INTERVIEW: Ben Wells – Black Stone Cherry

Kentucky rockers BLACK STONE CHERRY seem to have been constantly growing in popularity here in the UK over the last few years, with the band most recently rising to arena-conquering status thanks to their Carnival Of Madness Tour, alongside fellow US rock heavyweights SHINEDOWN and HALESTORM. Now embarking on a special intimate ‘Evening With..’ tour in support of their fifth album Kentucky, we sent Jack Fermor-Worrell to Manchester’s O2 Apollo to catch up with rhythm guitarist Ben Wells and discuss what’s been going on with the band over the last twelve months.

Tonight will be the 4th show of the tour, in Manchester – how have you found everything so far?

Ben: It’s been awesome. I mean, everybody’s kinda been saying this is our favourite tour we’ve done so far because it allows us to do something we haven’t done before; it’s super intimate but it’s also with a very nice production so it’s the best of both worlds as far as fans getting to see us really. And it’s just really a cool atmosphere, and something we haven’t really experienced, so it’s awesome.

How did the idea behind Experience Kentucky come about?

Ben: Well, of course, we come over here and tour a lot, and this is our third time this year alone in the UK. And coming back we said “Let’s do something we haven’t done, let’s do something our fans will appreciate and they deserve”, and we said let’s just do a show where we kinda open for ourselves really. And that’s how the idea of doing the first part of the set acoustically and the second part full-on electric really came about. We said let’s just have us do An Evening With.., play a long set with a bunch of songs that fans want us to play that we might not get the opportunity to do anywhere else. And that’s how the whole idea was born really, and it’s been a success so far.

This tour, as you said, sees the band playing both a standard set and an acoustic set – how difficult is it to put together what’s essentially two different setlists for two different types of show?

Ben: The most challenging thing has been picking what songs to do. For us, we’ve always played acoustic, be it at radio stations or even when we’re practising or writing songs, so that wasn’t a big challenge for us – it was just figuring out what songs to do in what set.

And presumably that includes quite a large part of Kentucky?

Ben: Yeah, we’re doing several songs off Kentucky. Y’know, it is the new album and this is our official tour of this album cycle, so we wanted to showcase enough of the songs.

I’m aware it might be slightly early days to be asking this, but are there any particular new songs that seem to be consistent favourites with the audiences you’ve played to so far?

Ben: Erm, Soul Machine goes over great, we’re doing the first single In Our Dreams in the acoustic set, Cheaper To Drink Alone’s a good one, The Rambler, people love that one; and then we just started doing a song called Darkest Secret which is a heavy song that we just started on this tour and people are loving too. It’s cool to see the reactions to all these new tunes.

Are you guys getting to play tracks that you’ve found are your own favourites too? 

Ben: Yeah, kinda same regard. When we pick songs we have to be mindful and pick songs that we know are fan-favourites, but we also wanna play songs that are our favourites because we know that we’ll try to deliver the best performance of that song that we can.

As you were saying before, you’ve been to the UK a couple of times this year now, but the last time we saw you guys on a full-scale tour over here was the Carnival of Madness tour at the start of the year with SHINEDOWN, HALESTORM and HIGHLY SUSPECT. What’s the contrast been like going from playing those huge rooms, to the much more intimate environment of this tour?

Ben: This is awesome because, y’know, we had to work our way up the ladder to get to those arenas, and we played here I think 7 or 8 years ago. So it’s cool to play these types of rooms because, like I said, it’s a totally different atmosphere and I think some people might actually prefer it. So it’s just cool – it looks great, it sounds great and for us it’s another thing; we just try to put on a great show whether we’re playing to 1000 people or 200 people, it doesn’t matter. Obviously the big arenas are cool, but playing these types of places there’s something special, something to be said about it.

Going back slightly, with regards to the whole two-set show thing – was there ever the temptation to play the whole of the new record in-full instead?

Ben: We talked about it, but kinda thought that a lot of bands have started doing it now and I’m not saying it is, but I didn’t want the tour to turn into some kind of gimmick. Like, for some bands it works, but for us we didn’t want this tour to be like that. I’m not saying we never will do that but we weren’t doing it on this tour.

So do you think this setup works out a lot better in a way then, given that you’ve got room to throw in all the favourites and rarities and such?

Ben: Yeah definitely, because this is probably gonna be our last tour here for at least a year. So we wanted to leave on a note and leave fans happy, we wanted them to leave feeling fulfilled and having gotten their money’s worth, hearing their favourite songs and new songs – we had to take that into consideration.

The album Kentucky itself has been out over here for somewhere around 7 or 8 months now – how have you found the overall reaction to be?

Ben: Well we only really pay attention to the fans. Critics, they have their own opinions on whether it’s good or bad, and that’s okay. But the fan reaction’s been exactly what we wanted it to be – some people are saying it’s our best album or it’s our heaviest album. And we self-produced this record, so we just wanted people to enjoy it, and whether it’s their favourite or not, again feel like they got their money’s worth. And I think that’s been the general consensus, the people are like “This is a return to form”, it’s what they want us to be in a way.

With regards to the album itself, there’s quite a wide range of styles this time around – you’ve got the heavier tracks sitting alongside stuff like The Rambler. From your own perspective as a writer, how do you find it having to create these contrasts?

Ben: You know, we’ve always been fans of all kinds of music, so I think you just have to put yourself in that mindset really. It’s like, when we’re in the studio working on something like The Rambler, that’s kind-of just the vibe or the headspace we’re in. And then, we really tried to make that song something special. We can’t go “Oh let’s try and make this song fit in with the rest of the album”, because that song is different. And you had to make it it’s own thing. And for us, we’ve always taken pride in trying to do that, and to have songs that are kind-of curveballs that stand out and I think our fans appreciate that because we’re fans of heavy music, pop music, country music, all kinds of music so y’know, we try to show that on our albums.

Speaking of curveballs, one of the things on the record that really stood out to me was the cover of War by Edwin Starr. What led you guys towards covering that track in particular? 

Ben: We knew we had to do a cover, we were gonna do a cover song for the special edition of the album and we’d toyed around with doing a few different songs. So we were sitting in the studio and we had this old iPod scrolling through a bunch of old Motown hits, and War came on and immediately we were all like “That’s the one, we gotta do it”. And then we recorded it and said “Man this came out so cool, and it’s very timely, let’s put it on the album”. For one, it wasn’t even meant to be recorded when we went into the studio, and secondly, we still didn’t think it was gonna be on the album until we got done with it and decided “Okay, this is no longer a B-side, it’s going on the record”.

So, very much a last-minute thing then?

Ben: It definitely was, yeah.

Now, I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but Kentucky is also the band’s first release on Mascot Records – how did moving to a new label after so many years with Roadrunner feel to you guys?

Ben: Well, I mean, we had a great run with Roadrunner. When the split first happened it was a little nerve-wracking, because it was like “What do we do now? Do we put this out on our own?”, like what avenue did we wanna take? And it was kinda nerve-wracking, but also exciting at the same time because we were in this limbo period where it was like it could’ve gone either way. And Mascot was the first one to show a lot of interest – we interviewed a bunch of different labels and Mascot just seemed to be the one that let us do our own thing. They have a great team there and they let us have creative control, which is the most important thing to us when it comes to making new music. And so far, they’ve been great to work with.

And presumably now that’s going to be a relatively long-term collaboration then?

Ben: We hope so, as long as we make them happy and they make us happy, you know? Because right now it’s a good relationship we have with them, and as long as that continues and the work ethic stays up, I don’t see us wanting to go anywhere else.

Having been a band for 15 years and 5 albums now, how do you feel BLACK STONE CHERRY has evolved over that time, if at all?

Ben: You know, I think we’ve grown as people, number one, as individuals. We’ve grown as a band, business-wise, musicianship. The thing is though, we still have that; we grew up as friends and we still have that number one in our camp. We run our camp as a family, and like I said, the biggest difference is that we’ve all grown and learned more – we’re still learning. We’ve achieved more and we’re still trying to achieve, so you know, as long as we can continue that stair-step. That’s really the only difference I can see because I still view us as the same old kids from Kentucky – I mean, we all still live there. So that is very much…our roots are very deep so that’s what’s kept us together.

So this tour’s obviously running for a while longer yet, but what’s next for you guys going into 2017 and beyond?

Ben: We go home for Christmas and then we’ll do another tour of mainland Europe in January and February. And then I think it’s a US tour in March, then Australia in April, another US tour in May and June, and then I’d say probably start working on new music by the mid-to-late-summer.

So, you’re taking a breather from the whole summer festivals thing over here then?

Ben: Yeah, this is probably our last time in the UK until we’ve got a new album out. And not because we’re tired of it, we just don’t want people to get tired of us. And we’re just trying to take a healthy break and say we don’t wanna oversaturate the market too much.

You guys have clearly got quite the history with the UK by now, even recording a DVD here in 2014 – what is it about the UK that keeps you coming back?

Ben: The people here are awesome. I mean, our fans are passionate worldwide, but our biggest fanbase is in the UK at the moment. And every time we come over here we know we can depend on our fans to show up and be excited, and be passionate, and be respectful, and that’s just something that influences us y’know? And we think about our fans when we’re writing music and playing all those festivals like Download and Ramblin’ Man and all this. So we love it, we feed off their enthusiasm and that’s what keeps us going.

Have you got any message you’d like to give to the readers of Distorted Sound who might be fans of BLACK STONE CHERRY?

Ben: I mean, we wanna thank everyone for their support of us. I know it might be cliché to say, but we literally wouldn’t be in the position we are without people that support our music – you don’t pay your way to get here. So we just respect everybody that’s given us a chance and helped us to achieve this success, so a huge thank you, and our hats off to you for sure.

Kentucky is out now via Mascot Label Group.

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