Harper on Harper

The Source Weekly | August 9, 2006
Both Sides of the Globe

Ben Harper eyes Oregon from Wollongong

By Jeff Trainor

“I’m not a desperate man, but these are desperate times at hand.”

So sings Ben Harper on “Black Rain,” arguably the most intense cut on one of the two discs that comprise his seventh album, 2006’s Both Sides of the Gun.

The song sits in the thick of nine soul-saturated, socially conscious tracks on what might be called the heavier of the two discs—the one that really challenges the listener to think about the state of the world. The other disc—also nine songs long—is slower, quieter, and more personal.

The two-disc approach to the album reflects a duality that’s characterized Ben Harper’s career as a whole from the outset. He’s always shared serious sociopolitical thoughts with his listeners, as well as raw, personal emotion. On Both Sides, perhaps to a more advanced degree than ever before, he wraps it all up in a dense package of rock, soul, blues, reggae, funk and other styles, presenting a timelessly soulful, global sound for a time when the world is united in joy and pain, wonder and desperation…and is divided by the same things.

We caught up with Harper by phone last week, in the midst of the Australian leg of his current tour.

the Source Weekly: Where exactly am I reaching you?

Ben Harper: In the town of Wollongong, which is south of Sydney, along the coast. We have a show tonight.

What do you think motivates you to continue making music at such a high level—to put out records on an international basis, and tour around the world—rather than just deciding to just play for your friends or something?

I’ll tell you what it is. I was talking to Neil Young’s manager the other day. I was talking about [releasing] my seventh album. And he said, “Well, you know, Neil’s putting out his 36th record.” And I got a chance to talk to Neil, and he still feels like he’s just getting started. He’s equally as passionate about music as he’s ever been. That’s so inspiring. You know, it’s such a fast-paced industry nowadays, more so than it’s ever been. People look to me as if I’m like the old guard or something. The only thing that I’ve done is set up a foundation that you can call a decent beginning. I’m just getting started my damn self, so…until you pass that 10 or 12 record threshold, you’re really just gettin’ started. And I’m in it for my lifetime. This is what I want to do; this is what I feel I have to do—what I’m meant to do. Fortunately, I do get to do it and survive from it.

There’s this voice out there that says that musicians or celebrities aren’t qualified to talk about politics. What do you think about that opinion?

Well, if the politicians are qualified to talk about politics, they sure aren’t proving it with their actions, because we’re in a hell of a fix. I figure anybody who is clear on their voice and their own thoughts should speak their mind. It doesn’t matter if you’re an auto mechanic, or an actor, or a lawyer, or a doctor. It sure doesn’t seem like the politicians have it figured out. Somebody needs to step up. I usually like to listen to people who don’t have an over-exaggerated political agenda, because then you know they’re speaking from a more in-depth place of sincerity. Politics and insincerity, unfortunately, are hand-in-hand today.

In “Black Rain,” you say, “It won’t be long ’til the people flood the streets and take you down, one and all.” Do you think hip hop culture might be a good vehicle for radical social change?

I just think youth culture in general is going to be a strong voice of change in the days to come, the months to come, the years to come. That’s what keeps me inspired. I know this generation’s revolutionary. They’re young, and they’re vital, and they’re on the move. Julia Butterfly, who lived in a tree for two years to save old-growth redwoods…Chad Pregracke, who goes up and down the Mississippi River, cleaning it up on a barge he built himself. I know these young people who are going to be in positions of power to make change. And that’s…I’d really love to see change come from the top down. I’m really growing exhausted of having to force change from the ground up, when there are people in strategic positions of power who can flip a switch and actually make exaggerated change at a more rapid pace than it takes on a grassroots level. That’s the place I’d like to see change occur in the years to come—from the top down, instead of always having to force it from the ground up.

Do you think it can happen with the people in power now?

I think there needs to be a generational turnover.

And is that a gradual thing, or a coup d’etat?

I’ll take either one.

Some of your songs, like “Burn One Down,” refer to pot smoking. Do you ever think that kind of subject matter can have a negative effect on the drive for social change in some of the other songs?

No, I just think that song is a statement in and of itself about people’s personal freedoms. As much as that subject may be a part of it, I think there’s more to the lyrics than just that. Also, I believe some people are wound up so tight and are uptight…they might want to loosen up and take a hit. And then there’s some people who I know—addiction gets best of them, and it controls them more than they control it. So, it’s more about taking a look at your own life, and seeing where you’re at. If you’re comfortable where you’re at, and are showing progress in your life with what you’re interested in, then okay. But if you’re not, you need to definitely check your habits at the door and go from there.

Do you have any goals or plans for the next year or so you can tell us about?

My goals are to take this record to the stage, and I’m very excited about touring this record. Very excited. The songs are coming to life, and are starting to give the recorded versions a run for their money. The versions onstage are getting dangerously close to being stronger than the ones on the record. The band is really on all cylinders. I’m excited about the band; I’m excited about the upcoming tours with Damian Marley. We’re gonna be crossing some international timelines quite a bit. From here, we go back to the states, and from the states back to Japan, and then from Japan back to the states again, and after the states, we tour Europe, and after Europe maybe back to Australia and then Canada in between.

Is there anything else people in Bend should know about?

I just thank the people of Bend for their musical connection and musical support over the years, and I look forward to being there as soon as possible. I’m gonna be meeting up with a lot of good friends. I’ve got some really good friends in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m looking forward to hangin’ out with them.

The Source Weekly

In a region with thin media coverage, the Source has been a steady presence for the past 18 years in Central Oregon (especially for the ski/bike/beer town of Bend). Snappy music reviews, enthusiastic event coverage and insightful news analysis, the...
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