2016-05 – MWE3.com (Review and Interview)

Originally published at http://www.mwe3.com/reviews/BenCraven2016/

BEN CRAVEN
Last Chance To Hear
(Desert Comb / Tune Leak Records)

Australia’s rising musical mastermind Ben Craven takes progressive rock in exciting new directions on his 2016 CD / DVD entitled Last Chance To Hear. The album comes with a DVD featuring a documentary on the making of the Last Chance To Hear album along with a bunch of user-friendly video clips of various tracks. After listening to Last Chance To Hear, calling Craven eclectic would be an understatement, but not for someone who says he absorbed Dark Side Of The Moon while still in his mother’s womb. A prolific singer-songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist, Ben plays everything in sight on Last Chance To Hear. Although he’s an adept vocalist, and he does feature several vocal tracks here, the emphasis is placed on the instrumental prog-rock thing that Craven also does so well. The vocal tracks, including “Last Chance To Hear Pt. 1” and “The Remarkable Man” truly enlivens the album’s progressive rock experience while pointing a socially satirical finger at the music business and the annexation of music by You Tube and other online music resources. The third vocal track here “Spy In The Sky Pt. 3” features a spoken word vocal by Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise (a/k/a Bill Shatner), which is a total gas. Ben’s latest instrumental tracks are totally convincing and blend the compositional spirits of John Barry, Brian Wilson and Chris Squire to great effect with somber and thought-provoking moods and sounds. What ever your interest is within the progressive / instrumental rock realm, Ben Craven has the sonic prescriptions ready to fill your every need with the sonically super-charged Last Chance To Hear.

mwe3.com presents an interview with
BEN CRAVEN

mwe3: Your new CD Last Chance To Hear starts off with part one of the title track. Is that track a diatribe against the music business in general? On the DVD that comes with the CD I see you express a certain disdain for the way things turned out for the indie musician, losing money from music being given away for free these days on you tube etc… Are you speaking more to the media or to the listeners or to the major labels?

Ben Craven: I’m speaking to anyone who recognizes the scam. It’s certainly not limited to the music industry. The internet has allowed ubiquity of the richest advertisers more than ever before. We’re being told what to like, what to dislike, what to think and what to buy, more than ever. And anyone who disagrees is screaming out in a vain effort trying to be heard. The niches are being overwhelmed. Superhero films are now the pinnacle of popular culture. There are only ever two approved candidates for public office. News organizations, in Australia at least, go off and commit crimes just so they can report on the results. Reality TV shows turn personal misery into entertainment for the masses. The major record labels are now stronger than ever. They won radio and now control the narrative. The world belongs to Kanye and Taylor. This is an exciting time to be a vacuous veneer of a marketer. Not so much if you’re trying to promote anything of substance.

mwe3: Things quickly shift with track two, “Critical Mass Part 1”, which is the first of some great instrumentals on Last Chance To Hear. On Last Chance To Hear did you set out to create more of an instrumental opus rather than more of a rock vocal album and is that concept in contrast to your earlier works?

Ben Craven: There was no conscious decision to create more instrumentals this time around. It just seemed to be the form that best fit the music I had chosen to work on. Most of it was originally created around the same time as the music that appeared on my previous album, Great & Terrible Potions. Possibly I had already used up the easy ones and was left with the hard ones. I do enjoy singing, but if I don’t think a piece of music really needs it, I’m not going to try to shoehorn it in there. It’s true that I find writing lyrics to be a miserable experience, but more so I felt that most of these pieces were strong enough to allow the music do the talking. I generally write music for myself as an escape from reality, and most of the time that includes transcending language. One of the happy consequences is that this album will reach non-English speaking audiences. However, having said all of that, there were clearly some songs that asked for lyrics. “The Remarkable Man” for instance has a recognizably traditional song structure. “Critical Mass” on the other hand can almost be seen as a jam on one chord. A structure revealed itself eventually, but lyrics were not to be a part of it.

mwe3: How did you arrive with the title of Last Chance To Hear? Is there a kind of overall concept to the album? Perhaps in the sense that, things move so fast, why not grab the CD and listen before it gets lost in the shuffle or death has its way?

Ben Craven: The original vision I had in my head was of a muddy water hole in the desert, slowly evaporating during the dry season. A bunch of different species of wild animals were trying to survive in and around it. The clever animals had already left a long time ago in search of greener pastures. The ones that remained were now turning on each other or burying themselves in the mud, holding out for a wet season. Ultimately they were all doomed as there would be no more wet seasons and the water hole would dry up completely. This, I thought, was a perfect analogy for the music industry. With this vaguely ecological theme in mind, I recalled Douglas Adams’ book Last Chance To See. I figured someone should write something similar about the music industry and call it Last Chance To Hear. The title resonated on so many levels with me. Last chance to hear physical media? Last chance to hear the album format? Last chance to hear independent artists before they all starve from lack of income? Last chance to hear your favorite touring heritage bands before they, with all due respect, die? Last chance to hear Ben Craven before he gives up? So that became a loose concept for the album. The title also seemed a bit sensational, so that aspect came into play in the title track. That is to say, sensationalism and extreme tactics appear to be the only way to break through the news cycle these days, and the media will pander to the loudest or the richest. Unsurprisingly, the story is typically manufactured and the reality is simply hollow or empty.

mwe3: It was great that you included a DVD with the Last Chance To Hear CD, to sort of increase the value to the listener? What was involved in producing the DVD and making the vids?

Ben Craven: I felt an extra disc was absolutely necessary to increase the value prospect of the album for anybody thinking about buying a physical copy. Plus it makes the full package a bit harder to pirate. For instance, my first album included a full surround DTS version on a separate disc. During the second album I filmed hours and hours of actual studio footage but in the end I didn’t think anyone would be particularly interested in seeing it, so it remains unedited. This time around I compromised by marrying some studio footage with explanatory interviews in a nice mini-documentary. Actually that’s just good practice really for anyone releasing an album. Since I had officially leaked some of the tracks onto my TuneLeak.com web site as soon as they were recorded, those tracks already had videos to go along with them. So they made the cut as well. Finally, we produced a new video clip for “The Remarkable Man” which took the form of a movie opening title sequence, complete with fictional credits. Some of the names were famous pseudonyms but others were followers of my Facebook page! The animation was put together in record time by Travis Horsfall of Multimedia Milk. I’ve had feedback since the release that people have found the interviews on the DVD very helpful in understanding the meanings behind the songs.

mwe3: What was your theory in creating multiple parts for different tracks and then sequencing them in different areas on the album, even though “Critical Mass Part 1” and “Critical Mass Part 2” are sequenced together. For example, “Spy In The Sky Part 2” comes before “Spy In The Sky Part 1”, which is kind of unusual!

Ben Craven: I had already leaked the “Spy In The Sky” sections officially on my web site as soon as they were recorded, so they had designated part numbers and names. They definitely form a complete suite when listened to in the correct order. “Part 1” is the introduction and “Part 3” is clearly the finale! However, when it came to sequencing the tracks for the album, I really wanted to follow the traditional vinyl format with two halves, a “Side One” and a “Side Two”, and the album seemed to flow best with “Spy In The Sky Part 1” moved to the second half, appearing as sort of a reprise. It gives an interesting thematic and temporal resonance to the album and I don’t think the remaining parts suffer very much from having their original introduction whisked away.

mwe3: Some listeners find it hard to believe that you’re not only writing and recording on your own but that you’re also playing every instrument again on Last Chance To Hear. Based on the sonics I believe you’re truly breaking down walls of sound here. Have you gotten so immersed in recording by yourself in the studio, that it’s all down to a science as it really sounds like you have. What computer programs did you record Last Chance To Hear with? It really sounds like these systems are improving, would you agree?

Ben Craven: Systems are certainly improving but there’s nothing particularly special or expensive about the equipment I use. In fact it’s possibly the cheapest DAW available for the PC combined with a modest audio interface. Perhaps I’ve got better at using plug ins to get the sound I want, or maybe the arrangements are more successful. I definitely have different influences and alter egos I try to channel when playing the different instruments. My keyboard player, for instance, can cover the musical ground my guitar player can’t. My bass player is a busy fellow who launches into lead bass or walking bass whenever he can. My drummer is a bit more sensible and usually tries the anchor the rest of the band. But I do tend to cram in as much sonically as I think the track can take, or as the CPU can handle in some cases. Certainly some tracks are at the limit of their audible parts, but it’s that intensity that keeps them exciting to work on and refine for as long as I do. Or overwhelming enough to challenge and egg me on to finish them. The reward for me is to hear the completed version, like some magic trick, while the memory of the conception fades.

mwe3: Did you have a concept in mind for the three part “Spy In The Sky”? Part two and three come together and part 3 is actually quite unique in that Star Trek’s William Shatner does the vocals on the song. In the Last Chance To Hear DVD, you were talking about Billy Sherwood setting up this sonic rendezvous with Shatner and that he recorded the track at his home in L.A. Tell us the story of meeting Billy Sherwood.

Ben Craven: The “Spy In The Sky” suite encapsulates a few pieces of music I was working on simultaneously back around 1994. I thought I was on to something special at the time but didn’t have the vision or the ability to link it all together. I even passed on it during Great & Terrible Potions. But now I was going to finish it even if it killed me. I put on my producer’s hat and somehow sorted it all out. Happily it grew into almost a 20-minute piece.

You can imagine how hard it is for me to admit this, but my own vocals for that song sounded somewhat anticlimactic after the huge buildup that preceded them. Maybe if I’d just changed the key I might have been happier with them. In fact I did exactly that so I could perform it recently at the album launch. But in my mind that song had always been calling for a dramatic speaking voice. It had a “War Of The Worlds” and a “Space: The Final Frontier…” feeling about it.

William Shatner was my immediate choice, no question. I’m obviously a huge fan and he is famous, amongst other things, for his unique musical style where he inhabits that mysterious region between earnestness and self-deprecation. There was absolutely no irony intended in these lyrics. In fact they are about quite a depressing and solemn topic. Yet the irony of William Shatner performing a song with no irony would add another delicious layer I couldn’t ignore, and at the same time I hoped it would provide him with an interesting dramatic challenge.

Sadly, I haven’t met Billy Sherwood or William Shatner in person, but there’s the advantage of the internet and the ability to work remotely. Billy is very open to communication and luckily he was between YES tours at the time. He was my only choice to produce the vocal session. If he had been unavailable the whole thing wouldn’t have happened. So huge props to Billy. He took his mobile studio to the Shatner residence and they recorded the vocal on a Friday evening.

mwe3: Speaking of Billy Sherwood, it’s been a very bad year for YES fans with the passing of Chris Squire last June and I know Chris signed your Rickenbacker bass. Do you still play that bass or are you afraid of Chris’s signature rubbing off from your sweat and playing of it? (lol) What do you make of Squire’s passing fairly early at age 67? I realize YES used to record and tour a lot going back to the late 1960s but I think it might have become too much for him especially after he had the blood clot episode in 2009, which sidelined him.

Ben Craven: For a brief period of time I was worried about Chris’s signature rubbing off the pick guard! But then I remembered that an instrument is for playing and an autograph is really just a reminder of an experience. I don’t have any intentions of selling the bass, so to keep it quarantined would be cruel and unfair. Chris’s passing was incredibly sad for me as a fan. I’d been lucky enough to meet him a couple of times and felt as though I knew him through his music. His bass lines were always surprising and his vocals always made me smile. I’m not privy to the reasons why YES was touring so regularly but I suspect the current state of the music industry with lower income from recorded music had something to do with it. I do wish Chris and Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin could have had the chance to make more music together. But we’re at that time in history where age is catching up with my musical heroes. What an awful year 2016 has been. It’s not going to get any better.

mwe3: The lyrics for “Spy In The Sky Part 3” are quite bizarre. What was your intent in that song? Perhaps only a voice like Shatner could make them sound so menacing! Were you going for a kind of cinematic vision with those harrowing lyrics? What more can you tell us about those lyrics as they’re very unusual compared to the rest of the album.

Ben Craven: When in doubt I write about the circumstances around me. I wanted to express the sheer exhaustion I was feeling, the crippling fatigue, the experience of dragging myself out of the swamp every day, which was in stark contrast to the high hopes and unbridled ambition I had for the album. These feelings were somewhat driven by the knowledge that I was writing the best work of my life and it was unlikely that many people would hear it. I was questioning the whole point of the exercise. The lyrics are essentially based on the writings of Winston Churchill and English author Samuel Johnson, who were able to articulate how I felt much better than I could. Given that the phrases were not entirely my own, it didn’t seem incongruous to have another voice on the track. I had envisioned William Shatner might have performed with a certain elder world-weariness, rather like his recent re-recording of “Rocket Man”. Instead, he tackled the words with enthusiasm and, as you say, menace, which it turns out was exactly what the vocals needed and a much better match for the music!

mwe3: Do you think that Billy Sherwood will lead a version of YES even after Alan White and Steve Howe retire? What do you think Sherwood’s intentions are with YES following Squire’s passing? Maybe he will choose you to play the guitar parts in YES after Steve Howe retires in another ten years but if I know Steve, he’ll never retire!

Ben Craven: Billy Sherwood is the perfect bass player for YES right now. It’s like the role he was born to play. I understand he is a workaholic so I imagine he’ll be pushing for new YES music if he has the opportunity. But I suspect he has little say at this point! I don’t doubt that YES will continue performing once Steve and Alan retire. If the transition to other players is handled gradually and with sensitivity they might be able to get away with it pretty well. After all, there are no original members remaining in the band even now.

mwe3: “The Remarkable Man” is your other vocal track aside from “Last Chance To Hear Part 1” and William Shatner’s vocal on “Spy In The Sky Part 3”. “The Remarkable Man” is truly a remarkable track that again comes with a cutting edge lyric. Is that track autobiographical of you? It sure sounds like it. The lyrics are great, do you think that it might have had a bigger impact say if you had a loud and theatrical singer like Ozzy Osborne on lead vocals? Also tell us about the John Barry / 007 effect on that track as it sure sounds like the theme song for a long lost James Bond movie! What are your favorite Bond movies and who is your favorite soundtrack composer?

Ben Craven: You got it in one! Tom Jones was actually my dream vocalist for that song but I didn’t pursue it because, you know, budget. I sang it the best I could under the circumstances! The track is clearly a homage to the John Barry Bond themes, with a bit of Henry Mancini thrown in. That meant the lyrics had to be about either the hero or the villain. The idea of a super-villain seemed much more interesting, so I created a character called Dr. Komodo. He has the amorality of Kurtz from Heart Of Darkness and the scientific single-mindedness of Dr. Moreau. He’s been driven to the brink of madness by the woeful state of popular music and takes it upon himself to perform painful vivisection procedures on helpless musical genres in an effort to repopulate the barren musical landscape. Obviously it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to write about that character. The song was also inspired by my personal disappointment at many of the recent Bond themes. My favorite Bond films oddly enough coincide with my favorite themes, probably You Only Live Twice and Live And Let Die. George Martin did a terrific job on the latter! I would have to concede though that the master of all film composers, for me, is John Williams. His catalogue is astonishing. I don’t think we’ll see anyone like him again.

mwe3: Your originality as a composer and keyboardist really shines through on track seven “Spy In The Sky Part 1”, which comes after the first two parts. This is clearly one of your best instrumental tracks. What else can you tell us about “Spy In The Sky Part 1”?

Ben Craven: That track evolved by playing around with the chords from “Spy In The Sky Part 2” and trying to give them more emotional depth. From there it turned into, essentially, a piano and guitar duet almost without thinking. Definitely I had Rick Wright and David Gilmour in mind, and I’m almost embarrassed by how easily I arrived at that arrangement. The music hurtled towards its final form and I just had to get out of the way. I did enjoy constructing the piano solo in the middle section of that song, which is later echoed by the classical guitar in “Part 2”. I could happily churn out music like that all day!

mwe3: “Revenge Of Dr. Komodo” is track eight on the CD. Is that a different kind of track on the CD with the organ sound? It must have been challenging to create as there’s so many moving parts. It has a kind of Keith Emerson sound with the stabbing organ sounds. Speaking of which, I would imagine Emerson’s suicide was so harrowing for his fans to absorb. Have you been able to put that horrible event into some perspective?

Ben Craven: “Revenge Of Dr. Komodo” is the most fun I’ve had recording a track in a long time and is probably my favorite on the album. I felt I was creating something fairly unusual and exciting with the combination of musical styles. I almost called the track “Progabilly”. It fit in perfectly with my super-villain from “The Remarkable Man” so I presented it on the album as one of Dr. Komodo’s more successful musical experiments. In fact, it represents his solution for the problem posed by the “Last Chance To Hear” concept. That is to say, let’s just throw all the pieces into the sky with reckless abandon and see how they fall! Certainly there’s a Keith Emerson influence in the Hammond sound and playing. I was incredibly saddened by his death. Another great, another original, gone… I definitely feel for him and can imagine how much pain and despair he must have felt. I assume he’s at peace now.

mwe3: “Last Chance To Hear Part 2” is the ninth track on the CD. Is that a kind of eulogy for the album? How does that track sum of the spirit of the album? Is “Last Chance To Hear Part 2” the most guitar-centric track on the Last Chance To Hear album? There’s some brilliant guitar soloing midway through the track, which clocks in at nearly seven minutes.

Ben Craven: Eulogy is a great word for it. The slower section that opens “Part 2” is a lament, personally for someone very close to me who passed away, but it also fits in with the greater theme of the album. Things have changed, the industry has moved on, the greats are leaving us and music will never be the same again. I definitely sound exactly like myself in that section, almost to a fault, which somewhat distracts from the grief. The rest of the track is a voyage into the unknown, wilder and more aggressive than usual for me. It could be a path to self destruction. It could be a new beginning. Even right at the end we briefly hear two more variations on the “Last Chance To Hear” musical theme. So perhaps that means the future is wide open with endless possibilities.

mwe3: I was kind of surprised you chose to end the CD with a very solemn sounding piano solo. Was that by chance or by design? There was also a delay between the end of “Last Chance To Hear Part 2” and the final track “Mortal Remains”. Was “Mortal Remains” written for Squire and / or the other rock legends who’ve recently left the planet?

Ben Craven: The title, “Mortal Remains”, is borrowed from a phrase in Pink Floyd’s “Nobody Home” that is said to refer to Rick Wright at the time. It’s supposed to represent the aftermath of the struggle. What happens once the money and hype are gone, once the great artists and audiences have left the building, once the production and all layers of veneer are stripped away? What’s the essence of what we’re fighting for? Well, some very valid music, I would argue. But why should music exist if nobody wants to hear it?

“Mortal Remains” could have turned into another full-blown song, but by keeping it simple I preserved the emotions I felt when I stumbled upon it. It didn’t need words to tell me how to feel. It’s also a nod to the structure of my first album, which ends with the instrumental, “Celeste”.

mwe3: Are you happy with the way Last Chance To Hear turned out and also are you happy with recording this way or, being that you’re young enough, would you consider some other vehicle in terms of other musicians for your music moving forward? Seems like you should call your next album The Sky’s The Limit because that’s the feeling one gets after hearing Last Chance To Hear, or is that title a too much self-fulfilling prophecy? How do you reset your sights and recharge after making such a masterful album?

Ben Craven: If we’re going to follow proper Bond protocol, perhaps the next one should be called The Sky Is Not Enough. I could very easily pick up where I’ve left off and continue to work through my backlog of unfinished music, plus all the happy accidents that seem to happen along the way. The music is the easy part. The question is whether the struggle is worth it. The hard part is and always has been getting my music heard by other people. There is wisdom in what you suggest about involving other musicians. From a live point of view perhaps it’s a necessity. But from a recording point of view, I’ve maneuvered myself into a position where I don’t have to rely on other musicians, producers or engineers to be able to express myself. It is a solemn activity but it’s an awful lot of fun, like dressing up as a kid and playing all the roles. To be able to share that with an audience is the key. The right musicians would be able to bring something to the table that I couldn’t, and vice versa. Lightning would have to strike.