Ben Caplan's bone-crushingly rugged, smoky vocals and foot-stompin' gypsy-inspired rock make for raucous live sets. Backed by The Casual Smokers (whose roster changes almost every show), he's tamed his ferocity on his first full-length record, In the Time of the Great Remembering. From frenzied folk songs to lyric-heavy ballads, Caplan jumps from banjo to guitar to piano in wayward musical exploration reminiscent of Tom Waits or Mark Lanegan.
We caught up with Caplan, who was recently in town for NXNE and for a show at The Piston.
I notice you're wearing a red square. How much do politics play into your songwriting?
It was traditionally mostly separate. As I become more and more disenfranchised with our government and the direction our country is heading in, I can't help but write more and more political songs. I write songs about what I'm thinking and experiencing and feeling. My last album had a bunch of love songs and break-up songs because that's what I was dealing with at the time. I just finished writing a song about peak oil and another song about, well, maybe it's about neoconservatism.
How would you describe your style of music?
It's tricky, right? I'm starting to call it folk-rock meets gypsy-soul.
Tell us about your first full-length, In the Time of the Great Remembering.
It was really exciting. When I was 12, I started collecting vinyl, and I got my first record player and first guitar around the same time. I would fantasize about having my own music pressed to vinyl. Holding my own LP in my hands for the first time was certainly trippy.
A lot of your songs vary significantly from track to track. How do you filter?
I don't want to. I try to write whatever wants to come out. I try not to filter what a song is going to sound like, and I try not to enter a song with a preconception of what it's going to sound like. Even within one song, things will change dramatically from first draft to finished draft.
You're often likened to Tom Waits. Do you agree with the comparison?
It's a flattering comparison, obviously. I really like Tom Waits. I think there are a lot of touchstones between us, but at the end of the day, I also think we're radically different. His major influences were jazz and blues; my influences are more songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young — that sort of folk revival. I listen to a lot of Eastern European and Latin American music as well.
You seem to be more in your element on stage. How does that translate in the studio?
I've spent a lot of time on the stage, it's kind of what I do. The studio is a whole different thing, and I've got a lot less experience in the studio. I'm certainly cultivating a live experience and putting everything under a microscope. The biggest challenge is probably figuring out the balance between capturing the spirit of a live performance, while giving it an exactitude that will stand up to what people expect on a record. When it's live, it doesn't matter if you sing the wrong notes or if everything falls apart, because it's about the energy. On a record, that's not the case.
Will we be hearing Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers on the radio anytime soon?
That's up to the radio, I guess! There are some things with my last record that made it harder for it to be on the radio. I would like to share my craft with a wide audience. My next record is going to be about making one that I would be stoked to hear, first and foremost. If that means that it's not going to work on the radio, oh well. Some of the things that draw people to what I'm doing now is that it's about the music, it's not about trying to market to a demographic.
When was the last time you shaved?
Three years ago.
Do the ladies ever complain?
You know, the girl who I wrote a lot of those songs on the last album about, she was into it. She then broke my heart and ran away, and I thought, "This is terrible, I'm going to have to shave my beard if I ever want to get lucky again." And without coming across as crass, I will say yeah, so far no problem [laughs].