ListenSD chats with Ben Caplan

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Ben Caplan is one of the leading young folk voices out of Canada today.

His voice and music create a unique sound belying experience and a life well beyond his years, and connecting with his listeners on a auditory and emotional level. He has toured far and wide, entertaining audiences throughout both small venues and huge festivals, having played Glastonbury in 2013. Ben was kind enough to talk to ListenSD in advance of his show at Soda Bar on Tuesday, November 3.

I grew up being force-fed Klezmer music; typically, it’s not a style associated with people under the age of about 70. What drew you to the style, and how have people embraced the Klezmer elements you use in your tunes? How has it been taking Klezmer and folk music more in to the main stream?
I didn’t grow up with much klezmer music, so in a way I kind of came at it through a side door. I did hear a lot of “jewish” melodies in synagogues and at community events, so those musical modes were in me, but I never really thought of it as “music.” When I was in my early twenties, I was backpacking around in Europe and I stumbled on a balkan style brass band busking in front of a cathedral in Antwerp. I bought their CD and slowly began immersing myself in balkan brass sounds and other Eastern European musics. There was something deeply familiar in all of these sounds, and the more I consumed, the more began to trickle back out of me.
I don’t know if I would describe what I do as particularly main stream, but enough people are listening! I am always amazing and astounded at the breadth, depth, and variety of musical expression in this world. I think that different musics, like species, and languages each posses an unquantifiable value, and I take pleasure in exploring and propagating sounds that I don’t hear on the radio, but that really turns me on.
Your live shows have received universal acclaim; how do you bring that same energy and performance in to a recording?
It’s really hard. I’ve learned that putting on a show and making a record are totally different processes. Writing is like growing vegetables. A live show is like cooking a meal with those vegetables. And making an album is like building a rocket and sending those vegetables to the moon. Keeping the live energy present in the studio is difficult and I don’t know of any formula of how to achieve it. It’s just not enough to close your eyes and pretend there are 1000 people screaming. It’s a combination of focus, practice, and abandonment. Something about being well prepared, and then letting everything go.
What’s been your favourite venue to play?
Oh lord! It’s very hard to pick. I’ve played so many hundreds of different venues in the last few years. The 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London is definitely up there though. I played there as support for Zac Brown. It’s a huge and beautiful victorian theatre with three rows of ornate gilded balconies, and high domed and meticulously painted ceilings. It was a hell of a view from the stage! Another contender for the best venue was a wooden stage hidden in the woods on a tiny island called Vleland in the North Atlantic, off the coast of The Netherlands. We played there as part of a spectacular festival called Into the Great Wide Open. Seeing the crowd expand beyond the cleaning and dispersed deep into the trees trying to get a view of the stage was another sight I’ll never forget!
To put it lightly, you’re a big deal in Canada, and you also have a strong European fanbase, having played Glastonbury in 2013. What’s it like to have that success at home, and bringing it down to the US and having to, in a sense, start over? Are showcases like SXSW helpful in that regard?
Well, I’m lucky because a lot of the successes I’ve had in Canada and around the world have translated into a small buzz in the US. From a Canadian perspective, the US music market is huge, competitive, and over-saturated. So it’s a pretty tough market to break into. Every little advantage helps. I purposely have taken my time with trying to break into the US to develop the resources needed to give it a shot. It’s sometimes a very humbling experience. We play sold out shows with hundreds of fans in Canada, and then come to the US to play to very different audiences. It’s always interesting though! I see the value in putting in the hard work. The smaller shows are actually much harder, so it keeps the band on our toes and keeps us humble and lean.
So, we’ve known each other since the summer of 2002, during which time we accomplished some mischief. While things have certainly changed (and you’ve been growing a beard since then, it seems), do you and the band have any running gags on the road?
Ah, those Casual Smokers are always getting into some kind of trouble. These days I keep most of my antics to the stage. It takes a lot of fuel to keep this steam ship moving down the river.
How goes the manual instagram?
Ha! Right, so this was a perk that I made available to the folks who bought my new album through the pre-sale portal. I bought a bunch of disposable cameras, and I am snapping shots on them as we tour around North America. It’s been a pretty interesting exercise in the art of seeing. I try to grab at least one shot every day, but I never get to see the photos. Ever. I’ll plop the undeveloped cameras into the mail and hope whoever peeks at the photos likes what I saw!
Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers will play Soda Bar on November 3; tickets are available here for $10.
Interview by: David Israel