Ben Wells is a guitarist, singer and founding member of the southern blues rock outfit, Black Stone Cherry. In nearly two decades with the band, Wells and his bandmates have been channeling creative blues, blending traditional blues sensibilities with modern, hard rock. Shortly after the release of Black to Blues 2, Blues Rock Review had the chance to speak with Wells about the new EP, the inner-workings of Black Stone Cherry and his life in music.
What would you say is your first real memory of listening to music with intent? What age and what was it and how did you get to that music?
My biggest inspiration that really got me into music and entertainment was Elvis Presley. That was and still is to this day my number one. When I was really little I grew up and I would do Elvis impersonations—my parents had a little jumpsuit made. I loved doing that stuff. This is where my love of entertaining and music and the whole deal comes from. After that, my favorite band of all time is Aerosmith. I really fell in love with Aerosmith. Those are my two biggest influences to me wanting to play guitar and be in music.
Besides well known people like Elvis and Aerosmith, on a more personal level, perhaps friends, or people in your family, was there someone in your youth that lit the fire that helped in growing your interest in music?
The support I had from family was really big too. Like I said they got me the jumpsuit and even when I got my first guitar and picks and strings, they were really supportive of me wanting to be in music. I think that really helped me as well. It’s always important to have that support system and I’m thankful for that. That really lit the fire even more knowing that I had their support and belief. They also encouraged a lot of practice. They knew that if I wanted to do this it wasn’t something you could just treat as a hobby. They encouraged me. I could definitely say that.
This is the second time you’ve done a six-song blues EP. On the first Black To Blues, three of the songs were written by Willie Dixon. On this EP, it’s a bit more diverse. When you guys select songs, how do you select them? Who’s selecting them, and if you have disagreements with what’s going to be on the final cut, how do you resolve those?
It’s a process. Going into the EP there were a couple of songs we knew we wanted to do. We love Muddy Waters and Freddie King, because those are two of our favorites—and Howling Wolf as well. On this one we wanted to get into other artists that also influenced us like Elmore James and Son House and of course Robert Johnson. With the exception of a couple songs of Freddie King and the Howlin Wolf song we get into the studio and listen to our favorite blues artists and listen to tracks which we thought could take something and make it our own and start playing and start recording and see what happens. Usually, because there are six songs, each one of the four of us pick one and the last two we decide on collectively.
Who selected which songs on this one?
Chris (Robertson) selected Freddie King, I had Howlin Wolf, Jon (Lawhon) was Robert Johnson and John Fred (Young ) was Otis Rush.
You didn’t turn the songs into long extended pieces, all six are are concise. You stretch out a bit, but you keep it pretty tight. Is that done on purpose, or is that something that just happens in the studio?
It’s kind of what happens. We never want to drag on a song to be cool or make it longer. If it calls for a part that we can extend and do some cool stuff then sure we’ll do it. But every song lends itself to what it needs to be. We never want to be too over-zealous. You have to be careful about that stuff in the studio, too many solos, too much this or that. You want to keep it entertaining for the listener and not too gratuitous. You kind of have to feel out the song you know (…) this sounds like this should end here and this sounds like it should keep going.
Was this a result of a short time in the studio? How many days did you guys take and where did you record this one?
It took five days. The first one took five or six days as well. We recorded this one at Jon’s studio, our bassman Jon has a studio called Monacle Studio. It’s a great place out in the middle of nowhere. That’s where we recorded it and Chris mixed it. We really tried to do as much of that as we can on our own.
Do you not feel that it helps to have outside production, to have someone contribute their own touch, skill or expertise? Why do you guys take the approach of doing it yourselves?
We’re just comfortable that way. We’ve done it the other way. We’ve had producers out in California and in Nashville and been in different studios and whatnot. We have nothing against that and not that we won’t do it again, but right now we’re comfortable and confident in making music that we started making together in the first place. And we’re lucky that Jon has a passion for the studio and Chris has a passion for mixing. So, we’re gonna take advantage of that.
Do you also put your hands on the mixing and some of the production work?
Chris is the one that does the work. We all give input and listen to stuff that gets played back, but Chris is the one that manually does that.
Talking more about the process, between the four of you, are there times when there are some substantial disagreements on where you want a song to go or how you want a certain instrument to sound? When those arise, do you guys come to an agreement, or does the choice usually fall to one person?
Ultimately the song wins. We come to a fork in the road. Someone has an opinion on this chorus, someone has an opinion on this, but ultimately we’re all on the same team. So, it’s not like “it’s my part in that song.” We all want the best at the end of the day. Sometimes we may still disagree, but you listen to it back a few times and you’re like, “you know what, you’re right. We need to do that.” We’re all in it together.
I noticed on this EP that there was a pretty heavy presence and some great additions by Yates McKendree, how did that arise?
His dad played all of the piano and organ on Family Tree. We’ve known Yates, he’s a great musician, he’s a great kid. He’s only 18 years old. It’s crazy how talented he is. So, we wanted to have him. He toured with us some this year. We wanted to have him on the blues EP as well. He just knocked it out of the park and really added something to it.
Two of the tracks on the EP contained some really noticeable, intense and fiery harmonica. Who was on that and why was the decision made to include that?
That was John Fred on the harmonica actually. He’s been taking that up recently and listening to different blues guys that play harp and he did a great job. It really added something to it as well. We’re really glad that we have that in our back pocket if we want to have a cool harp sound. He can do it.
Does Black Stone Cherry have specific plans for an upcoming album? Why the decision to do another blues EP instead of putting out another collection of originals?
Well, you know the album Family Tree came out about a year ago past April. We didn’t want to oversaturate the market. It would be too soon to put out another full-length album. So the good thing about the blues EP is that you can go do it quickly and it’s just enough songs to release it at the end of an album cycle and give our fans something to listen to while we go in and do another round, which we’ll do next year.
As you aim towards that, the creative process in the writing, do the four of you tend to fall into tandems, do you write together, do you write alone? And you in particular Ben, what is your approach to writing?
We try and write as much as we can together, but sometimes that can be hard or impossible because we’re not always together. Literally our phones are filled with guitar riffs and I’ll be walking around and just hum something into the phone and then you go back and you revisit. But yeah, we all do it together. Or individually then we bring it to everyone, “Say, hey I got this idea, look at this, you know. You never know the inspiration or idea or song title. It’ll hit you at random times. That’s the cool thing about it. You never know.”
You’ve mentioned that “ultimately the song wins,” but relationships in bands can be intense and things don’t always work out. What do you think it is that keeps you guys in BSC together?
We all grew up together, we’re family and that’s been our recipe for the way we do things. That’s kept it very healthy and we’re very proud of that. And we’re ultimately in this together. We want to succeed together. We love each other. We love each other’s families. You know this is the way we’ve always done things. I think that’s the main factor that’s kept it going.
The music industry has changed a lot in the time that you have been together. Has your approach changed as new music mediums have arisen? It seems like more and more bands can’t sell albums in the traditional ways that perhaps you grew up around. Has it affected how you release albums? Has it affected how arrange your touring schedule? How do you feel about these changes?
You can’t fight them, you kind of have to learn to go with it, you have to learn to grow with it or you’ll get lost. For us, I guess the way we’ve adapted is that going back to earlier we kind of do more and more of our own stuff ourselves. Having the ability to record when we want to with Chris mixing. We do merchandise. That’s the way we have learned to adapt. Now as far as the way music is bought and sold and consumed. You can’t fight it. You put it out there. As long as people are listening to it in some way, we really don’t care how they get it.
How do you consume music on a day to day basis? Are you a vinyl guy? Do you listen to a lot of stuff digitally? What is your personal preference?
Honestly a little bit of all of it. I do love vinyl. I think everyone loves vinyl when you listen to it, collect it. Whatever. There’s just something cool about it. I also get music digitally. I also love going to a store and picking up a physical copy. Honestly, a little bit of it all. The digital thing is nice, you can get it in a second, but also I like the excitement of walking into a music store and picking it up and buying the album.
I notice when I look at the cover art for the Black to Blues EP’s, there’s a distinct style of artwork compared to your other albums. Will this become its own series within the BSC catalog?
I think so. That was the ultimate goal. A lot of people are liking them. Yeah, I think for sure we’re going to continue this series. That was the whole plan to begin with.
Speaking of the next Black to Blues EP, could you drop any hints as to what will be some of the classics or older artists that you want to cover that you haven’t in these first two?
Oh man…uh…that’s hard. There’s so many out there, I mean. Let me think. Some of the ones we were trying to figure out on this last one…we did the Elmore James, which was cool. Lightning Hopkins would be another cool one. We almost did a Lightning Hopkins song. There are so many different ones. We did Howlin Wolf this time because we like his grooves, just like Freddie King. There’s so many out there. I won’t give it away. You never know.
Interview by Willie Witten