Interview: The Soledad Brothers
Q&A with Ben Swank
By Matt Ashworth and Eli Langlo
Detroit Rock City.
It’s been a heck of a long time since Michigan’s largest burg has been able to live up to that nickname (Bob Seger anyone?). Sure, there have been some post-Iggy highpoints over the past 25 years, but the last time the city could honestly boast about a strong, identifiable rock scene the White Stripes were in diapers and the MC5 were still kicking out the jams.
But that all seems to be changing. Led by the suddenly MTV-friendly Stripes, a crew of Detroit bands are re-introducing the world to the brand of raw, dirty, bluesy punk rock that returned the city to national prominence in the ‘70s for the first time since Motown ruled the charts. About a year ago a bright-eyed member of our promotions team handed me a self-titled debut album by one of these groups, the Soledad Brothers, and asked me to give it a spin – It stayed on my turntable for three months. Dripping with amped up harmonica, slow psychedelic blues jams and passionate lyrics that at times come across more as a call-to-action than a song, it was the kind of record I hadn’t heard in… well… a long time.
The band released their second album, Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move, in March. Like its predecessor, it’s chock full of Stonesy blues nuggets and fuzzy guitar and harmonica, but this time around the boys introduce horns, flute and acoustic bass to their blues-punk formula. If you live in the Midwest, you’ll have a chance to see the band play tracks from the new album live, as they play several dates with Omaha’s Fireballs of Freedom this month.
It’s our custom here at Nada Mucho to reward one good deed with another, so when the Soledad Brothers recently came through Seattle for a show at the city’s famed Crocodile Café, the Nada greenhorn who introduced me to the band, Eli Langlo, joined me in chatting with drummer Ben Swank prior to the show. It went something like this…
Nada Mucho: How long have you guys been together?
Ben Swank: We’ve been in this band about four years; we’ve been playing together in other bands for about seven years, though.
NM: How’d the band get together?
BS: It kind of came out of our last band Henry and June. It was a blues/rock thing that broke up. Johnny had a different drummer for a while. But when it all blew up and they started fist fighting on stage, I stepped in.
NM: List some major influences.
BS: Fred McDowell, Hound Dog Taylor, The Stones, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Dr. Ross, John Lee Hooker, anything with soul.
NM: How’d you get hooked up with Estrus?
BS: A postcard from (Dave, label owner and former Mono Man) Crider. What a guy.
NM: What’s the deal with the new record? It seems a bit more laid back. Was that intentional, or did it just come out that way? Were there any major differences in the recording process?
BS: The feel of the album is definitely intentional. It has a very warm, and I think varied sound, which comes from it being recorded in three different places. We try to get as laid back as we can in the studio – just hang out, play and record it. This music should never feel forced. We did all of the last record at Jack’s (White Stripe Jack White recorded most of the band’s two albums at his home studio) but very much in the same way, a lot of separate sessions.
NM: Educate the masses on what, exactly, a “Soledad Brother” is.
BS: I would love to, but people need to educate themselves I think. I don’t do the story justice in retelling it. Everybody should buy the book Soledad Brother. And read Soul on Ice while you’re at it.
NM: Dirty, blues-based rock and roll is the best music ever. True or False?
BS: True, but throw soul music in there as well.
NM: Is the cover of the first album a tribute to that Thelonious Monk album that we can’t remember the name of right now?
BS: It is. The record is Underground. We changed it from France to the ghetto. Chinese take-out instead of grapes. 40 oz. instead of wine. Uncle Sam for the Nazi.
NM: Brilliant. Is it weird seeing bands you’ve played/toured with like the White Stripes on MTV? Do you see yourselves making that crossover?
BS: It is a little weird, but it feels great. Everything they have has come natural, and they’re great people. I don’t think we’re in any danger of any sort of crossover success.
NM: Phew! So I listened to “Weight of the World” every day when I woke up for nearly three months. Is that wrong?
BS: Only if you started stockpiling weapons after those three months.
NM: Did you grow up with music? Did your family play music and/or influence you with their musical tastes?
BS: Nobody in my family is too musical. John’s either. They didn’t even listen to much music. But they encouraged me to play.
NM: Tell us about your experiences with that nasty little phenomenon we call High School. What kind of cats were you guys at that age, and what were you into?
BS: Johnny was a punk rocker; I was just a pothead. We were both way too obsessed with music, which is pretty healthy for a teenager. I think we were like most kids. We hated everybody, and imagined everybody hated us. You need that as a kid.
NM: What’s your drug of choice? Marijuana, music, milk, speed, coffee, booze, life?
BS: All of the above – Johnny can’t do much livin’; he’s a doctor you know.
NM: What’s your favorite city to play?
NM: Got a favorite show story?
BS: There are a lot of them. Once in Toledo Johnny jumped up on their bar and took out all of the glasses. That was great. I like the shows where people fight, or dance.
NM: Who’s your favorite band right now?
BS: Do you mean new bands? Reigning Sound is great. Don’t listen to too much new music.
NM: What five CDs get the most play time in the tour van?
BS: Public Enemy, Jack McDuff, Exile on Main Street, Detroit funk 45 compilation, Otis Redding.
NM: So what’s with this band Creed anyway?
BS: Bunch of fuckin’ losers.