Music is simply a journey of exploration and self-expression, an excursion into the human mind and an attempt to find some way of understanding our experiences and impart that to other people. For that reason when I hear something as honest and true as the first time I came across Ben Lapps, I become instantly infatuated. Though all doesn’t happen all that often to say the least, The New Color is one the truest, rawest and most honest musical statements that I’ve ever heard. From the opening notes of “Reverie” to the closing sounds of Lapps’ cover of “Phunkdified” the album is utterly hypnotizing, an incredibly interesting study in the unbound possibilities of the acoustic guitar. Completely instrumental and a seeming snapshot of one of the most unique and driven young musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to, The New Color began a now three year obsession with Ben Lapps, which has seen an explosion in not only his popularity, but his creativity and skill level as well. While The New Color will always hold a special place in my heart and most likely be my favorite album on the whole, he’s followed it with two absolutely stunning full-length albums, 2011’s See, The Sky and the extremely recent Stormalong from earlier this year in 2014. The growth and expansion in his music is almost as jaw-dropping as the sounds themselves, recording everything in a closet at his parents’ house with a single microphone and handcrafted percussion instruments. I could make the obvious comparisons to Michael Hedges, Don Ross, Kaki King and Leo Kottke with his guitar but I think that lumping Lapps in with those guys kind of sells him short, as his music reaches a place of transcendent honesty that the above artists have only half-heartedly managed to capture at their greatest moments in my humble opinion. From the chair squeaking, single-session masterpiece that is The New Color to the extremely well thought out and precisely written Stormalong, Ben Lapps is an ever evolving and always entrancing musician, and one who’s just beginning to enjoy a small amount of the international exposure and success he deserves! With all of this in mind, it’s a pleasure to able to present you with an in-depth interview with a man, while well-respected in many circles, virtually unknown outside of internet. So please, settle back in your chair, grab a cup of warm coffee, click the link below and prepare to experience something entirely new and different, Ben Lapps is here…
Listen while you read: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ben-Lapps
Where are you originally from?
My home has always been Cincinnati, Ohio.
What was the music scene like there when you were growing up? Were you very involved in the music scene? Did it play a large part in the formation of your musical tastes or the way that you pay today?
I couldn’t find any other fingerstyle guitarists playing in the Cincinnati scene growing up, and I didn’t start going to a lot of shows until I was sixteen. I saw a lot of the great Indie rock bands rising in Cincinnati, my favorites being Walk the Moon and Pomegranates. Those guys inspired me to start playing drums in a band, PUBLIC, and that’s mostly how I contribute to the local music scene. This is completely separate from my fingerstyle guitar playing, but just as important to me.
Was your home very musical when you were young? Were either your parents or any of your relatives musicians or extremely involved or interested in music?
Everyone in my family has always been involved in music. I grew up with my father playing the trumpet and both of my siblings playing piano and singing. It was very easy to get into music at my house, however I was the first in my family to have a real drive to make music my career.
What was your first real exposure to music?
When I was twelve, I bought a “best of Led Zeppelin” CD and that was it for me. I couldn’t listen to anything else and absolutely had to learn every Jimmy Page riff I could find. That was definitely the beginning.
If you had to pick a single defining moment of transcendent music, a moment that opened your mind to the infinite possibilities of music and changed everything for you, what would it be?
That moment came when I got a hold of Michael Hedges’ record Aerial Boundaries. That title track has continued to be the most inspiring piece of music for me; the guitar has no limits.
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing you own music? What bought that decision about?
I wrote my first piece of music, “Reverie”, when I was fourteen. I had just discovered Michael Hedges, Thomas Leeb, and Justin King. I found DADGAD [an alternate guitar tuning] and just started making up my own tunes. Then, I’d written enough for an album, so I recorded my first record, The New Color, a few months later. There was no decision, it just sounded like such a cool idea to me and I really wanted to do it.
What was your first instrument? When did you get it and who gave it to you?
My first instrument was a guitar that I took from my brother’s room. He had a cheap acoustic and never played it. I snuck into his room one day, curious about the guitar, and just started fooling around on it. Soon enough I had figured out a few things, and started playing every day.
Is there any creed, code, ideal or mantra that you live by musically?
My main thing is to keep listening to new music. Keep expanding my knowledge no matter what.
Where are you currently located at?
Still happily in Cincinnati, Ohio rooting on the Cincinnati Reds.
What’s the music scene like where you’re at now?
The music scene is growing slowly. We have a lot of solid local talent and some very supportive fans in the city. I’ve watched a lot of the local venues start filling up over the past few years, and that’s super exciting for me.
Do you help to record and or release any local music?
Recently I’ve gotten really involved with other local bands, filling in for odd members or adding some auxiliary sounds to their recordings. It’s not a steady thing, but I help out when I can. I love supporting my fellow local musicians, and I’ve become good friends with many of them in the process.
Do you book or attend a lot of local shows?
I attend many local shows. I usually try to make two to three shows a week. But usually I only really get involved in booking a show when I’m personally playing.
I’m pretty good at a lot of things but describing the way that people sound, especially someone as unique as yourself, is not one of them. How would your describe your sound and what you do to our readers who might not have heard you before?
The simplest way to explain my guitar playing: Any sound that I can find on the guitar is valid. There have to be no limits to making the best sounds I can find. If I have to scratch the guitar, slap it, scrape it, knock on it, whatever, that’s what I’ll do. I use entirely alternate tunings and a ton of harmonics. Any sound I can make is valid in a song.
You have a really unique and interesting sound as I said before so I’m extremely curious to hear who you would cite as your major musical influences?
Well, I think the obvious major guitar influence is Michael Hedges. He’s simply my favorite and I’m always left feeling inspired after hearing his music, and I feel the same way about Chet Atkins. But I hardly listen to any instrumental music these days. I’m a huge fan of bands like Grizzly Bear and Local Natives. Those guys are really up to something and I just can’t get enough.
What led you to the technique of playing that you utilize on the acoustic guitar? When did you start playing it in your own fashion?
I first saw a video of Justin King playing his song “Squaredance”, and I went crazy. I had to learn how he was tapping so mightily with just an acoustic guitar. Then over the next few months my mind opened up to my “no limits” method. I just started experimenting with any sound I could manage to make.
Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process? Do you usually start off with an idea for a riff or some melody, or do the accompanying parts come later?
My writing process is still a bit mysterious to me, ha-ha. I usually just stumble upon a “hook” and then the rest just unravels within about an hour. I know now that I have to sit and finish a song once it’s started or else it’ll get cold and will be tough to finish later.
Do you spend a lot of time figuring songs out, tightening them down and getting every nook and cranny sounding just the way that you want it to?
Yes, definitely. When I’ve written or learned a new piece, I’m never done “learning” it. There is literally, always room for improvement. For example, after five years of performing Justin King’s “Phunkdified” I feel like I’ve just recently started to really get it to a place I’m proud of.
Do you enjoy recording? I mean I think most musicians can really appreciate the end result, holding an album in your hands knowing that it’s yours and you made it, there’s not a whole lot in the world that can beat that feeling. Getting to that point though, actually getting everything recorded and all those tracks laid down and sounding just the way that you want them, can be a rough road to travel. How is it recording for you?
I’ve never enjoyed recording until this newest record, Stormalong. This is the first time I’ve recorded my own solo album and it has been the most rewarding decision. I’ve taken a full year to craft these sounds and it’s been a blast. I could take as much time as I wanted, and not have to pay anyone extra.
Do you utilize studio environments when recording, or is it more of a DIY proposition where you handle stuff on your own time with your own gear?
I record everything in a closet at my parents’ house, because it’s the most soundproof room in the house. I use a single microphone for all the instruments, a Neumann tlm103, which I absolutely love. All of the percussion instruments are just little handcrafted items. For example, the track “Lodgings” features a jar of almonds and a Christmas ornament that jingles.
Let’s take a little time and talk a little bit about your back catalog. You’ve been releasing music since 2009, when you self-released The New Color CD. The first time I listened to the album I remember hearing some chairs squeaking and other small little background noises, which is far from a jab at the production values. It’s been a long time since I heard anything that seemed that honest and pure in a sense, it was just mesmerizing. Can you share some of your memories of recording the material for The New Color? When and where was that material recorded? Who recorded it? What kind of equipment was used?
I was fourteen at the time and didn’t really have a plan for recording. I just knew I had written some songs and wanted to make an album. So I called up a family friend who had a studio and booked a single eight hour day. The studio is called The Monastery because it’s in an old church here in Cincinnati. It was just me and Ric Hordinski, the studio owner. I don’t have a clue what equipment he used at the time, but I was really excited about the way it sounded. All songs were recorded straight through, with no more than two to three takes per song. It was indeed an honest recording session.
You followed up The New Color with See, The Sky in 2011. Was the recording of the material very similar to the sessions for your previous album? Do you feel like you learned, or progressed a lot in those two years? The New Color was a beautiful snapshot of what was going on in your head at the time, a Polaroid of that time in your life. See, The Sky however seemed like a much more contemplative and thought out album. Where was that material recorded? Who recorded it? When was that? What kind of equipment was used?
I recorded See, The Sky at the same studio in Cincinnati. Indeed, I had a lot more vision for this record than the previous one. I believe that my songwriting had developed greatly, and the main influence on this record was one of my favorite Canadian bands, Do Make Say Think. A lot of their music was beautifully repetitive and the melodies were simple and sparse. This really got my attention and I started writing longer songs. Like you said, this is more telling of my growth over the two years since The New Color.
You just digitally released your third album this past week as of the writing of these questions and I know the CD is coming sometime soon. What can our readers expect from the new album? Did you try anything radically new or different with the songwriting or recording of Stormalong?
Stormalong is by far my favorite thing I’ve ever made. It isn’t a long album, just twenty-five minutes of material, but I guarantee that you’ll be captivated for every moment. That was my goal with this record, it’s only my very most precious material. Apart from the writing, I hope you’ll be fascinated by the production. Some of the guitar sounds are very untraditional, but still instantly recognizable as my voice on the guitar. This is the greatest example of my “no limits” mentality.
Can you tell us about the recording of Stormalong? Was the recording of Stormalong very different than your two earlier albums? When and where was that material recorded? Who recorded it? What kind of equipment was used?
I recorded the entire album myself in my closet at home. My only studio gear is a Neumann tlm103 and ProTools 8. Stormalong was extremely different than the other albums because I was in absolutely no rush. I took a full year to work things out, rather than cramming the entire album into one or two days like before. It was definitely a DIY process.
Other than the upcoming release of Stormalong on CD, do you have any other releases planned or in the works at this point?
Yes indeed I am working on my next album, which I’m particularly excited about. It’s got a really new element of funk, stemming from my recent obsession with Earth, Wind & Fire.
Where’s the best place for our US readers to pick up copies of your music?
My music is always available on iTunes, and for physical copies of all of my albums, check out www.CDBaby.com/artist/benlapps
With the completely insane international postage rate increases the last few years it’s getting harder and harder, or at least more and more expensive, to pick up import releases. So to battle this, I try and provide our readers with as many possibly options for picking up import releases that I can. Where’s the best place for our overseas and international readers to pick up your music?
For Japanese readers, my CD’s are sold by Pooh Yokocho, a good friend of mine, in Japanese stores and online here. For other international sales, I believe Amazon is the best way to go. However, I’m always willing to personally ship a hand-signed copy to anyone interested. Just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Where’s the best place for fans to keep up with the latest news like upcoming shows and album releases at?
Are there any major goals that you’re looking to accomplish in 2014?
I’m hoping to finish the new record by the end of the year, and then hopefully release it in early 2015.
What was the first song that you ever played live? Was that with a band or solo? When and where was that?
My first guitar performance was at a little Italian restaurant called Pitrelli’s in Mason, Ohio and I’m sure that “Reverie” was my first tune; that was my favorite at the time. This was 2008, I was fourteen, and I was playing there twice a week for about a year’s time. It was a fantastic start to my career.
Do you tour at all? Do you spend a lot of time on the road? If so, what’s life like on the road?
I’ve done some small solo touring, but nothing stretching more than a week. Recently I’ve been on the road quite a bit with my band, PUBLIC. Life on the road is still exciting to us, we’re still young and fresh.
Do you have any funny or interesting stories from live shows or performances that you’d like to share here with our readers?
I once played background music for a Spaghetti-Eating Contest. That was one of my more interesting shows.
In your dreams, who are you on tour with?
I would love to go back in time and meet Michael Hedges. I know I would have a lot to learn from him about the guitar.
With all of the various mediums of release available to musicians today I’m always curious why they choose and prefer the various mediums that they do. Do you have a preferred medium of release for your own music? What about when you’re listening to and or purchasing music? If so, why?
Personally, I am a big fan of physical CD’s. I love having my own copy of an album, and I can easily listen to it in my car, unlike vinyl, which is more expensive and inconvenient to use. But most of my fans are all internet based because of my YouTube success, and so it makes sense for me to release my music digitally. That’s definitely become the biggest market for my music. However, I still like to give people the option of getting a physical copy.
Do you have a music collection at all? If so can you tell us a little bit about it?
I have a very large music collection, entirely made up of physical CD’s. There’s music from every genre and decade. This is what keeps me pumped about being a musician, always having new influences to draw from. Right now I’m buying a lot of great funk records from Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament, etcetera.
I love my music collection, I’ve got a deep rooted obsession with physically released music. When I was growing up I was encouraged to listen to anything that I wanted, I would just wander up to these enormous shelves of music that seems to stretch on forever and pick something completely at random, stick it in the player, read the liner notes, stare at the artwork and let the music transport me off to another place. Having something real and concrete to hold in my hands always made for a more complete listening experience and I get a rush every time I listen to a new album and get to experience it like that. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over. Do you have any such connection with physically released music?
Yes, absolutely. There’s nothing better than playing my favorite record through my best stereo system and just getting lost in the tunes. I also love having the liner notes.
As much as I love my music collection there’s no denying that digital music has distinct advantages, namely portability. I can care as much music on my phone as I could have stuffed into my trunk a few years ago. When you add the internet to the equation though, that’s where things really get interesting. While people are being exposed to a completely new universe of music and bands are given unparalleled direct interaction with their fans and critics, illegal downloading is running rampant and it’s harder and harder to get noticed in the chocked digital jungle out there. As a musician during the reign of the digital era, what’s your opinion on digital music and distribution?
For me, the digital world is responsible for all of my success to this point. People are buying my music because they saw my YouTube videos and looked me up. So I’m definitely very grateful for all of this. It is so simple to make my music instantly available to the entire world, and I’ve really thrived in that environment. However much I personally love buying physical music, I can see that my generation loves the convenience of digital downloads, so I’m just happy that people can hear my music in the way they want.
I try to keep up with as much good music as I possibly can but there’s just not enough time! In hopes of keeping up with even one-percent of the great stuff going on out there, is there anyone from your local scene or area that I should be listening to that I might not have heard of before?
For the past four years, my favorite Cincinnati band has been Pomegranates. Check out their record, One Of Us. They have four full-length albums available, and every single one is gold. A great band with a great message.
What about nationally and internationally?
I really love Young the Giant’s new record, Mind Over Matter, and I’m still listening to Phoenix’s most recent record, Bankrupt!
Thanks so much for doing this interview, it’s been awesome getting to learn so much about you and your influences. I know this wasn’t short and I assume it couldn’t have been extremely easy to do, a lot of brain wracking and what not. But before we call it a day and sign off, is there anything that I might have missed or that you’d just like to take this opportunity to talk to me or my readers about?
You certainly covered a lot of material with these questions. All I have to say now is, thank you! I’m so grateful that you’re looking to expand my audience and help your readers get to know me better.
(2009) Ben Lapps – The New Color – digital, CD – Self-Released
(2011) Ben Lapps – See, The Sky – digital, CD – Self-Released
(2014) Ben Lapps – Stormalong – digital, CD – Self-Released
Interview made by Roman Rathert/2014
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