Black Stone Cherry's Ben Wells Talks Crafting 'Big' Sound On 'The Human Condition', Out This Week

Black Stone Cherry will be releasing their new studio album, The Human Condition, this Friday, October 30th. On the same day, they'll be streaming a live concert debut for the songs on the new album from Skypac in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with two transmission times to cover global audiences, called Live From The Sky. The special concert is being handled in much the same way that a live stadium show would be presented, with ticket and merch bundles, including exclusive T-shirts tied to the performance. It's definitely the next best thing to seeing them in-person.

The band managed to record The Human Condition just before lockdowns from the pandemic set in and the album contains a wide-range of sonic approaches that fans are going to recognize from the course of the past two decades with the band. This time around, Black Stone Cherry have focused on careful tracking to capture instrumentation on the album that differs a little from what they've done in the past to make sure they are capturing "big" sound, particularly on bass and drums. You'll still notice their signature live approach, but elevated via this new method.

Singles and videos for "Fire In My head" and "Again" have already given fans a taste of what's to come, but guitarist Ben Wells also spoke to Tower's PULSE! about the genesis of the album, rehearsing at Skypac, and what it means to the band that they are still together, doing what they love, as they come up on a 20th anniversary in 2021.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I was really excited to hear about your virtual concert coming up to debut the album.

Ben Wells: We’re excited about it as well. People want and need entertainment right now just as badly as we want to perform. We’re just trying to do our part to keep everybody happy.

HMS: I know it’s a big effort. I’m sure lots of rehearsing has gone into it, but it’s a great chance to get to play these new songs live. Also, I have to say, I love the poster for the show. It looks really cool.

BW: It’s the next best thing to perform this way. Thank you about the poster. A friend of ours overseas made that and he’s an incredible graphic design artist. When we saw it, we were blown away by it. When people buy a ticket to the broadcast concert, you can buy a t-shirt or print of that poster. It was just too good to only use it as a social media ad, we turned it into some merch, too. We’re treating it like an in-person thing, so we wanted to have the same atmosphere people would get at a show, including merch.

HMS: Have you played that venue before?

BW: No, but I’ve been there and seen several shows there before. It’s a gorgeous venue in Bowling Green, Kentucky called Skypac. It was odd playing it with nobody there! But it was still fun because it was the first time the band had gotten together to play in a little over 8 months. It felt really good to be together, and with our crew guys, and playing music again.

Skypac was actually a great place for us to do this, too, because it’s very spacious and enabled us to space out properly and be responsible.

HMS: Absolutely. Did you have to do anything differently to make for good video and sound for recording, or were you just able to play the way you’d play a normal concert?

BW: There was some different set up. We had the monitors on stage like we normally would, but we had different audio lines that our engineer was recording from. We didn’t have a PA system like we would for an audience. It was just so we could hear. There was also other stuff with the videos and the recording because the audio and the visuals were all being recorded simultaneously. Those things are a little above my head! But I knew it was being done.

HMS: It’s great that people have been able to adapt so quickly to the new technology and challenges. It’s a great way to keep things moving.

BW: I’m proud of the industry for being proactive, and stepping up, and figuring out how to do these things because we can’t just sit around for much longer and just wait. We have to figure out ways to work around this.

We also did a thing earlier on in the Spring called “Cherry Chat”, where we did a Zoom chat and we would broadcast it every week on Facebook. We’d include different bands that we’d toured with. It was a way to keep fans engaged and plan around things.

HMS: That’s so great. Facebook has played a big role for a lot of bands and musicians. Geographically, have you all been in area where you have gotten to see each other at all during this time?

BW: We all live within about 15 minutes of each other, so we’ve been able to see each other here and there. That’s been really good. But even doing that, what we miss the most is the comradery we have between us and with our crew guys on the road. It’s a feeling that we’re so used to. We have seen each other for short periods, though, and it’s always good to see faces that you love and care about.

HMS: It kind of reminds you that there is a normal life to go back to someday.

BW: Exactly right.

HMS: Going back in time a little, can you tell us about what the mindset of the band was going into developing material for The Human Condition? Did you have any thoughts about what you wanted the end results to be like?

BW: Towards the end of last year, in the Fall, we were winding down with touring, and we had been overseas in Europe with Alice Cooper. We came back home and did a US tour in October and November, and we were talking to each other about it. Even into the first of this year. We knew we had a collection of songs, some of which were somewhat new, but some of which we’d had for years and still loved. We knew that if we just updated them, they could be real contenders to put on the record. A lot of those ended up on the record, actually.

Then we sat down and said, “Sonically, what kind of album are we creating here?”, so we could all be on the same page. You never want to make it a calculated effort, since that comes out unnatural, but you do want to be in the same headspace so you can be on the same team together. We just knew that we wanted a big, heavy, Rock-sounding album. We love doing the big emotional songs and the ballads, but we wanted the core of the album to sound just as big as it could. A lot the stuff went into getting great tones, bass tones, drum tones, guitar, even down to the mixing. Our monitor engineer, Jordan Westfall, mixed this record and he did a phenomenal job on bringing our vision of what we wanted it to sound like to life.

He made sure the drums were up in your face and the bass was super loud. I’m super-proud of the songs on this album and I think they also have great lyrics which fans will be able to take away from.

HMS: I agree. It’s a very tight album. Each song feels very focused. There’s a very strong statement to it. It feels like each of the songs easily could be a single on its own, even.

BW: Thank you. Yes, because it’s not a concept album, even though a lot of the subject matter relates, each song needs to have its own legs. Especially in this age where people are just streaming individual songs, each one has to have the same amount of love or passion as the first single. We don’t even know what the first single is going to be, going into the studio, and I think that’s a good thing. Because if you knew what the first single was going to be going in, I think subconsciously you might put a little more effort into that one. We create them all equally and then decide.

HMS: That’s really cool. It’s interesting to me that this album is a little different from your other more recent albums in that you usually go for more of a live sound, but this time you focused a lot on tracking, as you mention. However, the album was mixed by your live monitor engineer, so that seemed like a good option for making sure it still has the warmth of live music to it.

BW: Right, we never want to make anything over-Produced. We can’t stand it. So what we did on this album differently is that John Fred, our drummer, would play to a guitar track. So we were able to really focus on this drums and he was able to listen back to his drum parts and hone it in the way you would with a vocal. That then allowed us to play little riffs on top of his drum fills that wouldn’t naturally be there. But he might have done a drum fill that wasn’t rehearsed or on the demo, so it’s got this super-natural element to it. Because we actually do that live all the time. Even though we did the tracking differently, it still comes out with a super-rambunctious and alive feeling.

HMS: Did this approach take longer than with previous albums?

BW: No, we’ve been on a roll the last few times to get it done within around 30 days. All four of us are very much hands-on, and when we’re in there, we’re in there to get it done. We work really well with a deadline and goal. That’s better for us than leisurely getting it done whenever we can.

HMS: I’m glad you got it done when you did.

BW: That’s right. We finished right when things were starting to shut down, so we’re lucky that we got done when we did.

HMS: Was that made any easier by the fact that it was Jon Lawhon's studio?

BW: Yes, it’s our bass-player Jon’s studio, Monacle Studio. It’s a great studio out in the woods, and he really spared no expense. It’s acoustically built very well and it’s a great thing for us. It allows us to record whenever we want to and we’re in our comfort zone, too.

HMS: How do you think the sounds or themes of The Human Condition relate to Family Tree?

BW: We always want to change and develop but we don’t want to stray too far from what fans like about us, and I think with this one we got a little bit back to the original things on our first three original records. That means big drums, big guitar riffs, some cool storytelling in some of the songs. I think a big difference on this record is that it has pieces of everything that we’ve done all rolled into one. So far, I think people seem to really be enjoying that.

HMS: Were you all thinking about the fact that you are coming up on a major anniversary for the band when you decided to make a big statement with this album?

BW: I was in an interview the other day where somebody brought that up, that next year will be 20 years together. I hadn’t even thought about that. That’s crazy. It’s remarkable that we started this band in 2001 and we’re still the same four guys. People have always asked us why that is, and that’s because we’re friends before we’re a band. That’s what’s kept us bonded together. I’m really proud of us for sticking with it and navigating an ever-changing music industry.

HMS: It is really nice to see a band stay together like that. I don’t judge the changes that happen in other bands, since people do what they need to do, but it is really special to see a group together over a long time. It gives fans a great story to follow.

Can you tell me a little bit about music tradition and the band? It seems like you are really influenced by Blues, Rockabilly, and early Rock ‘N Roll. I notice that your covers EPs focus on Blues. How do you see yourselves in those traditions?

BW: We grew up playing Blues covers, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf and we take a lot of influence from a lot of great Blues artists. That was our reason for doing those Blues pieces. If people saw us live, they would hear us playing the occasional Blues cover, but with the EPs, we wanted to show people the other side of the band. Those influences have been there since day one.

Also, I think we’ve been able to take the Blues and turn a lot of kids onto listening to it that might not otherwise listen to those artists. I think that’s the coolest thing about it. We’d do a Muddy Waters song live, and people would come up afterwards and ask, “What was that song? We really liked it.” Then they’d go home and listen to Muddy Waters. If you’re a fan of Rock ‘N Roll and Rockabilly, and I certainly am, you have to go back to the Blues and appreciate it. Whether you’re a fan of it or not, you have to appreciate it.

HMS: I totally agree. Do you think the emotional content you find in Blues is something that applies to Black Stone Cherry, as a band?

BW: For sure. That has influenced our songwriting as well. It carries over. We couldn’t wash that out if we wanted to. We are a Hard Rock band, we love Pantera, Metallica, all those greats, but we also listen to so much different stuff. We are Southern and we love Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blues music, and Country music, and that will always be a part of us.

HMS: I know there’s already been a lot of discussion out there about how weirdly applicable to our times the single, “Ringing In My Head” has been, even referencing a kind of pandemic though it was written a few years ago.

BW: It’s bizarre. We wrote that in 2017 and it was going to be on Family Tree, but we weren’t all sold on the second verse though we liked the idea of it. But when it came time to do this album, we pulled it up, wrote a new second verse, changed the bridge. The ironic thing is that the part about disease was written in 2017. It’s ironic that the song didn’t make the album in 2017, since if it had, it probably would have been looked over, and now it’s being looked at. I love when things happen like that. That song stuck around for the right reason, I guess.

HMS: In the end, we need music for our times and it’s fortuitous that we get that.

I was listening to “Again” which is a single and video that’s been released, and it reminded me of this idea of rebirth and this album being a new beginning for the band.

BW: Yes, we wrote that song in the studio, which was cool. It didn’t exist until we went into the studio. The main purpose of the song is standing back up, again. People fail, but the most important thing about that is how many times you get back up. We’re all getting beat down, but you have to rise up from that. And keep doing it.

HMS: That’s another great song for right now. Another song I really liked, though I don’t think it’s been released yet is “When Angels Learn To Fly”. It reminded me of connections between people, and how that can be meaningful or painful, but you can’t just walk away from them. Sometimes it’s important that we know that things aren’t always going to be easy.

BW: We wrote that song back in 2016, but we never had the words to it. We weren’t inspired at the time with words, but we loved the music. When it came time to look at that song, Chris’s mother-in-law had, unfortunately, just passed away. He was overwhelmed with these words all the sudden, and they just fit perfectly. Now that song is super-special.

HMS: Our Tower Records motto is “No Music, No Life”. How do you feel that applies in your life?

BW: I think that’s extremely relatable this year. Music in my life started when I was young. My biggest influence was Elvis and music has always been a part of me. I was never into sports growing up, I appreciated school, but I just wanted to go and play guitar. It’s in our DNA, from loving music, to listening to it, to being involved in it and having it as our career, it’s not only become our life, but it’s become part of our families’ lives. Then, some of the guys have kids and bring them to shows, and it becomes part of their life. It’s this huge snowball effect that’s a great thing.

Even though we still have music, this year we’ve been trying to adjust to a life without live music, and that’s been quite an adjustment. We are grateful to have time with our families, and we appreciate that. I think if anything, this has been a humbling thing in the entire music industry. When things return to normalcy, it’s going to come back in a big way. People are thinking, “Whoah, I didn’t realize how much I loved going to the record store. I didn’t realize how important going to concerts was.”

HMS: I agree and I also think no one is forgetting about music right now. It seems like it’s on everyone’s mind. 

BW: You’re exactly right.

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