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2017-01-01 – Grande Rock (Interview)

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Submitted by thanos on Sat, 12/31/2016 – 19:01Ben Craven returns with a new album titled “Last Chance to Hear”. Grande Rock had a quite interesting chat with Ben about the band, the new album and music among other things. Read for more below…

Hi Ben and welcome to Grande Rock. First of all, do tell us… how and when did the idea of making music occur and why did you finally decide to go under your own name?

B: I was always interested in making music and recording. Apparently I could operate a cassette recorder before I could talk. But I was also interested in the bigger sonic picture, so not having access to an expensive studio as a kid was a bit of a bummer. The moment that all changed was when I discovered 4-track MOD files on the IBM PC in the early 1990s. Anyone remember those? Being able to control every little detail on each track using instrument samples was so much fun. I was hooked.

For my first album, I was keen to release it under a band name, which I eventually did as “Tunisia”. I really wanted to be in a band too, but hadn’t found the right people. Most of my favourite records were released by bands, not solo artists, and I felt a band name brought with it another level of mystique and credibility. So I invented one. But press is scarce and attention spans are short. When I promoted my first album I had to choose whether I wanted people to remember my name or a fictional band name. Hence I became “Ben Craven” pretty soon after that.

You say: “there’s never been a time when so much new music was being made by so many people and being listened to by so few people”. Do you believe that the quality of music has fallen rapidly due to the means of technology or people do not have the time to check out all the new music cuz it’s so friggin much?

B: Technology has allowed a lot more people to make music now, people who otherwise would have been stopped in their tracks by the old music industry. Like me, for instance. Record labels had no interest in me and there’s no way I could have afforded the studio time to make my music the way I wanted in the traditional way. I suspect the ratio of “good” to “bad” music is the same that it’s always been. Only now that means there’s so much more you have to wade through to find something you like. I used to do that but it’s too hard these days. Unfortunately, I only stumble on new things I like by sheer luck. Certainly I think that the quality of new music that is “popular”, that gets played on the radio, that the general public is allowed to hear, has fallen. And that has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with major labels and shareholders only being interested in commerce and not wanting to take any chances.

Hence, do you also think that digital downloads prevail over the physical media and why’s that?

B: They did perhaps for a short while. But not anymore. Streaming has put a stop to all that. Physical media sales are dropping but I suspect digital downloads are dropping even faster. Who wants to buy – or even pirate – a download when music is available for free, on demand, legally, on a streaming service? Music has no monetary value anymore. Expensive lavish physical repackaging of old music is about all we have left to look forward to now.

What is the message that you wanna send (and to whom?) with the album’s title “Last Chance to Hear”?

B: The title “Last Chance to Hear” has two meanings. One is a reaction against extreme marketing hype which manages to move product and sway opinions, regardless of truth or quality. The loudest voice wins the day and that is unfortunately the only reality there is now. The other meaning is an admission that things are looking very grim for new music and it is indeed an endangered species. The message is directed at anyone who feels the same way. I’m not going to be able to change anyone else’s opinion, but at least the disenfranchised amongst us can perhaps feel a little less lonely.

Recently “Critical Mass Part 2” won the 2016 Australian Independent Music Award for Best Instrumental. How do you feel about that and how hard was it to compete in general? Do you think that “awards” such as these help music (especially the independent one) to be heard by a larger group of people?

B: Awards are terrific if you win one! You’re at the mercy of judges and opinions and typically these things can go either way, but it was absolutely gratifying to achieve some sort of recognition in my own country. There are very few outlets to have my music heard in Australia so this sort of thing is a real shot in the arm during those dark times when I consider just giving up completely.

And why did you decide to offer “Critical Mass Part 2” for free downloading via your bandcamp page?

B: It’s as you said, the opportunity of being heard by more people. But you can’t even give stuff away for free these days without having a good story to go with it. I suppose the argument could be made then to have my music available on Spotify if I want more people to hear it. But obviously I’m still holding out for some actual sales and downloads, and Bandcamp conveniently allows people to listen for free *and* buy if they want.

How did the cooperation with William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk) & Billy Sherwood (YES, Circa, etc.) come about?

B: Having William Shatner provide vocals on one of my tracks was a pipe dream. I mean it was such a ridiculously great, over-the-top idea that I loved but never seriously pursued since, well, it was completely impossible. Then on one of those unusual days when I was feeling particularly invincible, I decided that Billy Sherwood was the one person who could make it happen and the one person I could trust to produce a recording session on the other side of the world. Billy has a great recording history with Shatner and he is also not unapproachable. I had hoped he would be interested in working with Shatner again and fortunately he was. So all credit to Billy Sherwood for turning a pipe dream into reality. I am still in awe of Shatner’s performance.

Do tell us a few things about each track…

B:“Last Chance to Hear Part 1”:
The title track has a happy, bouncy, chat-show-theme quality about it, which is unusual for me. It sounds like a call to arms, so it opens the album. But it’s all a facade. The lyrics are about the hype machine being so full of smoke and mirrors and empty promises that the audience eventually catches on and stops listening. And I’m not just talking about music, but movies, politics, news, sports – all entertainment.

“Critical Mass Part 1”, “Critical Mass Part 2”:
“Critical Mass” is the piece of music that kicked off the recording process for the whole album, hence the title. I was apprehensive about following up my previous album, “Great & Terrible Potions”, and somehow making this new one bigger and better and living up to my own expectations. But at the end of the day, I wanted to hear this piece of music finished more than anything else. Ultimately I came up with two versions of “Critical Mass”. An orchestral arrangement, like a movie theme, became “Part 1”, whereas “Part 2” was more of a traditional rock arrangement. In the past I might have felt obliged to pick one version only and stick with it. But these days I know better.

“Spy in the Sky Part 2”, “Spy in the Sky Part 3”:
The “Spy in the Sky” suite is the oldest piece of music on the album. It originates from 1994 or 1995, which means it’s been running around in my head for longer than it hasn’t. Finishing it off and linking the pieces together had always felt too hard, until I decided to add the endless guitar and synth solo duel at the end. I described the music once to someone as outer-space spy music, and had images of satellites in my head. Then I discovered an old 50s B-grade cold war movie called “Spy in the Sky”, so I stole the title. I recorded vocals originally but felt they didn’t have the authority or gravitas the song deserved. I went out and got the most incredible vocalist I could think of instead. Shatner!

“The Remarkable Man”:
I like a good James Bond theme. The old John Barry Bond themes feel like a genre of their own and they should be treated with more reverence and respect, especially given some of the horrible Bond themes that have come out over the last decade or so. I’ve started my own tradition now where each of my albums has a James Bond theme on it, or at least my version of one. “Great & Terrible Potions” had “Nobody Dies Forever”, which I thought was pretty obvious. And this album has “The Remarkable Man”.

“Spy in the Sky Part 1”:
“Part 1” is exactly that. It forms a suite with the other parts of “Spy in the Sky”, and should be played at the beginning. However when I sequenced the tracks for the album, “Part 1” seemed to work better in the second half. I wanted the album to have two halves, like a vinyl LP.

“Revenge of Dr Komodo”:
Since “The Remarkable Man” was a movie theme, I had to come up with a story to fuel the lyrics. It’s about a musical supervillain named Dr Komodo who’s been driven to madness by the constant dumbing down of popular music. He vows to take revenge on the world by performing terrifying experiments on helpless musical genres in his secret underground lair. “Revenge of Dr Komodo” is one of his more palatable musical creations.

“Last Chance to Hear Part 2”:
Like “Spy in the Sky”, “Last Chance to Hear” was also a longer track originally. It had a definite introduction, the reflective middle section and then a climax, which was a dark, aggressive, manic sprint towards self-destruction. But I wanted it to bookend the album, so for the greater good I split it up.

“Mortal Remains”:
Thematically, in the context of the album, I asked myself the question – what happens when the money and hype are gone, once the great artists and audiences have left the building, after the big productions and all layers of veneer are stripped away and the music business has blown itself up? What’s left? Hopefully, some very valid music still. “Mortal Remains” almost turned into another full-blown production, but by keeping it simple I preserved the emotions I felt when I stumbled upon it.

Have you ever consider releasing your music through a music label or do you prefer to have your own music freedom?

B: I would jump at the chance to work with a good label. Every independent artist does not necessarily choose to be independent. More likely, independence chooses the artist, as it did in my case. While doing it all myself gives me the creative freedom I want, there’s an awful lot to be said about having a strong team working behind the scenes.

I guess you already have plans for your next album. Are there any specific musicians/artists that you would like to have on your next album or what?

B: I haven’t really thought about collaborators yet. Usually the music comes first and then dictates what it needs, not the other way around. And the main reason I would work with anyone else is because they can do something I can’t. Witness William Shatner. Actually, *nobody* else can do that.

Have you ever considered the fact of finding some other guys in order to give some live shows here & there?

B: Yes, every day, all the time! However my experience so far, at least where I live is that my music is not easy to play and I cannot reasonably expect anyone to give the level of commitment or effort required to perform it. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who feels up to it!

Do you think touring is more crucial these days than the music itself? You see, if you can tour you can make a living; if not… then things are hard. What’s your say?

B: Yes, I doubt the average musician can make a living purely by selling recorded music. So that leaves touring, merchandise, synchronization, drug trafficking, prostitution, whatever, to fill the gap. Touring is certainly the way to go for established artists. The heritage acts are having a ball right now, mainly because newer acts are not coming up through the ranks to replace them. But for smaller artists, it’s still very hard to cover touring costs. Ultimately, I think some sort of patronage model is the way forward, creating a community with fans. I tried something like this while making the album with a model I called “TuneLeak”. I made each song available for streaming and purchase as soon as it was recorded. If anyone out there purchased a song, it would count as a discount against the album when it eventually came out. So, people were able to buy small chunks of the album in advance and fill in the gaps later.

So, what are your expectations from this album and from music in general?

B: I have absolutely no expectations for this album or from music in general. That’s just the way it is now. Naturally, I think I’ve created some great work otherwise I wouldn’t bother releasing it, but merit counts for very little in this world. So, I make music for myself and hope that by putting it out there other people might stumble upon it and enjoy it as well.

Time for our “weird questions”!!! I think there’s a certain similarity on some Yes logos/albums titles and on yours. Why’s that?

B: There’s a very good reason for that! Roger Dean, who designed the Yes logo and painted those extraordinary album covers, also provided the artwork and logo for my last album, “Great & Terrible Potions”. And on this album I worked with Freyja Dean, his daughter, who is equally as talented!

Do you think that funding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo etc. can give any kind of solution to the “legal downloading” matter? Can bands/artists only be supported by their fans in order to make music?

B: I think funding platforms cater best for artists, who were once huge, with name recognition already, and are now scaling down without a record deal and trying to cut costs. But ultimately, yes, I think patronage is a way to go forward and something I will pursue.

Has the internet changed the ways music should be played and released or not? Is it a “divine gift” or a curse?

B: The internet has changed everything. There’s more music than ever being released now, maybe more creators than consumers. It is a gift from the point of view that there are so many micro-communities that there is potentially an audience for everything. The curse is that we introverted musicians need to spend so much energy promoting ourselves on social media platforms just to stay visible, at the expense of actually making music.

If you could “erase” one thing from modern music, what would it be?

B: The perception that music has no value. Legal streaming services essentially give music away for free and any revenue created is barely returned to the actual artists. The general public, rightly so, has no incentive anymore to support artists by purchasing their music.

Which is that band that you’d like to be part of (any time & era)?

B: Oh, how incredible would it have been to have joined Pink Floyd in 1968 as they were transitioning away from Syd Barrett and looking for a way forward.

Top 3 sci-fi movies of any era?

B: “Back to the Future”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Star Trek II The Wrath Of Khan”. Funnily enough, those films also have outstanding music.

Best 3 prog rock albums of all time?

B:Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “Close to the Edge” by Yes, and “Thrak” by King Crimson. That’s my choice for today, at least.

Fill in the phrase… “Prog Rock music wouldn’t have evolved the way it did, if it hadn’t been for…”

B: “… those bastards in the punk bands, who put everyone else out of business!”…

Were you obliged to give just one album to extraterrestrials that would represent the whole human music, which album would it be and from which band/artist?

B: An impossible task, but I would want to give them Earth’s best so they thought all our music was just as good. So I’d go with The Beatles, probably “Sgt. Pepper’s”. It has classical and world influences, and it paved the way for all popular music that followed.

If you had the chance to travel in time… where would you choose to go? To the past or the future and why?

B: The past would be fun. Prehistoric times, to see the dinosaurs, to see how life evolved. The future worries me. I’m not keen to see how much humans screw up everything.

Which do you consider to be the best female & male vocalist in metal history?

B: I am completely unqualified to answer that. There is a gap in my knowledge.

What’s the worst thing one can say right after sex?

B: Cash or credit?

You have the opportunity to have sex with a movie-celebrity/porn-star of your choice. Who would it be & why?

B: As much as I would love to say, I feel I would be hurting and upsetting so many others by exclusion.

Which character from the “Game of Thrones” would you have been – if you lived in the Seven Kingdoms?

B: I am the only person in the history of all time and space who doesn’t watch “Game of Thrones”.

Imagine that your girlfriend/wife/life partner is selling your whole album-collection just to buy an expensive ring for herself. How would you react?

B: Sign up for a free account with Spotify. Problem solved.

That’s all for now, Ben. Thx for taking the time to do this interview. Wish you the best for the future to come. Any last words? Take care!

B: Thank you for the interview! I appreciate any opportunity to get the word out.