Interview and Photography By Eric Hendrikx
BEN HARPER is nothing short of all of these.
For more than two decades, the refined musician known for his earnest blues vocal deliveries and eclectic choice of instrument, the lap slide guitar, has shared hundreds of original songs with his audiences worldwide. Since his first tour in 1990 with Taj Mahal, Harper began sharing stages with an extensive list of meaningful artists including The Fugees, PJ Harvey, Jack Johnson, and Pearl Jam. More recently, Harper’s 2011 Summer tour was accompanied by a little opening act you may have heard of—Robert Plant!
This year, the two-time Grammy award winner released his grand finale to a ten-record deal with Virgin Records—Give Til It’s Gone, a record that Harper views as a bold proclamation of who is in and who is out with respect to his audience. I visited Ben at his Santa Monica home the morning after Halloween—the entrance to his home was reflective of the night prior’s celebration and evidence of his deep love for his children. After chasing down a fresh cup of morning java, we hit the sofa and rapped about his recent musical efforts, Summer tour, and his rekindled childhood relationship with skateboarding. We also sat in wait—anticipation was peaked as we also awaited our good friend Mike Vallely’s arrival for a skateboard session. Grateful. A word that resonated with me long after my day spent with Ben and Mike.
Interview with Ben Harper November 1, 2011:
RIS: Have you always been a skateboarder?
Ben: Since 1976. And I’ve always kept a board in my trunk. I’ve been closer and further to skateboarding all my life as far as my level of commitment, but I’ve never been without a board. I grew up skating with Chris Miller. He and I went to the same grade school and junior high before he moved to San Diego. For a while we were side by side and then all of a sudden Chris was just killing it—flying off tables. I saw how amazing Chris was and while it should have motivated me, I got slightly dissuaded. But I was so inspired by what he did, and I recognized that it was something I may not be able to reach. I ended up finding my athletic passion in team sports. I got sucked into track and basketball.
RIS: And now you go to the parks and skate with your kids?
Ben: Yeah, we go to Venice and the Cove. My oldest girl might lean towards it. My youngest son, who is ten, is a skater. A natural. That’s why I’ve got a half-pipe out back and he’s doing it all—board slides, frontside 50-50’s, backside 50-50’s, rock ‘n rolls, and just got a kickflip down. And he’s just steezy. More than any tricks—he just gets on a board and makes it look more comfortable than walking.
RIS: And how’s your steeze these days?
Ben: Ollies man, that’s my thing. I’m getting over three boards stacked up. Mike V is coming over today to help me and maybe I’ll get over four boards. I’ve been stuck on three for a while now. My goal is to get over this tall construction cone I have. Because once you can get over the cone, you can get over fire hydrants. And that’s a shift. That’s when things get really good.
RIS: Epic! Any wishes you had followed your passion for skateboarding at the same level you did with your music?
Ben: One of my great regrets. Not sticking with it at a younger age. Nevermind who is better than you. That’s such a flaw. That was so much about my personality when I was young. I also rolled with the shifts in interest amongst my friends. Skate for a few months, BMX for a few months, eventually back to skate. Instead of having the compass to stick with the one I loved more, which was skateboarding. By the time I would go back to skateboarding, it was like starting over again in a sense. It’s all repetition and muscle memory. When I came to this realization I asked myself, “What are you waiting for?” That was it man. That was the light.
RIS: So a kickflip at the top of your Bucket List?
Ben: People get caught up in bucket lists. Before you go, what do you want to do? But for me, it’s about my bucket list of regrets. When I turned forty I asked myself what was on my bucket list. Kickflip—even though I grew up with vert skating. It was so great growing up in the 70’s. It was so pure. No one skated for anyone. You went to Sears or Zody’s department stores and got a plastic Hobie board or a Hang Ten with clay wheels and ball bearings and you rode it—up and down your driveway. Kickflip. I wished I had done it, and had come up with all kinds of excuses for not ever doing one. And in that moment, I realized that a bucket list is not that different from a regrets list. But instead of chalking up this list of things I want to do before I go, why not have a list of things I regret not doing and still can? A bucket list is ambitious. I want to correct my regrets. And one of my greatest regrets was not the kickflip, but the fact that I stopped skating with the same passion that I had when I first touched a skateboard. And that’s when I said to myself, “You know what? Fuck this. I’m going back.” My life has never felt as good as it did when I was skateboarding from the age of seven to fourteen. At first I got back into vert skating—frontside and backside grinds, nose stalls and stuff. But there was always something calling me to street skating and flip tricks. I love watching guys do twists and handplants, but there is something so graceful about a kickflip. Once I could olley a foot consistently, I went for it.
A couple of years ago in Boston, in my hotel room—I had people banging on the walls, security knocking on my door, they would go away and I would go right back to doing it. Practicing over and over on the carpet floor in my room. I intended to push it until either I landed one or they actually put me out in the street. I picked up the phone, “You’re making to much noise and it has to stop,” they told me. “Okay,” I said. But I wasn’t done. I didn’t stop. I was so close. And sure enough, on the carpet, I popped it and BAM! —landed one! It took me a couple of years to really get it down. Doing a kickflip and kick-flipping are really different things—to have them all the time. (Ben breaks from interview to show me video clips of him kick-flipping that he has been recording on his iPhone.) What regrets do I have in my life that I can change? That’s what’s important—not a bucket list. Regrets weigh on you. Some have staying power that’s somewhat impenetrable that you just have to find a place for. But the ones that can be washed away, why not go after them? And low and behold, your legs still work pretty good at forty. Things are still working. It’s not too late. I usually skate about three hours a day. It was rough when I got back in the game. But I’ve gone from taking at least two Advil a day to none—which is in itself a major accomplishment [laughs].
RIS: You’ve been out filming for a new music video. What’s been the most impactful part of the process?
Ben: Mike V was with us at Stoner Park a few weeks ago, filming some parts for the video. It was really cool to see the kids’ reactions and responses to some of the tricks he was doing, and then to see them, after Mike left, trying to do them as well.
RIS: Yeah, Mike’s skating is incredibly intense to watch live. What was the vibe like after Mike left?
Ben: Powerful. Palpable. Electric. Kids were buzzing and trying his tricks. Handstands. They recognized the degree of difficulty. One kid with a mouth larger than his face came up to Mike. And you’ve got to love this kid because he’s been reared on Flaming Hot Cheetos, Big Gulps, Cherry Slurpees, and Beef Jerky. So this kid rolls up on Mike and asks, “Who do you skate for?” And Mike said, “I skate for myself.” It stopped the kid in his tracks. And this 13-year-old kid asks, “What do you mean?” And Mike repeated, “I skate for myself.” An hour later, about eight of these kids were sitting around at the park, eating junk food and talking about what that meant. Eventually, that same kid came up to me and asked, “What did he mean I skate for myself?” I said, “He skates for himself and for his love of skateboarding—and to express his passion and his abilities on his board. No one owns him. No company. Skateboarding is not about who you skate for it’s about how you skate and how much you love it.” His friends were listening in and one of the kids stood up and said, “Yeah, that’s who I skate for. I skate for myself,” and then kick-flipped off a ledge and skated off. It was beautiful. That statement hit the street. And then it resonated amongst the kids, “I skate for myself. I skate for myself. I skate for myself.” It was a great thing to witness.
RIS: You and Mike share the similarity of both of you being a bridge in your respective arts, between a younger and an older generation.
Ben: Well put. Mike was the first cat to bring vert to the street at the highest level.
RIS: Let’s talk about your music, your last record Give Till It’s Gone.
Ben: From the second I heard the lap steel guitar at age five I was into it. There are pictures of me sitting around my parent’s music store playing. It was the sound. People would come in and play because we were the kind of store that would have lap steels. The first time I ever heard it I knew I had to get it—learn it. My mom didn’t play lap steel, but there were some great players in the neighborhood—David Lindley of Jackson Brown, Chris Darrow, Patrick Brayer, John Harrelson local hometown heroes who were just monsters at it. They would come in and rip, with a lot of other players who came in and played killer banjo, guitar, and other instruments. But it was the lap steel that raised its hand the highest for me. It sunk the deepest. I had to get me some of that. There was so much of me in that sound it was ridiculous. Even as a kid I felt it. It sat there calling my name. As I grew older and became more connected to it, I learned a song all the way through. Then I learned a couple of songs and I would sit in on an open mic night. And it all built from there.
RIS: Was singing and playing hand in hand for you?
Ben: My great grandparents funded the opening of the music store for my grandparents in 1958. My grandmother played and sang. My mom played and sang. My dad was a musician, a percussionist and sang around the house. So playing and singing was symbiotic. You do both. When you play, you sing. When you sing, you play. And the early blues players who influenced me the most—Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Blind Willie McTell—that’s what they were doing. And I would hear those records of those solo blues players and it always sounded like there were three guys playing the guitar. I was blown away when my grandmother would tell me it was just one guy playing. I would go and learn their songs on the lap steel and try to make it sound as much like them as I could. But it always came off sounding different. It frustrated me for a while, but that grew into what was necessary. It became my sound. My signature. When I first came on the scene in late ’93 and then off to the races when my first record, Welcome to the Cruel World, came out in ’94, we were opening up for Luscious Jackson, PJ Harvey, The Fugees, The Roots, Pearl Jam. Seeing the looks on peoples faces when I stepped out with a lap steel is something that will stay with me forever. I may as well have come out playing an accordion with a monkey and a cup. It was that much of a contrast. Especially with PJ Harvey. Her audience was a crowd of fifteen-year-old girls with black eyeliner, died black hair who dressed just like PJ. And we would come on the stage and it worked—it really worked. To come out on stage before The Fugees—our music wasn’t the type of music that their crowd were listening to. But the unfamiliarity almost instantly transformed into curiosity—that was fun. That’s what it was all about. Probably very much like what Mike V felt when he was coming up as a skater. “Is he really doing those things?” He invented a lot of those tricks. If you didn’t see him doing them, then you didn’t see anyone doing them. It didn’t exist until that moment. It was new. My music was new to those girls with the black eyeliner. In that moment it existed for them and for me. “Do things my way, whether I want to sell a song for a dollar, give it away, or use it to raise money for a charity—it’s all fresh and new again. And this feeling exactly mirrors what we were talking about in skating— “I ride for me.”
RIS: So in 1994 you were opening for all those great bands. And this year, a little opening act by the name of Robert Plant opened the shows for you.
Ben: And there it is. That bookends it. You just nailed it. And the craziest part about that was overall how cool he was. Sometimes in San Francisco I will play in front of five thousand people. And then in Nebraska, I’ll play in front of five hundred people. He’s Robert Plant. With a phone call he could be playing in front of a million people if he wanted. But you do different things and they take on different sizes and scopes. It’s super humbling. Matter of fact, Jack Johnson spent a year opening up for me. And then after that year, I was opening up for him. And you’ve got to have that. Because it really isn’t about who you’re opening for or who’s opening for you as much as it’s about playing your show—grateful. You’ve got to hang on to that sincere emotion of being grateful, regardless of what side of that moment you are in, no matter what side of you career you’re on, what side of your life’s expansion—remain grateful. So to see Robert humble and grateful to be in that situation, I learned a lot from him in that moment. Don’t let me make it sound simple. You’ve got to get used to the taste of crow. But what a great skillset to have—to remain grateful while eating crow. Mind you, Robert Plant didn’t have to open for me. He was out there testing his new band. It made sense for everyone involved. Still, I’ll never be able to wrap my head around that one—Robert Plant opening for me.
RIS: What’s the best part about the current state of the music business?
Ben: The best part about making music now, is that all bets are off. Old records are now new records. New records—people may hear them, they may not, they may smash, they may miss. They may connect with new people that you didn’t expect to connect with. But it’s new again. I’m forever grateful for the amount of people that have heard my music. It’s gone far beyond any expectation—especially for a lap steel guitar player. But there are far more people that haven’t heard my music than have. So there’s still an entire planet that my first record can be brand new to. And in the digital age, it’s about awareness of everything—not of what you created yesterday, or last week, or your newest effort. That’s my favorite part about this musical era. You don’t have to be defined by the record company’s mandate. Today you can shine a light on everything you’ve done instead of just what you’ve recently done. When I tour, I like to represent my entire catalog. I’ve just completed a ten record deal with Virgin. This is the first time in my adult life I haven’t been on a major record label. I’m so proud of what I’ve done within that structure, but I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there. Do things my way, whether I want to sell a song for a dollar, give it away, or use it to raise money for a charity—it’s all fresh and new again. And this feeling exactly mirrors what we were talking about in skating— “I ride for me.” Well… I sing for me.
RIS: And that will be reflected in your next move?
Ben: Yes. And I don’t know what that move is going to be. This is the first time in fifteen years that I haven’t had my next year already completely planned. It’s open. I know I gotta go to work and put some points on the board. But at the same time, to do it for me and at my pace and to do it in a way that can be outside of whatever normal is. Outside of the obvious. I can’t wait to figure that out. Someone recently approached me and asked, “What label are you going to be on next?” And I replied, “If I were to be with another label, the label is gonna be on me. I’m not gonna be on them.”
RIS: Do you have a musical regret list?
Ben: Having not been able to attain a sound yet that’s in my head. I’m not so sure this is a regret, but there are some musical places like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska—I want to make my Nebraska. I don’t want to pattern my record after Nebraska, but there are certain sounds that I want to go after with that stripped-back, bare bones, punch you in the neck sincerity and urgency, that is not overwrought in production and not overthought in its presentation. I gotta get there. I also want to make a record with my mom. I want to make a reggae record. I want to make a record in my family’s music store with local musicians and celebrate my hometown heroes. I guess musically it is more of a bucket list, because I don’t regret any of the music I made.
RIS: For me, your last record took a stand—back against the wall, fists clenched, and ready to fight for belief.
Ben: Thank you. Standing up is liberating. What’s the use of introspection if you’re not going to reflect out to the world as something better—something stronger? Rock ‘n Roll is free. In this day and age, a buck is free. You can get a song cheaper than a candy bar. For a song that’s going to be the soundtrack to your entire world—a buck is free enough. It’s unreal. I was getting on an airplane and paid two bucks for a candy bar. That candy bar cost twice as much as the best song I’ve ever written.
RIS: Having written the record, recorded it, released it, toured behind it, what does Give Till It’s Gone mean to you?
Ben: It solidified who’s in and who’s out as far as people who are into what I’m doing. It was a proclamation in its own way. It’s actually one of the most exciting musical moments in my life because it’s the record that enabled me to not have to play a couple of songs for the rest of my life. It’s amazing how a couple of songs can define you. Imagine being defined by two songs out of two hundred that you’ve written. Not cool. Not cool at all. And I’m super proud of those two songs. But man, that’s not me. Those are two parts of a body of work of a much grander story that I’m telling.
RIS: Diamonds on the Inside?
Ben: Steal My Kisses and Burn One Down are the main offenders [laughs]. I love having written them and I love playing them. But I don’t want to be owned by them.
RIS: And now they’re off the setlist.
Ben: Exactly. They off the setlist and it’s on. It’s on for me musically like it’s never been on before. I’m having a conversation and a dialogue with the people who appreciate my music that is high octane. And it goes from the most quiet and intimate to complete ruckus and everything in between, and they seem to be going on the ride with me. Rarely do I hear either of those two songs cat-called. So this record has really defined the re-generation. People say, “Oh you gotta get a new crowd” or “you gotta reinvent yourself.” I don’t need a new crowd. I love my crowd. And I don’t want to reinvent, I just want to continue to invent. Young, old—come one come all. This record has been the war cry for just that notion. And with the younger crowds finding me, what’s old is new again. That’s the rebirth. It’s exciting to be able to shine a light on what I’ve worked so hard to create. This record is a proclamation and exclamation to say, “Its about a body of work, not just a couple of songs.”
RIS: I came to your show on my birthday. You closed the set with the song Better Than I Deserve that you have not yet recorded. It’s a banger!
Ben: Thank you so much! I wrote it in Italy this last summer while on tour with Robert Plant. I have never written a song that went straight to the closing slot in our set. It’s never happened until now. There was nowhere else to put it. And sure enough, that single song would just take the entire setlist and put it on its shoulders in such a particular way. I have been trying to write that song, Better Than I Deserve, all my life. And there it was one morning when I woke up in a hotel room in Verona.
RIS: When was the first time you played it?
Ben: That night! Wrote it that morning, rehearsed it with the guys at soundcheck, and played it that night.
RIS: At the show I attended at Doheney Days, the reaction was powerful. What was the reaction that first night in Italy?
Ben: They were singing it at the top of their lungs. And the song is written in English, and we were in Italy. There’s that song I’ve been looking for. I’ve been trying to get to you for a long time. And we’ve closed every show ever since with it.