Ben Sollee - Bikes and Honesty

Inclusions is Ben Sollee’s newly released third studio album, and the music inside is as infectious and evocative as anything he has done previously. From the mellow and jazzy "Bible Belt," the hypnotizing "Embrace," or to the up-beat tempos in "Electrified" and "Close to You," Sollee masterfully manipulates a variety of melodies that find their way in and out of a consonance and dissonance of strings and horns that blend into an innovative and progressive sound. Other songs like "Captivity," "Hurting" and "The Globe" carry a humble sweetness that would make Paul Simon wish he’d learned to play the cello instead of arguing with Art Garfunkel. The music however, is only part of the story. Sollee is a cello virtuoso, but his songs are also ingrained with a powerful social message about change, responsibility, and about giving others a chance to have their voices heard.

I caught up with Sollee and his band - Phoebe Hunt (violin & bass) and Jordan Ellis (drums & percussion) - after their concert in Philadelphia, and had a chance to ask them a few questions about playing together in the Inclusions tour, the influence of classical music and training in their work, and the role of music as a medium to convey social awareness.

There seems to be an almost symbiotic relationship between you, Phoebe and Jordan when you share the stage...almost like a silent understanding of the tempo, feel and transitions within each song. How did you guys meet, and how did this group come together?

Sollee: Jordan and I have been friends for a long time. We actually played together in our high school jazz band. At some point we lost track of each other and then reconnected in 2009 for some of my tours. I think that a lot of our friendship and rhythmic connection has to do with the fact that we have just been out there as duo playing together for many years. We did that Bike Tour together last year and there is just something really special that happens when your ride a bike for a long time with a friend.

What about Phoebe? The synchrony between the bows of your cello and her violin is just fantastic - it seems that, as with Jordan, you guys have been playing together for a long time. Is she also a high school friend?

Sollee: Phoebe’s story is different. I met Phoebe in the musical circles years ago, but this is really our first tour and opportunity we've had to play music together.

Hunt: I was traveling around with another band, The Belleville Outfit, when I met Ben. We had an instant connection and thought we should work together [see our live review of The Belleville Outfit playing in Austin]. I think that our connection has a lot to do with the fact that we were both raised similarly in the musical world, and in a classical setting playing in high school orchestras and youth groups. When Ben talks to me about the way he wants music to sound, he talks in metaphors. He tells me, "This section should sound like grass springing up from the ground,” and somehow whatever he is saying just clicks. I love it because when we play together I see myself transferring from a classical violinist to a fiddle player who is more inclusive of other instruments and styles.

This connection is really apparent in the way your songs are set up when playing live. How do you put your songs together?

Sollee: It all starts with the rhythm. We want the rhythm to have a real character. Whether it starts as something arrhythmic or something that is heavy - almost like a hip-hop rhythm - we want it to have a body and character and we build out from there. In one of out songs called “The Globe,” Jordan switches between three different types of drumsticks. I think this is the result of us thinking almost like a classical chamber band playing with different sounds and slowly arranging them, rather than a typical rock band that comes in with something very specific to play.

Jordan, you have developed a very specific drumming style. It's not often you see the drums following a cello or vice-versa, not to mention the complexity of the shuffles, one-handed drumming, and your incredible skill with other percussion instruments such like the cajón drum. How did all of this develop?

Ellis: I picked up the drums fairly early - probably when I was ten. My dad was a musician and played the guitar, and was very supportive of letting me play the drums and make noise around the house. From there I went on to study, always pushing toward the jazz side. Really, it's a bunch of different experiences that all come together. I spent some time playing with a symphonic band as a classical percussionist, and that did a lot in terms of my education. In regards to the music that I listen to, The Beatles' Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper were huge influences when I was younger. Also Jeff Buckley's Grace album was also incredibly influential as far as the arrangements, dynamics and the variety of rhythms. This all eventually blended with my passion for jazz. I am a huge Miles Davis fan and more traditional stuff like Stan Getz. I guess that at some point all of this came together.

When you were in Philadelphia you had a chance to watch a rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In the past you have mentioned that the orchestra is a treasure, and it's a shame that some cities are losing their ensembles. Your music has done wonders to popularize and show a complete other side to the orchestra and classical instruments. How important is it for us to support these classical programs, and how can we continue to “modernize” it order to capture a new generation of listeners?

Sollee: I don’t think there's an easy answer. The sound of the orchestra is ingrained in me as a musician, and this is a sound that has become part of me through years and years of playing. It is interesting because the orchestra does carry a strong and lingering sense of tradition, and I don’t think we should be looking for ways to change it. We should just let orchestra exist today as opposed to trying to maintain what an orchestra sounded like even fifty years ago or one hundred years ago. The orchestra historically has always brought in different instruments as the times have changed - like strings - or it grew in size with new compositions. The tough thing about orchestras is the general feeling that we need to maintain traditions rather than embrace the contemporary.

It seems as if there is almost a struggle between the traditional and contemporary. Do you think we are able to find some sort of middle-ground?

Sollee: I think that our generation is used used to music that "hits" us a lot harder on a sound level. The pressure of sound that we are used to when we go to venues or listen to recordings is exponentially stronger than what an orchestra commonly produces at an acoustic hall. I don't think the orchestra has to cater exactly to that, but they have to at least realize or keep in touch with it. I think it is critical to develop and explore this aspect of the sound that sometimes is lacking in a typical classical ensemble. It's important to bring in a type of vigor that really hits you and brings the sound to the modern day. Sometimes this is as simple as incorporating modern material and different styles from different cultures.

Clearly you have created something that combined the classical and the contemporary worlds, but how do we popularize this movement? How do you show younger audiences that classical instruments can be incredibly multifaceted?

Sollee: Lots of people are creating amazing music. People like Jeremy Kittell, Phoebe Hunt and another fantastic cellist called Nathaniel Smith are all innovators in this sense. These people are playing with traditional classic instruments, bringing them into the "other world" and then taking the time and energy to go back and use their knowledge to influence the more traditional side of the orchestra. My hope is that as a trained classical musician working with DJs, folk musicians, bluegrass artists and blues players, I will eventually learn to speak in both tongues - almost like being a translator who is able to facilitate a conversation between these two worlds. I think that the time is very ripe to do this. It doesn't have to be large orchestra, and even small ensembles can innovate and play new and challenging material.

Ben, your songs also carry a really powerful social message which blends well with your musical arrangements. It's funny because when I listen to Billy Bragg I always tell myself I wish he would write more about love and less about politics. But when I listen to you I kind of feel there is a nice balance where your message is clear and inspiring, but I don't feel like you're preaching at me. How do you achieve this medium, and what do you hope to inspire?

Sollee: I'm just hoping to achieve a little more honesty in all of us. Music started out as a very social thing and then we put it on "stages" and it become a performing art. When we were able to make recordings it became an industry and eventually it became a business. What I want is to get back to that human side of it. I want music to once again be a conversation between humans - a universal language, and for people to feel like they matter and that their voices are worth something. I feel that what is happening in rural Kentucky can be just as relevant as what goes on in New York. Really, I want to make people aware that we are all in this together. There are cultural and environmental disasters happening, and I don't feel that these voices are being heard. If people really knew what is happening in the Adirondacks and the Rockies people would be outraged, and sadly this has been going on for years!

Do you see yourself as different then someone like Billy Bragg?

Sollee: I feel my focus when talking about social issues is on a human-to-human perspective. Sometimes when people introduce me they say things like "musician, song writer, cellist and activist," and I always correct them because I don't feel like I am an activist. I want to go beyond the political stuff and get to the people. That being said, I learned a lot by being by on tour with Billy Bragg, just by watching him standing and speaking about what he believes, and by watching the people gathering around him, feeling the power of his words, and noticing that they are not the only ones who feel that way.

Unlike your last tour, you guys are not going around in bicycles, but taking a van and playing different cities around the U.S. almost every night. How is this tour different? What are your expectations?

Sollee: It is very different. The pace and the energy that it takes are completely different. You end up racing around much more in this kind of tour as you try to make the best of the opportunities that are handed to you. Somebody on Twitter the other day wrote, "You're traveling on a van? If I won the lottery, I would buy you a bus!" I tweeted back and said, "If you won the lottery you should buy us time so we could bike to the show." It really comes down to time. There are lots of expectations and we use the van to access these opportunities that help us grow. That said, we are still trying to do a lot of bike advocacy while on this tour. We have teamed up with Cliff Bar for a two-mile challenge where people can sign up and try to reduce car trips around town. We are also in touch with local biking organizations and we try stay somewhat community oriented even though we are traveling in a van.

You had a full house in Philadelphia and you are just coming from back to back concerts in New York. Everything just seems to be moving very fast and in a really good direction. What is your advice for new musicians and people that are at that stage when things begin to change?

Sollee: I think that the most important thing to do is for people not to look to the stars for guidance. There are good people around you that are making movies that need music. There are dance choreographers in your community that are putting together pieces that need some musical accompaniment. This is about looking within your community and collaborating with good people in your area rather than thinking in terms of the larger music industry. Make the best of the people who are close and accessible to you. This does not mean you should ignore larger opportunities, but learn your trade well before you go and try to get a record deal. The big names out there will help you when the time is right.

Ellis: Experience. I think it is important to study as much as you can, even if this means just listening and watching other bands. But it's also critical to get out there and start performing and learn to play in front of an audience and with different musicians.

Phoebe, people coming to this tour will have the chance to hear one of your own songs, which judging by the reaction of the crowd in Philadelphia was a huge hit. What are your plans for the future?

Hunt: Right now I'm actually working on an album. My goal is to have it out by next spring, but I'll have to wait and see how things develop. I'm in the process of writing, which I've done a bit of on the road with Ben and that has been just amazing. I've been a collaborator for the past eight years, and this album will be an expression of my own music. One of the most beautiful things about music is that everyone that you play with brings out different parts of who you are. I think that this is exactly what is happening. In the past I'm not so sure I had figured out "my voice," but what ended up happening is that by playing with different people I slowly started finding my sound and figuring out what I want to do. This tour in particular has been so phenomenal. There is so much depth and diversity working Ben and Jordan. Right now I'm just enjoying and trying to explore different opportunities that I hope will come together in my album.

Ben Sollee and his band are on tour across the US this summer. Make sure you catch them on the road and experience the magnificence of their performance.

Photos courtesy of Rich Gastwirt. Visit his Facebook page to see more great concert photography!



According to Rich Gastwirt's one word Facebook page bio he's a "Photomusicologist". That may be how he perceives himself, but the truth of the matter is that he's one of the top concert photographers with a solid reputation for delivering consistently excellent images no matter how challenging the conditions. He's an imaging consultant and house photographer for a number of music festivals as well as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' summer concert series, and he's the only photographer to have won the People's Choice award twice in Billboard Magazine's Ultimate Music Moment Photo Contest (2009, 2010). Please "Like" his Facebook concert photography page ( to stay current on his latest work.



Add a New Comment

Login or register to post comments