2011-09-10 – Progwereld (Interview)

Published (in Dutch) at:
http://www.progwereld.org/cms/interview-ben-craven/

Here’s the original (rambling) English version!

Q: All over sudden you are here, with an amazing album. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

A: Well I’m a prog singer-songwriter from Brisbane, Australia. I finally made the album I always wanted to make, entitled Great & Terrible Potions. It’s a grand old-school prog-rock piece with no compromises.

Q: You first album, under the name Tunisia, was recorded with a band. On your new album you did everything yourself. Did you have bad experiences with working with a band?

A: There’s an old cliché about the music industry. You get ten years to write your first album, and six months for your second. I didn’t want to fall into that trap so I recorded my second album first! Two False Idols was originally intended as a band project, but it didn’t turn out that way. Two of the tracks were co-written with a great friend of mine, Brad Douglas, who was part of that band. But as I demoed the tracks, I started playing all the instruments myself, and found myself taking on different personalities for the separate musicians I imagined were performing. This approach was developed even more on Great & Terrible Potions. Their personalities have evolved.

So while playing in a band is incredible fun, I also have a tremendous amount of respect – and sympathy – for artists who are driven by a single purpose of realising a vision. For better or for worse, I’ve always loved Trevor Rabin’s quote from YesYears. There are two ways to write a song – your way, and the wrong way!

Q: Can you tell me about the writing- and recording process of this album?

A: These songs had their genesis in separate little moments of musical inspiration which took on a life of their own, rather than the deliberate act of sitting down to write. Most of this music has been buzzing around in my head for years, and I’d been waiting until I’d built up my studio to the point where I could do it justice. I can’t imagine the budget if I’d booked studio time somewhere else!

When it finally came time to do the actual recording, it felt like I was acting as a producer and arranger for someone else’s music, while trying to stay true to their original vision. So it was definitely recorded in a vacuum, living and breathing the music day and night. I have a very understanding wife!

One big development on this album was having the courage to allow certain pieces of music to remain as instrumentals, rather than feeling the need to plaster lyrics over everything. Lyrics add another dimension, but good music can transcend languages.

Q: You played all the instruments yourself, what are your main instruments? And did you ever take lessons or did you learn it yourself?

A: I took violin lessons as a kid, but I’m pretty sure I sounded awful. Maybe I got bored playing the same notes on the page over and over again. It wasn’t until years later that I picked up a guitar, and this time around I didn’t want to spoil it by taking lessons! But the violin experience probably helped shaped my taste in music: A love of string instruments, an appreciation of solos, and a fetish for exotic chords resulting from the pent-up frustration of playing a largely monophonic violin for years!

Q: You did the recording, mixing and mastering yourself. Is that your profession? And isn’t it difficult to say in the end “it’s good this way” because I can imagine that you always feel the urge to keep changing bits and pieces.

A: I’m attempting to make it my profession. If anyone needs any projects done feel free to let me know!

I love every part of the process, from writing through to mastering, and each stage presents more opportunities to make artistic contributions. So, yes, it is a constant struggle trying to decide when to finally “abandon” a piece of work. One approach that seems to work for me is to give the music the chance to rest and mature over time, so new ideas and different arrangements reveal themselves before bottling. There’s a “potions” analogy for you!

For instance, the orchestral beginning of No Specific Harm evolved directly from that process. Conversely, other songs will decide they want to shed some layers, or even vocals.

Anyway, I’ve paid other people for studio time and mastering in the past, and that didn’t stop me one bit from tweaking things again later on!

Q: I am a real movie freak and on your website you call you music “cinematic”, can you tell a bit more about that? Do you have certain movies in mind when you write your music?

A: For some reason I’ve always been drawn to audio adaptations of movies, and I enjoy reliving a good movie simply by listening to the score. Some of my music is an attempt to recreate that feeling, where the aural experience can spur on the listener’s imagination to fill in the visual blanks.

I’m more likely to have a genre in mind rather than a particular film while working on a track. For instance, Nobody Dies Forever has a cold-war spy movie quality about it, especially one that involves a sinister government of B-grade aliens. And No Specific Harm opens with a sweeping desert view of the Egyptians constructing the pyramids, and ends with a sandstorm hiding the ravages of time. In my mind, anyway!

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that my favourite movies also happen to feature great scores which can stand alone and recall the movie at the same time. Very rarely, lightning strikes and a masterful combination of director and composer can create the very best cinema. Hitchcock and Herrmann come to mind.

Q: The artwork is spectacular, was it difficult to “get” Roger Dean? How was it to work with him?

A: I was introduced to Roger by a mutual friend who thought my music demanded a Roger Dean cover! I politely pursued Roger for months, and we eventually secured a deal. His schedule is incredibly busy – he was also working on the artwork for Fly From Here at the time – but he was an absolute gentleman, and an artist. I happily let him talk me into a mini-gatefold sleeve for the CD package. He also designed a vinyl sleeve, so there will be an LP release in the very near future.

Q: Would you like to bring you music to the stage? Are there any plans to do so?

A: Absolutely! There are two approaches I’m considering at the moment. One is the big traditional show with a band performing faithful renditions of the songs. The other is a solo show recreating the music by completely stripping back the arrangements. Maybe I could pull off the second idea if I were Adrian Belew or Jon Brion.

Q: What are your main influences? And what music do you listen now a days?

A: The usual prog rock suspects for starters. Pink Floyd, Yes, Mike Oldfield and Brian Wilson are huge influences, along with the delightful bleakness of King Crimson. And of course I love the great film soundtrack composers like John Williams, John Barry and Bernard Herrmann. I’m always on the lookout for an epic piece of music which can double as a great song and a movie theme.

Recording this album has been such an intense experience that I haven’t really had the chance to listen to other people’s music for pleasure lately. I’m trying to rectify that now. I’ve just bought a nice dedicated headphone amplifier and picked up the latest Mike Oldfield deluxe editions, so that’s a good start.

Q: Is there a living prog scene in Australia?

A: Not to my knowledge. There are small communities of prog bands out there, some leaning more towards modern metallic prog, but I really do feel like a musical refugee. Unitopia has done very well, but that’s mainly outside of Australia!

Q: In the booklet you say “Ben Craven will return”. What are your future plans?

A: I have two new albums in the pipeline. One is the natural follow-up to Great & Terrible Potions. The other is a country music-esque concept album. Really. But in the meantime I hope to reissue my first album Two False Idols with a new mix and bonus tracks, and assemble a band to play some of this stuff live. There is no shortage of projects demanding work. As usual, it’s a matter of time and funds!

Q: Is there something you’ll like to add or do you want to say something to the Progwereld audience?

A: Thank you to everyone who has already listened to Great & Terrible Potions on Progstreaming. I’ve been shocked by the response and it’s been incredible to reach out to so many people in Holland so far!

Q: Thank you for this interview!

A: It’s been a pleasure!