The Ben Miller Band, or How Found Objects Became Instrumental in the Sound of Ozark Grunge

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 The night I went to my local blues venue to hear The Ben Miller Band, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Certainly not three bearded fellows who looked like they just stepped out of the Ozark hills equipped with electrified toy spoons, a washtub bass, and a phone receiver.

The music they produced with household objects and the three-part harmonies they sang bowled me over instantly. Ben Miller, Doug Dicharry, and Scott Leeper proceeded to wow an enthusiastic crowd with their instrumental versatility and fresh approach to music both new and old.

The trio has toured Europe as opening act for ZZ Top and has several more such gigs coming up in the States and Canada starting in September. Doug Dicharry, the man on percussion and trombone, filled me in on the group’s history and the music scene in their hometown of Joplin, Missouri.

Stacy Jeffress for American Blues Scene: Everyone was fascinated with your electrified spoons, so let me leap right to that. Tell me how you learned to do that.

DD: There’s a guy trying to keep the old roots Appalachian-style music alive who put out a DVD on spoons, washboard, hambone, and the paper bag. I popped it in, grabbed some spoons, and learned the basic moves. We were trying to find a way to incorporate it. You can put a mic on it, but it doesn’t come across very well. Ben found a set of toy spoons at Cracker Barrel and put a pickup in it for me. I was already getting quite the collection of effects pedals with my washboard and it just got weird from then on out.

Ben plays harmonica through a phone receiver. It’s cool when you incorporate found objects.

I think we’re just walking around with our ears open, and when something arises, it’s, “Eureka, that’s a cool sound; can we make that happen?” Spoons have been around forever, but because we had the electric washboard, “Let’s see if we can electrify some spoons.”

As for the phone, Ben was probably the last person I know to get a cell phone. While he was on hold on his house phone, he got bored and played harmonica through the phone receiver. He heard it through the earpiece. The sound broke up a little bit, and he liked the sound. We’ve got a buddy who’s an electronics technician, and Ben asked if he could put a mic cable on this. He said, “I don’t see why not.” Instead of doing any research, they cut both the cables from one end of the board and started touching wires until it made noise. The rest is history.

And then you’ve got the washtub bass.

It is totally electrified. The washtub is on there to make it louder, but in the case of an electric washtub, all that reverberation causes feedback. The inside of that tub is foamed to all get out to stop what it’s designed to do. Scott built a small sound chamber, like 6 by 6 inches, a little square box that’s mounted up underneath that. The weed eater string goes through the tub and attaches to that sound box. It has the same Radio Shack piezo pickup we use on the spoons and washboard.

When I was looking at the rosters of both your record label and your representation with Monterey, y’all are walking in some tall cotton. Do you ever pinch yourself and wonder how you got here?

Most of the time when you’re hanging out with them, they’re regular people and you forget, as with ZZ Top, they’re not just music legends but music icons and have been doing it fo4 40 years. You forget all that – they’re just musicians like everyone else and they’re really cool dudes to hang out with. Then they go out and play “Sharp Dressed Man.” I heard that song and enjoyed their music videos my entire life.

You’re on the same label as Richard Thompson and John Hiatt. How did you get to New West Records?

We hired management, so we tried to get all of our team together. The last piece of the puzzle was the record label. We shopped around; flew out and played for a couple of the really big labels, but they weren’t the right fit. The president of the company, George Fontaine, came to a gig in Houston. No one showed up for the show, and it was in a room no one could find as there was a secret elevator to get to it. George was in town because another one of his bands was playing down the street. He came and checked us out and loved it. The label has a lot of up and coming new things that are happening especially for Americana and roots music, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Did Monterey International come before New West? How did that happen?

We met with a couple of them, and they were real go-getters. We loved the other groups they were booking for.

Your management has earned their fee. Is that Suretone Entertainment?

The hardest working guy in this group is our manager Corey Wagner. Immediately after he saw our show, he had 40 ideas of different directions to take us. You could see in his eye he was excited about the music itself. To seal the deal he agreed to work for free for six months. He held up his end of the deal by finding the team that’s going to get us out there in front of the people we want to play music for.

You’re from Joplin, Missouri, for heaven’s sake.

We’d talked about maybe we should move to California. Our families and loved ones are here, it’s so cheap to live here, it’s right in the middle of the country. Anytime we need to go somewhere we start here and only have to go halfway.

Is there a music scene in Joplin?

When I was growing up, it was all punk rock and ska kids. Everybody in my high school was in a band. There was a coffee shop we could all play at. Now, there are some phenomenal bands coming out of Joplin. There are a couple cool clubs and a couple more opening up.

I read that y’all met at an open mic night. Is that how you found each other?

Ben was working in Wal-Mart and started playing open mic nights, and he started running one in Neosho, Missouri. A friend called me and said I needed to go check this guy out playing some old-style blues and to bring my horn.

Ben had a washboard, and I had just learned to make washboard gloves. He had a circular saw box he used to kick. I sat on that and played it as a drum kit. He started running open mic nights all over the place, and we started gigging.

Same with Scott who was a one-man band for many years. Scott had just built a washtub bass to see if he could figure it out. We all showed up at one of the open mic nights.

Have you ever counted up how many instruments get played in one of your sets?

I think it’s seven.

It seemed like there was a lot more.

Now we’ve got to bring more since you’re not impressed.

I’m very impressed. Some of you were playing more than one at a time. And you’re so versatile.

We all know a little bit about all the instruments except for woodwinds. Ben needs to play flute.

You have some beautiful harmonies. Are you each capable of being lead singer as well?

I think so. Ben writes the majority of songs, so it’s just easier for him to sing lead. Scott has the most velvety blues voice you’ve ever heard. I think we all have our own style. Scott is softer and velvety, Ben has a little grit, and I’m a downright screamer. All three of us mixed together make a cool sound. We work hard on harmonies.

The covers that you do range from “I Wanna be Sedated” to “John the Revelator” with new approaches and not the same ol’ same ol’. How do you decide which songs to cover?

It happens at the shows. We’ve never practiced any of our covers. Ben remembers a verse and a chorus – will it fit in the 1-4-5 template – most of them do. If not, we make something up. We just start playing it. It’s usually pretty crappy at first, but we just keep doing it, and it starts sounding pretty good.

I know some old blues guys who have been around for decades who can’t seem to break out of whatever circuit they’re stuck in, then here are you guys with the fabulous label, booking agent, and management. I try to figure out what it is that makes some pop and some don’t. Have you figured out what your success is due to?

We’ve never been in a rush. We don’t have an agenda with our music. We do it because we enjoy it and are having fun. If you want to say we’re big now, we didn’t get big because we were trying to get big; we were just doing our thing and enjoying each other’s company. When I’d say we made it was when Scott finally quit his day job and this is all we’re doing. All this other stuff is bonus. As long as people keep coming out to listen, we’ll keep going.

Are you the youngest one of the three? May I ask how old you are?

I am 34. You can tell ‘cause I’m so vibrant.

I’m amazed at the change in your appearance since the band’s promo video I saw on YouTube. Are you all going for a look?

I don’t think so. But everything I seem to do Ben copies. We’ll show up at a gig and be wearing the same clothes. The beard thing – that’s all completely out of laziness. I used to do it ‘cause I didn’t want to pack the razors and shaving cream on a tour. At the end of the tour I’d see how long my beard was and shave it off. Now it’s just growing.

I wondered if it was ZZ Top or Duck Dynasty inspiring you.

I’m telling you it’s from pure laziness. At the ZZ Top shows, no one even comments on our beard. “Looks like you have a little stubble on your chins there, fellows.”

Is it hard to fit in in Joplin? If you run against the norm a little bit, is it hard to fit in?

Not really. I’ve always been in the music scene. I wouldn’t know if I was fitting in. I’m a little oblivious.

You’re all comfortable in your own skin.

We all know each other. We played one of the clubs here last weekend, and the whole city dumps in there. Everybody’s different, but everyone gets along.

Are you familiar with Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy? They opened for Moreland & Arbuckle last year and were amazing.

Hell, yeah. Good friends of ours.

Seems like y’all have your genre going on.

There’s a huge wave and a whole festival dedicated to this type of music. It’s kind of like punk rock bluegrass is the best way I can describe it. Carrie Nation is in there, the Whistle Pigs out of Carbondale, Illinois, Mountain Sprout down in Arkansas, Tyrannosaurus Chicken from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Then you’ve got even more punk rock Filthy Still (Providence, Rhode Island), There’s a festival called The Muddy Roots (http://www.muddyrootsrecords.com/index.php). They’re playing like Dr. Ralph Stanley up there; they’re bridging the gap between this new rowdy bluegrass.

I want to coin the phrase Ozark Grunge if no one’s said that yet. I love it, whatever it is you’re doing. Are you getting a lot of coverage?

A lot in Europe because that’s the first tour we did since we’ve had the album out. We got a lot of publicity, and the label called a bunch of publicists.

What is it like to tour in front of ZZ Top?

We’re completely spoiled. Their crew is top notch, like a well-oiled machine. They take care of us like they’re our crew, too. We’re skipping so many steps of playing for ten people and then they tell ten of their friends – it takes months to get in front of a crowd of even 400 people. To cruise into a town where you’ve never been yourself and present yourselves to 3000 to 10,000 is an amazing gift that we are so appreciative of.

Did you add stuff to your contract riders?

We have a rider if we’re going to be there all day long. We appreciate whatever clubs due for us to make life on the road easier. In Europe, they fulfilled the whole rider every night. We don’t ask for the brown M and M’s or anything. Our tour manager put something crazy at the very end of it just so he knows the promoter read the whole thing, “Why did you want 20 octopuses?”

Ben Miller Band Official Website

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