IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 91
INTERVIEW with Ben Averch
We were highly pleased when we listened to some of Ben's music at his REVERBNATION site, & invited him to to a INTERVIEW for us... a very nice effort, Ben... thanks for taking the time to really answer our questions to you... I've no doubt readers will DIG this in a big way!
Zzaj: I got the impression from some of things I was reading on your REVERBNATION page (& others) that you're from Washington state (or that you've been here for some time). Is that correct, or did you journey here from elsewhere? In other words, please give us a short biographical sketch that tells us how you got where you are now (both physically & musically).
Ben: I was born in Boston, and lived there for most of my life. I came up to Washington State in 2005, so Iím a fairly recent transplant. I do love it here, and it feels like home now. A lot of the ďWashington StateĒ album describes the sense of awe that I had as a new resident, and some of the inescapable sensations of living here: the sky seeming so vast and yet so close; mountains and hills in all directions. It is beautiful here in a timeless way thatís inspirational.
Regarding my musical upbringing, my dad loved folk music, like Peter, Paul and Mary, John Denver, and Simon and Garfunkel. So that was always playing in our house. Then, my older brother Mike turned me on to Rush when I was about 6 or 7. I remember just being blown away by the power of their music. There was something totally magical about the sound of it, so rocking and yet melodic. I was fascinated by the songs, and the arrangements, and Iíve been a huge fan ever since then.
Around age 9, I realized that I was hopelessly behind my brother as a guitarist, so I decided to take up drums. I worked on this pretty seriously till I was 17, when I decided to switch to guitar as my main instrument. Writing songs and singing them was my focus, so to do that, I felt that I needed to come out from behind the drum set.
As a guitarist and singer, I had a three year period starting in 1994 when I would play and sing as a street busker in Harvard Square, Cambridge. It was very difficult to get the good spots to play, so I would arrive as early as I could and play for as long as I could manage, often 16 hours at a stretch. My goal was to bring real arena rock energy to every performance, every time, so it was exhausting, but really wonderful. My playing and singing progressed a lot during this time.
Concurrent with this, I was in a band called Bison with my brother Mike, and my best pal from high school Matt, and a drummer that we had found. We worked very hard, and got some interest, but it ultimately didnít work out as we had planned. It was after Bison split up that I decided to become a solo artist and make records completely on my own.
Zzaj: I was struck (hard) by your ability to integrate lyrics that feel like they MEAN something... how do you form lyrics for a song? Is it mostly "stream of consciousness", or deliberate?
Ben: Well, usually Iíll have a moment of inspiration where one phrase or one or two lines will come into my head from somewhere, usually when Iím driving. If Iím fortunate, Iíll either write it down or remember it. These usually become the opening lyrics, or sometimes song titles. Somewhere inside those lines is the basic premise of an entire song Ė and I usually just see where this idea leads me.
With a few lines together, Iíll then get a guitar, and see whether thereís a melody or cadence that I can use to help bring out more ideas. As the concept behind the song becomes clearer, then the lyrics get a little bit easier. Things start to come together faster if there are some chords that fit and a melody developing that the words need to support.
But through this process, itís very important for me to write lyrics that can hopefully stand on their own outside of the song. They need to make sense, and be cohesive and understandable, and hopefully have an emotional impact or resonance without being too overwrought.
Some songs, like ďIn a Dream StateĒ were written as a stream of consciousness and are presented pretty much unchanged from that initial moment of creation. Most other songs Iíve done are crafted through the process I described.
Zzaj: Lots of words tell us that you're a "one-man band"... is that by preference, or do you prefer to play with other musicians?
Ben: Well, Iíd certainly like to have a band at some point, but for now, Iím pretty satisfied doing everything myself. There are some challenges in terms of production and mixing when you are purely solo. And of course the live interpretations of the songs are much different Ė it becomes a guy with an acoustic guitar instead of a full-up arena rock band. I do try to create the same level of energy and excitement even in the solo acoustic format. This seems to be the right fit for me now, and I just really want to generate a lot of material for as long as I can.
Zzaj: What's the extent of your "formal" training? If you had/have that, to what degree do you think "impulse" plays into the performances you do? (This is a very important question for this 'zine, 'coz we have a lot of improvisers here).
Ben: Apart from drum lessons as a kid, I havenít had any formal training. Most of my training as a performer was as a street player, as I mentioned, so it was kind of a learn-by-doing, (and doingÖ), thing. In terms of improvisation, most of that happens with guitar solos. I like to have a solo or other kind of instrumental break in every song. So, when itís time to track a lead, Iíll just hit the switch and go, and those moments of spontaneous creation often yield my favorite moments of the music that I make.
Sometimes Iíll have to track the same lead over and over again and Iíll have some good bits and then flub the ending. So the leads are sometimes comped from multiple passes. But Iím always happiest when I get a whole lead from one spontaneous performance. Leads like ĎThe Nothing Shines Throughí from Start at the Beginning are like that, where I had set aside a bunch of time to play this long lead over a ride out jam. Then I hit the button and just jammed the whole lead out in two minutes. So I was happy to have it done but a little surprised at how fast it happened!
The lead thatís on one of the new songs that Iím working on called ďOne and the SameĒ was a first pass, just to have something to go where the lead would go. Itís not perfect, but it has a certain speciallness, and as Iíve lived with it for several months making the record, itís become Ďthe leadí. That was another one that just burst out as a first take creation. Another new song ďThe HookĒ has a lead that I really love, that was done in the same way Ė it actually inspired a whole vocal arrangement to sing the melody from the solo in the ending, which was really fun and different for me.
Lead segments like the one on ďLevitateĒ from Washington State are maybe a little more labored over, and a lot of time is spent on the background guitars and sounds that support the overall lead. Also ďValley of Your HeartĒ, another new song, has a lead section in the second verse that is composed as a part, even though itís lead guitar.
So I have a gamut of more structured leads, to totally spontaneous leads, to comping together a few different passes of things. The solo on ďStart at the BeginningĒ is one of my favorites Ė sometimes playing leads in altered tunings (in this case, DADGAD) brings out a different sense of melody and rhythm that just takes you into more of a free-form mode.
Zzaj: Do you do more of your work/creation in-studio, or on-stage? If you're from Seattle (still or previously), how much of that is spurred by espresso?
Ben: The majority of work is on the recordings Ė Iím in the later stages of completing my 3rd solo record. Iíve played a few shows in recent months, and I really enjoy doing them, but I definitely am focused primarily on recording and building up these crazy rock albums.
I am a coffee drinker, but mostly in the morning. In the afternoon, I enjoy a nice cup of tea J.
Zzaj: I hear some strange shades of players I've been listening to for a long time in your work (like Bruce Cockburn)... what part of your music is most important to you? The "music" part, the "lyrical" part, or does it all have to work together to work for you?
Ben: It definitely all has to come together. The thing that Iím looking for is emotional impact, so the song has a real resonance to it. Iím trying to create a response in the listener, and in myself, and so the music and the lyrics need to be complementary and support one another. I would like at some point to work on at least one instrumental song, but I really depend on lyrics, vocal deliveries, and vocal melodies to anchor a song and serve as the primary focus. Pretty traditional stuff, I guess.
I think where my current material is taking me is to a kind of hybrid between a singer/songwriter and a indie/prog rock band feel. So itís maybe a little bit unique in that sense.
Zzaj: Lots of folks who read this 'zine are kinda' "gearheads"... can you give us a brief outline of your tech setup, your favorite tools for creating sonics & your favorite instrument to play?
Ben: Sure! As far as amps go, Iím playing a new amplifier from a company in Redwood City, California called Tonic Amps. This amp is really incredible and gives me a huge range in tones from very clean, beautiful textures to really powerful crunching distortion. I am extremely excited to be playing this amplifier. I had been a Marshall amp guy forever, and supplemented that with a Fender Twin Reverb, but now I just use my Tonic since it is so versatile and easy to dial up any kind of sound with a few knob turns. My Tonic is a pre-production prototype of a model called ĎVapourí thatís going into production this year.
For guitars, most of the recordings that Iíve made to date have prominently featured Paul Reed Smith guitars, in particular the Swamp Ash Special model which Iíve used for most of my soloing, and the Singlecut model which I use in combination with a Les Paul for overdriven, crunchy rhythm playing. I find myself gravitating to the Fender Telecaster, which has a bright, clear and articulate sound now for some reason. So thatís kind of exciting and new area for me sonically.
I am a big altered tunings guy. I never play anything in standard EADGBE. My Ďdefaultí tuning is DADGBD. Then youíre just one step on the A string to open G: DGDGBD. I use open G with a capo on a bunch of songs. On my previous record ďStartĒ, I did a bunch of songs in DADGAD, which is really a beautiful tuning. And on my new record, Iíve been using DGDGCC, which has this wonderful unison thing happening on the high strings, and makes soloing sound really rich and unique.
Often when I stumble onto a tuning that I like, Iíll write 3 or 4 songs in a row really fast just using that new tuning. Itís great to hear the guitar in a new way, and feel it differently Ė there are harmonies and different resonances that can be surprising and wonderful when youíre experimenting with a new tuning.
The recording is done on a PC with SONAR 8 as the audio software. Iíve got a Layla 3G sound card, which works great. I use a Mackie mixing board, mostly as a patch bay. I use a TC Electronics G-Major for delay and reverb, a TC 1210 Spatial Expander for chorus, and a TC Electronics Triple-C compressor.
Zzaj: I know it's a question that's been hacked to death, but who are YOUR musical heroes?
Ben: Well, I really love Rush as I described before, most especially Alex Lifeson as a lead player. He is so expressive and lyrical in his solos that I have always thought that was really the pinnacle of rock playing. Also I love to listen to pretty much any lineup of Yes. Michael Hedges is a hero of mine as a guitarist and innovator. Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, bands like Swervedriver and Jawbox. Bob Mould is definitely a hero of mine as a guitarist, songwriter and performer. Zeppelin, of course. Lately Iíve been listening to Jackson Browne a lot. Going back a little ways, Iíve always loved Bruce Springsteen. I really love Miles Davis, especially his guitar-driven stuff with John McLaughlin, and I really like John Coltrane, especially his mellower sounding stuff, thatís more relaxing. When he goes off on his super spiritual stuff, it gets pretty intense!
Zzaj: You seem to be making some progress in digital/online music promotion? Is that true, or just a false impression on my part? If it is true - tell all our aspiring players out there how you do it? What's it TAKE to be (even relatively) "successful" at making a living at music these days? (or is there such a thing)?
Ben: Would that it were so! I donít have this one figured out, unfortunately. But for me, the real joy is in the creation of the music, kind of continually rediscovering that process of making something where there wasnít something before. That process is its own reward for me. I have a little bit of hope that I may get ďdiscoveredĒ by a broader audience at some point in the future. But I am at peace with the idea that this is art for artís sake. And it has always been therapeutic for me to write and perform and record! But itís always great when somebody stumbles onto my music and has a strong impression one way or the other.
Zzaj: If you could play with someone (group or individual artist) in a live gig next week - who would it be?
Ben: Iíd like to play drums for Jimi Hendrix!