He’s got a beard you could lose a guitar pick in, and he delivers a performance you can lose yourself in.
The music of Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers is different from what a lot of musicians are doing. With his folk roots grounded in the music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Caplan re-envisions the folk genre by drawing from Eastern European melodies and scales, the avant-garde and experimental jazz of John Zorn, as well as the classic blues and soul genres.
Their 2011 debut album entitled In the Time of the Great Remembering has some powerful songs, like “Conduit” which features a deep double bass rhythm, a whimsical horn section and Caplan’s powerful voice behind distorted fuzz.
The title of the album refers to the history of the human relationship with nature and the rest of the world. “We’ve forgotten a lot of things; we can speak of a time of great forgetting,” said Caplan, going on to explain how colonial Europe and the industrial era have swayed our way of thinking. “I am hopeful we can transition into a time of great remembering.”
The songwriter describes the band’s very recent selling-out of three shows in Halifax as “a wonderful blessing.” Once the tour of North America finishes, they will be heading to Australia and Europe where the band has a significantly large fan-base.
“My general philosophy is that nobody owes me shit,” said Caplan, addressing the common question of how a musician, quickly growing in success, plans to stay grounded.
Backstage before a performance, Caplan takes a few minutes to himself to warm-up his roaring voice and sip a little scotch. “Once I step onto the stage, there’s another level that I’m conscious of,” he said. He stresses the importance of engaging with the crowd and being fully present during each performance.
When it comes to the folk singer’s style of music and performance, Tom Waits and Freddy Mercury are two legends that he’s been compared to. “It’s scary and humbling to be compared to such masters,” said Caplan. Though Waits and Mercury’s styles of music differ dramatically, Caplan draws the link that both men are extremely dedicated performers. “I’m a hard-working guy […] and I plan to keep working on my craft every day.”
Caplan trudges around the world doing phone and radio interviews, has a bite to eat and performs for a new crowd each night. “It’s an exciting time to be working in this crazy entertainment industry,” he said. “I think a lot of change is under foot [in the music industry] and transition periods are the most fertile periods.”
These “fertile periods” are what allows the songwriter to dig into each performance and draw inspiration from different styles of music from around the world. Caplan is backed by the Casual Smokers, who are a group of musicians he can really trust, and this frees him do try things he couldn’t do performing alone.
The band will be going into the studio very soon to begin working on their new record. They’ve been touring nonstop and playing their new songs that will be released on the new record.
Caplan also hopes to release some collaborations with other artists within the year. The singer/guitarist describes himself as a live-based musician and finds a challenge in trying to translate this into a studio setting: “To me, the live is the most exciting part […] the studio stuff is a different beast that I’m still learning a lot about.”
Some of the inspiration for his new record comes from the open mic sessions held in Caplan’s Halifax living room which he opens to the public. He explains, “Constantly hearing songwriters from all over the place working out their material helps me gain perspective on my own.”
Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers play Quai des Brumes on Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m.