"It was supposed to be just a couple of years," says Oliver Charles, Harper's longtime drummer. "But it turned into seven years."
The band finally reunited last year to record the recently released Call It What It Is. Oliver, who was still a teen when he joined the Innocent Criminals 22 years ago, feels the lengthy break was good for the group.
"Time away is always a benefit," he says. "We were hitting it so hard before we split up. When we came back, we appreciated everything a lot more. It never bothers us to play an old song exactly as we've played it for 20 years, because Ben keeps it fresh. He never sings a song the same way twice. I'm never bored. It just feels really good every night."
Oliver didn't exactly spend the downtime relaxing. He joined Gogol Bordello, the "gypsy punk" band known for their frenetic shows and nonstop energy. "Sometimes I'd play for two hours straight with no break whatsoever," he remembers. "It was a physically demanding gig! But they're a great band, and I had a lot of fun."
Now Oliver finds himself approaching the old Harper material from a slightly different perspective. "I always liked to play simple stuff," he says, "but I simplified even more. There are so many things that go on top of what I'm doing that I like to leave more space."
Oliver has beats in his blood. His father, the late Chili Charles, was a hard-gigging drummer from Trinidad and Tobago who worked in London, New York, and Los Angeles, where Oliver was born and raised. "When I was growing up I'd go see him play with Taj Mahal, Jimmy Witherspoon, lots of different bands," Oliver remembers.
Chili helped shape his son's rhythm aesthetic. "I'm not a flashy player," Oliver says, "but I like to get into huge grooves with deep pockets. My father's playing was all about finding the pocket. He'd say, 'Just give them enough. Don't show off all your stuff. Just keep it groovy, and every once in a while surprise them with a little something.' I've always gravitated to that kind of playing."
Ironically, drums weren't Oliver's original instrument. "I studied piano with the same teacher from the age of six or seven till I moved out at age 19," he says. "It wasn't till my teenage years that I started playing drums." Oliver feels his keyboard training improved his drumming by teaching him to play different rhythms with each hand, while his music theory studies provided a deeper understanding of how music is put together.
“AS SOON AS WE STARTED PLAYING, BEN SAID, ‘OH MY GOD, THOSE ARE THE BEST-SOUNDING DRUMS I’VE EVER HAD ON THE STAGE.’”
Oliver has been playing Yamaha drums since 2004. "I played an Oak Custom kit for a good 10 years," he says. "It worked really well for the punk stuff with Gogol Bordello. There's a lot going on in that band, and the drums need to through. But with Ben I wanted to have a bit more versatility, because we go from really soft to really loud."
So last year Oliver switched to a Maple Absolute Custom kit with 10" and 12" rack toms, 14" and 16" floor toms, a 22" kick, and two maple snare drums. "I have the two snares on either side of the hats," he explains. "I have my primary 14" snare right in front of me, and then I have a 10" that we use on a couple of songs. They're the best-sounding drums I've ever played, and they fit Ben well—really, really well."
The new kit made an immediate impact, Oliver notes: "When we first got them, we set them up at a gig. Ben didn't happen to notice them when he walked onstage. But as soon as we started playing, Ben said, 'Oh my God, those are the best-sounding drums I've ever had on the stage.'"
Oliver seems inspired by the musical direction the band pursues on Call It What It Is. "We took a few more risks on this record, pushing ourselves and trying new things," he says. "We might be playing a sort of California-country song, but there's some hip-hop on top of it, or maybe an African influence creeping in."
Meanwhile, Oliver is enjoying being back in the old band. "Ben has gone in different directions with different players," he notes, "so it says a lot to us that he considers this his home. Sometimes when we play songs we've been playing for 20 years, we just look at each other and think, 'Yeah, we're still here.' It brings a smile to all our faces."
OLIVER CHARLES - BEN HARPER'S BEAT
WITH 15 YEARS OF INSPIRED GIGS in the '90s and '00s, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals earned a reputation as one of the world's great roots-rock bands. Harper's accomplices conveyed the range and nuance of his passionate songs while bringing out the best in Ben's explosive guitar work. But after years of relentless touring, the band needed a break.