By Vanessa Markov
A masterful songwriter and lyricist, professional hustler, and natural showman at only twenty five years old, Ben Caplan is an entertainer with wisdom beyond his years and a hell of a beard to match.
Currently based in Halifax, this Hamilton native set a whole new standard for what I expect of a solo show after an impossible-to-forget opening set at the ‘Shoe last Monday night. In my short years as a professional music lover, I’ve seen quite a few acts that redefine the live experience into an audio/visual spectacle [ie Sweet Thing, The Johnstones, Five Alarm Funk], but it’s really a whole other world of achievement to do so as a one-man act. Nobody owns a crowd on a cold, shitty Monday night the way Ben Caplan can.
It was one of the last dates of a 12-week Canadian tour in support of his debut album called “in the time of the great remembering”, which Ben describes as a “slightly schizophrenic journey through [his] imagination and life experiences.”
Here, we learn more about Ben as he offers hard insight on several topics from what it really takes to be a full time musician, to industry politics, to the art of live performance and maintaining a band.
I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. What was my childhood like? Pretty regular childhood, I didn’t have too much music in my life. I had piano lessons on a shitty Casio keyboard when I was a youngster. That meant that I had to show I had a real discipline towards music. I was quite passionate about music and I did theater when I was thirteen. I got my first guitar as a gift from my grandmother and then when I was nineteen or twenty, I was at a crossroads and had to choose between theatre and music, so music’s been my path since then.
On his parents and upbringing:
Nice chaps. They grew up in Toronto and moved to Hamilton in the seventies. They are fairly conservative types that strongly encouraged me not to play music for the majority of my life (laughs) because it’s a sure fire way not to make money. So far they’re right, but I’m poor, drunk and having a good time. It seems like things are moving forward.
On relocating to Halifax and life on the east coast:
Halifax is the best! I guess the east coast has got a better quality of life. People have more time to make eye contact on the street and get to know strangers. It sounds idealistic and romantic and it is! It’s just better, life is slower and calmer and friendlier.
On the transition to becoming a full time musician:
I guess if we define professionally by not having another job, maybe a little less than eight months. I didn’t become a full time musician as much as I became a full time hustler. I realized that with the number of emails I had to send for booking, the tour planning, merchandise organizing, grant writing, and all of that bullshit that goes on the side just so I can go up on stage and do what I want to do. There isn’t enough time to work a job while I get better at my craft and write and do all the hustling that I do. I just sort of took a leap of faith and lived off my credit card for a little while, and now eight months later I’m slowly paying off that debt.
Perks of the Canadian music industry:
The grants are really good. Once you figure out how it works there’s a lot of money out there to support arts and it’s essential. If there are any conservative MPs reading this interview, it’s only because of the grants that I have a career and can pay taxes. The grants aren’t paying for my living, I don’t buy groceries with them, but if it wasn’t for them there would be no way I could make my living through this.
Common misconceptions on having a career in music:
There’s this idea that someone’s going to come rescue you. That some label or management team is going to discover you and make it happen. I guess that happens once in a while but usually you have to bust your ass and start actually earning money by yourself, and then someone will come take a cut.
Advice to fellow musicians:
Don’t do it (laughs). That’s not true. I would say be prepared to put in at least five years of sweat before you see any return. Minimum – if you’re lucky. Anyone who’s making a living [in music] in less than five years probably won’t be making a living in twenty. I believe that. It isn’t about appreciation, it’s about cutting your chops first. You’ve got to get through the struggle and develop strategies to succeed. If you’re succeeding in less time, then most likely somebody’s picked you up and is taking care of you. What if they fall out of the picture? Then you’re fucked because you don’t know how the business side works.
Maybe you write the best songs in the whole wide world but if you’re managed by someone or your label falls out of the picture, they’re taking the vast majority of the money that you’re earning. I think it takes time to develop as an artist and understand how the industry operates and how to not get fucked over. It takes making little mistakes before making big mistakes. So what I’d say is get ready to put in those ten thousand hours.
On the future of the music industry:
The most exciting thing is that nobody knows, but I think it’s turning to live shows. There’s a democratization of music that’s going on right now. I think we’re going turn to regionalization of bands, [people will want to hear bands] that come from where they come from, the bands that they know, the bands that they can relate to because it’s a lyrical thing or an identity thing.
Most people don’t actually buy CDs unless they’ve been to the show, they steal it otherwise. Music is free now, people buy souvenirs. I wish that wasn’t what it is because I spend a lot of time and a lot of money making records. I wish people would support it, but I think I’m small enough now where people can’t steal my music if they want, they have to buy it. God willing, one day I’ll get to the point where people can steal my music, and they will. I’ll still be flattered and then hopefully they’ll come to my shows.
I think that’s the way we’re going. It’s a tragedy in many ways but it’s also an organic response to how consumers have been treated. I think they’ve been treated like they don’t know what the fuck they want; they’ve been treated with great disrespect by the labels who have been trying to shove market garbage down their throats over and over again. So people are like, “You want me to pay twenty dollars for this mass produced plastic shit without any nutritious ingredients in it?” I think that people, as a response to all this kind of trash, don’t think that music has any value and are just stealing it. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because to a large degree they’re right.
How do we change the pattern? I don’t know. I think as artists and as a society we make the best music we can make and hope that people will support it. If not we can work in factories on the side. I think the great thing is, if you can support yourself with your art, you can push the boundaries more because you have more time to develop as an artist. That’s what it comes down to. If you can afford to spend your idle time working on your craft, you’re going to get better; if you spend your idle time working a shitty job to pay the bills then you can’t accomplish as much.
If you believe that art plays an important role in society and that it’s important to hear songs that reflect the human experience and your personal experience, things you can relate to, things you personally want to exist, then you’d better pay for a CD. If a band speaks to you, reward them for enriching your life because it’d be a miserable fucking life without music. A lot of people don’t realize that. They don’t think, “Where does this music come from? Who are the people behind this music? How do they survive?”
That’s the problem with these glitzy, glamorous shows. I had somebody tell me to get a real job; I’m just a lazy person, a lazy leach on society. It’s like, I just spent four and a half hours driving to this gig, then I unloaded my car for an hour and a half, waited for the sound guy to show up, sound checked, sat around for twenty five minutes, played a show, and drove to the next town. I’ve been working all day long, I made no money today, and I’m not just doing this for me. I do it because I get a kick out of it, but I’m doing it for audiences. Before the tour even begins there are weeks and months of planning and organizing and getting ready, writing the songs, struggling through the shit. To have somebody come up and tell you you’re lazy and to get a real job…it’s like you have NO idea.
People have this idea that musicians are lazy and they don’t have real jobs. Well I think that the truth is that a musician works two to three times harder than someone at a conventional job at Footlocker or whatever. Lawyers work as hard as musicians, maybe. People say doctors deserve how much they get paid for eighty hour work weeks, why don’t you clock how many hours a musician works a week? Evaluate again. To say a musician deserves a doctor’s salary, probably not. But you should be able to earn a living wage and I think that’s a problem in our society.
The way I listen to music is I try to study what’s happening. I try to dissect different parts of a tune so I usually listen to the same stuff over and over again. What do I like about this so much? What really works in this tune? That’s why I don’t like mainstream radio, it just seems like they’re playing the hits from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or just shitty dance pop. I think that there’s such a wealth of incredible music that’s being produced right now in Canada and perhaps better than it’s ever been and almost none of it is on the radio, with the exception of CBC Radio 3. I don’t want to listen to mass produced, plastic garbage shit.
My favorite bands in the world right now are bands like Bruce Peninsula, Steven McKay. You don’t hear any of that stuff on the radio. I don’t want to listen to Kanye West. I mean Kanye’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not where I’m going to find inspiration or encouragement. It used to be that there was a classic rock station and the other stations played new and interesting things but none of that exists anymore. It’s all just re-vamping the formulaic garbage that they know works and labels shove it down people’s throats. But people are engaged in a revolution and anyone that listens to music because they love music rather than just something in the background is tuning in to that.
On having a band:
I don’t really have a steady backing band, I have people I hire. I have my regular band in Halifax. Most of them have jobs or families. A lot of the guys in my band are professional musicians and do music full time, but they can stay in Halifax making three or four hundred bucks a week playing jazz gigs or standards, or they can come on the road with me to be guaranteed at least a hundred bucks after three weeks which might come out of my pocket if the tour doesn’t do well. The living expenses are fine if you’re still in high school.
Most of the people I play music with have degrees because I demand excellence. I don’t want to play with hobbyists unless they’re fuckin’ brilliant. I need the show to be tight, I need it to be excellent, I need to be able to play with people that spur me on. I always want to be the weakest link in my band. So to be able to play with those kinds of people, they need to get paid.
Musicians go to university to study upright bass or whatever, they pay six or seven thousand dollars a year in tuition plus living expenses, books, their instruments, strings and materials. At the end of it they’re told, “Would you like to play for exposure?” Would you ask an architect to design a building for exposure? An architect goes to school for the same amount of time, develops skills, gets a degree in their field and gets paid like a professional. A musician gets told, “I’ll give you fifty bucks and a couple of beers”. It’s a serious problem I think.
What it takes to engage a crowd:
To me recordings need great arrangements, great musicianship, great songs, and those things are all essential on stage as well. But if that’s all you have, I think there’s something missing. You’re on stage in a room full of people that want to be amused and entertained. There is an art to being on a stage that’s separate from what I do as a writer. I think that it’s not less but equally important than the songs to make a show out of it – an experience that people aren’t going to forget. It’s something that I practice and it’s very important to me to find ways to resonate with people and find ways to make that happen.
Ben’s tunes are now on rotation on HnG Radio
For more info on Ben including how to get a copy of his album, check out his website here
By Vanessa Markov
Over the years, I’ve noticed that when established bands experiment or stray from their original paths/genres, many are quick to label them as sellouts. I won’t deny that it does happen, but it really burns my clutch when people fail to consider that artists are people who grow and evolve the same as anyone else, and that it WILL reflect in the art of an honest musician. As time goes by, we all become enhanced versions of ourselves, maintaining traits, dropping and adopting habits, and honing skills. As much as those changes are evident in our personalities, they are evident in the artist’s craft. This, to me, is the very opposite of selling out.
That said, Rebel Emergency’s latest album/sexperiment, appropriately titled “Aphrodisiology”, might surprise fans that are used to Rebel’s ska and reggae inspired modern rock. While these elements are still evident throughout the album (Just Wanna Kiss Ya, All Along), they take the back seat to faster tempos (Back & Forth, Up All Night), poppy rhythms (Picture This, Aphrodisiology), and sound-fattening effects (Once And For All, Rise & Fall). But this isn’t to say Rebel’s playful sex appeal has been lost. Far from it. The new pop angle did not take the sexy out of Rebel – Rebel put the sexy back in pop! Step aside Timberlake, step aside.
Just take a listen to Lion in a Cage feat. KO and tell me that’s not the Rebel attitude we know and lust. (Better yet, the live version features one hell of a solo by new bassist Mike Cohen.) With lyrics influenced by the Libyan civil war, this song is just a perfect example of how the new Rebel is just the old Rebel but better.
While out on a west coast tour last month, lead singer Roddy Colmer and I caught up on the phone to talk about the band’s new – or should I say, evolved – sound, the meanings behind some of the songs, and what it takes to stay afloat in a city booming with talented indie bands.
First, Roddy explains the theme and direction of the album as a whole:
“I think lyrically this album was easier because the songs kind of seem to be coming out a little bit easier. We’ve got a new bass player so we’ve got a new energy with us and a new producer, which you can tell if you’ve listened to our other albums. [Aphrodisiology] sounds a little bit more electronic. Matt [Von Wagner, the producer] is like a mad scientist in the studio; he’s always experimenting with loops and weird guitar stuff. He opened a lot of doors for us sonically; just working with him definitely opened our eyes to new tricks and new ways to record. A big part of the album was having him there.
There’s nothing forced with this album. We didn’t care what people expected of us. We were just like, ‘Let’s make the best songs that we can. Let’s not say no to anything right away and see what happens.’ We didn’t have to sound like this or that, which some bands get into trouble with, I think. Their music will get tired because they feel it has to sound a certain way, but there is a balance. You don’t want to lose that aspect of what made people like you; you want to challenge yourself and let it be natural. I knew [the album] would take a few listens, but we’re slowly getting it out there and getting feedback.”
A more in depth look into some of the songs:
“Each song was influenced by something different. Picture This was written after I saw a video of the tsunami in Japan. It made it more clear to me how small man is when nature does what it wants to do. It’s also cool to see how cities or countries come together to rebuild after something like that happens. It brings people closer together in a weird way. Same thing with ‘Lion in a Cage’ that I wrote with KO. It was influenced by the whole Libyan uprising and how much power that can have.
The events going on in the news really influenced the lyrics while we were making the album. I didn’t want to date it, I didn’t want to specify anything; it was more just capturing the feeling of that happening and putting it in a general context. You don’t want to pigeonhole an idea unless it’s very clear, but with a general idea someone can take it one way or another, something positive hopefully that they can relate to.“
Aphrodisiology is not without the slower paced songs. Roddy talks about Mr. Miagi and Letters:
“Mr. Miagi was written as a conversation between the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi. It’s mostly the Karate Kid thanking and talking to his mentor. Mr. Miyagi sums everything up. It could be anyone talking to a mentor, but when I wrote it that name just came into my head.
Letters is a love song but every lyric was taken from love letters from World War I and the Civil War. I went through a bunch of old letters that I found online and took one line here, one line there, and combined about eight letters in total. I thought it was a really interesting way to put a song together and I’m really happy with the way it turned out.”
And finally, Roddy describes some contributing factors to Rebel Emergency’s success:
“We try to be really personable with our fans. If somebody writes us on Facebook, we’re going to write back to them right away and keep that kind of interaction. Especially these days, people have low attention spans and will quickly walk in another direction if they’re not stimulated. So keeping people stimulated, keeping content up to date, and keeping your music and live show good is important. If you keep putting out good product and people like you, then they’ll be loyal to you. It’s not an overnight thing.”
Bands, take notes! There is nothing more genuine than frequently and sincerely communicating with your fans, and the guys of Rebel are pros at this.
As for my personal favourite track off Aphrodisiology, it’s without a doubt All Along. One of the more classic sounding Rebel tunes, I listen to this song and all I can picture is someone with headphones bouncing down the sidewalk, singing to the sky with hearts in their eyes. No, it wasn’t me.
…Ok fine, it was me.
Aphrodisiology is Rebel Emergency’s second full length album and is available on iTunes here. Hard copies will be for sale at live shows, so keep in touch with them on Facebook here OR you could just go to their next show, it’s at Tattoo Rock Parlour on Nov 3.
And of course, you can always catch both new and old Rebel tunes on HnG Radio.