At the end of a nine month European tour, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals landed in a Paris recording studio and completed their new album, Lifeline, in just seven days. The result: a soulful masterpiece with beautifully direct lyrics, undeniable grooves and an effortless energy that recalls the best works of Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones. Yeah...it's that good.
It's no surprise that most bands today don't record albums live, straight to tape, in one room, no Pro Tools, no auto-tune. There are only a handful of modern artists that can pull it off. Since Ben & The Innocent Criminals were so musically connected after such a long tour, they entered the studio immediately. And on a sixteen track tape machine and one full week in the City of Lights, they successfully recorded and mixed an album that will sit alongside all of your old favorites...just like a classic record should.
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals On The Making Of Lifeline:
Ben Harper (vocals, guitar): A dream of mine had always been to make a record in Paris. But to fly everyone over and put them up, it would be too expensive; it just seemed like something I would never get to do. At the first soundcheck on the European tour, I was like, "Wait a minute -- we're in Europe for seven weeks with our best technicians and our best equipment, why don't instead of soundchecking every day for seven weeks, how about we take that time and do pre-production for the next record?" We used the soundchecks as pre-production, and every day we'd get to the stage and work on new material.
Michael Ward (guitar): We were recording sound checks every day, and making notes as to what was going on, and listening to CDs of it later.
Leon Mobley (percussion): The process where we took the time from soundcheck to create was a bit touchy for me. The process of reaching into your inner feelings to put into the music is sometimes is a very personal effort; having the venue people setting up, getting ready, made it very hard to reveal so much.
Ben: I'm glad we did this record this way. It was basically the band and I taking a bunch of ideas that were eventually going to turn into songs, throwing them out on the table, and saying, okay, this is how far these are to this point, let's collectively make them better. The only guideline was "acoustic soul."
Juan Nelson (bass): Usually, when we're collaborating in the studio, the songs don't really get a chance to evolve, but we really had a chance to really sit with the music.
Jason Yates (keyboards): Ben has a great ability to listen to everybody's idea, and filter it, and funnel it into one cohesive thing.
Ben: It was a recipe for disaster. You can't book a studio on possibility. We only had a week to record. But I stepped into it with complete confidence, in the music, in the band. But at the same time, it took some emotionally charged moments. It wasn't a cakewalk; it wasn't as simple as I think I am making it sound.
Michael: This record is beyond primitive, it's pre-primitive. No ProTools, no AutoTuning. The studio was touted to us as a 24-track studio, when we got there it was 16-track, and one of the tracks wasn't working so you basically have a 15-track.
Jason: We didn't intend for it to be so archaic, we weren't trying for that, it just kinda happened. It wasn't that we were forcing it to be this old-school kind of thing.
Ben: It's really an acoustic-based record, and I think for acoustic guitar, analog is the way to go. 16 track analog. Two-inch inch tape.
Michael: We nicknamed the tape machine Frank, as in Frankenstein, because the machine itself was so taped together and stitched together, and temperamental, it was this monster.
Oliver Charles (drums): Oh my lord, this thing was a piece of work. It was like the moon landing in Houston, with these really primitive computers and dials with these big knobs. There was definitely a lot of personality in Frank. Some days it decided not to work, and it humbled us: you better get it right the first time.
Michael: It became a seventh member of the band. "Can we do this?" was like, "I don't know, go ask Frank."
Ben: I've always had a love affair with Paris; I've always been fascinated with it, by it, from it, for it. It has always spoken to me in a specific way.
Oliver: Paris, come on. Paris is not exactly one of the worst places to be in the world. And it definitely put a feel into this record--late fall in Paris.
Jason: When you're overseas as an American, especially nowadays, you feel vulnerable, because of the language barrier, the social barrier. It affects the way you carry yourself; everything is a struggle. So when you do finally get to sit down with your instrument, you're dying to communicate.
Leon: The experience was overwhelming. Being in a beautiful city making beautiful music was such great fun. But also, there was no interference from business, family and friends; we were able to concentrate on the music fully.
Juan: There were no distractions from anybody. You know when you're home, you get that phone call, and something goes wrong and you gotta go handle it for a second? We got a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.
Ben: It started out as six days, but we had to add an extra day to get it done.
Oliver: It was just 'Let's get it done. We sound real good together right now, let's get it done." The live element of our show really came out on this record, because we recorded a lot of this record all in one room, and because the night before we played a show.
Leon: How can you go wrong when the music is so fresh in your dome, it's bubbling?
Ben: Collectively, the album works as a traveling musician's journal. It's like what's going on in the mind of anyone who's in the wind, where traveling musicians are. We were going on ten months touring in a year by the time we drug ourselves into that studio.
Oliver: We were exhausted by the end of the run. By the time we got there, we were zombies. The exhaustion was bringing a lot of emotion out of us. We were homesick, and when you're away from home for so long, things just start to mess with your head a little bit. Whatever was going on with him, it's in his voice -- it just brought his voice up.
Ben: You just cannot argue with tired.
Michael: His singing on this record, it blew me away, it really did. You talk about one take, real, just doing it -- it was staggering to me.
Leon: A special moment for me was when Ben recorded the title track, "Lifeline." It was the last song to go down and Ben did it in one take. With tears in my eyes, we all watched from the control room.
Ben: I've never felt so close to a musical group in any environment as I did the Innocent Criminals in this experience.
Juan: Everyone was really relaxed and playing together really nicely, and that's a fun thing. That's what we do live.
Oliver: Seriously, this is one of the greatest things I've been a part of, and recording-wise and music-wise; I think it was the best thing I've ever done.
Michael: I wouldn't be saying this if it weren't true, it's an honor to play with these guys, and it was an honor to make this record. This'll be one of those records that I pull out and play for people 10, 20 years later, "yeah, man, check this one out."
Ben: One of the most exciting things about Lifeline, other than the accomplishment of making a record, is that this is a band.