Ladies and gents, what follows is the prog testimony from one of the most pure and authentic prog minds of our era, Ben Bell from the UK!
Dear Ben, this is your second interview with JICPR! On behalf of all progducers of the radio, we love your music so much! How are you doing generally and musically, of course?
Hi guys. Things have been pretty busy since we last spoke as you can tell. Obviously there's been the recording Five of Cups, which was a huge amount of work, but I also guested on keyboards on Marcus Taylor's “Kashgar” album (kashgarband.com), which is a Jazz/World/Rock fusion thing and have put in a couple of cameos on backing vocals and piano in some other places. But yes, the main focus has been Five of Cups.
You have a new album out, through your musical vehicle called PATCHWORK CACOPHONY, named as “Five of cups”; this is your sophomore album, right? Tell us a few things about your brand new album (musically, lyrically, conceptually, etc.).
Yes, and it still occasionally goes under the nickname of #PatCo2. Musically, I think it's more grown up and sophisticated than the first one. It has a stronger theme to it, both lyrically and musically, so ironically it's actually less of a patchwork than the first. It's not really what I'd call a concept album in the proper sense, but it's definitely written around a single concept or theme, and it will be interesting to see how people interpret it.
What are its main differences with the first one (the self-titled “Patchwork Cacophony”). Did you approach it differently than the first one and, if yes, what was this different approach?
Yes. PatCo1 was originally a place I put various ideas that weren't suitable for my main band at the time, Fusion Orchestra 2. So it was quite a mish-mash of different things which I then honed into an album. With Five of Cups I started with a much clearer idea of an overall character and theme, and from quite early on I had the track order figured out and knew what I needed to happen musically and when. So it was very much written as an album. In fact, for the last year, through all the work the album length has remained somewhere between 1m05 and 1m07 — the arrangements have been that definite for that long. I've also put a lot of work into my bass and drum playing this time. On PatCo1 they were very much support roles to the keyboards, but this time I wanted them much more a part of the overall sound. More of a “band sound” than a “keyboards plus backing musicians” sound. And on that note, I've also got a couple of guest guitarists in. Marcus Taylor (Broken Parachute, Kashgar) has pretty much hijacked Maybe and turned it into a guitar-driven song, and Tim Hall plays all the electrics on Brand New Day including (spoiler) the climax guitar solo from the album, which I hoped would take people by surprise.
Any favorite moments from your new album? Any initial reactions from different audiences?
I'm always going to have a soft spot for some of the bombastic moments where all hell is breaking loose with big choirs and over the top lead trade-offs, but I'm actually also pleased with some parts where I think there's some understated beauty in the lines. I'm not going to name any specific parts though because I'd prefer people to listen with their own ears.
Reactions have been really positive. When you finish an album I find it's very hard to be objective. You always have a mix of feeling really proud of it while also being quite sick of hearing it. I was nervous as to whether people would think it wasn't as good as PatCo1 but actually the reception so far is that it's a big step forward, so I'm really pleased.
This album is a self-released album, right? Is that better? I mean, is it better than doing the job with a label or am I wrong on that? “It depends”, as most artists would say to me?
Everything I've been involved with has been self-released, so I don't know how much help a label would be. I know that lots of labels interfere with the creative process but I think that's more of a Big Label thing. For labels it's at least partially a business and you're not just an artist, you're a supplier, and you've got an end of the deal to keep up, so I'm not sure I'd get on with that. With Five of Cups there were a couple of times where I knew that creatively I was exhausted and I just needed to take a few months off to come back with fresh ears and enthusiasm or otherwise risk producing something that wasn't as good as it should be.
But certainly I think there's an advantage to having some more help with the publicity. If you're independent it can be extremely hard to get the music hard. With PatCo1 I know a lot of review copies that got sent out went straight onto Amazon or ebay, unopened and unlistened to. With a label I think perhaps people are more likely to think, “Well if the guys at MegaProg have signed them up they're at least worth a listen.” So yes, I'm going to side with the other artists and say, “I guess it depends.”
In your last interview you told me that, “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!” Do you still have this kind of stubbornness, aka, determination?
Ha! Yes, that's still recognisably me.
If yes, have you seen any progress by using it as a musician and/or a person?
As a musician, I think it's responsible for me being a multi-instrumentalist where perhaps saner, more reasonable people would just say, “Just hire some session musicians.” And of course that's meant I've had to keep working at things.
Plans for live action for the new album?
Well it was written with more of a band feel than PatCo1, but still the problem is it's a one man thing so I'd have to get a band up together, and it's still a very niche sort of thing. Actually, as far as live action is concerned, the main thing for me at the moment is that I've been called into Gandalf's Fist to help out as live keyboard player for some of their gigs. They're giving me a pretty free rein on how I interpret the parts so althought Patchwork Cacophony won't be playing live, Ben Bell will. Come and see as at HRH Prog Festival in March!
What music do you listen to this period? What are your musical inspirations too?
One of the downsides of recording is that you go through periods where you don't listen to much music because you spend so much time on your own, and when you're not working on that you often need some quiet or to give your ears a rest. So in fact I'm just starting to listen to stuff again now. I have a huge backlog, but things that have been seeing a lot of play here have included Gandalf's Fist (of course), Different Light's “Burden of Paradise” which is superb, and recently things like Colin Tench and Nth Ascension. I've also been trying to catch up on older bands which I shockingly still haven't listened to, like Caravan. I've only just discovered The Land of Grey And Pink and it's perfection!
What about the other projects/collaborations of yours (e.g. FUSION ORCHESTRA 2)?
Fusion Orchestra 2 did some writing and we have plans for an EP. With that band a lot of it's about scheduling because people are busy — not least of we use my studio and I act as producer there so I can't just take a back seat and turn up, play my parts and leave someone else to fit it all together.
Broken Parachute did an album of I guess “classic rock” sort of stuff back in 2013. Marcus has been tossing around ideas for a second album and so far it sounds like that's going to be a lot more progressive this time, so I think that'll probably happen at some point next year. Marcus produces that so in a way it's a lot less work for me!
I've also got a lot of people I've been wanting to do some collaborations with for a while so hopefully I'll get around to some of those soon too. There's a mix of styles we've talked about so it'll be a refreshing change.
A second message from your part to the listeners of JICPR (you can see the first one here: http://www.justincaseradio.com/prog-topics/prog-interviews/231-ben-bell-uk)
Well last time I think I said something like “keep flying the flag for prog!” and talked about how listeners were our publicity and our reason for doing the extra work to release material rather than just play in private. I'd certainly repeat that because it's so important and true, but this time around I'm also in a position to say a big thank you, because that's exactly what people have been doing, on Justin Case (particularly the Prog and Roll shoutbox) but also elsewhere. I've had a lot of support and encouragement since PatCo1 and it's really helped. Thanks so much!