Ben Vita is a singer/songwriter, percussionist and third-generation professional musician whose music combines the traditions of folk and soul music with the cutting-edge sounds of electronica and hip hop. The result — which can be heard on his solo 2007 CD “Any” and on the soon-to-be-released “Biology” with his band, the Renaissance Committee — can be described as comfortably avant garde.
The grandson of John Sebastian Sr., a world-famous classical harmonica player sometimes called the “Paganini of the harmonica,” and son of Lovin’ Spoonful founder and songwriter John B. Sebastian, the Woodstock, NY-born-and– raised Vita has been writing songs since he was a young child and recording them — solo and with different bands — for more than 20 years. The most notable of these ensembles was the trio ARMS, whose material was unapologetically political.
Following CD release parties for Biology in Kingston (see review below) and Philadelphia, Vita and his band will debut the new music in Woodstock on May 10th with a free show at the Colony Café. Also on the gig will be his longtime friend and collaborator Julia Nichols and her band Naked. ROLL asked Ben to talk about the new record and the elements that went into its creation.
Biology is your first record since you released Any in 2007. What were your intentions with this one?
What I had in mind was making something that served more of an emotional purpose and less of a political or intellectual purpose. I wanted to make something that dealt more with making people feel than with making them think, both in the way that I wanted the subject matter to be but even in how I handled the making of the music – bringing in the other players and having so many live instruments. As I’ve joked with a handful of longtime fans, it will still be weird because it’s me. It will still have an odd edge to it and they’ll still be hearing a certain amount of electronics but there’s also a lot of real playing on it.
I’m differentiating it more from my work with ARMS. The big difference between this and Any is that I played everything on Any. And I played less than half of the instruments on Biology. I really brought it to the musicians and let them loose. I got Adam Widoff to play guitar, but I let him play keys when he wanted to because it made him feel good. And you can hear that in the keyboard parts that he played. I brought Kyle Esposito in on bass but when he had an idea for the bridge, I let him go for it because it gave him a positive response and that comes through. I really tried to turn the musicians loose not only in contrast to Any where it’s just all me, but also in contrast to what a lot of producers are doing right now, which is this very heavy-handed sort of thing. I gave information where it’s necessary, but what you hear on the record is from the heart of the people who played on it.
Tell me a bit more about the musicians who play on the record.
Adam Widoff is an amazing guitar player, who has an impressive resume but also an amazing track record as far as the number of projects he works on. He’s always in on something. Kyle Esposito, also very heavily featured on the record, did a lot of bass playing and a little bit of guitar playing and he just brought so much musicality to the project. He’s another person where I can’t count how many bands he’s playing in locally. He’s got his own band, The Back Burners, and he and I and Manuel Quintana, (who is only on one or two songs on Biology because we met late in the process) the three of us are backline for Julia Nichols’ band Naked, also playing at the Colony show. That’s where I met both of them, in my friend Julia’s band. Julia and Rachel Marco-Havens both did some cool background singing on the record. Rachel is a great singer and just a great Woodstock personality in general. Michael “Clip” Payne from Parliament Funkadelic did an electric sort of co-lead vocal on “backroom.” Once again, I told him what the vibe of the song was, but I didn’t give him any lines. I just told him the song goes from one mood to another, from being a warning to being kind of a come-on.
Manuel played drums on “dbt,” but my main drum guy, who also had a hand in mixing and production, was Pete Caigan. Pete is a bandmate from Arms and in fact, the third Arm, Paul Winkler, actually did sit in on “Martyrs and Predators.” So both my old band mates were in on the record, although there are no tracks with all three of us. My buddy Stanton Warren, who really is almost exclusively a bandleader (Venture Lift), ended up on “Michelle.” I kind of sampled him, but I still feel like he was a big part of the Committee and part of how this record got made. That sort of loop at the end of “Michelle” that’s sort of juicy electric guitar – that’s Stanton. He really came through and I will definitely be working with him again. All the programming and all the percussion, that’s me.
“Michelle” is such a lovely song. What inspired you to write it?
I definitely sat down to write a song for Michelle Obama. While I’m not always proud of the President and his decisions, I’m always proud that Michelle is living in the White House and setting that kind of example to Americans. She is one of those people who make me proud to be an American, who make me proud to be a part of the melting pot, and make me proud to be part of the reality of the present of this country. I take great pride and pleasure in the fact that she lives in the White House.
“Backroom,” where you name check a number of celebrity children, is obviously a song that comes out of your personal experiences as a child of a famous person.
I feel a kinship with young Hollywood because I was the next best thing in my own world — a child of show biz or whatever. I was a pretty geeky kid when I first got to high school and hot senior girls wanted to take me to their dorm room and cool senior boys wanted to smoke a bowl with me. It rushed me into some scenarios that pale in comparison to the kinds of pressures that would be on someone like Drew Barrymore when she was growing up. She’s someone who I grew up with so I direct it at her but of course I shout out others by name. Every single one of those kids is a real person. There’s people older than me, like Leif Garrett, who went in the back room and kind of never came out, as well as kids who are years away from making some of those decisions, like Suri Cruise. I purposely didn’t use their last names in the song, but there’s an awful lot of kids in Hollywood with unique names and they’re who I’m talking to. I’m hoping to reach one of them or somebody else just like them — one of the kids who, either because of who their parents are or because of what they’re doing in Hollywood or in show biz, find themselves with an unearned and unsought amount of access to sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’m hoping someone will hear it and take it a little slower and trust their gut and not allow themselves to be pressured like everybody is. Because if you know that Drew Barrymore drinks, you want to have a drink with her even if you’re 25 and she’s 15. And I don’t mean a creepy guy, necessarily. Even girls. That’s part of where it comes from. It wasn’t just bad people seducing Leif Garrett. It was people who wanted to do a line with Leif Garrett, who was a sweet boy who was good at singing and really attractive but who wouldn’t have found that backroom culture if he wasn’t Leif Garrett. The person who actually gets something out of it is a very rare individual, although I honestly think I might be one of them. Because I feel like I was meant to be where I am right now and that is part of who I am now.
The vibe of that song is so heavy and hypnotic…sort of seductive and also forbidding.
It’s just like the feelings that I had about the backroom. I think that any innocent person has those mixed feeling of wanting to take a look at the darkness but also knowing that it’s the wrong direction, that it’s not the right way to go. And that is even more seductive to someone who kind of knows that they didn’t earn it. It certainly was to me. That immediate jump was one that I was more than willing to take, but it certainly beat me up for my share of years. And again, I probably would have been a kid who discovered drinking and whatever. But the crazy exploits I got up to in junior high and high school — part of it was people wanted to party with the guy whose father was all wasted in the Woodstock movie. There was a decent amount of people who identified with that 60s subculture that saw that movie as a part of it but I wasn’t part of that. I was a geeky kind of smart kid. And to be offered access – I was like OK, I don’t know why I’m getting this but that was great. I’m a curious person. (He laughs)
My absolute favorite song on the record is probably that beautiful love song “Meiko a.k.a The Moment”
That one is straight from the heart. I think that I may have dotted some i’s that weren’t dotted and crossed some t’s that weren’t crossed, if that makes any sense. That’s not her name. The way I really feel about her is that she has a family and I’m happy for her. But I really feel it’s still out there for me. I believe in myself maybe more than that song lets on, but the feeling of it and the realization that you let somebody go who was really, really special is genuine too. I’ve broken up with more than a few girls, several times for really dumb reasons, and I took the one that was the dumbest and focused on it and allowed the emotion of that to really take over, especially during a really rough breakup that I just had, looking back was very comforting. It may have been an escape from the pain I was in as this relationship was kind of spinning out of control.
So it’s a feeling that people will understand?
I don’t know that I ever did. I think that’s part of what I have begun writing about and probably will for a minute is that I never really thought about the ones that got away. I finally realized that a few had and that although I had never gotten my heart broken, now I have too. And I think I’m now understanding those feelings.
It’s a beautiful song made even more so by that gorgeous harmonica part that your father plays.
That part is a lovely addition, I agree. In fact, that was the one song that I waited to do the vocals until all the instruments were on. Everybody had to work on that song knowing only how the music goes and what the song is about. So to me, it’s such a testament to his skill on the harmonica. He wasn’t playing along with me, he was imagining what the vocals would be. He knew what it was about and I can just hear him feeling for me.
That was a very interesting CD release party in Kingston a few weeks ago. But you must really be looking forward to playing in your hometown.
The Kingston show was awesome. I had a couple of my nearest and dearest who made it out for that show, but a lot of it was about some new fans, new friends.
I feel the same excitement about the Colony show and really want both to be really special: to exceed expectation, to be a little more of everything than people are used to having. I’m also really looking forward to it because I like the venue, I love the other band, Naked, which is nothing but family. Every member of that band except one was on Biology.
There were other bands at the Kingston show too, but his time you will be the lead-off act.
I sure don’t want to follow Julia Nichols in Woodstock. Naked is her band, her music, and nothing but family. In Woodstock, people go crazy for Naked. The town really turns out and supports them.
Also, at the Kingston show, I ended up going on really late. This time, I wanted to do a set on the earlier side for folks who haven’t been able to come out because they have small kids or whatever. I’m also really looking forward to this show because I like the venue, and I also want to honor my good friend Julia, who sings so beautifully on “backroom. I think it’s going to be a really fun and really happening evening.
Your father played some beautiful harmonica at your Kingston show. Do you expect him to sit in again at the Colony?
Having Dad sit in was really great. He’s done that before — he sat in on an ARMS record release show around 10 years ago, and I’ve sat in on a couple of his shows over the years. He played on two songs on Biology – “Amazing G” and “Meiko a.k.a. The Moment.” He will definitely be at the Colony.
You are conducting a very interesting social media fundraising campaign to be able to press vinyl copies of Biology. What’s the difference between what you’re doing and say, Kickstarter.
The fundraiser is with Indiegogo, which is different from Kickstarter in that you don’t have to make your full goal amount to collect. I’m basically trying to offset some of my debt from making the record and any amount will help offset that. Kickstarter is more appropriate for when people are building something and this is how much it’s going to cost and if we don’t get that much, we can’t build the building so everybody gets their money back — so that we don’t only get half the money and everyone’s expecting the building or the film or the record and it doesn’t get made. Whereas here, it’s already made and I’m trying to offset some debt and hopefully press LPs. If I meet my goal, the commitment is an actual record.
To learn more and contribute to the making of the record, visit Manufacture of Biology
Ben Vita and the Renaissance Committee, BSP Lounge, Kingston NY, March 29
The hour was getting late when Ben Vita took the stage and the usual club commotion had escalated since opening band Viva Pablo Santiago’s set ended. But everyone put down the margarita glasses and turned to listen attentively as Vita sang an entirely a capella version of “O Delilah” from his 2007 CD Any. His soaring voice — a bit reminiscent of Adam Duritz but with its own sweeter quality — temporarily brought the party to a standstill with admiration for his talent and respect for his gutsy gambit.
In a blue shirt and white necktie, Vita stood under the red lights in front of an enormous sign announcing ‘Welcome To Kingston. ‘It might have added ‘Welcome Back Ben Vita.’ After an absence of nearly six years, Vita and his band, the Renaissance Committee, have returned to performing with a new record, Biology, and on this night we heard a few of the new songs it contains, as well as a few older numbers and a final surprise cover.
The record was made with a wider group of Vita collaborators, but Renaissance Committee members on this gig were bass player Kyle Esposito, drummer Pete Caigan and Manuel Quintana, solidly subbing for Vita on tambourine, triangle and other percussion on songs like “Hyperreal,” also from Any. Another band member in the house was Vita’s famous father John Sebastian, who joined him first on guitar, then on harmonica for two songs from Biology – “Amazing G” and a wistfully beautiful love song, “Meiki a.k.a. The Moment.”
Sebastian’s sad, sweet harp was the perfect accompaniment to Vita’s heartfelt vocal on this anthem to lost love and we were happy to hear it again when the crew from UMI, who were filming for the song’s upcoming video, asked for another take. The biggest crowd response came for “Michelle,” Vita’s homage to the First Lady, which has gained some traction on the internet since its video began circulating on Facebook. So the dance floor had filled up by the time of the show’s finale, which mirrored the opener for the beauty of Vita’s vocal: an emotional version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Although the show was over, there was an encore of sorts: the haunting, spooky ‘backroom” from Biology. Recorded to be sure, but thrilling nonetheless. For the next installment of the live performances to support the record, check out Ben Vita with the Renaissance Committee at the Colony Café in Woodstock, May 10. A good time is guaranteed.
Featured photo by Catherine Sebastian