An alt-rock veteran with a decade of recording and performing under his belt, Ben Harper is both excited by and exhausted from the process of making, and now touring behind, his latest album, Lifeline. Written on the road in Europe and recorded over the course of seven short days at a studio in Paris during a touring break, Lifeline represents the debut of his live backing band, The Innocent Criminals, as a collaborative partner in the recording process.
“I tend to work on instincts, and my instincts just told me this band was ready to make a record,” explains Harper, in a call from his tour bus, somewhere between New Mexico and Tucson, Ariz. “As soon as possible.”But if Harper is excited and energized by the new, urgent feel and process of making music with The Innocent Criminals, he's not quite as excited when it comes to talking about the new record.
“In the interest of full disclosure,” he jokes, when asked to talk about the new songs, “I would be repeating myself and giving answers that I've given over and over in the past few weeks—not that I mind doing that. I just don't want to front and try to come off like I'm waxing poetic for the first time about this.”
But Harper is needlessly self-conscious here, because thankfully, the songs on Lifeline do speak loudly and eloquently for themselves. Lifeline is 11 mature and deceptively simple acoustic-soul explorations, neatly packaged melodic ideas that unfold in short track times to encompass some surprisingly wide-ranging emotions and issues—not unusual in approach for a Harper record, just amazingly well-executed in such a brief context.
From the fun, percolating syncopations of percussionist Leon Mobley on opener “Fight Outta You” to Harper's mournful harp on “Fool for a Lonesome Train,” the satisfying ornamentation on Lifeline is stark and appropriate, and Harper's gut feeling that this band was ready to make a record is validated with each track's short but powerful course.“You gotta follow your creative instincts,” Harper says when I give him my take on the new effort. “If you're not, you're going to be behind the eight ball when it comes to what you're trying to put out. We were just ready to collaborate and make a record in a way that none of us had been before.”
If Harper is a bit road- or press-weary these days, he doesn't seem to be tired of his band mates. In fact, he says, they've been enjoying some of the usual diversions that a band on a tour bus gets to share: watching DVDs together.“We just watched [the new Tom Petty documentary] Running Down a Dream the night before last on the bus,” he says. “That is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking right there. We finished the first disc [of a four-hour movie] and we had to go play a show.
“And we were like, ‘Aw, man, I can't wait to finish playing so we can get back and watch the second disc.'”Going on 12 years writing and recording and performing as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals does give the group more than just a stage name in common with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Harper is quick to see the connections.
“I love what Tom said about never wanting to just hire the best musicians in town at that moment for his sound. I really respected that,” Harper says. “That struck deep in what I've always attempted do, and that was have a group of guys you grow with and get to know, travel and experience the world together. That was always much more important to me than hiring the sharpshooter, hired gun for the moment.
“I've always wanted to hold on to the band dynamic.” Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals perform at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 18. Doors open at 8 p.m. $37-$51. 619-570-1100