Say what you will about Ben Harper; the guy creates a sense of community wherever he goes. Sure, he’s a bit self-serious, and all those dramatic pauses strain credibility, but it’s hard to begrudge the man his Bob Marley complex when people treat him with such reverence. The crowd at the 9:30 Club last week had heard only a handful of these songs before—a Zeppelin cover, a Queen cover, and “Another Lonely Day”; the rest were new and, for the most part, unleaked—but they went nuts (and sang along) as though he’d plied them with a greatest hits medley.
Most of the concert was a live performance of White Lies for Dark Times (released the day after the concert)—material that stands up much better in concert than on wax, thanks to sheer energy of drummer Jordan Richardson, who uses sticks only part of the time, relying otherwise on maracas or hard mallets for a edgy backbeat best exemplified on the record’s first single. Choice cuts like “Number With No Name” got nice, if overlong dueling guitar workouts, and Harper’s lavish slidework made even the duds sound worthwhile. (Including, um, the disco track.) General shredding, melting of faces, the works. It was a great show.
It was also the birthday of Jesse Ingalls, R7’s bassist and a D.C. native. Before the show, he took a few questions…some which he was unable to answer until yesterday. Full Q&A below the jump.
You grew up playing bands in D.C. Did you get caught up in D.C. postpunk, or were you more into classic, rootsy stuff?
My first instrument was the bass, which I started at about age 16. My first influence was the classic rock I was raised on—Zeppelin, Beatles, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd. My first band in D.C. was an emo/alternative group called Osiris. I was really inspired by D.C. punk bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains, but I never got too into the scene. By the time I left DC in ’96 I was moving towards jazz, blues, and soul.
Describe the sound of the famous late-’90s demo that introduced Harper to the group.
The demo was played for Ben by the singer in Jason’s band. The band was called Wan Santo Condo. I wasn’t in the band, although Jason and I were good friends. I would describe their sound as heavy alt rock in the vein of Jeff Buckley and early Radiohead.
Mozersky played the famous demo for Harper back in ’98, right? And you, Mozersky, and Richardson didn’t record with him until ’05, when they were laying down Both Sides of the Gun. Can you explain how you guys hooked back up with Harper?
In ’05, I moved to LA with Jordan to pursue a music career. Jason was in LA and happened to be staying at our place. Jason came over and told us he had just jammed with Ben Harper and Ben wanted Jordan and me to come to the studio and record a track as a four-piece. The next day we met Ben at the studio and ended up recording the song “Serve Your Soul.” It went so well that I had a feeling it might happen again someday—and it did, but not until ’08. I guess I would call it a combination of coincidences and a lot of hard work preparing for a great opportunity like this.
Tell us about some goofy shit that happened on tour.
As far as touring, we always have a blast on stage. One funny tradition has taken hold and that is pre-show socks. In other words, putting on fresh socks just prior to show time. It’s become very serious.
Much has been made of the new record’s self-consciously straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll approach. Harper told Rolling Stone: “There’s some Queen in there, and some Floyd-isms, and there’s a good dose of Blues and Soul.” Would you agree with his characterization? Were you listening to a lot of classic rock during the sessions? And: Can you explain the Queen thing? Because I’m not hearing it!
We do cover a Queen song live, but we weren’t referencing anything from the studio. I think the classic rock influence is more subconscious than conscious. But I feel the straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll description is pretty accurate. That might mean different things to different people. To me, it refers to the live studio recording style, and the raw production. It also means the heavy influence of blues and soul. Although there is a pop element to the record, we tried to make a record that could have been made in any era.
From everything I’ve heard about the sessions, they sound like an evenhanded, collaborative effort. When working with an established dude like Harper, how does a youngblood power trio get its voice heard? Was there an icebreaker after which you guys felt, “Hey, we’re in good now.” Basically: How did you keep from being merely ‘Ben Harper’s backing band’?
Honestly, it was a very collaborative effort from the start. I didn’t know what to expect, but Ben continually threw the ball in our court, and after a while it builds your confidence and you say “I’d better swing at this one.” It’s hard to fathom that a talented and established artist like Ben Harper would put that trust in some up-and-comers, but he has, and I feel extremely grateful to him for giving me this platform. Ben is a very straightforward person, and I figured out quickly that we could all communicate openly and directly. The good thing is that we all love what each other does musically, so I was always excited to try any ideas that Ben had in the studio—and vice versa, I hope. Its all about serving the song.