There are not so many singing multi-instrumentalists who have recorded entire albums without other musicians - Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Prince and Mike Oldfield are certainly the best-known representatives of this species. The Australian Ben Craven, who has just released his third album "Monsters From The Id", also belongs to this illustrious group, because the studied electrical engineer from Brisbane is not only a good singer, but also impresses on various instruments, whereby his highly melodic guitar solos sometimes remind one of Steve Hackett.
In the eclipsed interview, Craven not only talks about his difficult path to becoming a "one-man-band", but also about his manifold influences and the Australian prog scene. Even Sigmund Freud's "structural model of the psyche" comes up
eclipsed: Many musicians learned to play an instrument at a young age. When did your fascination with music begin, and when did you decide: "I want to earn my money with this"?
Ben Craven: I was six years old when I got a violin as a gift. I was just pestering my parents to send me to violin lessons! Then when I realized I needed to practice, I was much less interested. (smiles) I think I have a solid musical background because I learned a little bit about music theory and the instrument, but I had never considered writing my own music or joining an orchestra before I was 16. That's when I discovered what it's like to create your own music, and once that grabs you, it doesn't go away. It took a long time to learn the individual instruments and how to use the equipment, though - at the time I had an old multitrack recording machine. From day one, I was interested in doing everything myself
eclipsed: Apart from the violin lessons you've taken over the years, you're self-taught on keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. When did you realize that the "Mike Oldfield method" - that is, playing all the instruments yourself - was also suitable for you?
Craven: Growing up, my mother owned a cassette of "Tubular Bells," but I didn't know much about Mike Oldfield at the time. When I was about 17, I heard "Ommadawn": that's when I bought a VHS tape of Mike Oldfield's performance at Knebworth, and that was an absolute revelation to me. I wanted to do something like that, but I never thought I could make it happen - he was just too good! Still, I wanted to do something at least close to that great one day
eclipsed: What other musicians did you look up to in the beginning?
Craven: That's pretty obvious. (laughs) Pink Floyd was a big drive. I also loved Dire Straits, but Mark Knopfler was too good a guitarist for me, so I didn't think I could get close to him - until David Gilmour came along. His solos were longer and more emotional, and he used more effects. That's when I thought, "That's interesting - maybe I can do that too!" The other band that "ruined" my life was Yes. Once you've heard Yes and you're in that frame of mind, there's no going back. After that, you can write normal songs again, but it's just not as much fun!
eclipsed: Are you actually a full-time musician or do you have a regular job as well?
Craven: I have a regular job because that's the only way I can finance my music: the production, the manufacturing and the promotion. I never took the path of being a full-time musician. Maybe it would have been easier in the UK or Europe, but I didn't want to starve because of my art. (laughs) I'm actually an electrical engineer: after my electrical engineering degree, I worked in various IT jobs, and I designed my own guitar pedals on the side. If I wasn't making music, I'd probably be designing effects plug-ins and recording software - that would be incredibly fun
eclipsed: You describe your music as cinematic prog. Have you ever composed for films or would you like to do so in the future?
Craven: I haven't done that yet, but I would love to. There are a few songs of mine that have been used to accompany TV reports, news reports and the odd independent film, but this area is extremely competitive. (smiles) The number of people who want to be like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman is very large, and they are probably much better than I am. Still, I'd love to do that, and "Monsters From The Id" intentionally borrows from epic movie soundtracks. I forgot to mention that John Williams was a huge influence on me. One of the first records I got for Christmas was "1984 - A Space Odyssey" (German movie title: "2010: The Year We Make Contact"; note). At the time I was a "Star Wars" fan and couldn't believe how good the music was. The other record I got as a gift was the "Ghostbusters" soundtrack - but I didn't listen to that much. (laughs) Even as a kid, I loved epic film music, not only by John Williams, but also by Jerry Goldsmith. I often went to the movies just for the music, not necessarily for the main actors. I saw many movies that got bad reviews but had great music
eclipsed: When I listened to your first album, 2006's "Two False Idols," I noticed that your current progressive rock style wasn't hinted at here yet - instead, it fell more into the rock and singer/songwriter categories. With 2011's "Great And Terrible Potions" (originally released under the project name Tunisia; note), on the other hand, you found your way into the prog arena
Craven: When "Great And Terrible Potions" was written, I didn't have the equipment to record that many tracks, and I didn't have the arranging skills that I have today. But I did own some guitars, and because I was playing in a cover rock band at the time, I was able to draw on some other musicians. That's how I learned how to arrange, produce and record. It took me a while to get up the courage to record the music that ended up on "Great And Terrible Potions." I always felt that prog was a dirty word in Australia - and that music had to be adapted to suit mass tastes. That's why I held the music back at first
eclipsed: Your home country Australia has produced some interesting prog and prog metal acts in the last 20 years, e.g. Karnivool, sleepmakeswaves, Caligula's Horse and Plini. Are you friends with some of the musicians and do you have some favorite Australian bands?
Craven: I would love to be friends with them! (laughs) But I'm very insular, unfortunately, and don't move in the right musical circles to meet these people. It's my own fault. (sighs) In Australia, prog metal is also more popular than traditional European prog rock. Therefore, if you live in Australia, you should rather do progmetal to be heard and to be able to perform.
eclipsed: The title of your new album "Monsters From The Id" sounds very Freudian. Are you familiar with Sigmund Freud's "structural model of the psyche" or did you choose the album title simply because it sounds good?
Craven: I actually know Freud's model, but the title actually refers to an old science fiction thriller from the 1950s called "The Forbidden Planet. It is based on William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," but is set in outer space. In this film, Robby the robot, who later appeared in "Lost In Space" (US television series from 1965-68, Engl. title: "Verschollen zwischen fremden Welten"; note), appears for the first time, and the soundtrack consists of great electronic music. One of the key phrases from the film is "Monsters from the Id," and when I first saw the film, I wrote that phrase down because I liked it so much. I liked the idea behind it and the associations with sci-fi movie music, so I really wanted to use the title sometime
eclipsed: Actually I wanted to ask you which monsters of your own "it" appear in your music and especially on this album
Craven: Surprisingly few! But if there were a monster, it would be ambition - musical ambition. Lyrically, I didn't want to limit myself to my own experiences and opinions, but to take on larger conceptual ideas
eclipsed: You once said, "These days I try to hear something as clearly as possible in my head before I transfer it to an instrument. If you commit to real sounds too early, it can have a devastating effect on the overall picture." Do you still adhere to that rule?
Craven: Absolutely - until I'm a better musician. On guitar, I have finger memory, and then I play very ordinary, familiar patterns. But if I have an idea in my head that I haven't yet transformed into tones, I have to find the melody on a keyboard or piano first. That's why I make it a point to have the melody rock solid before I go to the instrument - because once I'm at the instrument, what I play sounds like something I've already done. I wish I were good enough to hear a melody immediately in my head and then write down the notes - that would be wonderful. On the other hand, I like the mystery of not knowing where an idea came from and then trying to implement it. It often happened to me that I had an idea, transferred it to the guitar or keyboard, and the end result sounded completely different from the original idea. I try to capture the initial idea before consciousness gets in the way ..
eclipsed: ... before you think about it too much and it becomes too intellectual.
Craven: Exactly! Ultimately, the original idea often comes from the "it". (laughs)
eclipsed: Did you compose the two epic 20-minute pieces on the album from A to Z, so to speak, or did you write specific sections that you then put together as best you could?
Craven: Clearly the latter. I don't sit down and write something from beginning to end because I don't want the whole thing to be a conscious process. Arranging and putting the ideas together is a conscious process that takes your brain. That kind of thing is incredibly fun, but to get the nice little ideas, I'd rather the whole thing remain a mystery. If I were lucky enough to compose for a movie or a TV show, I might not have that luxury at all, because I would have to meet certain requirements. In the end, I've never said, "I want to compose two 20-minute pieces," even though I've always aspired to do that
eclipsed: In my review I compared your guitar solos to those of Steve Hackett, Roine Stolt and John Petrucci. Which of these musicians is especially close to your heart?
Craven: I adore Steve Hackett. I saw him here in Brisbane a few years ago, and his playing was flawless. He inspired me to give up the guitar because he was so good! (laughs) Other people have also compared me to Steve Hackett. I'm not trying to imitate anyone myself, but I'm working on playing faster and throwing in a quicker phrase here and there. The other guitarist I adored is Tommy Emmanuel, but even with him I thought, "I'll never be able to do that!". He's a great entertainer, and he's actually two guitarists in one: these days he only plays fingerstyle stuff on acoustic, but he's also great on electric guitar, playing very melodic and accessible solos that also sound very emotional because of the notes he chooses
eclipsed: I also find your own solos very moving, especially on "Die Before You Wake." You have a great sound and melodies
Craven: That makes me very happy, thank you! I'm sure it won't surprise you when I say that I like to solo! (laughs) Actually, I'd rather play a guitar solo than sing, because the vocal melody is usually fixed and changes, but when I get the chance to solo, all the floodgates are wide open. As for the solos, for "Monsters From The Id" I recorded five or six times as many as actually ended up on the album.
eclipsed: The overall sound of the album is also interesting. In my opinion, it's quite difficult to make cinematic, bombastic music without sounding like Hans Zimmer or typical Hollywood blockbuster composers - but you managed to resist this temptation.
Craven: The whole thing is definitely a mix of traditional rock band instrumentation and Hollywood blockbuster sounds - and the result probably sounds like neither. (grins) A lot of prog rock bands have tried orchestral albums, but often it sounded very calculated, and everyone had to compromise. Anyway, I always tried to find the right instrument for the part
eclipsed: When I sent "Monsters From The Id" to my eclipsed colleagues for feedback, one of them wrote: "The record pretty much combines everything that so many people think prog rock sucks because of. Overdramatized, completely unnecessarily bloated bombast of material. Horrible!" How would you defend your music?
Craven: If you hadn't said "Horrible!" I would have replied, "That's great!" I just like bombastic music and had an incredible amount of fun making it. Of course, there are always people who say that you're overdoing it and that it's pretentious - which is true, but I have no problem with that at all
eclipsed: I personally find the album very colorful, with a lot of room for light and shadow. In which areas - musically or production-wise - did you make the biggest progress on "Monsters From The Id" compared to your previous albums?
Craven: I think the music permeates everything. My arranging skills have gotten much better, and I'm less afraid to choose the music I want to work on. I've become more confident, and it shows in the production. Because the more complicated the music is, the more transparent it has to sound.
Interview: Matthias Bergert