Known for his booming vocals and one of the most impressive beards in music, Ben Caplan was kind enough to sit down with me for a chat before his show at The Electric Owl on Tuesday, June 18.
Vancouver Weekly: So you’re known for your low growling voice, your smokey voice. I was just curious to know how high your range goes?
Ben Caplan: Oh jeez, what note? Pretty high, actually. Umm… I could check on the piano for you later. I don’t know, probably about an octave and a half above middle C.
Vancouver Weekly: Is that your natural growling voice or is it something that came about through experimentation?
BC: Yeah, I think it’s been a process of experimenting with my voice then seeing what I could do, treating it like an instrument. You can hear, from one different type of music to the other, the way a saxophone is played. For example, really nasally in gypsy music, and compare it to jazz. So I try to think of my voice in that way and try to hone the timbral qualities and make sure everything is a good choice.
Vancouver Weekly: You talk about experimenting with your voice like an instrument. On your album [In the Time of the Great Remembering] there’s a lot of balance with your voice, and even in the songs with different types of genres. In the beginning, was it like that? Or did find yourself going really intensely all the time, and have to tone it down a little bit, and play with that?
BC: Yeah, totally. When I started I was pretty much always, like, trying to sing a 10, and the hard part wasn’t using the power. The hard part, for me, was to not use it.
Vancouver Weekly: Well yeah, when you have a powerhouse voice like that, you want to use it to its full extent.
BC: Totally, I’d say it’s still a process for me, learning when to sing a song down an octave or up an octave. Because my instinct is always to belt it out.
Vancouver Weekly: On the album, there are a bunch of different genres – like “Stranger”, for example, gives off an Eastern European vibe with a gypsy feel. Were you influenced by something in your childhood to go in that direction?
BC: Totally. I grew up in a Jewish household and I would hear lots of different kinds of music at the liturgy on Saturday and synagogue, that sort of stuff. So I think that’s where those notes first found their way into my ear. But, I never really thought of it as a form of musical expression; I wasn’t writing that way, I wasn’t seeing that way, it was just sort of context. Then in 2007, I was backpacking around Europe and I saw this band playing in the streets of Antwerp, like a gypsy horn band, and picked up their CD, and it just blew my mind. Totally a transformative experience, and it was only after that I was like, “Oh wait a minute, I actually have this whole vocabulary that I haven’t been paying attention to.” And that’s when I began to develop it.
Vancouver Weekly: As far as balance on your album goes, in terms of songwriting, what do you focus more on? Normally, do you write the lyrics or the music first?
BC: It’s always coming together.
Vancouver Weekly: Yeah? Just comes in a big wave and you try and catch it?
BC: Yeah, but I mean, it’s slow usually for me. I’m not… Well, it kinda varies actually… Sixty percent of my songs are like, really slow, drawn-out processes.
Vancouver Weekly: Sit down at a table and try to beat it out?
BC: Yeah, yeah, like months later still punching the same piece of paper. Then other songs will come in forty-five minutes. Umm… and I wish those ones were more frequent. [laughs]
Vancouver Weekly: [laughs] Those are usually the best ones too, right?
BC: Totally, they come and you know, and you’re like, “Fuck, why can’t I just do that again tomorrow?” Same time… But for me the lyrics are very important, I never just throw a line away. At least, I try to avoid it.
Vancouver Weekly: Yeah, it’s obvious that you focus heavily on lyricism. But, as far as folk music today is concerned, I notice it’s become a little soft. I like to describe it as “ho-hey” music…
BC: That’s a good description. The “ho-hey” movement that’s going around these days.
Vancouver Weekly: Yeah, exactly. But, it’s really taken away from the old times of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, where folk singers were viewed as a point of political controversy or friction. Where do you fit?
BC: I’m politically minded. It’s not my desire to become a political dissident or anything. I don’t want to get tied up in any kind of movement, because that limits my ability to call everyone out on their bullshit. That’s all I want.
Vancouver Weekly: Just sort of lay in the back and make comments?
BC: Yeah, and I think that’s the role of the artist to a certain degree. I mean, I’ve been tempted to participate in politics before, but I would rather just call everyone out on their shit. You know, and still be engaged in my own way. But, you know I think these days, folk music that only ever says “hey, I like you, I wanna hold your hand”, it just gets boring.
Vancouver Weekly: Just the same sound over and over again…
BC: Yeah, and I mean there’s interesting stuff out there. I listen to contemporary folk music, but I don’t know… I’m interested in ideas first and songs second.
Vancouver Weekly: You have your band Ben Caplan and The Casual Smokers. Why decide to tour alone?
BC: Why did I decide to tour alone? Economics. I would love to tour with my band right now. I’ve done a lot of solo touring during the past year and I do really like it.
Vancouver Weekly: Besides having your buds on stage, what are some of the major differences touring alone?
BC: Well, it’s a lot less complicated when I’m solo. There’s way less logistics…and uh, the thing is my band isn’t composed. Although I’m good friends with my bandmates, my band isn’t like “hey, let’s hop in the van!” It’s more like “alright, I’m turning down eighteen other gigs to come to this gig with you for a month”. So, you know, how’s it going to be?
Vancouver Weekly: Yeah, when you put it that way I can see solo touring being a lot more simple. Are you planning on releasing a stripped down album at all?
BC: I’m hoping to, yeah. I don’t have any plans on doing it anytime soon. I’m focusing on getting my next record finished, but who knows? Maybe some time within the next couple years. Definitely a project I would love to do.
Vancouver Weekly: You said you’re working on a record. When’s that coming out?
BC: I don’t know. [laughs]
Vancouver Weekly: In the process? [laughs]
BC: I’d like to say as early as January 2014. I’m hopeful for that date, but we’ll see what happens.