Ben Miller Band
"I like the idea of saying something very complicated in a very simple way," says Ben Miller, discussing the trio that bears his name. "That's what we strive for musically, and what I strive for lyrically—to get directly to the point and save the flowery b.s. for the romantic poets. John Sargent, the painter, said 'That which is not necessary is detrimental,' and we try to live by that."
Since its formation in 2004, the Ben Miller Band has staked out a singular niche that's established the Joplin, Missouri threesome as both a potent creative force and a perennial fan favorite. Any Way, Shape or Form, the BMB's New West debut release, showcases the seasoned threesome's fierce creative spirit and infectious performing chemistry, as well as Miller's melodically catchy, lyrically resonant songwriting.
On Any Way, Shape or Form, the Ben Miller Band channels a century's worth of wide-ranging influences into 13 new songs that radiate with energy, smarts and soul. The result is music that's wholly contemporary, while ringing with ages-old echoes of bluegrass, delta blues, Appalachian mountain music and more. A stew they lovingly call “ozark stomp.”
Miller writes roots-rocking barnburners ("The Outsider," "Burning Building"), thoughtful ballads ("I Feel for You," "Prettiest Girl") and left-field departures ("23 Skidoo") with melodic skill and lyrical insight, and the band elucidates them with urgency and eloquence. While those tunes show off Miller's songwriting craftsmanship, a memorable workout on the traditional "The Cuckoo" underlines the band's interpretive abilities.
The hard working threesome has already won a substantial—and still-growing—grassroots fan base through old-fashioned ingenuity and an unstinting work ethic. Their D.I.Y. success helped to win the band its current deal with New West, and led to some high profile touring with ZZ Top, thanks to the enthusiastic patronage of avowed fan Billy Gibbons. Opening for ZZ Top on a 2013 tour of Europe, the humble BMB wowed unfamiliar crowds on stages in large halls and arenas, including a triumphant set at the fabled Montreaux Jazz Festival.
The Ben Miller Band's homespun, self-reliant approach extends to the lo-tech, and largely self-built, instruments that the members play on stage and in the studio, e.g. singer-songwriter Miller's thrift-shop guitars and banjos, bassist Scott Leeper's one-string washtub bass – comprised of a weedeater string attached to a wooden pole – and Doug Dicharry's varied arsenal: trombone, trumpet, mandolin, electric washboard and electric spoons.
The band's use of offbeat instrumentation, however, shouldn't be misunderstood as a gimmick. Instead, the three bandmates have mastered the technical challenges of their unconventional axes to produce a uniquely evocative ensemble sound that offers a compelling frame for Miller's compositions.
"What I really care about is songs, and the rest of it is just a vehicle to get you to that destination," Miller asserts, adding, "Just because we use junk to make music doesn't mean we aren't serious about it."
"Our sound," Dicharry notes, "is something that we never thought much about. It's just something that kept growing without us really trying, and at some point we realized it sounded pretty cool."
"The instruments that we use ," Miller explains, "were originally born out of necessity, because we didn't have any money. People would give us their old gear that didn't work anymore, and we'd wire things together and try things out in different permutations and see where it led us. Through a lot of trial and error, we arrived at the set up that we've got now. Blazing your own trail through the jungle can take a lot of extra time and effort, but it gives you a chance to end up in a place that nobody's been to before."
That sense of musical adventure has long driven Miller and this bandmates from the start. Growing up in rural Curlew, Washington, Miller began playing guitar at 16, turning his back on a promising career as a visual artist to pursue his passion for music. He gained experience busking and performing in open mic nights while roadtripping around America, and during an extended stint in Eastern Europe.
Miller eventually found kindred spirits in bassist Scott Leeper, who'd been playing since the age of seven and had performed with his family's band, in a duo with his brother, as a one-man country act and in a variety of blues combos; and Doug Dicharry, a musical omnivore and multi-instrumentalist, who can play nearly any instrument and has played in a wide array of projects from noise bands to ska and rock.
The three like-minded players joined forces, and soon their diligent touring regimen allowed them to conquer an ever-widening geographical base and win a loyal live audience. In 2012, the Ben Miller Band took its first tentative steps in the recording studio, resulting in the embryonic self-released CD Heavy Load, which attracted a good deal of fan praise and critical acclaim despite its humble origins.
The same maverick spirit that motivated the BMB's early musical adventures came into play in the recording Any Way, Shape or Form, which they cut with seasoned producer Vance Powell, who's renowned for his studio work with the likes of Jack White, Buddy Guy, Wanda Jackson, Willie Nelson and Kings of Leon.
"Our original plan," Leeper notes, "was to scale it down a bit, and have it be even less produced than the first one. It came out sounding like us, which is all we really want."
"It was the first time we'd really had a producer/engineer," Dicharry notes, adding "It felt like we could finally breathe, because Vance was on top of things and got some really cool textures. We had a lot of confidence in him, so we were comfortable just going in and laying it down."
"We wanted to keep it as live as possible," Miller asserts, "so we recorded it live and did lots of takes,
on average around thirty takes before we felt we really nailed it down. That was important to us because we’ve been a live band for our whole career and we wanted that to come across in the recordings, that feeling of guys playing in a space together. We worked long days in the studio for about a month, just playing the songs over and over and working to push our performances and maintain the energy of what we do.”
With Any Way, Shape or Form encapsulating the Ben Miller Band's salient qualities, the three intrepid bandmates are eager to hit the road and bring their new songs to live crowds around the nation and around the world.
"Our plan," Leeper says, "is to just get out there and play for as many people as we can. That's pretty much been our plan all along, and it's worked for us so far."
"The title Any Way, Shape or Form is sort of our way of saying that by any means necessary we will make the music that makes sense to us,” Miller explains. “That’s always been our attitude, and that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are and how we will get to where we are going.”
The Brothers Comatose
“The good thing about a string band, is that things tend to culminate with dancing rather than elbows flying in a mosh-pit,” says Gio Benedetti of the Brothers Comatose. The original members of the quintet with brothers Alex and Ben Morrison, bonded at the Morrison family acoustic music parties before taking a youthful foray into punk and rock bands *and ultimately* before circling back to the music they learned in that living room. They credit both beginnings for the attitude of their current music. and As a testament to their skillful
energy; they have already played the major festivals including the esteemed Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, The Strawberry Festival and High Sierra.
On the new album, Respect The Van out May 22, their music is not a wavering me?lange
of assorted styles, but decided and strong bluegrass-influenced folk rock. With the addition of members Philip Brezina (fiddle) and Ryan Avellone (mandolin) the band aims “to offer a damn good time, with a no-bullshit style that we found in those original living room parties and our live shows,” says Ben. “We tracked everything for the album live in one big room – treating the studio like a stage,” he explains.
As for the name, only a brother could pick it out by observing his sibling. Guitarist *and vocalist* Ben said when brother Alex Morrison *(banjo and vocals) * goes into a trance-like state while playing his banjo, “his eyes roll back in his head like he’s in a coma.” It’s certainly not indicative of their music, which doesn’t have any of the indulgent noodling breaks characterized by other string based bands – though the musicianship is solidly there, it’s given with a communal and inclusive spirit to sing and dance along to. Now, at live shows, the San Francisco band is known for handing out chopsticks to the audience for participatory percussion on whatever surface is closest.
And while the music is strong and clear, there are some serious themes as in the lead track “Modern Day Sinners,” a Guthrie inspired populist sing-along with shades of 50's R&B and doo-wop in the harmonies and feel. “I wanted to call ‘bullshit’ of the type of politician or fat radio host that’s giving advice while living a terrible and shameful life,” says *bassist and* vocalist and banjoist Gio.
“Scout” was written by Ben as part of “The 52 week club,” a songwriting group that sends out theme a week as a writing prompt. “It my first contribution. I wrote it from an autobiographical perspective of a young boy scout hanging out with his grandpa,” shares Ben. “My grandpa was a nice man some of the time, but could also just be bitter and I always wondered what he was so angry about. This song is about the young scout hanging onto his youth and and hoping to keep that spirit at the end.”
120 East” is a harmonic ode to the brotherhood of a band, written about The Brothers Comatose's journey to and from The Strawberry Music Festival. “I wanted to capture the sense of being with your best friends, of being willing to trust them and follow them anywhere,” says Gio.
The band wrote a raucous, fiddle tune ode to their 1988 Chevy G20 tour van and called it, fittingly, “The Van Song.” “Phil wrote all the instrumental melodies and it didn't have any official lyrics for a long time,” says Gio. “It saw two rowdy live performances where we all just made up verses on the spot. We finally wrote some real lyrics, and had to record it - we love our van in a way that is border-line obsessive.”
“Morning Time” is Ben’s folk-country duet with breakout artist Nicki Bluhm. “It tells of the ever present struggles between man and woman – the guy wants to maintain his life in the big city with all of its late nights, bustle and craziness and the woman is ready for a mellower life. It’s a compromise and ultimately setting aside some quality time in the morning to spend together,” shares Ben
“Feels Like The Devil” is a drop-tuned, resonator-driven shit-kicker that would be at home on any bluegrass stage, while “Pennies are Money Too” is an old-timey instrumental that well illustrates the band’s musicianship.
Despite their name, the band is anything but Comatose. “It's just one, big, extended Morrison music party,” they say. The Brothers Comatose will be playing all spring and summer including April dates in Boise, Portland, Eugene, Washington State, North Carolina and all thru California, including appearances at the Banjo-B-Cue festival, and the Kate Wolf Festival. More dates and new videos will be announced soon.