Ben Harper and Relentless7: Fly One Time

By: Tim Donnelly

Ben Harper and Relentless7 by Danny Clinch
White Lies For Dark Times by Ben Harper and Relentless7 has been officially out for a week, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been living with it all of ’09. Living with it so much, that six tunes from the record make my 25 most played list on my iPod. That has never happened so rapidly before.

I’m a man who succumbs to hourly diversions into different genres, bands, live shows and hidden gems. Listening too much to a single thing has never been my bag. So, when I looked at the most played list and saw the numbers, I realized that right now, this record means the world to me on different levels – the strength of the songs, the bombast of the guitars, the pacing of the rhythm and most importantly the depth and the immediate relation I have to the lyrics. It’s one of those rare occasions, when a record mirrors life and the situations caused by, to paraphrase Ivan Neville, “living in a world gone mad.” It has become part of me and it couldn’t have come at a better time, serendipitously making it a soundtrack for change and growth.

Change also had to happen for Ben Harper, the man behind the formation of the Relentless7 (R7). “It was like I was staring into an abyss,” he says of the decision to move on from The Innocent Criminals.

“Personally, it is exactly what I needed musically, these three guys [guitarist Jason Mozersky, drummer Jordan Richardson, bassist Jesse Ingalls] to come in and grab me by the throat, shake me around and bring this to life. I needed it, man. Desperately.”

To some, this news may shock. It may also disappoint young lovers out there to know that “Steal Your Kisses” will not be on the setlist. And a big “boo-hoo” to the midnight tokers; you will NOT hear “Burn One Down” coming from the stage.

“They need to know that goin’ in,” says Harper in fair warning to his fans’ expectations. On the night of the record release show at NYC’s Webster Hall he told it even straighter from the stage.

Ben Harper and Relentless7 at Webster Hall by Michael Jurick
“Because I’m in New York, I’ll speak your language,” he said in response to requests for older material from the audience. “I’m not a human fucking jukebox. You aren’t gonna hear ‘Sexual Healing’ or ‘Burn One Down.’ You ain’t gonna hear that shit again.”

The moan of former frat boys and the women who love them buzzed through the room after that declaration. It doesn’t matter to Harper; it’s his ball, his game, his court.

Though the band is currently writing (“we are writing like crazy, pen to paper” says Harper) and working out new material at sound checks, one or two of Harper’s old songs may make it into the rotation, though it may take awhile to recognize them. At Webster Hall they re-worked the funky marching band drumbeats of “Better Way” into a crushing dirge that would have made Uncle Neil and his Crazy Horse cohorts beam in approval.

However, some of us have been waiting for Harper to fully unleash his “rawk” side for some time. Don’t get me wrong, Harper has always rocked, but now it’s pedal to metal all the time, making speeding ticket rock for those open enough to embrace the ride.

“It’s as different a musical environment as I have ever been in,” says Harper. “Everyday I am asking myself, ‘Is this happening to me? This is actually happening to me? I am in this band with this music?’ It is different man. It is a new day. It is important for me to say this. This is a band. A band that could not exist without the other three guys. It’s really the first time I have not been the center of the circle; [here, I am] a corner of the square. It is a completely different environment for me. I love it. I prefer it.”

Ben Harper
Freed from the pressure of carrying the creative and overall direction of a band seems to have opened Harper up lyrically. His writing is concise, meaningful, gripping, accessible, humorous and above all, real. He’s not talking about the hypothetical, the hypocritical or the mystical.

“The music demanded it. Art has a way of extracting what it needs when it needs it. Not to actually mistake musicians for artists, but if there is artistry to it then that’s the case,” Harper says. “Otherwise, the lyrics wouldn’t have lived up to the urgency of the music.”

“I don’t write about myself lyrically. Otherwise, the songs would be terribly boring and mundane,” laughs Harper. “So, I just tend to write about ideas which we all see and feel.”

I tell Harper that it feels like he’s been peeping in on my life because some of the songs reflect “the now and the not so distant past” for me. “That’s the best part of it,” responds Harper. “Hopefully that’s the case that the listener can go beyond anything that is defined by my life, world or surroundings [and] touch someone in a way that is universal and means different thing to different people.”

“I think people in their world of minds are starting to pay attention to the lyrics or these lyrics have struck a chord and I’m impressed” he states, “I have to tell you that one my silent laments is that people weren’t connecting to the lyrics. I wasn’t getting any lyrical feedback. But now, the majority of general feedback I am getting is lyrical, which is a great relief.”

It’s not hard to understand why his words are getting their just due. A few choice examples:

It takes a hundred miles of love/ to heal a mile of pain (“Shimmer and Shine”)

You may be a cheap date/ but my therapy is expensive as hell (“Why Must You Always Dress in Black”)

I’m not sure what worries me more/ the fact that I’m talking to a wall/ or that the wall keeps answering me (“Keep It Together”)

Never underestimate how complicated a simple life can be (“Keep it Together”)

Continue reading for more on Ben Harper and Relentless7…

It’s quite a musical place to arrive at, getting your ass kicked and getting pushed… It’s something that I step into every night knowing that I am going to have to step up. There is an intimidation factor that I like about this band; you just never know what’s coming.

Ben Harper

Photo by Danny Clinch

“The song ‘The Word Suicide’ is 100-percent emotion. 100-percent. When I looked up from writing that song, which was written in one sitting, I looked up from the page and realized that not one word rhymed. I don’t think I have ever done that before,” says Harper. “I wasn’t even trying to do it; that’s how the song just ripped itself out. It’s one of those that makes you think twice. You go, ‘Hmmm, is that too much information?’ I was like, ‘Nah,’ because that’s the only time you are actually getting somewhere, when you cross that boundary.”

Ben Harper and Relentless7
Webster Hall by Michael Jurick
Crossing that line seems to have resonated with critics and fans alike.

“I have never gotten such an immediate and positive response like I’m getting now from anything I have ever done before. Ever,” he says.

The not-so-obvious rationale behind the largely positive reaction to the Relentless7 is that it is exactly what many people want. They want something that will rock them, bring them and hold them tight, give them a place to get their ass in check and in gear. It’s motivational rock to its core but created without that intention.

“That’ the best part of it: It’s not conscious. It’s just happening to me,” observes Harper. “I have always found the best things that have happened to me in my life insist on happening as much as me sort of thinking I can, in sort of a cookie cutter way, control them or make them happen on any level. And that is the best thing about his band. It just happened to me in my life. I did not have to work to make it happen.”

How they got to this stage is almost as exciting as the music they’ve unleashed. Here’s the abridged version. In the late ’90’s guitarist Jason Mozersky was working part time as a van driver for a music promoter in Austin. He had Ben Harper in the van one day. He gave him his demo. Harper listened to it and against all odds, liked it. A friendship was formed. Harper invites Mozersky to a session for Both Sides of the Gun. Mozersky brings his bros from Texas, bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson. A connection between the Tres Hombres from Tejas and the established rock star forms. Besides a bond, a tune, “Serve Your Soul,” is created, which serves as the genesis for the Relentless7.

The three “J’s” (Jason, Jesse, Jordan) are so close they finish each other’s sentences. They played in a Led Zeppelin tribute band together. They’ve done the Ramen noodle and PBR thing. They have waited and worked for this moment their whole lives, and are doing things humbly now that this opportunity has come their way. On a cramped couch with them, I asked about their recording process for White Lies in Dark Times, this is what unfolded.

Ben Harper and Relentless7 at Webster Hall by Michael Jurick
Jesse: “We are just developing our overall creative direction more than fine tuning a song and we don’t spend a lot of time…”

Jason: “…thinking about what should happen.”

Jason: “It’s almost an intentional lack of discussion.”

Jordan: “Live, we’ll get into some tunes. It’s like stepping off the dock sorta thing. It’s like what’s gonna happen tonight?”

Jason: “When we were making the record, there was not a lot of discussion about what we were going to do. We wrote the songs structurally and everybody did what they do and that’s a huge reason why it works. Not a lot of production. Not a lot of talking.”

Jordan: “We didn’t at all discuss the direction of our band and the album, like what sound are we going to do. There was nothing like that. It was, ‘You got an idea? I’ve got an idea. Cool. Let’s do this.'”

Jason: “Nothing ever feels bad. The three of us have been playing together a long time so it’s easy to become a unit. I don’t how to explain it, not to sound all mystical about it.”

Harper is just amazed by the chemistry he has formed with this band of bros.

“It’s quite a musical place to arrive at, getting your ass kicked and getting pushed. It’s one thing to say it and another to be up there on that stage with that machine like a truck barreling down the road,” says Harper. “It’s something that I step into every night knowing that I am going to have to step up. There is an intimidation factor that I like about this band; you just never know what’s coming.”

Ben Harper and Relentless7 by Danny Clinch
There is a “get the fuck out of the way” swagger to R7 onstage that stays onstage, another mark of a great unit. “On the team machine level, all these parts shine as superstars individually, but the collective sound is a pulse, an absolute pulse. It’s kinda scary,” offers Harper. “These boys play for keeps.”

You have to play big if you are Ringo Starr‘s backing band, as The R7 were at the David Lynch Foundation’s “Change Begins Within” at Radio City Music Hall last month, doing “Yellow Submarine,” “Boys” and “It Don’t Come Easy” with the Beatle. “We had it dialed natural,” says Harper. “It was an out of body experience, but you can’t forget the job at hand. We peaked at the show, we played the best we’ve played, better than rehearsals.”

Three weeks later they headlined an Earth Day show in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo in front of 110,000. Four months prior they were playing Kenny’s Castaways in New York and The Mint in L.A. – a difference of about 109,900 spectators.

“I woke up from a dead sleep from dreaming about it the other night,” says Harper. “I still can’t believe it. Man, pinch me.”

As the record is released Harper can feel the groundswell of upward movement under his feet.

“It is building momentum and we are not waiting for it to come to us. We are charging it,” says Harper. “We’ve got a chance to do something here that is significant, real and long lasting, and we are not backing down from it.”

Ben Harper and Relentless7 are on tour now, dates available here.

Ben Harper and Relentless7 at Webster Hall by Michael Jurick

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