Music is Ben Harper’s passion but he’s also an avid surfer, with a great belief in the creative power of the ocean. Drift asked the man who counts the Malloy brothers, Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson among his friends whether surfers make a good audience…
Rhiannon Buck: What were your early musical influences?
Ben Harper: My family has owned a music store in Claremont since 1958. My grandparents started the music store; my Mom runs it now. My grandparents and my parents all made music, so I was around it quite a bit. It’s pretty well encoded in my genes.
RB: When did you first meet Jack Johnson?
BH: Just before he put out ‘Brushfire Fairytales’. He used to come to my concerts; when I met him I didn’t know he made music. He was with a group that consisted of the Malloy brothers – Chris, Keith and Emmet – who would come and see me play at the Santa Barbara bowl, around 1999. We got on instantly on a personal level, rather than musician to musician. And when someone handed me a cassette tape of his songs, just him and a guitar, I was blown away. Our friendship grew from friends to musical partners. When someone talks about soul mates with a handful of crystals and a sitar in the background, you know you’re fucked, but when someone says it with absolute sincerity and means it, you don’t have to duck – you can say it and not have to cringe. Jack and I are definitely soul mates.
RB: You recently performed with Eddie Vedder at Live at the Garden. What was it like to share a stage with such an icon?
BH: You know, Eddie’s voice is so powerful and Pearl Jam’s one of the greatest bands on the planet, so you can’t step up there and not meet it. His voice is so massive, and I think that’s why we worked together well. He covers his register and then I fill in the upper register, and it just seems to fit. I’ve know the guys in Pearl Jam since 1995 – they’ve been having us open up for them – so it felt really comfortable and very musical. In 1995 I’d heard their music on the radio but I hadn’t invested my life in it, but when I heard them live I was flattened, and I immersed myself in their records and got to know them intimately. When I saw them it kind of gave me licence to ramp it up a bit.
RB: Did you always make a social statement with your music?
BH: That kind of thing has always been a response and a reaction to what’s gone on around me. There has been a shift to and from themes over the years. I would be not as motivated or inspired about music were it not for the changes it takes you through. It keeps me guessing.
RB: Do you surf?
BH: I love to surf – I’ve got a collection of boards, long and short. I love Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu; my favourite spot is Byron Bay in Australia. I’ve never met a surfer who wasn’t musical or who didn’t love music – I think there’s a connection between surfing and music in general. I keep a notebook with me so that I can write down ideas when they hit me, and if you look through it you’ll see that it’s all wrinkled. Often I’ll be sat in the line-up and an idea will pop into my head, and I have to frantically paddle in and write it down. I drip water all over that notebook, and I’ve broken so many cell phones because I often have to sing an idea into my message machine to record it, and I’m drenched and I short out the phone.
The sea has got something for everybody. It’s got a lifetime of inspiration if you can just tap into it. When I’m in front of the ocean my life is that much better. When I’m in front of the ocean I know that I am being fed in a way that is tapping into a source. There aren’t a lot of sources in the world. The source is where it’s all coming from. Calling it spiritual is almost an insult. Spiritual is something that you’re always trying to find, but true spirituality is something that comes and finds you, grabs you and informs you in a way that no single word can describe.
RB: Did surfing find you?
BH: It did. Life often provides you with what you’re supposed to have, whether you want it or not. It was my good fortune that what I was putting out the world – musically and personally and however else you can send that out to the world – was coming back to me. All roads led to being in the water and on a surfboard. A lot of people who surf ended up coming to my shows; I ended up surrounded by some of the best surfers in the world and it was only a matter of time before I made it into the water.
RB: Do surfers make a nice audience?
BH: I’ll take an audience of lumberjacks, an audience of mechanics, an audience of steel workers just to have an audience! But yeah, surfers make a great audience, that’s for sure.
RB: Do you have strong environmental beliefs?
BH: I do. There are a lot of things you can do to offset the damage done by touring, for instance. Contributing to reforestation, powering your tour with alternative fuels… but I’m still getting on a plane, and that’s going to put out what it puts out. It’s almost like human progress and development takes it’s toll on the environment. I mean, you can fly or you can drive from city to city, it all takes its toll after so long. It’s not like you can do it on a horse and buggy, but then if we were still on horses and buggies we wouldn’t be where we are right now.
RB: You’re part of the No Nukes group. Can you elaborate on your work with them?
BH: I think nuclear energy is a band-aid for a bigger problem. In the short term I see the benefits, but I feel the long term downsides far outweigh those benefits. It’s just a non-negotiable prospect for me. Go and Google ‘nuclear disasters’. From Chernobyl on down you can see how severe the toll it has taken over the years.
RB: Do you work with any other environment groups?
BH: My main contribution at the moment is working with a guy called Chad Pregracke. He works with a charity called Living Lands and Waters. He’s an extraordinary environmental hero. On his own he’s built his own barge and he goes up and down the rivers of America pulling out all kinds of trash from them.
RB: Are you working on anything at the moment?
BH: Yeah, I’m in and out of the studio, working on a couple of things. I’m working on being at home and not doing anything, and I’m also working on this tour we’ve got coming up.