rising musical mastermind Ben Craven takes progressive rock
in exciting new directions on his 2016 CD / DVD entitled Last
Chance To Hear. The album comes with a DVD featuring
a documentary on the making of the Last Chance To Hear album
along with a bunch of user-friendly video clips of various tracks.
After listening to Last Chance To Hear, calling Craven eclectic
would be an understatement, but not for someone who says he absorbed
Dark Side Of The Moon while still in his mothers womb.
A prolific singer-songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist, Ben plays
everything in sight on Last Chance To Hear. Although hes
an adept vocalist, and he does feature several vocal tracks here,
the emphasis is placed on the instrumental prog-rock thing that Craven
also does so well. The vocal tracks, including Last Chance To
Hear Pt. 1 and The Remarkable Man truly enlivens
the album's progressive rock experience while pointing a socially
satirical finger at the music business and the annexation of music
by You Tube and other online music resources. The third vocal track
here Spy In The Sky Pt. 3 features a spoken word vocal
by Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise (a/k/a Bill Shatner),
which is a total gas. Ben's latest instrumental tracks are totally
convincing and blend the compositional spirits of John Barry, Brian
Wilson and Chris Squire to great effect with somber and thought-provoking
moods and sounds. What ever your interest is within the progressive
/ instrumental rock realm, Ben Craven has the sonic prescriptions
ready to fill your every need with the sonically super-charged Last
Chance To Hear. www.BenCraven.com
mwe3.com presents an interview with
Your new CD Last Chance To Hear starts off with part one of
the title track. Is that track a diatribe against the music business
in general? On the DVD that comes with the CD I see you express a
certain disdain for the way things turned out for the indie musician,
losing money from music being given away for free these days on you
tube etc... Are you speaking more to the media or to the listeners
or to the major labels?
Ben Craven: Im speaking to anyone who recognizes the
scam. It's certainly not limited to the music industry. The internet
has allowed ubiquity of the richest advertisers more than ever before.
We're being told what to like, what to dislike, what to think and
what to buy, more than ever. And anyone who disagrees is screaming
out in a vain effort trying to be heard. The niches are being overwhelmed.
Superhero films are now the pinnacle of popular culture. There are
only ever two approved candidates for public office. News organizations,
in Australia at least, go off and commit crimes just so they can report
on the results. Reality TV shows turn personal misery into entertainment
for the masses. The major record labels are now stronger than ever.
They won radio and now control the narrative. The world belongs to
Kanye and Taylor. This is an exciting time to be a vacuous veneer
of a marketer. Not so much if you're trying to promote anything of
mwe3: Things quickly shift with track two, Critical Mass
Part 1, which is the first of some great instrumentals on Last
Chance To Hear. On Last Chance To Hear did you set out
to create more of an instrumental opus rather than more of a rock
vocal album and is that concept in contrast to your earlier works?
Ben Craven: There was no conscious decision to create more
instrumentals this time around. It just seemed to be the form that
best fit the music I had chosen to work on. Most of it was originally
created around the same time as the music that appeared on my previous
album, Great & Terrible Potions. Possibly I had already
used up the easy ones and was left with the hard ones. I do enjoy
singing, but if I don't think a piece of music really needs it, I'm
not going to try to shoehorn it in there. Its true that I find
writing lyrics to be a miserable experience, but more so I felt that
most of these pieces were strong enough to allow the music do the
talking. I generally write music for myself as an escape from reality,
and most of the time that includes transcending language. One of the
happy consequences is that this album will reach non-English speaking
audiences. However, having said all of that, there were clearly some
songs that asked for lyrics. The Remarkable Man for instance
has a recognizably traditional song structure. Critical Mass
on the other hand can almost be seen as a jam on one chord. A structure
revealed itself eventually, but lyrics were not to be a part of it.
How did you arrive with the title of Last Chance To Hear? Is
there a kind of overall concept to the album? Perhaps in the sense
that, things move so fast, why not grab the CD and listen before it
gets lost in the shuffle or death has its way?
Ben Craven: The original vision I had in my head was of a muddy
water hole in the desert, slowly evaporating during the dry season.
A bunch of different species of wild animals were trying to survive
in and around it. The clever animals had already left a long time
ago in search of greener pastures. The ones that remained were now
turning on each other or burying themselves in the mud, holding out
for a wet season. Ultimately they were all doomed as there would be
no more wet seasons and the water hole would dry up completely. This,
I thought, was a perfect analogy for the music industry. With this
vaguely ecological theme in mind, I recalled Douglas Adams' book Last
Chance To See. I figured someone should write something similar
about the music industry and call it Last Chance To Hear. The
title resonated on so many levels with me. Last chance to hear physical
media? Last chance to hear the album format? Last chance to hear independent
artists before they all starve from lack of income? Last chance to
hear your favorite touring heritage bands before they, with all due
respect, die? Last chance to hear Ben Craven before he gives up? So
that became a loose concept for the album. The title also seemed a
bit sensational, so that aspect came into play in the title track.
That is to say, sensationalism and extreme tactics appear to be the
only way to break through the news cycle these days, and the media
will pander to the loudest or the richest. Unsurprisingly, the story
is typically manufactured and the reality is simply hollow or empty.
mwe3: It was great that you included a DVD with the Last
Chance To Hear CD, to sort of increase the value to the listener?
What was involved in producing the DVD and making the vids?
Ben Craven: I felt an extra disc was absolutely necessary to
increase the value prospect of the album for anybody thinking about
buying a physical copy. Plus it makes the full package a bit harder
to pirate. For instance, my first album included a full surround DTS
version on a separate disc. During the second album I filmed hours
and hours of actual studio footage but in the end I didn't think anyone
would be particularly interested in seeing it, so it remains unedited.
This time around I compromised by marrying some studio footage with
explanatory interviews in a nice mini-documentary. Actually that's
just good practice really for anyone releasing an album. Since I had
officially leaked some of the tracks onto my TuneLeak.com
web site as soon as they were recorded, those tracks already had videos
to go along with them. So they made the cut as well. Finally, we produced
a new video clip for "The Remarkable Man" which took the
form of a movie opening title sequence, complete with fictional credits.
Some of the names were famous pseudonyms but others were followers
of my Facebook page! The animation was put together in record time
by Travis Horsfall of Multimedia Milk. I've had feedback since the
release that people have found the interviews on the DVD very helpful
in understanding the meanings behind the songs.
What was your theory in creating multiple parts for different tracks
and then sequencing them in different areas on the album, even though
Critical Mass Part 1 and Critical Mass Part 2
are sequenced together. For example, Spy In The Sky Part 2
comes before Spy In The Sky Part 1, which is kind of unusual!
Ben Craven: I had already leaked the "Spy In The Sky"
sections officially on my web site as soon as they were recorded,
so they had designated part numbers and names. They definitely form
a complete suite when listened to in the correct order. Part
1 is the introduction and Part 3 is clearly the
finale! However, when it came to sequencing the tracks for the album,
I really wanted to follow the traditional vinyl format with two halves,
a Side One and a Side Two, and the album seemed
to flow best with Spy In The Sky Part 1 moved to the second
half, appearing as sort of a reprise. It gives an interesting thematic
and temporal resonance to the album and I dont think the remaining
parts suffer very much from having their original introduction whisked
mwe3: Some listeners find it hard to believe that youre
not only writing and recording on your own but that youre also
playing every instrument again on Last Chance To Hear. Based
on the sonics I believe youre truly breaking down walls of sound
here. Have you gotten so immersed in recording by yourself in the
studio, that its all down to a science as it really sounds like
you have. What computer programs did you record Last Chance To
Hear with? It really sounds like these systems are improving,
would you agree?
Ben Craven: Systems are certainly improving but theres
nothing particularly special or expensive about the equipment I use.
In fact its possibly the cheapest DAW available for the PC combined
with a modest audio interface. Perhaps Ive got better at using
plug ins to get the sound I want, or maybe the arrangements are more
successful. I definitely have different influences and alter egos
I try to channel when playing the different instruments. My keyboard
player, for instance, can cover the musical ground my guitar player
cant. My bass player is a busy fellow who launches into lead
bass or walking bass whenever he can. My drummer is a bit more sensible
and usually tries the anchor the rest of the band. But I do tend to
cram in as much sonically as I think the track can take, or as the
CPU can handle in some cases. Certainly some tracks are at the limit
of their audible parts, but its that intensity that keeps them
exciting to work on and refine for as long as I do. Or overwhelming
enough to challenge and egg me on to finish them. The reward for me
is to hear the completed version, like some magic trick, while the
memory of the conception fades.
mwe3: Did you have a concept in mind for the three part Spy
In The Sky? Part two and three come together and part 3 is actually
quite unique in that Star Treks William Shatner does the vocals
on the song. In the Last Chance To Hear DVD, you were talking
about Billy Sherwood setting up this sonic rendezvous with Shatner
and that he recorded the track at his home in L.A. Tell us the story
of meeting Billy Sherwood.
Craven: The Spy In The Sky suite encapsulates a few
pieces of music I was working on simultaneously back around 1994.
I thought I was on to something special at the time but didnt
have the vision or the ability to link it all together. I even passed
on it during Great & Terrible Potions. But now I was going
to finish it even if it killed me. I put on my producers hat
and somehow sorted it all out. Happily it grew into almost a 20-minute
You can imagine how hard it is for me to admit this, but my own vocals
for that song sounded somewhat anticlimactic after the huge buildup
that preceded them. Maybe if Id just changed the key I might
have been happier with them. In fact I did exactly that so I could
perform it recently at the album launch. But in my mind that song
had always been calling for a dramatic speaking voice. It had a War
Of The Worlds and a Space: The Final Frontier...
feeling about it.
William Shatner was my immediate choice, no question. Im obviously
a huge fan and he is famous, amongst other things, for his unique
musical style where he inhabits that mysterious region between earnestness
and self-deprecation. There was absolutely no irony intended in these
lyrics. In fact they are about quite a depressing and solemn topic.
Yet the irony of William Shatner performing a song with no irony would
add another delicious layer I couldnt ignore, and at the same
time I hoped it would provide him with an interesting dramatic challenge.
Sadly, I havent met Billy Sherwood or William Shatner in person,
but theres the advantage of the internet and the ability to
work remotely. Billy is very open to communication and luckily he
was between YES tours at the time. He was my only choice to produce
the vocal session. If he had been unavailable the whole thing wouldnt
have happened. So huge props to Billy. He took his mobile studio to
the Shatner residence and they recorded the vocal on a Friday evening.
mwe3: Speaking of Billy Sherwood, its been a very bad
year for YES fans with the passing of Chris Squire last June and I
know Chris signed your Rickenbacker bass. Do you still play that bass
or are you afraid of Chriss signature rubbing off from your
sweat and playing of it? (lol) What do you make of Squires passing
fairly early at age 67? I realize YES used to record and tour a lot
going back to the late 1960s but I think it might have become too
much for him especially after he had the blood clot episode in 2009,
which sidelined him.
Ben Craven: For a brief period of time I was worried about
Chriss signature rubbing off the pick guard! But then I remembered
that an instrument is for playing and an autograph is really just
a reminder of an experience. I dont have any intentions of selling
the bass, so to keep it quarantined would be cruel and unfair. Chriss
passing was incredibly sad for me as a fan. Id been lucky enough
to meet him a couple of times and felt as though I knew him through
his music. His bass lines were always surprising and his vocals always
made me smile. Im not privy to the reasons why YES was touring
so regularly but I suspect the current state of the music industry
with lower income from recorded music had something to do with it.
I do wish Chris and Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin could have had the
chance to make more music together. But were at that time in
history where age is catching up with my musical heroes. What an awful
year 2016 has been. Its not going to get any better.
The lyrics for Spy In The Sky Part 3 are quite bizarre.
What was your intent in that song? Perhaps only a voice like Shatner
could make them sound so menacing! Were you going for a kind of cinematic
vision with those harrowing lyrics? What more can you tell us about
those lyrics as theyre very unusual compared to the rest of
Ben Craven: When in doubt I write about the circumstances around
me. I wanted to express the sheer exhaustion I was feeling, the crippling
fatigue, the experience of dragging myself out of the swamp every
day, which was in stark contrast to the high hopes and unbridled ambition
I had for the album. These feelings were somewhat driven by the knowledge
that I was writing the best work of my life and it was unlikely that
many people would hear it. I was questioning the whole point of the
exercise. The lyrics are essentially based on the writings of Winston
Churchill and English author Samuel Johnson, who were able to articulate
how I felt much better than I could. Given that the phrases were not
entirely my own, it didnt seem incongruous to have another voice
on the track. I had envisioned William Shatner might have performed
with a certain elder world-weariness, rather like his recent re-recording
of Rocket Man. Instead, he tackled the words with enthusiasm
and, as you say, menace, which it turns out was exactly what the vocals
needed and a much better match for the music!
mwe3: Do you think that Billy Sherwood will lead a version
of YES even after Alan White and Steve Howe retire? What do you think
Sherwoods intentions are with YES following Squires passing?
Maybe he will choose you to play the guitar parts in YES after Steve
Howe retires in another ten years but if I know Steve, hell
Ben Craven: Billy Sherwood is the perfect bass player for YES
right now. Its like the role he was born to play. I understand
he is a workaholic so I imagine hell be pushing for new YES
music if he has the opportunity. But I suspect he has little say at
this point! I dont doubt that YES will continue performing once
Steve and Alan retire. If the transition to other players is handled
gradually and with sensitivity they might be able to get away with
it pretty well. After all, there are no original members remaining
in the band even now.
The Remarkable Man is your other vocal track aside from
Last Chance To Hear Part 1 and William Shatners
vocal on Spy In The Sky Part 3. The Remarkable Man
is truly a remarkable track that again comes with a cutting edge lyric.
Is that track autobiographical of you? It sure sounds like it. The
lyrics are great, do you think that it might have had a bigger impact
say if you had a loud and theatrical singer like Ozzy Osborne on lead
vocals? Also tell us about the John Barry / 007 effect on that track
as it sure sounds like the theme song for a long lost James Bond movie!
What are your favorite Bond movies and who is your favorite soundtrack
Ben Craven: You got it in one! Tom Jones was actually my dream
vocalist for that song but I didnt pursue it because, you know,
budget. I sang it the best I could under the circumstances! The track
is clearly a homage to the John Barry Bond themes, with a bit of Henry
Mancini thrown in. That meant the lyrics had to be about either the
hero or the villain. The idea of a super-villain seemed much more
interesting, so I created a character called Dr. Komodo. He has the
amorality of Kurtz from Heart Of Darkness and the scientific single-mindedness
of Dr. Moreau. Hes been driven to the brink of madness by the
woeful state of popular music and takes it upon himself to perform
painful vivisection procedures on helpless musical genres in an effort
to repopulate the barren musical landscape. Obviously it wasn't too
much of a stretch for me to write about that character. The song was
also inspired by my personal disappointment at many of the recent
Bond themes. My favorite Bond films oddly enough coincide with my
favorite themes, probably You Only Live Twice and Live And
Let Die. George Martin did a terrific job on the latter! I would
have to concede though that the master of all film composers, for
me, is John Williams. His catalogue is astonishing. I don't think
we'll see anyone like him again.
mwe3: Your originality as a composer and keyboardist really
shines through on track seven Spy In The Sky Part 1, which
comes after the first two parts. This is clearly one of your best
instrumental tracks. What else can you tell us about Spy In
The Sky Part 1?
Craven: That track evolved by playing around with the chords from
Spy In The Sky Part 2 and trying to give them more emotional
depth. From there it turned into, essentially, a piano and guitar
duet almost without thinking. Definitely I had Rick Wright and David
Gilmour in mind, and I'm almost embarrassed by how easily I arrived
at that arrangement. The music hurtled towards its final form and
I just had to get out of the way. I did enjoy constructing the piano
solo in the middle section of that song, which is later echoed by
the classical guitar in Part 2. I could happily churn
out music like that all day!
mwe3: Revenge Of Dr. Komodo is track eight on the
CD. Is that a different kind of track on the CD with the organ sound?
It must have been challenging to create as theres so many moving
parts. It has a kind of Keith Emerson sound with the stabbing organ
sounds. Speaking of which, I would imagine Emersons suicide
was so harrowing for his fans to absorb. Have you been able to put
that horrible event into some perspective?
Ben Craven: Revenge Of Dr. Komodo is the most fun
I've had recording a track in a long time and is probably my favorite
on the album. I felt I was creating something fairly unusual and exciting
with the combination of musical styles. I almost called the track
Progabilly. It fit in perfectly with my super-villain
from The Remarkable Man so I presented it on the album
as one of Dr. Komodos more successful musical experiments. In
fact, it represents his solution for the problem posed by the Last
Chance To Hear concept. That is to say, let's just throw all
the pieces into the sky with reckless abandon and see how they fall!
Certainly there's a Keith Emerson influence in the Hammond sound and
playing. I was incredibly saddened by his death. Another great, another
original, gone... I definitely feel for him and can imagine how much
pain and despair he must have felt. I assume he's at peace now.
mwe3: Last Chance To Hear Part 2 is the ninth track
on the CD. Is that a kind of eulogy for the album? How does that track
sum of the spirit of the album? Is Last Chance To Hear Part
2 the most guitar-centric track on the Last Chance To Hear
album? Theres some brilliant guitar soloing midway through the
track, which clocks in at nearly seven minutes.
Craven: Eulogy is a great word for it. The slower section that
opens Part 2 is a lament, personally for someone very
close to me who passed away, but it also fits in with the greater
theme of the album. Things have changed, the industry has moved on,
the greats are leaving us and music will never be the same again.
I definitely sound exactly like myself in that section, almost to
a fault, which somewhat distracts from the grief. The rest of the
track is a voyage into the unknown, wilder and more aggressive than
usual for me. It could be a path to self destruction. It could be
a new beginning. Even right at the end we briefly hear two more variations
on the Last Chance To Hear musical theme. So perhaps that
means the future is wide open with endless possibilities.
I was kind of surprised you chose to end the CD with a very solemn
sounding piano solo. Was that by chance or by design? There was also
a delay between the end of Last Chance To Hear Part 2
and the final track Mortal Remains. Was Mortal Remains
written for Squire and / or the other rock legends whove recently
left the planet?
Craven: The title, Mortal Remains, is borrowed from
a phrase in Pink Floyds Nobody Home that is said
to refer to Rick Wright at the time. Its supposed to represent
the aftermath of the struggle. What happens once the money and hype
are gone, once the great artists and audiences have left the building,
once the production and all layers of veneer are stripped away? Whats
the essence of what were fighting for? Well, some very valid
music, I would argue. But why should music exist if nobody wants to
Mortal Remains could have turned into another full-blown
song, but by keeping it simple I preserved the emotions I felt when
I stumbled upon it. It didnt need words to tell me how to feel.
Its also a nod to the structure of my first album, which ends
with the instrumental, Celeste.
mwe3: Are you happy with the way Last Chance To Hear
turned out and also are you happy with recording this way or, being
that youre young enough, would you consider some other vehicle
in terms of other musicians for your music moving forward? Seems like
you should call your next album The Skys The Limit because
thats the feeling one gets after hearing Last Chance To Hear,
or is that title a too much self-fulfilling prophecy? How do you
reset your sights and recharge after making such a masterful album?
Ben Craven: If were going to follow proper Bond protocol,
perhaps the next one should be called The Sky Is Not Enough.
I could very easily pick up where Ive left off and continue
to work through my backlog of unfinished music, plus all the happy
accidents that seem to happen along the way. The music is the easy
part. The question is whether the struggle is worth it. The hard part
is and always has been getting my music heard by other people. There
is wisdom in what you suggest about involving other musicians. From
a live point of view perhaps its a necessity. But from a recording
point of view, Ive maneuvered myself into a position where I
dont have to rely on other musicians, producers or engineers
to be able to express myself. It is a solemn activity but its
an awful lot of fun, like dressing up as
a kid and playing all the roles. To be able to share that with an
audience is the key. The right musicians would be able to bring something
to the table that I couldnt, and vice versa. Lightning would
have to strike.