“The hardest thing any musician will ever do is follow an album that’s decent,” Ben Harper says of his 2006 release, Both Sides of the Gun. “To avoid self-adulation, I’ll just use the word ‘decent.’”
Both Sides, a wildly ambitious double CD and concept album that pitted Harper’s love for his family and hopes for the world against his rage over Katrina and a world falling apart, met with mixed success, critically and commercially. Considering that his new album, Lifeline – a stripped-down soul effort that’s dramatically less complex than Both Sides – is garnering the rocker his best reviews to date, it’s easy to understand why he can’t help but be confused.
“I’ve gone back and forth about whether America missed the point,” he says. “A lot of America didn’t. It hit dead center in a lot of places. Obama’s using `“Better Way”` as his campaign song now,” he adds proudly. Nonetheless, he says, “I was actually surprised by people who didn’t get it. People complain about me not being political enough and then I put out a record like Both Sides of the Gun and they don’t really catch onto it. Then I make Lifelines and they say, ‘What happened to the politics?’ That’s not the point, though, is it? The minute you start pleasing anyone besides your creative instincts, you’ve sold out.”
And that’s how he got to Lifeline, the first album he’s co-written with his band, the Innocent Criminals. After nine months on tour promoting Both Sides, the veteran group hit a Paris studio together and recorded 11 tracks to tape in seven days without the benefit of ProTools or AutoTuning.
“You kind of have to start fresh every record,” Harper explains. “You can’t count on X number of people being there. Every time you step forward with some form of creative expression, you’re kind of starting from scratch. You have to get used to the idea that it’s not re-invention, but the evolution of evolution.”
Harper and his Criminals were surprised to find that the Parisian studio they had chosen to record Lifeline was, well, not exactly everything it had been marketed as. Instead of 24 tracks, there was only a 16-track machine – with only 15 working tracks. Most bands would’ve flipped out at this point, questioning the feasibility of trying to record a rock album with a full band in a week, but Harper says it barely fazed them.
“To be honest, this band was ready to do it with two tracks,” he says. “We were ready to do it live, direct to tape if we had to. That’s where this band is at right now.”
Harper isn’t exaggerating either, since Lifelines manages to feel raw and slick at the same time; it’s honest-to-goodness soul like it used to be made, but projected through a contemporary lens.
“It’s really a step away from everything,” he says, referring to the album’s sound as well as his personal experience making it. “It’s the first time I’ve co-written a whole album with my band, that’s new territory here. It was foreign in a great way, giving everybody his voice, democratically equal. It’s hard at any age, but, especially now, in my 30s, it’s hard to get out of my own way. It’s those ways that got you where you are, so how can you not be extremely settled in them?”
But why an album of soul that rings with a ’70s vibe? Harper has always shifted his sound between albums, but this shift is a major one. Tonally, Lifeline feels lighter, more mirthful than Both Sides was at its brightest points.
“I feel confident in saying this record is its own step – away from anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “You have to do your best at pretending you’re in control of this process when you’re not, at all. It is the music that is the definition, that is the answer, that is the question, that is the soul of the process – the reason for even reaching into your soul in the first place.”
Harper is back out on tour again, a rootless place where he seems to spend the majority of his life. “It’s loving to play live, coupled with being able to do it all over the world,” he says of his seemingly non-stop tour regimen. “It’s truly not being possessed by the romantic notion of touring or the allure of the stage or crowd. That has zero to do with it. This is a group of guys, and myself, who picked up their instruments, played them till their fingers bled the very first time, and said, ‘This is cool. I want to do this every day.’ None of us have given up that dream, so every time we get a gig, it’s fulfilling that childhood dream.”
It’s also the reason why Harper has the international fan base he does; the man understands the best way to make fans is by killing yourself out there on stage. “It hasn’t been by way of radio or video,” he says of how he’s built up his following. “It’s truly been one head at a time, one interview at a time, one disc at a time, one city at a time. Nobody has ever been excited about gifting anything to this band.”
Because of his habitual touring, one can’t help but wonder how Harper sustains his Los Angeles-based family, which includes four children and his wife, actress Laura Dern. “Some days I’m winning, some days I’m losing,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know any grown-up man who doesn’t have to work 70 hours a week. Let’s get real, dude. Everybody’s putting in big hours.” But, he adds, “When I’m not working, I’m home seven days a week. I chauffeur my kids, I’m wiping shitty behinds, I’m barbecuing. I’m that dad. The need to be that father demands I keep the balance when I’m off the road.” •
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