The Electric Lotus: An interview with Ben Harper

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By Rob Machado

Not too many are born with music in their blood. Since the day he arrived in this world, Ben Harper has been surrounded by people who have the deepest love for music. There was no doubt that music would be a big part of his life. Nobody knew how big …

Most of us were only lucky enough to discover Ben around his first major label release, Welcome To The Cruel World. I feel, that in a way, I missed out. On Ben’s early days¿I can imagine him kickin’ it down at the local coffee shop, strummin’ some tunes and pouring his heart out night after night. It was only a matter of time. Who didn’t want to hear that music? Why wasn’t this guy out there blowing minds all over the world? That was just the beginning.

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Ben went on to release Fight For Your Mind, another incredible collection of stories and sounds that will just about put anyone in tears … anyone with a heart and ears. He followed that up with The Will To Live. How much can this guy give? The title says it all.

And now we come to Burn To Shine, the latest sounds from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. I had a chance to sit down with Ben and talk about the past, present, and future.

Quote from Ben

“We all need our butts kicked. If you don’t have someone to give you a good ass kickin’, it’s easy to slip.”¿Ben Harper

Rob Machado: When did the new album come out?

Ben Harper: It came out September 21st.

And what’s it called?

Burn To Shine. We spent a lot of time on that one. It took us six months.

Was it six months actually in the studio?

Well, it was four and a half months in the recording process, and one and half months in the mixing process. So yeah, about six months in the studio.

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Any guest musicians playing on this record?

David Lindley’s playing banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. Tyrone Downey (Bob Marley’s keyboard player) is playing keyboard on a couple tracks.

On the song “Steal My Kisses,” who’s throwin’ down the beat box? Is that you?

No way, man. I couldn’t get down like that. That’s actually our stage manager Nick Rich. He’s got mad skills.

So, did you grow up around here?

Just east of here. A place called the Inland Empire. You got to make it over to my grandparents music store. Oh man, there’s just not enough time. You know time, man … it just gives you life and it takes it away. No time.

Have you heard what Hendrix said about Heaven? Something like, imagine all the people that have died and gone to Heaven.

It better be a big place! Oh man, you made it in! I got to deal with you up here?

Yeah, man. You think you could move over a little bit so I could sit down?

Hell no! Go find your own piece of Heaven! This is me. You know there’s taxes up there, too. There’s gotta be! And traffic lights. No man, I’m just jivin’. It’s all nonsense.

Have you talked to Chris Miller (ex-pro skater, now owner of Planet Earth skateboards and Adio shoes) lately? I know you guys grew up in the same neighborhood and used to skate a lot together.

Yeah, I saw him at a skate contest. He’s the reason I quit skating, ’cause he was just gettin’ so damn good so fast. When we started we were on the same level. But then BMX came in, so Chris got a Redline and I got a Mongoose. So I was like, “Cool, I’ll be able to hang with him at dirt biking, ’cause I was losin’ him at skating. He was the bomb at BMX. He could do everything¿table-tops, four-foot bunny hops, and curb endos. The guy was like crazy! Then skating came back in and it was like he’d been skating the whole time. Shortly after he started to get endorsements¿Bones or Dogtown, or something like that. He was that good. I was like, “Screw this! I’m playin’ soccer. I was over it because we would be at the Pipeline in Upland and he’d do shit and I’d go behind him and eat SHIT! It wasn’t happening and I had to let it go. I still kept skating, but after a while I got into other sports.

Do you still follow skating?

Not super-close, only because of time. I don’t have the time it requires. I’ll always pick up a Thrasher or some other skate mag and get down in them. The shit they’re doin’ now is off the hook. There’s one French cat named Mark Iziza, he’s just insane. He can ollie like four and half feet, just straight air. He could ollie over my kid C.J. with no problem.

What about musical inspirations … Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix?

Yeah, Bob and Jimi are tops¿for sure.

Does it go beyond that?

It definitely does. I love a lot of different reggae music like Jimmy Cliff, and Tuts and the Mayfalls. I like a lot of groups like Zeppelin, The Faces, and stuff like that. Country music like Hank Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton¿I love that music. I love Turkish folk music. I like Southern Rock a lot, like Skynyrd and Government Mule. And I like groups like Pearl Jam and people makin’ music today like Beth Horton and The Verve. I can’t get away from Urban Hymn’s right now.

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Where do you think you do most of your songwriting¿at home or on the road?

Oddly enough, I write too often to have that split up. Because wherever I am, I’m writing. It’s a part of the writing process. Even if it’s just in my mind. Sittin’ down thinkin’ about writing a song, that’s pretty much the preliminary to writing a song. So, it’s always on the road.

I have this thing with songwriting and airplanes.

Planes are wonderful. Planes are great. That’s some down time isn’t it?

The plain fact that you’re in a flying bus with a bunch of strangers all going somewhere for something different gets me thinkin’.

Yeah, I’ve written mad songs on a plane before. Really, music is … it leads the way. You never know what’s gonna change, because it’s so beyond you. Do you control it? Does it control you? Before, when I was writing, I would think, “Wow, if I get married, will I still write the same? If I have kids, will I still write the same?” You know what I mean? “If you have money, will you still write the same?” There’s all these different things that come up in front of you that are potential walls, but that’s so psychosomatic. I mean, writing is bigger than money. It’s bigger than even family. Writing and creativity is something that’s immeasurable. You know, it’s everywhere at all times. And it’s just your relationship with creativity and how you establish it, respect it, and cultivate it to grow. I used to feel a little bit like an outsider to the process songwriting. I used to feel like, “There’s songwriting” and I’m looking in at it. But with this record and the songs I’ve written since this record, I feel like I’m closer to the process of crafting a song. It’s become a friend. It’s so much bigger than all that. I can’t even define it. My relationship with creativity has grown and it feels really good right now. It’s far out.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.