Ben Harper on Get Up!
16th Jan 2013 | 15:49
The songwriter talks slide guitar and adventures with blues legends
Ben Harper is a man of many musical talents: he's an accomplished lap-steel player and vocalist and can also play piano, bass, guitar and drums; he's had gold records around the world; he's bagged two Grammys and he's forged a reputation as a Dylan-esque genre chameleon.
Whether it was the folk rock/reggae sound of early releases like 1995's Fight For Your Mind, the gospel of 2004's There Will Be A Light (recorded with the mythical The Blind Boys Of Alabama), or the barroom brawl rock of 2007's Lifeline, Ben has managed to wander convincingly between many styles. At the heart of it all though is his first love: the blues.
Perhaps that's why Ben's 12th studio album, Get Up! (due 5 February on Stax), recorded with blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite works so convincingly.
A man with an incomparable musical history, Charlie witnessed rock 'n' roll's birth in Memphis in the 50s, made his name in the great Chicago blues explosion of the 1960s, meeting the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker (indeed, the last name on that list is of particular significance to this story), and is now regarded as one of the last great bluesmen. A living legend. More importantly, though, Charlie is a phenomenal musician.
Now the two players have united for a fiery collection of roots-rooted blues tunes penned by Ben . Casting it's net wide from the dark, spiritual wail of I Ride At Dawn, to the Black Keys attitude of I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone and the scorching honky tonk swing of Blood Side Out, Get Up! is a surprising and powerful collection.
We caught up Ben Harper to find out about the enigmatic slide-playing songwriter's adventures with blues greats, essential slide technique tips, jaw-dropping vintage gear and Charlie's "mystical" tone.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up! Album trailer
"I played the hell out of Charlie's records, man. That soul, that sound - that wicked blues sound just grabs you by the throat!"
When did you first discover Charlie Musselwhite's music?
"My first memory of Charlie was seeing his record collection in my family's music store. My parents made me get my own turntable because I kept wrecking theirs and I'd sneak into their vinyl collection and steal records [laughs]. He had that record, Memphis Charlie, and it had a painting of him on the front. I saw that cover and it looked like a cartoon, so I thought, 'This might be a cartoon record!' So I put it on and I was like, 'Holy shit!' I played the hell out of that record, man. That soul, that sound, that wicked blues sound just grabs you by the throat.
"Don't get me wrong, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, that slide blues is my bread 'n' butter, that's my heart and soul – but there's something about that Chicago blues that just rolls right over you. It's like you've gotta duck from getting hit with a pot of hot grits!"
"John Lee Hooker invited Charlie and I to play with him on a song on what was to be his very last record"
Where did you first meet Charlie?
"I was opening for John Lee Hooker in '94/'95 at a club called The Sweetwater, which is a famous club across the bridge in San Francisco. John Lee Hooker was doing some shows to help save it, to bring in a quick influx of dough and Charlie was in John Lee's band.
"We got re-acquainted about six months later at the Byron Bay Blues Festival and we hit it off. Then John Lee Hooker invited Charlie and I to play with him on a song on what was to be his very last record [Burnin' Hell, from Hooker's 1998 compilation Best Of Friends].
"That's where we really musically connected on a soul level and we knew then that at some point in our lives, some day we'd have to dig deeper into that. We both recognise that common tone that brings out the best in each other's instruments."
"The songs were waiting for the right place to land, they were waiting for the ride home"
Who wrote the songs on Get Up!?
"Most of the songs I brought to the table, but they could never have been fulfilled without Charlie's playing. It's like, if you hear Muddy Waters and you remove the harmonica from Muddy Waters music, it's still great, but it's the meat. It's the meal. These songs are written around the harmonica, truth be told, without which they wouldn't even be worth recording. You'd just leave them alone. Some of them were in my archive and I just knew I couldn't put them out without a sound like Charlie.
"Before I released the record with the Blind Boys Of Alabama [There Will Be A Light], I was sitting on those gospel songs because I knew they were waiting for the right place to land, they were waiting for the ride home, and it was the same case with Charlie. They were waiting for the right time to come to life and thank goodness they didn't come out any sooner - they would have been incomplete without Charlie."
"Charlie's tone is mystical. He's the last of the Mohicans. He's the cat. He's the man. He's the keeper of the flame."
What musical lessons did you learn from Charlie?
"First of all, phrasing: tone and phrasing. Charlie's tone is like, I don't know, it's mystical. He's the last of the Mohicans. He's the cat. He's the man. He's the keeper of the flame. And that tone, and the way he turns his harmonica into an entire horn section, it's stunning.
"So what have I learned from him? I've learned how to be musically patient and how to be musically creative. You have to disconnect. You have to leave room in your spirit to let music come through, but you also have to be tuned in enough to move within it, so it's a fine line between 'being there' and not being there."
Where did you record this album?
"We recorded it at The Carriage House – a small studio in Silverlake, CA. It's a great studio put together by an amazing bass player named Sheldon Gomberg. You know when you see pictures of the early Motown studios? I think he patterned it after that because it looks so much like the earliest Motown studio – just real humble, but with incredible equipment. Great preamps, a lot of tube gear and a beautiful 'board.
"Silver Lake is kind of the Brooklyn of California. There's a lot of heart and soul there. It's hipster not because it's full of people with money that want to be hip, it's hip because people want to be around a soulful environment. East LA is a good side of town."
There are some really great tones on the album, what guitar gear were you using?
"Oh man! We were using old 50s tweed Fender amps and we were using – I've gotta geek out on you a little bit... We pretty much set a rule that we couldn't use an amp or a guitar if it was any newer than a '65. I think a 70s Gibson Firebird may have made the cut, but that was the newest piece of kit that we used and it was from 71!
"Even the kit was this old, old Ludwig. It was this kind of Ringo-looking kit, it had the stripes up and down it and that was a late 50s/early 60s kit, for sure. It had an old snare drum and the cymbals looked like they'd got dug up from a shipwreck!"
"We recorded I Ride At Dawn with the amp in a bathroom. It was crazy, this bathroom had this haunting reverb!"
A personal favourite is the grinding slide tone on I Ride At Dawn. How did you get that sound?
"I was using, I believe an old Weissenborn lap-steel. It's acoustic, but it's just tuned way down. When you tune that far down on a slide guitar, you've gotta have a real light touch. And then it was a small Fender Champ amp. When you have an amp that small it breaks up at low volumes. We put the amp in a bathroom, we mic'd the amp – and it was crazy, this bathroom had this haunting reverb – and then we mic'd the acoustic guitars and we blended the two tones – so that's what that is!"
Your one of a few players who plays a Weissenborn lap-steel. What's special about those instruments?
"It's a hollow-neck, koa wood acoustic lap steel. They were made in the late 1910s to early 30s by Hermann Weissenborn, so he had about a ten year run, before the metal-bodied National guitars put him out of business due to their sheer volume, which meant all of the people in big bands were using them.
"There was a time when the lap-steel played as prominent role in American jazz music as the saxophone and Hermann Weissenborn got caught up by the Hawaiian jazz slide guitar phase and made what has become now the most well-known and sought after acoustic lap-steel, called the Weissenborn.
"They're hollow all the way up the neck – the body and the neck is just one hollow chamber and it gives it a real haunting, odd sound that you feel like you've never heard before."
"The most important thing for any slide guitar player is the vibrato. A frantic vibrato is pretty much the death knell for slide guitar players"
You've been playing slide guitar for a long time now. Have you got any tips for people that can't get the knack?
"The most important thing for any slide guitar player is the vibrato. Because it's fretless, people unconsciously get a little bit nervous about getting the note perfect, so they hit the note with a very frantic vibrato and that's pretty much the death knell for slide guitar players.
"You can't go to that nervous vibrato every time, so controlling that vibrato and putting in the time to be able to hit the note without the vibrato on a slide guitar is the most important thing. Be able to hit the note true without moving the bar at all.
"Then work from there onto three different vibratos: very slow, the middle speed and then finally, there's a place for that frantic vibrato, it just can't be every time. So recognising the three different speeds, as well as being able to hit the note pitch-perfect with no vibrato, is key."
"Taj Mahal said, 'If I send you a ticket would you come play with me in my band?' I was like, 'You've gotta be fucking kidding me!'"
Your first break as a musician was as a lap-steel player, right?
"Imagine me, a student of the blues, and my first gig was playing with [award-winning Harlem bluesman] Taj Mahal! I was 21 and Taj Mahal heard me play lap-steel and he came up to me after my gig and he said to me, 'Do you tour?' I didn't even know that they called it touring!
"He said, 'Do you go on the road?' I was like, 'Huh!?' And he said, 'If I send you a ticket would you come play with me in my band?' I was like, 'You've gotta be fucking kidding me!'
"Two weeks later, I got a ticket to come to Hawaii and the next thing I know I'm in Taj's band and playing Austin City Limits and touring the world with Taj Mahal. So, for me this album with Charlie [Musselwhite], it's about not giving up on a dream. It's a dream."
"Anything could have happened in those 18 years, but sure enough, we stayed the course and brought it to life"
So recording this album with Charlie is the culmination of a life-long dream?
"These guys are my heroes. If it weren't for these guys, there's no way I'd be making music. The old school, like Brownie McGhee and Lonnie Johnson, BB King and Albert King, and then also The Allman Brothers, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal – that wave. To be able to make this record with what is the truest school of living blues – through Charlie's harp – for me, it is a dream realised. No dream is ever too old. Just keep sticking to it. Anything could have happened in those 18 years, between the time we met and now, but sure enough, we stayed the course and brought it to life."
Finally, you're releasing this album on the legendary Stax label. How did that come about?
"Yeah, how about that man! The Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan CD [In Session] on Stax is one of my favourite records in the world, and then because that was also a duet thing, it just clicked right away. I was thinking 'independent' at the time, but all my manager had to say was 'Stax' and I was like, 'Sign! SIGN!'"