An interview with blues harmonica man Benjamin Darvil
Son of Dave found his coolness through the only legitimate means available to us skinny white guys: Wearing your granddad’s clothes and a creepy grin, and making bizarre, gut-busting music that goes oomph-a-doomph in the night. The one-man beat-boxing, harmonica-playing phenomenon has a new album coming out on March 22: Shake a Bone. The Harp Surgery’s Apprentice found him in the Blues Kitchen, North London, lurking behind a pair of sunglasses and a huge plate of Tex-Mex. Here’s what he had to say…
[You can also catch the second half of our interview here]
Tell us about the new album.
SoD: I recorded it in Chicago with [Steve] Albini. He’s an engineer, so he gets good sound and doesn’t make any suggestions. He has no opinion about anything. He refuses to give an opinion about the music at all. I could go in there and pee on myself and he’d make it sound… well, he’d record it well. But it would make a terrible record. He doesn’t care about making good records, just sonically good records, you know what I mean? He’s an engineer.
Have you had that privilege with all your albums, being able to make the decisions?
SoD: Yeah. I’d be happy maybe one day to work with some bossy guy. I’ve worked with bossy people before, it’s okay. You know, if they want to take things and move them around and add instruments and bring in back-up singers and make suggestions for how to fix a chorus, we could try that some day. But not right now. Completely selfish for this record.
So take us through the evolution of the Son of Dave sound. From the beginning when you cut out the backing band.
SoD: Well, it hasn’t really evolved. [Giggles and stuffs some food in his mouth.] Went busking because I was tired of making complicated recordings and taking them to wankers in offices. So I went busking, and I figured out in a day that I needed to do the beats with my mouth, so when I got back home I practiced, went out again… people liked it, but I got tired pretty quickly. i couldn’t do it for six or eight hours, so I remembered at home that I had a little cheap pedal in a box somewhere from my big band days. So I hauled that up. And then I laughed myself sick when I heard it, thinking ‘Oh good. I got something to do until I’m really, really old.’ Just the perfect recipe. Like this dip, it’s pretty good. Here, try it.
Don’t mind if I do. So, does gear talk interest you at all?
SoD: [Sounding very uninterested] Yeah, I don’t mind gear talk.
Are you not a gear guy at all?
SoD: I was never really up on it, but forced myself to catch up in the last couple of years. I take a very tiny amp and a DI so the sound man gets two signals – he gets the amp and he gets the clean signal from the DI… and then he can mix the two. You get more lows especially for the bass and beatbox and kick, and get more lows out of the direct signal than you do out of a little amp. Or even a big amp sometimes.
I used to use the bullets and Astatics, but I destroyed probably eight of them. I’ll go to hell for being an antique killer.
So what are you using now?
SoD: I use a really ugly one: Shure beta 57. It’s a very clean, excellent microphone and when you switch up the impedance it’s very very loud… So for any kind of tone you rely on your playing and the amplifier rather than the dirty mic sound. But I’ve been taking the guts out of 57s and, what are they called, Unidynes? I’ve been taking the guts out and trying to put them into bullet shapes, ‘cos the long shape is a pain for the harp player, and doesn’t have a particular look to it. But it screws with the sound. Just don’t bother. It’s hard to get it all out without wrecking it….
I feel kind of sleazy for asking this question, but what kind of harmonicas are you using?
SoD: Sleazy harmonicas! No, I’m using Seydel harmonicas, ‘cos they called me up and they wanted to give me a discount if they could put my name on their bloody website. At least they’re doing they’re homework and they’ve figured out who’s out playing concerts and impressing people with harmonica, whereas the old bloody… I won’t mention any names… you play all over the world and the fucking David Letterman show four times but Hohner never called me, wouldn’t do any kind of deal.
Do you ever see yourself doing the sideman thing again, more traditional-style accompaniment?
SoD: No. No one can afford me. I’d do it for fun. I go into the studio all the time with people, either for friends, a buddy-deal, or the record companies bring me up and pay me.
Is that a matter of convenience?
SoD: It’s a matter of making a living. I have to do it on my own. It’s how I pay the bills. Not many people can afford to tour with a band. I mean, if you go out and you do 30 shows and you’re filling up rooms, you can make a lot of money. But it takes years to get there and you have to put up with a load of sweaty men in a van. I did my time, you know [drags on cigarette]
With Crash Test Dummies, yeah…
SoD: Exactly. There was a few years when I toured with Martina Topley-Bird as a sideman, that was cool. I was in the mood, then, to do it. But they paid well.
And here you’ve cut your overhead considerably as a one-man-band.
SoD: Yeah! If I can go play a gig a week somewhere and bring home £150, then I’m on my way to survival. I did that, and after a few shows I bumped it up and started getting paid 200, 300 quid, and so on and so on. It’s just little slow steps without risking too much. I’m opening for Iggy and the Stooges in France this summer. [Cackles]
Now I hear a message in a lot of your songs, comments about consumer society. The fact that it’s a jungle and we’re all going to get eaten alive someday or another. How much of that is a put-on and how much of it is genuine politics?
SoD: I like your question I guess, but I don’t know if it is politics to say that I don’t like your skinny Vogue models or your plastic crap that you’re trying to sell me. I don’t think of that as political. Well, in a way it is.
Well, in the sense that everything is political…
SoD: Yeah exactly. Well, if there are songs of mine that sound political, I apologise and will take them off the record… In the way that I don’t use any language of politics. I just talk about regular stuff. Try to keep the lyrics very very simple so that morons can understand them.
Well it seems to have worked. I got most of it.
SoD: Ha! Yeah, it’s good time music, it’s night-time music, it’s not for thinking. Leave that up to someone else.
Yeah, it’s a very primal sound. To what extent was it a conscious effort to make something new and break out of old clichés?
SoD: I’m always happy to destroy clichés in music when I’m aware of them, but at the same time I just limited myself to a harmonica and a shaker and a looping pedal so that’s going to dictate that it’s not going to be very complicated music. It’s going to be hooky and rhythmic and funny and sexy or something. So it just makes itself according to the ingredients and my personality. It’s not such a calculated response to any kind of music scene, this shit that they call blues.
Blues is becoming a very popular word these days. The word is, at least. But the problem is when Joe Regular comes into a posh blues club, he says ‘Ooh I don’t have any blues in my collection, I hear that’s cool now,’ and goes and gets a blues record. But they might only have bought one, because it’ll probably suck. They’ll get a BB King Greatest Hits and they’ll like it for a while but then they’ll get sick of guitar solos. Or they’ll get a Stevie Ray Vaughan album or this that and the other. What if they buy an Eric Clapton album? Then it’s over, they’ll never go near blues music again!
Check out the trailer for Son of Dave’s new album, Shake a Bone:
Don’t miss the next instalment of the Harp Surgery’s conversation with Son of Dave. He’ll be telling us more about beat-boxing, debauchery, and why he wears sunglasses at night.