Demetris "All Around"
My first impression of Ben Bell is that of a "detail-guy". Everything seems to be "punctually puntcual" and "controllably controllable" to the music bone! Either proggin' with legendary FUSION ORCHESTRA 2 and/or gellin' with PATCHWORK CACOPHONY, he is one of the most creative artists of our era with such an eclecticity in his mind! Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy one of the most sparkling multi-instrumentalists of our days!
Well, Ben, thank you in advance for your participation in that interview! It’s our honor to host your point-of-view in our radio (www.justincaseradio.com)!
Hello Ben! Where are you now? Where this interview finds you exactly?!
Appropriately enough I'm back in the control room of Patchwork Studios for the first time in a while, sifting through my musical todo list.
Tell us some things about your career history concerning music and your multi-instrumentality! Did you have any studies?
I studied piano for a few years when I was young, and quite enjoyed it but it did feet like another form of homework. I gave up lessons when I started my GCSE studies (at 14) and it was only when a friend started playing a drum kit we found in a cupboard at school and I played the piano to accompany him that I realised how much more fun rock and roll was. After that I wanted to be a guitarist or a drummer for several years even though I was a much better keyboard player. It wasn't until I discovered Jon Lord that I suddenly realised that keyboards really could have relevance in rock too.
What are your influences as a musician and as an artist? Influences that you have as role models in your life.
Role models in life... I'm supposed to say something like "Oh, Gandhi definitely" at this point, right? I'm not sure really. Raising anyone to that level is a bit of a recipe for disillusionment because everyone's a flawed human being underneath it. I admire people who care, who do the best they can in whatever they do and try to make the world better for everyone, not just themselves. Actually, that sounds really pretentious... can I go back to the "Oh, Gandhi definitely," answer after all?
As an artist, my big early influences were Queen, particularly Brian May, and then via his work with Cozy Powell I got into Rainbow, then Deep Purple. In parallel I also liked things like Mike Oldfield, West Side Story, War of The Worlds, Verdi's Requiem... a bit of a mix. I didn't discover "real" prog until quite a bit later — maybe ten years ago — but I feel like I was looking for it for years with all of those influences.
As far as we know your main band is the great FUSION ORCHESTRA 2. Tell us few things about its history; the first edition of FUSION ORCHESTRA and your involvement in this great music band!
Well I met Colin Dawson, the original co-founder and guitarist of Fusion Orchestra, about ten years ago when we played together in a blues/rock covers band. That went through several incarnations and when it finally split up he and I started talking about other sorts of music and I told him what I really wanted to do next was a full on prog-rock thing. He gave me a Fusion Orchestra track to listen to and I thought it would be funny to learn part of it and ambushed him with bits of it when we were next jamming. We played a bit more with it it became really clear that this was still great material to play, but we didn't want to be a nostalgia sort of act and we wanted to write new material too, so we deliberately called the band Fusion Orchestra 2 to make it clear we weren't pretending to be the original band.
It took an awful lot of work and line-up changes before we finally got out on stage the first time. Casting Shadows had pretty much been written a couple of years before the current line-up so it was a long road. We had actually made quite a bit of progress on even more new tracks for a second album while Jo was still in the band but most of those got shelved because we felt with the new line-up, after Casting Shadows we wanted to start fresh.
You recently introduced us to a project of yours called PATCHWORK CACOPHONY and we had a fabulous “prog Week” w/ you in our radio! How did you come up with the name? And, what’s the purpose and the plans of this project?
Yes, it was a fun week and very interesting hearing everyone's thoughts. I love hearing the different opinions people have on favourite tracks and what they think my influences might have been.
The "Patchwork" part of the name has been there as long as I can remember. My mother makes a lot of patchwork quilts and one day I was looking at one and thought that a lot of the material I was writing was quite like patchwork in the way it stitches together lots of different ideas and styles. Originally it was intended to be "The Patchwork Orchestra", with a mix of guest musicians too, but I felt I couldn't use the word "Orchestra" again after FO2. I tried virtually every other word I could think of, and liked the feel of "Patchwork Cacophony", though apparently it puts a lot of people off listening as they take it literally.
As far as purpose and plans are concerned, I have plenty of new material and intend to do a new album, but I'm thinking this time I won't play every single thing myself and will go back to the idea of getting guest musicians in and maybe even something approaching a traditional band set up. We'll see.
Tell us some more about other past, present and/or future collaborations with other artists? What kind of collaboration do you prefer most, band work, solo work, session work, other?
Honestly, I love a mix of different sorts of sorts of collaboration and solo work rather than getting into ruts. Doing everything solo is very hard work, but I get to present my vision exactly as I want it. At the other end of the scale my work with Marcus Taylor on Broken Parachute was much more that he sent me over tracks and lyrics and I wrote the keyboard parts and sang the song then handed the raw tracks back to him and gave him full control over what got included and how it was mixed. That's quite liberating in a way, particularly when you're doing it with someone whose judgment you really trust. I'm also batting around some ideas with Jo Hollands (the original FO2 singer) which will hopefully see the light of day at some point.
I think “Dawn Light”, although an epic of about 26 minutes, is the big buzz of your music till today! An epic that features almost all prog history into it! What’s the story behind its composition and what are your favourite songs from your discography?
Ah, well Dawn Light was pretty much the point at which Patchwork Cacophony became a real thing not just a vague idea. I had a really productive weekend writing by myself in the studio and at the end of it had most of the musical ideas except for Scorched Earth and Final Sunset down, but it felt like they were too fully formed to use with FO2, and they weren't really in the right style, so I decided I'd add them to my pile of Solo Project material. Story-wise I was leaning towards a natural disaster sort of theme but I didn't want to be explicit about exactly what that disaster was. For a while I referred to it as my Zombie Apocalypse musical.
Favourites from my discography... really hard. I'm awful at picking favourites which is partly why the variety in prog-rock appeals so much. Depending on my mood, Brinkmanship and Sketch of a Day are things I'm proud of. With FO2 I think Leaving It All Behind will always have a special place because it was the first track we wrote and so really the first proper original prog track I worked on. Broken Parachute... everyone loves Hit The Wall but I think I prefer either Genuine Fake or Nothing, though I really enjoyed the interplay on things like Snake. Ask me another day and I'll probably give different answers. As I say, favourites aren't my strong point!
What are the main influences of yours as a musician and/or as a human being?
Well I think Queen and Deep Purple will always be there musically in my DNA. There's clearly some Genesis influence too but probably some of the more hidden but equally important stuff are various musicals and other longer, story-lead sort of works. As a human being, I'm not sure. Friends and family most likely.
What’s your personal philosophy/mindset in life? How do you cope with barriers? And, simultaneously, how do you build your strengths?
I'm not sure I have anything as figured out as that. I suppose I try not to let myself off the hook with easy options when I should instead just try harder, and at the risk of going back to the Gandhi line, I try to make sure that what I'm doing doesn't come at the expense of other people. I don't think you need to trample anyone while chasing your own dreams and I think that taking time to help other people doesn't cost you so much in the long term, but maybe I'm just naïve.
Any strength and dealing with barriers probably comes from carefully directed stubbornness. I can present it as a virtue by calling it "determination" or some such, but essentially I just don't know when to give up and sometimes that works out well!
According to our collaboration up to now, you seemed to me to be a man who gives much emphasis on details. Is that a personal trait of yours and what’s the impact of your personality and character in your music?
Yes, I think that's a fair observation. I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times (though I'm sure I could be more of a perfectionist if I tried harder), and I've been accused of being a control freak too. Those two things fight against wanting to make sure everyone's happy and that things are fair so I suppose the entirely solo project is a direct result of that. It gives me space where I only have myself to satisfy and don't feel tempted to compromise on something I feel strongly about just because someone else disagrees with me. Of course then I miss having other people to share the process with, so I can't really win.
Is there any specific compositional approach from your part you follow through from a musical point-of-view? Music first? Lyrics? Or, simultaneously? Also, how do you approach the creation process of a concept album? What concepts do you stick with usually?
Lyrics are hard work for me. Sometimes they come first but usually it's the music that leads the way. That said, if a piece is going to have lyrics then I find I need to have at least one phrase in there to give it shape otherwise it stays instrumental. The story in Leaving It All Behind was written backwards from "I never should have gone away," line which was just plucked out of the air. It was a line right at the end of the song and so I knew I need to write a story to lead up to that realisation.
How are the live experiences you already have? What are the reactions of the people who come to your live shows?
With FO2 people usually comment on quite how much is going on at once and how much interaction there is between us on stage. To be honest, with FO2 I've got so many things going on I have to concentrate really hard not to lose my place. I've gigged a lot more before that with blues rock bands where there's more space for having a bit of fun and improvising and playing off each other, and people often used to comment on that — interaction and having fun.
What is prog rock for you? And prog music in general, anyway? We think this is a concept and not a genre, as many believe.
Sometimes I think prog rock is the "miscellaneous" category of rock. "Is it A? Is it B? Is it C? No? Oh well, let's just call it prog and be done with!" It's really about not paying attention to the usual barriers between styles. You don't say, "We can't do that because it's not in the rules for our genre." Like Freddie Mercury saying when he was demoing Bohemian Rhapsody to the rest of the band, "...and that's where the opera section comes in." Prog is music where you can do that.
Also, what do you think about the future of prog rock and prog music in general? Are there any ways for the betterment of its promotion through the net and other means?
Well obviously the whole music world is struggling to come to terms with instant access, all-you-can-eat music streaming and in a way I think that prog does quite badly out of that. A lot of prog takes time to get to know and if you just easily skip to the next track or next band and never go back because you've no investment, it's not the one new album you bought that month, I think anything that doesn't have a lot of superficial appeal has a hard time. Even taking something like Sketch of a Day as an example, it has a minute or two of piano intro which is integral to the piece, but I know a lot of people get thirty seconds in and skip it thinking it's just a long mellow track without realising there's a whole load else about to be unleashed.
My optimistic outlook is that more and more people who are really interested in music will start to feel alienated by quite how bland and homogenised the music industry has become and start searching out other things because of that. Given the chance and the exposure, we might find bigger audiences again because the mainstream has driven people away, a bit like the rebirth of microbreweries and real ale when the mainstream beers got more and more samey. But on the flip side, I don't have much hope that there will be many prog musicians able to make a living from it alone. I think more and more we will have to accept that we're playing to small audiences and that even if you're selling shows and albums, it's more a labour of love than a career.
What music do you listen to this period? What are your musical inspirations too?
Since finishing Patchwork Cacophony I've been deliberately trying to listen to as much new stuff as possible. I loved Big Big Train as soon as I heard them, and Cosmograf too. Transatlantic are quite bombastic but they're great fun and obviously technically superb too.
The progarchives.com platform labels PATCHWORK CACOPHONY under the Symphonic Prog genre and FUSION ORCHESTRA 2 under the Heavy Prog genre. It’s usually easy to make such simplistic descriptions, but we will leave it up to you to describe your music to someone who's never heard of your music.
It's always hard to summarise it in a few words, but I'd say it's not too weird, but it probably takes a few listens to get to grips with. It's quite dense and there's a lot going on, and at times I push it into the slightly tongue-in-cheek. The choir at the end of Sketch of a Day is really deliberately over the top, for example. It's obviously quite heavily keyboard driven but in character I'd say it's much more in line with classic era aesthetic than the heavier modern prog. I'd probably suggest that if you don't have much time you pick a single track and listen to it a few times rather than skim the whole album once. That said, it really is intended to be listened to as a whole album if you do have the time to get to know it.
Is there any possibility to record with a major symphonic orchestra (in case you haven’t already done it!)? What about a live DVD with a symphony orchestra with some of your solo or/and project works in the future?
If I did that I really would have to give up on playing every instrument myself, wouldn't I? I'd love to see what I could do with and orchestra and what they could bring to the music, but going back to my point about the music industry I don't think there's much scope for that sort of budget in prog these days unless you get very lucky. And besides, didn't doing that give Rick Wakeman a heart attack? Sounds like a dangerous thing to attempt...
We’d like to bring you in Greece someday! How are you with that and what’d you prepare for an upcoming live in Greece?
If I could sort out a band I'd love to play Brinkmanship live. I'm not sure how something like Dawn Light or Sketch would translate and I think if I attempted that it would be more like the way Mike Oldfield used to play bits of Ommadawn and Tubular bells live, where they're recognisable but still very different.
But I'd love to visit Greece again with or without instruments and in fact have been talking about visiting Athens on holiday at some point in the next couple of years.
A message from your part for the listeners of JustIn Case Prog Radio and all the prog’n’rollers out there is…
I was going to just say "Keep flying the prog flag!" but actually now I think of it, and going back to your question about promoting prog: You, the listeners and the fans, are the most important thing to anyone releasing music. You're the reason we keep doing this rather than just playing in private. But you're more than that: you're our publicity department. Tweet us, share us, like us, talk about us, review us, and tell the world about us. The only way anyone is ever likely to find out about prog artists is by the enthusiasm of other fans, because otherwise we get lost in the noise about the latest Beyonce single, or new releases by big prog names like Yes and Pink Floyd. You're our voice, so be loud for us!
Anything that you might add?
I think I've probably broken the word limit record on interviews already!
Dear Ben, thanks a lot about answering those few (lol!!!!) questions!
It was a pleasure. thank you!
Demetris “All Around”
Founder and Producer of JustIn Case Prog Radio