"We missed you Ben" yelled multiple members of the jam-packed crowd in between songs during an impromptu, sold-out concert Harper held in L.A. just a few weeks prior to the release of his anticipated new album, Both Sides of the Gun. "I missed you guys too," Harper responded back, as he tore through an extended two-hour set featuring a few new tracks from the upcoming album. If it was a testing ground for the new material, it passed. The audience was freaking.
Harper spent most of last year playing assorted gigs around the country, recording an album with an obscure old-timer blues band, the Blind Boys of Alabama, winning two Grammys, finding time to be a dad, and somehow cutting his best full-length album to date with his band, the Innocent Criminals. Both Sides is a two disc, eighteen-track collection that features an album of funk and another of ballads.
So how does Ben Harper keep levelheaded with his insanely hectic schedule? Skateboarding helps. "It clears my head, I love to do it” he notes, and humbly confesses, “I blatantly suck.” “[But] I never stopped loving doing what I can do, which is pretty much just bombing some hills, trying to improve, and get my ollie up a few more inches."
While Ben's main focus remained on the new album, and he dispersed his efforts to his other pressing needs, he also somehow found time to collaborate on a few other interesting one-off projects. Most recently he recorded a unique interpretation of a classic Beatles song for the This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul.
"I did a roots reggae version of ‘Michelle’.” Harper explains. “I read that Paul [McCartney] loves reggae, so I wanted to sort of drop that in there on him, maybe he'll hear it, I don't know. What if he hates it?” He adds with a laugh. “What if he's like, ‘Dude, that blows’.”
Jack Johnson even hit Harper up to get involved with the soundtrack he'd been working on for the hit animated kids film, Curious George. "I just got the call from Jack saying ‘I'm doing this thing, I'm going to send you some footage and some of the musical direction that I've got going so far, see if you've got anything for it.’ He'd mentioned that a stripped down version of ‘My Own Two Hands’ might be cool, so he sent me the gear and I immediately locked onto where he was taking it musically. I laid down a version of ‘Two Hands,’ sent it over to him, and he flossed on it as well. I was very excited to get that back and hear how it came out."
Working on a kids film soundtrack and recording a reggae version of a classic Beatles track almost simultaneously is a perfect example of Harper's eclectic interests. Classifying or labeling him in any normal way is near impossible. Enter the new album.
Never one to stick to one type of sound, Harper laid down an inspired funk, rock, middle-eastern, hip-hop, jazz, and blues influenced mix on his latest effort, Both Sides of the Gun. "I've never set out saying that I don't want to be pigeonholed, it so happens that I've got a lot of different musical interests that I'm committed to expressing sincerely.” He explains. “I could've limited that earlier on, but felt I wouldn't have been true to myself. So I was
like, ‘You know what, I'm gonna shake it up, I'm gonna do the different types of music I'm feeling because I'm such a different cat from the time I wake up to the time I crash out at night. I'm gonna just stay true to that and roll with different rhythms and ideas and not be scared to put them on the same record just because the [music] industry doesn't really have a place for that’.”
Harper's willingness to keep the creative juices flowing freely earned him his first two Grammys in 2005. Describing the experience, he notes "It was hip, it was a blast. I was totally shocked that it was all happening and that I had won. Sometimes I think that I'm this moving target, being tough to classify and all. It may have kept me out of those types of conversations. I'm still not used to all of a sudden being in those types of conversations. The best part about it had to do with my mom. Not that I'm not stoked, I'm down, they look amazing in my house, but there's always this kind of instinctual need to please your parents I think. Going into music isn't exactly the top of the list when it comes to what you're supposed to want to be when you grow up. After having to say, ‘Hey mom, guess what, college is out.’ To come back with some of that Grammy gear is another whole deal."
The notorious genre-defying, multi-instrumentalist checked himself into the studio over the summer and knocked out two sets of tracks that feature two very different sides of Ben's style for this dual disc release. Working with one of the best soundmen in the biz, Both Sides may be Harper's best effort to date. "I worked with this amazing engineer named Danny Kalb, he did the last Beck record. He's a wonderful person and an amazing engineer, he keeps up with me” Harper explains. “When I'm in the studio, the word tired is evicted from my vocabulary, we just roll, and he rolled with me every step of the way. He didn't miss a beat, and I was shocked, I couldn't believe it. He kind of outpaced me. He's got golden ears of corn. The kid's got amazing ears and just blows me away with the way he hears music."
Releasing a double CD album is a risky affair for most musicians in this fragmented iPod realm, where anything more than a single is becoming too long to market. Though Ben, however, pulls it off with Both Sides
. Each disc could easily stand on its own as a complete album, but together they offer an essential snapshot of his distinct polarity. He utilizes the ample space across both albums to showcase two very different styles and do what he does best-successfully evade categorization with his diverse influences, unique style, and raw talent.