Ben Wright of Henhouse Prowlers
Interview with Ben Wright from the Henhouse Prowlers
January 5, 2016
by Marc Lovely
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It’s evident that Chicago-based band, The Henhouse Prowlers, do not take opportunities for granted. Not even when they can effortlessly vaunt their vast achievements over the course of an 11-year ride. So when 2015 came dawdling to a close, and the band was asked to step in as a supporting act for the remainder of Yonder Mountain String Band’s fall tour, the band quickly seized the chance, no questioned asked. Live Music News and Review was lucky enough to have time to chat with Prowler, Ben Wright (banjo), about the continuing success of the HHP, the tour and live collaborations with YMSB, as well as the perpetual evolution of the band, its members, and their interminable plans for 2016.
LMNR: How have things been going on Yonder Mountain String Band tour?
Ben Wright: That tour was revelatory in so many ways. We got to hang out and play with one of our favorite bands, all while getting insight into how a band at that level operates. Granted, the tour was designed for a band with a bus and driver, so it kicked our asses. There were several overnight drives and we had to fly in and out of Denver in 24 hours (from PA) to catch a gig outside of the tour. Still, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
LMNR: Have you been visiting new markets you haven’t seen yet?
Ben Wright: Sure. We played a several cities we’d never played. DC was a killer show (and venue) as well as Woodstock. It was all a blur and somehow over too quickly. I really fell in love with Yonder on this tour. You form a bond with good people when you’re dropped into a hard working situation like that.
LMNR: Is there any collaboration going on between the bands?
Ben Wright: Tons. They had us up nearly every night and it was exhilarating. Bonus behind the scene observation: That band rehearses all the time. It’s impressive. Also, their crew were ALL great guys. I miss all of them. Dave (banjo) and I connected towards the end in a way that only banjo players can, and Adam is a hoss on the guitar (and a great guy, too). I could go on about all of them. The new members fit really well and it’s cool to see our old friend Allie killing it onstage with them.
LMNR: I know you’ve been doing a lot of touring outside of the US. What can you say about the difference between a US audience and one in Europe or Africa or Russia?
Ben Wright: Every place we’ve played garners different reactions. Europe has a real love for Americana of all types. People listen and want to hang out after the shows. At this point we’ve been to 10 different countries in Africa and they’re all so different. There are some climate similarities (hot), but each place has a personality all its own, I think. The best parts of those trips are the opportunities to travel into the countryside. We went to places that westerners just never go and figure out how to play music with musicians that have only seen pictures of instruments like the banjo and upright bass. It’s hard to put into words how other-worldly that experience is. It has given meaning to music for me that I could have never imagined.
Want to see how hot it was in Djibouti? Ben Wright: Check out the back of Jon’s shirt in the last second of that shot. It was 120 degrees.
Russia had more of a connection to our music than Africa. There’s really no comparing any of these places to each other. The folks we met in Russia were warm and welcoming. Again, we were able to head out into extremely rural parts of the country and see how people simply live there. Everywhere we went there were 300+ year old log cabin houses and remnants of Soviet rule. We ate Borscht served up by an old woman that spoke no english at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. Halfway through eating, I looked up and realized the paintings on the wall were beautiful and brutal portrayals of the Russian revolution. You get chills like that all the time on these trips. It’s wonderful.
LMNR: Do you feel a bit like ambassadors of bluegrass with all of this international touring?
Ben Wright: Ha. No, not really. The State Dept. trips are about diplomacy. It serves everyone much better if we show up able to play songs people there recognize. Most of the time the people we meet have never heard anything like what we play. There have been moments of genuine bluegrass education (like a boy in Liberia that was enamored with my banjo, or watching Starr showing a guitar player in Rwanda bluegrass rhythm), but more often it’s learning their music, figuring out how to play music together and forming personal bonds with people.
LMNR: Do you want to talk at all about the changing nature of the band’s lineup? Aside from you and Jon Goldfine, everyone in the band seems to change every few years. Are you guys like really bad company or something? Or is this a function of just the nature of this particular band? Does that present certain challenges?
Ben Wright: Sure! Jon and I became the sole proprietors of the band 6 or 7 years ago. He and I are connected in drive, if that makes any sense. It’s only gotten stronger over the past few years due in part to the international adventures we’ve been on. We decided almost a decade ago that we’d forgo (potentially, but not entirely likely) lucrative careers for this insane pursuit. The reality of the bluegrass niche is that it’s hard to make good money. In order to make any kind of living, you have to tour a lot. That understandably wears on people, especially when it’s not their baby. The Prowlers spend more than half the year on the road and while it’s easy to glorify this lifestyle, it’s not often easy to live it. We’ve maintained connections with nearly every past member of the band and bring them back up on stage with us as much as possible. 12 years is a long time for a band to exist and in order for us to continue moving forward we have to give it room to breathe. I want to do this until I’m 80 and I think Jon would say the same thing.
On Jan 1st we had six former Prowlers back with us at Martyrs’ in Chicago. I’m pumped.
You can read about one of the founding members of HHP (James Weigel) here: I’ve been doing that for all the guests on Jan 1st and it’s been fun to revisit what each of them brought to the table. The truth is that every single person that’s been in this band has shaped our sound and taught us innumerable things. I’m extremely grateful to all of them. Their songs, their personalities, their abilities. It’s hard to overstate how much energy and love new members bring to the band. Change isn’t easy, but they sure as hell make it feel like it is sometimes.
LMNR: What are your plans for 2016?
Ben Wright: Ha. Would you believe that we’re headed to the Middle East? Longest tour ever.
LMNR: What do you see as the future of this whole genre? You guys are really super traditional bluegrass but marketed toward a younger market. Which seems different than what YSMB is doing.
Ben Wright: It’s funny, I’m not convinced we’re that traditional anymore. The international stuff has bent the way we look at music some and we’ve changed over the years regardless. Bluegrass is persistent and isn’t going anywhere. The traditionalists voices are growing dimmer and I’m grateful for it. I hear new stuff all the time that blows my mind (Mipso, Lindsay Lou, others) and I’m excited to see where it all goes in the next decade.
LMNR: What are some of the particular challenges of the banjo compared with other instruments?
Ben Wright: Well, it’s the brunt of all the jokes. 🙂 You get used to it. I still love it as much as I did when I started playing 15 years ago.
I think it’d be safe to say that amplifying a banjo is one of the most difficult things to do. Our new dobro player Todd Livingston has this little box he plugs into (Fishman Aura Pedal) that makes it sound amazing through a PA. Nobody’s figured out how to do that with a banjo. You either have shitty tone or volume issues.
LMNR: Did any of the guys from YMSB ask to borrow a suit?
Ben Wright: Hell no!
LMNR: Do you still teach lessons with being on the road as much as you are?
Ben Wright: When I can, yes. I love and miss teaching. It was a huge part of my life before the band got this busy. I did get to do the lesson DVD with Trufire and I sell them on the merch table which often starts the conversation with banjo players. Have you ever heard banjo nerds talk? It’s embarrassingly wonderful. You can check out trufire here It’s a kickass website and you can actually watch all the videos online.
Following the U.S. tour with Yonder Mountain String Band, the Henhouse Prowlers aren’t showing any signs of fatigue. In fact, they’re looking to continue their domination of the nation, and the world itself, by renewing a tour of their own which they previously put on hold. If anything, the tour with YMSB has done nothing but revitalize the band. They’ve managed to witness and digest how a band of that magnitude conducts itself—onstage, offstage, and business-wise. With those loose notes they are screaming into 2016 with a head full of steam. With already close to two dozen shows already booked, including another jump across the pond to Europe, look for the Henhouse Prowlers to take the new year by the collar and lead it to places that have yet to be discovered.
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