Ben Rice, making music. Submitted.
Q&A with local musician Ben Rice:Spreading the blues
Ben Rice in his own words:
What drew you to the blues as you started playing music? The catalyst to the blues for me was the sound and expressiveness of the guitar. I began taking guitar lessons at the age of seven and would play along with jam tracks to practice improvising and scales. I grew up listening to George Benson and Carlos Santana a lot. After a while, my instructor turned me onto B.B. King and S.R.V., and I began to investigate other blues artists. Soon, I was digging into thrift stores and CD sections for anything I could get my hands on and found R.L. Burnside, Robert Cray, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and it consumed my recreational listening. What’s one lesson or experiences from your music schooling at the University of Oregon that you particularly remember? I remember the first guitar lesson I had as an undergrad with Don Latarski. My mind was blown as to how good at the guitar one could be, or, better yet, how deep of an understanding someone could possess of the guitar. I played for him, and we talked about what my goals were and what his goals for me and his students were. He played a little bit and talked about what he does with guitar and books he’d written. The whole lesson felt like we were clearing fog and clouds away from this monstrosity of a mountain that I mistakenly thought I had a great distance covered. I left the lesson inspired, frightened and thinking someone opened the door to a whole new universe and world that would be impossible to navigate. How about your other schooling? What is a memorable lesson you received from gigging in bars or playing with some elder statesmen? Every night/show is a lesson and learning or re-learning experience. I am always trying to pick-up things from other musicians; not just about music or gigs, but how to manage life around playing music professionally. Recently, I was sitting in with Norman Sylvester, who is a huge personal inspiration in general, at the Inner City Blues Festival in Portland. Norman and his band kicked it off and it was an instant party. The Melody Ballroom erupted into a giant dance floor as Norman performed his signature repertoire of R&B and blues. I didn’t think anything of it, just Norman and his band doing their thing, having a ball. I took my place next to bassist Rob Shormaker and plugged in my guitar. Norman and his band went into the next song and, instantly, I hit a wall because of how horrible the sound on stage was. The sound out front was amazing — you could clearly hear everything — but behind the main speakers it sounded like a gymnasium. I couldn’t hear Rob and the drums were lacking all low end completely. Norman’s guitar amp was across the stage and completely missing from the stage sound. But the whole band kept playing like they always do with giant smiles grooving to the music. They were completely unfazed. I was in awe. I couldn’t believe it. I think about that night all the time when something isn’t perfect sound-wise on stage. “How would Norman and his band might handle the situation?” Just continue on and not allow little things to throw you off of your game. Bring it every time to the best of your ability in any, and all, circumstances. Can you describe the current stage of your career? Are you still kind of the young buck on the scene, or closer to being peers with the legendary players around the region? My perspective on the music business and where I think I am shifts all the time. I’m currently working on building a larger national and international presence. A major aspect of that is networking, which is just a scary word for being friends with people who share love and interest in music like you do. Another major part of that is performing outside of your region and creating waves of hype throughout the community. In that sense, I think I am coming around. I’m present in the conversation but not yet speaking to the larger powers that be. This past year, especially, I’ve looked for chances to build that, particularly in Europe. Locally, in the Northwest and Portland area, I feel pretty established as a band or solo artist, but also guitar player for hire, too. My schedule reflects that. I don’t think I’d ever see myself as a peer as some of the legendary musicians we have in Portland. People like Jim Mesi, Paul DeLay, Lloyd Jones, Curtis Salgado, Big Monti Amundson, D.K. Stewart, Robbie Laws, Ural Thomas ... the list continues on. I draw great amounts inspiration from all of those guys. In my mind I’ll always be that 16-year-old trying to learn from the masters. I’ll always be that kid sitting in trying to play it cool. And I’m also really a generation or two removed from the people who those guys grew up with, learned from, and the Portland music scene before I was born. I get some cool stories! What was on your listening playlist this year/summer? Mavis Staple’s record “We’ll Never Turn Back,” which was produced by Ry Cooder, has been on heavy rotation. So has Blake Mills’ “Heigh Ho” for production, Bobby Bland, “California Record” and “Dreamer,” along with more and more Taj Mahal, specifically “Blues For Dancing” and “Señor Blues.” What currently performing musician would you most want to play on stage with that you haven’t? I would love to play with Jon Cleary sometime; that would be AMAZING! He is a New Orleans pianist who has great arrangements and tunes that are funky and groovy. As a musician and lover of the New Orleans music tradition, I think that would be super cool. Or, ya know, Derek Trucks, who is a huge inspiration as well for slide guitar, as well as channeling music as you play.
Finally, tell us about your latest album. What was the process? How does it compare to your past recorded products? My newest recording, “Wish the World Away,” was a year and a half in the making, production-wise. But it includes songs written 10 years ago. My previous recordings have been done with a band in mind for the whole studio process.
This album is different. I went into the studio with the idea to record very simply, quickly, but inspired. While considering various studios, a friend/mentor of mine suggested I look into the one ran by Jimi Bott, a world-class drummer who played on hundreds of records and toured around the world with blues bands. I went to his studio last September to run a trial day or two of recording. My plan was just to record a couple of songs on the resonator and see how I felt in the studio working with Jimi and how the recording might sound. About an hour in, I realized Jimi was driven by exploring sounds to fine tune everything. We had six microphones on one guitar, so we could sift through options. Each microphone brought its own nuances. We spent a lot of time going down the rabbit hole that day. I knew that’s what I was looking for in an engineer. The plan was to record just vocals and some overdubs, maybe percussion. But as I ventured into making the record it felt like certain songs were asking for more instruments and larger arrangements. So we started asking guests to join in. We had Mitch Kashmar play harmonica on a handful of songs. My friend, Haley Johnsen, added vocals to a song, Paul Brainard added pedal steel and bassist Julio Appling joined with the upright. We listened to the songs develop and tried to bring each track to life as its own composition. “Wish The World Away” was not the intended title track, but after the recording and mixing was complete, it stood out as one I wanted everyone to hear. It was a song I wrote when a friend was going through a divorce. I was sitting around meditating about it, thinking about those early moments in a relationship where you get butterflies doing mundane things together; when you’ll step out of your comfort zone, be more juvenile and carefree because you’re in love. In my mind there was a story of two people bursting at the seams to go back to the early days, but weren’t able to communicate it to each other. Each song on the album is sort of like the title track. The song has a story and is dictated by how we recorded it and pursued it sonically. The results were really good, and I am extremely proud of how it came out. “Wish The World Away” is a good representation of who I am as a writer and musician, not all about one certain kind of sound or roots style. I think it speaks pretty well to the different influences I have: part Sam Cooke, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Otis Redding, Ry Cooder, Santana, etc.