Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Artist Spotlight: Ben Tanner (of the Alabama Shakes)

Aritst Spotlight: Ben Tanner (of Alabama Shakes)

     During my time in Muscle Shoals I made many great friendship. I know many of them will last for a lifetime. Of all those folks, Ben Tanner has to be among the top of the list. During the time we spent writing and recording at FAME studios, I probably spent the most time with Ben. During the Nostoi sessions and virtually every other thing we recorded while in the Shoals, Ben was some how involved as either an engineer, producer, or just an extra set of qualified ears.

    In addition to being a studio whiz, Ben is a well educated guy whose just a chill guy to hang with. Many nights we would hang at Ricatoni's or Rivertown Coffee and just discuss music, or life, or ....the most absurd things we could ponder. But it was always fun.

   Well being a cool guy and a great engineer/producer isn't the end of young Tanner's list of great attributes. He is also an incredible keyboardist.

    We had Ben play on many of our recordings throughout our time in the Shoals.

   Any time we were in town and saw that Ben would be playing with this group or that group we would go check it out. He never disappointed.

   We all knew Ben was a musical genius and headed toward musical greatness, but we weren't sure which vehicle would take him there. He had played with dozens of cool bands around the Shoals area but for this reason or that reason they would never last for too long. We'd come back from the road and Ben would be playing with a great band. We'd go out of town and come back and Ben would be with a different group. We'd head to Mobile for a week, come back and Ben would be in yet another band. They were always interesting and Ben always added the perfect signature element to the style of the band (regardless of which band). They just had short shelf lives.

    It is for all these reasons that Ben joining the Alabama Shakes and their subsequent rise to world prominance made me ecstatic. This is probably the time when I can most confidently say, "The Good Guy Won. (and continues to win)"

    I have to laugh now when I think about the following story: About 6 months before they began to explode onto the charts, they headed down to Callaghan's in Mobile. Ben called me to see if we were going to be around. Of course as it worked out we were not in town because we were out somewhere playing ourselves. But I told Ben that I was close friends with the owner of the club they were going to play and I would put in a call to him. I made the call to the owner (JT) and asked him to take care of "my people" and be sure to talk to Ben because he was a close friend. Of course JT takes care of all musicians that play his place, but I thought I would warn JT anyway. Besides that's the least I could do to help out my old friend Ben and his latest bad ass band that was struggling to make it.

    Well I laugh now because that may have been the last they ever struggled. It was very very shortly after their Callaghan's performance (which was apparently great. Both JT and Ben called me to tell me they had a phenomenal time) that they were all over every media outlet in the world.

    So last year at the Hangout festival in Gulf Shores I watched Ben (along with the rest of the Alabama Shakes) absolutely rock 40,000 plus people. It was very apparent that they drew as big a crowd as any act at the entire festival (which included Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews Band). They were remarkable. It made me proud to watch ANY Alabama based band bring the pain like that, but for it to be a kind, deserving long time friend......well I'm not gonna lie I teared up a little. It was a beautiful moment. (I mean it was 10x more emotional than watching "Rudy").

   Anyway, I hung out with Ben at the Hangout. I got to tell him how proud we all are of him. But I also got to ask him some questions.

    He is amongst my busiest of friends but because he is the most bad ass Ben Tanner, he took time out of his schedule to answer a few questions so I could put them here for your enjoyment.

    If you have been living under a rock and are unaware of the Alabama Shakes, go check them out. And if you see their keyboard player wandering the streets go buy him a drink ( I'll pay ya back).

Here's the interview:
1.- Let me start by saying I'm not sure I've ever been more proud of a friend than I am of you. And being as "the industry" has made horrible decision after horrible decision , seeing you (a highly competent artist and a genuine good soul) be recognized and successful gives me hope for music. Have you crossed paths with other artists that make you feel the same? (meaning: artists who were successful and worthy. Artists whose recent success give you hope for the future of "the industry")   
Thanks so much, Eric.  It gives me hope, too.  I first saw the Shakes (when they were simply "The Shakes") in front of 40 or 50 people, and it was one of the greatest musical moments I've experienced.  But I never thought, "They're gonna be huge", I just thought it was another great band that would probably never be heard as widely as they should be.  So to see them (us) succeed gives me hope, too.

As far as other artists, Bonnie Raitt comes to mind immediately.  We met her briefly on the David Letterman set.  On Thursdays, Letterman tapes a double show; they shoot Thursday's and Friday's shows in one day so they can take Friday off.  We were taping for Thursday, and Bonnie was there for Friday's.  After we played, I went back upstairs to our dressing room, and there was Bonnie Raitt talking to Brittany.  She was just the warmest, coolest, nicest person.  And then she was telling Brittany about this obscure female singer from Louisiana, and she starts singing a line of this song, and it clicked for me: "Oh, that's just your voice.  That's what you actually sound like."  We ran into her again in Nashville at the Americana Music Awards, and she was, again, unbelievably nice and gave a killer performance.  So hers was more a lesson of how to act.  It's like your grandmother always taught you, "Be sweet", no matter how great you (think you) are.

We've also crossed paths with a lot of the folks from that Daptone R&B scene in Brooklyn, and they're really inspiring, too.  Great musicians really committed to writing great songs and coming up with great arrangements.  We did a show with Antibolas in California, and they've got something like 12 guys on stage, but it never feels cluttered, they're all playing off each other and listening to each other.  And that whole scene came from them just making the kind of records they wanted to hear, and it eventually paid off for them, so that's a pretty hopeful story, too.

I could go on and on.  I've been fortunate to meet a lot of really talented and amazing people.

2. The Muscle Shoals area has been churning out great music and musicians for what seems like forever, but I can't help but feel there has been a renaissance there over the last few years. It seems to me like the area is bursting at the seams with talented musicians and writers in a way it hasn't in years (or possibly ever). Do you feel that's an accurate statement? 

It definitely feels like something special to me, and a lot of the older players like David Hood and Spooner Oldham say it's the most talent they've ever seen around here, so I'll take their word for it.  I also think it's only the beginning.  It feels like everyone has a lot of momentum right now.  We're all learning with every record we make, and I think the Shoals is putting out a pretty solid catalog of work right now, and I think we'll continue to challenge ourselves to make better and better records.

3. A lot of musical icons passed away this year. Are there any of our recently departed brethren that hit home with you more than others?
Definitely Levon Helm.  The Band is right up there with The Beatles and The Stones for me, and I had the pleasure of meeting Levon a few years ago.  I was at Bonnaroo with the now defunct Sons of Roswell, and Dylan Leblanc, Jay Burgess and myself were hanging backstage before Levon's set, and Levon was just standing over by himself, so I thought, I have to at least shake the man's hand.  He chatted with us for a minute, and when it came out that we were from Muscle Shoals, he just lit up.  He asked about all the session players from there, and he talked to us like we were his own grandchildren.  He was a really sweet, genuine person.  And then he put on an unbelievable show.  I just read his autobiography, "This Wheel's On Fire".  That's a really great read.

4. You have been touring a bunch. We were recently in Europe at the same time. I was in Belgium and I missed being able to see y'all in Germany and in France by a day each time. If you are anything like me, you discover new favorite spots in Europe everytime you go. Tell me some of your favorite European spots (it could be a venue , a restaurant, a park, whatever). Which European spots make Ben Tanner wish he could stay longer?

I lived in Paris for a little while after college, so I always love going back there.  This summer, we had a couple of days off in Utrecht in the Netherlands, which was a great little city.  Like a smaller, chiller version of Amsterdam.  I had a really nice time in Madrid just wandering around the city, and everything starts later there, which is more like my natural schedule.  We played the Montreux Jazz Festival this year, and we got hang out at the festival founder's chalet up in the Swiss alps.  That was pretty surreal and amazing.  Those are some highlights, but we have a pretty great time everywhere in Europe; Europe has treated us very well.

5. Now for more of the gear geek questions. Do you find that you are more of the "I have to have the new model of the best piece of gear every time it comes out" type guy or are you more of a "tried and true. I've had this keyboard since middle school" type of guy? 

In the studio, I love trying lots of different stuff, and I try to avoid too many formulas or presets. In the keyboard realm, specifically, sometimes a cheap crappy keyboard might have one cool sound on it that works perfectly for something.  But for playing live, I tend to go towards the more stable, versatile stuff.  I've been playing the same Nord Electro 2 for around 6 years now, and it's treated me really well.  For some bands I play with, I'll add a Nord Lead to that setup if I need some more synth-y or noisy sounds.

6. What is you gear setup specifically?

With the Shakes, I have a pretty sweet right now.  They recently bought a road-worthy B3 that has folding legs and fits into a road case.  So I usually have that and a Rhodes and the Nord Electro.  The Electro i normally use for just piano sounds unless the Rhodes is having issues, which happens from time to time.  So with the Shakes, it's a pretty awesome, classic setup, and it's really spoiling me.

7. I know you as a great musician but I also know you as a producer and engineer from the time I spent working with you on Ugli Stick stuff. Are you doing any engineering or producing currently? If not, do you miss it and see yourself getting back into more studio work once you are off the road a little more?

Yeah, I'm still trying to record as much as possible.  Touring so much makes it challenging, but this year, I've stayed really busy with sessions during our breaks from the road.  I've been juggling a lot of records all year, and every time it looks like it's going to slow down, something else comes along.  I had to invest  in a new laptop with Pro Tools installed so I could do at least some work on the road.  Before I got the laptop, it was like, "I'm home for a week and I have 4 different projects to work on, plus I have to do laundry before I leave again."  So the laptop has helped a lot.  Plus, there's so much downtime on the road, it's nice to have something productive to do, I can at least pull up a session and mess around with it.

8.  Give me a brief rundown on what is on slate for you for the remainder of 2012 and the beginning of 2013.

We leave for another European tour on November 1, and we're over there for a few weeks, then we have a couple of weeks off, and then we have a handful of shows in the US at the beginning of December, and then I think we're gonna be off until the end of the year.  In January we're hitting Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, which is insane.  I still haven't wrapped my mind around that.

On the recording front, I just sent off mixes to be mastered for Belle Adair's first LP, and I'm pretty excited about that.  The Bear just finished tracking their new album, and we'll probably start mixing in November and try to put it out sometime in early 2013.  Doc Dailey's new album comes out in a couple of weeks.  I'm mixing a really cool EP for a soul/R&B band from Birmingham called Saint Paul and the Broken Bones right now.  John Paul White has a little guest house behind his house that we're trying to develop into a smaller studio/mix room/writing room.  We just started moving gear in there this week, but we're pretty excited about it.


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