An Interview with Ben Castle
June 19, 2015
Dewsbury-based Indian arts organisation Manasamitra tour unusual venues across Yorkshire with ‘Shivoham’, a stunning and unique musical experience inspired by the Indian god Shiva and featuring Ben Castle, son of Roy Castle OBE. Rich Jevons talks to Ben about his musical background and part in the new production…
TSOTA: Did you follow in your dad’s footsteps, in the way that he used to play kettles and all sorts of objects as instruments?
BC: I have been known to play a few pieces on kitchen appliances but not in any way like he did. He used to encourage me to choose one thing and stick to that. When you’ve grown up with someone like that you want to have a go at anything, and it was fun and exciting.
TSOTA: Why did you choose to play the clarinet?
BC: That was actually one of the instruments that dad didn’t play. My brother played trombone and one of my sisters played trumpet so if I did clarinet and sax then we had a full front line.
TSOTA: You achieved technical success very young – you got the Grade 8 at thirteen – but do you think it is something different to have a feel for music?
BC: It’s interesting and a very good question. As I was learning to play music I just wanted to be the best and be able to play anything and everything. So I really wanted to be technically proficient, but actually I learnt later that it was more important to move people, and that’s a much better skill to have: to make a connection with somebody rather than to impress people.
TSOTA: Could you tell us a bit about your musical career?
BC: I always wanted to make creative music, so from an early age I knew that I was going to be a musician. That came right from seeing Buddy Rich on stage at Ronnie Scott’s when I was thirteen. So I was completely obsessed with music and kept on practising eight hours a day. I wanted to make my own statement; I’ve done a few of my own projects, and generally they’re a reaction to what I’ve been doing. Along the way I became a bit of a session musician because when you make your own albums you generally lose a lot of money – it’s a labour of love. So with ‘Blah Street’ I’d just come from being very involved with something very mainstream, and it was a reaction from that where I wanted to do something a little bit crazy.
TSOTA: Is there anyone you’ve worked with who stands out as someone you particularly admire?
BC: I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of heroes from various genres, like getting to play with Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett, and also Radiohead who I’m a huge fan of. I’ve enjoyed playing with Jamie [Cullum] for a long time and I did all of Gregory Porter’s European shows until he was able to afford to bring his American band over. He’s an absolute force of music. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have worked with such huge names.
TSOTA: You’ve described traditional jazz as the punk of its time; what appeals to you about it?
BC: A lot of it was improvised, but I think it’s easy to hear a style of music that seems old-fashioned because you’re hearing it with today’s ears. But for people who’d never heard it before, it must have sounded crazy and outlandish. So there is such an amazing spirit to it and that’s what I wanted to explore with Tombola Theory, even though it’s more of a pop music project.
TSOTA: Is Tombola Theory the first time you’ve sung on record?
BC: I did sing on a track on ‘Blah Street’ but this is the first time I’ve taken it seriously. It’s funny because when you play music you make a connection with the audience, but when you sing it’s so much stronger. It’s the most naked I’ve ever felt on stage. The good thing is if the singing isn’t going that well I can stick a clarinet in my mouth!
TSOTA: Have you tried to continue the lyricism of the jazz standards?
BC: The songs that are on the next album are about a school janitor learning to play clarinet, So the lyrics are all reflecting him and his story. I wanted to make them old-fashioned but modern at the same time. I didn’t want them to be too fancy so there is a kind of grit in there as well.
TSOTA: What experience did you have, previous to appearing in ‘Shivoham’, of Hindustani music?
BC: I’ve always loved Indian music, though I’m not a massive connoisseur. The thing is, I like fusions of music where things come together, but I would never myself have wanted to do an Indian crossover project with my own band because it’s a music you have to be born into, otherwise it’s a little bit pretentious. So now I’m working with two masters – Shri Sriran and Supriya Nagarajan – who have taught me some of the raga that I’m improvising around, breaking quite a few rules along the way. But they are happy for that to happen because they want a western influence as well.
TSOTA: Shri has done trip hop as well, hasn’t he?
BC: Yes, he knows different sensibilities and he’s got a very broad idea of music which is great. It makes everything work well.
TSOTA: Could you tell us a bit more about ‘Shivoham’?
BC: The whole thing is a continuous piece and it takes you on a journey that Supriya explains at the end, but people really get swept into it. There are very peaceful quiet moments and quite some quite frenetic too, following the story which is quite complex.
TSOTA: What kind of reactions have you had so far to the show?
BC: It’s been great. The first gig we did was in York Minster which was amazing because the acoustics in there are fantastic. Then the other one we did was in Huddersfield Art Gallery so it was people who came specifically for the show. But I really like bringing music to the people so it’s nice to play in community places. Sometimes it can backfire; I remember very early on in my career where I thought they were really getting into it but then I realised that someone had just scored a goal in the football on the TV behind me!
Shivoham tours: 24th June, Oakwell Hall, Birstall, 25th June, Dewsbury Golf Club, Mirfield and 26th June, Blenheim House, Batley; see www.manasamitra.com.