Great Lakes formed in Athens, Georgia in 1996 and were originally built around the songwriting partnership of Ben Crum and lyricist Dan Donahue with multi-instrumentalist Jamey Huggins. They released their self-titled debut album in 2000, The Distance Between in 2002 and Diamond Times in 2006. Ways of Escape is the first Great Lakes album to feature Ben Crum as the primary songwriter and is very different to the first three records in its personal style, darker moods and folk- and country-influenced songs. It features just one song with Dan Donohue as lyricist (‘Summer Fruit’) and a cover of ‘Sour Grapes’ by John Prine. Ben Crum is joined by an impressive set of musicians on the record: Kevin Shea (Storm and Stress, Talibam!, The Swirlies) on drums, David Lerner (ex-Ted Leo and the Pharmacists) on bass, Jay Israelson (Mice Parade) on piano, Joe McGinty (played with Psychedelic Furs and Ryan Adams) on electric piano and organ, Jon Natchez (Beirut, Herman Dune, Bishop Allen) on bass clarinet and saxophones, Heather McIntosh (Elf Power, Circulatory System, Japancakes) on cello, Linda Rosenbury (The Wowz) on violin, Phillip Sterk (The Woes, Bigman) on pedal steel, and Suzanne Nienaber singing backing vocals. We spoke to Ben Crum in October 2010 in the week of the release of Ways to Escape.
L:Ben Crum, R: Kevin Shea
SXP: In 'Rev War' you sing "I am not the messenger, I am the message". Does that signal that this is a much more personal record than previous releases?
Ben Crum: Yes, it does. More specifically, that's me quoting Graham Greene's somewhat famous line to Fidel Castro, when he was sent as an emissary of the Panamanian government, by Torrijos. I love that line, and used in it in pretty much the way you'd imagined it. For me, the very fact that the record exists, that I'm singing these songs, and that Great Lakes even goes on, is expressed by that line. As things turned out, it was up to me to see the record completed; and that was my intention by quoting Greene that way, to refer to that responsibility, and to both my need to complete the record, for my own reasons, and to my need to express myself in the form of music, generally. In that way, you might say it's a record where I'm talking to myself a lot. My hope is that the record's not seen as overly introspective to the point of being navel-gazing. I tried to write the songs in a way that left them open to interpretation in a universal way.
SXP: Your songs sound less hopelessly romantic than they once were and more realistic and ‘mature’. Is this a new development or have you always written such deep and dark tales?
Ben Crum: Well, this is the first record that I'm singing my own words on, so it's hard to compare it directly to the other Great Lakes records in that direct way. But, yeah it's dark. That said, I think also that it's more genuinely redemptive, in a sense, too, than the previous Great Lakes records. Making happy pop music is fine, but it's the easiest kind of music to make, and though it makes you happy when you listen to it, it can be, by nature, kind of one-dimensional. Of course, in the best happy pop music there's plenty of real profundity expressed, as well. I don't mean to argue against it. I love lots of different kinds of music ("I like all kinds of music, so long as it's good", as Danko said). But, yeah, the tone of the each successive Great Lakes record has moved further away from the optimistic and light-hearted attitude of the first one, so it feels natural and doesn’t feel like much of a departure, at least to me.
SXP: Between your guitar playing and singing, you draw all the attention to yourself now. Is that a challenging/ comfortable position?
Ben Crum: Hmm. I never thought of it that way. Live, it's been just me on guitar with Kevin Shea on drums for a while. The last few tours anyway. So, between my singing and guitar playing I'm responsible for all the musical notes happening onstage. And, yes, I am comfortable with that—because I feel like I'm able to get the songs across that way. It's like playing solo but with a wild animal behind me that I can unleash whenever it's appropriate for the feeling of the song. Kevin's a musical force, and he gets it, and knows when to pull back and when to cut loose. But on the record I share the spotlight with a big group of musicians. Generally, with the stripped-down live thing, it focuses the attention on the songs themselves, I think, more so than just on me as a singer or guitar player. (Given the limitations of my voice as an instrument, I have to write the kind of songs that you don't listen to simply to enjoy the sound of the singer's voice so much, anyway). At the end of the day, I'm really just a guy singing some songs, though, you know? I can carry a tune and play the guitar well enough, but it's certainly not about that. My favorite shows I've played have been the ones where the crowd is willing, and seemingly interested enough, to listen to the words and to paying attention to what the songs have to say. In the future I may make a record where it's just me playing most of the instruments, though I'll never inflict any of my attempts at drums on anybody. In general, I think there's something great that comes from collaboration, and there's also something to be said for the doing it all yourself, especially when it's a personal record. McCartney's first solo record comes to mind.
SXP: The album’s feel of simplicity and honest emotion sounds like it might be a reaction to the national mood in America (economic concerns, lack of support for foreign wars and tension between social conservatives and liberals). When there were similar circumstances in the early 70s, much American music seemed to become more introspective and personal and draw from older traditions. Does than resonate at all or am I reading too much into this?
Ben Crum: Yeah, that seems quite accurate. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it immediately sounds right to my ear. The change in worldview that comes about with age must've had something to do with it too. I feel a palpable tension in US society, between liberals/progressives (like myself), who want to see life improved for everyone by extending full human rights to every citizen, of whatever class, race, sexual orientation, religious or non-religious point of view, etc. and the political and social conservatives who wield so much power in this country by playing on the fears and ignorance and religious intolerance of so many people, and, ultimately, want to keep as much wealth and power to themselves as they can. I'm not trying to be Phil Ochs (though he's a hero of mine, for sure), but that stuff has to find it's way in to my music in one way or another.
SXP: When we interviewed you after the release of Diamond Times, you were raving about Bobby Charles and Johnny Cash. Was that a side that you mostly suppressed in Great Lakes until now?
Ben Crum: Well, maybe so. It was definitely a side I felt less free to explore then. Now all the musical and lyrical decisions are entirely up to me, so I can do what I please. Also, it's simply just the direction my own musical taste has evolved in. It's not contrived, I'm just trying to please myself and do what I want to do musically.
SXP: The album reminds me of the Band tapping into the wellspring of modern American music: the folk, country and soul traditions (Gram Parsons’ “cosmic American music” maybe). Who and what are the inspirations behind this record?
Ben Crum: My biggest actual influences, lyrically-speaking, on this record were books: Graham Greene's Getting to Know the General, and John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. Those I found really spoke to me around the time I was writing this record (Black Elk Speaks has been a favorite for a long time), and not only do I quote Greene in one song, as I've already said, but there are more allusions in the lyrics to those works than I can count or remember. Those books lived in my brain while I was writing this record. If there are any real touchstones I drew upon in terms of the sound they'd be the first two Graham Nash solo records, John Phillips' "Wolf King of L.A.", Dylan's "Desire", Johnny Darrell's "California Stopover" era, the first Jesse Ed Davis record, Bobby Charles' record with members of The Band. And certainly The Band, period. There aren't really any surprises there, I guess. The classics, basically. Also, the raw, natural sound of much of the White Album. A lot of the early Brinsley Schwarz stuff, that one Ernie Graham record, some David Bromberg stuff, the Byrds later, "lesser" records, "From Elvis in Memphis", Link Wray's "3-Track Shack" era.
The general way of going about orchestrating a record of simple folk-rock-country songs as if it was made in the early 70s appeals to me, that sonic picture you get with acoustic and electric guitars, piano, electric piano, hammond or lowery organ, pedal steel, bass and drums. I like that sound the best, and I find it fun and challenging to work with those elements. Maybe it's because my ear is trained that way, and because I just like that sound so much - but there's something about that sound that communicates to me, whenever I hear it, that I'm listening to a record that I'm supposed to listen to, to pay attention to. Also it's those kinds of records I often find myself wanting to put on as a reaction to the hectic nature of life in the city. Lately I've been going up to the Catskill Mountains with my girlfriend whenever we get the chance, just to get away from the city, and when we do the kind of records I've just listed are always the kind of things I want to put on. I guess it just comes down to taste. I think just spending time in that environment up there influenced me a lot too. I don't know. It's hard to say. If people don't think that sound I'm going for is "interesting" then I’m not going to argue with them about it. I'm just pleasing myself. Also, it's not like I've given up on pop music. As a song plays out I always want there to be something musically happening to catch the listener's interest at every moment. Even if I'm not making music that's as "pop" anymore, I still bring that sensibility to it, if you know what I mean. The same way I've always done.
SXP: The lyrics to ‘Summer Fruit’ were written by Dan Donohue, who previously was lyricist on lots of Great Lakes songs. Was that a song from the "old" Great Lakes or a new one? And will you collaborate again?
Ben Crum: I'm open to collaborating further with him, but it's not a goal of mine or a necessity. Things got pretty strained between us before he decided to quit writing lyrics for me to put music to, so I don't know how soon that will be, if it ever happens. That one song is one we'd been playing live for years. It was written after Diamond Times, though, so it's definitely from the era that brought about this new record. There are several of those songs from that time period that he wrote lyrics for that I still really like. It's not like I ever had a problem with his lyrics or anything like that. He would have rather me go in another musical direction, though--and my unwillingness to do anything except exactly what I wanted to do, musically, is the reason we fell out. It used to be if he didn't like something I'd change it, but as time went on I just stopped caring enough about what he or anyone else thought to bother with trying to please them. It's hard to make art by committee.
SXP: Having played it a few times Ways of Escape seems like a coherent set of strong, moody songs rather than a collection of singles. Did you plan it as a more traditional album in that respect?
Ben Crum: Yes and no. But, yes. At first I just tried to write good songs. There was definitely no attempt made to write singles. I couldn't care less about that, really. I hope it's the kind of record that pays dividends when it's listened to as a whole, though. But that's always such a personal thing. Maybe some people will feel that way about it. I hope so. As it came together I found myself trying to incorporate the same or similar themes in new ways over the course of several songs, and trying to expand on them over the course of the whole record. Themes resurface, ideas are returned to—it's cyclical in that way. I do think that's almost become an old fashioned idea, and I lament that, for the sake of music in general. But I don't care if it's not something people appreciate anymore. I like those kinds of records, and listen to them, and I still think it's valid to make that kind of record, regardless of current trends away from the album being treated, or listened to, as a cohesive statement. I also hope people will feel the songs can stand on their own and be enjoyed one at a time, that it's not like you have to spend 42 minutes with it to get anything out of it. For me, each song is its own statement, though taken as a whole it definitely has something further to say to anyone willing to listen.
SXP: Your voice and that of Susanne Nienaber complement each other really well on a couple of duets. I know she's worked with the Ladybug Transistor but how did you discover her and when did you realise that your voices worked so well together?
Ben Crum: She's not really featured all that much on the last Ladybug record, so based on the little backing vocal part she sang on that record I didn't really have any idea of what she's capable of as a singer. But I saw her sing karaoke a few times, with a live band, and she was great. When I heard her sing Dolly Parton's "Jolene" I was like, "Wait, a minute…" I just invited her to come over and sing on a song and she came up with a great part, and seemed to be a natural. So we went from there. She ended up all over the record, and I'm really glad she did. That's a sound I love, and one I very much had in mind for this record. Emmylou Harris on Dylan's Desire and with Gram. That sound.
SXP: Finally, you played some European dates this summer but are there plans to play any venues in the UK again?
Ben Crum: Yeah, we had a great time in Norway, Spain and Germany a few months ago but didn't make it to the UK, despite some really nice offers. I really hope to play there again soon. I love playing for crowds in the UK. You guys have a very unique musical culture. Music is important to people, and that's gratifying, as someone who makes records. Plus I just like and relate to it. We've toured there several times, and had fun shows from Glasgow to Brighton. So, yeah. I'd love to come back. We're due for a visit. Maybe next year.