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2011-11-30 – (Interview)

Originally published at: presents an interview with

MWE3: How did the Great & Terrible Potions album take shape and when was it written and recorded? I know you played most all the instruments on the CD as well.

BEN CRAVEN: The creation of Great & Terrible Potions was an unusual process, inasmuch as most of the music had been sitting around for over ten years waiting to be recorded! I had these pieces of music which were fairly ambitious, along with a conceptual overview of how they all fit together as an album. The only trouble was they were beyond my instrumental, arranging and production abilities at the time. So, rather than record second-rate versions different from the grand visions I had in my head, I chose to put them aside until I was confident enough to do the songs justice.

When that time eventually came, I found myself working as a producer, arranger and session musician for a younger version of myself. Fortunately we still agreed on most things. The album was recorded in fits and bursts in my own studio from 2007 onwards, but the bulk of it was tracked in a blissful four-week sprint in January 2009. This would absolutely be my preferred way of working all the time I could afford to! It’s true I performed all the instruments myself, partly out of convenience, but mostly because I already had clear ideas about how I wanted them to sound.

At the end of the day it might sound like a fairly convoluted way of making a record. But I got to wear all the hats and play all the roles, which is something I would never have had to do if I lived somewhere like L.A. or Nashville.

MWE3: You released your first solo album in 2005 under the band name Tunisia. How would you describe your musical evolution over the past 6 years and what did you set out to achieve with the Great & Terrible Potions album?

BC: The whole thing happened completely backwards! Since most of the music on Great & Terrible Potions predates my previous album, Two False Idols, I guess that makes Potions a prequel, only with more sophisticated arrangements and production and bigger explosions.

Two False Idols took a slightly different approach. It was originally envisioned as a band project, and there was a conscious decision to make the song writing simpler so the songs could be performed more easily. Most of the songs are guitar songs, and two of them are co-writes. But the grand plans for the band fell through, and inevitably my tendencies for oblique chord progressions started creeping into the songs. The final track recorded for the album (“Golden Band”) ended up being a dry run for what was to come on the next album. I still clung to the romantic notion of it being a band project though, and released it under the name “Tunisia”. I followed the convention of choosing a name similar to other “geographic” bands, like Asia, Kansas, Boston, and so on…

When I returned to finish Great & Terrible Potions, I set no real limits for instrumentation, arrangements or song lengths. And the other big difference is that Potions was mainly written at the keyboard, with all the notes available in front of me, which is a big deal if you’re a guitarist with a left hand that plays on automatic pilot for a lot of the time. So while the album is full of guitars, the actual parts were chosen to serve the songs, rather than dictate the instrumentation. Most of these songs I can’t perform on guitar in a solo context without drastically changing the arrangements.

MWE3: Where did you grow up, and where do you live now and what were some of your earliest memories of music and your important musical influences? It’s not every progressive rock artist that cites both Pink Floyd and Brian Wilson as big influences but I know you’re a Brian Wilson disciple too. How did Brian influence your music?

BC: I grew up in Brisbane, Australia, and still live there. I was subjected to Dark Side Of The Moon from the womb onwards and it took about twelve years for it to sink in. But it’s only as I’ve got older that I realize so many of my earliest musical memories are actually from The Muppet Show! I can listen to songs today and still picture the first time I heard and saw them on the Muppets.

As a kid I was drawn to the older records in my parents’ record collection, like the Floyd albums, Days Of Future Passed by the Moody Blues, War Of The Worlds, The Beach Boys, Steely Dan… And I loved any movie that had a John Williams soundtrack. The 1980’s were a great time for that.

Eventually I became an absolute Floyd junkie and devoured everything they did. The doors of perception opened again when I discovered Mike Oldfield, Yes and King Crimson. It was around that time I stopped taking all those Beach Boys hits for granted and learned about Pet Sounds and Smile.

Brian Wilson became an inspiration on so many levels. He’s a genius composer of music, arranger of instruments and vocal harmonies, and producer all rolled into one. The studio was his instrument. On top of that he had the most incredible voice in the 60’s and could sing all the Beach Boys parts himself if he wanted. Paul and John had each other to spur on to greatness, with the supervision of George Martin. Yet Brian somehow did it mainly on his own.

MWE3: How about your YES group influences and also, speaking of YES how did you wind up featuring that Roger Dean painting as the Great & Terrible Potions cover art? Is there a history of that Dean artwork and what are your other favorite Roger Dean paintings and/or cover art?

BC: Growing up with Brisbane radio, my only exposure to YES was Owner Of A Lonely Heart which I always thought it was a pretty good pop song. But when I finally checked out the rest of their catalog it bowled me over. I’d never heard such instrumental prowess or dynamic song writing. Their extended pieces scared the hell out of me and were completely different from the long plodding Floyd pieces I knew and loved. Chris Squire very quickly became my favorite lead bass player and Bill Bruford my favorite lead drummer. The Roger Dean cover art was exceptional too, yet strangely familiar. Much later I realized I recognized his style from the Osibisa albums in my parents’ record collection.

Flash forward to many years later and I was looking into cover artwork options for Great & Terrible Potions. Unusually, I was trying to get out of having to do it myself! A friend of mine suggested that a Roger Dean cover would be perfect. Naturally I agreed and changed the subject to more likely scenarios. But it turned out that he was actually friends with Roger as well, and one thing led to another. I think the cover looks stunning, and it’s a tremendous fit for the darker and more sinister elements of the music. The painting we ended up using dates back to, I think, 1991, which is the same era as one of my favorite Roger Dean covers for Yes’s Union album. So it’s no surprise I picked it!

MWE3: How do you balance your multi-instrumental approach as far as guitars, keyboards and song writing? Do you write music on any one special instruments and how about practicing music routines and can you compare time practicing with time song writing?

BC: As a kid I learnt violin and wasn’t all that good at it. Perversely this helped me develop a hatred of practicing, a general dislike of playing the printed notes on the page, and an aversion to music lessons. The time I spend practicing now is basically zilch, and I really wish that weren’t the case. But I’m far more interested in the needs of the song I’m working on at the time, and will happily spend ages figuring out a part and learning to play it. That’s what I seem to do instead of practicing.

My multi-instrumental approach has always been driven by song writing. From day one I wanted to be able to play the parts I heard in my head because nobody else could hear them. And being able to play those parts myself to record a demo is a tremendous advantage in the writing process, because I can get instant feedback on how an idea is working out…or not.

At one stage I agonized over whether I should have spent more time learning guitar, or learning piano, until I stopped worrying and just started playing instead. I went through a long process of collecting the instruments I felt I needed to express myself, and building up the confidence to tackle them when I had to. There’s not enough time in my life to be both a virtuoso performer and a writer, so I’ve chosen to be a writer. Anything else is a bonus.

I’m not the kind of guitar player who can play other artists’ songs and solos verbatim. But I can quite happily blunder around with the certain style I seem to have developed over the years, and have a go at it regardless.

MWE3: What are your favorite guitars and how many guitars, and what guitars (and also what keyboards) were used to record the Great & Terrible Potions album?

BC: My favorite guitars have always been Fender Stratocasters, probably thanks to David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler, though I try to keep examples of other guitar models available in the studio. I’ve invested a lot of time learning how to get the overdrive sounds I like out of the Strat neck pickup, and the lead sounds I like out of the bridge pickup. The bulk of the guitar parts were recorded with my “number one” Strat. It’s a mongrel with an ’83 Fender Elite body and a ’93 US neck. The body has been modified to fit an American Standard tremolo, and the battery route has been put to good use with an EMG DG-20 active pickup assembly. The unusual thing is that the combination of this particular body and neck almost plays itself. I’ve tried to find separate, more historically accurate homes for them, but none of them played as well. The convoluted story of this guitar also seems to be a good match for the convoluted nature of the Potions recording process.

There are of course other guitars on the album: A ’54 reissue Strat on “Nobody Dies Forever”, an electric 12-string Burns on “The Conjurer”, a Maton acoustic and a nylon classical on a few tracks, and an old ’60s Guyatone lap steel all over the place.

Keyboards are a different story. There’s such a huge variety of realistic sounding plug ins available now, you’re only really limited by how well you play them. I’d love to tell you I had a Hammond B3, a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes, a clavinet and a mini-moog in the studio, but I’d be lying.

MWE3: The CD sounds amazing. What was your approach in the studio and do you use a lot of overdubs and special effects when recording and/or mixing? How about mastering and how does that effect the sound?

BC: Well there is definitely a lot going on in the mix. That’s one of the problems when you obviously have too much time on your hands. (lol) In the past I have meticulously added all sorts delays and reverbs to individual tracks to build up an expansive, spacious sound picture. But I learnt quickly that things start turning to mud as you add more tracks, so on Potions I went for more of a matter-of-fact mixing style, if that makes any sense.

My basic approach was to try to get good clean-sounding takes, and maximize the clarity of each individual track with natural compression, creative use of delay, and an absolute minimum of reverb. The depth of the production then is really due to the arrangements, rather than any particular use of effects. I think this album would really benefit from a 5.1 surround mix, to help draw attention to some of the parts I labored long and hard over, only to turn down in the stereo mix so as not to muddy things up.

Mastering is an incredibly important stage in the process, and it’s a very fine balancing act. I actually like the effect that the extra compression and limiting bring to the table. I’m not keen on having to adjust the volume control too much when I’m listening. Having said that, I keep things fairly mild at around -12dB RMS to avoid ear fatigue. I haven’t yet figured out how to get a CD sounding incredibly loud, nor do I think I want to.

MWE3: How has the album been received in Australia and what are your plans for Great & Terrible Potions and other musical plans moving into 2012?

BC: Great & Terrible Potions is available in Australia, but nobody really knows about it yet because we haven’t done a great deal of promotion. Unfortunately there isn’t a large progressive rock community in Australia, and it’s been much easier so far to reach out to prog fans in Europe and America. I’ve been reliably informed that a prog rock musician who can comfortably tour the coasts of the US wouldn’t be able to make a living in Australia. Still it would be nice to build some sort of profile for the album at home, so the next step is to put a 4-piece band together and start performing the thing.

Other than that, there’s a ton of work to do. There’s the vinyl version of Potions coming up, and a potential box set. There’s a remix of my first album, Two False Idols, I’m working on for a rerelease. And I have two more albums on the go which I need to get back to as soon as I can. One is the natural follow-up to Potions. The other is, almost, an alt-country concept album about a real-life Oklahoma outlaw named Ben Cravens. Really. I say “almost” because, despite my best efforts, it still sounds like me, and I’m yet to find a genre I’m completely comfortable to call myself.

Thanks to Lori Hehr and Ben Craven @