Music News

Have Guns, Will Travel

For a guy who lost his wedding ring this morning, Ben Harper seems remarkably calm -- but as efforts are made to recover the sacred symbol of his vows from the car that just dropped him off, his anxiety surfaces in quick bursts. "Somebody must have that guy's number," he says, pleading with his publicist to find the hired driver. Sitting at a table of a cafe patio on the NBC Studios lot in Burbank, the publicist calmly assures him that she's on it, while two college-age girls gawk in his direction.

"Am I talking too loud?" he asks, lowering his voice. It doesn't even dawn on the soulful acoustic singer-songwriter that he's been recognized by fans. When as much is suggested, his eyebrows rise and he whispers, "That's some other shit."

Harper is at NBC promoting his latest effort, Both Sides of the Gun, with a performance later today on The Tonight Show. Despite the trappings associated with double albums, Gun avoids pretentiousness by successfully juxtaposing the optimism of the first disc -- which contains the lullaby "Happy Everafter in Your Eyes" as well as "Morning Yearning," about Harper's family -- with the pessimism of the second disc, which includes such fun ditties as "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating." A far cry from the acoustic surfer vibe many people associate him with and a considerable commercial gamble for the artist, it's Harper's most heavy and powerful work to date. Despite the fact that the sixty or so minutes' worth of tracks could have fit on one disc, Harper insisted that they be divided and that the retail price not be affected by the upgrade.

"They just wouldn't mix together," he explains as he sips his latte. "Musically, they might go together. But lyrically, they were challenging each other too much. From song to song, I couldn't find the right balance. But personally, I would have felt incomplete not having them in the same body of work."

"When I first got into making music," he adds, "I heard, 'You can't do that' a lot. My first album was diverse from song to song, and I was told, 'You can't do that; it won't work.' I've kind of just done it wrong for so long, it's become a style."

Harper's subversive streak is matched by his audacity. On disc two's "Black Rain," for instance, he unabashedly criticizes George W. and the U.S. government for how they handled Hurricane Katrina and refers to their "level of wickedness, unconsciousness and irresponsibility" as "a big tree" before adding with a smirk, "I'm a small, motherfucking ax ready to chop."

Just as Harper finishes this thought, the two girls who've been drooling over him ask if they can get a photograph together. Harper gladly obliges. Moments later, he returns with a grin on his face.

"She just told me her boyfriend, if he met me, would sleep with me," he says. "I've never been told that before."

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Cole Haddon