Interview: Ben Carrigan (ex-The Thrills, now solo)
Published on October 10th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Drummers are an odd bunch, aren’t they? Some of them assume the role out of an inability to play anything else, while others are handed the sticks because they can play absolutely everything. Ben Carrigan, formerly the drummer of Irish summer-pop sensations The Thrills, has revealed himself with solo debut The Greatest Narrators to be very much in the latter category…and then some.
An album that alternately showcases Carrigan’s flair for pared-down piano balladeering and lush orchestral arrangements, The Greatest Narrators is one of the most powerfully heartfelt and quietly ambitious records you’ll hear this year – one that wholly deserves to be swept up on a tide of word-of-mouth recommendation and make Carrigan more of a star than he could have imagined even when he was playing alongside the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Morrissey with his erstwhile bandmates. (You can read about the various projects that Ben’s been involved with since those heady days on the biography section of his website.)
Rocksucker fired over some questions to Ben and was utterly charmed when he replied with an apology for his “long-winded” answers, adding the caveat “concise is not my forte”. Don’t worry Ben – The Greatest Narrators doesn’t outstay its welcome for even a second and, in any case, long-winded spiel is greeted like an old friend on these here pages…
Firstly, congratulations on the release of The Greatest Narrators. I was initially surprised by its scope – did anyone else’s music inspire you to attempt something so grand-sounding, or did the songs just demand it? As a whole, it reminds me a bit of A Short Album About Love by The Divine Comedy, and I’d imagine there to be a Beach Boys influence on stuff like “We’ll Talk About It All Tonight”…
I’ve always been a big fan of well-constructed arrangements and a large sound, especially in an orchestral sense. To me it just sounds more considered and less like a band cobbling tunes together in a room until they fall into place. That difference to me is paramount. All the music I’ve ever been interested in sounds like this whether in the classical, jazz or pop realms. In this way, I do love artists like Scott Walker, The Divine Comedy (especially in a lyrical sense), Carole King (for songwriting), Motown and jazz for musicianship, and classical and soundtracks for that emotional or gut reaction that you want from music. For me, this album very much ties all of these elements together, which is why it’s been a long process.
I’d never try to pretend that I wrote the album on the back of a cigarette box because the truth is I slaved over every inch of it. It’s hard to list direct influences as they come and go as time goes on. The ones that really come to mind though as I mentioned above are Carole King for songwriting, Scott Walker and Roy Orbison perhaps from a sonic perspective. In terms of arrangements though particularly the strings, I’ve been hugely influenced by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and James Newton Howard’s score for The Village. I also love the piano playing and delicate nature of Brad Mehldau on piano, particularly in the quieter moments on the album.
Obvious question: why isn’t “The Last Song” the last song?
Good question. This is actually a running joke in the band. At the moment, we actually open with this song so it’s all rather confusing.The reason I have “The Last Song” as second-last track is because it’s the last lyrical part of the album. I wrote this song originally about having writer’s block. This was the first thing I wrote when I came out the other side. “Flashbacks” I felt was a more poignant and more reflective piece as a closing sentiment. The theme of the album is many things and very autobiographical but particularly it is about family and standing on the shoulders of those that came before you. “Flashbacks” for me was much more in this vain as a parting thought. It’s very melancholic too but I think words get in the way a lot of the time. Perhaps that’s why I’m more geared towards the musical side of things. Better to say nothing at all!
How much of the album’s instrumentation was performed by you? Did you learn a lot about arrangements from working with Van Dyke Parks on The Thrills’ second album Let’s Bottle Bohemia? What is he like, anyway?
I wrote and recorded everything on the album apart from a few guitars, a couple of bass lines and some backing vocals. I also got a string quartet in at the final stages to play the arrangements I had written. That was a really special day for me, where I could finally see everything come together in physical form. After I recorded everything, I had planned to re-record a lot of the parts, even the vocals with more accomplished singers. When I tried this though, it started to sound too polished and became too over-produced and cabaret in my mind. In the end, I just went back to all my original recordings. They were certainly more lo-fi but served the songs better I think.
In terms of Van Dyke Parks, he was great! I like the arrangements he wrote for us because they were far from being generic and were really well-written and unique too. That is key to any arrangement, a sense of originality and flair which he clearly has in spades. His arrangements stand up on their own, they’re not just a backing track for a song. That’s the way it should be and I certainly take this approach in regards to my own arrangements too.
Why has it taken this long for you to embark on a solo project? How long has The Greatest Narrators been in the writing/making?
For the last few years, I’ve been working on TV/film projects and writing and arranging for other people. Being honest, I never wanted or planned to put together an album myself under my own name. I wouldn’t say that I enjoy the thought of being the front man. I’m much more comfortable in a compositional role. The truth is that I have been writing music in many styles for years and have always had music lying on the backburner waiting for the time to finish it. I had planned to clear off the backburner and use some of the pop songs and some of the instrumental pieces as a calling card into further TV and film work. It was only when I finished writing and recording all these pieces that I found I had an album that really worked. It was only then that I decided to release it. I guess that’s why I’m here. I really believe in the album and am very proud of it. I therefore feel compelled to support it and give it the life that I feel it deserves. In a sense, I feel obliged to stand up and support the album that I’ve created as opposed to the other way around if that makes sense. I guess kind of like the awkwardness of public speaking but standing up as best man at your best friend’s wedding because you owe it to him
What’s the significance of the album’s title? The lyrics feel quite autobiographical – has that got anything to do with it?
The whole album is very autobiographical. I really worked hard on all the lyrics, which are not something that come naturally to me. I’ve never in my life listened to lyrics apart from obvious ones that stand out to me like Dylan or Springsteen or whoever. I’ve always been far more interested in arrangements so this was a really interesting new thing for me. To be honest, I couldn’t even sing you a Thrills song from start to finish which I know is absurd. Songs like “Small Towns” and “After Hours” are very much about The Thrills rollercoaster, which was wild.”Talk About It All” is about finding your own path and having your own story. After seven years of touring with four other people, I went travelling for a bit on my own. I needed to do and have something that was mine and nobody else’s. “You Knew It All Along” is about ambition and living up to your name and where you’re from. “The Last Song” is about reaching that crossroads, the dilemma of getting a 9-5 job or continuing on a hugely fulfilling but always uncertain path.
The idea behind The Greatest Narrators as a title title is the idea of standing on the shoulders of greatness. It’s primarily about family and all the things that had to happen for me to be here. It’s kind of a nod to them but is also a biography of the last ten years. Also, the idea of surrounding the album with family and all the photos of those generations of people (that I found in a drawer at home), I felt that it made the album safe and protected and surrounded by an energy that is both positive and unbreakable. It also makes it more meaningful but equally means it has a life beyond myself. If that makes sense.
How did you manage to go from playing jazz music to being in a west coast-style pop band?
I’d been playing in The Thrills since I was 15, before I got into the whole jazz scene. After I left college, I was still playing with The Thrills, recording demos, writing songs etc. We never really did many gigs but, when our demos got noticed around 2001, The Thrills thing started to pick up. I was busy playing jazz gigs all over town at this point. I have to admit that, at the time, it was a bit of a dilemma. I was wholly committed to the jazz thing and wasn’t sure if I wanted to play full time in a pop band but these kinds of opportunities don’t come along every day and it would have been foolish to turn it down. I mean, who gets the chance to record their debut album in LA and tour the world with their best friends? We were all very lucky.Besides, I learned a lot, was exposed to so many great things and met some incredible people over the next seven years. Also, despite the fact that pop music is not perhaps my default setting, it was a massive learning curve in many areas that I would never have otherwise been exposed to. Also, Conor [Deasy] is a great songwriter and I learned a lot from him in this regard.
How did it come about that Morrissey personally invited The Thrills to support him at the Albert Hall?
Morrissey was given a demo of “One Horse Town”, “Big Sur” and “Santa Cruz” by a mutual friend in Dublin, the singer of a band called Sack. It was very bizarre but this lead to him, on a short visit to Dublin, coming to see us in a tiny rehearsal room in Dublin one afternoon. He liked us and, on the back of that, he invited us to support him across the USA. As we weren’t even signed yet though, we couldn’t afford the tour support ourselves and had to turn it down. He then offered us a support for his show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This was our first proper show. A baptism of fire! Anyway, you have to take your hat off to him. It’s not often in this business that people take a chance on the unknown but he did and he gave us a stage that we would never have had otherwise.
Why do you think The Teenager sold poorly compared to the first two Thrills albums? Did the label take less interest in promoting it?
It’s always easy to point the finger so I’m always careful about this question. I think there are many factors. When So Much For The City came out, we were in the right place at the right time, just as the tide was shifting and people’s tastes were changing. We also had the support of Virgin Records, who had just appointed a new MD (Philippe Ascoli), new A&R (Nick Burgess) and a full team of young and hungry people. We were Virgin’s new and first signing under this new regime and so we were the priority, which was brilliant.
Having said this, there were bands like Goldrush, who had just finished recording their album on Virgin at the time of this changeover, who were signed in the previous regime. The new team at Virgin weren’t keen on them so they got lost in the shakedown. Fast forward to 2007 with the Teenager album and the same thing happened to us when the next regime came in and signed bands like The Kooks. The unfortunate thing is that I feel that The Teenager was a great album. It’s a shame it didn’t get the support it deserved, but that’s just the way it goes.
How much of So Much for the City was written in California?
I think the inspiration for So Much For The City definitely came from a summer trip to California and the wealth of music that we were exposed to as a result but it was written back in a very rainy and cold winter that followed in Dublin. We were always fans of all that kind of music though. Perhaps that just cemented it.
What are the other guys from the band up to now? Do you retain contact with all of them?
The others are doing well. I wouldn’t like to comment on what they’re up to. I’m sure they’ll do this in their own time but, suffice to say, they’re doing well. I do stay in touch with them, less so than before perhaps but I think it was important for us all to have a little distance in order to set ourselves up as individuals. Since I finished the album, I’ve certainly been in touch more and it’s been great to catch up.
Of all the amazing bands and people you’ve played alongside, who were you the most star-struck by? Was there anyone who disappointed you?
Funnily enough, I think it was James Burton, who was Elvis’ guitarist. I was never a particularly big Elvis fan but we got to play with James at his inauguration into the hall of fame in 2006. I had seen this black and white video of him playing on stage with this supergroup consisting of Tom Waits, Levon Helm, Springsteen, KD Lang, Roy Orbison and many others and, in the background, there was James holding it all together on guitar. That for me was a real wake-up call as to how lucky we were. It’s funny though, because we got to play with U2, the Stones, Bob Dylan and so many others but that’s the one that hit home for me.
Tell us about some of the film and TV composition projects you’ve been up to over the last few years…
Been working on a lot of film and TV projects, advertising and all sorts of things since The Thrills settled down. The whole point of this new album initially was to promote this side of myself and take it to the next level as this has always been my goal and I’m very good at it. The great thing is that every project is different and always exciting and I love a challenge. Some weeks are full orchestral scores, others are jazz trios, electronica or cuban music. The point is that I always get a real kick out of it and never have to do the same thing twice. It’s great to be so varied. It keeps you creative and motivated regardless and as a result, I put everything into everything I do.
You completed studies in Orchestration at the Berklee School of Music in June 2008. Did it feel strange going ‘back to school’ after being in a successful band? Did many people recognise you?
You know, I feel like I was finishing what I started. Before The Thrills took off, I was offered a number of scholarships to various colleges like Berklee in Boston and the conservatory of music in the Hague. I never got to take them up though because things got so busy. So this was just the right thing to do, albeit in a slightly different vein. Also, because I was a little older and certainly more ambitious and focussed, I think I got much more out of it than I would have if I was, say, 21 again.
Don’t think anyone recognised me. That’s the advantage of being the drummer! Anyway, this afforded me the opportunity to really delve further into the art of orchestration, writing out detailed and high-end scores. I also separately studied mixing and mastering after a few failed attempts to mix the album. I then got to mix it myself just the way I wanted it to sound. It may sound like the long way round but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Any idea when The Time, The Hour by HAL might see the light of day?
Ooh, not sure – I’d like to hear this one too. The HAL guys are really good friends of mine, especially Steve O’Brien. I love HAL, I think they’re great. Their first album is one of my favourite albums and deserves far more acclaim than it got, but these things come with time. “My Eyes Are Sore” is incredible. In fact, Steve has been tremendously supportive with my album so I’m very grateful to him especially.
Are there any up-and-coming artists you’d like to recommend?
I’m not so good with this question I’m afraid. When I’m writing, I don’t listen to a lot of music or am very selective on what I listen to because I tend to absorb it all and it can take my focus away from what I’m doing. I only play records when I’m actively looking for something or inspiration for some missing ingredient. I do think there are some great artists around though, especially in Ireland. David Turpin is great. Can’t think of any others off-hand.
Finally, if I asked you right now to name your top three albums of all time, off the top of your head, which would you pick?
This question might keep me up tonight. If you asked me in an hour, I’d name different records. The ones that spring to mind are: The Cardigans – Long Gone Before Daylight, anything by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell and Tom Waits – Closing Time or Carole King – Tapestry. Not a particularly big fan of The Cardigans but that record I always come back to. It just sounds incredible and has so much depth.
Ben, thank you.
The Greatest Narrators is out now. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit www.bencarrigan.com