Ben Craven on streaming’s impact, working with Captain Kirk, and his terrific new album
Ben Craven stopped by for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss his much-anticipated new project Last Chance to Hear, though the conversation quickly shifted to include his thoughts on how streaming has so profoundly changed the music industry. The Australia-based prog-rocker also talked with Preston Frazier about collaborations with Star Trek legend William Shatner, Yes’ Billy Sherwood and album-art genius Roger Dean’s daughter …
PRESTON FRAZIER: When we spoke about this time last year, you had just issued the track “Revenge of Dr. Komodo.” Now, we have the worldwide release of Last Chance to Hear. How has the project been received.
BEN CRAVEN: It’s still too early to really tell, but the feedback I’ve had so far has been tremendous. People who’ve spoken to me think it’s quite a step up from the previous album, Great and Terrible Potions. The theme of the album appears to be somewhat self-fulfilling, however, in that it seems harder to get the word out to the audience than it was, say, five years ago. And in comparison with the last album, this one appears to be being pirated left, right and center.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How does your album theme fit together?
BEN CRAVEN: Last Chance to Hear is based loosely on the end of the music industry as we once knew it. There’s never been a time when so much new music was being created by so many people, but being heard by so few people. The concept of paying for music is going out the door. Streaming services mean that anyone making new music is now competing with the whole history of recorded music, for very little potential income. And the album format is in danger of becoming extinct. So, I dedicated an album to the concept.
The title track is all about how the hype machine dominates the media, continually bombards the audience and attempts to control their ability to think for themselves and discern what is good and what is bad. The “Spy in the Sky” suite questions the struggle of trying to make good music when so few people are actively listening. “The Remarkable Man” and “Revenge of Dr Komodo” explore the story of an individual who is pushed to the brink of madness by the woeful state of music and comes up with an unusual solution.
PRESTON FRAZIER: “Last Chance to Hear” has a progressive rock group feel but is mostly played and sung by you. I understand you had two big guest stars on “Spy in the Sky, Part 3.” How did you come to work with the legendary William Shatner and Yes bassist Billy Sherwood? What were their contributions?
BEN CRAVEN: It’s definitely out of character for me to want to give up a lead vocal but “Spy in the Sky Part 3” was asking for it from the beginning. The music had an epic sci-fi feel to it, not conducive to a typical singing melody, although I did write and record a lovely oblique one anyway. But what it really needed was a dramatic spoken reading. One of my career fantasies was that William Shatner would cover one of my songs some day. Because, Shatner. I decided it would be even more incredible to have him perform on the original version. I loved the idea but it was clearly impossible, so I asked. I approached Billy Sherwood to produce and engineer the recording session. Billy, as you know, produced and co-wrote Shatner’s recent Ponder the Mystery album, and they seem to have a great working relationship. Billy took his mobile studio to the Shatner residence, and they recorded the vocals one Friday evening. I would have killed to be there but it was other side of the world, you know.
PRESTON FRAZIER: The Last Chance to Hear CD/DVD package is impressive. The artwork, booklet, and even CD/DVD design could stand next to the best artwork of progressive rock CD/LPs. How did the design come about?
BEN CRAVEN: Isn’t it incredible? The artwork is all Freyja Dean, who also happens to be Roger Dean’s daughter. We spoke about the meaning behind the album and some of the songs, and she was most interested in the Dr. Komodo character who, you’ll have to take my word on this, is a modern-day alchemist performing vivisection on musical genres. That spurred on images of classical alchemy and surgery, the golden ratio and so on. I don’t presume to speak for Freyja but I hope I got that right. I only expected one final image, but she came up with six! Greedily, I used them all. I very much hope she’ll work with me again on the next album.
PRESTON FRAZIER: There are videos floating around on the internet of a recent live performance. Are there any other performances planned in the near future?
BEN CRAVEN: Those videos are from the album launch held in Brisbane a few weeks ago. I’ll be posting the rest the tracks as I mix them and plan to make them available for download, if people are interested. I have no more performances planned in the near future, but I do realize that’s an opportunity begging to get my music heard. Most of the audience for my music is overseas, so the prospect of being able to afford to tour with a full band is unlikely. I’m working on a one-man show idea with minimal recorded backing, which would be much more economical. Sonically, it’s almost completely at odds with my actual recordings — which are full-blown multi-layered productions. But in spirit, it’s completely accurate, so I think it’s a very valid idea.