Singer-guitarist Ben Miller, who’s just issued a terrific new studio album, Choke Cherry Tree
, listened to a wide range of music while growing up. His background undoubtedly contributed to the eclectic nature of his music.
“I grew up in Washington State, but my dad is from Arkansas,” he says in a recent phone interview. The Ben Miller Band performs with Chicago Farmer at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 25, at the Beachland Tavern
. “I got his records, and he had a lot of Southern music and mountain music. I was also influenced by my mom. She’s from Southern California. I’m halfway between Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel on my mom’s side and my dad’s Southern culture.”
Miller left home when he was 18 and moved to Philadelphia where he studied painting. Three years into that, he got a scholarship to go to Europe, and the traveling bug bit him.
“I hooked up with friends of mine, and we got a van and drove all over the country,” he says via phone. “We wound up in Seattle, and my dad had a serious illness, so I went to Oklahoma to take care of him.”
To make ends meet, he took a gig working at Walmart. While it paid the bills, it also threatened to suck the creative life out of him.
“It wasn’t hard work, but it was busy work,” he says. “I learned I need to have something I’m moving towards. I started doing open mic nights and from there started running open mic nights. I realized I could make money by doing music as well as I could by stocking shelves. I decided to do that, and I haven’t looked back too much.”
In 2010, Ben Miller Band made its debut with 1 Ton
and then followed it up quickly with 2 Ton
“I just had so much material at that point,” Miller explains when asked about releasing two albums so close to one another. “The first record a musician makes they have a whole lifetime to accumulate stuff. I wanted to flush everything out and have it down in some form, so it wasn’t stored in my brain as a maybe-later loop. I needed a cathartic closure. It was just a ton of music. It was too much for one CD, so we put it on two discs.”
Because of a shared connection to Joplin, Missouri, the band teamed up with producer Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, the White Stripes) for 2012’s Heavy Load
and 2014’s Any Way, Shape or Form
“He’s from Joplin and I had lived there as a transplant for seven or eight years,” says Miller when asked about how he met Powell. “His brother came to one of our shows and said Vance was in Nashville doing stuff with Jack White. It was right after a tornado had come through Joplin. We wanted to do something for a relief benefit. He helped with the project. We did a record for Joplin and gave money for local businesses that had gotten destroyed. That’s how we started working together. We got along so well that we worked with him again, and he cut us a deal. That was our first time in an actual professional set up.”
With its new album, the forthcoming Choke Cherry Tree
, Ben Miller Band again defies categorization.
“I had a bunch of songs from over the past two years that we cut down to 10,” says Miller. “I started diving in deep and hard about a year ago to see what would work. I think I did feel a pull toward a rhythmic sound, and there’s a simple-ness and a power to the music. I tend to think of things in terms of songs. Each song is its own thing. When I listen to music, I don’t think of genres or anything like that. I’m in love with the idea of a song. It’s like this unit or packet or idea. To me, that’s one of the most amazing things ever.”
The album features a retooled Ben Miller Band lineup as new additions Rachel Ammons and Smilin' Bob Lewis join Miller and fellow founding member Scott Leeper. Producer Chris Funk, a member of the Decemberists, helmed the project and brought guest players as Jenny Conlee and Nate Query (also of the Decemberists) on board. The album also features the late saxophonist Ralph Carney (Tom Waits, Tin Huey), Dan Hunt of Neko Case’s band, Ural Thomas and Rev Shines of Lifesavas.
The black and white music video for the album’s garage blues-tinged single, “Akira Kurosawa,” pays tribute to the famous Japanese director and includes snippets of images from his films.
“The song was sort of inspired by my dad’s love of Akira Kurosawa’s movies,” says Miller. “My dad is from down in Arkansas, and he likes John Wayne and Akira. It struck me as a real non-sequitur. I don’t know how that happened. I started watching some Kurosawa movies myself and got inspired by the visual aspect of what he would do in film. It developed from the perspective of an actor in the film. We went from there. It has a strong riff on it, and I got it to the point that I liked it, and it stuck.”
Miller wrote the album’s opening number, the tender ballad “Nothing Gets Me Down,” when he was struggling to come up with song ideas.
“I would write songs, but I didn’t believe the things I was writing,” he says. “I would look back to what I did, and I thought I was full of shit. I needed to get my feet back on the ground. It’s a good representation of how I felt at that time. I was trying not to hold anything sacred. There’s humor and sadness. A human has all these emotions at the same time, and I was feeling resilience. No matter what, I thought I would keep pushing until I got through the journey. I didn’t know how long the journey would be, but I knew I wouldn’t stop until I got there.”
Accordion and banjo give “Trapeze,” a song that starts off “soft and sweet” as Miller has put it, a whimsical feel.
“I guess it was about a period of self-pity,” says Miller when asked about the song’s theme. “I generally don’t let myself fall into that sort of thing. It’s an analogy for the dangers of putting yourself out there in an artistic way. People might come to see you because they want to see you fail. That’s where the excitement comes from. I tell my band members that no one wants to come to the circus to see a tight rope walker stroll easily across the rope. They want to see them almost fall and then persevere. They then get the feeling that If they can do that, they can do that too. It’s like having the danger there is an important thing. It’s an analogy for performers in general.”
The songs have such a rigorous, roots-y feel to them that they’ve lended themselves well to the live setting.
“Right now, we’re in the process of birthing these things live and experimenting with fine tuning what each person plays and the energy levels and how to go through a dynamic arc,” says Miller. “I love musicians like Nick Drake who come across so well on their albums. They’re so intimate. You can listen to the record on headphones and you feel so close to it. Recorded music can do that. But live, that gets lost in the room. With ‘Nothing Gets Me Down,’ we’ve turned into a country thing and it’s like a two-step. I keep my eyes on the audience and that non-verbal feedback you can pick up by watching their body language and attention. You can learn so much about what the audience is going to need from that song.”
Miller’s music continues to be all over the musical map. While he once described it as “Ozark stomp,” he finds that doesn’t quite capture his musical range.
“I thought [Ozark stomp] was a general enough thing, but it’s specific just enough,” he says. “I’m also not hemmed in by that. It’s a genre I made up. It doesn’t mean anything. I feel like the songs are moving away from that. I might have to make up another genre. It’s like, ‘What kind of music would you call the Beatles?’ I guess it’s rock, but they’re just songs. The song is its own genre.”
Ben Miller Band, Chicago Farmer, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $12 ADV, $14 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.