A new an Extraordinary Light
The Ben Fields music story is one of those tales of (seemingly) divine interventions that people dream about. While living in Australia and working at a cafe, Ben chatted up famed record exec Seymour Stein who was visiting from New York. Stein is the man who signed Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Madonna and has a long and colorful history in the music business. Stein was impressed by Fields' manner and offered his card. "Look me up when you're in New York, kid." And in typical American fashion, when Fields and Stein met again, young Ben was standing in front of Seymour's desk with a new album in hand. Stein made good on his word (no small feat in the music world). Fields' new album, Extraordinary Light, is getting terrific reviews and includes "Swede," which also earned a John Lennon Songwriting Award. Fields and his trio brought some classic Epiphone Texans (and a new Casino as well) down to Music City to perform at Epiphone's annual NAMM party. He put on a terrific show (no surprise there) and sat down with us to talk about the basics of what drives his songwriting and how to keep the door open for surprise and improvisation.
Congrats on the new album. It's terrific. Are you traveling a lot?
We're out touring right now--playing shows around NYC.
How did you start off playing music?
In terms of my music career, I've been writing songs since I was 13 or 14. I played saxophone for a long time. When I was younger, no one explained to me that the stuff I liked would become cool later on. But I was in love with Dixieland jazz - hot jazz. I started with saxophone and then moved on to clarinet--and I truly loved both of those instruments.
Why did you move away from jazz and pick up guitar?
I picked up the guitar because I didn't think saxophone was cool enough (laughs). Nobody in second grade was running home to spin Coltrane records and I didn't want to be in the jazz band anymore.
Was jazz guitar an influence when you switched instruments?
I remember my first real experience of playing guitar--I'm not a soloist--but I remember putting on some Dave Brubeck and really starting to understand the thing of how playing a note over a certain chord change could be the most fun thing I'd ever done. I suppose I didn't have the dedication to become a great jazz guitar player--that's one of my flaws--so I decided the other thing that would be really great would be to write. Songwriting is about that moment of inspiration and improvisation. You just don't have anything when you start and then you have something when you finish. So I guess that's the basis of what drew me to songwriting.
Who were you listening to at that time?
The Beatles pretty much. My parents had Rubber Soul and Graceland and I listened to Graceland a bunch. I believed when I was 5 or 6 years old that it was the greatest album ever made.
What were you hearing in that music that inspired you?
It was more of those ostinatos (Ed, short melodic phrase repeated throughout a composition) especially when it was something like Paul Simon where there were these unbelievable passages through the simplest of chords. Paul Simon was just using three for a lot of those songs, but those guitars! The pieces were so interesting! I was really drawn to that and I later on ended up writing things with repeated patterns. Most of what I'm writing now has chords underneath--I'm steering the craft in a different direction.
So you were writing parts worked essentially as a loop?
When I first started there were no loops around. I suppose when I started using loops to write, it was great to be able to listen to a pattern back. I would play it and then listen to the loop for four or five hours. And then when I really understood what was going on harmonically, I would start crafting my melody over the top.
You said that your songwriting is now turning away from that style.
I still move towards traditional music in the stuff that I listen to. But I don't know if my songwriting reflects that at all. I have a direction I'm very clear on and it's starting to go that way.
Do you like recording? Some musicians find it very renewing.
For sure. I have a studio and I've built it up to the stage where I can record drums. I have eight channels but I have everything I need to make an album. My whole album was done on 8-track 2" tape.
Why tape? Do you find that the limitations of working with a limited number of tracks is good for creativity?
Yeah, there's a few things like that. Number #1 is the physicality of tape. Working in this way, where you're trying to be transcendent and everything you're doing is ethereal and hard to get a hold of--that can leave me personally feeling a little lost at the end of the day if I don't have something to walk away with. When I walk away with an actual reel of tape, then you have something.
The other thing for me is the physical limitation of having a set number tracks. I think it was Rick Rubin who came up with the idea of a 2" 8-track machine (Ed: each track is given a ¼" of tape/head space) and we found a studio in NYC that had that Studer Gold machine.
Which is basically what full track mono was in the 50s. The Beatles' used a 1" 4-track--same great fidelity.
Right. But everything I do songwriting-wise goes to this (holds up phone). I have probably on my computer I have about 10 or 15,000 song notes. So I definitely like the utilitarian way of getting songs down. In fact, for one song I recorded the piano part on the phone and re-recorded it off the horrible little speaker.
What are you up to now as you get ready to tour for the album?
I'm writing the second album now and the first album has only been out for a month. We're just about to launch it in New York at Rockwood Music Hall. There's a lot of airplay starting to pick up. It's all plugging along which is really exciting.
Do you already feel like the songs are drifting away from the album versions?
Oh, man it has to. The bands that choose to grow and change are the ones I have so much respect for. Bob Dylan comes to mind. What I find when I'm out with these young guys--who are so talented--is I'm forced to change. If I stay stagnate, my body wants to go into tremors.
What's the story of your Epiphone Texan?
I'm playing a '66 Texan on this trip. It's been to hell and back and it's come through. I have a '64 that's my home guitar and that's the one that really started the Texan obsession. Put out the word. I'm buying up Texans! It's a very balanced guitar, perfectly well behaved. I also play the newer Elitist Casino. Man! That's a killer guitar. I played over in France for the Bachelorette tv show and I took the Casino with me--first time I had ever played it. My real obsession with Epiphone is... well, the Texan is a great guitar. But I'm now looking for those old Epiphones with the New York pickups. There is something going on with those that I've never heard in any guitar or any pickup. They are some of the best pickups I've ever heard.