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Ben Harper gets aboard a new train

April 30, 2009 |  2:34 pm
His Relentless7 mates have the guitar hero and soul shouter 'fighting for my life' -- and loving it.

The lights are turned down low at Eldorado Studios in Burbank, where Ben Harper is sitting with a mahogany lap-slide guitar, plugged into a custom amplifier set to burn. It's nearly 3 a.m. and Harper is lost in the moment, playing "Why Must You Always Dress in Black," five minutes of smoldering madman blues with a bit of Texas in the grooves. The singer-guitarist is bent over his instrument, effects pedals beneath his feet, eyes shut tight as he shouts an uneasy "a-hey-hey!"

The session is in late September, 11 days into the recording of "White Lies for Dark Times," Harper's ninth studio album and the first with his new band, Relentless7. The 11-track collection, which jumps from heavy rock to soul to graceful acoustic balladry, is set for release Tuesday on Virgin Records.

At 39, Harper is a journeyman rocker with a sizable following and two Grammy awards, but he's found new inspiration in the company of Relentless7 guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson, all from Austin, Texas, and late transplants to Los Angeles.

"For the first time in my musical life, I'm in a creative environment where it's taking all of my senses and perception to keep up," says Harper, who has put his longtime band, the Innocent Criminals, on indefinite hiatus. "I don't want to make compliments about my new band in a way that seems like a put-down to my old band . . . but I gotta say, right now I'm in a group where I am fighting for my life. I'm practicing on my days off. I'm spending more time writing than I ever have. And I'm loving it."

By the door are about 100 empty Corona bottles, lined up on a vintage Wurlitzer, but the vice of the moment is mixing Tic Tac mints of different flavors into new color combinations, ingested by the handful. On a legal pad, the band and engineer/co-producer Danny Kalb are compiling a list of useless album titles, with four pages so far: "Ethnic Cleansing," "Blood Dumble," "Sleep Forever," "Danny's Penis," "Funeral Clothes" and "Tinkles and Sprinkles," among others.

"I don't like to spend too much time out of the studio, whether it's making a record for a record company or with no particular reason," says Harper, who has only become more prolific since his Grammy-winning collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2004, "There Will Be a Light." At Eldorado, Harper has had few visitors, and his label hasn't even been alerted a new album is in the works.

"I finally reached a point where I can . . . be here where it's not on anybody's clock or on anybody else's dime but my own -- and still stay creatively active and bring new ideas to life."

He grabs a few more Tic Tacs, as the band steps back into the control room to hear the final take of "Why Must You Always . . ." at full, volcanic volume. "It sounds sweaty," says Ingalls, 31. Harper stands over the mixing board, leaning forward until his forehead nearly touches the surface, as the song winds out to a close. "Great work, you guys," he says. It's after 4 a.m., and one more album title is added to the list: "World Class Beard."

There would be other late nights and early mornings at Eldorado and again at the final November sessions at the Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Harper kept the band busy, even recruiting Relentless7 for the upcoming debut of 18-year-old Grace Woodroofe, an Australian singer with a world-weary voice, produced by Harper at the urging of his friend the late actor Heath Ledger. And since completing "White Lies for Dark Times," the band has kept writing.

"It's certainly the most fulfilling musical venture I've ever done as a drummer," says Richardson of his work with Harper. "He wants us to take chances. There's very little talking, and that's always so exciting. He creates an atmosphere that allows you to feel confident to make a decision on your instrument and to go with your instincts."

Harper met Mozersky in 1998 after hearing a demo tape of his Austin-based band Wan Santo Condo. Harper became a fan, occasionally joining the quartet onstage, and eventually inviting the guitarist to sessions for 2006's "Both Sides of the Gun." Mozersky recommended Richardson and Ingalls, the rhythm section from another Austin rock act, Oliver Future, now based in Los Angeles. Harper called them in, and the result after three hours was an epic recording of obsessive, spectral rock 'n' blues called "Serve Your Soul."

"I said, 'Man, I've got to get on that train,' " remembers Harper. "Something else entered the room that was new to me and that I didn't recognize -- but had been looking for."

Last year, he had Mozersky and Ingalls join him on a session for Taj Mahal at Capitol Studios, and then reconvened the trio that would become Relentless7 that summer. Wan Santo Condo already had split up, and the others left Oliver Future to devote full-time to Harper's new band.

"When we're all together, it's just four guys playing," says Mozersky, 38. "He makes us feel comfortable. We've all been playing forever, but we've never gotten an opportunity to do something like this -- to not only play with someone as talented as Ben but to have him welcome our ideas. I feel, like, so lucky to be here."

A series of West Coast club shows this year fed early anticipation for the new album, and Harper and Relentless7 will perform at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on May 28. Like the club shows, they will play virtually nothing from earlier in Harper's career. Instead, fans will hear "Number With No Name," a blues-rock stomp that opens the new album with explosive slide guitar as Harper channels the despair and rage of a man in prison: "For five days straight I've been breathing fire!"

Musical upbringing

Harper grew up with music. The son of an African American father and a Jewish mother, Harper was only 5 when his parents divorced. He and his two younger brothers were raised in and around folk, blues, rock and soul at his maternal grandparents' Folk Music Center in Claremont. Harper learned to make music, repair instruments and work behind the counter. He's now the owner.

Playing local coffeehouses as a young singer-songwriter, he drew on the folk traditions epitomized by his poet grandfather, Charles Chase, crafting lyrics of tension and contrast, much like those of his own life.

"To be a child of multicultural, multiethnic heritage, balancing the opposites is a survival mechanism," Harper says now. "It's nothing short of survival, in the streets, in school, in relationships, in life, surviving your own juxtaposition internally, genetically."

He made his professional debut in 1993 as the youngest member of Taj Mahal's band, appearing that year on PBS' long-running live music series "Austin City Limits." He was an unknown slide guitarist then, but appearing on the show with Mahal was a major event. "At that time, it didn't get any bigger," Harper says of the Austin-based show, for which Relentless7 has already taped a performance for broadcast later this year. "I figured that may have been the peak, and I savored every minute of it."

He released his debut, "Welcome to the Cruel World," a year later, and since then he's grown into a formidable guitar hero and a real soul shouter in the tradition of Otis Redding. Harper found a large, devoted audience without much help in the way of radio airplay or consistent critical support and won the admiration of such originators as John Lee Hooker, Solomon Burke and the Blind Boys.

"It changes your life, man," says Harper, whose catalog was just reissued by Virgin on high-end vinyl. "I just worked with Solomon Burke. I stood there while he sung, and I swear to God that went straight into my bloodstream, as if I was doping for a sporting event. I was lightheaded. I had to go outside and sit on the curb, and regather my constitution."

It's early April, and Relentless7 has been rehearsing as Ringo Starr's backing band for that weekend's concert for the David Lynch Foundation at Radio City Music Hall. Together, they've been working up "Yellow Submarine," "Boys" and "It Don't Come Easy," and within 48 hours Harper and the band would be on a plane to New York.

The cause was Lynch's mission to bring Transcendental Meditation to schools; it was another prominent gig in an increasingly busy schedule for Harper's band.

"The most exciting part about being as busy as I want at this stage in my life is the response to this new music," says Harper, who began this project expecting to cut back on his time on the road, remaining in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Laura Dern, and his four kids. Not yet -- and R7 has kept up with the demands, been hungry for them, whether at a sweaty club gig or playing with a Beatle.

"Music is the great equalizer," Harper says. "Once the music starts coming strong, and things are flowing around the room, there's confidence and comfort. That's when the rest of it is out the window and you're all taking part in a moment."

--Steve Appleford

This article will appear in The Times' Sunday (May 3) Calendar.

TEAMING UP: Ben Harper, seated, with bandmates Jason Mozersky, left, Jesse Ingalls and Jordan Richardson. Photo credit: Steve Appleford