It’s been a busy year for Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals and by the looks of things 2016 is shaping up to be just as big. After their successful reunion tour across North America, the boys are set to play a string of dates across Australia in March next year (see the full tour dates here).
We caught up with Ben to get the DL on his plans for the tour. Turns out Australian fans can expect a few surprises throughout the live shows, including new tracks off their first album in eight years Call It What It Is set for release in April 2016.
But what is Ben most excited about while he’s here? Hitting up his favourite falafel joint and cruising Bondi for the best coffee in Australia of course – man knows his priorities.
Music Feeds: So what made you decide to reunite the Innocent Criminals and why now after such a big break for the band?
Ben Harper: It’s something that I was thinking about for a while. We stayed in touch even though we had parted ways. I was connected with all the different band members at different times by phone and in person and we’d all talked about it.
It seemed like the music that I was writing up to that point was very much serving the Innocent Criminals. It felt like it was time, you know? I missed them, and I hope they missed me too. Sometimes I have to find a way to be in touch with the music I’m making and know what’s going to serve the songs I’m writing best, especially with the Innocent Criminals as we wrote a lot of these songs together, at least half of them. There is a lot of co-writing throughout this record.
MF: Now the band is back together, do the relationships between band members feel different to before or was it simply just a matter of picking up where you left off?
BH: I think it picked up beyond where we left off, which was beyond my expectations. Everyone had grown so much, having had so much time to play with other people and in different styles and to bring those influences into what we are doing now.
There was also time to grow personally. I think we’ve all come back as different players, different people. We’ve been on the road for a year, and that year has proven to be one of the most fulfilling to date for me, and I think for all of the band.
MF: You began recording new music with the Innocent Criminals before you started rehearsing songs for your recent tour. Was it a deliberate choice to kick things off with something new?
BH: I wanted to start off on a completely new foot. I wasn’t even calling it a new record; I wasn’t calling it a reunion, because I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. So I booked a week in the studio to experiment with new material because if we were going to get back together, I needed to see what that would look like, feel like, sound like – and I didn’t want to set up any false expectations.
If it was going to be a reunion, I wanted it to start with something fresh and new as I think that’s an important part of reconnecting. Within the first week of recording, it was clear to me we had something unrecognisably new as far as the way we were interacting with one another – instantly I knew that.
MF: When it comes to song writing, over the years you’ve covered a range of emotions and topics from love songs through to some pretty heavy political themes. What direction are you looking to take Call It What It Is? Are there any key concepts you’ll be exploring through this new album?
BH: I think this album represents all of that, as clearly and concisely as any record I’ve ever put out. People can interpret the songs on this record in any number of ways. It’s unlike any record or any work that we’ve ever put out as a band. There’s a song called Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You, which could be about a lot of things.
There’s a song that’s called How Dark Is God, which could also be about a lot of different things. I think the album represents the broadening perspective as far as what we’re putting forward as a band. We’ll see, it’s never up to us how people respond to our work.
MF: You’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years in Australia, what is it that you most love to do when you’re out here? Are there any things you can tick off your list while you’re here this time?
BH: What am I going to do this time? Let’s see I’ve got my favourite Lebanese restaurant – it’s my favourite falafel joint. I’ve got my favourite coffee spot off of Bondi. The coffee in Australia is just about as good as anywhere you can get it! In fact you guys might be the most coffee-centric of all the places I’ve ever been.
MF: Your music is incredibly popular here in Australia. What do you think it is about your music that resonates so strongly with Australian audiences?
BH: It’s hard to say, but I spent a lot of time with Charlie Musselwhite, we made a record together called Get Up!, and whenever someone would come up and compliment his music Charlie would say to them, “I admire your taste”.
So yeah, it’s hard to say, but I find my music resonates most in the places I feel most comfortable being. Maybe there is something in there that I still need to go deeper on, but the places that I feel at ease and comfortable, and at home, are the places where the music resonates – and that’s Australia and that’s Italy and that’s France.
MF: Are there any collaborations in the works that you can tell me about on the new album?
BH: Every sound made and instrument played on this record is by myself and the Innocent Criminals and that is the collaboration right now that I am the most excited about. In fact, this is about the longest I’ve ever not collaborated with anyone.
MF: Is there anything you’re planning to do differently throughout this tour? Any big changes you’ll be bringing to the live shows?
BH: Yeah, we’re going to dig deeper into the catalogue, pull out some songs we haven’t played in a long time – we’re working hard to rehearse those and get them ready. We’re also going to sequence the sets differently. It’s going to be a different show. We’ll be playing songs like Give A Man A Home and Ashes to Ashes, Two Hands in A Prayer.
The challenge is that you may bewilder some people, because you consistently have new people coming in that may know you just from the hits, or just from the newest record. So it’s a real challenge representing different eras of the music throughout the set list.
You can’t come out and play all new stuff and if you go too far deep into the catalogue, people get anxious to hear the more popular songs. It’s a tough one, you can’t stay up on stage forever because then the shows too long! So while it’s tough to work through that – we are going to do some things differently.