April issue of Rhythms Magazine

Ben Harper

Back in 1996 is when Australia’s love affair with Ben Harper began.  As a relative unknown, Harper stepped up to the Bluesfest plate and blew people away, his raw passion and roots-drenched modern sound the tonic for a populace overloaded with three chord guitar, with grunge, with the thudding techno beats that seemed to emanate from every passing car.  Harper and the Innocent Criminals, his band at the time, were something new.  Sure, they were drawing from a rich, deep well, but they whipped it their own way and we paddled out and caught their wave.

Today sees Harper as a giant of his time.  It’s indicative of his talent, his relevancy and his foresight that 15 years after he broke (which he credits to that ’96 appearance at Bluesfest) he’s such a worldwide name, a drawcard at any festival, an artist of great standing and respect.  While we do see Harper in this position in 2011 though, it’s not – and never has been – the same as it was.  For Ben Harper is a musician in the true sense of the word, in the sense of the men and women he draws inspiration from, in that he never does things the same way twice.  As such, Harper is still as relevant now as he was back in the ‘90s before the ‘roots wave’ built, as he was at its peak, as he still is now that it’s all but crashed onto the waiting shore.

In fact, perhaps Harper is even more relevant now.  He’s proven that he wasn’t just part of a trend; the fact he’s still making records almost twenty years after his 1994 debut, Welcome To The Cruel World, testament to that.  He’s proven he’s a stayer, he’s proven he’s in it for the right reasons and he’s proven that no matter what he’s doing and no matter who he’s doing it with, it’s music for music’s sake, moving with his heart and mind, and this is why it still strikes chords.  There aren’t many modern day musicians who can lay claim to these sorts of achievements and ideals, but Ben Harper is certainly one.

So what is he doing in 2011 that’s still so important then?  Striking out and finding new territory is what, and obviously, this is no surprise.  After 2007’s Lifeline album, Harper disbanded the Innocent Criminals and formed the more rock-oriented, Relentless7, whom he debuted at Bluesfest in 2009.  They released White Lies For Dark Times that same year, and are still going strong.  Then early last year, he hooked up with singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur and guitarist, Dhani Harrison to form Fistful Of Mercy, with whom he also recorded late last year (As I Call You Down); he’s on a mission, and it seems, even after 20 years, he’s at yet another creative peak.

“I’m so glad it looks like that, because as I grow older, I learn to appreciate peaks because there are valleys right up ahead of them,” Harper laughs.  “I think you’re right, and I think I need to take in the view for a second.  For longer than I have…there have been peaks where I didn’t recognise it for what it was, so this is a good conversational reminder to just embrace a peak, and as it is, I’m really enjoying the view.”  Harper is in an ebullient mood when I catch up with him, and you can’t blame him; Relentless7 are charging ahead, relentlessly, and Fistful Of Mercy has offered him yet another avenue, one previously unexplored, to share his message, in a more stripped back fashion.

But it’s what’s happening elsewhere that has Harper the most excited, and what’s really driving home this ‘creative peak’ business.  Late last year, Harper went into Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles and laid down what will be his first solo record since 2006’s, Both Sides Of The Gun, a tremendously anticipated record, and one which sees this artist in his prime – moving forward, adding to what he has, creating anew, a true Ben Harper record.  “Yeah, it’s a Ben Harper record for sure,” he says of this new one, Give Till It’s Gone, when I ask whether or not, technically, it’s a solo record, given there’s a band involved.

“I’ve always let how the record was made, define whether or not it was a band record or a solo effort.  I let the songs on the record define that and how the record was made and what was going into it and where I was energetically.  Every record I make, it’s not about the band so much, it’s not even about me,” he says emphatically.  “It’s about the songs, I’ve always wanted it to be about the songs…my first record was Welcome To The Cruel World, that was my first statement, and this is my last record of ten studio records with Virgin/EMI, and so it was really important for me to go out as I came in.  But that’s neither here nor there, that’s an aside to these songs being so hyper-personal that I could have worked with anyone…whoever I brought in on this record, it was gonna be a Ben Harper record from the start because the songs were just so personal.”

So Give Till It’s Gone is here.  It is indeed deeply personal, and it is indeed a Ben Harper record.  It moves from boisterous rock n’ roll numbers to slithery blues grooves, it whispers and it roars, it hits its own tangents and dares you to come along for the ride.  In amongst all this though, is a cohesion; it’s not a slapdash effort, it comes across more as exploratory (again, the reason he remains as relevant today as he is), which as he explains, is just how he works.  “Well at this point, if people don’t know that’s my stock and trade, I may as well sell soap,” he laughs.  “I’ve insisted upon musical diversity within one album since the very first.

“So what I wanted to come out with here, lyrically and musically, is something that would play out, from first song to last song, and also hopefully, to people who listen to lyrics, something they can connect with and relate to,” he goes on.  “What I hope people will get from this record…is non-conformism, being able to be diverse.  I mean, good god, if by this time, with iTunes, if you don’t have eclectic tastes, I can’t help you.  So yeah, non-conformism.  This is my tenth record, and ten records later, I’m still not trying to do ten versions of ‘Steal My Kisses’.”

The highlight of the record, to my mind, is the instrumental, ‘Get There From Here’, a random jam, and one of two songs on Give Till It’s Gone co-written and featuring, Ringo Starr.  “Man, I love you for saying that, thank you,” Harper laughs when I tell him that’s my standout on the record.  “That’s what makes this record stand out as a brave record.  It’s not for me to say whether I’m brave or not…but at some point, you do have to set your own standard, and in the name of setting my own standard, having that song on there in its entirety, was a shift for this record in terms of making a creative statement.

“And Ringo, he brought to the record…he really was the guiding force of these songs,” he then says on working with Starr.  “So he came down and we spent the first hour just talking and laughing, and he said he wanted to do a song that had a specific feel and a sound and he wanted it to be optimistic…it was just extremely humbling, and it’s still sinking in by degrees.”  The excitement is evident in Harper’s voice – not only from working with a Beatle, but from coming through this process unscathed and in fact growing in the process.  Lets face it though, you wouldn’t have expected any less.

So 2011 sees Ben Harper at a creative peak.  Relentless7 have proven themselves viable.  Fistful Of Mercy is just getting started, but doing it well.  And Ben Harper is back in the record arena courtesy of Give Till It’s Gone, and it’s revealed in him a wont to carry on even further.  For this artist, even two decades in, there’s still plenty more, across the valley, onto the next peak.

Samuel J. Fell

A Rainy Evening With Jeff Martin

Published in May Issue of Rhythms Magazine

Jeff Martin

“Rock n’ roll is sex,” Jeff Martin pronounces, sprawled across a dark leather couch in his loungeroom.  “Rock n’ roll is that rhythm, it’s that beat, it’s that primal thing.”  He leans forward to pick up his almost empty glass of red wine and for a short second, we both ponder that idea, the idea that rock n’ roll goes deeper than how you see it on a stage, deeper to a level you can’t get to on your own.  It’s an interesting thought, one which halts proceedings somewhat, and so we step outside to smoke a cigarette and watch the rain and we talk about fishing.

I was supposed to meet Jeff Martin – iconic frontman for Canadian rockers, The Tea Party, solo artist, frontman for The Armada and now, Jeff Martin 777 – at the pub, but as I mentioned, it began raining and so we’re at his place, which is exactly as I thought it would be as I drove over.  Dark wood, sloping ceilings, exotic instruments scattered around the room, eastern music emanating quietly from an unseen stereo.  Martin himself is bandana-ed, ripped-jeaned and cowboy booted.  He may come across as a rock n’ roll parody, but I’ve met him a number of times, and he is, in fact, the real thing.

We’re talking about his latest in a long line of projects, the aforementioned Jeff Martin 777.  In a nutshell, Martin left The Tea Party (not on the best of terms with now former bandmates, Jeff Burrows and Stuart Chatwood) in late 2005.  He struck out in solo guise (for which he regularly employed a tabla player), releasing the sublime Exile & the Kingdom in 2006.  He then teamed up with Irish drumming sensation, Wayne Sheehy, to form The Armada (whose eponymous record appeared in 2008), a move which saw him pick up his Les Paul for the first time since leaving The Tea Party.  This move heralded bigger things to come, for now with 777, we see Jeff Martin squarely back where he belongs; fronting a rock n’ roll band, backed by bassist, J Cortez and drummer, Malcolm Clark; a move which seems destined to have happened.

“Yeah, I’d say destiny is definitely on the cards,” he muses.  “J joined The Armada three quarters of the way through, but I’ve known Malcolm since the mid-‘90s, that’s when we became friends…but definitely destiny, because I tell you, the three of us, even though this band is still in its infancy, so to speak, the way that the band is coming off live, it would seem like this band has always been together.”  Martin and 777 have already completed a 21-date tour of his native Canada, promoting the group’s debut release, The Ground Cries Out, and it seems it’s a unit that’s clicked into place almost immediately.  I ask Martin how easily he was able to slip into the band dynamic after being so long from the fold.

“Well, I think it was easy for them, but for me it took about four shows in Canada…we’re not talking about starting again, because of my past…but it took me three or four shows over there to really get my wings back,” he explains.  “[It took me that long] to understand that behind me is a rhythm section that rivals any rhythm section in the world as far as rock n’ roll is concerned, so I don’t have to think about that anymore, I just have to think about this, and go, I can experiment again.  It’s so liberating.”

Liberating is a word which leaps quickly to mind when listening to The Ground Cries Out.  It’s a record which begs to be played loud and it’s a record which crosses a range of styles; from the bluesy ‘Queen Of Spades’ to the chugg-and-grind of ‘1916’ to the reflective nature of ‘Blue Mountain Sun’, it’s certainly not a record that sticks to any one formula.  “Well, when I look back, my favourite Led Zeppelin record is Houses Of The Holy or Physical Graffiti,” he says in explanation.  “A lot of people think of Zeppelin and think of Zeppelin II, there’s a formula running through that, and I love it.

“But for me, where the band shines is when they really show off all of their influences and yet there’s a cohesive thread running through albums like Houses Of The Holy,” he goes on.  “So I want people to listen to The Ground Cries Out as an album, not a concept album, but there is the intention of me taking you on a sonic journey, there’s a top and there’s a tail and every song has its place, I really do take a lot of time and care and effort to…keep the flow going.”  There is a flow, and as I suggest to Martin, that no matter how eclectic the record is stylistically, that flow is pure, unadulterated rock n’ roll.  The Ground Cries Out is a rock n’ roll album.

“Yeah, and the reason is Malcolm Clark,” Martin emphasises.  “He’s the anchor, there’s that drum sound that is the tie between all the songs, much like Houses Of The Holy or whatever, he’s got his own approach…all I did as producer and engineer, I just captured the animal without.  And I do mean animal, because when I’m sitting in the control room watching Mal play, it’s John Bonham, Keith Moon and Animal from the Muppets.”

The Ground Cries Out is the band, particularly Martin who has nothing to prove, having fun.  It’s uplifting yes, but it’s also joyous and it’s Martin finding his second distinctive voice after The Tea Party.  Rock n’ roll is sex and it’s primal and raw, and Jeff Martin is at the coalface of such ideas, and despite the fact he’s been quoted as saying he “doesn’t have to do this anymore”, he’s also been quoted as saying, “…but I want to do it more than ever before.”  Rock n’ roll, my friends, is in good hands.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 11 April 2011

Upcoming Features To Be Posted

From the April issue of Rhythms (the Bluesfest issue)...

Ben Harper feature.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band feature.

A Rainy Night In Bruns...

...with not a lot of constructive work happening.

Plus, it's a quarter past six, and no doubt something else is happening elsewhere that'd be worth getting into.

This is the view...perhaps I should tidy my desk.  Having said that, it's deadline week and it'll only get messy again.  I should be writing an article...indeed.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

A Short Conversation With Archie Roach

Published in Inpress (Melb), 6th April 2011

Archie Roach

Archie Roach cuts an almost mythical figure in Australian music.  Overcoming an early life wreathed in hardship to flourish as an artist and musician revered amongst not only the indigenous music community, but the Australian music community as a whole, Uncle Archie – as Roach is affectionately known – has become a symbol for unity and strength, a model for ‘from little things big things grow’, a true leader of people and a musician second to none.

However, hardship has continued to play a role in Roach’s journey with his partner in both music and life, Ruby Hunter, dying early last year.  This would have cast an unimaginable pall over things, and then to add to it, just as Roach was coming to terms with such a loss, he himself suffered a stroke last October; life certainly isn’t easy, as Archie Roach will attest.  But this is a man who’s a fighter.  No matter what life has hurled his way, he’s come through and kept going, and so when I get a chance to speak to the man, he carries with him a quiet air of not only dignity, but of defiance and, of course, strength.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he confides.  “I’m feeling a lot stronger…I did get a bit crook, but I’m feeling a lot better now.  So I’m just taking things easy, I’m at home in south-west Victoria, so I’m taking things easy, getting ready for a few shows coming up.”  These shows include, amongst others, a night at Bilyana, the site of the Folk, Rhythm & Life festival in north-east Victoria, a night which will see Roach team up with Dan Sultan and Sally Dastey from Tiddas for an evening of aural delights, and it’ll be a memorable one for Roach – Bilyana is, for him, a special place.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to that,” he smiles.  “So that’ll be great sharing the stage, especially around that part of the country.  We’ve played there many times before…it’s just a good venue, it’s a lovely place to play.”  Roach has appeared at the site with Hunter a number of times in the past and so the venue itself holds a special place for the man.  For those in attendance, no doubt it’ll shine through in his music.

We turn the conversation towards Dan Sultan, a musician who is, finally, receiving dues so much deserved, and his connection with Roach.  I venture that Roach would have been watching Sultan’s career for some time, and that he’d no doubt be quite proud of the heights he’s beginning to hit.  “Yeah, Dan and I first performed together as part of the Black Arm Band, but I first saw him play before then at a benefit concert for a friend of ours,” Roach tells.  “I saw him with this band, he had a great band behind him, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic’, it was great to see a young guy like that.

“And he didn’t have a specific agenda, he was just playing music and having a good time, and that was good to see,” he adds.  “And it’s good to see the recognition he’s getting, he’s edgy, and like I said, it’s great to see someone just get up and play music.  For a young indigenous bloke, that’s really good, not like back in the days when we were young and were playing everywhere and were, I suppose, following a specific agenda.”

I think it’s fair to say that when Roach was younger, there was a specific agenda indigenous artists were following, and fair enough – those were times of rampant inequality and for an aboriginal musician to sing about them was perhaps one of the gutsiest things they could have done.  Not to say these days don’t hold elements of inequality and racism, but to see Sultan up there just “playing music”, as Roach says, puts him up there as a musician above all that, and there’s tremendous respect involved as a result.

We move to what Roach is up to now.  Of course, he’s been ill these past few months and no doubt music and the work involved would have been the furthest thing from his mind, but ingrained deep within this man, is the music, and so it’s never really that far away.  “Yeah, well it’s only really been this last month or so that I’ve been getting stuck into it again,” he concurs.  “So I played at WOMADelaide and then did something for Moomba, so yeah, it’s a bit more spaced out than it was, not as intense, and that’s the way, I suppose, we should be doing things at the moment…so I would like to find some time to do some writing and to get some more songs together.”

Roach’s last record was 2009’s, 1988, released through ABC’s Music Deli as part of a live archive series, and the one before that, 2007’s Journey.  As such, it’s been a while since the world has been privy to an Archie Roach record of original tunes, but as he tells, there’s one not too far away.  “Yeah, I am working on one, I’m getting new songs together, plus some old songs that never really made it on to other albums, just reworking them,” he confirms.

“And I think it’s good to go back and look at some old stuff that never really made the track listing of older albums.  The first question you ask is, ‘Why?’ and you have a think and you work out why and then you rework them.  But they were songs that when I was first working on them, I’d go, ‘OK, I’ll just leave these alone for a little while’.”  I ask how far Roach is into the writing / gathering process at the moment, in terms of putting together this new record.

“I don’t know, but I guess it’s almost time,” he says with a smile.  “You’ve just gotta give it the space and the time to see where it goes, plus there’s some rehearsing and pre-production, just to see where it might go.”  Where it might go is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fair bet that with Archie Roach at the helm, it’ll go somewhere meaningful and real, much as his entire catalogue has done previously.  As well, Roach is at a pivotal point in his musical life.  He’s lost his partner, and has been reminded of his own mortality, what with getting so sick.  This next record could well be his defining work, such has happened that would inform it.

So where to from here for the man who just refuses to give up?  Slow and steady no doubt, but with an intent and a purpose, for this is always how Archie Roach has conducted himself.  At least in his later years.  “Yeah, it’d be good to do maybe a couple of shows a month, play for a couple of weeks then take half a month off and get back into it again,” he muses on how the rest of the year will pan out.  “We’ll just be pacing ourselves.”  This is what the man has done all his musical life, and it’s paid off.  For Archie Roach is at the top of his game, and no matter the hardship, he’ll keep heading up.

Samuel J. Fell