Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Feature - Ben Harper

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 26
For online version, click here

Minimal To The Max

In the early ‘90s, whilst most of the musical world was neck deep in the punk rock conformity that grunge had become, a youngster from southern California emerged with a record which began a modern roots music revival, introducing a whole new generation to the blues, to folk, to soul and reggae. 

With Pleasure & Pain in 1992, Ben Harper, a happy-go-lucky twenty-something, born at the tail-end of the swingin’ ’60s, tapped into something which today, 20 years later, sees him a trailblazer, lauded by the likes of The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Jack Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite, the late John Lee Hooker and countless others.

“It’s been beyond my expectations as to how far a lap steel guitar player and songwriter out of southern California [can go], it’s gone far beyond my wildest imaginings,” says Harper on his career thus far, one which has yielded a slew of seminal records, two Grammy Awards and the recognition of artists he grew up idolising.

“And that’s only due to the fans and their reception and connection,” he adds.  “And they’re the bravest fans, because I go from a ballad to a rocker, from reggae to blues, soul, folk, rock and they’ve just rolled with those punches in a way that has never been seen in the music industry, and I’m proud of that.  If there’s any mark I’ve made, that’s the one, and it’s only due to them and their reception to the music I make.”

It seems fitting then, with Harper talking about how his music has evolved over the years, that in his current guise, he’s going back to where it all began – just himself and an acoustic guitar, which is how we’ll see him touring Australia this month.  “It is great,” he exclaims, not having performed solo acoustic to this extent before.  “I can turn on a dime… you can just go wherever you want to go.  Not that I can’t with a great band, but there is something incredibly liberating about being up there on your own – it’s as much fun as I’ve ever had making music.”

It’s interesting too, that this format is where a lot of his songs, usually performed with a band, would have originally been born – this is indeed Harper going full circle. “Precisely,” he says.  “It really lets the song be the song.  It lets the lyrics… lead the charge, and these songs are redefining themselves to me, for that reason.  I love the challenge of it [too].” 

In addition to stripping his music right back in the live setting, in the studio Harper is looking back as well, having just reached back to his ultimate muse, the blues, recording a blues album with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, with whom Harper will tour next year for Bluesfest.  The album, entitled Get Up!, has been a long time coming.

“Charlie and I connected in 1995 when I was opening up for John Lee Hooker,” Harper explains.  “Then we met again when John Lee asked us to perform on the same song on an album of his in 1998… and so we became friends, and we’ve been talking about making this album ever since [then].  So it’s been damn near 20 years in the making.”

“And it just rolled man,” he laughs, “it was so much fun.”  The fact Harper can still get so much joy out of making the music that he first began to vibe on more than two decades ago, speaks volumes.  He may, at this point in his career, be taking it back to where it all began, but he is still very much looking forward.

Samuel J. Fell

Record Review - The Sheepdogs

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 26

The Sheepdogs
The Sheepdogs


With their self-titled fourth record, Canadian country/rock purveyors The Sheepdogs, have laid down an absolute cracker.  Mired deep within the sounds of the early ‘70s – shimmering country slide, jangling acoustic guitars interspersed with jagged electric riffery, soaring vocals (courtesy of Australian-born Ewan Currie) and punching keys – this record stretches out and just runs, a luxurious and continuous soundscape that transports you to a time when it was all about lush, warm music and little else.

Combine that with a solid, modern rock ‘n’ roll sound – Dandy Warhols-esque vocal falsetto, Soundgarden-ish soloing, thick and rumbling guitar lines – and you’ve got a record that sits just as well now as it would have then.  Think The Band jamming with The Black Crowes and you’re in the ballpark – great album.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 22 October 2012

Record Review - Benjamin Gibbard

Published in the November issue of The Big Issue.

Benjamin Gibbard
Former Lives


After 15 years fronting Death Cab For Cutie, Ben Gibbard has decided the time is right for a solo offering, time to find a home for at least a handful of the scores of tunes he’s penned over the years, deemed not right for The Cab.

Former Lives is that home, a clutch of disparate tunes running the gamut from robust, folky numbers to slow-burning, big-building soundscapes to horn-laden mariachi jaunts, a real hodge-podge of ideas seemingly thrown together for comfort and support, but which as a whole, make for a smart, cohesive little unit.

Beginning with the pithy a capella ‘Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby’, Former Lives, despite its seeming randomness, is bound together by the strength and honesty of Gibbard’s songwriting, a thread which solidifies, injecting some cohesion, anchoring it and making it something special, as opposed to merely the frontman of a famous band, indulging himself. 

For Gibbard, this record closes a long chapter of his life, but at the same time, I’d not be surprised if it began another.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Feature - Lee 'Scratch' Perry

An old feature, from May 2009, which originally ran in The Drum Media (Sydney).  On re-reading a bit of my older work recently, I decided to repost this one, as I remembered how entertaining the interview, and the subsequent writing, was.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry

In Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s universe, no one can hear you scream.  Whether it’s with laughter at some of his more outrageous claims, or with frustration at not being able to understand his thick Jamaican accent is debateable – either way, Lee ‘Scratch’ is in control, and you are merely there to entertain him. 

For this is a man who, arguably, invented reggae, and who, definitely, invented dub, so basically, in a world where Perry regards himself as god, you are the uninvited guest, so you’re best to just buy the ticket and take the ride. 

It’s one o’clock in the morning when I put through the call.  I get his wife on the phone, who gives me another number to ring.  I call this number and get an automated message bank – in Swiss, for this is where Perry resides these days, in Switzerland.  I call his wife back.  She laughs, and hollers through the house for Perry to turn his phone on.  “Try again,” she says patiently – she’s obviously been through this before.

The reason I’m making this call, is to talk to Perry about his impending trip to Australia, a whistlestop tour incorporating only the one show at the Opera House, a show which holds much significance for the now 73-year-old iconic musical figure.  The reason I’m calling him at one o’clock in the morning, is because it’s four-thirty in the afternoon in Switzerland, and of course, Perry doesn’t get out of bed until at least four.  My nicotine stained fingers grip the phone tighter to stop the caffeine wobbles as I wait, and then he picks up.  “What can I do for you?” he intones after I identify myself a couple of times, and so we begin.

Some background: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, born Rainford Hugh Perry, and also known as The Upsetter and Pipecock Jaxxon, basically, with his track, People Funny Boy in 1968, invented a sound and style that was later to be called reggae.  A number of years later, due to his incredible production techniques and wont to fuck with mixing boards, he created dub music, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1973, after heading a number of labels and releasing music all over the shop, Perry decided he wanted more control, and so in the backyard of his house in Kendal, Jamaica, he built a studio he called the Black Ark.  It was in this literal shack, that Jamaican music was exported to the world, Perry producing the likes of Bob Marley, Junior Byles and Max Romeo within its fibro walls.  Eventually, as Perry’s condition deteriorated, so too did the Ark, and it burned to the ground in the early ‘80s – some claiming it was faulty wiring, Perry himself claiming he did it, “In a fit of rage”, to cleanse the place of, “Bad spirits”, that had begun to inhabit it towards the end.  Yes, the man is an eccentric, which is indeed one reason why we love him.

And so to this Australian tour and the reason it’s so significant for Perry.  In short, on the Opera House Stage as part of the Luminous festival, Perry is recreating the Black Ark, and he and English producer Adrian Sherwood, will be performing in it as if it were 1975 and Jamaican music was at its zenith, surrounded on all sides by fibro walls, the pulsing riddims holding them up and making them shake – this promises to be an experience.  “Yes man, it’ll be Opera Dub you know,” Perry tells me before breaking off to cackle maniacally, as he does many times throughout the interview.  “You will hear something from the Ark of the Covenant… it’s righteous, it’s perfection, it’s perfection… it was perfection, so why should I let it die?  It’ll live, live on stage.”  I remark at this point, that it sounds like this’ll be somewhat of a religious experience for Perry.

“It is, it is a religious experience,” Perry says quite seriously, before that cackle comes rattling down the line once more.  I can’t help but think I’m being taken for a ride here, but hey, it’s an entertaining one, so I press on – I’m keen to know how Perry feels about recreating this period of time, particularly given how badly it ended in the early ‘80s.  “Well, it’s reality, it’s not a joke… the Ark of the Covenant is over your head,” Perry explains, before going on to say something about negativity which I think is him saying it was indeed a negative time, but we can’t live in the past because the Ark of the Covenant is above our heads and this is why it will live on.  As I said, this is a thick Jamaican accent over an international phone line, so please, bare with us.

As for the involvement of English producer Adrian Sherwood, well, therein lies another story.  After the death of the original Black Ark, Perry wandered into the proverbial musical wilderness, his mental condition deteriorating with his music, before, in the early ‘90s, he hooked up with Sherwood and Neil Fraser (aka Mad Professor), and his career began to catch its footing once more.  “Yeah, he treated me like an artist,” Perry explains of Sherwood.  “He does have a knowledge of my music and he does love my music… he knows that I make music to make people happy… he has come to the realisation that it is not a joke, that it is reality.” 

And there’s that cackle again, which I feel in this instance, shows Perry’s delight at working with Sherwood once more, particularly in this setting, which can only mean good things for fans of Perry’s work, and indeed, the staged recreation of the Black Ark Studio, the scene of so much work which has since influenced so many artists.

Perry and Sherwood will front a five-piece dub band on the Opera House stage, and as Perry tells me with yet another laugh, this particular version of the Black Ark will not be burnt come the end of the set.  “No, it certainly won’t end like that,” he cackles. 

So this is where Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is at right now, and looking back at what this character has done, it’s a place he’s pretty happy with.  “I have to thank my teacher, God,” Perry tells me in summation.  “I have to thank him for making me perfect, so I could create this music.” Once again, Perry’s maniacal cackle rolls down the line, and it’s at this point I realise, that my universe will never be the same now that I’ve set foot in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s, and that’s something that’s fine with me.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Comment - Gillard And The Lost Boys

There are denizens of this wide, brown land of ours, who do little to contribute to the term, ‘proud Aussie battler’.  There are people amongst us whose goal in life, it would seem, is to degrade, incite and generally heap insult upon those they disagree with.  And there are those who call Australia home, who are downright cowardly, little more than gormless worms, hiding in their digital holes, slinging insults from the safety of their personal computers thinking themselves witty, urbane, insightful.

On Monday, via social media site Facebook, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in what was a first for a high ranking politician, hosted a chat session, fielding questions about the implementation of the Gonski Report into school funding reform, NAPLAN and teaching quality, amongst other things.

An attempt to tap into immediate feedback, the session lasted an hour with many questions answered, and more “tabled for further discussion”.  However, it was after the PM logged off, that the aforementioned gormless worms reared their tiny heads, too cowardly, it would seen, to sling their odious words whilst the object of their hatred was still ‘in the building’, as it were.

“Get my dinner ready”, “Lube up Julia”, “Are your pubes as radiant, shiny and glorious as mine?” and even a Jones-esque, “How’s your dad?” were amongst the comments posted in response to the Gillard chat, from a group of all male citizens who really don’t warrant the kudos, as they would see it, of being named again.

What they do deserve however, is the utter contempt of the rest of the population, the sneers and disgusted half-chuckles we reserve for fecal matter found on shoe soles.  For despite the fact many of us disagree with those in power, sometimes vehemently, when did it become an accepted behaviour to so viciously attack, personally, the person or people we disagree with?

To my mind, this is a part of the trolling epidemic perhaps, and an offshoot of the rise and popularity of social media – people are able to comment instantaneously, they do so from the safety of their own homes, and even though the aforementioned didn’t hide behind monikers, for the most part, it still shows that to say something so dirty is no big deal anymore, there’s nothing anyone can really do, so cop it.

No doubt there will be many, far more insightful investigations into this sort of thing, but in the meantime, this comes down to cowardice and a general lack of respect.  I can only surmise that the mothers of these haters raised them like the barnyard vermin they are, and that perhaps this misogynistic behaviour is a call for help from a group of little boys who miss their mummy.

For little boys is what they are.  They think it’s cool to hate on a person in power, particularly one who has copped more than her fair share in the week just gone.  They lack the mental capacity to form coherent arguments and so resort to schoolyard bullying in an attempt to gain themselves some attention on a wider scale (ironic that I’m writing this, then).  Further, good and honest debate is paramount to the workings of government and public life in general, regardless of how you feel about specific policy or policy setters, and behaviour like this shunts that to the wayside, sabotaging meaningful debate, diluting it and rendering it less powerful, the flow-on effect being that we’re worse off because of it.

These people shouldn’t call themselves Australians, they shouldn’t consider themselves battlers, they shouldn’t consider themselves much at all.  This sort of behaviour is abhorrent – perhaps if someone wrote something about them being selfish bully boys, they’d think twice about how this sort of thing impacts on people, society in general, and the debates we should be having but aren’t.  Lube that up.

Samuel J. Fell