HUCK meets Ben Harper’s visceral new band, Relentless 7.
He may have rocked festivals and stadia the world over as a solo act with a guitar in tow. But times have changed. Tim Donnelly travels to New York to meet the Relentless 7, Ben Harper’s visceral new band.
I did not care that I was soaked to the bone or that my favourite leather jacket now smelled like stale ale. Hollering through the cold downpour and dancing in ankle-deep puddles on the corner of East Houston and Clinton Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at two thirty in the morning, I wanted the world to know what I had just seen and heard at the Mercury Lounge that night. They were loud, they were raw and they’d thrown down an absolutely massive set.
The band in question, the Relentless 7, were not unfamiliar to me. They feature a ringer in their singer/slide guitar slinger Ben Harper. No longer the trailblazing leader of the Innocent Criminals, Harper is now the recognisable face of the Relentless 7, who are, in no particular order, Ben plus guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ignalls and drummer Jordan Richardson.
To many music fans, Harper is a musician who has flown under and around the modern rock radar, touching down at massive festivals from Bonnaroo to Byron Bay, leaving huge clouds of positive energy in his wake.
Though he is married to Hollywood royalty with wife Laura Dern, and is partner in a clothing company named ‘Propr’ with actor David Arquette, he has finally embraced being a star by doing the opposite of what musicians do: he’s starting over mid-career. The difference between Ben and the others is that it is all being done under his own volition.
The ‘forming a new band thing’ isn’t a re-invention ploy by Harper. For him, Relentless 7 could be perceived as a huge gamble: to form a group with unknown musicians and not rely on or barely play his successful back catalogue is not exactly a recipe for success. Will it work? A look in my stinky, sticky jacket pocket a couple of days later reveals a cocktail napkin suggesting there’s every chance it will: “As heavy as anything from Seattle, as roadhouse as anything from West Texas, as soulful as anything form Memphis and as righteous as anything from New Orleans.”
A month and a couple of days later, I find myself face to face and elbow to elbow with the R7 on a cramped couch in the artist green room at Sirius satellite radio. It’s 11am, early for rock star standards, and their glazed attention come into focus when a properly caffeinated Harper looks at me with cob web-clearing intent.
“It is a new day and it’s important to say this: this is a band. This is a band that could not exist without the other three guys,” he declares. “It’s really the first time I have not been the centre of the circle, a corner of the square.”
The night prior, Harper had backed his declaration full heartedly by bringing his brand-new bag to a NYC radio audience, industry insiders and contest winners, opening with a song only the band had heard before, the sweeping blues epic ‘Karma to Burn’, which clocked in at ten minutes.
The running time of the song shocked Harper. “Was it ten? We clocked that at ten? Wow. I think we may have stretched it out, so it was new, new. Whatever that is,” he laughs.
The music they are making together is so adventurous and tight that they decided to write new material rather than play Harper’s songs, a huge affirmation of faith in their ability. Word of caution to the hardcore fan: do not expect to hear ‘Steal Your Kisses’ from this band. Expect to be rocked.
“No, they are not going to hear that song. They need to know that goin’ in,” Harper says, speaking to his fans. “We finally had the definite meeting about rehearsing old material of mine. We got into a room and I made up a list of eight to ten songs that would work well. I said to the guys, ‘We can work these songs into a new sound – our own sound – or we can write new songs?’ There was no question: Write new songs.”
Harper is intense about his craft and has been used to carrying that heavy load around with him. But no longer. He can now be the ‘influencee’ not the influencer – and he’s way cool with that. “It feels like I have a weight off, it feels like there is an inexhaustible amount of creativity firing around in this band. The things that these guys play when they are just warming up, it’s fucking constantly coming out of these guys, they bring to life where I’ve been musically all the time, coming up with new stuff and generating new ideas, it’s altogether different,” he stresses. “There is no going back. I know the risks involved. It would have been real easy for me to comfortably coast in and around a certain level of accomplishment, but it was staring me dead in the face and it made me nervous.
“But it is exactly what I needed musically,” he continues, “with these three guys to come and grab me by the throat, shake me around and bring this to life. I needed it, man. Desperately.”
At thirty-nine, Ben has dropped into the biggest wave of his creative life, looking to share the juice rather than use it all to himself. “They command their own and it just works its way into this collective of four guys. They are musically uninhibited and it’s reckless abandon, man. It’s fucking reckless abandon,” Harper insists, his hands thumping his chest.
And with that, he stands up and leaves the green room. They’ll be on air in a few minutes, it’s not even midday yet, and Harper, it seems, can’t wait to play some new tunes.
The story behind how the Relentless 7 formed is stuff normally saved for show biz fables, not rock ‘n’ roll reality. In the late nineties, Austin-based guitarist Jason Mozersky was in the right place at the right time, thanks to his job working as a driver for a local music promoter. One day he had Ben Harper in his van. He did what ballsy, naïve, confident, or yes, even desperate musicians do in that situation: he asked Ben to listen to his demo.
Harper agreed to listen and was, in his own words, “blown away” – and helped Mozersky and his then band, Wan Santo Cabo, get a record deal. Mozersky’s band may have fallen apart, but his relationship with Harper continued to grow.
In 2005, Harper asked Mozersky to lay down a track for his /Both Sides of the Gun/ record. Mozersky showed up to the session with Richardson and Ingalls in tow. Their session together yielded, not just the song, ‘Save Your Soul’, but the genesis of the Relentless 7.
“People ask me if I am excited to be here,” says Mozersky. “The three of us are here because of what we do naturally – we aren’t here to be handed charts. The way I play meshes with Ben’s style and it was immediate and will get better. We do things differently every night, because there’s trust there.”
Mozerksy’s dead on with his assessment: there is intuitiveness between them that can’t be taught. It just is. On that wet night at the Mercury Lounge, during the blistering rocker of a song, ‘Keep It Together’, the give and take between Mozersky and Harper was akin to watching men who had been playing together almost forty years, not men who are not forty yet. They wove in between the notes, pushing each other into a sonic battle with guitars and then pulling themselves out of it, somehow without missing or losing their other band mates.
“I’m not missing a note of his,” Harper says of Mozersky. “If he’s throwing the gauntlet down like that and raising the bar that high, then I’m gonna play stuff no one else will play too. It’s one thing to say it and another to be up there on that stage every night with that machine, it’s something that I have stepped into knowing that I have to step up.”
Harper threw them into the deep end of the performing pool early. On their first gig, they had to share the stage with the Beastie Boys, Tenacious D and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The crowd: 10,000 strong. “I said, ‘You know what guys, I‘m doing this show for Obama. Come on out, let’s hit this, let’s charge this as a band, this is the right opportunity, the right moment.’
“This was a statement and for me a brave choice to just put them out there to show them what it looks like and to see for myself what it would look like. The boys stepped up like they were playing these venues their whole lives,“ recalls Harper. “I was like, these motherfuckers are bad as shit. They stepped right up and crushed it, and you know Beastie Boys fans don’t play around. They do not play, man.”
The election of an American president who looks the way Harper does was a matter of time, according to Ben.
“Being from my cultural ethnicity, I’ve always felt like it was only a matter of time, but then again I’m an optimist to a fault, so of course I thought it would happen. It’s incredible and I think it will be an international symbol of a political shift and change for the world to follow.”
Harper had seen the collapse of Senator John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 personally, when he was storming the country with the Vote for Change Tour along with artists like Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. “It sprung a leak. That’s how tactile a role politics can play in our lives, you kinda know when the ship is sinking or when it’s pushing forward full steam,” he says. “After the 2004 election it knocked us hard up against the wall. Right now represents a recovery from that.”
But today is today and the misdoings that happened over the past eight years are now home to roost. Like Obama, Harper believes the cure starts at home: “There is a heightened need for community, a responsibility for one’s own culture and social circumstance. At the end of the day, we are still dealing with people, and the people are the only animal on the planet that are in denial that they are an animal. Nonetheless, responsibility is the key for this new political era.”
From the outside, it may look like he’s a complicated rock star but he’s not, he’s actually a family man striving for a simple life in unfettering times. He heeds advice from his mentors and takes it straight to heart. “Ry Cooder [slide guitar legend] once told me, ‘Ben, you gotta cut out your little piece in this world and defend it with your life.’ At some point in your life you do defend all things that you hold sacred.”
He backs that statement up personally and professionally, performing benefits for sick children and the ocean environment to defending the vanishing culture of New Orleans. What is sacred to Harper is worth the cost of ammunition.
Politics may have played a role in the new Relentless 7 record, White Lies for Dark Times, and a small club tour that was done in a van has earned them their critical and personal stripes – and that has Harper absolutely ecstatic: “It’s a great moment musically for me and I can’t say it enough. I don’t remember fans responding to my old material this well. It’s something else. So no matter what happens from here, we’ve done that, we’ve earned that. We did it. We went out and took it.”
Approaching forty years of age, Harper is not afraid of getting older. Instead, age has instilled hope and an off chance to reflect on the bountiful pay-off of his perceived career gamble. “This time will never come again. I’ve been in it long enough to recognise how urgent and special a moment this is. I savour this moment and this opportunity to have a second first record and a new band at this age,” he says with wonder.
But it’s simpler than that. Harper was in tune enough to get a read on Mozersky and accept his demo, which in turn opened a door for fate. “There is not a day that goes by when I don’t replay that day in the van with Ben in my head,” says Mozersky. “This band has the potential to go beyond anywhere I have ever been in music or the number of people it reaches,” says Harper. “Oddly enough, this band is not related to anything I have ever done. It is only connected to where I am going.”