BEN HARPER AND RELENTLESS7 WINGMAN JASON MOZERSKY REVEAL how they crafted gnarly hooks and transcendent tones on White Lies for Dark Times.
“I’m going to shock you all with a record that peels the paint off the walls,” Ben Harper vowed to GP readers in his February 2007 feature. White Lies for Dark Times [Virgin] proves beyond any doubt that he is a man of his word. Harper has sidelined the venerable Innocent Criminals for the time being, and his new gang is hardcore by comparison. Drummer Jordan Richardson, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and guitarist Jason Mozersky honed their chops in a Zeppelin tribute band, and they bring a similar thunder to Relentless7. White Lies presents blues-rock played with command and conviction, and it features an array of ripping guitar tones.
Produced by Harper, the record sounds as if it could have been recorded in the 1970s, although the songs reflect the urgency of the modern moment. They’re not overtly socially conscious—as has been the case with much of Harper’s previous output. This music is much more straightforward, and simply sounds as if Harper has tapped into the woe of the world, and wrenched that feeling out of his pen, his voice, and his instruments.
White Lies for Dark Times includes a couple of choice acoustic cuts, but it’s easily Harper’s most electric record to date. The new sound marks another significant step in the progression of an artist who spent his youth in his family’s shop—Claremont’s Folk Music Center—and was totally devoted to Weissenborn Hawaiian-style acoustic lap-slide guitars at the outset of his career. His quest to combine acoustic resonance with Les Paul balls eventually led to his signature Asher electric lap-slide, which is his workhorse in Relentless7. Harper saves most of his extended jamming for the stage, but the record nonetheless features some of his best-sounding and most memorable guitar playing. His scorching tones on tunes such as “Shimmer and Shine” and “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” are earbud meltdown material, and his graceful solo on “Lay There and Hate Me” provides welcome melodic respite from the ruckus.
Jason Mozersky is integral to the guitar sound of Relentless7, and although he’s a Jimmy Page fanatic, he doesn’t deal in flash, instead bringing the requisite taste and poise of a wonderful wingman. His lead on the bombastic blues boogie “Why Must You Always Dress in Black” oozes cool, and demonstrates uncommon restraint. Mozersky’s understated nature also serves him well as a tunesmith. “Up to You” is a textbook example of how to select a few choice notes from a simple chord progression, and make them come alive with maximum vibe.
Harper and Mozersky have been buddies since 1998, when Harper helped land a record deal for Mozersky’s former band— an alternative rock act called Wan Santo Condo—and had them open some shows on his Burn to Shine tour. Mozersky also appeared on two cuts from Harper’s 2006 solo effort, Both Sides of the Gun. One of them, “Serve Your Soul,” also featured Ingalls and Richardson. Harper made another record with the Innocent Criminals—2007’s Lifeline—before summoning the “Serve Your Soul” crew to Eldorado studios last summer, just to see what might happen.
You sure delivered on your promise of a paintpeeling record.
Harper: I’ve been gravitating towards this sound, but I couldn’t express exactly what was happening in the last interview because this band still had to be proven.
What about Jason’s guitar style made him the right player to complement you at this point in your career?
Harper: If you’re going to play blues-oriented rock or rock-oriented blues, you have to play both styles really well. Jason demonstrated that he could when I had him come play on Both Sides of the Gun. The track “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating” was giving me some trouble, so I asked Jason to try it. I didn’t even give him any direction. He just jumped in and played some John Lee Hooker-approved stuff that made the song come to life.
Mozersky: It was a fast track, and I immediately heard it as a fingerstyle Delta blues. I plugged Ben’s ’54 Les Paul goldtop straight into a tweed ’58 Fender Deluxe and cranked it up to get a really dirty tone.
Harper: After the session I checked out Jason’s Zeppelin tribute band with Jordan and Jesse, and they were incredible, so I invited them to play on “Serve Your Soul.” I hadn’t envisioned it as a band track because there were so many movements, and I thought it would be best to play all the instruments myself. Special things happen when you do that because you know where the idiosyncrasies fall. I never thought they’d get all the subtleties, but they did it so swiftly and with such force that I was left sitting there in disbelief. Chemistry is the most important thing for a band, and I recognized it right away with these players.
Were you planning to do a hard-hitting record ever since then?
Harper: I had an idea of where I wanted to go, but nothing could be further from the truth than for me to sit here and say that I really knew exactly what I was going to do. Some of the best things in my life have happened to me. The “Serve Your Soul” session was a signpost. The GP interview was another signpost. I ended up doing an impromptu set at the Bonnaroo festival with John Paul Jones on bass and Questlove [the Roots] on drums. That gig was the final signpost. After it went down, I decided that I needed to exist there—stripped down, straight-up guitar rock.
Jason, what was your Zeppelin tribute band called, and what was your angle on the music?
Mozersky: Well, we were called Pudge Zeppelin because we were all slightly overweight [laughs]. The name was funny, but we took the music seriously. The live Zeppelin package, How the West Was Won, had recently come out. Obviously, Zeppelin’s studio recordings were very elaborate productions with layers of guitars, so it was interesting to see how Jimmy Page broke things down to the part he thought was most vital to the song. I based my approach on the live versions, and we kept pushing the envelope with our own improvisations.
Harper: It’s cool to have a band that can break into pretty much any Zeppelin cover on a dime, and that is a component of this band live. We will delve more deeply into that eventually, but I want us to establish our own identity with this recording first.
What direction did you offer, and how did things develop once the sessions got going?
Mozersky: Ben told me that he wanted the songwriting to be collaborative. I honestly didn’t do much preparation, but I did bring in a few ideas. For example, the first track we cut was “Up to You Now,” and I had the verse riff and the chords for the chorus. Ben wrote the lyrics on the spot, sang the vocals live while I led the band, and then overdubbed his guitar part later. We had the song done and mixed in a few hours. That’s how we did most of the record, although it varied from song to song. About eight songs in, Ben said, “We’ve got a record—let’s form a band.” Of course, we were ecstatic.
It sounds like you put a tremendous amount of faith in these guys, Ben.
Harper: It’s true, but I actually developed that faith on the last Innocent Criminals CD. Lifeline was the first time I co-wrote a record with my band, and that experience prepared me for this one in huge way.
“Number With No Name” is another great example of how things were happening in real time. We walked in not having any idea of what we were going to record. Jason played that riff, it inspired me to write some lyrics, and the song was done quickly. I overdubbed the solo on a short-scale, depression-era National lap-steel that’s just begging to scream. It looks like a trashcan. I ran it through a Dumble combo, with the mic placed a few feet back. That was almost an accidental solo, really. I stumbled into it on the first take, or at least one of the first few takes. I used an exaggerated vibrato because the song called for something aggressive—bordering on frantic.
“Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” has a badass riff with a cool lyric. How did you develop that song?
Harper: In that case, I had been sitting on the guitar riff for about six months before the lyric hit me. I had to wait until I had lived it enough to be ready to write that one. I tend to let songs finish themselves unless I’m in the studio writing on the spot. You’ve got to be inspired and open to let that happen. It’s like walking a tightrope because you have to be aware enough to stay out of your own way, and let the song come. It’s amazing how lyrical music can be, and vice versa. I feel fortunate to be able to marry the two instinctually.
“Lay There and Hate Me” has a great groove, and the solo on the bridge is a real standout.
Harper: We devised that entire tune around Jesse’s bass line, which is always fun to do, but that bridge was one of the only times during the sessions that we were caught not knowing what to play on guitar. Jason and I both kicked around some ideas that didn’t work, so I suggested we have a horn player come by, as I thought it would be cool to have one place on the record where there was a different texture. I plugged in my Asher, and played what I heard in my head as a sax part to demonstrate the idea. I was just toying around, but the guys all said, “That’s it.”
What was the vision from a production and tonal standpoint?
Harper: I believe in the power of great gear in the recording process, and I’m still committed to using mostly vintage gear in order to achieve a warm, rich sound. I brought my full arsenal of old amps, microphones, and guitars. But I brought some new stuff too, including my signature Asher lapsteels. I’ve been incorporating them onstage for quite some time, and I started recording them through Dumble amps on Both Sides of the Gun. Now that sound is on full display.
What Dumbles did you use?
Harper: I used three Dumble Overdrive Specials individually. One is a switchable 100/50-watt single 12" combo from the early ’80s, which I call the “Black Carpet.” I used that for the “Number with No Name” solo. I brought another one with me that I bought from David Lindley. I was honored to be his first call when he decided to sell, because Lindley is a huge influence, and the amp is one of the first ten Dumbles ever made. It’s a 50-watt head with a 2x12 cabinet. The amp I used on the vast majority of the tracks once belonged to Carlos Rios, I believe. It’s a switchable 100/40-watt head with a matching 1x12 cabinet. I refer to it as the “Caramel” because its suede covering is that color. I’m so excited about the tone I’m getting. I’ve been reaching for it my entire life.
Can you explain how important the Dumbles are in getting a tone that inspires you?
Harper: Well, I don’t want people to think that you need to have what I play in order to get a great lap-steel tone. If you roll off the treble, you can get a fine lap-steel tone on any number of amps. But where I’ve landed with the Asher/Dumble combination, the tone feeds back to me. Your tone should insist that you play differently, play better, and that you’re more satisfied with every note. Tone should represent a challenge as well as an accomplishment.
How does your tone challenge you?
My tone emboldens me to take more risks, and it challenges me to write songs. Now my words come from my instrument and my amp.
Did you bring a load of gear as well, Jason, or did you use a lot of Ben’s equipment?
Mozersky: Both. I pretty much played a different guitar and amp combination on every song, but I did have an overall setup strategy for the studio. Before the session, I bought a ’64 Vox head and a 2x12 cabinet. That rig was set up in a little soundproofed fort right next to where I was standing in the main room. The idea was to achieve some degree of separation, while also being able to feel what was happening. I find that’s really important for me in order to play my best. I split my signal to an early-’70s 100- watt Marshall head, which was running through a Bogner 4x12 cabinet in another room. There were two mics on each cabinet— one close, and one a bit further away, and sometimes I used both amps, like on “Number with No Name.” On other songs, such as “Why Must You Always Dress in Black,” I just cranked up the Vox. I cut my rhythm tracks on both of those songs with an Epiphone hollowbody from the ’30s or ’40s that I borrowed from a friend, and I grabbed Ben’s Les Paul Junior for the lead on “Dress in Black.”
Your phrasing is very sparse, especially considering the frenetic pace of the tune.
Mozersky: I grew up listening to Albert King and Freddie King, and that taught me that what you don’t play is as important as what you play. “Dress in Black” moves along at a brisk tempo, and sometimes the best thing to do in that case is take the opposite approach with the lead, by playing something really sparse. Also, I listen to the drums as much as I do the guitar—I played drums for years before I switched to guitar in high school—and that’s all I did from there on out.
Can you explain how you use various vibratos to make a note sing?
Mozersky: It’s hard to explain. I use different vibratos depending on the effect I want to get. I spent a lot of time learning how Eric Clapton and B.B. King used vibrato. They’re very different. I’ve just kind of assimilated various techniques from my influences, and rolled them into my own style.
The Ben Harper Signature Martin received a rave review in GP’s January issue. Did either of you play that on White Lies for Dark Times?
Harper: No, but I tour with it. Fishman’s Ellipse Matrix Blend system is so well dialed that it allows me to play at high volumes without worrying about feedback—and that’s been a revelation. I went with Martin’s M size because it delivers the low end of a dreadnought without being so over-encumbering as to give up definition in the mids and highs. I put everything I ever learned about acoustic instruments into that guitar from scalloped bracing to a more vintagelooking finish. In 20 years they are going to be some of the best-looking guitars out there. I put my target logo on the headstock rather than my signature, which I realize is a bit out of the ordinary. I wanted the instrument to be defined by the player, and I think that’s more difficult to do when a guitar has someone else’s name on the headstock.
There aren’t too many guitars coming out with Adirondack spruce tops these days. Do you prefer it to Sitka spruce?
I think that tends to get overworked in arguments about acoustic guitar woods. I’ve heard great-sounding instruments made from both, so it’s hard for me to say. I’m not a snob about either one.
Do you have any thoughts on miking acoustics?
Harper: There are a hundred different ways to record an acoustic, but there’s usually only one right way for a particular song and moment. It’s about paying close attention to your sonic environment, and what’s going to bring out the best in that song
Did you play any of your Weissenborns on this CD?
I only played acoustic lap-slide in one spot on the record, for the solo on “Faithfully Remain.” It’s a Lyon & Healy Bell Hawaiian harp guitar. It doesn’t actually have harp guitar strings, but they call it a harp guitar because it basically has the chamber of a harp. It sounds so rich and full—like a Dobro and a Weissenborn combined. When you play a Dobro or Weissenborn after playing the Lyon & Healy, it’s laughable.
You’ve come a long way from your origins as a strictly acoustic player. Describe the progression.
Harper: I started out playing bottleneck, and quickly shifted to acoustic lap-steel because I was personally able to get more out of it as a player and as a songwriter. My early slide influences included Robert Johnson, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Black Ace, and Sol H`opi`i. Taj Mahal gave me my first paying gig, and it was the honor of a lifetime. I was just starting to dig deeper than the acoustic lap-steel tradition allowed, by experimenting with different ways to reproduce the sound live. As much as I was dedicated to playing acoustic slide blues, I was also a huge fan of electric guitar players such as Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Lowell George, so I had always been looking to amp it up. I think songs on my first record, such as “Whipping Boy” and “Like a King,” represent how I was pushing the envelope on acoustic lap-steel. It quickly demanded that I get a solidbody instrument, especially for use at high stage volumes, just to keep my acoustic instruments from turning to dust.
Did you go through a vintage electric lap-slide phase?
Harper: I went through the vintage lapsteel thing fast and furious. I tried every single one—Nationals, Supros, Fenders, Gibsons— but none would do because they were all built with only one pickup. I essentially needed roundneck options on a lap-steel, which didn’t exist. Billy Asher understood where I was reaching, so we collaborated on my signature model. He honeycombed the body, and laminated the top. The Series II includes a pair of Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers, and that’s the instrument I use the most right now.
What’s your favorite instrument, Jason?
Mozersky: It’s a ’65 Gibson Firebird III, which was a transition model. It has a reverse body shape, and a non-reverse headstock with banjo tuners. I play it a lot live, and I used it on “Up to You Now.” For that particular track, I ran it through an MXR Micro Amp, and an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man delay, which is my favorite pedal in the world. I split my signal into Ben’s late-’50s Fender Twin and a Princeton Reverb.
Can you offer some insights on how you play the main theme that appears in the intro and verses? The suspended notes ring out really well.
Mozersky: The underlying chords are F#min and D, but I’m only hitting a few essential notes, and letting them flow with the vibrato from the Memory Man. I play F# on the A string at the 9th fret with my third finger, and then I hit the A at the 10th fret of the B string with my pinky. I drop that a half step. Then I change to the fifth position, where I play D on the A string, and E on the B string.
What are you playing on that track, Ben?
Harper: That’s my mom’s guitar. It’s a single-pickup, single-cutaway Gibson Melody Maker from the 1950s. I put really heavy strings on it, and strummed chords in standard tuning using a capo at the 2nd fret.
You’re a lead demon on lap-slide, but you seem content to play simple accompaniment parts when you pick up a solidbody or a traditional acoustic.
Harper: That’s a great point, and totally fair. My lead guitar interests have always been on lap-slide. That’s just where my heart is.
Do you always pluck with your fingers, or do you incorporate picks as well?
Harper: I always play with my fingers. I do most of the work with my middle finger, trigger finger, and thumb, although I will incorporate my ring finger and pinky at times. I use different methods for different attacks. I play with the pads on the front side of my fingers for more sensitive stuff, and will dig in with the tops of my fingernails for a more of a Hendrix, or Stevie Ray Vaughan sort of attack. I play upstrokes with the back of my thumbnail—both for chords, and for occasional solo notes. I’m constantly shedding skin. After sitting in with the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks looked at my fingers and said, “Man, I thought I saw stuff flying everywhere.”
Mozersky: I primarily use a pick, but will roll it back and use my fingers depending on the kind of sound I’m trying to get. I usually play fingerstyle when the song calls for something delicate, or during a lead when I’ll incorporate some hybrid picking.
Do you ever play slide, or lap-slide?
Mozersky: I can play slide, but it’s not my forte. I don’t play lap-slide at all.
I notice you taking various angles with the bar, Ben. Can you explain how the bar, string pressure, and the angle of attack factor in as you navigate the neck?
Harper: The Scheerhorn steel bar has been a big part of establishing my sound and feel. It’s got some weight, but it’s not weighty enough to pull in a negative way. Because the lap-slide is fretless, it’s all about applying the proper pressure for precise, even intonation. I vary the pressure and the angle I take on the strings depending on the style of the song, and where I’m at on the neck. Certain songs require a feather’s touch, and others require you to dig in. But the strings get tighter as you move up the neck. The trick is to apply less pressure in order to compensate, and to take a sharper, more concise angle to get the exact note you want without hitting the other strings.
“Shimmer and Shine” really sizzles. Can you offer some insights on the tone and the tuning?
Harper: The tone is the Asher through the overdrive channel of the caramel-colored Dumble. For the solo, I’m just playing octaves, and using an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser. The tuning I use a lot, DADDAD, allows me to play octaves easily without having to worry about accidentally hitting a third. I raise or lower my tuning according to what kind of tone I’m looking for on the bottom end. I wanted it to be very tight and cutting on “Shimmer and Shine,” so I raised the pitch a step-and-a-half to F. That’s the start of the danger zone on a lapsteel. Anything higher, and it’s better to use a shorter-scale instrument so that there is less tension on the strings.
Do the two of you match tunings on “Shimmer and Shine,” or on any of the other tunes for that matter?
Mozersky: No. When Ben’s playing lapslide, he’s always in one open tuning or another. I stay in standard tuning and try to find something complementary at the other end of the spectrum. From there, it’s all about listening to what he’s doing, and trying to enhance the situation with cool parts and cool sounds.
How did you get that radical ripping, stuttering distortion sound in the second verse?
Mozersky: I plugged Ben’s Les Paul Junior into an old Vox AC15 that he had borrowed from Jackson Browne for the session. The stuttering effect is from some crazy fuzz pedal that was at the studio. I was just messing around when I came up with my part, and in-between the notes I kept hearing something in my headphones that sounded kind of like an envelope filter combined with a noise gate. Every time I let up on the strings, it would make that “wah” sound, and then it would close up when I started playing again. There was just something about the way that pedal reacted with that amp and that guitar. I couldn’t really tell what was happening, but I could see the guys in the control room wigging out, so I went in there with them and listened back to the track. It was really weird, and I honestly don’t know if I could do it again if I tried.
How did you create the noise 1:30 into “Boots Like These,” when it sounds like the speaker is on the verge of blowing?
Mozersky: I played a red sparkle ’63 Fender Tele cranked up through a 30-watt Fulton-Webb amp, which was handmade in my home state of Texas by my good friend and guitar tech Billy Webb. I added a Fulltone Ultimate Octave Pedal and a Fulltone Clyde wah to get that sound, and it’s one of my favorites on the record.
Are you using similar gear now that you’re on the road as Relentless7, or has it changed since the sessions?
Harper: Dumble made me a 100-watt Overdrive Special combo from scratch. It’s a new step for me sonically because it offers a preamp boost for both the clean and the overdrive sounds. It’s like having the most otherworldly overdrive pedal built right into the amp. That has become my go-to rig onstage, whereas I had been using the “Black Carpet” as my main touring amp for years.
Mozersky: I bring a pair of Hiwatt heads on tour. I have a vintage DR-103 that has softened with age, and a new CP-103, which is a bit louder and more aggressive. I choose one or the other depending on the venue, and run it through a single Bogner 4x12 cabinet.
You didn’t mention using any Hiwatts for the record. Why the switch?
Mozersky: Ben’s tone is very specific. His Overdrive Specials have the same focus in the lows and midrange as a Marshall plexi, and such a big overall sound, especially when he’s playing lap-slide. I was able to dial in complementary tones in the studio using my Marshall or my Vox, but I found that the Dumble would just swallow them up onstage. I experimented with a lot of different amps on our first club tour, and the only one that stood up and fit into the frequency range that the Dumble doesn’t occupy was the Hiwatt. It has a cleaner signal that blends well, and allows us both to be heard.
What are you learning from each other’s guitar playing as you get further into this experience?
Mozersky: Ben’s a very original thinker, and he has amazing phrasing. I’ve learned a lot about how to approach a solo by listening to how he puts a string of notes together. Sometimes I’ll hear a lick he does on lapslide, and try to learn how to play it for my own edification. Some translate, and some don’t. I’ve heard a million players talk about how enlightening it can be to transpose Charlie Parker’s horn licks to the guitar. It’s the same principal to learn lap-slide licks, but as much as I’ve learned from that, it’s also my job to play something different.
Harper: Jason pushes me to play differently each night. For example, the solo that I usually take at the end of “Dressed in Black” is completely influenced by the solo he takes in the middle of the song. He never plays what you expect him to play, and he never plays the same thing twice. What he does play is so soulful that you feel every one of his notes. He’s not looking to get a score from the Russian judge. Trust me, he can play fast and furious, and he will cut you down if you really want him to play that game. But unless you’re sitting in Guitar Center, there’s really no place for that. I won’t stand for it in this band.
What are you thoughts on the future of Relentless7, and how that affects the situation with the Innocent Criminals?
Harper: I haven’t even discussed the Criminals in terms of a breakup or anything like that. Maybe it’s just too difficult, and I’m in denial. I can’t do both bands and expect to be able to give my best to either. It’s important to me that Relentless7 is not seen as a side project, or as an experiment. It’s a full-fledged band that deserves to be heard with a fresh set of ears, and judged on its own merits as being something completely different from anything I’ve done before. Relentless7 is out to kill you! I’m completely committed and devoted to it on a long-term level with no compromise. This is where the process of creativity demanded I be. It’s for keeps.
RELENTLESS7 ROAD GEAR
Acoustics Assorted Weissenborn lap-style slide guitars including two Style 4s (circa 1924-1927), a Teardrop (circa 1930), and a Style 1 (circa 1922), Fraulini 12-string, Martin HM Ben Harper Special Edition
Acoustic Pickups Seymour Duncan Mag Mics
Electrics Asher Ben Harper Series II lap steel (with Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers), ’56 Gibson Les Paul Special, Fender Custom Shop Telecaster
Amps Dumble 100-watt Overdrive Special (1x12 combo), ’80s 100-watt Dumble Overdrive Special (1x12 combo), ’70s 50-watt Dumble Overdrive Special head (with 2x12 cab), Dumble 100-watt head (with 1x12 cab)
Effects Hermida Zendrive, Ibanez AD99 Analog Delay, Vox V847 wah, Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phase shifter, Demeter Tremulator, Electro-Harmonix #1 Echo, Univox U-1093 Super-Fuzz, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Budda Budwah, Z.Vex Super Hard-On, Radial J48 active direct box
Accesories All D’Addario strings—EJ16, EFT16, EJ17, and EJ18 sets (Weissenborns); EJ21, EJ22, and XL115 sets (Ashers); EFT16 set (acoustics); and EXL110W set (solidbody electrics). Scheerhorn steel slide bar.
TuningsE Major [E, B, E,G#,B, E], D Major [D,A, D, F#,, A, D], DADDAD [lowered or raised as much two steps], Spanish G [D, G, D, G, B, D], and B, E, A, D, F#,, B.
Guitars 1965 Gibson Firebird III, Gibson ’59 Les Paul reissue, Fender ’51 Nocaster Relic with a custom Seymour Duncan Charlie Christian Repro pickup in the front position, 2000 Gibson SG, ’66 Fender Electric XII, LSL 52.5 Aged T-Bone
Effects Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face, Fulltone Ultimate Octave, ZVex Machine, Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer, Klon Centaur overdrive, Moogerfooger MF-103 12-Stage Phaser, Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, Demeter TRM-1 Tremulator
Amps Hiwatt DR-103 or CP-103 Custom 100 Pete Townshend Signature head through a Bogner 4x12 cabinet
Accessories Dunlop 418R Standard 1.14mm pick, D’Addario strings of various gauges (and a custom 12- string set for “Fly One Time”)