The first thing you think about when you meet Ben Harper is that he’s too good to be true. No, it’s not because he has the perfectly symmetrical good looks of Marvin Gaye circa 1973 coupled with the deep soul of Bob Marley, but that certainly doesn’t hurt. Nor is it that in 2004, he bought the family’s music store, Folk Music Center, from his grandfather Charles Chase, shortly before he died to ensure that the business continued for another generation. “I could think of nothing more worthy of working hard for — keeping this going,” Harper said at the time.
"Mostly I just want to take a stand against evil people."
He also drives a minivan, turns off the water when he brushes his teeth, wears shoes from recycled materials, and painted his house with solvent-free paint.
In fact he’s never more fulfilled than when he’s fighting for something — there are eight causes listed on his website — and that’s just a small measure of what he supports. “Mostly I just want to take a stand against evil people,” he said.
But it’s more than that. “He wants to be all things to all people,” confides his mother when asked about her son. “He doesn’t like to disappoint anyone.”
“Yeah people always think he’s like Jesus,” explains longtime friend and producer J.P. Plunier. “They think he can walk on water. But he can’t.”
But he sure makes it look like he can. A workaholic by nature, Harper averages about an album a year, whether it’s teaming up with Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison in Fistful of Mercy, his other band Relentless 7, producing Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ Mother album, or helping blues harmonica player Charlie Musslewhite get his due when the two of them teamed up to record Get Up! in 2013, which won a Grammy for Best Blues Album.
If that weren’t enough to get Ben Harper into heaven, two years ago he celebrated Mother’s Day by recording and producing an album of originals — six written by Harper and four by his mother Ellen Chase Harper — called Childhood Home.
But that wasn’t the only homecoming for Harper. Last year he reunited with the Innocent Criminals after disbanding the band in a fit of pique in 2008. As tends to happen in collaborations, tensions had emerged, then grown.
“I think by the time I threw my Borsalino hat on the stage and stomped it to a pancake, that was probably the sign of things changing,” he told The Atlantic. “They hired me back and I was glad for that,” he told an Oregon TV reporter. “They accepted my application, although I falsified a few things on there, but I still made the cut.”
After touring together last year, Harper booked a week’s worth of studio time — just to feel things out — since the former bandmates hadn’t recorded anything since 2007’s Grammy-nominated Lifeline. But there was no need for hedging his bets; in no time the Innocent Criminals were laying down tracks, and over the course of a year finished Call It What It Is.
It’s a wildly eclectic ride that brings to mind nothing so much as Harper’s second album Fight For Your Mind, as it skitters through genres, time signatures and themes, and veers from the brutality of police violence against black youth in the title song to the anthemic classic rock banger “When Sex Was Dirty” and the dangerous, garagey bonbon of “Pink Balloon,” written by Harper’s social activist wife Jaclyn Matfus (who also sings on the track). Like I said, Mr. Harper is just too good to be true. Here are a few more things you might now know about him — not all of them are that angelic.
Ben Harper said he knew he really made it when Iggy Pop recognized him. (Ironic, since Iggy Pop claims he knew he made it when airline stewardesses started recognizing him on flights; he ended up marrying flight attendant Nina Alu). “Let me tell you what defined my success. Iggy Pop knowing who I was,” Harper said. “We were both on Virgin Records at the time, playing a festival in Atlanta. We were sitting backstage and he was about to go on next. I don’t know if I spoke to him first or he spoke to me first, but I think I said, ‘Hey, how’s it going, man. It’s Ben Harper.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I know. You’re the slide guitar player’.”
Brazilian Supermodel Gisele Bundchen learned English by listening to Ben Harper albums.
Harper collects sneakers and Nudie Suits. He wore a gold lame Nudie Suit when he received his first Grammy. His mom has a framed photo of it in her office.
Ben Harper is always late, despite solemnly declaring that time was near holy in the Pleasure and Pain documentary**. The exact words were, “If time is all we have, we should worship time as if it is God. Yeah, yeah, I know. Everybody knows I am always late.”
His favorite work of art is van Gogh’s “The Harvest.”
His mother once dated Jimi Hendrix’s U.S. manager. She thinks he doesn’t know. “And please don’t tell him…,” she says with a laugh. Which of course, makes it purely accidental that the first album Ben Harper bought was Hendrix’s Smash Hits.
His most memorable concert was seeing Bob Marley. His father, the late Leonard Harper, took the 9-year-old Ben to see Bob Marley and Peter Tosh at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, California.
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were visitors in his grandparent’s home. His grandmother Dorothy Chase played banjo with Seeger on the day Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” She also drove an anxious Joan Baez to one of Baez’s first live performances, at Pomona College, only to have the then-young thrush throw up in Mrs. Chase’s car. Country Joe and the Fish held an intimate concert his grandmother’s living room “where two hours before I had been playing with blocks,” Harper recalled. The take-away? Famous people are like the rest of us. “OK, maybe a little more fucked up,” he allows.
Ben Harper has been married three times. He took his third walk down the aisle to marry Jacyln Matfus in a secret ceremony on New Year’s Day.
He is an avid skateboarder, starting when he was just seven years old. “I’ve always kept a board in my trunk. I grew up skating with Chris Miller. He and I went to the same grade school and junior high before he moved to San Diego. For a while we were side by side and then all of a sudden Chris was just killing it — flying off tables. One of my greatest regrets was that I stopped skating with the same passion that I had when I first touched a skateboard…[T]hat’s when I said to myself, ‘You know what? Fuck this. I’m going back’.” And he meant it. Harper had a ramp built in his backyard, (for his kids, he insists) by the same builder world famous professional skateboarder Tony Hawk uses, and he did his very first switch 360 flip on his 45th birthday.
Besides working summer’s in his family’s store, he once had a job driving a truck. “I was driving a produce truck from midnight till noon the next day. You’d open up the bed of the truck and say a prayer that the expensive raspberries weren’t crushed by the iced broccoli. It’s all in the packing, baby.”
His great-great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Chase signed the Declaration of Independence.
He is a champion backgammon player. “I’m a gammonologist. Is it a microcosm of life? It can be. Sometimes you’re trapped in the back and sometimes you’re cashing in your chips.”
Harper no longer has any pre-stage rituals. “I stopped the rituals. It was a huge piece. I did everything from putting on a new pair of socks to things I’d drink, vitamins I’d take. Isolation, all kinds of things, I just threw it all out.”
A die-hard Lakers fan, one of his rare luxuries (after sneakers, of course) are front row Laker seats.
Harper and his band stole beer from Kenny Loggins’ son Crosby when he was recording his debut album, *Time to Move — *featuring John Mayer — at the Village in L.A. Of the experience, Loggins said, “It was pretty cool — Weezer was downstairs, Seal was down the hall, John Mayer was next door. Ben Harper left me a note once, saying, ‘Sorry dude, we drank all your beer’.”
He disables machinery. “I have terrible appliance karma,” Harper said. “One week alone and I’ve broken an electric gate, a freezer, and a stove. I’ve shut my gas off in my house. They call it the Polaris effect. I believe there was a scientist, Polaris, [and he] would walk into a lab and beakers would just start exploding. Other scientists didn’t want him where they were working because just by being there he’d throw off everyone’s research and their numbers would just go nuts. He got sick of being a pariah, so he began studying it and came up with evidence of some people have those kinds of tendencies or energy fields. That’s what I have.”
He is a trained Luthier. “I didn’t always just disable things. I used to just fix things,” Harper explains. He worked in his grandparent’s music store since he could walk, in training to be a Luthier. For five years he worked in the back room of the store, an apron covering his clothes, repairing anything that came in the door. “I was taught how to make guitars and fix them. I knew their working intimately. I keep thinking I’ll come back there and do that one day.” In the meantime his band turns to him for technical help on the road, leaving guitar and bass strings under his hotel room door for repair.
On his musical bucket list? He’d like to make his own version of Nebraska, and make a record with Jeff Beck. “My biggest regret so far is not being able to attain the sound that’s in my head. There are some musical places like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. I want to make my Nebraska. Not patterned after Bruce’s Nebraska, but there are certain sounds that I want to go after with that stripped-back, bare bones, punch you in the neck sincerity and urgency. I swear I’m going to put together a band with Jeff Beck. I am. I’m absolutely going to put together like a soul rock funk band, just for, just maybe 10 songs. It’s gotta be done.”
Harper refuses to play two of his hits in his set list. No it’s not “Diamonds on the Inside.” “ ‘Steal My Kisses’ and ‘Burn One Down’ are the main offenders. I love having written them and I love playing them. But I don’t want to be owned by them. They’re off the setlist.”
He suffers from stage fright. Harper brought his mother, Ellen Chase Harper, and aunt onstage at Madison Square Garden to join him during a 90th birthday tribute to Pete Seeger in 2009. Harper said he still gets stage fright before a gig, but his mother and aunt seemed unfazed by the event, and didn’t even rehearse or ask for a soundcheck.