BEN HARPER Interview by JEFF HO Photos by DAN LEVY, PAUL GRONNER, WILLY SIONS and ERIC HENDRIKX
Ben Harper is a real stand up guy. He’s an accomplished musician and singer-songwriter and he’s worked hard for it. Not only has he released over a dozen records and won three Grammy awards, he’s a skateboarder on the advisory board of the Tony Hawk Foundation working to build skateparks across America. Ben is a down to earth guy and his music has transcended boundaries and his lyrics spread vital messages about social issues and encourage cultural change. Ben is a good person with a ton of integrity and he is an important part of our culture. He gives back and tries to hold things together the way things should be traditionally. He shares the respect of older generations and the roots of all genres of music. From the early days of coming up in his grandparents’ music store, to playing with some of the world’s finest musicians, like Charlie Musselwhite and Taj Mahal, he continues to preserve the legacy of music as he interprets it. Ben is an amazing human being and I’m honored to call him a friend. – WORDS BY JEFF HO
Ben, I wanted to ask you how did it all start for you? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Claremont, California. It’s about 60 miles east from here, straight out the 10, Indian Hill Boulevard exit. It’s a cool town. It’s right next to the Upland Pipeline. That’s how I got into skating. Upland and Claremont are separated by a street.
When did you first see a skateboard?
Our neighbors were in a punk rock band that was locally famous called Christian Death and they built a ramp in their yard and they were ripping. As I recall, it didn’t have much tranny. It was just a ramp that went straight up five or six feet on a brick wall. It was sketchy because the brick wall didn’t have any rebar. It was just brick and mortar. It held up though and never went all the way over. Maybe it did once, but they didn’t add rebar. They just stacked more bricks and fresh mortar on it. So they had this ramp that was super sketch and they’d have serious sessions. They’d have 3 or 4 hour sessions and we’d get to watch and they were throwing us their extra boards; hooking us up with their spares.
Do you remember how old you were?
We were probably 10 or 11 and they were like 14 or 15. They hipped us to punk rock and Bowie and The Jam and all that stuff. They had great music taste and they would be blaring music while they skated. When they were done and cooling off, they would be like, “Okay, groms, come over and get some.” And me and my homies would charge it.
During that time, were you playing music?
I was just terrorizing my mom’s record collection and the first record I bought was Hendrix Smash Hits. It’s the one where he has his hands out. That was my first record. I just loved the radio, KMET and KISS FM and all that stuff.
What was your earliest memory of getting interested in being a musician and playing any kind of musical instrument?
My earliest memory of playing instruments was playing the drums. I took lessons from this woman, Norma Tanega. She used to play with Frank Zappa. My mom went to high school with Zappa. Isn’t that nuts?
That’s crazy. I used to run around with the cousin. He had a crazy ass cousin.
Frank’s daughter, Moon, wrote a book and she used a song of mine called “Widow of A Living Man”. She used it as a title for one of the chapters in her book, which was cool. There’s that whole Zappa-Harper-Ho connection.
Nice! Let’s go back to when you were a young guy learning to play the drums.
My family has had a music store since 1958 in Claremont, California. It’s called the Folk Music Center. The store is still open and it’s a certified museum for the State of California. It’s incredible. It’s a museum of musical artifacts and folklore artifacts from all over the world. It’s a really cool place.
Wow. It’s a museum. I’ve never seen it.
We’ll ride out there. I’ve got a wicked bowl out in Claremont too. It’s a 3 1/2 foot Skatelite kidney-shaped bowl. We’ll go out there and roll around. Anyway, the music store is where I started playing the drums, and then I worked my way up into the bass and then playing guitar and songwriting.
In this whole process, as far as musical school or college, did you do that?
I went to Chaffey College for one quarter and then I started to get paying gigs. People were saying, “Come play open mic night and I’ll share the door with you.” All of a sudden, that was generating $100 a night and that was cool, but then I’d want to sleep all day because I’d be out all night, so going to class was getting to be a challenge. I was there one day and I was tired from playing a gig the night before and I was like, “Hold on a minute. I don’t have to be here.” I gathered up my shit and walked to the administrator’s office and said, “I’m gonna sign out. I’m done for now.” I didn’t want to get an “F”, so I signed out of all my classes. Later, I got a report card and it was all “F’s”. I was like, “No!” I never keep receipts, but I kept the paper that I had signed out, so I went to the school and said, “You made a mistake.” They said, “No. You never signed out.” I said, “Yes, I did.” They said, “Can you prove it?” I had the one piece of paper that I’ve ever kept. I’d shoved it in the glovebox of my ‘85 Ford Tempo, so I had proof and they changed it to incomplete. That was it and then I went to blues college.
[Laughs] I don’t mean to be laughing at you, but it’s funny because I did the same thing, but I don’t know if I ever signed out! What happened next?
By the time I was 20, I was blues crazy. I was going to Oakland and hanging out with Brownie McGhee. I was sitting at the doorstep of John Lee Hooker. I was going to Chicago in the winters and hanging out with Louis Myers, the founder of the Four Aces, one of the most influential Chicago blues bands. I was hanging out with Charlie Musselwhite. Playing with Taj Mahal was my first paying gig.
You played with Taj Mahal? Oh, man, we used to go see him when I was a kid. We’d drive to Hollywood when Taj Mahal was playing and search him out, and Charlie Musselwhite and B.B. King too.
Those were my guys. I was 20 years old and Taj came up to me after hearing me play and said, “Do you go on the road?” I didn’t even know what that meant. I said, “When I drive, I go on the road.” He said, “Oh, man, you’re green, huh?” He was talking in some hipster Allen Ginsberg/Jack Kerouac code and I didn’t know what he was saying. I was like, “This is magic. He’s talking about the road and being green.” Then he goes, “Do you tour?” I said, “I went on a backpacking trip once.” I didn’t even know the lingo. Finally, he says, “Look, man, you’re going to get a ticket in two weeks. Get on the plane. Bring all your guitars and learn 50 songs of mine.” I went home and I was like, “I think I might be going on tour with Taj Mahal, mom.” She was like, “No. Come on.” Two weeks later, a ticket arrived. The next day I got on a plane and found myself on Kauai with Taj. After a year with Taj, things were starting to ramp up with my own songs. I loved music other than blues too. I loved rock, soul, funk and folk, so I wanted to mix it up. I got to make a record with Charlie Musselwhite and it was great to get back to the blues with Charlie. That was fun.
Cool! While you were playing with Taj Mahal, you were writing your own music?
I was writing my own shit and Taj was hearing it. He was like, “You got something, man.” I came back home off the road with Taj and, all of a sudden, there was an interest in my music. I would be in these little coffeehouses and, instead of it being ten people, there would be 50 people or 100 people. Then it just started to grow. I was 22 and things started to happen and my friend, J.P. Plunier, heard me and said, “Look, I’m not a manager. I just love your music.” J.P. had come to California for skating and surfing, all the way from France. He’s a big fan of yours, by the way. He’s a master of culture. He and I bonded on things and I trusted him because of his spirit and his forthrightness. J.P. never cuts corners. He never bullshits. He is the most direct. Even if I don’t agree with him, at least I know that he is being sincere to his opinion and perspective. J.P. is one of those kinds of guys.
J.P. became your manager and now he’s your business partner, right?
Yes. J.P. is the overseer of all my stuff. He used to be my manager and then he started his own record label. In the beginning, J.P. had no management connections, but he was like, “Dude, I understand your music.” There were other people circling around that maybe had more connections, but J.P. got it. He got the black aspect of it. He got the blues aspect of it. He got the white aspect of it. He got the folk aspect of it. He’s from Europe and the way Europeans see America is not the way Americans see America. Jimi Hendrix had to go to London, otherwise, Jimi might have still been playing with Curtis Mayfield or something like that. At any rate, J.P. and I broke all the rules. We got turned down by every label in L.A. except Virgin where Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris took a risk on us. They were like, “You two are crazy, but what you’re saying in your songs is resonating, so we are going to take a chance.” They gave us a small budget, and we made my first record, which is called Welcome to the Cruel World. Then we went on tour. It would have been easy to open up for folk groups, but we were like, “We’re going to open for The Pharcyde and Fugees and The Roots and PJ Harvey and Pearl Jam.” We took it upon ourselves to go other places with it and hope those bands would give us an opening shot and they did. That was a big part of getting us over the hump.
Well, you’ve come a long way and had a lot of success and your new album, Call It What It Is, sounds incredible. I love it.
Thanks. We’re stoked on it. I’m glad you dig it. The record kind of tells a story. The titles of the songs are like chapters of a book for me.
You wrote all of the songs?
Yes. The Innocent Criminals and I wrote all the songs. I was setting songs aside for the last five years. When a song would come around like, “Dance Like Fire You Never Get Burned”, I just knew I couldn’t let it out with anyone else other than the Innocent Criminals. “Remember When Sex Was Dirty” was the same, as was “Call It What It Is.” I just set songs aside that I knew would be perfect for the I.C.’s. Then they brought a boatload of songs and we started cutting songs down until the record told the stories that we wanted to tell.
So you’re happy with it?
We’re stoked with it. I hope other people feel as strongly about it as we do. I know it’s not punk rock, but it’s punk folk or punk soul in a way.
Punk soul. I like that. Okay, let’s talk about skateboarding. Are you okay to answer a few more skate questions?
Yes! This is so dope. I can’t believe I get to be interviewed by Jeff Ho. This is amazing.
Well, I know you and Rodney Mullen are good friends. What have you learned from Rodney about skateboarding and life?
One of the most important things I’ve learned from Rodney, that is applicable to all of life, is that sometimes a day of misses is as important as a day of makes. You can spend the whole day going for one trick and that’s as important to learning that trick as a full day of making that trick.
Do you have any goals for tricks on your skateboard?
Yeah. I learned switch 3’s and they feel so good. What was cool about learning switch 3’s, is that when I went to learn nollie 3’s, I had it in 10 tries. It was like, “Bam!” Switch 3’s are one of the funnest and hardest tricks for me. It was the deepest I had to dig and it was the most rewarding. Now I’m working on locking down frontside heelflips. Then I want to do it going fakie. I want to do the whole 360 motion; fakie frontside. The regular is kicking my ass. I’ve got a couple of them, but I’m trying to lock them down.
That’s great. Can we talk about activism? You’re involved with a lot of charities.
Yeah. It’s hip because making social progress shouldn’t be a spectator sport, so I’m always trying to chip away at that stone, when and where I can.
Let’s talk about this question. What do you think about addiction and addiction in the music industry specifically?
Addiction is gnarly, whether it’s in the music industry or not. You can fry your brain on a bad dose and be forever altered. I tell kids to stay away from it. It’s easier said than done. Everybody has their own genetic make up that can keep them further from it or hold them closer to it. I say, “Stay away from hard crazy shit.” That’s spoken from experience.
What would you want to say to the kids about skating and substance abuse?
Find the same discipline that you put into pursuing skating and other things that you love and put it into keeping away from the hard shit. I don’t want to come off as righteous or not having had my own wrestling match, but I lost my dad to addiction. That was a real lesson to not wanting to go too far down that road. I could have used having my dad around for another 40 years, but he drank through his liver and that was that. I had incredible times with him and my dad was one of the most extraordinary human beings on the planet. What my dad could have been if it weren’t for addiction. He would have been celebrated in a way that very few ever get to be. I just have a splinter of what my dad had and it’s gotten me this far. Of course, that’s because of my mom too. She’s a musician with a PHD. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for mom, I probably would have followed in his footsteps, so I owe it all to mom. I learned from watching someone at a young age have their life altered in the wrong way by substance abuse. There’s a lot to live for and that stuff can sabotage all of that. Don’t learn the lesson too late. Learn it while you’re young and then you can get the most out of your youth.
Okay, here’s a question. It may be a weird one, but we have this political situation. What do you think about Donald Trump?
I want Jeff Ho to be our next President. Seriously. Politics is a dirty game, unless you get someone who is not a politician or isn’t corporate corruption. I mean it when I say you. I’d rather have you than any of these clowns. I’ll be your Vice President. Steel guitars and surfboards for everyone! The White House would have a sick bowl.
[Laughs] Yeah! It would have a bowl and we’d move the White House to Hawaii.
Yes! That’s where I’m at with it!
Okay, I have a few questions about surfing and skateboarding. When did you first hear about surf skate style?
Surf skate style was the first term because it was just cross-training for all the guys. The earliest photos being circulated to us were at Paul Revere. It was in the skate rags that the next door neighbors had. You’d look at it and be like, “Wow. It’s like surfing on concrete!” It was always surf skate style.
What does surf skate style mean to you?
It’s like the birth of skateboarding becoming its own definitive concrete genre. That was first. It’s cool to see the young kids like Matty who hooked me up with you in the first place. I saw Matty with that laid back style. Matty takes that surf skate style to vert and when he does his frontside 50-50 grinds, he’s way laid back. When I see him surf, he’s got that same thing. When I see my son, Ellery, skate, he has a crazy back leg surf skate style. It’s so sick.
Did he learn that from Tuma?
Exactly. Tuma has been teaching my son skateboarding since he was six. Tell Tuma I say “What’s up!” That’s my man. My son is all surf now, but he will grab a skateboard and ollie up onto something waist high and just shred. Then he’ll be like, “Oh, I’m not really skating right now.” I’m like, “If I could do one of the things you just did, I’d be so stoked!”
That’s great. How old is he now?
Wow. Cool. Who has the best surf skate style of all the surfers and skaters?
Oh, that’s a cool question. Every time I see Tony Alva skate, it’s a revelation. The guy is probably better at skating than walking. It’s just remarkable. One time I saw Tony on top of his car at Paul Revere. I was driving by on Sunset and I pulled up and said, “Hey, T.A., what’s up?” He said, “There’s a cop doing his rounds, but I think he’s on the other side of the school. I’ve got a lookout on the other side. I’ve got some folks here from Japan and we’re shooting for a magazine, so we’re trying to get a few minutes in. Did you bring your board?” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Grab it. Let’s do this!” I was like, “Whoa!” We got a quick session in at Paul Revere and then the cops came and ushered us out, but they were cool. They didn’t put us on lock down. I got to see him skate and I got to see that style. I’d seen Tony skate before, but there is something really special about seeing T.A. skate Paul Revere. That was a real special moment.
That is cool. Do you think that surf skate style is important today?
It will always be relevant, valid and important because surf skate style defines your grace. It’s how you land a trick or how you look on your board, even when you are just pushing down the street.
Yes! That’s a good way to describe it.
Okay. I have a question for you. Back in the day, you cut the boards for the cats, Tony and Jay and the Z-Boys. When you cut those first boards were they out of ply or were they just solid? What were those first boards like that you were making?
When I first started making boards, it was just flat pieces of walnut. When I was making boards for Tony and the guys, I was doing a molded process. It was a fiberglass board and I was trying to get a flex in the board.
A little flex is good, right?
A little flex is good and too much is bad. We went from the 1970s to 2017 and now we have all this new technology.
Yeah. Where is it going to go in the next 40 years?
In the ‘70s, it was solid boards and then it went to laminates and that’s what everyone is riding now.
The laminates are for flat stuff because the grain is in different places, so if you had a 1/4 inch thick board that was solid maple, because of the grain patterns, it wouldn’t be as strong as if it were laminated, right?
Exactly. It would not have that much flex and it might fall apart quicker. Wait, we’re supposed to be talking about Ben Harper.
Yeah, but Ben Harper and Jeff Ho are inextricably linked. I have questions too. What top five things have impressed you the most in skateboarding?
Surf skate style is one. Going from flat to vert is two.
Okay, going from ocean to concrete and going from flat concrete to vertical concrete.
Right. The next thing was understanding that your body could get at a parallel angle with the earth. You could be stuck against a wall. The next thing was flying up in the air. Getting air was rad, and then flipping. Those are massive deals. When those things hit their pinnacles in the timeline of skateboarding, it was insane. There’s also the advent of different types of skateboards. That’s our evolution.
We’re talking about Jay Adams to Tony Alva, right? If we’re coming out of the ocean, we’re going from Jay Adams to Tony Alva.
Do you think that it was Jay Adams that had that surf skate style?
I’m not saying he invented it. I’m asking you.
Well, I think it was in his DNA.
He was like the wind. He was as natural as a tree.
I saw it in Jay when I met him in the water out in Santa Monica at Bay Street. He was six years old, and I was amazed that he was in the water by himself at that age. He paddled out and said, “Hey, are you Jeff Ho?” I said, “Yeah. Who are you?” He said, “My name is Jay Adams. I just wanted to say hi.” I never thought I would outlive him and that all this shit would have happened. I just knew there was something about Jay that was different and it was in his DNA to be the most fluid skateboarder of all time. There are other people that have accomplishments and I’m not taking away from any of those people, but I am saying that Jay was one of the first ones with surf skate style.
People couldn’t take their eyes off him.
With Jay, Tony, Biniak, Stacy, Wentzle and Shogo, you put them together in a group and go, “Here!” Was it gnarly? Yes. It was. That’s how all this got started.
That’s what’s up. So if we take those top five events in skateboarding and align them with five skaters, we’ve got the five moments. There’s Jay going along the coping, and then it went mid-air, and you’ve got Tony. Then there was Ollie Gelfand with the first ollie, and then McGill with the first McTwist.
Let me say this. All those guys from the Bones Brigade were Stacy’s disciples and Stacy was one of my disciples.
Yes. It’s like the family tree.
Yes. Those were the kids. The first guy who did the 900 and blew it out was Tony Hawk in the X Games. That was another precipice moment. You have to give it up to all of those guys. Since we’re talking about Tony, I understand you’re on the board of the Tony Hawk Foundation.
The Tony Hawk Foundation is wicked. Those guys work to get skateparks built and donate dough to get skateparks built in areas that wouldn’t have them otherwise, so they’re doing great work.
That leads me to ask about you helping Murf, Walt and Jeff Ament get skateparks built on Native American Reservations.
Yeah. Jeff Ament came in hot on that project. He was dropping dollar bills hot. That’s Jeff. The Hawk Foundation was right there too. For that one, there was a moment on the board where it was me and Chris Sacca and they only needed X amount to get the park done. Jeff had already donated the majority of the funds. Hawk was coming in hot with their maximum donation and they only needed a little bit to get the park done, so I cut a check and Chris Sacca cut a check and it was done over the top.
Wow. That’s really cool. Okay, here’s a question. Do you approach music and skateboarding in the same way?
There are three major similarities. One is that they both hit the reset button and clear the best part of you. They clean house. When you’re making music, you’re in a pure space and you’re into something that is the best part of yourself. It’s the same with skateboarding. When you’re skating, you’re in the best part of yourself and your thoughts are clear. You’re at that place that makes it really special and rare. Skating and music both bring you to a place like nothing else I’ve found. You’re centered. When you’ve written a great song or pulled off a great move, it’s the same feeling of accomplishment. When I’ve played a lick and thought, “Wow. That’s a solid lick,” it’s the same feeling as having landed a tre flip or even a clean ollie. It’s the best feeling. It’s an immeasurable, infinite sense of discovery. There is always something next. It never ends, where it can go, the possibilities and potential. It’s as vast as the entire universe.
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