Questions asked by Jon Wilde, added to Rock Realms 28th September 2009.
Surefire are classic-sounding rock band based in NYC. Their new self-titled is rather special, as it should be when you realise it's produced by Eddie Kramer...
Founding member, composer, singer and guitarist, Ben Rice answers questions.
Hi Ben, thanks for taking a moment to answer these questions. Hope you are well?
Ben: Hey Jon, I'm doing quite well, thanks man, thanks for the review, it was very cool and greatly appreciated!
What got you into music in the first place?
Ben: I'm not sure what got me into music initially, I honestly can't remember a time when i wasn't making music... but my first "musical memory" if you will is of Ron Wood at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at the Garden here in New York... He was playing "Seven Days" and at the end he kind of leaned out over the audience with his guitar and did this grand gesture and I just remember thinking "Oh wow, that looks cool, I wanna do that!" I think I was about seven at that point and that pretty much sold me on rock and roll.
Do you come from a musical family?
Ben: No one in my immediate family really plays music, they all love it, but no one plays. My uncle used to DJ back in the day and plays a bit of guitar, but I don't know if I'd consider my family to be musical, more just open minded.
What came first, the singing, the playing or the writing?
Ben: It all came at once. As soon as I got a guitar and started learning chords I just naturally gravitated towards writing. I think some of that was probably because at the beginning I didn't know enough chords to play any real songs, so I just wound up making up songs to play with the chords I knew and I guess after a while songwriting becomes somewhat habitual and it kind of stuck with me.
You were signed to a label before the release of the Surefire album. What made you leave?
Ben: I had just turned twenty when we got signed. It all seemed very lucrative at the time... they promised they were going to send us to England to tour, put out our record and turn us into "the next Killers", but in reality it was just a lot of us sitting around waiting for them to live up to their end of the deal and watching other opportunities pass us by.
We spent months doing pre-production for the recordings we did for them trying out the same songs in a bunch of different styles, trying to make the tunes cooler and dancier, but it really wasn't us. It just got to the point where I was completely disillusioned with the whole thing and needed a break and a chance to refocus, which is kind of how we wound up making this record on our own and putting it out ourselves.
Why Surefire? Where did the name come from?
Ben: The name Surefire comes from a line in the Oasis B-Side "Carry Us All", which I later realized they borrowed from The Stone Roses "Ten Story Love Song".
Were you tempted to go down the singer/songwriter 'Ben Rice' route?
Ben: Not really, the songs that I write have always been a little too rock and roll to do the whole singer/songwriter thing... I always wanted to have a band. A lot of people compare me to Tom Petty and if you're running with that reference, he had The Heartbreakers, it just balances things out nicely.
There's a distinctive retro/classic sound to the album. Was that deliberate, or is that simply what inspires you?
Ben: The retro/classic sound that you're referring to is a combination of a few things... A lot of the music that I listen to is old school rock and roll... Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, T Rex, The Rolling Stones, but those influences can manifest themselves in a number of different ways... When we set out to make this album, I wanted to do something pure and organic. It's very tempting to throw everything onto an album, but I wanted to limit our palette and see if we could make a grand record, while still keeping things very simple... kind of like a painter only using primary colours. Sonically I think the record is a good representation of where I was at the time. Now that I've done that I feel justified in taking other sonic liberties.
Who or what would you list as your main inspirations?
Ben: My favourite bands growing up were The Verve and Oasis, so I'd say those intrinsically are my main inspirations.
The remainder of Surefire is made up from friends. Does it help having super talented friends?! Were you tempted to look elsewhere for musicians?
Ben: Yeah, it's quite a blessing having talented friends. The New York music scene is both large and small at the same time and I kind of wound up knowing and being friends with a number of great players, so it kind of naturally came together like that. The vast majority of the people that we all hang out with are all really talented musicians, so we have a nice little circle here.
How hard was it getting the legendary Eddie Kramer on board?
Ben: Getting Eddie on board was really a stroke of luck. When we started making the record I was manning the ship by myself and I always had it in the back of my mind that it would be fantastic to bring someone else in towards the end to kind of help pull the whole thing together... so as we were going along we made our imaginary list of people that would be great for the job and way at the top of the list was Eddie Kramer, I think only half believing that it would ever be a reality.
As we were getting close to finishing up tracking I heard that Eddie was going to be in New York giving a lecture for Waves and Logic, so when I heard that I thought "Well perfect, I'll go down and give him the recordings and ask him to mix it" as simple as that, but when the day that he was doing the lecture actually came around I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and was feeling like a pussy and went to the lecture without bringing any of the recordings we were working on just thinking "It'll be good enough just to hear him speak, I'll pick up a few things, there's no reason to bug him and be that annoying kid"... but once he started talking and playing the tracks he was working on I was so blown away by his approach and the sounds he was achieving that I just had to go and ask him, like it wasn't even a conscious decision.
So at the end of the lecture I just went up and introduced myself and he was like "Would you like an autograph?" and I was like "No, I'd actually like you to mix my record." and he kind of smiled and asked me to wait around for a minute and said that he would talk to me about it... so I waited around for a bit and when we got to talking it seemed that the way the I had approached recording it was similar to his approach, so he asked me to send him some of the tunes and said that if he liked them he'd come on board. So as soon as I got home I sent over the tunes and then a few days went by where I didn't hear anything and I kind of figured "Oh well, it was nice to talk with him about recording" that's quite an experience in itself...
And then one night I was on my way home on the subway train, probably about three in the morning... and where I live the train comes above ground, so as it came above ground I get a message on my phone and I'm thinking "who has the nerve to call me at this hour" so I check the message and this kind of wise British voice comes on and goes "Hello Ben, it's Eddie Kramer... I listened to your tunes, they're rather good, we should talk about doing this record" and I remember literally putting my fist in the air and everyone on the train looking at me probably thinking "What is wrong with this kid?" but I will remember that moment forever.
What was it like working with him? What did he bring to the record that may otherwise have been missing?
Ben: Working with Eddie was honestly life changing, it opened me up to so much musically... I learned a tremendous amount from him. When he came on board we had already been working on the record for close to a year and at a certain point you begin to loose perspective and he was able to help focus things and tie it all together. Going into work with him I definitely felt a little pressure because he's worked with the best of the best in rock music, but he's got a terrific sense of humour and warmth that just radiates from him and he made us feel right at home immediately. By the time we were getting lunch on the first day we were already making dumb jokes and just having a blast, while at the same time turning out great music.
Has his involvement helped open doors regarding airplay etc.?
Ben: It's hard to say really... I mean I'm sure that some people are paying attention to the record because his name is on it, but we haven't received that much airplay or gotten that many reviews for it yet, so it's still a bit early to tell.
How is the album doing commercially so far? We said in our review, "If this album or any singles they release from it don't reach the charts there is something unfeasibly wrong with the world."
Ben: Well that's very kind of you to say... You know like I was saying before, it's still pretty early on for the record, the life span of a record these days is much different than what it used to be and we're doing our best to build things up organically. Since we put it out ourselves, there's no real marketing budget behind the record, so it's kind of a matter of just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to connect with people one listener at a time and doing the best that we can. We would love to have released the record and have had it chart and sold a hundred thousand copies, but realistically that's just not where we are. As long as we can keep moving forward and the people that do know about our record are enjoying it I'll be satisfied.
Are you happy with the result, and what are your favourite moments on the album?
Ben: I'm happy with the result because I was happy with the process of making the album... For me the completion really is in the process, in the creation of the music and capturing it. I'm happy that people are discovering the record now and hearing it for the first time and enjoying it, that's fantastic and definitely rewarding, but I've moved on and am more focused on the next record... I've written over 80 tunes for it and we've begun rehearsing them, so that's more of where my head is. As for a favourite moment on the album... it's too soon for me to really put it in context, but I remember being really happy with my vocals at the end of "Sea Song" while I was doing it, I remember thinking "Oh, that's kind of a Paul McCartney-ish bit, cool" and being really happy with my phrasing in the last chorus of "She's Golden".
What's it like being able to work in your own studio? Do you work with other bands there too?
Ben: Having my own studio is the biggest luxury and blessing in my life. Aside from Surefire I've been able to work on a number of fantastic records with some great bands... probably the most well known being The Mooney Suzuki, but also a number of up and coming artists like Reno Bo who played bass in The Mooney Suzuki and Albert Hammond Jr's band, our friends Reckless Sons who Emiliano used to play guitar for and who actually just won the John Varvatos Free the Noise competition, so they'll be in a campaign for him, Change The Station, Gian Stone and I just finished an EP with a band called Lily Sparks. Lenny Kaye who was Patti Smith's guitar player tracked some stuff here too which was very cool.
Do you plan to do any touring on the back of this release? If so, any plans on coming over to the UK?
Ben: We're definitely hoping to do some touring in support of the record, it's one of the things that we're trying to work out... We'd absolutely love to come over to the UK to play... Emiliano's been over there with Reckless Sons to tour, but I've never been and it's always been a dream of mine, so hopefully the record catches on over there and there's a demand for us to come over.
Do you go to watch much live music yourself? If so, who do you rate at present?
Ben: I love seeing a good live show and checking out new bands. My favourite band right now is a band from the UK called Band of Skulls... I just saw them do Mercury Lounge and Union Hall here in New York and they were fantastic! Their record is brilliant as well. They're on a label called Shangri-La who actually seem to be doing good things... they also put out The Duke Spirit's records, another band that I love. There's also a band from New York called The London Souls who are just an amazing rock and roll band... they were friends of friends in high school and I remember always being impressed with their musicianship, but they've turned into a rock and roll monster...I've probably been to their last ten shows and they absolutely kill it every time!
How did you get involved with War Child?
Ben: I'm not exactly sure, our former manager hooked that up for us which was really cool. I'd known about War Child and completely support what they are doing, so when the opportunity presented itself we were happy to contribute a tune.
You seem to put a fair slab of effort into charity events. Do you feel it's important to give something back?
Ben: You know making music is such a blessing to begin with, just the act of making it is so personally rewarding that when we have the opportunity to not only personally feel good about it, but to actually see those in need benefit from it we always will be down.
What does the future hold for you and Surefire, both in the near and far distance?
Ben: The near future holds a rehearsal and the hopefully not to distant future holds touring and recording more records.
What are you up to once you've finished answering these questions?
Ben: I guess I kind of gave it away with the last answer, but yeah, I'm going into rehearsal to work on new material and then to see The Silent League for their record release show, their keyboardist Dave Sherman played keys on our record and then to see Nina Sky.
The new Surefire album is out now. Check out the review on Rock Realms here for further details...