Jasmain Cain’s guitarist catches fire
Kramer has long had a reputation for welcoming artists who are on the cutting edge of fusing a wide range of styles—from classical to punk to metal—into something new. With that in mind, Jasmine Cain’s guitarist Benjamin Johnson could be considered an archetype Kramer artist, the kid who found the calling to play guitar early on and never let go. Kramer.com spoke with Benjamin about finding a community of fans, the transformative power of Chuck Berry, and how to rock with a Bic lighter.
As a brief introduction to Kramer fans who may be new to your work, tell me where you grew up and what kind of music first inspired you?
I'm originally from Brevard County, FL...the Space Coast. I grew up 15 minutes from where the space shuttle launched, so in addition to being a professional musician, I'm also a huge space nerd!
I think my earliest musical influence was Chuck Berry. I remember being a small child and thinking the riff for "Johnny B. Goode" was the coolest thing in the world. But my parents had very diverse musical tastes. I was paying some attention to the pop and rock music of the time, but was also listening to Patsy Cline, The Drifters, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Michael Jackson. So it truly was all over the map. But it was Aerosmith's "Eat the Rich" that really piqued my interest in the guitar. The solo in that song has so much attitude!
For many hard rock and metal guitarists, the "call" to play comes very early? What led you to guitar?
As far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated by the guitar. My father was an amateur classical guitarist, so I messed around with his guitar for years before receiving a tiny 1/2 sized acoustic of my own. My parents tried getting me lessons when I was in first grade, but it didn't last long. My instructor claimed my hands were too small but I'm willing to bet he didn't want to deal with the attention span of a six year old kid! I eventually started again in 7th grade, and it's been downhill ever since!
What is the dynamic like in the band working with Jasmine? How did you meet? How did the band come together and how did your role develop?
I was actually working for a different artist years ago in Galveston, TX and Jasmine played after us, but didn't meet her yet. A few years later, I got a call from a friend asking if I remembered Jasmine, since she was looking for a new guitarist. I got her number and pestered the hell out of her for weeks, haha! She was actually very responsive and I felt like my audition flowed well. The funny thing is I didn't hear anything back for almost a month. When I did get the call, it was a crash course in her material for a last minute emergency gig. Being that the band is a three piece, I knew there was a lot of musical responsibility for the guitar parts. But I've always been comfortable in that role, and while it requires me to "hold down the fort" in regards to rhythm parts, it also gives me a sense of freedom because I'm not worried about stepping on other's parts.
There are so many bands touring now since the record business has sort of dissolved into little pieces! What kind of challenges does that present a group? How did you find your audience and is it the audience you expected?
That's an interesting question. It has definitely affected how bands advertise and gain exposure. Social media is now as important as the music itself, so in that regard, it's forced a lot of artists to adapt quickly and evolve with technology. Touring is also more important than ever if you want to really develop a following because while ITunes and other digital music outlets are commonplace, there are still millions of people who enjoy watching a band in person, buying their CD and holding it in their hand.
We are somewhat lucky, though. Jasmine has a nearly lifelong relationship with the motorcycle community, and they have been very accepting. They are extremely supportive and are diehard fans.
In the early days of hard rock and metal, many of the bands grew up together on the road. Is that same sense of camaraderie there today? Who are your peers as far as guitarists that you look up to or keep an eye to see what they're doing?
We most definitely have a camaraderie with other groups on the road, and not just with rock and metal bands. I think regardless of the genre, when you're travelling across the country and playing music in a different city every night, you can relate to others because we all deal with the same struggles - missing loved ones at home, the monotony of endless hotels, bizarre hours and questionable food. Living in Nashville, I can assure you there is no shortage of devastating...no, downright scary...guitarists. One guy in particular that stands out is Chris Sorensen (plays for Jared Blake). In addition to being one of the nicest cats around, he plays his ass off without abandoning the song. Plus the dude absolutely DESTROYS it with a slide. I'm so jealous of that, haha. I joke around and tell people I can't play slide, but I can get by wih a Bic lighter!
What are the Kramer models that you're touring with? How did you learn about the brand and what are some of your favorites? Are there any vintage models you are bugging Kevin to re-introduce? What do you see are the differences between any vintage models you've played and the new ones?
Currently I'm touring with an SM-1 and an Assault Plus. If you listened to rock and metal in the 80's, you HAD to know about Kramer guitars. I knew about the models Eddie and others made famous, but I've always felt if I'm gonna play with a Floyd Rose, it needs to be recessed. I blame that on my obsession with Steve Vai, haha. It wasn't until I discovered the SM-1 that I was fully convinced how awesome the guitars really are. More than anything, I've been bugging Kevin to offer more variations on current models...more finishes, pickup options, etc. I love the guitars, but like pretty much everything else in my life, I never leave things alone! I've changed a few small details to suit my needs, such as simplifying or moving electronics. I'm also very uncomfortable with pretty guitars, so that quilted maple top on my Assault made me super nervous. The first couple scratches were a relief! I think the biggest difference between the vintage models and the current ones is consistency. I can pick up any Assault, and with a few set up tweaks, it will totally work for me. I can't say that about a lot of other manufacturers.
After many years of using technology to make a "perfect album", a lot of bands are now going in the other direction of trying to perform live in the studio as much as possible. Tell us about how the band works in the studio. Do you enjoy the process? Do you prefer stage work to studio work?
Jasmine had already released four albums before I joined, so she definitely has her methods down in the studio. She tends to have the songs composed and arranged prior to tracking, which seems to be standard practice in Nashville. When we started recording the "White Noise" album, it was somewhat chaotic because we were using multiple producers on top of trying to go in a slightly different, heavier direction than past records. Therefore, we were writing, rearranging, and blatantly experimenting throughout much of the process. Hell, one song was totally recut because we decided to change the key. Believe it or not, it was more challenging to redo the rhythm parts than the solo! But the experience shaped us and forced us to grow as musicians. On one hand, I really enjoy getting to dissect songs and parts...but it can be nerve-wracking to have your playing scrutinized under the microscope. I wouldn't say I prefer live performance over the studio because they are apples to oranges, but I am probably more comfortable on stage.
The connection you make on the road is more important now than ever since record sales are so fleeting. Does that impact your writing and riffs or how the band works together? For instance, there are a lot of pop bands that are now purposefully creating music that involves the audience. There's now a glut of bands with "soccer chant" choruses. Has that mentality impacted your scene at all? Do you feel like some bands are trying to take the easy way out instead of really perfecting their craft?
When writing, we've always maintained some discipline about writing songs for the audience, not just for ourselves. I won't say "who wants to hear two hours of shredding and craziness?" because people do, myself included. But we're extremely fortunate, because our fans pay attention to the entire song, and seem to really appreciate thoughtful lyrical content. For example, we have a song called "Hole" on this record that's six minutes long. It flows through many different dynamics, ranging from ethereal to brutally heavy. We knew it would never go to radio, but it seems to be a fan favorite already. That's an indescribable feeling.
Do you compose on your own and do you have any music plans outside of working with Jasmine?
I consider myself a freelance musician as well as a rock n roller in a band, so I'm always working with as many artists and bands as possible in between Jasmine shows. I have always wanted to record a solo album, but I've never made the time. It also doesn't help that my record would be like an Ipod with ADD, because I wouldn't be content making just a rock record, or strictly blues, country, etc. Perhaps this year I can finally pick a style!
What are you listening to for inspiration both in the world of rock and outside it?
Most of the time, I seek out other guitarists and go crazy on YouTube checking out live performances. Guthrie Govan is my new current favorite. I'm still not entirely convinced he's human. One new album I'm excited to hear is the latest solo album from David Gilmour. I've always been a huge Floyd fan and loved his last record. Another I'm dying to hear soon is a follow-up to Chinese Democracy. Hopefully it doesn't take another decade!
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