Music Q&A: Ben Plasse of the Howlin' Brothers
This week, Ben Plasse of the Howlin' Brothers talks about the band, which takes the stage at 11:15 p.m. Friday at Cowboy Monkey, 6 Taylor St., C.
Q: Who are the members of your band?
A: Jared Green (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Ian Craft (vocals, banjo, mandolin, fiddle) and me (vocals, upright bassist/ banjo).
Q: What is your latest project?
A: "Howl." For a sample, go to http://bit.ly/10Z7fMk.
Q: How did you first grow interested in music? Does your family have a musical history?
A: My dad is an amazing piano player, and my mom was a huge music lover. I think music was a huge part of why they fell in love.
They always said when I was born I wouldn't stop crying when they brought me home, but the instant my dad started playing piano, I stopped. My mom would sit next to my dad on the piano bench while I was still in the womb, and I truly believe that had a long-term effect on my brain musically.
Q: Which bands did you like when you were a teenager? Which bands now? Who has influenced you the most?
A: The Beatles really grabbed me when I was a teenager. First, they're amazing songwriters, but also I'm a pretty big nerd, and the recording process fascinated me just as much as the music. How they were able to layer tones and create such unique sounds just blew my mind. I was pretty obsessed with the Beatles for several years.
Right now, I've been trying to absorb as much Doc Watson and John Hartford as possible. I really love those guys! They have the best taste for what tempos and grooves to play songs in. Both those guys always makes me feel good deep down in my soul.
Same with Bob Marley. Some musicians and bands are like comfort food. It's like something Mama used to cook.
Q: What has been your biggest influence?
A: I think the biggest influence on me has been my parents. They really nurtured me musically, and exposed me to so many different things, and encouraged me to learn about music. I'm really, really lucky: Not everyone comes from a home so filled with love and music.
Q: Do you have a favorite instrument? What kind of amplifiers do you prefer?
A: My favorite instrument is upright bass. Since I picked it up two years ago, it has really changed my life! It really expanded my concept of groove, and music in general. It's been very fun to see how my playing can affect the dance floor! It's cool to play an instrument where if you get too fancy the dancing stops, and to explore that balance of keeping it interesting musically without throwing people off from their booty shaking. It's a very zen instrument, I love just taking it one note at a time.
I think GK makes the best bass amps. I think they are really tapped into some deep thinking on the science side of things, and they balance that really well with affordable amps for all levels of performance.
My Fusion 550 sounds amazing, and I think the tubes in it help make the intonation sound a lot smoother on a fretless instrument. It's more forgiving than any other amp if my left hand is slightly sharp or flat.
Q: How did your band get started? Where does the name come from?
A: We got started pickin' around campfires in Ithaca. We were all classical music students there, and we all started discovering and playing the traditional stuff around the same time.
Jared and I studied classical guitar with the great Pablo Coen. He is an amazing player, an incredible teacher, and a very spiritually in tune man. For my senior recital, I did one set of classical repertoire, and the second set Pablo said I could do whatever I wanted. Jared and I did some ragtime duets, and then Ian and Dom Fisher (from the outstanding Austin band Wood and Wire) joined us and we did a bunch of rootsy, bluegrassy type tunes.
Pablo heard us singing those high harmonies and came up to us after the show and said "I hear this music, and I say, 'who are these guys, the howling brothers?'" And it stuck! (Minus one letter "g," when we found out there had already been a Howling Brothers, but we just kept howlin' right along.)
Q: How often do you play? How do you balance this with work and family?
A: We are all pretty addicted to music and the feeling it gives us. We all play pretty much every day, whether we have a show or not. If we don't, we all get depressed.
Music is our work, so balancing those two is easy. Balancing family, on the other hand, is really hard. All our families live in the Northeast, so getting there from Nashville to see them doesn't happen very often, and that's really tough. Jared has a wife, who is very wonderful and supportive, and loves what we are doing. We are all excited to have their little howlin' baby on the way this September! It's tough to balance all of these things, and we are blessed to have nothing but love and support coming from all of our families!
Q: Do you write your own songs? Tell us about that experience.
A: We all write, co-write, and arrange together, in different capacities for each song. It's a pretty organic thing, we all have good stuff to add, and we all have a good feel for what each other like to hear, and we all make each other laugh a lot. We try to balance serious topics like love and heartache with silliness and humor so that there's a good gumbo of emotions on the recordings and in the shows.
Thankfully, nobody writes political songs or controversial songs or anything that could alienate the audience. Howlin' Brothers is for everyone — all ages, all races, all people who love music.
Q: Is touring still fun or has it become a chore?
A: It's a lot of fun! It's the most stimulating thing in the world having new food, new people, new landscapes, new venues, hearing new bands. We get to see the world, and people pay us to do it!
There's so many musicians who would give anything to be in our position, and you have to keep that in the back of your mind on the rough nights. Plus, before I joined the band I was already a road dog, but I was doing sound, and I am so much happier now, playing music instead.
Q: What's your favorite song? What's your favorite song by your own band?
A: "The Riddle Song." We heard Doc Watson play it at the Ryman just before he passed, and I think it's a perfect love song, and a perfect melody. I also think it's hilarious that it's the song the guy is playing in "Animal House" when John Belushi smashes his guitar!
My favorite song of ours right now is Jared's song "Delta Queen." It has been one of our best songs for getting people dancing on the road, and it's one of the most far off from people's expectations. I love those curveballs that keep people guessing what we could do next.
Q: Do you feel a special connection with the audience?
A: Definitely! There's nothing better in the world than sharing a collective energy with a large group of people! It's the reason I wanted to be a performer. I heard someone describe it as "the second-most intimate thing you can do with people," and I think it's very true, and in a way, more pure.
Q: What's your favorite clothing item for performance?
A: My black Stetson hat. Well, technically, it's Ian's hat, but I guess I kinda sharked it from him, haha. My old hat (an open road style Stetson, like Ian and Jared wear), was too big, and it bumped on my bass and on the mic when I wore it, so I borrowed Ian's hat and have been wearing it about a year now. It's the best hat in the world, and it's special, because Ian's brother Brian, who's one of our biggest supporters, and fans, gave it to him. It almost never comes off my head. Most importantly, it creates an illusion that makes my abnormally large head look less abnormally large.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There is no cover charge for Friday's show at Cowboy Monkey. For information on the show, go to http://www.cowboy-monkey.com/.