How a surprise supergroup made one of the year’s most critically lauded albums at a breakneck pace.
When singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur booked time in Carriage House studio in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with acclaimed slide-guitarist, friend of 15 years and sometimes-collaborator Ben Harper, he didn’t know exactly what to expect. They hadn’t written anything yet, but figured they’d plunk something down in the studio, have a little fun and, by the time it was done, he’d have a tiny side-project to add to his own burgeoning career.
Something like that.
What he got instead was a full-fledged band, new friends, a U.S. and European tour and a critically lauded album. Add to that promotional appearances on Conan’s new TBS show (which included Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello sitting in) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (where the Roots backed them up), and being joined onstage by the likes of Eddie Vedder and, whoa, can you say “HAPPY FUCKING SURPRISES”?
“It’s wild. It’s funny how some things manifest so quickly—come up with a band, a name, an idea—and to suddenly see T-shirts with the name on it, tour. It’s amazing,” Arthur says over the phone, en route to the San Francisco airport to catch a flight to L.A..
The band is Fistful of Mercy—a name Arthur came up with by altering the title of Sergio Leone spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. The album they recorded on the fly is As I Call You Down—a swaggering groove of an eclectic record that’s been described by critics as pop, folk, soul and many points in between. Perhaps the only common word you’ll see in reviews of the band and album is “supergroup.” Oh yeah, did we mention Dhani Harrison is in this thing too?
It started like this: Arthur, more than decade into a prolific solo career, had booked two shows in January at the famed Troubadour in L.A. He wanted to make the nights different from one another, and asked longtime friend and two-time-Grammy-winner Harper to join him onstage one of the nights. Harper joined him for both, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd made the two turn the conversation about booking studio time and getting something going—one they’d had many times over the years—into reality.
In the meantime, Harper met Harrison—both avid skateboarders—at a skate park, where the two spent quite a lot of time. Harrison used to ditch school, smoke weed and listen to Ben Harper records when he was 17. He knew who Harper was. It wasn’t until the two talked music that Harper figured out he was talking to the son of Beatle George Harrison. He told his new friend about the Carriage House session he and Arthur had coming up, invited him to join.
The result was three massive double-days in studio, where the newly formed trio made fast friends and wrote and recorded nine songs.
Sounds impossibly hard.
“After making so many records as a solo artist it kinda takes the pressure off in a way,” says Arthur of the daunting task. “That was one aspect of it being a fast process that I think helped us, because it kept our egos out of it. We had an agenda of trying to get at least the framework of the album together in those three days and we had kind of an impossible workload, so it enabled us to come at each other in a way that made us come together as one.”
Part of the “fast process” that didn’t help, Arthur says, is that people keep referring to it, as though the speed at which it all went down and the special circumstances that helped create it didn’t allow them to write a cohesive record, and instead sounds like, as one commenter on No Depression said, just “three guys having a really good time.”
“I just disagree with that,” Arthur says. “I know the three-day album thing keeps going around, but it was a process. The initial spark of it was three days, but we worked on it a good couple months after that in fits and spurts. But the ‘three-day’ thing is working against us in that way, and that’s come up. I think we made a really complete record. I really believe that. I think those songs, there’s some looseness there, but in a way that I think is beneficial to the album. I think these songs will survive the test of time. They’ll be around for 30 years from now. They’ll still hold up.”
Those songs run the gamut of style. Lead track “In Vain Or True,” has a quiet, Beatles-esque quality. “Father’s Son”—the song they’ve been performing on their many television appearances—is a meaty, cocksure campfire bruiser brimming with swagger and a gospel edge, punctuated with handclaps and a foot-stomping Baptist revival feel. The album’s title track is all three-part harmony—a trait beautifully strewn across the entire album—and deep lament.
Originally, Arthur and Harper just thought the album would be a sparse acoustic album. Harrison had other ideas about what it could be, and recruited legendary drummer Jim Keltner—who’s performed with the likes of George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones—to play on the record. That changed it mightily.
“He made it a lot better,” says Arthur of Keltner. “Jim came in, and the moment he started playing it was obvious that that was the way forward. I’d call it acoustic soul music. The thing about that record that I think is going to give it the energy to survive is we were discovering the process while we were making it. We didn’t discover the process to make the record—the record is the sound of us discovering the process . In that way, we’ll never be able to duplicate the record.
“It’s mainly like three people coming from an unconscious place and working together, just an acceptance and a celebration of this process that we discovered together.”
In other words, they caught lightning in a bottle—a special moment recorded on tape, shared with one another, and now with everyone.
Fistful of Mercy perform Sat., Nov. 20, 8pm.
Temple Performing Arts Center,
1837 N. Broad St.
PW's Music Issue 2014