in the 1970s, if an Lp cover had a Roger Dean cover art,
it was an instant best seller. Well, early Dean believers, the YES
group is still out there and Roger also keeps his hands in the game
with his smashing cover art work gracing the cover of the 2011 CD
release of Great & Terrible Potions by Australian
prog-rock maven Ben Craven. Although he wasn't yet born during
the heyday of the 1969 prog-rock revolution, Craven more than makes
up for lost time with his magical musical potions. Performing all
the instruments and vocals himself, Craven splits his time between
prog-rock and instrumental prog-fusion but either wayperforming
guitars, keys and drumsBen really delivers the goods on a CD
that will sit well on the shelf or Ipod of any respectable prog-rock
fan. As far as musical influences go, Ben cites Pink Floyd, Brian
Wilson and John Barry as big influences. You can hear Bens devotion
to the progressive rock slide of Pink Floyd and Brian Wilsons
majestic and melodic harmonies and you can also detect Bens
fascination with the cinematic approach to soundtracks that John Barry
brought to the music world starting in the early 1960s. Of course,
with the Great & Terrible Potions CD featuring that Roger
Dean artwork you guessed right if you were thinking Ben was also a
big YES fan and that influence further materializes and in fact, sometimes
evokes the Billy Sherwood era YES, when the greatest prog-rock band
ever successfully merged power-pop and progressive rock into a new
mixture called power-proga sound still quite alive and well
on Ben's modern day prog-rock masterpiece.
mwe3.com presents an interview with
MWE3: How did the Great & Terrible Potions album
take shape and when was it written and recorded? I know you played
most all the instruments on the CD as well.
CRAVEN: The creation of Great & Terrible Potions was
an unusual process, inasmuch as most of the music had been sitting
around for over ten years waiting to be recorded! I had these pieces
of music which were fairly ambitious, along with a conceptual overview
of how they all fit together as an album. The only trouble was they
were beyond my instrumental, arranging and production abilities at
the time. So, rather than record second-rate versions different from
the grand visions I had in my head, I chose to put them aside until
I was confident enough to do the songs justice.
When that time eventually came, I found myself working as a producer,
arranger and session musician for a younger version of myself. Fortunately
we still agreed on most things. The album was recorded in fits and
bursts in my own studio from 2007 onwards, but the bulk of it was
tracked in a blissful four-week sprint in January 2009. This would
absolutely be my preferred way of working all the time I could afford
to! It's true I performed all the instruments myself, partly out of
convenience, but mostly because I already had clear ideas about how
I wanted them to sound.
At the end of the day it might sound like a fairly convoluted way
of making a record. But I got to wear all the hats and play all the
roles, which is something I would never have had to do if I lived
somewhere like L.A. or Nashville.
MWE3: You released your first solo album in 2005 under the band name
Tunisia. How would you describe your musical evolution over the past
6 years and what did you set out to achieve with the Great &
Terrible Potions album?
BC: The whole thing happened completely backwards! Since most of the
music on Great & Terrible Potions predates my previous
album, Two False Idols, I guess that makes Potions a
prequel, only with more sophisticated arrangements and production
and bigger explosions.
Two False Idols took a slightly different approach. It was
originally envisioned as a band project, and there was a conscious
decision to make the song writing simpler so the songs could be performed
more easily. Most of the songs are guitar songs, and two of them are
co-writes. But the grand plans for the band fell through, and inevitably
my tendencies for oblique chord progressions started creeping into
the songs. The final track recorded for the album ("Golden Band")
ended up being a dry run for what was to come on the next album. I
still clung to the romantic notion of it being a band project though,
and released it under the name "Tunisia". I followed the
convention of choosing a name similar to other "geographic"
bands, like Asia, Kansas, Boston, and so on...
When I returned to finish Great & Terrible Potions, I set
no real limits for instrumentation, arrangements or song lengths.
And the other big difference is that Potions was mainly written
at the keyboard, with all the notes available in front of me, which
is a big deal if you're a guitarist with a left hand that plays on
automatic pilot for a lot of the time. So while the album is full
of guitars, the actual parts were chosen to serve the songs, rather
than dictate the instrumentation. Most of these songs I can't perform
on guitar in a solo context without drastically changing the arrangements.
MWE3: Where did you grow up, and where do you live now and what were
some of your earliest memories of music and your important musical
influences? Its not every progressive rock artist that cites
both Pink Floyd and Brian Wilson as big influences but I know youre
a Brian Wilson disciple too. How did Brian influence your music?
BC: I grew up in Brisbane, Australia, and still live there. I was
subjected to Dark Side Of The Moon from the womb onwards and
it took about twelve years for it to sink in. But it's only as I've
got older that I realize so many of my earliest musical memories are
actually from The Muppet Show! I can listen to songs today and still
picture the first time I heard and saw them on the Muppets.
a kid I was drawn to the older records in my parents' record collection,
like the Floyd albums, Days Of Future Passed by the Moody Blues,
War Of The Worlds, The Beach Boys, Steely Dan... And I loved
any movie that had a John Williams soundtrack. The 1980's were a great
time for that.
Eventually I became an absolute Floyd junkie and devoured everything
they did. The doors of perception opened again when I discovered Mike
Oldfield, Yes and King Crimson. It was around that time I stopped
taking all those Beach Boys hits for granted and learned about Pet
Sounds and Smile.
Brian Wilson became an inspiration on so many levels. He's a genius
composer of music, arranger of instruments and vocal harmonies, and
producer all rolled into one. The studio was his instrument. On top
of that he had the most incredible voice in the 60's and could sing
all the Beach Boys parts himself if he wanted. Paul and John had each
other to spur on to greatness, with the supervision of George Martin.
Yet Brian somehow did it mainly on his own.
MWE3: How about your YES group influences and also, speaking of YES
how did you wind up featuring that Roger Dean painting as the Great
& Terrible Potions cover art? Is there a history of that Dean
artwork and what are your other favorite Roger Dean paintings and/or
BC: Growing up with Brisbane radio, my only exposure to YES was Owner
Of A Lonely Heart which I always thought it was a pretty good
pop song. But when I finally checked out the rest of their catalog
it bowled me over. I'd never heard such instrumental prowess or dynamic
song writing. Their extended pieces scared the hell out of me and
were completely different from the long plodding Floyd pieces I knew
and loved. Chris Squire very quickly became my favorite lead bass
player and Bill Bruford my favorite lead drummer. The Roger Dean cover
art was exceptional too, yet strangely familiar. Much later I realized
I recognized his style from the Osibisa albums in my parents' record
Flash forward to many years later and I was looking into cover artwork
options for Great & Terrible Potions. Unusually, I was
trying to get out of having to do it myself! A friend of mine suggested
that a Roger Dean cover would be perfect. Naturally I agreed and changed
the subject to more likely scenarios. But it turned out that he was
actually friends with Roger as well, and one thing led to another.
I think the cover looks stunning, and it's a tremendous fit for the
darker and more sinister elements of the music. The painting we ended
up using dates back to, I think, 1991, which is the same era as one
of my favorite Roger Dean covers for Yes's Union album. So
it's no surprise I picked it!
MWE3: How do you balance your multi-instrumental approach as far as
guitars, keyboards and song writing? Do you write music on any one
special instruments and how about practicing music routines and can
you compare time practicing with time song writing?
BC: As a kid I learnt violin and wasn't all that good at it. Perversely
this helped me develop a hatred of practicing, a general dislike of
playing the printed notes on the page, and an aversion to music lessons.
The time I spend practicing now is basically zilch, and I really wish
that weren't the case. But I'm far more interested in the needs of
the song I'm working on at the time, and will happily spend ages figuring
out a part and learning to play it. That's what I seem to do instead
My multi-instrumental approach has always been driven by song writing.
From day one I wanted to be able to play the parts I heard in my head
because nobody else could hear them. And being able to play those
parts myself to record a demo is a tremendous advantage in the writing
process, because I can get instant feedback on how an idea is working
At one stage I agonized over whether I should have spent more time
learning guitar, or learning piano, until I stopped worrying and just
started playing instead. I went through a long process of collecting
the instruments I felt I needed to express myself, and building up
the confidence to tackle them when I had to. There's not enough time
in my life to be both a virtuoso performer and a writer, so I've chosen
to be a writer. Anything else is a bonus.
I'm not the kind of guitar player who can play other artists' songs
and solos verbatim. But I can quite happily blunder around with the
certain style I seem to have developed over the years, and have a
go at it regardless.
MWE3: What are your favorite guitars and how many guitars, and what
guitars (and also what keyboards) were used to record the Great
& Terrible Potions album?
My favorite guitars have always been Fender Stratocasters, probably
thanks to David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler, though I try to keep examples
of other guitar models available in the studio. I've invested a lot
of time learning how to get the overdrive sounds I like out of the
Strat neck pickup, and the lead sounds I like out of the bridge pickup.
The bulk of the guitar parts were recorded with my "number one"
Strat. It's a mongrel with an '83 Fender Elite body and a '93 US neck.
The body has been modified to fit an American Standard tremolo, and
the battery route has been put to good use with an EMG DG-20 active
pickup assembly. The unusual thing is that the combination of this
particular body and neck almost plays itself. I've tried to find separate,
more historically accurate homes for them, but none of them played
as well. The convoluted story of this guitar also seems to be a good
match for the convoluted nature of the Potions recording process.
There are of course other guitars on the album: A '54 reissue Strat
on Nobody Dies Forever, an electric 12-string Burns on
The Conjurer, a Maton acoustic and a nylon classical on
a few tracks, and an old '60s Guyatone lap steel all over the place.
Keyboards are a different story. There's such a huge variety of realistic
sounding plug ins available now, you're only really limited by how
well you play them. I'd love to tell you I had a Hammond B3, a Wurlitzer,
a Rhodes, a clavinet and a mini-moog in the studio, but I'd be lying.
MWE3: The CD sounds amazing. What was your approach in the studio
and do you use a lot of overdubs and special effects when recording
and/or mixing? How about mastering and how does that effect the sound?
BC: Well there is definitely a lot going on in the mix. That's one
of the problems when you obviously have too much time on your hands.
(lol) In the past I have meticulously added all sorts delays and reverbs
to individual tracks to build up an expansive, spacious sound picture.
But I learnt quickly that things start turning to mud as you add more
tracks, so on Potions I went for more of a matter-of-fact mixing
style, if that makes any sense.
My basic approach was to try to get good clean-sounding takes, and
maximize the clarity of each individual track with natural compression,
creative use of delay, and an absolute minimum of reverb. The depth
of the production then is really due to the arrangements, rather than
any particular use of effects. I think this album would really benefit
from a 5.1 surround mix, to help draw attention to some of the parts
I labored long and hard over, only to turn down in the stereo mix
so as not to muddy things up.
is an incredibly important stage in the process, and it's a very fine
balancing act. I actually like the effect that the extra compression
and limiting bring to the table. I'm not keen on having to adjust
the volume control too much when I'm listening. Having said that,
I keep things fairly mild at around -12dB RMS to avoid ear fatigue.
I haven't yet figured out how to get a CD sounding incredibly loud,
nor do I think I want to.
MWE3: How has the album been received in Australia and what are your
plans for Great & Terrible Potions and other musical plans
moving into 2012?
BC: Great & Terrible Potions is available in Australia,
but nobody really knows about it yet because we haven't done a great
deal of promotion. Unfortunately there isn't a large progressive rock
community in Australia, and it's been much easier so far to reach
out to prog fans in Europe and America. I've been reliably informed
that a prog rock musician who can comfortably tour the coasts of the
US wouldn't be able to make a living in Australia. Still it would
be nice to build some sort of profile for the album at home, so the
next step is to put a 4-piece band together and start performing the
than that, there's a ton of work to do. There's the vinyl version
of Potions coming up, and a potential box set. There's a remix
of my first album, Two False Idols, I'm working on for a rerelease.
And I have two more albums on the go which I need to get back to as
soon as I can. One is the natural follow-up to Potions. The
other is, almost, an alt-country concept album about a real-life Oklahoma
outlaw named Ben Cravens. Really. I say "almost" because,
despite my best efforts, it still sounds like me, and I'm yet to find
a genre I'm completely comfortable to call myself.
Thanks to Lori
Hehr and Ben Craven @ www.BenCraven.com