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559866_10151241548972933_796884809_nIn this exclusive interview from the historic Old Seelbach Bar inside Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel, cello-rocker Ben Sollee shared “a few honest words” about the making of his new album Half Made Man, those whom he collaborated with to make it, musicians who he’d still like to collaborate with in the future, and his views on the Presidential race and what’s at stake.

Click here to download the digital issue of Performer Magazine December 2012 issue.

Or you can watch the interview in its entirety here.  

Or read it….

It’s a quiet, warm Saturday afternoon in downtown Louisville…

…and the lobby of the city’s most iconic display of Southern grandeur, The Seelbach Hotel, is bustling with road-worn and seemingly infrequent visitors stirring about.

One of those visitors is Lexington-native Ben Sollee, one of Kentucky’s up-and-coming “musical” displays of Southern grandeur. A classically trained cellist, Sollee is a one-man orchestra, who owns his instrument and is known for playing it with a combination of passion and grace. He has managed to breed a whole new style of playing his centuries-old instrument, where the end result is a little rock and roll, a little soulful, a little bluegrassy, a little jazzy, very modern, and all Americana.

Ben Sollee - Photo by Kate Eldridge (www.KateEldridge.com)

Ben Sollee – Photo by Kate Eldridge (www.KateEldridge.com)

In 2007, Sollee was lauded by NPR’s Morning Edition as one of the “Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year.” After that, he officially began exporting himself nationwide and into the spotlight. He’s played Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival and in 2009, landed one of his tunes on Showtime’s series Weeds.

When Sollee wants to jam onstage, while on tour or while recording a new album, he collaborates with everyone from My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and Jim James, to Daniel Martin Moore to Bella Fleck to Abigail Washburn. Broemel and Washburn joined Sollee on his latest release, Half-Made Man, released through his label, Tin Ear Records. He raised the funds to record it from a public-sourced fan base.

Sitting down in The Old Seelbach Bar, Sollee candidly opens up about his music and life – from the how and why he creates songs and his top picks for collaborations – to his bike tours and political activism.

You’ve just released Half-Made Man, which you’ve said is your most personal album to date. What makes it so personal?

“Well, the goal of the record was to create a collection of self-portraits. So the songs do that in various ways by capturing the pieces of my personality, whether it’s the part that likes to fix things, or the part that’s impatient or the fatherly side of me. And to capture those in a really intimate and raw way, I invited some wonderful musicians to cut it with in the studio.”

Yeah, you had quite a few guest musicians join you. So tell me about the process of choosing them, and how they contributed to the artistic process.

“Many of the musicians are folks that I’ve played music with and that I really respected their distinct character as musicians…”

Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket?
“He came in and did a lot of the guitar work that you hear. Alana Rocklin is a tremendous R&B, jazz and hip-hop bass player [who] just came in and just covered all the bases. And Jordan Ellis, who is a percussionist, and who I’ve been playing with for a while.

Then we had a fiddler come in named Jeremy Kittel, and he’s from a real diverse background, everything from Scottish fiddling to a contemporary classical musical ensemble. So, the thing about the ensemble is that we didn’t have to try very hard to create a unique sound, because there was already a unique collection of people.”

You also had, as I understand it, a guy who is quickly becoming popular in the recording scene here in Louisville, Kevin Ratterman. He’s also worked with My Morning Jacket and Wax Fang, and helped with your production, as well?

“I think ‘becoming popular’ might even be a little bit of an understatement. Kevin Ratterman, for the last decade has had his finger on what the Louisville rock sound has become – a lot of the sounds you hear coming out, whether it be Cheyenne Marie Mize or My Morning Jacket’s new record, or Wax Fang. You know all those things are being put out and recorded by Kevin because he’s got this big heart and unending search for ‘the sound.’”

Yeah, he’s definitely getting to all the musicians that have ‘the sound.’

“That’s because he cares. It’s not necessarily because he has a fancy studio or even because of his rates. It’s because if you want to work with somebody – at this point if we’re going to spend all this time, money and energy recording a record – we want it to be with somebody who gives a damn.”

Speaking of the money, you had a different approach to recording this in terms of how you funded it. Tell us a little bit about that and how that came about.

“Well, the funding for this record was crowd-sourced through a platform called Pledge Music.”

Truly public music?

[laughing] “I guess so. And this project wouldn’t even be possible without that kind of support. So I think it’s fascinating, this relationship that’s developing.”

Your music has historically had an activism aspect to it, such as your bike tours. Is there anything in the future that’s gonna keep that part of you alive and how are you going to do it?

“Well for me, my music always comes from a very personal place, and what I consider a very sincere expression. And in that way, all the things I care about as a person come to the surface. And I try to express them through the songs and through activities around the shows and through organizations I work with and various other projects. And I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I’m not going to stop caring about those folks. How I can tie in and help those organizations will change as my business grows. And more opportunities, if anything. For the bike tours, we’re really trying to do about a third of our touring each year by bicycle.”

Where are you biking to and from this year?

“We biked from the Newport Folk Festival, where we had a really wonderful bunch of shows. And we rode our bikes up the coast to a bunch of shows in Portland, Maine. It wasn’t a tremendously long tour, but it was a beautiful tour.”

How many miles would you say?

“It was about 300 or so up the coast.”

And you actually had the cello strapped to your back?

“The cello actually goes on the side of the bicycle. It’s a utility bike on the side of the frame.”

So tell me about some of the other artists out there who you’d still like to share a stage or studio with.

“Oh, gosh, there are so many of them. There are folks like Paul Simon who I’d love to work with. There are folks like Ani DiFranco I’d like to work with. There are a tremendous amount of jazz artists I’d like to work with. The list is endless…”

Read also at PerformerMag.com

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Ahh, the Kentucky Derby season in Louisville. That time of year where for two weeks most the city’s population negates work, drink the days and nights away all in the name of horse racing’s classiest two-minute affair. As exemplified below by my little drunken buddy who I found all snuggled up in a concrete nook near the corner of 3rd Street and Muhammad Ali at about 11:30 pm.


At least he wasn’t driving, right?

So, I too wandered about my hometown on its most glorious weekend – a little more coherently than the average Joe, I might add – but nonetheless to see a few random Derby party-spots.

Thursday, May 5th: Kroger’s Festaville at Waterfront Park

Waterfront park took on a new meaning to its name as receding flood waters left much of the ground oozing with river-aroma’d black mud. Now add an inability to get your favorite beverage/cocktail of choice in 20 minutes or less, and you get a disgruntled crowd. Although many were patient enough to bear the wait time, I decided standing in a line for 20 minutes or more for a drink was not something I can do if I’m going to properly review the event. Maybe someday these large waterfront concert organizers will figure out the service staff to guest ratio, because this night they clearly hadn’t. If you wanted a beer or cocktail you had better be patient and be willing to watch the concert from the line. Bummer.


The drink ticket line


One of three stage-area watering holes

Luck-fully the entertainment for the night were a pair of Kentucky’s most popular bands, Louisville’s The Pass, and Bowling Green’s Cage The Elephant. Event organizers hit the nail on the head by booking these two rising musical stars from Kentucky, otherwise I’m not sure people would have braved the mud and long lines.

The Pass initiated the first true crowd roar upon walking out on stage and seemed a little surprised at the audiences gesture. They opened with “Treatment of the Sun” and somewhat initiated a dance party that would carry out for the remainder of their 45 minute set. An 80’s style dance party in mud I might add. The only bummer was they didn’t play, what I think is one of their best songs, “Criminal.”

Cage The Elephant almost didn’t go on. At least that is what I started to think when I saw an ambulance with its lights on drive backstage 30 minutes after The Pass had completely vacated the stage. All of the sudden I started thinking about my phone interview with lead-singer Matt Schultz last March, which I thought he was comatose’d during. There is no way this ambulance is here for any CTE member I thought to myself.

Then, finally, at about 9:45, a whole 45 minutes late, the Bowling Green, Kentucky-boys finally emerged from backstage to a shrieking and impatient audience. They quickly grabbed their instruments and belted out one of their hits “In One Ear.” The opening words to this song; “They say we ain’t got the style, we ain’t got the class…” proved to be oh-so-appropriate at this particular moment. But, musically, they do, and those lyrics really hit home for a home-state audience.

All of the sudden the wait seemed worth it as they opened with a bit of a bang, and then treated the audience to songs like “Back Against The Wall,” “Shake Me Down,” and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” amongst others. 

The enitre band had quite a rambunctious stage presence the entire night and lead-singer Matt Schultz became reminiscent of how Jim Morrison of The Doors used to drunkenly stagger around stage, dodging his fellow band members. He was crowd surfing by the second song I might add.

One thing was for sure; CTE didn’t have to wait 20 minutes or more for drinks.

Part 2 of 3 coming soon….

Photos & Videos by Jason Ashcraft

** This review also posted at Louisville.com

Friday, May 6th: The Vernon Club

Ok, so let’s recap from part 1 of this review. There were zero beers realistically available for me at the Cage The Elephant & The Pass show the night before on Thursday. That being said, Friday night is going to be different. It’s Derby-eve, and I’ve got the VilleBillies penciled in on my schedule for the night’s festivities. And these damn VilleBillies have built a reputation for having plenty of booze flowing at their shows, their rehearsals, their backstage gatherings, and their post-show parties. Pretty much anywhere they go they throw down so to speak. And given that I’m reviewing their show on this night, there is no way they’re going to allow me to not drink with them.

To no surprise, they packed in the Vernon Club to near capacity. And once they to the stage, the VilleBillies seized their audience from the first song, and had the entire room chanting their lyrics during their entire set.


VilleBillies – Photo by Jason Ashcraft

Celebrating nearly 10 years of being together as a band, the VilleBillies continue to prove they haven’t lost their energy, their onstage swagger, or their ability to keep writing heartfelt, Louisville-loving, country-rock-hip-hop anthems that you can’t help to find yourself chanting, even if only in your head.

Most VilleBillie fans are hardcore fans and know the song lyrics as good as the band does, so it’s interesting to hear the constant echo of a nearby fan trying to keep the vicious lyrical pace of the song being performed. Not surprisingly, VilleBillie fans also drink about as much as the band does, so it made for quite a loud and somewhat hectic environment. But not a dramatic one. Everyone behaved on this night and the security staff didn’t even break a sweat.

Post-show a few people headed upstairs to the bowling alley for a few drunken ball tosses down the lanes…including myself. But after managing to only knock down one pin on one try, I called it a night and drank beer with Tuck and some of his cousins. All’s well that ends well.

Photo & videos by Jason Ashcraft

Saturday, May 7th: The Seelbach Bar, MTV’s “Hottest Derby Party” at Frazier Museum.

The Seelbach Bar inside the Seelbach Hotel hosted its house jazz band The Dick Sisto Trio, with of course, Dick Sisto on piano and vibraphone, Tyrone Wheeler on bass and Jason Tiemann on percussion. Jazz is a good music to sit and space out to when, perhaps, you don’t want to hear or listen to anything else. You can get lost in its composure and random bursts of energy, and the Dick Sisto Trio delivers the total live jazz experience.


Dick Sisto. Photo by John Nation

On this particular night, the Seelbach Bar was brimming with seemingly partied-out derby out-of-towners, along with a few locals here and there, most all still in their Derby attire. The mint julep’s were flowing although I settled for an Espresso Martini. And while the Seelbach has a history of attracting a few celebrities during Derby, this time they were no where to be found. I was fine with that. The last thing I want to be thought of is the paparazzi.

MTV’s “Hottest Derby Party” actually rivaled being the “Coldest Derby Party” if you ask me. Either this event was thrown together way to quickly, or it lacked sufficient Derby-caliber entertainment, or Derby party-goers have zero interest in becoming MTV’s next Snooki, or a combination of all three. There was also no sign of MTV’s Tyrus, no indication of a casting call for a reality show taking place, nor did it even look like any live-performance by breakout artist Jim Phebe was in store.


The main ballroom at 11:30 pm. Photo by Jason Ashcraft

But, on the flip side, at least the event service staff had no issues serving the very few guests (or themselves) a drink in less than 20 seconds. That’s because they far outnumbered any party-goers. 

Given the expensive admission cost of $45+ to get in, an average cost of $15 dollars per drink, and the lack of a high-profile guest list or musician performing, this party never really had a chance. Back to drawing board on how to properly plan a Derby party for MTV I suppose.

**This review also posted at Louisville.com

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