Harper brings spirituality, passion to his music

by Peter T. Chattaway
The Ubyssey, January 9, 1996

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
Jan 10 at Richard's on Richards

Thanks to some last-minute confusion over phone numbers, I'm several minutes late when I finally get through to Ben Harper, slide guitarist extraordinaire. No sooner have I apologized for my tardiness than he begins the first of several spiels.

"I don't deal with clocks and things like that, man. I make it to my shows on time. A lot of people, man, they just get all mad if someone's late or doesn't show up. For me, it's like, okay, I got plenty of shit to do, so if someone doesn't show up, great!

"Time is really for those who really need it. I mean, I deal with it. A lot of people are slaves to the second, minute hand. I can't do that! If something comes up and I can't call, great! You got something else to do, right? Like if I wasn't here when you called, so what, right?"

A phone rings and Harper goes to answer it. I look at my list of questions. One of them concerns the criticism some have levelled at his newest album, Fight for Your Mind -- to wit, that it has perhaps one or two songs too many and is therefore a tad long. I cross it out.

Harper gets back to the phone, so I ask the next question, something about the similarities between his music and that of Jimi Hendix or Bob Marley (a comparison that is especially evident in the hemp tribute 'Burn One Down'). He winces audibly.

"Oh man, you can't do that shit, that kind of thing's just crazy. You got to understand, man, I love those guys -- with a passion -- but I can never be compared, they're too good. Those are two people you don't compare people to. I'm sure I can do that with a few songs, but those guys were coming from a place that was beyond life, so you can't say those kinds of things to me."

The phone rings again. Then a doorbell goes off. He answers both. "It's crazy man, I never get this much action. My mom's here, speaking of musical influences! My mom's a great guitarist. She's blowing Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton out of the water." I ask if she appears on the album. "No!" he snorts. "Would you want your mom playing on your album?"

Country, reggae, blues -- Harper lets them all orbit his Weissenborn guitar ("the greatest sounding acoustic instrument in the world," he says) on Fight for Your Mind. He even gets a string quartet to accompany him on 'Power of the Gospel', though he has only performed live with them once. The album also covers a wide range of themes, from relationships ('By My Side') to the environment ('Excuse Me Mr.') to political awareness ('People Lead'), but most prominent of all is Harper's spirituality. It courses through almost every track, and the album reaches its zenith with the personal creed (and 12-minute opus) 'God Fearing Man'.

Harper is reticent at first to discuss this aspect of his music. "People who try to define their spirituality sometimes are annoying, 'cause the spirit is something you feel and let guide you and humbly respect. It's not like something you can talk about and be interviewed about. It's beyond any of that."

But he does sing about it, I point out. He continues, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I'll tell you what, man. The spirit is what guides my life, and I'm humbly on my knees in thanks for guidance and direction every day. But God is not something to be preached, it's something to be lived, you know what I mean?

"There's no room in my life for religion. Religion is separation and segregation of God. How can you segregate the Almighty? Religion is man's greatest weakness. God would have no part of religion today, not man's religion, no. I just believe in everyone's right to believe in peace, you dig? I just give thanks for being born where I am, and one way you can praise God in the highest is to share your blessings with someone who needs it. That's a much better prayer than time spent in church, I'll tell you that much."

What does Harper do apart from music? "Business," he laughs, "just so it enables me to make music. And I love skateboarding."

Harper doesn't see a clash between the quieter spiritual concerns of his music and the more mundane pressures of interviews and the like. "It's just necessary to reach more people than I could otherwise, and it's also just doing good business. It's a part of farming and nourishing the seed that's been planted. You're helping that seed grow.

"I feel strongly about humanity and equality and unity and the betterness of life on God's earth, and the way I express that is through music. I know of no other way to bring a positive vibration to the earth but through songs. Music has meant so much to me -- I mean, it's back to Bob and Jimi. They brought so much betterness to my life, and if I bring half as much goodness to the earth as their music has, then I've done a life's work."

© 1996-2002 Peter T. Chattaway
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