Ben Ottewell: Rattlebag Blues (Interview)

Ben Ottewell, the gravelly-voiced singer from Gomez has just released his second solo album, Rattlebag. He will also be performing at Auckland’s Tuning Fork this coming Friday. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Ben as he was touring Australia and discussed the thriving music scene in Ben’s hometown of Brighton and what makes a great riff.

Click here to listen to the Ben Ottewell interview:

Or read a transcription of the interview here…

MD: I think you covered a Steve Earle tune a couple of nights ago.

BO: That’s right. Yeah well that was in The States. I was touring with a band over there. Copperhead Road, yeah.

MD: What made you choose that one as opposed to anything else by Mr. Earle?

BO: it’s a good tune and like lots of potential there, loud rock, you know.   And you don’t hear many covers of that song, you know.

MD: It’s a really popular song here in New Zealand, so I was wondering…

BO: Yeah. Oh maybe I’ll play it.

MD: Maybe you should, yeah.

BO: Acoustic it might not quite have the same impact but we’ll see,

MD: Are you still living in Brighton?

BO: That’s right, yup.

MD: It seems like a lot of stuffs happening in Brighton music-wise these days. There’s Royal Blood that are based there and a band called Wytches and Nick Cave is living there. So, tell me a little bit about what the scene is like there if you can.

BO: It’s just, I mean, yeah, it’s just great. There’s just loads of musicians. There’s a really good music college there called BIMM…Brighton Institute of Music. Yeah, there’s things like, it’s that kind of place, the kind of place that attracts people who don’t have real jobs.

MD: Right.

BO: You know. A good place to hang around all day, like pretend to write songs, you know, things like that.

MD: Have you seen the Nick Cave film, was it 20,000 Days…

BO: I haven’t seen it yet, no, I hear it’s excellent. He’s great, that guy, I mean you see him around town, he’s never off, that guy.

MD: oh right.

BO: He’s always Nick Cave, he’s always got a suit on.

MD: Yes, exactly.

BO: Whether he’s standing in line for coffee or, you know, down on the beach or shopping. He’s always, he’s always the prince of darkness.

MD: Yeah. I was in New Orleans a couple of months ago and was walking…The Bad Seeds had played there that night…and I was walking around in one of the streets, urban streets and there was Nick walking down the street in his suit, he was looking good.

BO: Yeah, yeah. Actually kind of looking right at home.

MD: Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of where you wanna run into him I think.

BO: Yeah.

MD: And have you heard Royal Blood or Wytches?

BO: Yeah, yeah. I’m aware of them, yeah they’re great.

MD: Yeah.

BO: It’s good stuff, just with the bass as well, it’s really good.

MD: I know. It’s pretty amazing.

BO: Yeah.

Ottewell RattlebagMD: Anyway. So now your new album, Rattlebag. You’ve again co-written it with your buddy Sam Genders.

BO: Yup.

MD: You guys have been working together for quite a while. How does what you do, writing with him differ, if it does at all, with what you do for Gomez.

BO: Well I mean in essence its collaborative so to speak, in a lot of ways it’s the same but I’ve never…that’s the only way I really know how to work, you know, I wasn’t really a songwriter when I first joined the band, you know, back in ‘96 or whenever it was.

MD: Right.

BO: And, you know, those guys encouraged me to do it, you know. So I’ve written quite a few things but I’ve always at some stage or at some point, you know, it’s a collaboration. So yeah, I mean he just, you know, normally what happens, you know, I’d come up with like a riff or verse in the chorus or whatever, you know, almost a cool song, sometimes not so much in some kind way and he’d ask me like just questions like, ‘so what’s this about, well what do you want it to be about’, that kind of thing.

MD: Right.

BO: And then he’s a great lyricist and arranger and yeah he’s really, yeah he’s an old friend of mine, I’ve known him, like we were born in the same little village together and, you know, so there’s no stone left unturned you know, there’s no way we kind of don’t go with it. So it’s a really comfortable relationship.

MD: And is it important to know what the song is about when you’re writing it together, I mean sometimes that stuff doesn’t need to be, kind of just open…

BO: No, not explicitly. It’s a sense or semblance of, you know, kinda how, you know, an idea, like a vibe that you wanna try. For instance like Patience and Rosaries, the idea was just kind of a song about a guy that’s stuck in a well.

MD: Right.

BO: And then just trying to evoke that. For no particular reason, you know, just for, yeah. It turns out well.

MD: And when you approached making this record. Was there anything specifically musically or message-wise in mind that you wanted to try and accomplish with the…?

BO: Not particularly. I mean, it’s kinda, I don’t know, it’s interesting. I mean the idea, I always start  with a vague idea. I wanted it to be a bit more bluesy from the last one.

MD: Right.

BO: Bit more, I don’t know, bit more kind of really quite Americana or all sorts, you know, and a bit more kind of leaning on that.

MD: Right.

BO: But then, you know, the songs kind of lead you, I don’t write a specific type of song, you know, I don’t sit down and go right I’m gonna write and, you know, country blues tune here, I’m gonna write this. So there’s always like a sense of where it wants to go, sometimes the songs take you somewhere else, you know. So, you know, if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. I think generally these tunes are a bit more coherent, just purely because they’re written in a kind of, you know, a six month period as opposed to like, you know, a six year period for the last solo record.

MD: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned you wanted it to be a little bit more bluesy. I noticed on the track called Edge, there seem to be almost like a Spoonful  vibe or kind of a groove to it.

BO: Oh yeah, you got that, yeah. It’s not too well hidden. It’s not quite Led Zeppelin, it’s not quite Jimmy Page

MD: No, no. I think you can get away with it.

BO: Yeah, yeah.

MD: But did you listen to Cream a bit when you were in your formative years cause’…?

BO: Cream?

MD: Cream, cause’ they…

BO: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t know, Clapton’s not really cup of tea Cream I suppose was his best stuff.

MD: Yeah.

BO: I’m definitely in the Jimmy Page camp.

MD: Gotcha.

BO: Yeah, that’s where I like to live.

MD: And I notice with the opening track, with the title track, when the full band kinda comes in and the piano, Ian Ball’s playing piano. It really reminded me of The Band, was that…?

BO: Yeah, absolutely. It reminded me of The Band as well. It wasn’t anything, you know, I guess it’s just that kind of song and you know. I think that kind of layering, you know, electric and acoustic guitars is something that I’ll always do, you know, it comes out a little ramshackled, you know, leaving the rough edges and it’s just gonna sound like The Band, you know, you play that kind of tune.

Click here to listen to Rattlebag:

MD: Yeah.

BO: In that kind of way, yeah.

MD: It always feels good though to have that kind of sound, I don’t know.

BO: Absolutely, yeah.

MD: You can’t go wrong there I guess.

BO: Yeah.

MD: You mentioned that you, when you first started in Gomez you weren’t a songwriter and they kind of encouraged you. Is it more of a mental process to kind of convince yourself that you can write songs and then…?

BO: Well, I’d written like one song before I joined the band.

MD: Right.

BO: and then, you know, so it’s just like, yeah just actually doing it rather than, you know, thinking about it, you know, I was just playing guitar and, you know, but. Yeah, I guess, I don’t know, I’m not, I’m not one of those songwriters who tends to…like I said before I don’t think about it too much or reach for something particularly.

MD: Right.

BO: I just kinda normally start with a riff and you know, if the riff’s good enough, I need to remember it in the morning.

MD: Yeah.

BO: You know, that’s kind of pretty much good enough for me, you know, I’d just build off that, you know, there’s something, I don’t know, something essential about a riff, you know, I don’t know, kind of a cyclical thing, you know.

MD: Yeah. Well…

BO: Yeah, good stuff.

MD: Well Led Zeppelin were definitely the masters of it. Is it, I’m always amazed that somebody at this point after 40 or 50 years or rock and roll can come up with an original riff anymore.

BO: Yeah, I know, but that’s the thing that it’s still, you know, even the little nuance like, you know, the, that White Stripes riff that actually gets sung at, you know, football stadiums, you know and stuff like that.

MD: Seven Nation Army.

BO: …. you know, where was that, you know, for the last 60 years, 80 years or whatever? But yeah it’s quite amazing really.

MD: And what’s the status of Gomez. Are you guys kind of thinking about doing something else as well or are you concentrating…?

BO: Yeah. Well we, I don’t know to be honest, I mean we’ve got a couple of gigs in the UK at the end of November.

MD: Right.

BO: And that would be the first time we’ve all been in a room together for like 2 years. So I guess we’ll see how it goes. We’re not making any plans, you know, but I’d definitely like to do something again with them. So we’ll see.

MD: It sounds like you guys maybe considering not doing something together for a while so.

BO: Well, I don’t know. I mean it’s just, you know, we decided to take a break and it didn’t really feel like a break until, you know, six months ago.

MD: Right.

BO: You know what I mean, it’s like. We’ve been in it for 17 years, so a couple years out isn’t really.

MD: Yeah.

BO: You know what I mean, it didn’t feel like a break until you, you’re gonna have a break, you know, you can’t just turn around after 6 months and start making plans again.

MD: Right, gotcha.

BO: So, yeah. I mean maybe this is long enough.

MD: Alright. And…

BO: I mean, I’m not trying to be evasive, I just generally….

MD: No, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

BO: Yeah, yeah.

MD: So when you get here over to New Zealand…pretty much doing the same thing you’re doing in Australia, just kinda getting out there playing and doing your thing?

BO: Yup. So there’ll be like, you know, songs off Rattlebag, songs off Shapes And Shadows and couple of Gomez ones, couple of, I don’t normally sing, so there’s always that.

MD: Yeah.

BO: Yeah.

MD: Do you get a chance to look around the country at all or have you spent much time?

BO: I mean I have looked around the country on previous visits, but I won’t do this time, it’s pretty much airport, gig, hotel, airport, pretty much. But yeah I mean the stuff I really, you know, the cities are great, Wellington and Auckland are great.

MD: Yeah.

BO: Christchurch is great as well but I, you know, the stuff I really like in New Zealand is outside the cities.

MD: Is what?

BO: Is the stuff that’s outside the cities.

MD: Yeah.

BO: Me and my wife did the Routeburn Track a few years ago and, you know, we’ve seen all that stuff, it’s great.

Click here for more information about Ben Ottewell’s Tuning Fork show.