Ben Craven, progressive rocker: Something Else! Interview
Ben Craven, who calls himself a “cinematic progressive-rock singer-songwriter,” has quickly established himself as one of the leading lights in neo-prog. But the Brisbane, Australia-based Craven understands its history, too.
The cover of 2011’s Great and Terrible Potions, for instance, featured cover art by Roger Dean, of Yes fame. In fact, Ben Craven and Preston Frazier met via the Yes Music Podcast, where Ben shared his knowledge and insight into the world’s greatest progressive rock band.
This exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, however, moves across a broad personal spectrum, taking in everything from Craven’s formative influences to high points of his well-regarded career. Ben Craven goes in depth on a forthcoming third album, titled Last Chance to Hear, as well as an innovative new music delivery system he’s developed called TuneLeak.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Let’s start with your first major projects, beginning with Two False Idols. Was Great and Terrible Potions also recorded as a one-man band?
BEN CRAVEN: Two False Idols was actually written and recorded after the bulk of Great and Terrible Potions had already been demoed. At the time, I didn’t think I had the full complement of arranging skills, studio technology and actual instrumentation available to do Great and Terrible Potions justice. So, I got distracted by my covers band and inevitably started writing guitar-based material which would be playable by the band and recordable in my studio. Two False Idols started out as a band project, but history will show I gradually took over the reins and became less skilled at collaborating. My great friend Brad Douglas sang on the two tracks he co-wrote, but otherwise Two False Idols was a one-man band. Nevertheless, the whole process was a genuinely exciting journey and gave me the confidence to come back and hit Great & Terrible Potions with everything I had — which I did. Great and Terrible Potions was a solo project, in every sense of the word. There was no feedback loop. I had no idea what style of music I was recording. Only after it was finished did someone suggest to me it was progressive rock. I felt grateful and honored to be able to call it that.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What is your primary tool for composing?
BEN CRAVEN: Different instruments manage to impose their personality on the writing process. The more instruments you have at your disposal, the more flavors your writing can take. You can usually tell if a song was written primarily on guitar versus keyboard, for instance. Almost all of Two False Idols was written on guitar. Almost all of Great and Terrible Potions wasn’t. These days, I try to hear something in my head as clearly as possible before translating it to an instrument. Committing to real, actual notes too quickly can wreak havoc with the big picture. Only then will I put things down quickly into an audio recorder, using the closest instrument in the room — be it keyboard, guitar or my own voice. Happy accidents usually start happening afterwards, depending on the instrument. Piano is especially good for that, because all the notes are placed right out in front there for the taking. But I find there’s no substitute for letting something ferment subconsciously. The longer the better, usually.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Have you toured for your projects?
BEN CRAVEN: Touring is the final frontier. I would love to tour as soon as I can find a way to make it economically viable. I formed a trio called Ben Craven and the Section a few years ago to present this material live. We bashed our heads together and figured out how to translate the big arrangements into a simpler three-piece format — no mean feat — and that typically involved the guitar player doubling as the keyboard player. We performed some shows locally and, via webcasts, internationally.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Discuss your most recent work in progress. What form is it taking?
BEN CRAVEN: The new album, Last Chance to Hear, is a lament on the loss of the album format in popular culture. I’m a big fan of albums. I enjoy the journey they take you on and the relationship you make with them, but outside of the progressive rock oasis I’m not convinced anybody cares anymore. The greater music business has evolved into free streaming and piracy and short attention spans. I point this out as an observation, not the ravings of someone who has any sort of career riding on the old business model. We’re reaching the point now where good artists won’t bother making albums — that’s if they record at all. Thus was born the idea of TuneLeak, a model I hope will work for me.
I’ve created a platform whereby I can release works-in-progress from my new album and make them available for streaming and download, before they’re finished. Anyone who purchases the advance tracks doesn’t have to pay for them again when they buy the final album. This solves one very big problem of visibility while recording. Great and Terrible Potions took me a long time to record, and I didn’t come up for air. This time around, I didn’t feel I could afford to disappear for a year or more and expect that anyone would still remember me when the new album emerged. The other big advantage of TuneLeak is the ability to drip-feed a regular stream of new music to anyone who’s interested. In the past I would have been horrified at the prospect of releasing unfinished songs — but now it’s a selling point.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How did the advance track “Revenge of Dr. Komodo” come about?
BEN CRAVEN: Writing potential movie themes is a favorite pursuit of mine. “Nobody Dies Forever” from Great and Terrible Potions was envisioned as a James Bond-esque theme, if it were written by Herrmann and Mancini. On the new album, I have a sequel and this character called Dr. Komodo has been cast as the supervillain in the fictitious movie. He’s an unpleasant, amoral music geneticist who performs ungodly experiments on helpless musical genres in an effort to diversify and repopulate the musical landscape — which fits in well with the whole Last Chance to Hear concept. At least it does, to me.
In “Revenge Of Dr Komodo,” he actually gets something right. The working title for the song was “Progabilly,” which gives it all away. Dr. Komodo has a lot to answer for. He’s the reason I can’t just give up, make things easy for myself and write “normal” songs.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How does Last Chance to Hear translate out on the road?
BEN CRAVEN: After Last Chance to Hear is finished, I hope to hit the ground running with a multi-instrumental solo show. The idea of distilling all these big prog-rock arrangements down to just one person is something I find perversely appealing.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your musical up bringing. Any formal training?
BEN CRAVEN: I took violin lessons as a kid, but was never particularly good at it. It’s a very easy instrument to play badly, but it did set the narrative for what would eventually follow. That is, a melodic foundation for guitar solos, a longing to be able to accompany myself with fancy chords, and an aversion to future music lessons.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your musical influences? Is there an active prog-rock scene in Australia?
BEN CRAVEN: I have so many influences but I’ll try to keep the list short. Pink Floyd, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Brian Wilson, George Gershwin, and great film composers like John Williams, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini. Australia does have a prog rock scene, of sorts. I would say it skews towards metal. More traditional progressive rock — there’s a contradiction in terms for you — is not so widely represented, and I’m not sure we have the fan base to support it anyway. The last time I tried to explain progressive rock to someone here, they said, ‘Oh, you mean the Eagles?’
PRESTON FRAZIER: And, I’m pretty sure they haven’t heard “Journey of the Sorcerer.”
BEN CRAVEN: Honestly, I’m not as knowledgeable about the local scene as I should be — most likely to my detriment. But working in a vacuum seems to be the best way for me to write and record. I have very stubborn ideas I need to see right through to their bitter or glorious ends, without outside interference. If I really had a clue what was going on out there, I’d be second-guessing myself to death.