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Posted January 22, 2018 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Ben Miller Band: All for a Song

Ben Miller Band credit Carl Geers
Ben Miller Band credit Carl Geers

With the release of Choke Cherry Tree, the Ben Miller Band again defies categorization. Produced by the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, the new album features a slew of musical guests, including the late Ralph Carney. In a recent phone interview, Miller talked about his career and explained how the songs on Choke Cherry Tree came together.

I just watched the music video for “Akira Kurosawa.” What a cool song and concept for the video. Talk about both.
The song was sort of inspired by my dad’s love of Akira Kurosawa’s movies. [I grew up in Washington state but] my dad is from Arkansas, and he likes John Wayne and Akira. It struck me as a real non sequitur. I don’t know how that happened. I started watching some Kurosawa movies myself and got inspired by the visual aspect of what he would do in film. It developed from the perspective of an actor in the film. We went from there. It has a strong riff on it and I got it to the point that I liked it, and it stuck.

How did the band come together?
The bassist and I have played together for a long time. Two years ago, we had a lineup change. We incorporated two new players that we had known for a long time and liked their music. Every time we had a chance, we’d be jamming together. They’re from the same area as us. Right now, I’m living in Oklahoma. I left home when I was 18 and thought I would be a painter. I moved to Philadelphia to study painting. I was studying painting and three years into that, I got a scholarship to travel to Europe and I got the traveling bug and hooked up with friends of mine and we got a van and drove all over the country. Then my dad had a serious illness and I went to Oklahoma to take care of him, and I was working at Walmart. It wasn’t hard work, but it was busy work. I needed to have something I was moving toward. I started doing open mic nights and from there started running open mic nights. I realized I could make ends meet by doing music. I decided to do that, and I haven’t looked back too much.

What inspired the concept for 1 Ton and 2 Ton?
I just had so much material at that point. The first record a musician makes they have a whole lifetime to accumulate stuff. I wanted to flush everything out and have it down in some form, so it wasn’t stored in my brain as a “maybe-later” loop. I needed a cathartic closure. It was just a ton of music. It was too much for one CD so we put on two discs.

What was it like to work with Vance Powell on Any Way, Shape or Form?
Wonderful. He’s from Joplin and I had lived there as a transplant for seven or eight years. His brother came to the band at one of our shows and said his brother was in Nashville doing stuff with Jack White. It was right after a tornado had come through Joplin. We wanted to do something for relief benefit. We did a record for Joplin and gave money for local businesses that had gotten destroyed. That’s how we started working together. We got along so well that we worked with him again, and he cut us a deal. That was our first time in an actual professional setup.

When did the songs for Choke Cherry Tree start to take shape?
I had a bunch of songs that we culled down to 10 over the past two years. I started diving in deep and hard about a year ago to see what would work.

Did you find the songs were taking you in a specific direction?
Yeah, I think I did feel a pull toward a rhythmic sound and there’s a simplicity and a power to the music. I tend to think of things in terms of songs. Each song is its own thing. When I listen to music, I don’t think of genres or anything like that. I’m in love with the idea of a song. It’s like this unit or packet or idea. To me, that’s one of the most amazing things ever.

That opening number “Nothing Gets Me Down” is such a beautiful ballad. What inspired it?
Yeah, I was going through a bit of a dry spell writing. I would write, but I didn’t believe the things I was writing. I would look back to what I did and I thought I was full of shit. I needed to get my feet back on the ground. It’s a good representation of how I felt at that time. I was trying not to hold anything sacred. There’s humor and sadness. At the same time and I was feeling resilience. No matter what, I thought I would keep pushing until I got through the journey.

I didn’t know how long the journey would be but I knew I wouldn’t stop until I got there.

“Trapeze” has such a whimsical feel. Talk about that song a bit.
I guess it was a period of self-pity. I generally don’t let myself fall into that sort of thing. It’s a metaphor for the dangers of putting yourself out there in an artistic way. People might come to see you because they want to see you fail. That’s where the excitement comes from. I tell my band members that no one wants to come to the circus to see a tightrope walker stroll easily across the rope. They want to see them almost fall and then persevere. They then get the feeling that if he or she can do that, they can do that too. It’s like having the danger there is an important thing. It’s an analogy for performers in general.

The songs must be fun to play live.
Yeah. Right now, we’re in the process of birthing these things live and experimenting with fine tuning what each person plays and the energy levels and how to go through a dynamic arc. I love musicians like Nick Drake who come across so well on their albums. They’re so intimate. You can listen to the record on headphones and you feel so close to it. Recorded music can do that but live, that gets lost in the room. We’ve turned “Nothing Gets Me Down” into a country thing and it’s like a two-step. I keep my eyes on the audience and that non-verbal feedback you can pick up by watching their body language and attention. You can learn so much about what the audience is going to need from that song.

Your music is all over the map. How do you describe your sound?
I used to say “Ozark stomp.” I thought that was a general thing that was just specific enough. I’m not hemmed in by that. It’s a genre I made up. It doesn’t mean anything. Maybe you can tell me. I feel like the songs are moving away from that. I might have to make up another genre. It’s like, “What kind of music would you call the Beatles?” I guess it’s rock. They’re just songs. The song is its own genre.

Photo Courtesy New West Records, Credit Carl Geers


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.