Whether it’s the white-knuckled knee-stompers, the whiskey-soaked ballads, or anything else in between, Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers make music that raises eyebrows. They are road dwellers, travelling around the world and picking up adoring fans along the way. His hard-hitting and sometimes poignant lyricism has become nationally renowned, and his melodies draw from traditional Eastern European and Jewish traditions. As Ben and his band get set to play at Shenkman Arts Centre this weekend, we are trying something a little bit different. We got the opening artist, Gareth Auden-Hole a.k.a. Jack Pine, to interview the scruffy songwriter.
Jack: How’s it goin’?
Ben: It’s goin’ well. Yeah we’re just sittin’ in the van cruising on the way to Sudbury. Should be there in about an hour and change. Today is day 3, we played Kingston last night, Montreal the night before that, and we had one solo gig… sort of a leaving home gig… in New Brunswick last week.
J: Cool, sounds like fun!
B: Totally, it’s been a nice run so far.
J: And you were’t home all that long, were you? You had a really long tour ending in the fall?
B: I did, yeah, I had maybe two and a half months off or something like that… then back out into the world.
J: And you were overseas for much of that last tour. Do you have a favourite place to play in the world?
B: Ooh, tough one… I mean, there’s so many different kinds of gigs, and places. It’s hard to pick. But I really loved the last show we played in Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands. Some really, really cool shows there, and that last one was just amazing.
J: Yeah, I hear that touring Europe is a lot of fun and provides like a different audience experience…
B: Absolutely. It’s like a completely different valuation of the role of art in culture and in society. It’s a great place to hang out and a great place to play shows!
J: And what about Ottawa? I mean, other than amazing opening acts, what’s your favourite thing about touring through Ottawa?
B: I dunno, I like Ottawa. It’s a city I’ve had the privilege of spending a bunch of time in, I did a lot of the post-production on my album in Ottawa. And it’s got a cool arts scene and it’s got a lot of cool people… my drummer Jamie Kronick lives in Ottawa, so that’s a nice connection. I’m looking forward to it!
J: For your post production, you’re talking about Phil Bova’s studio?
B: Yeah, totally! Great guy.
J: You seem to put a lot of effort into creating really unique arrangements in your recordings, and you also have a reputation for truly unique and distinct performances from show to show. How should a live performance relate to the recorded version?
B: Well I don’t think it matters at all… the song is what matters, right? I think that the live performance and studio performance are two completely different mediums. You have different tools that are available to you, and also the way that people are going to interact with your art is totally different in the two different mediums. So with this last album I tried to really experiment with everything that the studio format offered offered that the live format was incapable of doing. So for example, there’s no way I’ll ever have a harp player on tour with me. It’s not in the budget, it’s not the first of 10 instruments or instrumentalists that I would hire. But in the studio you need to pay somebody for like a day, so what sounds could you experiment with and how would that impact an arrangement? Those are the kinds of questions I was asking when making my record, and then live it’s about how do you use your own energy and the energy of the people on stage with you to create an emotional experience that will be impactful and beautiful for the people standing in front of you
J: I totally agree! I record bands myself and when we’re in studio I often say “when you’re in studio you’re trying to make the best album you can and on stage you’re trying to make the best show you can,” and they aren’t always the same thing.
That said, for this show I’m planning the opposite approach in that I’m basically trying to recreate my Lone Wolf EP on stage for the first time.
B: Amazing, I’m looking forward to hearing that!
J: Yeah me too… I mean… I’m looking forward to doing it!
Now Birds with Broken Wings was your second album and I’ve heard you talk before about the “Second album syndrome” during production… can you comment on that experience?
B: Sure, I guess my first album gave me a platform and the resources to make another record, but suddenly there was this demand – you know, nobody gave a shit if I made my first album at all, I did it for myself. And then suddenly there was this feeling of weight and responsibility and obligation to people other than myself – the people who would be working with me, business partners, and primarily to my audience. And then to myself with sort of this pressure to keep rolling this stone up the hill and an illusion of being further along on some path… I felt the pressure to perform. You know you have your whole life to write the first album and then writing a follow up record, you have to do relatively quickly, so I felt all of these interesting pressures. But it was great because it pushed me to think big, to think in grandiose terms, and to try to surround myself with people who I could trust and who I enjoyed collaborating with. So it was an interesting sort of pressure cooker, crock pot situation that I found myself in, but I think it was a good thing for me. A good learning experience. And now reflecting on that, I feel this third album pressure and I’m more able to remind myself that it’s all kind of illusory and that my responsibility is to the art, and to myself and to the songs
J: So what will be different about the 3rd album syndrome?
Ben: Well, you know, with the thirst album I don’t think think I have anything to prove. I think I’m just going to make something that I like and hope that other people like it. Hopefully that works out for me.
J: So as a singer-songwriter-producer who’s finally putting the final polish on my own 2nd album, do you have any advice for battling the second album syndrome?
B: No. I don’t haha! You just have to work through it. As I was saying, just being rigorous and serving the song, that’s all you can ever do.
J: Your influences seem to be extremely broad and I can definitely respect that a lot. Who’s on your must-see-before-you-die list for live performances?
B: Hmm… geez… well you know when you’re on tour as much as I am, in a funny way the last thing I can picture wanting to do is going to a show when I don’t have to. But… uh… can I take a pass?
J: Well, mine would be Tom Waits… a rare live performance to see. I feel like you could relate to that.
B: Well, I got to see him a couple of years ago. I saw him perform at the Bridge School Benefit concert, a yearly concert that Neil Young puts on. So I went to Mountain View, California, to go see that show and it was pretty cool.
J: Specifically for that show?
B: Totally! Yeah, it’s like ‘well I’m not going to get many opportunities to see Tom Waits, I’m sure. So now that there is one, I’d better fly to California.’
J: Exactly… it’ll happen for me eventually, too.
B: Here’s hoping. My fingers are crossed. You just have to be willing to fly to California, that’s all.
J: Totally possible.
I saw that Uptown Funk video that you did with Old Man Luedecke. Is that something that you do with the band often? Or just a one off?
B: It was a one off. The CBC asked us throw together some sort of Top 40 hit to perform as a collaboration between Old Man Luedecke and I, and we were totally gob-smacked as to what to do because neither one of us listens to a ton of Top 40. So trying to figure out what we could collaborate on was tricky, but I wound up suggesting that one. And it was a fun exercise to like try to figure out how to arrange that with those musicians and throw it all together. I practiced it a few times with the members of my own band and then with Old Man Luedecke. We had maybe an hour in the studio to try to mash it together and make it happen. I’m pretty pleased with how it came together.
J: Yeah it was pretty tight!
B: I credit everyone else around me.
J: You say you don’t listen to a lot of Top 40 hits, but do you have any guilty pleasures? I won’t tell anyone, I swear…
Ben: Please, you can report on it all you like. Yeah, I dunno, I definitely have enjoyed stuff from Britney, to Adele, to Katy Perry… I have no intrinsic beef with those genres.. Justin Bieber… you know these production teams, the songwriting, it’s all undeniable in my opinion. It’s really, really excellent music and it’s going for a particular thing that’s really different from the thing that I’m going for but even tho it’s rarely the thing that I would think to put on, when it does come on I have a deep appreciation for it. Playing with Jamie Kronick definitely lends to that sensibility on my behalf because he’s a shameless pop fanatic, so I wind up being exposed to a lot more Top 40 than I would normally, through Jamie.
J: Last question. If Shenkman goes well on Apr 7th, do you wanna take me on tour with you?
Ben: Sure… haha we have one more show after that!
Jack: Yeah, fair enough. Well maybe not this tour then, but I’ve got you on the record for that!
Ben: Right on, well I look forward to hearing it, man
Jack: Sweet, and I look forward to seeing you too. It’s going to be a great show, I think!
Ben: Teriffic! Great chatting with you.
Jack: Likewise! See you on the 7th.