I am very much looking forward to Benjamin William Pike’s gig on Tuesday (Dec 3rd) at the Slaughtered Lamb, but of all of the things that I hoped to be writing about when reviewing this CD, chronic kidney disease was not one of them. Still, when Benjamin William Pike was diagnosed with exactly that, his chin-out response was to start exploring existential philosophy, as a way of dealing with what he disarmingly describes as, “An existential crisis of sorts.” It’s from this study that the album derives it’s tile, Being & Nothingness, named after a book by Jean-Paul Satre, but more importantly it also provides the fuel for these song, about time, journeys, mortality and existence.
Heavy stuff then? Well no, not a bit of it. In fact it’s just the ‘right stuff’ for a folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter to be wrestling with. Besides, although it unquestionably adds an extra poignancy to the likes of The Way Things End, Benjamin displays a remarkable lightness of touch, especially with some of the fleetest fingers to ever grace a fretboard. As everything is captured with Mattie Foulds’ accustomed attention to detail, the result is a great CD, a sumptuous feast for guitar fans and a mighty fine collection of songs, existential angst and all.
Benjamin is a great player and as well as the acoustic guitar the cover shot depicts, he also employs electric, lap slide guitar and even pedal steel. He also plays the curious Mohan veena, a kind of hybrid of the slide guitar and sitar. It’s an unusual instrument and quite rare outside of Indian classical music and also signposts an exotic element to some of Benjamin’s songs. I only know of Harry Manx as another of what must be an exclusive club of players, who also uses it in his own Indo-blues fusion. I guess the slide element lends itself to that, but also you have to have a certain open mindset, not to mention considerable musical skill, to make it work. Benjamin clearly has both and is very capable of thinking outside the Anglo-American, folk-blues box of licks.
I ask him, who he credits as his biggest influence and he replies, “I don’t think I can attribute that to one person, I’ve soaked up lots of different influences and studied lots of different guitarists and picked up bits I like and dropped bits I didn’t. A lot of my guitar heroes use finger picks or thumb picks, which I can’t play with, it just doesn’t work for me if I can’t feel the strings and wood of the guitar. I got my speed from learning Django licks, picked up lap slide technique from Kelly Joe Phelps, the fusion of blues and Indian raags from Davey Graham and acoustic finger style from Martin Simpson. Not that I’m comparing myself to those guys – but I’ll keep practicing!”
Another building block has been a love of travelling. “I’ve been a keen traveller my whole life. I first started by going backpacking around Europe on my own at 18 (I was supposed to go with a friend but he dropped out so I went anyway), ‘caught the bug’ and have been away as much as possible ever since.” Suddenly Benjamin’s in his element as he continues, “I’ve flown through the Bermuda triangle, explored the Mayan temples in Mexico, dived with sharks in Australia, walked with Komodo dragons in Indonesia, sampled local herbs in Jamaica, been cursed in the ancient city Petra. I’ve been carved into the mountains of Jordan (a long story), worked in a cocktail bar in New York…. The list goes on… Obviously the destinations are the reason for going but I love the actual travelling part as well, when you’re stuck on a bus for 30 hours you get a lot of time to think, it’s good for clearing the mind.”
This probably goes a long way to explaining why it has taken him a while to get around to releasing his debut album. Benjamin may only be in his early 30s, but that’s a late start by many people’s standards and it sort of slips out as he’s enthusiastically telling me about his guitar collection. “The answer to this question might help explain why I’ve released my debut album at the age of 31! I’ve explored many different styles over the years and have built up a collection of acoustic and electric guitars to suit lots of different styles.
“My main guitars are a Taylor 310CE which has the old Fishman blend pick-up in it. It’s a great sounding acoustic with a cutaway and I think it’s a sitka spruce top. It’s a good 10 years old and I’ve really played it in. I’ve had it set up a couple of times over the years so it’s just how I want it. I keep this exclusively in open D major tuning. My other main guitar is a McIlroy A25C – amazing deep body which gives it an amazing bass response which works well with the Csus2 tuning this one is kept in. Other than that I have a Gypsy jazz D-hole acoustic, a Hofner Senator, a telecaster, a Tokai hollow body jazz guitar (Gibson L5 copy), my old Tanglewood acoustic, A Merida nylon string and The Mohan veena. Oh, and a 10 string pedal steel!”
It’s an educated guess to suggest that all of the above have been put to good use on Being & Nothingness, the most exotic of those making its presence felt from the start on Just Passing Through. Benjamin tells me, “Musically it was based around Raag Bhimpalasi and lyrically deals with a journey – both literally and as a metaphor for life.” It’s a strong opener with carefully layered textures of guitars and despite the obvious complexity sounds relaxed, an effect enhanced by Benjamin’s somewhat laid back, husky slur of a voice.
The song also features some excellent banjo work and Benjamin is keen to give credit to his supporting cast telling me, “So the other players on the album, who deserve as much praise as myself, are Kay Chapman who sings backing vocals and really sweetens my gruff mumbling. She’s a singer-songwriter based in London and we’ve been friends for many a year from back in Louth, Lincolnshire where we both grew up. Troy Faid plays banjo, lead guitar and kora. He’s a pal from Leeds who I met while at university and a regular on the acoustic circuit playing his own material. He is an essential part of the Gin House Records collective. Adam Richards on the double bass is perhaps the busiest man around, he regularly plays in lots of bands and does a lot of session and dep work. His main band Spirit Of John have two albums out and play all over the country, they’re really worth seeing live.”
He also gives credit to the album’s producer, Mattie Foulds, “The sessions were great. I did a couple of blocks of three or four days then a couple of other odd days doing overdubs and finishing off. Being based in Leeds it’s a bit of a drive and the snow didn’t help, but luckily my brother was living in Edinburgh at the time so I had a place to stay and have a break from playing guitar and singing for eight odd hours a day, although mostly I ate, played and slept at the studio while I was there. It was really productive getting totally immersed in the process and Mattie was great to work with, the sound he got was top notch but he had some great creative input as well, which really transformed some of the tunes for the better. He’s also one hell of a drummer!
It’s easy to agree with Benjamin’s sentiments about all of those named, but the real credit surely goes for a great set of songs. Although mostly based in a country-blues and folk vein, the straight country music licks of Linda slip in nicely and again, there’s some stunning banjo playing and a solo that Chet Atkins would have been properly proud of. The song is a tribute to Benjamin’s mother who passed on when he was only 16. That Indian vibe also washes through The Way Things End, while Any Old Time is decribed as having, “An Afro-Cuban rhythm and Congolese style guitar solo.” The album’s one instrumental, Conversation, also sees the most exotic pairing of Mohan veeda and kora.”
Benjamin admits, “I’m a keen improviser and when I play live always try to leave a little room in my songs to improvise, change and play them a little different each time. I wanted to try and get a sense of that on the album so purposefully left some bits unfinished or un-finalised before I went into the studio so there was still some space for things to grow and develop during the process.” But there’s a balance in evidence and he also acknowledges, “I’m also really influenced by good songwriters, there’s some great songwriters that can use three or four simple chords for a tune which will stick in your head for days. I try and remember that when I’m getting lost in the twiddly-guitar zone. Townes van Zandt, Felice Brothers and Gillian Welch are all constantly in my headphones.”
I’m not sure that either Sun Don’t Shine or Hard To Be live up to the ‘three or four simple chords’ ideal, but both stick in the mind like limpets, as does the protest song A Mind Of My Own. I’d also suggest that Broken Hearted Man Blues sounds like a standard pulled from the golden era of the genre. The cascading guitar line is a gem.
Being & Nothingness is self released under the auspices of the Gin House Collective. As Benjamin explains, “This is a collective we put together about a year and a half ago. A few friends and myself were all self-releasing our own records and putting on our own gigs so we decided to give it a name to cover the gigs, EPs & albums we were all playing and recording together anyway. The core of the collective comprises of Spirit Of John (Adam Richards & Josh Sheard), Troy Faid & Dan Beesley and myself. As most of us play in multiple musical projects there are also other bands affiliated with the label but us 4 acts do most of the leg work. So far we’ve put on gigs and released music in such prestigious Leeds venues as The Brudenell Social club and The Holy Trinity Church as well as lots of smaller bars and pubs.”
The album finishes on the superb Back in Time and as I ask Benjamin to cast his mind back to what got him started, he tells me, “I can’t actually remember if there was a singular moment which made me want to play it must have seeped into my head over time.” But then he adds a phrase that seems to say it all and encapsulate his mastery of the instrument, “I simply can’t remember NOT wanting to play guitar!” It sure shows.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Tuesday 3rd December 2013 @ London Slaughtered Lamb
Buy Tickets Here
Being & Nothingness is released via Gin House Records and can be ordered here.