Soledad Brother BEN SWANK is TEN STEPS Ahead! The Interview
By: Rich Tupica
Soledad Brother Ben Swank has always pounded the shit out of his drum kit. His unique style is what made the Soledad Brothers seem like a true democracy to me, they were all equals, no Brother more important to the music than the other. Every time I saw a Soledad Brothers gig at the Magic Stick or wherever, my eyes would be glued on Mr. Swank hunched behind his drums, mainly because I was impressed at how he could be so loud and frenzied, throwing in fills and crashing his cymbals, yet still never seemed like he was over playing. On stage, Swank wouldn’t leave a period at the end of the sentence he would leave an entire row of exclamation points. However, after eight years of records and tours, Ben, Johnny and Oliver recently decided to call it quits with the Soledad Brothers. During the Soledad split Mr.Swank moved from the United States to London with his new wife and started a new two-piece band called Ten Steps, which is still kind of a secret, though I did get a few hints of what to expect from his new duo, compliments of Mr.Swank himself, read on.
The Soledad Brothers took their name from the trio of convicted felons at Soledad Prison who were later killed by police…did you guys feel a connection with these guys, or did you just think that the name sounded pretty bad ass?
"A bit of both I guess. It's a pretty bad ass name and was probably inspired for Johnny by the fact that there was an equally bad ass band in Toledo at the time called The Young Lords who were named after Puerto Rican activists. But there's something there about adopting the name of distinctly black icons and playing something most people regard as distinctly black music. I think both of those pre-conceptions are unfair and short sighted. If you think of episodes like the Soledad Brothers as 'black history' as opposed to 'American history' I think you’re stuck in a similar sort of thought process that black revolutionaries were working to eradicate."
Same goes for the stereotype that blues is strictly "black music" rather than American music, I'm sure the Soledad Brothers heard this bullshit on occasions...
"It's the same with blues music, it's a distinctly American form of music that was started by black people, that's not to say that white people are immune to it's charms or that it's impossible or sacrilege for white people to play it. So long as they don't do it in the fanny-pack butthole-mouth blues stylings that's so popular with a lot of middle class white blues fans, that is. So, there was a thing with us about pointing that out to people. We heard so much shit about 'appropriation' and this and that and some people really took issue with it, but if you tried to engage them in a serious discussion about it, they would just back off and resort to name calling or whatever. A big validation for me was when John Sinclair came to my place in Toledo and was visibly freaked out by my neighborhood, I think he was shocked I wasn't living in the burbs or something and I think he understood us a lot more after that."
Ben Swank & the world famous foot trick!
What band or bands were you into back in your teenage years?
"I got into stuff like the Stones and The Who pretty early on, which was pretty inspiring considering what was happening in pop music in the late 80's. But when I got into a lot of the proto-punk stuff like Link Wray, Back From the Grave, and The Stooges that was really inspiring, you know, because I realized the un-importance of technical ability. And it gave my friends and me a lot of confidence to go on stage and be more confrontational with ignorant Toledo audiences. It's great when you can really piss somebody off by playing something just a little left of the dial from what they're used to hearing on the oldies station...you know?"
How did you & Johnny Walker meet?
"I met Johnny at a party in Toledo, kind of...I had seen his band Sopor like a week before that and they were really great and noisy, the guitar player was doing whippets on stage and shit. It just didn't seem like they gave a fuck and then after the show I was outside and the bass player, this weird skinny corkscrewed haired effeminate kid was loading all the equipment onto the back of what was probably his dad's pickup truck berating his band mates in this crazy nasal voice if they thought the show was any good or not. He thought it was, did they...what did they think? This was to become a daily ritual of my life for the next 10 years or so...anyway, so I saw him at this house party one of my bands was playing at a couple weeks later and I went up to him and said "hey, I saw your band...I fucking loved it" or something like that and he just gave me a dirty look, sniffed at me and walked away. I thought he was a total dick and I was really embarrassed by the whole thing. Eventually he started showing up at Henry and June gigs."
Johnny Walker hydrating Ben
Before Soledad there was the blues-punk band Henry & June, what is the history on that outfit? "That was me, Jimmy Danger and CJ (Dooley Wilson)...we were doing sort of this punk rock Fred McDowell meets the Stones kind of thing and, you know, it was great. We gigged all over Toledo and even went as far as Warren Ohio once where we were nearly beaten and arrested by local cops carrying bed knobs for nightsticks. Eventually we decided to get a bass player. We auditioned Johnny, I don't think we ever told him that he had the job he just kept showing up. We turned into a tighter, heavier band and started gigging up in Detroit, we did a bunch of shows with the Laughing Hyenas which was a huge deal for us, we worshiped those guys. Eventually Jim and CJ got tired of it and called it a day. We did a 7" on Human Fly Records, they only released like four 45's or something (Fireworks, the first Detroit Cobras, Henry and June, Rocket 455). So, for me, it's a little piece of mid-west rock history."
So how did this transformation turn into the Soledad Brothers?
"Johnny started playing blues style guitar stuff with this guy Doug Walker. They had a two-piece called Johnny Walker, Walker isn't Johnny's real name if you haven't picked up on that yet. When Doug quit after a couple hilarious episodes of fist-fights on stage, I was going to fill in for a few shows and I just kept doing it for like 8 years or something."
How did you guys decide to start traveling from Ohio to Detroit to play shows?
"Uh, well, you just got a better reception in Detroit. And there was a lot of great shit happening up there at that point with Italy records and all these great bands playing up there. I was spending most of my weekends up there and I mentioned to Jack (White) I was thinking of moving up there, and he offered his place to stay kind of temporarily and I went and just kind of stayed. He couldn't get rid of me. I was like a poltergeist."
The Soledad Brothers: Ben, Johnny & Oliver
What was it like having Jack White as a roommate back in the day? How did you guys become such great friends?
"He'd make me fold his clothes and empty the rattraps. I had to make him dinner every night and if the silver wasn't polished he'd give me demerit points. 10 demerit points meant cleaning the filthy birdcages of which there were 13, all rare, not to mention volatile and aggressive birds. At night he would be forgiving and gentle, dressing my bird wounds and quietly singing Charly Patton songs until I drifted into sleep."
Italy Records put out the 'Sugar and Spice' 7” single, how and when did this deal go down?
"I think Dave Buick just mentioned it in passing one time and we just badgered him with recordings and artwork until he relented and put it out, rather than deal with us pestering him for the rest of his life."
After the Italy single, a handful of singles and the first LP came about... Estrus being one of the labels, how did they find you guys and start releasing your albums?
"Estrus was doing catalog distribution for Italy, so he heard the single and just sent me a postcard asking if we wanted to do some wax with him. Dave's (Crider) a cool laid back guy and was great to work with. He made it all really easy. We had a bunch of recordings that we had already done up in Detroit at Jack's place so we added a few more and sent it off and that was the first record."
Your style of drumming is unique, how old were you when you started to pound the skins and how did you develop your signature style?
"I started pretty late. I had these really cool orange and blue Vistalite Ludwigs that my uncle had loaned me, but it took me forever until I finally sat down and started bashing it out. I was really intimidated by it. I finally realized that if I just hit really hard with confidence it sounded better. A lot of my style comes from not really playing with a bass player. I've always tried to play to the whole sound of the band instead of one individual instrument. I always wanted to occupy a zone between Moe Tucker and Keith Moon...simplistic, repetitive, but explosive."
What was your first big tour with the Soledads? How was this experience?
"Our first tour was with The Fireballs of Freedom, who taught me how to tour, if you're not having fun on tour then you shouldn't be doing it and those guys did it 24 hours a day, they never stopped, I can't say enough good stuff about those guys. The first big tour was with Hope Sandoval, funnily enough. We didn't really know how her audience would react so we tried to mellow it out at first, but the more we got to know her and the band we realized they didn't want that, they just wanted us to do our thing. The people at the shows were pretty perplexed; man, but we had a great time. Her band was really cool with us, Colm O'Ciosoig from My Bloody Valentine was her drummer and it was really great to get to know him cause I was always a big fan. One night in Boston all these people were heckling her to play Mazzy Star songs and she eventually got upset and walked offstage. We were out in the lobby and all these Boston whitey turds were bitchin’ about her and we just confronted them all. They were demanding their money back, but we managed to scare them all off. Ha..."
What’s an odd or crazy story that you have witnessed on the road touring?
"There's loads, we were in Austin once and we met Augusto Pinochet's grandson. He spent like a hundred bucks at the merch-table and tried to get us to come home with him for 'girls and cocaine'. He also offered us $5,000 to cancel the rest of the tour and play his birthday party."
After the release of the fourth album ‘The Hardest Walk’, the band announced that the upcoming Soledad shows were cancelled and that the band decided to break-up. What brought on this decision?
"We were just tired. Tired of each other, tired of touring in a van...all that shit. It's hard to relate everything unless you know us or had been with us for a while, so I can't really do it justice in just a few sentences here. But there’s no hard feelings between us, I don't think so anyway. We just decided to move on. So many bands just keep playing forever until everybody is just sick of the sight of them. We loved our last album so we decided to quit while we were ahead."
Out of all the shows and albums, what was your proudest moment as a Soledad Brother?
"There's a lot. I was just happy to be able to do all we did. I got to jam on stage with Greg Cartwright (of The Reigning Sound) once and even though I was loaded beyond belief and played like shit, it was one of the greatest moments of my life."
Do you miss being a Soledad Brother? Is there a chance for a reunion someday?
"Yeah, I miss those guys but I don't think any reunion or anything like that is going to happen. I'm not ruling out working with either of them or Dechman on something, but I'm not really interested in resurrecting something that I've finally dealt with ending."
What have you been up to since the Soledad Brothers called it quits? I hear you got married! & Do you plan to still play music?
"Yeah, I'm married and living in London. I have a couple bands going. I play with David Viner full time now, which is cool for me to do something a bit quieter and mellow. He's a great songwriter. I have another band that's just getting started called Ten Steps that I'm really excited about but don't want to reveal too much. It's kind of like an appalachian river baptism gone horribly wrong."
What are some newer bands you are digging right now? Where you live is it easy to catch some good shows?
"There's a show on every night of the week in London. It can be too much actually. There's a great band called The Horrors, it's not the In the Red band, I work with them at Loog Records. Ben Prosser is amazing, he does a two-piece with Victoria Yuelet singing and has a full band called the Tap Collective, they're both great, check that shit out."
How is it living in London compared to the U.S.? Are people as pissed at America in different countries as I think they are?
"It's difficult to compare. There's things I love and hate about them both to tell you the truth. People are absolutely pissed off with America outside of the States. It's really easy to see why. Culpability is very important outside of the U.S., the government in the States hasn't been asked to answer for the crimes they commit in other countries. There hasn't been one subpoena issued from Congress to investigate presidential misconduct since Bush took office compared to over 1,000 in the Clinton years. Which is insane considering Iraq, torture, Hurricane Katrina, Valerie Plame, wiretaps."
So Europeans are quite open about this?
"Europeans will talk endlessly and are very passionate about what is happening with their government and they don't understand why the American people don't hold their government responsible for their actions. You should see Jeremy Paxman go after politicians on the news over here, it's inspiring. He won't allow them to dodge the questions. I think the American media could learn from that and I think if American people are dissatisfied they need to speak up."
How long before the Swank-Army will hear some Ten Steps on record? Will it be sometime in the very near future?
"Pretty soon. We'll probably do some recording before we start playing out, there's just two of us, we're kind of interested in seeing how out there we can get with the recordings and then translating it live. Cash is always a problem, need some dough to buy all those weird instruments we gotta have so bad. I'm accepting donations, email me."
'Suave Swank' petting the panther!
Thanks to Ben Swank for the pics!
Soledad Brothers - A cool Metro Times Article from '03
David Viner on Myspace
The Tap Collective on Myspace
Soledad Brothers on Myspace
Greg Cartwright & The Reigning Sound
Augusto Pinochet? Who is he?
Soledad Brothers Icons FREE!
Jeremy Paxman at the BBC
Soledad Brothers by John Sinclair
Soledad Brothers - Article & Interview
The Original Soledad Brother George Jackson! (read this!)
Soledad Brothers on You Tube!
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