Interview : Ben Harper, live in San Diego, April 25th 2003 by Sylvain Roger
Sylvain Roger : First I wanted to thank you for granting me this interview. Because I was in Claremont and I remembered you told you think not doing a lot of interviews.
Ben Harper : I try to cut down
S. R. : I know..the story with Rolling Stones magazine.
S. R. : I would like to know how the tour in Australia and New Zealand was.
Ben Harper : It was.... When you ask me how a tour was. It's a challenging question because I only have my perspective and my perspective may lack a certain objectivity due to the fact that I am in the front, center...and also I don't want to come with braggies: oh the tour was amazing!!! you know what I mean, that's a little bit awkward
S. R. : yes, but it's different from country to country
Ben Harper : I feel it was one of the best tours ever. Make that a statement modestly, please allow me too.
S. R.: did you have the time to surf there?
Ben Harper : Yes, quite a bit, with Jack. In Byron Bay mostly... all along the coast, Broken Head
S. R.: There are some people who are worried that the setlist looks quite similar from concert to concert. You are used to starting with the reggae set (Excuse Me Mr., Jah Work, I shall Not Walk Alone...). Is there a particular reason for that?
Ben: If you use the thing and sets it's taken me 10 years to make a good set. This is the first set that I think is a really good set. And... It hasn't been stack: we haven't done it every night, I always do different acoustics every night and we have been taking the framework of one set and mixing it up and injecting other songs and so on, but we have found a set that we really really love. And...The cross over it's a little subjective that how many people travel 500 miles to see the show the next night...sure it's not as fun for the 20 kids who go on the Internet every day and talk about what it is that I do. You see what I mean? Oh they didn't change the set, I'm mad...that's get a bit brady. You know what I mean? But when you have a great set, that you finally love...each time should be privileged to it.
S. R. : but sometimes you play in the same location two nights consecutively and people expect to see two different shows..
Ben Harper : oh no, whenever we play two nights in a row, we change it up. Like if you look at the set, if we do two nights in the same city: different... At least 6 songs. I mean it can argue intelligibly either or way...like oh... I have heard people say "I don't want him to change the set because it is the set I want to see in my town tomorrow night" and I've heard people say "we're gonna go to both shows, we want to see different sets" so I'm gonna make sure I do different acoustics...I know what you mean man, there is a point to it.
S. R. : There are two new guys in the group, Nicky Panigi and Jason Yates. Is there a particular reason for Nicky to play more solo and you rythmic guitar or is it like that, no explanation?
Ben Harper : No it is not necessarily like that no explanation, I don't just... I always want to represent what I do. I don't want to be stand up just like that, you know what I mean? so it is...that's not really my style. But at the same time when you really check it out...I still take the solo on Like A King, Temporay Remedy, Ground on Down
S. R. : all lap-slide. And on your Weissenborn, Rickenbacker
Ben Harper : I know what you mean. It frees me up a little bit to do all the singing I like to do and I am just having fun, you know what I mean? For me it's about enjoying myself. I really just want to have fun now and I just want to cut blues, just want to sing my ass off, or try to sing my ass off and have a bigger sound. I think you still can have a expanded sound but still have it roots. And it frees my voice up to go different directions, so giving up to shot.
S.R.: Do you think about adding a special guest to some concerts, like on When She Believes. When you tour in France I think that could be a good idea, to remember the feeling of Edith Piaf
Ben Harper : Yeah, that would a good idea, maybe to have strings and an accordian player for the French tour, even for the entire europe tour we'll probably put it fun.
S.R.: Do you have someone in mind?
Ben Harper : I don't at the moment. It would be someone from France so, a French player and probably a French string section that could really really grass at I'm looking for.
S.R. : I think you already invited someone in 1996 in Paris.
Ben Harper : Yes, That's right. That's exactly right. A string trio,. The Thing is.... People are a little bit hard to please as well. You know what I mean? There are some people who like me to just play acoustic blues and they will be very happy if I just do that. And right now my music is spread out, the music I make is..I'm having to please a lot of different factions, The Ben Harper fan base, the rockers, the solsters, the folkies, the bluesheads, the lovers..you know what I mean? There is a whole, a lot of different groups, that are listening for something different and that's a big challenge, right now for me. Because each group wants me to do a specific thing and I don't do that, I never have. Whether it's Like A King or Walk Away, Ground On Down, Another Lonely Day or Faded or I Shall Not Walk Alone. There have always been extremes. The majority seems like to enroll with it and then there is a whole group of people that only want to talk about is the way I was, you know. So it's a bit challenging for me on that level just because who do I answer to, who I am myself. Yeah I have to listen to my own creative voice for the music to be sincere. You know. The music is long, life is long, you know. I may go back and make a record that's even more roots than Cruel World in some point.
S. R. : Like with you mother.
Ben Harper : Yeah, I can do a record with my mom, which we were talking about doing. I can go in a lot of different directions but people get... step for a while.. That should excite people. You know what I mean? Oh Ben is getting,... that's great. But everybody can have their angle and their perspective and they want what they want... Damn kind of things but again I just want to really be...Right now I am creatively fulfilled. And that's what I really want to look for. That's what I want. That's what I want: I want to be creatively fullfilled. I really feel that way right now, you know. Standing up, I'm standing up and sitting down now and that's also you know with any change that's going come flack and challenges and friction. I'm not standing up. Some people say: oh Ben wants to be famous that's why he is standing up. Well don't be so "sowy". It's just time to liberate myself from sitting down for two hours and half. It's time to change. If I was gonna try to be famous, don't you think I'd write, I'd put songs that would be more commercial. I would do songs like Blessed To be A Witness, Picture of Jesus, you know what I mean? If I was really gonna go, you know what I mean? This is no quest for fame, this is never start quest for fame and this doesn't end quest for fame.... What it is is me being true in my creative instinct. And my creative instinct said to me: you know what, stand the fuck up and have some fun! I do both. I am enjoying it, that's what it is about. It's about communicating a sincere emotion and enjoying yourself in the process. Again, everyone else has the right of their opinion so. I'm not trying to strip anyone of their opinions.
S. R. : Do you think about satisfying the old fans of Cruel World by doing a reedition of Pleasure and Pain?
Ben Harper : Yeah, but that's still going back. I just want to keep moving forward and I am making an acoustic album at that point. I just want to keep doing what I feel. I mean, people are a bit quick to judge I find because when you really check Diamonds on the Inside, Everything to Me is all acoustic instruments and Picture of Jesus is A Cappella, She's only Happy in the Sun is acoustic and When It's Good is acoutic, Blessed to Be A Witness: that's 5 songs. There are only 14 songs on the record. It's half an acoustic album. But people, all they hear is So High, So Low and Temporary Remedy and that's enough to say Ben lost his mind. It's funny. I don't know how people are listening to the music anymore. I don't know. People love Fight for your Mind. Fight for your Mind is acoustic guitar but is "done" through an amp. Like Ground On Down or God Fearing Man it's wrohhh. So that's not purely acoustic either. But all I know is I'm just having fun.
S.R. : There is a huge demand for songbooks, tabs. Do you think about releasing an official songbook?
Ben Harper : I'm not sure how I'm gonna do it now because I'm so deep into it. I probably should have done songbook for each record but maybe I should do a thick songbook of all five records, what do you think?
S.R. : I'm running a website about tabs. All your songs of the five albums have been tabbed. In two years, 200 000 people have visited the website.
Ben Harper : oh, shit. Can you give me the address?
S. R.: There are two versions, English and French. Songbooks are a way to share the music.
Ben Harper : Oh, it's gonna be done. I love songbooks.
S. R. : so there is a lack.
Ben Harper : Oh, yeah, it's gonna be done. I will do it. I want to do it beautiful. I want do it, even have a hardback edition of it, like something totally different. Because I just want to invest a lot in it. Because I don't want to make any money on songbooks. I just want to get something beautiful and have it for fans who want it.
S.R. : but like with the Copy Control Logo on your artwork, you cannot control everything.
Ben Harper : I know. The next pressing won't have that. You can resend your album to Virgin. That wasn't easy. I had to fight for that.
S.R.: In fact, there were two problems: the copy control logo (Ben add: on my artwork ) and the fact that the CD couldn't play on certain players. It was very bad because some people bought your CD and couldn't listen to it.
Ben Harper : that's horrible.
S.R.: you said in an interview that you sing to your children "La Vie en Rose" by Edith Piaf.
Ben Harper : that's right. I still do it.
S.R. : Have you thought about singing it during your French tour?
Ben Harper : No, my French isn't that confident. I wish I could. I really wish I could. I was almost gonna sing a version of When She Believes in French. But the translation wasn't able to get it in time.
S.R.: Jeff Buckley covered two Edith Piaf songs.
Ben Harper: Jeff could really sing in French. He really had a good ear for it, a really good ear for it. I still have to practice.
S.R.: thanks for the interview.
Ben Harper : easy, very easy, you know.
S.R. : I can ask a lot of other questions but as you can see, I don't want to say I'm a fan because I don't like the word fan, because the word fan comes from fanatism. I just want to say I have a passion for your music: the lyrics are in my head and the rythm is in my heart.
Ben Harper: oh, that's sweet.
S.R. : You know what I mean?
Ben Harper : Yeah, but I think it has been redefined so. I think fanatic and fan are different words. Sure, fan derives from the word fanatic but I think the word itself is redefined. Because when you are fan it doesn't mean you're fanatic. Fan just means something you like something. I am a fan. I am a fan of... Jack Johnson. I'm not a fanatic but I am not embarrassed to call myself a fan because I am. I am a fan. I am a Lakers fan
S.R.: Lakers? Not Iverson?
Ben Harper : No way. But I know what you mean. If you are unconfortable with it, that's not bad.
S.R. : No, but sometimes, you can see people become crazy when they see their idol.
Ben Harper : I am not your idol? Oh...(laughs, Ben gives me a hug)
S.R. : I am running a website for you (laughs). No, you know what I mean, the extremes
Ben Harper : Yeah, people can be extreme.
S.R. : are you afraid of this?
Ben Harper : yes you know, there
are a couple of issues that are "stacked based" that I have
to spend money to keep away. But I don't want to perpuate that. I never
want not to be able to do what I feel like doing so I don't worry about
S.R. : I think it's too hard to select the right moments...
Ben Harper : But I am not gonna judge you for it. I wanna say that how you were in the moment and until you will discuss what you were meaning I'm not gonna make such hard judgement about your ego, how you are as a person. Don't judge me as a man by one quote. And everybody says: "oh, Ben is getting arrogant now", that's all thing, "Ben is becoming arrogant". No, I am not. I have the right to be. There is nothing worst than false modesty. People who are modest but they actually really feel they are the shit but they think modest because they think it's politically correct. I'm confident, so what? I'm not overconfident but I don't real my confidence like some "sord", some arrogant sord. Sometimes I may be totally arrogant, sometimes I may totally be the most humble guy you've ever met, sometimes I may be in between. But that's life. Who isn't like that? What's the big deal if I had an arrogant moment.
S.R.: A good thing is that people realize that you are human.
Ben Harper : Yes, that's why that DVD, the sole purpose. Look man, don't expect more out of me that you expect out of you. I write songs and I sing them from the deepest part of my existence and I hope they connect with the deepest part of yours. But right now, as I go, you know "he is dressing this way or...", I can dress however I wanna dress. I don't hear about that in France of course because people in France have the highest level of taste when it comes to fashion and design so that's mostly from America I'm afraid. But I really get from my angle now. "Stay blues, sing me a love song, are you gonna rock hard? You don't rock hard enough" and you can't do... like Jack Johnson. He is mellow like I am mellow and I do something harder and I get crucified for doing something hard. Jack is mellow, he does something even more mellow and then he gets crucified for being more mellow, like there is no winning. The only time you win is when you truly are your own.. voice..great. I actually feel like, because I only do...voice. And I know I'll be able to live back because I can go back on Cruel World 10 years later and I am really proud of it. I mean not to brag, not to be arrogant. "You are proud of this record"..yeah I'm gonna be proud of Diamonds in 10 years. That's really the main thing. But people really want...
S.R. : You have to be yourself. I think people can really see that you do what you want on stage. I think it's the reason so many people like you, because you are you.
Pictures of the concert :
Thank you to : Ben Harper for granting the interview, Dan Barbey from USD Concerts, Scott Tour Manager, Emmanuel Rivet from www.swer.net, Benjamin from Soleil Noir, to all the participants of the chat, C.W. for the wonderful concert I've lived.