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Ben Harper Talks #BlackLivesMatter and the Return of the Innocent Criminals

By Brian Ives 

In the past few years, Ben Harper has worked with a lot of musicians: he formed a new backing band called Relentless7; he formed a new supergroup called Fistful of Mercy with Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison; he collaborated with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite and with Ringo Starr. He even produced a solo album for Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

But in the past year, Ben Harper has gotten back together with his original backing band, the Innocent Criminals. For his fans, this is akin to Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 reunion with the E Street Band; people have been waiting for this for a long time. Ben and the IC’s started off with a handful of shows, but that led to more dates, and today (April 8) they return with their first album together in nine years, Call It What It Is.

In an hour long conversation with Harper, he discussed the reunion and the new songs, as well as how they relate to the world today, particularly the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

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It’s been about a year since you reunited with the Innocent Criminals; last year also marked your 20th anniversary with the band. What prompted the reunion? 

Well, all anniversaries aside, it felt like time for us to get back together creatively. We were all buzzing and itching to get back to it. We recorded “Welcome to the Cruel World” with a slightly different arrangement and just blasted it out there. For Fight for Your Mind we did a limited vinyl release. But that was it; we didn’t oversell it.

What was it like getting back with the Innocent Criminals?

Every other musical situation I’ve been in, I’ve been proud and privileged to be in. Yet, there’s still nothing like getting back with your band of brothers. Not only getting back together and picking up where you left off, ’cause creatively that would be the equivalent of running in place, but getting back together and all being able to bring out the best in each other personally and musically, ’cause that’s where we’ve landed, and it’s a special place to be.

When you write a song these days, do you know where it goes: for the Innocent Criminals, for Fistful of Mercy…

I think I do know where the songs I write are best suited, and the direction they’re best suited to go in for sure. That has served me so strongly for the songs I had. The blues based ones, those were set aside for the project with Charlie, others for Childhood Home with my mom.

When you toured with the Innocent Criminals for [2007’s] Lifeline, did you know that that was going to be “it” for the band, at least for a while?

I didn’t have a flashpoint moment, but it ramped up to that, to where creatively and personally, I just think we all needed to do other things.

When you guys did the first few shows at Red Rocks last year, were those baby steps? Were you not sure you wanted to reunite full time?

It was a step by step process. It was one part, “If this is what I think it can be, we’re gonna have a lot of fun,” and another part “Okay, let’s just go incrementally forward.” As soon as we got in I knew, just the way that we were communicating outside the studio was a true sort of a signpost as to where this band could go.

You made a lot of great albums in the past few years, but it must have been great getting back with the guys who you got your start with.

[Drummer] Oliver Charles was an Innocent Criminal when he was 19 years old. The bar owners would ID him because he’s always looked really young… he looked 19. They wouldn’t let him play, then I’d do my song and dance to try to beg and plea just to get him through the gig. And it would always end up, “All right, he can play the gig, and right after, you guys gotta cut out. You gotta be out of the building.” So numerous times, I’d be sitting on a curb out in front of a venue with Oliver just sitting there like, “Nice gig, man. How’d you feel about it?”

Once you’ve logged a million miles with somebody and sat out on that curb triumphantly, having pulled off the gig, and risen out of the freakin’ ashes, or gone through any number of different life experiences, twenty-plus years of life experiences with someone, that’s home.

Looking over a bunch of your set lists from the past year, it looks like you’re sticking with material from the Innocent Criminals, and not doing new versions of the songs that you’ve done in the years since. 

For the moment. We got up and running with strictly Innocent Criminals material, but we’re gonna branch out, definitely. There’s some deep, deep catalog cuts that, if we don’t play them, no one will. Certain songs can play if you do them in different configurations.

Even before you announced the reunion, you released “Call It What It Is (Murder)”; the original version was you performing it, solo and acoustic. You’ve been doing those kinds of songs since your first album with “Like a King” and “How Many Miles Must We March.” Did you experience racism growing up in California?

Yeah, I’ve been confronted with it. There’s grades of it, levels of it, and different ways in different times of my life I’ve responded to it differently. But it’s always present, and that’s a shame, it’s a real shame.

The song is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots,” in that you try to empathize with both sides to some extent.

“Government ain’t easy/policing ain’t easy.” Listen, if you wanna make change, be open to be changed, and be open to other people’s perspectives and actually take a clear look at both sides, and that way you’ll strengthen your own resolve.

When you wrote it, were you thinking about some of your older songs, like “Like a King”?

Yeah, I mean it’s definitely, there’s a through-line there and a direct connection between those two songs. Without being a sensationalist, but also without turning a blind eye, ’cause you can’t do that, ’cause that’s why we’re where we are… And cultural and social injustice is not a spectator sport, and we have reached a racial tipping point in America and are at a crossroads.

Here’s the challenge in a situation like this. Why #BlackLivesMatters matters so much to me, is that I don’t think there is one black person you can talk to that has not had a situation in their lives that isn’t at least somehow related to being mistreated or profiled. And this is a conversation here. Have you ever been wrongly accused for anything?

Nope.

And so to be systematically wrongly accused for an entire lifetime, no matter how long you’ve been around or how old you are, it’s debilitating. It’s psychologically debilitating. So what we’re seeing now through #BlackLivesMatter, and the reason #BlackLivesMatter is a critical place and time and organization for me, is that what we’re seeing is not just a reaction and a response to the murders themselves, but the cumulative effect of the injustice and of the profiling and of the mistreatment.

And hey, listen, there are other races that have to deal with getting caught in the line of fire, absolutely. All things understood. But the consistent and persistent dogging and mad dogging from those who are in places to protect and serve, it’s cause and effect.

But let’s also just keep putting one foot in front of the other here. I don’t speak for anybody. I don’t ever wanna speak for anybody but me. That’s it. It’s just me. And for me—how can I put this in a way that is balanced?

Fair and balanced!

Fair and balanced, man.

Lowercase “f,” lowercase “b.”

I’ll go all caps, man. That’s how I write anyway. It’s about a policy shift. Otherwise, why kick and shout?

Race relations in America should start at grade zero. And they should continue. Race relations, racial interaction, the psychology of race and racial relations, clearly we need to make a policy shift in law enforcement to where you spend as much time training your mind as you do your aim.

And maybe they’re already doing it, I’m wrong and I have no place for this discussion. Maybe I’m wrong. But clearly, the racial discussion and education needs to start at age zero. Because where do you wanna get to? You can’t be a Christian and a racist. You can’t. You gotta choose your lane. God’s not having that. You’re Christian, or you’re a racist. Make your choice.

And along those same lines: we’re born kicking and screaming. We’re born fighting. We’re born fighting off bacteria. We’re born fighting, yelling, screaming to get attention, to get fed. Then you’re born kicking and screaming because you gotta learn the rules. Born fighting on the playground, then you fight your teachers, you fight your parents, you fight your loved ones, your family, your spouse. You’re fighting your job, you’re fighting your boss, you’re fighting for your job, you’re fighting at the end to stay alive.

Not to say that all of life is a fight for everyone, but there’s a good amount and a great deal of fighting that goes into just preserving one’s stability. So you take that, and then you put a bunch of different people in a room, armed, and expect them to all just get along. That’s somewhat irrational as well, right?

So again, I hate that the first time kids learn about race is on the playground when one kid calls him an “N” and next thing you know, that’s your first lesson in race. And by then it’s kind of too late, you know?

So I would love to see a policy shift. Again, no sensationalism necessary. In 200 years I’d love for race to be far less, if not completely out of the dialogue. And of course, I’m an idealist, but where would we be without idealism? You can have all that pessimistic gloom and doom s—. It’s not for me.

The feminist in me wouldn’t be happier if it were Hillary who saves the day. Have a woman swoop in here and save the day? It’d be incredible, incredible. And Bernie Sanders, man, I love to hear him speak. People are afraid of him, and I love that. But right now I’m kinda staying out of that, because I’ve got a great deal of admiration for both sides.

So let’s talk about the song “When Sex Was Dirty.” I love that line, “When sex was dirty, and the air was clean.”

That song marks the triumphant return of the Innocent Criminals. And it plays out as the story of where we’ve been, what we’ve gone through, and where we’ve arrived at. “To all the sons and daughters of the boulevard, who learn to go without sleep and to hide all the scars, who believed in the vagrant on Hollywood and Vine, who said a mile of gold won’t buy you an inch of time.” I mean, that’s just, that’s it. We used to play small little clubs, then when we’d be done they’d kick us out and turn it into a disco. Then we’d be on the boulevard, and we’d get our hustle on.

We made everything we have out of nothing at all. We had no lane; when we started there was no lane. There was no lane for four black motherf—ers, one playing slide guitar and singing about “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend” and “Welcome to the Cruel World” and all this s—. We were coming out of hair metal and quote/unquote “grunge.”

“Made everything happen, nothing at all, way back when marijuana was against the law.” And that’s a wink and a nod, you know what I mean? ’Cause it’s still [not totally legal], but it’s definitely beyond where it was when we first started. “Always outnumbered, always outmanned,” four guys in a van, no crew. “Always outnumbered, always outmanned, went down a road to ruin,” ’cause everybody does at one point, but here we stand. “Remember when sex was dirty and the air was clean.”

It’s not a nostalgic trip. For me, when sex was dirty, was just when we were starting out… no one would’ve uttered the two words, “gay marriage.” It would never happen, and now look where we’ve come. That’s progress. I’m proud of that. Not to mention transgender [rights], everyone is now that much more free to be who they truly are in a public forum, which everyone deserves at least that much freedom. And to celebrate it and to be married if you want, and so for me it’s like, man, we’ve come a long way.

Even though we’re trading off, maybe, okay, things are more liberated sexually and the air is a little dirtier. I’d prefer both, I’d prefer the sexual liberation and clean air, and maybe we can even get there eventually. At any rate, it’s not a nostalgia trip.

And also it’s got a good “nah-nah-nah” chorus, and where would we be without “nah-nah-nah?” And a guitar solo. I mean, that’s my s—.

You’ve opened for a lot of bands: PJ Harvey, Luscious Jackson, Alejandro Escovedo, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews Band and the Wallflowers. Which tour made the biggest difference in your career?

Pearl Jam. Jeff Ament stuck his neck out for us. Jeff and I became friends early on. We met at Bumbershoot 1995 and have been friends ever since, twenty-plus years. It’s Jeff and I’s twenty-year anniversary, speaking of twentieth anniversaries.

I’ll never forget, man, I will never forget this as long as I live, 1995, Spartan Stadium, San Jose. They were doing a make-up show ’cause Ed [Vedder] had gotten sick. I think the Golden Gate Park show got canceled, and it was a big deal that it had gotten canceled, and they felt bad, so this was a make-up show.

People were anxious with anticipation. It was the Fastbacks opening, who were great, us, and then Pearl Jam. The Fastbacks went on, and I saw how the crowd was reacting to the Fastbacks, and I was like, man, they were kinda like… the “Eddie” chant. “Ed-die! Ed-die!” And even the band doesn’t like it, ’cause it’s like, wait a minute, this is a band. And I was like, “Oh, man, are we gonna get that?”

So I’ll make a long story short. We went on, and even before we played one note the “Eddie” chants were starting to rise. And I saw Jeff, ’cause Jeff had got us the gig. I kinda looked at him, and I was like, “I got this.”

And we dug in, we kick into “Voodoo Chile,” and the next thing I know Mark Zupan from Murderball, in a wheelchair, was crowd surfing from one side of the stage, back and forth in a wheelchair, still to this day one of the greatest sights in rock history. And the “Eddie” chants evaporated.

And we spent the next couple of years opening up for Pearl Jam, and through them we were able to connect with a strong fan base at an early stage, and it really boosted us beyond any other opening slot. And I’ve appreciated every opening slot from Gil Scott-Heron, PJ Harvey, Dave Matthews, John Lee Hooker, all of them, every one of them. But Pearl Jam, that was a big one.

What did all of the Innocent Criminals do in the time between you guys splitting and getting back together?

In the time off, [guitarist] Michael Ward and Oliver joined Gogol Bordello, an incredible band. [Keyboardist] Jason Yates played with Citizen Cope, John Mayer; Leon Mobely, Nas, Damian Marley, Mick Jagger; and [bassist] Juan Nelson was any and everywhere. He was playing, really played gospel, devoted his life to playing in the church. So yeah, I’m just lucky to play with them. I’m lucky they hired me back.

This band has always been the underdog. Just straight up, just always the underdog, always underdog status, either too hip or not hip enough. And if you pay attention to any of that s—, you will not survive nor sustain. I’ve just always felt like I’ve got a song to sing, something to say, something to write.

I still think this band has yet to get its just respect. Maybe this will be the record, maybe it won’t. Maybe the next record, maybe never. No matter what, it’s still been better than I deserve. Who gets to be 46 years old and still point this high? Who still gets to point at a dream? It’s lucky. It’s a real privilege. And it’s cool, man. Nobody’s getting any younger, not me, not you. But it’s cool… I make some noise, skate, try to eat right, stay as healthy as possible. Never done one show on any substance ever.

Really?

Never. Never played one show having smoked weed or drank. Well, one show, I drank one beer before a show at First Ave in Minneapolis, and it was no-go. I think it was ’95. I think we were opening up for Luscious Jackson there. Great band, by the way. They were the s—. Still are.

People would presume that musicians that are pro-legalization might partake before a show.

No man, I gotta be clean, man, I gotta be clean. ’Cause I wanna hit every note, I just wanna be right there, every lyric. And once you get a couple hundred songs deep, man, you gotta hang on to the words. I’m not a teleprompter guy, so I really gotta, I just wanna be there every word. My band knows if I miss a verse, I go back and get it.

What’s behind the video for “Pink Balloon.”

Sebastian Silva is an awesome, incredible director, and a dear friend, beautiful man. And I had the privilege of having him put that video together for me. And Pam Brooks too, Pam Brooks—do yourself a favor and Google Pam Brooks, who was the star of the video. She helped bring to justice an accused and soon to be convicted serial killer in South Central. He’s on trial for eight, but it’s probably 30 or 40 [victims]… there was a serial killer in South Central that just no one decided to investigate because it was South Central. I mean they just buried it, with this guy on the loose.

And Pam and Nick Broomfield were brave enough to do the documentary [Tales of the Grim Sleeper], and Pam Brooks was brave enough to come out of the community and walk him through neighborhoods he wouldn’t have been able to get through otherwise. And they brought him to justice through this documentary. It’s powerful, powerful s—. Pam is the s— and has become a friend and comrade. So Pam, thank you for being so brave. I hope I’m half as brave.

So, is this reunion a “one-off,” or do you see it going on indefinitely? 

Oh, the Innocent Criminals is for keeps, man, it’s for keeps. Even if I do other side projects, it’ll take me away from the Criminals a month or two, and I’ll be back. It’s on.

You’ve worked with Tom Morello; have you guys done anything together since “Save the Hammer for the Man?” 

No. But as an addendum, let me add: “not yet.” Tom is a beast! Yeah, Tom is a comrade, speaking of comrades, and someone I just admire beyond being able to measure it. He’s a special, special man. I lean on him heavily for inspiration and motivation and was honored to have written that song with him.

He told me that he was going to call a bunch of his famous friends to guest on records that he’s putting out on his new label, Firebrand; has he hit you up yet?

No, but I’m waiting for my phone to ring, Tom!

I saw you and your band back up Ringo Starr on his episode of Live From the Artist’s Den. Did you ever offer to do a full tour with him?

That door’s still open, Captain.

Was it your suggestion to get Joan Osborne in the band for that show?

It was. I pulled Joan in. And I think I’m this close to getting us to do “Rain.” ’Cause that’s like a definitive drum part just in rock ’n’ roll. That’s a flashpoint. So I’d like to get that bad. We’ve got the harmonies rehearsed and everything.

It seemed like there’s unfinished business with Fistful of Mercy. Do you guys plan to work together again?

Yeah, there’s some music in the can, actually, waiting on us. Yes. It’s scheduling. Joe is one of my favorite songwriters on the planet, as well as one of my favorite people, as is Dhani, one of my favorite people on the planet. Joe, in a month, writes as many great songs as I’ve written in a freakin’ lifetime. I mean the guy, he’s like an Elliott Smith: he’s got a lane all his own, and I really revere Joe, and being in a band with he and Dhani is so special.
The beauty about Fistful of Mercy is, we’re not in any hurry. We’re not in a rush, and we know we’re gonna get back to it; again, it would be limited for all of us, ’cause we’re all so busy, and the Criminals is my priority. But that’s one of the things I gotta get back to.

I’ve seen your shows over the years; it seems like you’ve relaxed a bit more and you enjoy between songs banter more than you used to.

I’m trying to get more loose and more communicative verbally than I’ve been over the years. Not to the point of diminishing returns, but to the point of an interconnectedness that may have not been there before.

It’s probably something you can get more comfortable with, as you learn to worry less. Eddie Vedder seems like he’s gone through the same change.

There’s so much that you can say around that, but how can you ever get used to… when you’re in front of the camera, people expect you to all of a sudden be good at being in front of a camera. And why? Because I’ve written this song, or had this kind of success, would you still expect me to be good at that?

It’s a bit of an unfair playing field, I find, to have expectations… when you’re listening to someone’s music, when you hear Ed sing [Pearl Jam’s] “Low Light,” do you really need to care if he’s funny or not? Come on, right?

How much do you expect to extract from one life or from one person, and where do we get off judging that? We’re lucky to get Ed and his voice, and we’re lucky to get Pearl Jam and their sound. Although, then of course, but we all take it upon ourselves to kind of always want more, ’cause it’s in our nature, to be human.

I don’t know. I’m just glad the music is there; I’m not really concerned about who’s talking or who’s laughing or who has charisma. Charisma’s for those who actually… I don’t wanna be good in front of the camera. ’Cause then it’s rote, it’s too practiced. It’s not a natural place for me; it’s not my natural environment. So I’m gonna say things that are gonna offend. I’m gonna react, but at least what you’re getting is sincere, it’s honest, it’s earnest, and it’s urgent of the moment that I’m in front of the camera.

That’s it. That’s it. And if I’m on stage and say the wrong thing, it’s only because that’s just one moment, and who’s to say that I’m not gonna completely retract what I said? “Just ’cause I said it doesn’t mean I meant it.” Thank you very much, Adele.

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