When Scott Leeper and Ben Miller met a decade-and-a-half ago, Scott was “literally working in a shit factory.”
More accurately, it was a wastewater treatment facility, where Leeper would remain employed for several more years before music became gainful enough to quit. The work was unpleasant, but as always, he remained patient: now nearing sixty, Leeper began in music at ten years old, playing drums in his family band—but even with the early start, it would be nearly four more decades before an open mic night in Joplin, Missouri, where a heavyset shit factory employee met a former art school student, who’d fled Philadelphia for Jasper Country.
Since that night, the two have been to every corner of the country, toured Europe as the opening act for ZZ Top, and just this summer, played the 58th annual Newport Folk Festival.
When he first met Scott, Ben Miller was hosting three open mics to the tune of $150 and gigging on weekends. It wasn’t much, but in southwestern Missouri where “the cost of living is nothing,” it kept Ben Miller afloat. A man of no great want, he simply tried to make more money one month than he did the month prior, and as long as that continued, he kept his head down and pushed forward.
Thanks to that plan, Miller never worked outside of music once he started, and his “job” (which was not always taxable) put his craft into his hands in a time and place where nothing was being demanded anything from him.
“[Location] allowed me the latitude to develop in a very slow and idiosyncratic way,” Miller says. “I didn’t have to be anything I wasn’t to make money, which a lot of bands have to do.”
However slowly, Miller’s reach grew, and once it became sustainable, he invited Leeper and original drummer Doug Dicharry to play with him on weekends. In broad strokes, that’s how things continued for the better part of a decade: after forming in 2005, the Ben Miller Band spent seven years “touring in obscurity’ before releasing an album and have routinely played two-hundred-plus shows a year. To keep overhead low, they did their own booking and slept in their van, cutting their teeth in a way that’s nearly non-existent in the current musical landscape, and flirting with their 10,000 hours before anyone had ever heard of them.
So when the Decemberists’ Chris Funk called to see if the band could fill in at the Newport Folk, they were ready, and had been for years.
That offer, however, came in the wake of a lineup change that saw a band on the cusp reshuffle the deck, when in 2016, Dicharry left the group to pursue a solo career after ten years of touring.
But rather than take a step back, the Ben Miller Band added experience.
If anyone can equal Scott Leeper’s years and miles paid to music, it’s Smilin’ Bob Lewis, who joined the Ben Miller Band following Dicharry’s departure. A man of retirement age, Lewis wears a gray beard to the middle of his chest, sits behind a pair of black sunglasses, and occasionally covers his scalp with a bright red top hat. By trade, Lewis is a luthier, as well a Vietnam veteran, and claims to have “more holes in his body from playing music” than from serving in war, where he was, in fact, shot. That may be true, as according to Miller, there was a night at a roadside bar in Texas where Smilin’ Bob was stabbed for smilin’ at someone’s wife, an event that has not deterred him from wearing an ear-to-ear grin most every moment he’s on stage.
Still scarecrow skinny, Lewis exudes an ageless joy, rotating guitars like a teenager at a pawn shop and calling out to the crowd with a downhome warble: during a looping mash-up of “Black Betty” and “John the Revelator,” he dances, salutes, raises a fist in the air, and adds another layer of personality to a band that already had it in spades.
“Bob and Scott are dyed in the wool, as deep of roots as they come,” Miller says affectionately. “Those guys are my heroes.”
Beyond Louis, the group also added Rachel Ammons, Lewis’s partner in their former delta blues duo, Tyrannosaurus Chicken. A fiddle player and vocalist who wears her hair well past her waist, Ammons is a necessary counterpoint within the group, as she not only lowers the band’s median age but “balances out their crustiness,” Miller laughs.
Pumping strings through wah-wah pedals and playing the fiddle more like Slash than Charlie Daniels, Ammons is not only a natural fit, but a breath of fresh air: her mane of brown hair flowing behind her like Superwoman’s cape, she plays music with the earthy freedom of the pre-settled west, bouncing across the stage in a pair of red, ankle-length boots and turning her bow at impossible angles. Coupled with a falsetto that flies above Miller’s everyman strain, Ammons “creates a tension” on stage, an element the band didn’t previously possess, and though it begins with her musical chops, Ammons ‘s charisma is a blend of personality, presence, and temperament—unquantifiable in print, but obvious in person.
“Rachel is a star,” Miller says matter-of-factly. “Someone just needed to point the telescope in the right direction.”
Quite obviously, Miller stands in admiration of his bandmates, proud to be the spearhead of a group that can’t help but “exude personality”—and while he knows there’s magic in what they do and how they do it, he also finds it difficult to account for a transformation I witnessed first-hand, when his band grew from impressive up-and-comers in a second floor rock club in Cork City, Ireland to one of the handful of best live act I’ve ever seen come Newport.
When they went from something to take note of, to something impossible to ignore.
The Ben Miller Band takes the stage at 12:45 on Friday, barely a half an hour after Newport’s first note is struck.
One of the last additions to the festival, they’d driven through the night to get to Rhode Island, after a call from Chris Funk, who’d ask if they’d fill in for a band who dropped out last minute. The producer of Miller’s latest record, Choke Cherry Tree, Funk was curating “For Pete’s Sake,” a daily set of performances, workshops, and interviews dedicated to Pete and Tushi Seeger at Newport’s Museum Stage, and when a hole opened up at the front of his schedule, he thought of Miller.
Funk called and said if the band could make it, the set was theirs.
In the Midwest at the time, they agreed, and following a Thursday night show, drove four hundred miles east, arriving in Newport Friday morning.
By the time of soundcheck, Miller had managed an hour or two of sleep, which coupled with the heat of Newport’s only indoor venue, had him seeing spots. As he ran wires and tested his levels, he began to come up with a strategy for what he’d do, if he passed out at his Newport debut.
If he did, in fact, collapse, the odds of a doctor being in the house were low: between their late billing and lack of name recognition, the crowd was spare, filled with more empty chairs than people, with some only indoors to take a break from the cloudless July sky.
But then they played.
And for forty-five minutes, the Ben Miller Band radiated something incandescent: it was infectious, cathartic, jubilant, and took hold of the narrow, white-washed, wooden building, then leveled its walls.
From the first notes, the set was reckless precision: the band stomped, and the crowd followed, and the band danced, while the crowd was already dancing, and the band got lost in the sound, and the crowd looked like they never wanted to be found—but while the band never grew, the crowd did, and by the end of the set, people seemed to hang out of half-open windows, climbing the rafters just to get a peek at whatever this was.
The music and the personality, the energy and the joy, emanated outwards, calling wayward travelers inside to take part, until the belly of the building couldn’t hold anymore.
But almost as soon as they’d pulled on to the shores of Rhode Island, their set was over, and those in attendance—a fraction of the festival’s total—filed out, holding on to the giddiness of being let in on a secret: former strangers looked at each other with mutual understanding, muttering wow’s, but mostly letting shared experience speak for itself; some people circled around the stage to shake hands with what they‘d just seen, while others crowded an unattended merch tent, waiting for somebody to give money to in exchange for anything with the band’s name on it; most people did both, and I—on top of doing both—took to Twitter, sending this thought into the cosmic void:
Not hyperbole: @benmillerband might have put on the best performance of @newportfolk by 1:30 on Friday. Hard to imagine anyone topping that.
For my money, no one did.
Like all Ben Miller Band shows, the set was a thrill not only for its sheer musical quality, but because it was distinct from almost anything else at Newport that weekend: equal parts Ringling Brothers, tent revival, and Roadhouse’s Double Deuce Saloon, the Ben Miller Band is not only what you hear, but what you see, as the stage becomes a bustling tapestry of unlikely characters playing less likely instruments, the group literally “drawing music out of a pawn shop’s worth of garbage” right before your eyes.
Miller is at the front of the action, lithe and powerful from the countless calories burned on stage, wearing an auburn mohawk and overgrown beard, looking something of bluegrass Conor McGregor: a natural showman, he switches between banjo, beat-up acoustics, and cigar box guitars, which he and Lewis trade back and forth all show; behind them, Scott Leeper sidles from a drum set to a washtub bass, which he plays by moving a handle to alter tension on a trimmer line, plucking the single string to give a song its necessary low-end; across the way, Ammons wails at her violin (which she’s coated with electrical tape to keep the feedback from blowing it apart), as a fan blows at her hair, and she hums a birdsong that rises above the grit; within the set, Smilin’ Bob puts any number of his guitars down, hangs a washboard over his chest, and plays it with thimble-tipped gloves, while Miller sends a harmonica through an old-phone-turned-mic; occasionally he sings through the phone as well, holding the receiver to his ear, the distorted vocals filing through the speakers, as he stands atop a suitcase-drum with his name stenciled on it, stomping down, and adding a ramshackle thud to the cacophony of sound.
“I love the circus-y aspect of what we do,” Miller says. “I think people hear with their eyes, which is what the phones about, what these weird instruments are about: people make a cognitive connect if they can see how the sound is made, and anytime I get a chance to let people make that connection during a live show, I’m all for it.
“But that’s just a foot in the door,” he continues. “Then, we’ll deliver: we’ll deliver with vocals, we’ll deliver with songs, we’ll deliver with musicianship, and we’ll deliver with personality.”
But when they delivered at Newport, the Ben Miller Band didn’t just entertain, but proved that there’s a difference between gimmick and greatness: if they didn’t possess a mastery of their instruments—or if the pawn shop’s worth of garbage didn’t add up to anything—their music would be rudderless, which is not the case, and as both a writer and a showman, Miller extracts every bit of value from the objects-turned-instruments that surround him.
“You’re fighting the material, it has limitations to it, but sometimes, limitations breed more creativity than limitless possibilities,” he says. “It’s like a haiku or something: from that limitation, you have to be elegant. The same is true of cigar boxes. Generally, you’re on one chord, and with those limitations, we sometimes find transcendence.”
At the Museum Stage, that was the case—transcendence carried the day, the Ben Miller Band giving color to everything that followed—and at the merch tent, newly converted fans stood clamoring for something to take home with them. All that was available, however, were the band’s first two full-length albums, Heavy Load and Any Way, Shape, or Form, which people either paid for with a smile or tracked down on Spotify a few days later.
They went back to hotels and plugged in the aux chord, or let their newly purchased CD score their drive home, hotly anticipating what was waiting for them on record, ready to fully acquaint themselves with their new favorite artist.
But my suspicion is many wound up disappointed.
Until this January, their recorded catalog could never meet the expectations left by their live show.
It’s the curse of the Ben Miller Band.
Behind any band breaking out, there’s a level of economy, and in Ben Miller’s case, that kept him close to home.
To stay out of debt, he and his band remained regional, maintaining music’s viability by following a basic plan of “money, routing, and career”: first, if the money’s right, play the show; if it isn’t, but the venue’s on the same route, take the gig, break even, and have a place to sleep that night; if neither is true, but it’s something that could have a major impact on their careers—like Newport, for instance—then do it.
Since the beginning, making more than he spends has been Miller’s priority, and in that way, the business of music, rather than the merit of their music, has been the band’s biggest obstacle to breaking out.
Of course, the former chasm between their records and their live show didn’t help.
Prior to the release of their latest album, Choke Cherry Tree, the Ben Miller Band’s approach to the studio was to fit their “badass live show” onto a record. In theory, it was the right idea, but it never quite worked in practice, probably because the band’s live show is built by so much more than just the merit of their music: personality, presence, and human connection don’t translate in the studio the same way they do live, and as such, Heavy Load and Any Way, Shape, or Form are, at best, approximations of that experience.
Even with songs like “Ghosts,” “The Outsider,” “Twinkle Toes,” and “King Kong”—which remain some of Miller’s finest work—the band’s first two attempts do little more than hint at their potential.
On their latest record, however, Miller drew a distinct line between the stage and the studio, allowing the two to be their own entities, seeing their earlier shortcomings fade away.
“This time, the studio was used as a completely different artform,” Miller explains. “Before it was like, ‘We’ve got this badass live show, let’s just go into the studio and do that,’ but it was never really satisfying to me. We’d do it, but then we’d also overdub, and it never felt real. It was two half-measures that never really added up to what I wanted.
“With this record, we were like ‘Fuck it, we’re going in there, and we’re going to use whatever sounds we think will make a song come across.’”
Thanks to that fuck-it attitude, Choke Cherry Tree is the Ben Miller Band’s most balanced, nuanced work to date. Built on the back of Miller’s songwriting, the record navigates topics ranging from life on the road to music journalism, the Trump presidency to Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, prison cells to the Walmart in Joplin, and a host of unexpected stops in between. As eclectically unified as the band that claims it, Choke Cherry Tree is a wide-ranging songwriter’s search, which harnesses Miller’s unique narrative perspective to focus the record, while using the music like fertile soil—tilled, for the crops to grow.
“Honestly, I’d started to feel like I was the only person thinking in terms of words being primary,” Miller says of their previous records. “But working with Chris, we were really focused on the lyrics, and it was such a refreshing thing to not be the only one fighting for a sensitivity towards the story.
“I tend to gravitate towards people who listen to the music instead of the lyrics, but with this, it was all about what the song means, what the lyrics trigger, what the listener is going to feel, and secondarily, what the music sounds like.”
Like the band he’s assembled around him, Miller is a performer and a personality—he’s a ball of charisma that fronts perhaps the most impressive live act in folk music, playing his songs with a fighter’s spirit, as he “beats the fuck out of his voice” on a nightly basis, and occasionally jumping into crowds. He revels in the human connection of a live show, thinks out loud about ways to deepen his relationship with his audience, and is so able to read a room that he hasn’t made a setlist in years.
Despite who he is on stage, though, Miller is a writer at his core.
Speaking with him bares that out: through the easy drip of his deep set, molasses accent (which is difficult to pin down, since he split time between his mother in Washington and his father in Arkansas), Miller wields a poet’s sensitivity, taking asides from asides, and managing to tie unique threads of thought into a single topic of conversation: at an offbeat, working-class bar a few streets away from a gig in Northampton, Massachusetts, Miller analyzes the similarities between musicians and comedians, thinks out loud about what gravestones will be like in the future, and discusses a business idea he has for decommissioned airplanes (“They gotta go somewhere,” he says); he recommends a crass, female duo from Nashville called Birdcloud, then raps part of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” then calls Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters “the sushi of music”; he is an endless listener of podcasts, reads everything available about Bob Dylan, and thinks he’d get his head frozen, if he had the money (he assumes that, before reanimation, he’d come up with a lot more albums); he half-jokes about naming his next records things like “Marketing” or “Psst,” says he watches prison shows so he’ll “know what to do” if he’s ever in jail (or a nursing home), and thinks that humans don’t appreciate enough of what they have, that we tend to only notice whether things are getting better or worse.
“We only understand things through narratives, we save time because we create an arc,” he says, then looks at our interview: “Like what’s happening right now, this isn’t a story. After we talk, you’re going to make a story out of what we just talked about…I may write a song about it someday, but it’s not really a story, and it’s not important to the narrative.”
Easy to make chuckle, Miller is intimidatingly smart, but approachably so, boasting an everyman charm that’s hard not to gravitate towards: absent of pretension, he thinks out loud, asking questions with no definitive answer, often saying “I wonder why that is,” before moving along from the ambiguity he’s created—and, at one point, he tells me he “likes my brain matter,” which is not so much an avenue for self-praise, but rather, a transition to one of Miller’s favorite subjects.
Perhaps more than anything else, Miller talks about “the part of the brain we don’t have access to” when discussing songwriting, seeing a relationship between music and “our reptilian brains,” “our communal DNA,” and the unseen, unspoken parts ofcommunication. On Choke Cherry Tree, he gives way to that, letting the album flow through the things he doesn’t have control over, balancing typical Ben Miller Band highflyers like “Life of Crime” and “One More Time” with softer sensibilities, which stir up the album’s most lasting moments.
“It wasn’t an intentional choice, those were just the songs that were coming out of me at that time, and I tried to honor that,” he says. “I think there’s a big chunk of our brain that we don’t have access to, and I think there’s an ‘us’ that’s not the ‘us’ sitting and talking right now. Sometimes hallucinogenic drugs can get you there, but that’s the part that writes songs, or at least starts them.
“Then, the other side gets to work to make sure they’re good,” he laughs.
Upon those separate threads merging, Miller did write good songs—the best collection of his career, in fact—and managed to bridge the divide between the stage and the studio in a way that he’d not done previously. From the very start, there’s a focus on songwriting above all else, with Miller’s distinct ability to weave prosaic gold featured on the album’s first track, “Nothing Gets Me Down.” A song featuring the album’s most memorable verse, Miller sings, in a low, melancholy hum, “The other night I got so fucked up, I was peeing in the sink and I fell in the tub, don’t let nothing get me down/I was laying in the tub with my junk hung out and the shower curtain around me like an Arab shroud, but I didn’t let it get me down.”
That type of high culture and low—the melding of art, intellect, and every day—gives Choke Cherry Tree its identity, and paints Miller’s songwriting against the walls of Funk’s production. Throughout, there are horns and accordions, nomadic jams tagged to the ends of ballads, which add color to Miller’s moments of vulnerability: on “Trapeze,” Miller compares his career to that of a circus performer, who people “come to watch fall,” and on, “Sketchbook,” the bouncy, wandering, violin-drive atmosphere sees Miller admitting to “acting like a dick these last few days” while also managing runs like, “We stared like ancient monkeys at the MRIs and CT Scans, and the doctors pointed with a pen, saying, ‘This part makes us human.’” On “Big Boy,” Miller buries the idea that “it’s looking pretty likely we will not survive” the Trump presidency within a groove-laden thump, and on “Redwing Blackbird,” the band uses Rachel Ammons’s angelic voice to reach across eras, the song moving from something folky and bygone to a gritty, arena rock that keeps the listener off balance throughout.
But while juxtaposition of sound and story exists throughout Choke Cherry Tree, the album’s best track may be “My Own Good Time,” a stripped-down, straight-forward, self-reflective diary entry that not only offers a snapshot of life on the road, but takes inventory of who Ben could’ve been, in another life: “When it comes to me, I can stay or I can leave because I made my life my own” he sings with a low drawl, “I just don’t like getting pushed, and I hate being rushed, and I work just fine alone.”
Refrain after refrain, the weary-voiced Miller sings, “I’ll do it in my own good time.”
Which—by choice or circumstance—is how Miller’s career has gone.
But taking their own good time has been a benefit for many bands: it’s where chops are honed, teeth are cut, and experience piles up. Then, for the greats, it’s followed by “the earned release of greatness,” a phrase the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt uses in reference to Springsteen and the Beatles, who struggled in bars for six, seven, eight years before the proverbial levees broke.
When they did, they were ready, and something prolific followed.
“It’s what everybody needs to learn, and what the last couple of generations have forgotten,” Van Zandt said in a recent interview.
And if anyone is wondering what “the earned release of greatness” looks like in this era, it’s this:
On a Friday night in January, Ben Miller is standing in the narrow basement hallway of the Iron Horse in Northampton, pulling on a mug of black coffee before his 10 o’clock showtime.
In a little over six days, Choke Cherry Tree will be released and prove his most acclaimed work to date, but Miller doesn’t know that yet, and as he lingers in the pre-show, pre-record-release calm of a basement in a rock club far from home, he asks about the crowd above his head.
Having passed through the main floor, I’ve seen audience: it’s thin, diminutive, and not growing. I don’t say it, but it’s the emptiest I’ve seen the place since my first show in high school. To avoid disappointment, though, I answer with a hopeful, diplomatic, “Eh, not great.”
Miller is unaffected.
“We’re still gonna fucking kill it,” he says, then climbs a creaky set of wooden stairs to the stage.