This summer Ben will play 52 festivals, including dates across Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and the US. He will also be performing on TV with Jools Holland and his orchestra for the annual 'Hootenanny', the Ellen Degeneres show, Jimmy Fallon, Graham Norton and James Cordon's shows. Ben began playing for Rory Graham (aka Rag'n'Bone Man) 3 years ago after the release of the Wolves E.P and has seen Rag’n’Bone Man become a double-platinum selling artist with no.1’s in 43 countries.
We recently sat down with Ben to discuss the responsibilities of a Musical Director, his vision for the Rag'n'Bone Man live shows and all things Nord Keyboards.
What is your background? Who were you playing with before Rag’NBone Man?
I started learning classical piano when I was 4. I have always played by ear. I'd ask the teacher to play whatever we were working on to me before I went home and then I'd rush back to try and learn as much as I could from memory, rather than having to read. I started learning more Jazz after the age of 13 and studied Commercial Music at Bath Spa University.
After graduating I worked as a band leader on a cruise ship for a year. On my return I moved to London and played for as many bands as possible, whether it be function bands or original artists, just so I could meet people and get into circles. I ended up doing a lot of one off TV stuff through session fixers in London. I played for pop acts such as Omi, Kelvin Jones, Little Mix and dep'd for friends on Foxes and Ella Eyre.
How did the gig with Rag ’n’ Bone Man come about? When did you start?
I started 3 years ago. The keys player before me had other commitments and a lot of his gigs clashed with another artist he was playing for. I met the tour manager in a studio in Weston Super-Mare around a year before, and he called me to offer around 20 gigs in the summer with one of the first ones being Glastonbury. I listened and found Rory's lyrics so emotive and descriptive. For me it was so exciting to picture exactly how the live versions should build and express themselves.
What are your responsibilities as an MD?
I take the reigns with the musical side of any live shows - designing the musical show and choosing musicians. Taking the record and interpreting it into a live show. The other artists I musically directed would mainly want the live versions of songs as similar to the record as possible. I would work out how to get the band to a place where it sounded very similar to the record. With Rory I have way more free reign to try anything with the show. I look after the band, make sure we're all paid right, arrange special live versions for one off sessions, choose new musicians to join for one off shows and arrange special covers.
How much ‘free reign’ are you given?
Lots on this project. Rory and the management have a lot of trust in me, which I'm so grateful for. It's the dream.
Are you required to replicate studio sounds on stage and if so how do you go about this?
I'm not required to but I will use a small amount of playback in some of the songs and I will set up triggers on the kick and the snare. For me, sampling parts of the record was something I used to do but they never groove the same way as live instruments. It's not an electronic act. If we want to replicate a sound we'll do it with analogue gear rather than sampling. Rory writes a lot of different styles of music and so I think having consistent sounds with the band setup helps the whole show sound consistent. I only use two piano sounds, the Silver Grand and the Velvet Grand. I change the compression and the reverb but that's it. I don't even change patch!
Ultimately what is your vision for the live versions?
Rory's styles on the record encapsulate soul, blues, hip-hop, rock and funk, so what I want to constantly work towards is getting a consistent sound through the live show. It should be an old school live band that sounds warm, analogue and punchy. I want to hear each musician as a part of the show and not hear what the recorded musician sounds like. Every one of the guys are incredible musicians and it's so important to Rory to let them do their own thing. The melody and lyrics stand out on their own. A lot of MD's are very rigid with how things should sound the same every time, but we find the more we take anything clinical out of the process we get the best versions of things. For future progression I'd love to get an extra BV and a couple of horns involved. We arranged an extra special version of Human for German TV with an 8-piece brass section. It came out so well. I'm never going to get that many approved to come on tour but you can only dream!
We cant resist finishing our interview with a few quick-fire questions specifically about Nord Keyboards...
How were you first introduced to the Nord brand?
A friend of mine (Cameron Gower-Poole) working at Sarm Studios convinced me to seriously think about them after he consistently was blown away by what they could achieve in sessions.
Which Nord keyboard(s) do you use?
Nord Stage 2 EX Compact
What are your favourite features?
The compression knob. So useful for keeping the piano a sitting in the mix perfectly for different songs.
How do you integrate your Nord in your day-to-day work?
My Nord is rarely at home anymore. I think I only have 3 days back at my flat in London before mid August, so all of my work is Live and I use the Stage 2 EX Compact sat on top of my 1973 Fender Rhodes, plugged into my old Leslie cabinet kept off-stage.
Do you customise your Nord with new sounds/samples?
I do. I switch between two piano sounds. The Velvet Grand and the Silver Grand
What one feature would you like to see added to your Nord?
A 120v to 240v switch on the outside of the casing please!
What would you say to anyone else considering buying a Nord?
I’d say DO IT! For me it was the most useful keyboard for working with more than one artist and working quickly to create the right sounding instruments for each artist. I’m only really working with one right now but it’s so brilliant to be able to easily recreate any sound within seconds.
What do you feel separates a Nord Keyboard from other brands out there?
It’s the only keyboard that doesn’t at all get in the way of my creative process. I can recreate anything so quickly and easily.
If you could sum up Nord Keyboards in one sentence what would it be?
Keyboards that sound and play fantastic, that are lightweight and have the easiest user interface.
Where can we see/hear your Nord keyboard(s) in action?
You can hear my Nord on every Rag’n’Bone Man show or session in the last 2 years and also going forward.
Huge thanks to Ben Jackson-Cook for taking the time to speak to us.