All this week we’re bringing you our favourite Download bands with exclusive interviews from HRH Mag. And where better to start than with Black Stone Cherry‘s guitar hero Ben Wells? HRH Mag Editor Simon Rushworth talked Donington, the blues and more with Chris Robertson’s flamboyant wingman.
In a bid to bridge the gap between studio albums, and indulge a collective love of the blues, Black Stone Cherry took a gamble in the summer of 2017. A band that had built its reputation on high octane hard rock made the bold decision to record six blues covers featuring artists as diverse as Muddy Waters and Freddie King. Guitarist Ben Wells half expected the ambitious project to disappear without trace but come September 2017 and Black To Blues was top of the Billboard Blues charts and breaking new ground for the Kentucky quartet. Ultimately it would lay the foundation for one of 2018’s most hotly anticipated long players and breathe new life into Black Stone Cherry’s constantly evolving career.
“Black To Blues really inspired us when it came to making the new album,” admitted Wells. “Our music has always been deeply rooted in the blues and the decision to record the EP reflected that.
“We wanted to do it while we had some time off the road and so that we could give our fans something a little bit different in between albums. It was an opportunity to showcase the band to a wider audience but we never expected it to become so popular.
“Its success gave us the confidence to bring the blues to the fore on Family Tree. It really inspired us when it came to writing the new record. When we started writing the new songs they just had this natural blues slant and that sense of integrity and authenticity. It was so cool and it just felt so natural.”
Integrity and authenticity have been the cornerstones of Black Stone Cherry’s Southern rock-influenced sound for more than 15 years. Listen to the title track and set closer on latest album Family Tree and a convincing Chris Robertson sings ‘The Southern blood is thick as mud’. Wells loves the line and loves the link between the band and its extended family.
“I knew Family Tree would be the last track on the album,” he added. “Lyrically and musically it’s just the perfect song to end with. It has that big solo and it builds into something very special. The lyrics are very important to us – when Chris sings ‘The Southern blood is thick as mud’ that just about sums up who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in. We’re very proud of our roots and we’re proud of our ‘blood’.
“It’s still very much a family affair where Black Stone Cherry is concerned. We’re a close knit group of people and always have been. We consider each other family and each other’s family as family. Family is an integral part of how we live our lives and how we run our business. The album title says it all. We had the song written first and then it became clear it had to be the title.
“All of our crew members are people we’ve known all our lives and bringing them on the road with us is a huge help and huge comfort. It makes touring fun and it makes getting through the more difficult days much easier. Even though we’re away from our blood family, our extended family is there looking out for us. It makes a huge difference.”
Albeit rooted in the band’s staunchly held values and strong blues influences, Family Tree is an album as progressive as it is passionate. The funked up James Brown may raise a few eyebrows among the band’s die-hard fans but just as last year’s Black To Blues was a brave statement of intent so is an upbeat slice of modern rock guaranteed to get the rain soaked masses dancing during this summer’s Download Festival main stage set.
“I hope our fans will like James Brown as much as I do,” added Wells. “That was the first song we wrote for the album and I loved it straight away. We’re influenced by so many different artists and genres and James Brown is one of them.
“Every now and again we like to throw our fans a curveball and we don’t ever want to become a generic or a run of the mill rock and roll band. We’re always looking to evolve and James Brown is the sound of Black Stone Cherry pushing the boundaries. I can’t wait to play it live!”
Black Stone Cherry live remain an unstoppable force but for all the party-starting riffs, soaring solos and singalong choruses there’s always been a more serious side to a quartet happy to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Whether that searing honesty is expressed within the lyrical content of songs such as Things My Father Said (from 2008’s Folklore And Superstition) and the deeply affecting Family Tree – or during the mid-set breaks when Robertson connects with his crowd – this is a band that’s always had something important to say.
On Black Stone Cherry’s last run through the UK, during the winter of 2016, the band’s frontman opened up about his mental health issues and the need to address the elephant in the room that is depression. The positive reaction and resultant wider debate fully justified Robertson’s decision to use the stage as a platform for change.
“I think Chris is right to keep the issue of mental health to the fore,” added Wells. “I can’t speak for him but what I can say is that he’s always been outspoken about mental health and he’s been a positive influence on so many people as a result.
“People not talking about it is a big part of the problem. A lot of people are still uncomfortable opening up and for a few it’s still a taboo subject. Not for Chris. He’s reached out on stage and in various interviews and the response has been incredible.
“We’ll be at shows and people will come up to him and people have thanked him for making mental health a subject for discussion. Everybody has issues but it’s all good as long as people talk about those issues.”
And Robertson’s band mates are always ready to talk.
“During the difficult times friends and family are the single most important thing that there is,” added Wells. “You might have other things that you hope to rely on at certain points in your life but the love and support of friends and family is all you really need when all is said and done. When you put everything else away all you’ve really got is friends, family and loved ones.”
Constantly striving to repay that support, Black Stone Cherry keep the bigger picture firmly in view. Frequently talked about as future main stage headliners at Download, June will see Robertson and co. handed the potentially onerous task of warming up the Donington crowd ahead of Guns N Roses’ hotly anticipated set. The pressure will be on but Wells fully expects Black Stone Cherry to rise to the challenge.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that we’re playing immediately before Guns N Roses on the main stage at Download,” he added. “Even saying that still sounds surreal. But every day we move closer to doing it then it becomes a little bit more real.
“I don’t think it will fully sink in until we’re actually in Donington and ready to step onto the stage. We’ve played the festival a number of times now but never on this level. I’m so excited.
“I was at home when my manager called me to say he had some good news…that we were back at Download and we were sharing the main stage with Guns N Roses. We wanted a big slot – we’re always looking to go one better than the last time – but this is just incredible. We were all texting each other like little kids but now the reality has dawned on us. We need to step up and deliver the show of our lives.”
And don’t expect Wells to wander off to Black Stone Cherry’s dressing room once that show is done. He’ll be jostling for position in the wings to catch an up close and personal view of guitar icon Slash.
“Guns N Roses are just part of the DNA of rock and roll,” added one half of Black Stone Cherry’s dual axe attack. “Whether you love the era that they’re from or not – if you’re a fan of rock and roll then you can’t fail to appreciate Guns N Roses. The double guitar, the solos, the epic videos – they’re one of a kind.
“When they broke through they paved the way for so many guitar bands. I’ve always liked the fact that they incorporated a lot of blues influences in their music too. They’ve been imitated many times since but never really bettered. We need bands like Guns N Roses.”
And Download needs bands like Black Stone Cherry. If the Gunners are part of rock and roll’s DNA then Wells and co. are part of the Donington fabric and this summer’s set will surely cement their names in festival folklore…and bring that coveted headline slot every closer.
“Download is one of the most important festivals to us as a band,” he added. “It’s one of the events that’s closest to us. The first time we played there we had a tiny backdrop and modest ambitions. We didn’t know what to expect but there was a sense of belonging from day one.
“We’ve been back to headline the second stage twice and played a secret set in the tent but appearing second last on the main stage is on a different level. Download has been very good to us and I hope we’ve repaid the faith they’ve shown in us over the years.
“I think any band would say the same but of course we aspire to headline the main stage one day. It’s something we’d be so honoured to do and every year I feel we’re getting a little bit closer. It would be completely awesome but until we get there it’s all about putting on the best live show that we can again and again.”
And Black Stone Cherry are becoming the masters of the grandiose rock and roll show with Wells and Robertson fast evolving into a six-string partnership set to etch its name into the history of electric guitar’s most iconic double acts.
“Chris and I have been playing guitar together for 17 years now,” added Wells. “We understand each other and understand our roles in the band. We have a chemistry that’s pretty unique – we play alike and yet we also play differently. There are no egos when it comes to solos or who wrote what and when.
“We’re very relaxed and that chemistry – almost a sixth sense – is key to the way we work together. We both love playing guitar and Black Stone Cherry is a guitar band through and through. Neither of us tries to take the limelight from the other. If what we’re doing helps the band then that’s good enough for us.”
Wells has always been an eye-catching hurricane of riff-fuelled energy on stage but the quality of his musicianship has often been overlooked as a result. On Family Tree both he and Robertson have honed their craft to further extend Black Stone Cherry’s creative boundaries.
“As a musician I’m constantly trying to learn more, branch out and not get stuck in a rut playing the same old stuff,” added Wells. “It’s important to me to try different styles and stretch myself as a guitarist. I’m heavily influenced by rockabilly and chicken pickin’ and artists like Brian Setzer and Chet Atkins.
“It’s all about taking the skill that you have and making yourself better. I like exploring different tones and sounds and I’d say that in the last decade my sound has evolved to become something that’s a lot cleaner and broader sounding. With time you just grow as a musician – or at least you should.”
Live shots courtesy of HRH Mag Chief Photographer John Burrows.
Band shots courtesy of Harry Reese.
*This interview was first published in HRH Mag – out now!