If The Stray Birds were a Cambridge highlight this year, the Ben Miller Band were a revelation. Talk about a smash ’n’ grab; they wandered into the festival at the end of a long, long tour and lit the blue touch paper on an explosive Stage Two set, Sunday night. And by explosive, we’re talking nuclear. Their set should have come with a positive health warning – if you want to leave Cherry Hinton happy, stop by and load up; this was festival heaven for an hour.
In direct contrast to the bombardment of human isotopes by the trio’s fiery neutrons as the sun went down on Cambridge 2015, Ben Miller (BM), Scott Leeper (SL) and Doug Dicharry (DD) were absolute gents earlier in the afternoon when I caught up with them for a little chat. Ben and Doug do most of the talking, in that relaxed Mid-West American drawl that so fascinates us English (envious, I suspect), running rings around sentence structure for the fun of it. Scott is, for the most part a silent partner, content to listen in, occasionally proferring a comment or two. Together, they represent a solid, unified body of musical integrity twelve years in the making.
PW – First time at Cambridge?
BM – Yeah, that’s so.
PW – Not the first time in the UK though?
BM – We’ve been here a couple of times, opening up for ZZ Top first time, then Valerie June. Both experiences were good. A lot of fun; introduced us to a lot of people.
PW – You’re very well known in the States but perhaps not as well here – introduce yourselves. DD – We come from the centre of the US, the Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas area. We all met at open mic nights. Didn’t form a band, just jammed out and played together a load. Scott played a washtub bass, I started off playing trombone and hitting on a circular saw box, which at some point turned into Ben kicking it. I was playing washboard and it’s grown from there. We’ve tried things that worked and some that haven’t – You like to experiment. DD – Yeah, totally. And what you’ll see on stage is the result of twelve years, just playing.
PW – You play a lot of festivals in the States; how does Cambridge compare?
DD – No real impression yet, we just got here.
BM – It looks similar – lots of tents everywhere and music playing, but about this time back home the crowds are wasted, just falling over themselves –
DD – The tents are there, but no drunk people! We do get some of that, but it is a Sunday. I hear we can expect a lot of energy on stage? DD – We never really plan out what we’re gonna do, we just go up there and do whatever we feel like doing at that moment. We look at the crowd and see what they’re about and do our best to make ‘em happy.
You’ve been together long enough that you can construct a set on the fly.
DD – I don’t really know what any of the songs are called! I can tell by the guitar riff what the next song is.
BM – Pretty often you can predict it, like – we can guess what’s coming –
DD – We play off each other.
BM – We’ve never been the sort of band that – I dunno, we didn’t really form ourselves, we just met, and before we knew it we were a band. And we don’t really form our shows, but before you know it you’re in the middle of something and it feels good. Scott make a rare foray into the conversation, confirming their ability to react is a preferred approach rather than lazy.
SL – Ben’s the only musician I’ve ever met who can play a set without a set list. It doesn’t matter who you are, you get up there and go ‘what’s the first song, what’s the first words?’ and go blank. Not Ben. And you’ve got plenty of material to work with? BM – Well, we’ve got one with New West (Any Way, Shape Or Form), one self-produced (Heavy Load), and before that a double disc that we recorded twice [he laughs – we agree not to go into it] and then before that a home made disc we burnt off a computer with Doug’s phone number on it and a note that said ‘Don’t call before 2’ –
DD – 3PM, no, 5PM! At one point I was thinking ‘I got to get up early to answer the phone?’ Oh man!
PW – It sounds like your journey as a band has evolved the same way your set lists do? How has the word on the Ben Miller Band gone out; constant touring or…?
BM – Yeah, for a long time it was like, 4 nights a week in a, let’s say, 3 hour radius of our home, and then I think things drastically changed when we met people from the music industry. We were operating outside of that machine and then we went to SXSW, believe it or not, which is just a clusterfuck, but worked out for us – There are good and bad things about SXSW? BM – That’s so true. DD – It was a complete fluke though. It wasn’t from our showcase, you know. They wanted this guy to run an open mic night, which at SXSW is a clusterfuck, and he was a buddy of ours and he said why don’t you take the last fifteen minutes – there’s a crowd here, why don’t you blow it out of the water? So we did, and the right people were there. We ended up playing for some billionaire Canadians and met some industry people.
PW – You’ve gone the traditional route; get your heads down, tour, work hard and someone’s going to notice eventually. BM – Yeah. I was never really worried about getting noticed, you know? If you’re playing shows and people are showing up then you’re doing fine. If we really could have done 5 hour radius tours and made good money doing it, we’d have been happy.
So many artists say similar things, but there’s always a sliver of doubt about whether, when Mama Success comes calling, they’re not the first ones jumping the train. With Ben, Scott and Doug, you know instantly it’s the writing and performing they love – it’s a refreshing attitude. So, this is a bonus? BM – That’s how we see it, yeah. We talk about who’s on and when they’re playing (8:40, Stage Two), which is probably the best slot on the Sunday, as it’ll be the last session most people will see before beginning to head home.
BM – Who’s on Stage One – don’t say Punch Brothers?
PW – Passenger.
BM – When do the Punch Brothers play?
PW – Before Passenger – you’ll have time to check them out.
BM – Yes! They are fucking awesome.
PW – Are you going back to the States tomorrow?
DD – Yeah, jumping on a plane tomorrow.
PW – More touring? BM – We’re gonna have a week off at home which is much needed. This whole year has been out on the road and we’ve had very, very little time at home. I’m going to do some writing, and Doug’s gonna do some more touring – DD – I got two days off –
BM – Two days?! You’re going to be in so much trouble. DD – [grinning] I’m tossing the old lady in the car with me –
BM – You’re going to be fine then. Where’s the dog staying? DD – Oh, I gotta work that out – he sings out of tune. If he could learn his parts he could come too. Does it feel like you need a break? BM – It’s fairly normal to be gone a lot, but to maintain relationships you have to be present once in a while. [laughs all round]
It turns out that holiday is very much on the band’s minds, though not perhaps in the way us mere mortals might consider a break from the norm to be a holiday. DD – I feel like we kinda hit a hump towards the middle of the tour and when we got over that we got back in the zone and got ready to rock out, so I’m kinda ready to keep touring; let’s do this again! Ben smiles, acknowledging the enthusiasm but admits BM – I’m having a hard time today ‘cos it’s the first time I’ve given up my free time. That ‘hump’ for me is surrendering to being on the road forever. In a way you have to say count the days, this is where I am now –
DD – I live here now!
BM – It could be for a million years or a minute –
DD – This van is my home!
I catch Scott chuckling quietly to himself behind me – Doug and Ben clearly go back and forth on the twists and travails of touring on a regular basis; it’s clearly in the band’s blood. BM – We were supposed to have nine days off this tour and we didn’t want nine days, ‘cos what are you going to do for nine days? So the plan was to book a few days here and there, but we met a few people in Belgium and booked some more dates, and then they kept booking ‘em and we ended up having one day off. Then management called and said that we needed to go to the studio, and that was our day off! It occurs to me that it might be better for them if they don’t have holiday, that it might drive them insane. BM – If we had one, we’d find out! We had some time yesterday and I walked all over London – we were right across from Hyde Park and now my legs are sore, so it’s dangerous having a day off!
PW – What’s the future have in store for you? BM – We’re already planning dates to come back next year – nothing’s locked down but we’re talking about festival dates in Ireland and Belgium and here in the UK. When we get home we’re on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in October which is a really big thing in San Francisco, a free concert in Golden Gate Park. And then we’re on at Telluride. We’ve heard it’s beautiful. SL – And we’re off to Sau Paulo, Brazil for the Country Pop festival. And we’re like, hoping security will be included in the deal [Laughs] I’m sure it will, though to be fair, I wouldn’t mess with any of you! DD – As long as we look tough and walk confidently, we’ll be just fine.
To paraphrase an old saying, talk softly and carry a big washboard. They do both brilliantly.
Stag Two, Sunday
At the allotted time, having spent their soundcheck setting up a myriad of enticingly different and mostly hand-made instruments, including Scott’s washtub bass, Doug’s washboard and Ben’s 70s-style phone handset, the Ben Miller Band count 4 and blow up Stage Two. There’s little warning that the next hour will be given over to their particular brand of Americana, a sound they’ve labelled Ozark Stomp (as onomatopoeic as any name you’re likely to label music, ever), but it takes the crowd less than a song to realise they’re watching something special. Fuzzed up guitar sounds, Mt. Rushmore toppling bass and an array of sounds from Doug’s kit roll out across the tent like the hammers in the Pink Floyd video. It’s alive and intense and melodic as hell, and if it sounds like it might be light on subtlety, think again; there’s light, shade and all the colours of nature wound within their relentless pursuit of happiness.
Scott sits atop a stool, one foot up on his washtub, casually surveying the crowd and then his band mates, dredging up a low end Motorhead would be proud of, always on the beat. Later he’ll swap the one-stringed bass for Doug’s kit, laying down a rhythm whilst Doug goes in search of a set of electric spoons (yes, don’t read that again, you got it right first time). Ben rarely moves from the side of his stomp-box, his name painted on one side lest anyone forget who they’re watching – he’ll jump up and down from it periodically through the set, leaning over the side of the stage with the mic (or the phone) close cupped in his hands. Doug switches from the kit to the washboard, wearing it like a tabard and scraping it in time, then brings out the trombone, then moves to spoons like a one-man jug band plugged into the National Grid.
Each post-song response is louder and looser than the previous one, something Ben acknowledges in the odd snatched conversation with the crowd. As with his interview technique, he keeps his dialogue simple and mostly short, introducing a new song by title alone or querying his colleague’s readiness. No matter; the crowd has a collective grim from ear to ear, as if it’s been hit sharply on the pre-frontal lobe and all unnecessary noise has become meaningless. It’s a tour-de-force performance from start to finish that has me laughing with joy every time I recall it.
For all the controlled emotion on stage, Ben, Scott and Doug keep their feelings to themselves off it, yet stopping by to congratulate them on their set shortly after it finishes you can tell they’re buzzing from the reaction, joking with me and the stage crew as they pack their esoteric instrument sets away. Don’t miss these guys when they return.
Interview and Review by: Paul Woodgate